"Let's try again. Consider it an experiment." His voice is still raw, and it shames him.
Marcus is in his undershirt, one of those all-encompassing underlayers Laszlo has fallen out of the habit of wearing — still in his trousers, at that, with his suspender straps tugged down jauntily like some Five Points brawler getting his bloody nose sponged at. It's Laszlo who needs attention, who is bruised.
Consider it an exercise in the weakness of men. Laszlo has been very, very weak. He must commit the sight of him to memory — the beauty of his body, the shape of his shoulders, the lines of them, the bones under the skin. Their man, their killer, assuredly does the same thing.
"It's an experiment in trust, isn't it? You're trusting that I won't kill you or do anything you don't like, and I'm trusting that you won't bawl me out or call the cops."
That would be a questionable effort, given that Marcus is a policeman, or at least the next best thing. "Those two sets of consequences hardly strike me as equivalent."
"If I were ashamed, they would be. Being dead would be better than being discovered. I might kill you if it meant I didn't have to look in the face afterward."
To look you in the face. To see, to be seen.
"And you're not ashamed?" Laszlo asks, quietly.
"I never really found myself ashamed of desire. Never with women, and not yet with a man."
There have been other men. That is better than the alternative, perhaps — one of mutual inexperience. Marcus is beside him on the bed, and the bedroom door is barred. If something goes wrong — then they'll be alone. It will go wrong for both of them.
"Not yet." Laszlo smiles a thin smile. "Do you believe that sexual desire for men is a congenital condition?"
Marcus shrugs slightly, combing through his hair with his fingers. "It exists in some men and not in others. Whether or not they do anything about it."
"Can it not be acquired?"
"In a prison yard? Sure. But there's ones who give it up afterward, and ones who don't. Why are some men left-handed, and others aren't? I guess that makes me ambidextrous. I love everything about women, but I don't mind men. Does that make any sense?"
Which above all makes him a well-adjusted fellow — no neurosis has imprinted itself upon him from his juvenile life or from his work. There is nothing pathological in him, no horror of the other sex, only unrelenting enthusiasm and curiosity. The two of them are very different men.
Laszlo rubs a thumb along the trimmed edge of his beard. "There are some self-professed authorities who see sexual ambivalence as a peculiarity of the Hebrew race. That there is a predisposition in males to sexual difference." Not that he credits such authorities, not that he believes this himself. But Marcus' face darkens, it perceptibly cools.
This was an indelicate turn.
"Then they can't have met many Jewish men, can they?"
He braces his hands against his thighs. "They're as manly as they come — manlier, even. When we met, did I strike you as different? Did my brother?"
"Not at all," Kreizler replies, lamely. "I didn't mean to say that I subscribe to this theory myself. It strikes me as..."
Marcus smiles, not altogether kindly. "Presumptuous?"
"Well, don't share any more big ideas about the Hebrew race or I'll kick you out of the bed. Are you comfortable?"
Marcus rubs the crook of his hand along the base of Laszlo's throat. There is a raw place there, a razor-raw line where a bruise will spring up. Here in bed he can brace himself up on the arm that isn't crippled, and Marcus can choke him into oblivion without, one hopes, lasting damage. It isn't the unconsciousness he craves, their killer with an unknown name, but the expenditure of force. This former boy detective who sits beside him is hardly a brute of a man, the kind he might have conjured up in an idle hour for a course of imagined mistreatment. But he is beautiful and severe, and seemingly at ease here in the most sequestered space in Kreizler's rooms — as if the two of them were discussing what they planned to do over oysters and cigars and not between rounds of asphyxiation.
"As much as I can be." Laszlo's eyelids are already feeling heavy. Some strange anticipation has fallen over him like a shroud. Here in his unbuttoned shirt and his socks, he is thrumming with strange energy.
Marcus is guarded. "Are you still game for this thing?"
Yes, very much. The sensations had been strange, beyond strange, and worth making note of. The two of them are like the first men to experiment with ether — not scientists but sensation-seekers, drunk on what they've found.
Marcus leans forward on his knees, looking very grave. He makes sure that Laszlo is looking in his eyes before he speaks.
