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that cesspool it becomes you, just north of the eyebrows

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It's cold out, the kind of cold that steals the ends of fingertips from people not fortunate enough to have a place of refuge. An unpleasant thought that's on the forefront of their minds, as of late. What with being confronted daily with the knowledge that scantily-clad children would prefer to stand on cold street corners, selling themselves, rather than surrender to the alternative.

It makes appropriate sense then that, knowing this, John's first instinct would be to head for the hard drinks sooner than he's fully removed the gloves from his hands.

Laszlo is already in the process of speaking as John trails Sara into the room. Always talking, that man, forever giving speeches. Those blunt, faintly European words of his seemingly propelling him across the room. He hasn’t even offered them a greeting before he’s filling the space with work and it’s a wonder, John thinks uncharitably, that he even remembers to stop when there’s no one around to hear him.

He has a book held out in his left hand that he would like for John to read. Something gruesome, no doubt. An analysis of depravity in man and John will have to hide it from his grandmother if he has any hopes of reading it all in time to be of use to anyone. His hands are busy pouring a generous amount into a tumbler and so he tips his head towards the corner of the room he has claimed as his own and mumbles a thank you. He’ll get to that when he gets to that.

But Laszlo has momentum on his side and he’s quite insistent on the book it seems. John knows far better than to offer anything for Laszlo’s right hand to take and so, for a moment, he flounders. Unwilling to part with his drink but expected to do so. Without so much as a word Sara appears, and with a skill as light fingered as an illusionist John once saw on the stage way back in Boston, she lifts the glass clean from his fingers and allows Laszlo to slide the spine of the book in its place. It’s a move so smoothly pulled off John swears they must have practiced it beforehand.

Laszlo tells him, good man, and curiously straightens the skewed cuff of John’s jacket before he pulls away, back to his chalkboard full of intimate details about a killer of children. But Sara, Sara stays behind. To drink his gin and gloat, it would appear, as she seeks out his gaze, once he looks up from inspecting his sleeve, to drink in the puzzled sight of him over the rim of his pilfered glass.

She most likely needs it more than him. Her plan this afternoon is to pour over the various photographs the Isaacson brothers have developed for them, in hopes of spotting something she may have missed before. Any amount of time spent staring at those things deserves a glass overflowing.

And they have made it known before, that they disapprove of his drinking. But teaming up like this, it worries John. He has a hard enough time not going to his knees for these people as it is. Together, they’re liable to crush him.

 

-

 

Sara, it becomes apparent, has a talent for picking out details. Noticing patterns and connections where John fails to see them. She may not always know where to take them but that’s where they discover she works well with Laszlo, who can take her unfinished thoughts and polish them up in order to apply them to their situation. John witnesses the results of this everyday from his place in the background.

A carriage can have two wheels or four; very rarely is three wheels conducive to stability or forward progress.

“It’s that artistic eye of yours,” Sara says one afternoon, drawing him into the fray with conversation, “making you see the picture as a whole the way it would fill a page.” John’s not sure he would agree, a finished piece is only as good as its individual pencil strokes and he tells her this and gets a considering look in return.

His sketchbook rests at his elbow and he reaches for it. Macabre images litter its bone white pages and he would love nothing more than to give it a touch of light, prove to Sara just how good he is at noticing the details by sketching out the curve of her jaw or possibly the slope of her nose. But Laszlo’s business-like voice cuts in before he can put pencil to paper.

“Distance,” Laszlo says, not bothering to turn away from the chalkboard, “has always been John’s strong suit.”

And there they go again, pooling their considerable resources against him. He may not have intended for it to sound scolding but, as it so often does with Laszlo, it makes John feel like one of those teaching heads he keeps out at the institute, skull open and brains bared to the world. It’s shocking then that its followed by Laszlo carefully putting down the chalk and turning to add, “But not to worry, a different perspective is sometimes key,” and have it be a genuine comfort.

Laszlo doesn’t so much smile as nod encouragingly in his direction and John is uneager to consider it, but it’s beginning to feel strangely like he’s being coddled.

 

-

 

John has sketched Laszlo before, of course, but only once.

There was a bet first proposed in Boston, back when they were both young men. Laszlo, new in his field and unwilling to compromise on theories he wasn’t invested in. And John, drunk and made malleable enough to be drawn into an argument because of it. They had found themselves at each other’s throats over the theory that the psychological profile of a man could be comprised entirely in an image rather than in a page of words.

It was the very basis of most art, John had argued. That uncanny ability to capture something alive and transfer that living, breathing quality to paper. But Laszlo would hear nothing of it.

The solution John had come up with at the time led to him sitting hunched over their drinking table, scribbling lines onto a crumpled piece of paper. Laszlo hadn’t stopped talking throughout the whole process, wanting to be sure he got his side firmly across, but John was familiar enough with the man’s shape and personality that it allowed him to extrapolate.

Looking back now, his drunkenness may have caused him to be a little more, how should he say, open with his pencil scratches. Laszlo had always possessed a boyish sort of face. Especially so sans the beard that he sports now, and his softly rounded cheeks had appeared oddly pretty when John paused long enough in his drawing to judge its likeness. The fall of his hair, the dark of his eyes, his kittenish mouth; it all came together to create a portrait not too dissimilar to the man who sat opposite him but was certainly a version that lacked the hardened edge that Laszlo carried in the carefully held position of his right arm.

John had been too tipsy to be ashamed, unaware of the fact that he was giving a man, who boasted himself on his ability to read people, a clear view of his open heart. John had only thought he quite liked the portrait and had sat back in his seat to admire it. He was met by a rather subdued Laszlo, having paused in his tirade to stare down at his mirror image.

His face had been flushed from speaking so intensely, his mouth gently parted and his eyes gone soft and wide in his assessment. His good arm had been reaching out across the table but he had pulled it back at the last moment to rejoin its partner under the table.

So with that, taking Laszlo’s silence as disapproval, John had balled the paper up and reached for his half-empty glass. “It may require the skills of a better artist,” he’d allowed, “but my point still stands.”

And weirdly enough Laszlo hadn’t fought him any further.

As it is now, John looks around at the art Laszlo favours in his own home and wonders if he played any part in its being there. He can’t help but consider that there is a part of his influence that makes up Laszlo’s person, now and forever, just because he once drew an idealised portrait of the man and caused Laszlo to mold his unshakable views to include it.

It’s a thrilling, heady concept that stays with him long after the fact. It should come as no surprise that since being forced to mediate Sara and Laszlo’s attempts at making inquiries about each other, John finds himself idly adding Sara’s face to his sketchbook just as he once threatened to do.

Fewer lines are needed to darken her profile, so unlike Laszlo’s, but there are similarities too. A distinct lack of any sharp angles that constitutes a preference for John, something he’s never really considered before but seems obvious now.

The subsequent tangling in his mind of the two people he feels closest to adds fuel to a fire that was barely being kept alive by women whose company he had to pay for.

It’s also dangerous.

He’s never drawn a person with intent before.

 

-

 

Dinner on Laszlo’s dime is always an affair of decadence. A rare occasion maybe once every few weeks where they’re encouraged to discuss matters that are not so overtly grotesque.

Although, the Isaacson brothers have never been known to refuse a meal and with the five of them around a table, coupled with the magnitude of what it is they are trying to do here weighing heavy on their shoulders, discussions soon devolve.

It’s only fair, John feels, that he should be allowed to drink when topics take an unsavory turn. No sober man should have to hear in depth about a small boy’s ravaged eye sockets.

However, every time someone comes to refill his glass he feels the weight of judging eyes upon him. After the third time of saying yes he gets a sharp kick to his shin and the surprise of it, the sheer audacity, has him instinctively covering his glass with the flat of his hand. It’s only the quick reflexes of the server that keeps the drink from being poured over his fingers.

He apologises profusely for his own indecisiveness and assures the man that, yes, as unlikely as it sounds, he really has had enough for tonight. The man doesn’t seem convinced but he moves away and John is free to glare across the table. Sara appears completely innocent, deep in a conversation with both of the brothers, but John knows differently.