"Make a sign when you want me to stop, okay? Like this." Knocking with the backs of his fingers on the bedclothes, twice, three times. "For any reason at all."
"That seems agreeable." Laszlo shuts his eyes and lifts his chin to the hand that is around his throat. "You may begin whenever you wish."
His mouth is sudden and soft, careful. Marcus kisses him, and begins to press.
Each of the murdered children trusted the man who killed them — see how he repaid them. That trust could hardly have been purchased cheaply, through loyal repeat visits alone or through money — there must have been something in his manner that made skittish youngsters judge this man to be harmless. He must have seemed kindly. Like a good teacher, or like one of their own. Trauma makes most children uncommonly guarded against the gestures and intentions of adults, but not others — others trust too easily, instead of not at all. What were these boys like, before they were killed? What men might they have grown to be?
Their bodies are braced against each other — Laszlo is beginning to flare with desire, beginning to tumesce despite himself, and it does not reassure him when Marcus Isaacson slips his woolen-clad leg between his thighs and laughs a muffled laugh.
For the boy it had been like this. He had been beneath, and his killer above him, he had permitted it and by the fitting time to be afraid it had already gone too far. He had not stirred, of course, or perhaps he had — boys practiced upon by men sometimes do. It's a hateful trick of the body and nothing more. But Laszlo wants this — he wants it very badly, badly enough to seek it out, not merely to permit it. Isaacson is younger than himself and stronger, rising over him severe in his beauty — his hands squeeze tighter around Laszlo's throat. Marcus Isaacson is a destroying angel. His vision is blurring, his eyes sting.
"I'm going to count now," Marcus says. "From one."
One, he can endure this. It's only a more advanced form of a caress, having another man's fingers tighten around his throat — they might be actors, play-acting a scene together from some dreadful tale of the Grand Guignol. The sensation of it is incomparable, truly beyond comparison. Is this what ordinary men feel when they couple with the women they love, or is it more?
Had the man made a promise? Had he sworn to stop at the count of thirty, or in the nick of time, or before the point of no return, and then done it? Every time but the last time. The last, worst time.
Some thirty counts deep, his throat is hitching with hunger for air, some sixty or ninety his mouth is open but he cannot draw breath — Marcus eases his grip at this, and Laszlo lays a hand against his arm to give him courage but that sip of air that enters in is enough to make him spinningly dizzy. Marcus' arm is hard with young muscle and fever-hot under his fingers, his handsome face is drawn into a grimace of focus and it appears to Laszlo behind a field of swaying black dots.
More long seconds, more long moments counted between gritted teeth — Marcus' long body is trembling, his long strong body bent against Laszlo with great force and vigor. Laszlo's useless hand is gripping at the bedsheets, scratching with its pared nails.
The blood is singing in his ears, the ecstasy at some feverish pitch — it has transcended just his body, it's taken hold of his mind, his brain where the presence of oxygen is slowly and meticulously being snuffed out. They carry on for longer than the last time, the grip of Marcus' fingers and palm is less crushingly intense but more sustained — and it feels like an impossibly long time, suspended between dread of pain and desire for release, plunged into some twilit realm where Laszlo's eyes can see only stars. To drown, to founder. Nonetheless he is resolute.
"That's enough," Marcus says sharply, and it is enough. It ends in a paroxysm, sharp enough to make him stagger — he is gasping for breath as his body meets its release, there could be nothing more innocent of deliberation than that exquisite and confused convulsion.
In an instant, those masterful hands are manipulating his head gently as it seems to sway, probing in his slackened neck for a pulse. Marcus' face presses close to Laszlo's sweating shoulder — in a rapid murmur, he asks, "Is that all? Are you finished?"
"That's… that's enough," Laszlo gasps, gesturing ineffectually with his hand. He is blinking away tears, but not from grief. It somehow feels more obscene than the fact that he's just had an unmistakable orgasm in front of another man's eyes.
Marcus must see it too; he blushes like a girl, drawing himself up and folding his hands in his lap. His face is shining, and his appealing curls have gone somewhat dark with sweat. "Thank God for that. If something happened I'd hate to have to call my brother."