Without the guise of intoxication giving him an excuse to behave like the child they seem to think he is, John cannot justify storming off into the night once the evening ends. The cold air hits him like a ringing slap in the face and does a job of clearing away the haze of the few drinks he has consumed. Gives him a perfectly untainted view of Sara too, already safely ensconced inside of Laszlo’s hansom cab and of Laszlo himself, still waiting on the street for John to make up his mind.

He’s reminded of his past indiscretions without so many words. Do you recall, John, the last time you tried to drink yourself into usefulness. John, another lighter voice joins the refrain, really, do stop being difficult and get in the cab. And how can he refuse that, John thinks, two voices beseeching his miserable company.

Three people is something of a tight fit for the carriage, two of which being fully grown men. But with Sara's modesty and preference for less bulky dresses and Laszlo seemingly content to share not just his time, home and money with them all but his space too, they find a way to make it work.

Sara observes them unabashed as they rattle down the street. Her eyes flitting between John’s aborted reach for the flask inside his jacket and Laszlo’s loose fingered grasp around his cane. John can’t help but shift at her attention, her undisguised interest, only too aware of the way it brings his thigh in full contact with Laszlo’s.

There's something near to fondness in her eyes when she looks to Laszlo now. It doesn't usually take long, to settle into an orbit around the man. He has that way about him, once you make it past the brick wall of professional obsession, to see the person underneath. To become aware of the kind of man who would go to so much trouble for a part of the world that most people refuse to even acknowledge. No, it doesn’t take long.

John is still trying to get over his jealousy whenever he catches them looking and looking back. A fact that, in the past, often lead to a drink in his hand. It’s happening with less and less frequency now. Both the drinking and the sharp, acrid taste of jealousy. He fears that’s because with the amount of time they are spending together, coupled with the demanding but well meaning control they obviously have over him, the jealousy has evolved in his brain to become a much more untenable beast.

He doesn’t dare bring up the fact that he has been sketching them both for weeks because oh, but he has. In the sketchbook he keeps in the pocket above his heart there are as many scattered pieces of Laszlo to rival those of Sara.

It should feel intrusive, to think he knows them so intimately as that, but he soothes the thought by reminding himself it’s just another example of distancing. If postulating the slope of their unclothed shoulders keeps the beast at bay then so be it. It’s only scribblings.

Mere illustrations also seem a silly thing to concern himself with when not a few days earlier Laszlo’s hand had been around his face, under his chin and delicately pressed to his neck. A doctor’s touch, checking to see that his previous drunken endeavours hadn’t permanently damaged him; it led to John thinking about the differences in the way the two of them might touch him. A thought made worse when he walks in on Sara typing out a message to Roosevelt on her typewriter with long fingered precision.

His body’s visceral reaction to those moments seem a lot more pressing.

 

-

 

There’s a boy found dead down by the docks. His body not particularly well hidden and close to a large expanse of water. Cyrus is forced to cut his piano playing short when Stevie bursts through the doors to inform them. Mary stands wordlessly behind him in the doorway, wringing her hands.

Hearing the clattering of feet followed by a sharp sudden voice, John jolts awake from his half asleep daze on Laszlo’s chaise longue. Probably for the best he had cowed under Sara’s pointed stare over the nightcap he had contemplated earlier. At this rate it would have ended up all over the floor.

Laszlo is the first to find his feet and he sends Stevie back out for the Isaacsons. He’s informed in return that they are already down by the water and it appears there are people out there that get less sleep than they do.

It’s the tailend of an already exhausting day and propriety says they should have seen Sara home hours ago but nobody had been pushing for it, least of all Sara who had appeared content to listen to Cyrus play well into the morning. On the positive side of things, having them all in one place cuts short their arrival time and Cyrus has the three of them on site far sooner than the police can even think to grab their hats and gas lanterns.

Their haste, it turns out, is a waste.

Marcus Isaacson runs over before they can begin to climb out of the hansom cab and pants through the open door, “Sorry, sorry, false alarm. It’s not one of ours.”

It’s a disgusting feeling, John discovers, to be both relieved and horrified at the same time.

Laszlo almost ends up in his lap, being on the wrong side of the cab to be able to read Marcus’ face as well as he would like through the shadows. With only one arm to hold himself, John has to prop him mostly up with the brunt of his shoulder.

“How can you be sure?” Laszlo asks just as breathless, and John leans as far back as he can to not be in the way but still act as a viable crutch.

“Workers found him tangled up in their lines more than an hour ago,” Marcus begins to explain and his words turn to ice in front of their faces. “I’m in contact with a man who works an exporting job down here and I asked him to come to me first, should something ever turn up. I hope you don’t find that presumptuous of me, Doctor?”

“Quite the opposite, Marcus. Do continue.”

“Turns out the boy was an apprentice of some kind, worked here most nights, but they had a little trouble, uh,” here he pauses, glances back towards the terrible sound of water hitting the swollen wood under their feet. “They had a little trouble identifying the body, sir.”

Sara makes a quiet noise of sickened understanding. If John could fully see her around Laszlo’s frame, he’s sure he would see her worrying her father’s ring around her finger. The man hadn’t stopped at teaching his only child how to shoot. She’s possibly the only one of them with firsthand knowledge of how dangerous a boatyard can be for a child.

“They had to wait until the boy’s mother came down. He hadn’t returned home after his shift finished, you see. But, by that time, my contact had already gotten a message to me.” Marcus pulls a notepad from his pocket and flips it open. “The boy’s never worked a day of his life on the streets, not like the others. His clothes had been shredded from rubbing against the underside of the boat though his body showed no signs of intentional cutting.”

“Unlikely then to be a victim of ours,” Laszlo admits, deflating upon hearing this. And there has to be a better way at wording that, John thinks forlorn.

“My best guess would be the boy simply fell over the edge and got caught up. The cold of the water most likely stole the very breath from his lungs, made it hard to shout for help. An unfortunate accident but an accident nonetheless.”

A wail cuts through the night at that moment. A grieving mother. Inconsolable.

It’s a haunting sound, truly nightmarish, and John flinches when he feels unseen fingers scrambling against his own. Sara, he quickly realises, seeking his comfort. He eases Laszlo back to his seat, keeping a steadying hand wrapped around the man’s forearm in case he sees fit to lunge across his person again, and captures Sara’s hand fully up in his.

“Thank you, Marcus,” John says as sharp as he’s able. It cuts short whatever Marcus was about to read out of his notebook and John is quite sure he’s heard enough details of dead children to last him for the rest of his life. “Would either you or your brother get into trouble if you stayed behind until the police arrived?”

Marcus is watching the three of them, in the echo of John’s question, noticing for the first time how they’ve managed to squeeze themselves into such a small space. In particular, the places where they are overlapping. Their speed of arrival now seeming suspicious. He visibly shakes the thoughts from his head and steps back to shut the door to the carriage.

“Uh,” he says, “I shouldn’t think so, no. We all might sleep a little better knowing this was handled correctly. We’re happy to stay.”

Sara leans across the short distance to clasp Marcus’ hand where it rests on the edge of the window and, for a brief moment, they are a chain of limbs, all holding each other through a terrible tragedy. She squeezes once, thanks him sincerely and lets go. He tips a hat he’s not wearing and disappears off into the dark to find his brother.

It leaves the three of them alone again, tangibly linked, and John fresh with the knowledge that although he may not have a use in this investigation, he’s been collecting a dataset of his own throughout. Such as the knowledge that two heartbeats can fall into rhythm with his own if he just holds on long enough to coerce them.

 

-

 

He eats up every bit of praise Sara and Laszlo see fit to bestow on him over the next few weeks but it’s not enough. He soaks up the touches too, to the point where they must notice.

Whatever his usefulness, it never seems satisfactory and he finishes the book Laszlo gave him and asks for another. This one he reads in the sitting room of his home, in full view of his grandmother, who tuts and bemoans the terrible doctor for the dark path down which he’s leading her grandson.

She doesn’t notice that he hasn’t touched a drop of drink since.