Without the weight of him, it is easier to breathe, though no less painful. "That was very," Laszlo says between heaving stabs of breath, "illuminating. Thank you."
He feels at his own throat now, probing the crushed place where a bruise may spring up tomorrow, or even tonight — he'd like that, he thinks, very much. Concrete evidence of what transpired between them, ready for his own mental notes. His whole body is tremendously weak-feeling, almost boneless, but that's often been said concerning the male after sexual crisis — the reason why hapless men roll over and go to sleep immediately after coitus. Hardly considerate to their partners. His chest is aching with its newfound capacity for breath, his mouth is tingling as if he's just downed a glass of strong liquor, and strangest of all he's lost some of the feeling in his feet. It's been replaced with pins and needles, which is a hopeful sign.
Another minute and he might have been truly insensible — lost to the world. One careless shift in Isaacson's grip and he might have been a dead man. This seems like the greatest marvel of all.
After a long moment, Marcus looks back at him. He hadn't even realized the man had been averting his eyes for Laszlo's own sake until that flickering look. "Do you want to know how I felt? For science's sake."
Laszlo nods, and regrets the motion.
"Well, tentative at first, but interested. Interested in what I could do to you with just my hands, kind of puzzled at how you reacted to it. And — flattered, almost. I felt powerful. Knowing I could let you go at any time, but I hadn't yet."
"You're hard," Laszlo eventually says with voice still somewhat thickened. "Would you mind if I took care of that for you?"
"Oh, thanks, but I can manage. You've already done your thing." Marcus clears his throat and fixes the buttons on his undershirt.
"I would like to return the favor, if I may."
"Oh." He slides his legs apart a little, settling back. Laszlo rises up tentatively, with his head still swimming, and sets his hand to the matter.
One of Marcus' bare feet twitches up almost involuntarily, hooking to catch at the backs of Laszlo's knees, and it's splendidly endearing — reassuringly alive, not the struggle of a damaged man. Why is it that as the indisputably passive partner in this experiment of theirs, Laszlo still worries about inflicting damage on another?
Marcus kisses him again, though it makes his throat sting, and does excellent things with his hands — Laszlo finds his erection and draws him off in a businesslike fashion. Those clever hands lace against the back of his neck, wreathing him with nothing but goodwill.
"You're a good fellow to know," he says to Marcus. "I trust your discretion." He doesn't need to see to know what he's doing; he only needs to watch his friend's face.
Afterward, he dries off his hands. It has to be done meticulously, with his customary detail. His crippled arm is once again folded to his side.
"Listen to me, Kreizler," Isaacson says, setting a hand on his shoulder — his cheeks and his lips are delicately charged with pink. "You're not made of the same stuff as this man. You're not like these boys."
"He's a child-killer. He doesn't just choke these boys half-senseless, he chokes them all the way. What you or I might do for cheap thrills doesn't matter, it's the power — not shamming but the real thing."
"What's the difference?"
"I like giving you what you want. I don't think our man with the Arkansas toothpick cares what anybody else wants."
Laszlo sighs raggedly, settling back against the pillows. "Marcus, you are very kind."
"I'm just a good sport, that's all." Marcus fumbles in the pocket of his discarded coat, tossed as it is over an armchair, and lights a cigarette. He begins quite philosophically to smoke it.
Kreizler swings his legs over the edge of the bed — his socks are askew, and his shirt is sticking across his back in a chill sweat. The sweet smell of tobacco cuts through the odor of exertion in the room — they must light the lamps and throw back the curtains and all these things in due time. Mary can't find them like this; Mary would understand this least of all.
Laszlo clears his throat, feeling an unpleasant and yet exquisite bite of pain. "Would you be so kind as to help me dress? To put on my boots, and so on."
"Of course," Marcus says. There's concern in his face, but no pity.
"If we wash up, there may still be time for a late supper."
Sharing bathwater may be the least strange thing that's transpired between them tonight. They can at least share cigars and port and filets de bœuf Rossini.