 

-

 

It becomes a challenge for John, to reconcile his newfound sobriety with his newfound perversity.

He recalls Laszlo’s words about distance being something he strives for and it sparks in him a terrible, all too gratifying idea.

It makes for a very different experience, he discovers, paying somebody for comfort when he’s fully sober. The house lights are unbearably bright from the moment he walks through the doors and he’s unable to shield the desire inside himself.

He has all the makings of an easy target and a girl finds him almost immediately, drapes herself all over his chest, and the gaunt fall of her shoulders is highlighted by the equally dead look in her eyes. By the time he’s closed up in a room with her, he’s already regretting his decision to come here.

She’s dark haired for a start and somewhat boxy around the chin but when he closes his eyes she takes charge in a way he imagines Sara might. He allows her to push him down on the bed and slide one bare leg between his.

“I have money for another,” he says, while she's still warming up. His eyes stay screwed shut even as she starts divesting him from of many layers.

She licks a strip up his neck and blows on it. It's not particularly pleasant, he feels, nor helpful towards his plight. “Most men like to finish the round first before they buy another,” she breathes, faux seductive. “You must either be rich or very desperate.”

“No,” John says, and there's a peculiar sense of shame when he clarifies. “For another girl. At the same time.”

She makes a face, doesn't try to hide it, but it's not disgust at his request, they get all sorts in here. It's more like offence that she’s not enough. All the same, she climbs off of his lap, throws a shawl over her shoulders and leaves the room.

John stays right where he is. On his back, defeated. She’s only gotten as far as unbuttoning his pants and he fights the urge to button them again. He digs the heels of his palms into his eyes, wishing for a drink to calm his nerves, but they would never allow it. He likes to think if the three of them were ever going to open this door, it would be with clear minds and clearer hearts. Best he get to practising then.

There's a polite knock at the door, comical really, and then the girl is back. He sits up and briefly wonders whether he should have specified a preference. But the second girl follows her in and shuts the door behind her and he finds he needn't have worried.

She's blond and shorter and does a wonderful job balancing out the previous girl’s masculine jawline. It's as close as he's going to get.

During her time away, the first girl has come to the realisation that she’s due a payment regardless of how many girls John wants to fill the room with, and whatever ill will he may have caused before is gone. She’s back to fluttering her eyelashes at him, they both are, and as they descend on him, John finds the sheets either side of his thighs and buries his fingers in them. Very deliberately, he closes his eyes.

At first, it’s very much a mess of arms and legs. John has no idea where he wants to take this and he’s no help past lifting his arms when he’s told to do so. They remove his waistcoat and shirt with far more touching than necessary and when that still gets no response, they take pity on him. One climbs onto his lap, frees him from his trousers and takes him in hand.

He’s been on edge from his fantasies alone but he’s never touched himself with either Sara or Laszlo in mind. This is already further than he’s ever taken it.

“It’s always the handsome ones,” the girl says, beginning to stroke him through his shudders. The other girl crawls around the bed to settle at his back. Hands gently cup his face, turning him back and thumbs sweep across his shuttered eyelashes. It doesn’t feel like the standard practise when the voice hums in thought and then they’re talking to each other around him.

“Eyes closed,” they whisper, “he’s picturing someone else. Two someones. What is it, handsome, can’t decide whose heart you want to break?”

John feels lips against the back of his neck and then soft skin presses along the full length of his spine. He sinks into it, picturing blond hair and a man’s hand. Almost opens his eyes and ruins the effect.

“No choice,” he gasps, no choice at all when he wants them both.

The girl in his lap laughs, a mean sound, and shuffles forward on her knees like she’s heard something particularly good. “Oh,” she says, with a joyful lilt, “we’ve sure got you all figured out.”

If there’s one thing these girls appreciate more than money, it’s other people’s close held secrets. They knew him here as the man hung up over a broken engagement. He’s going to walk out later and be something entirely different. Greedy and pathetic, he predicts. Pitiable, at best. He’s ready to call this whole thing off, tuck his tail between his legs and run, but they surprise him.

“Tell us about them,” they coo in his ear, only too eager to please, “and maybe we can make this better for you.”

John likes to think he’s stronger than that but he’s really not. The fact that he’s here at all is proof enough. His hands find the girl’s hips and she rewards him with an experienced twist of her wrist. He opens his mouth and closes it again. Licks his dry lips and gives in.

“Beautiful,” he says like a punch. It’s the first word that comes to his mind when he dwells on their faces. A little trite but his next try is better. “Smart,” he says, in time with her strokes. “Smarter than I could ever hope to be. Driven. Persistent. Kind, though not everyone chooses to see it. Neither one suffers fools, they can’t afford to, yet they suffer me.” The hand around him picks up speed, makes it harder to think, let alone talk, and he settles on, “Infuriating,” to finish things off.

The palm of a different hand flattens over his heart and she asks, “But do they feel the same way about you?”

John is fully caught up in the sensation, not really thinking, when he answers. “She could, I think. But he, he could never--”

The explosive end he’s been chasing falls away fast and he pushes his hips up into her unmoving hand, frustration taking over. He doesn’t realise for the longest time that the girls have stilled around him, the room gone deathly quiet. Once he hears the echo of his own words ringing in his ears, the horror of it grips him.

Oh, John despairs, they’re going to have many words for the kind of man he is now. He’s heard them all before, recently too. Dead boys laid out on bridges, stuffed into water towers, leading him by the hand down a darkened hallway. He’s heard those words spat out and cursed, just never directed his way before. But that will soon change.

John fumbles for his shirt where it lies within reach and gets tangled up in the sheets instead. The girl won’t get off of his lap, no matter how much he pushes her, and he’s aware that he’s panicking but it’s not making it any easier to breathe.

Girlish hands fight his own and through the thumping of blood in his ears he hears, “Oh, hush, hush. We’re not judging. Only surprised.” The girl behind him presses back in, in a way that’s supposed to be helpful, and adds, “You don’t seem the type is all.”

Relief is John’s reaction to that. Pulling up in his mind a chalkboard of facts written out in Laszlo’s own hand. Seeks out boys, not men. He sees it like a brand across a person and feels sickened relief that, although he may be a pervert of a different kind, at least he is not that.

“There are places you could go,” the meeker girl offers, she must think rather kindly, but John recoils. Feels that heaviness in his arms and legs, that fear of being unable to move. The hellish night he spent in the place she is offering remains fresh in his mind. Far less dulled now that he doesn’t drink to forget it.

“No,” he assures her, “there really isn’t.”

Now that he’s not actively trying to escape them, the stroking picks back up. Though he’s far from being in the mood for it now. She must think if she doesn’t do this, she doesn’t get paid. What she doesn’t understand is that John would be quite willing to pay just to get out of the room at this point.

“That’s really not necessary,” John starts to say, tilting his head back discretely to wrap his much larger hand around her wrist. Criminal, really, that he ever could have convinced himself they were Laszlo’s or even Sara’s. But it does, at long last, get her to stop.

She slides off of his lap and stands before him, mostly naked. Hands on her bony hips, she looks him up and down before making significant contact with the girl still sat behind him.

“You know,” she says, and she’s already leading somewhere dangerous, he can tell, “you really should have just said so from the start. We could have done this much differently.” She turns on the spot and sits herself down back across his thighs, this time with her back against his chest. “If you wanted me to play the part of your man, you must know we can do anything those boys can do. And better.”

Sandwiched between the two bodies, John shudders fiercely. The girl in front, her hand comes up and John thinks she means to clasp the back of his neck, possibly pull him into a kiss. But she bypasses him and grabs the girl. Pulls her forward over his shoulder and kisses her.

And that does it for John.

He sees himself in a faraway place, safely captured between the two people he cares about most while they reach for each other over his shoulder. The scratch of the man’s beard over her fairer skin as they kiss and that’s enough, just to be included, just to be near to them. Even if he has outreached his usefulness to them. This is enough.

He grunts, crumpling in on himself as far as the body in front of him will allow. Forehead pressed to the girl’s back, his release surprises even him.