GATES OF THE WEST
“Please tell me you didn’t take him to Alcatraz.”
The heat of the cast-iron pan on the stove had started fogging the windows, forcing the lights from the city outside into tiny, colorful coronas against the nighttime sky. I flicked some water onto it from my fingertips and watched the drops skate and sizzle for a moment before glancing over my shoulder at Thomas. “Oh god,” he moaned at my expression, “you did.”
Mike Montoya had finally come to San Francisco-- it had only taken me getting my arm sliced open while in the home of a pair of incestuous, homicidal brothers. I told him that I wouldn’t hold it against him. He’d come for a long weekend which had been, in his own words, ‘about a weekend too long in this hipster town.’ That was Mike for you. It had still been a nice time.
“He was a cop for almost twenty-five years, Thomas-- getting excited about jails comes naturally. Part of the job.”
“So I should really start suggesting handcuffs.”
“Have you been going through my nightstands?” Which were now nightstands, actual furniture instead of the cardboard moving boxes that had been there for almost the first year after I’d moved to this city. I’d found the new ones sitting on the street, next to someone’s trash cans. A little sanding and a coat of spray paint later and no one would ever realize that I’d saved them from the dump. I wasn’t sure if this was what settling in felt like or if I’d just managed the project in a fit of boredom due to my personal leave but either way I enjoyed having drawers near the bed. It was the small things in life… like letting Thomas wonder if I actually stashed my cuffs there.
I dropped a knob of butter into the pan as Thomas poured himself a glass of wine. He leaned back against the counter. “Mike’s leaving tonight-- are you officially back on the clock tomorrow?”
The steaks sang as I laid them in the hot pan. I looked over at Thomas, his nearly white hair brushed neatly back away from his eyes, tucked behind an ear. I hated the tie he was wearing-- much too M for my taste. “Don’t start with me; I heard enough all week.” Mike had spent most of his hot air lecturing me on how I never took care of my myself. I needed someone to clean. I needed someone to grow old with. I needed a pet so that I wasn’t alone. Having him over for a few days wasn’t a real vacation-- why didn’t I hit a beach somewhere for a while? His sudden investment was alarming; I had told him in no uncertain terms that he needed to find something to occupy himself with. Retirement was making him an old maid.
He had agreed.
I pointed tongs at Thomas. “I need to work. The left cushion on the couch is starting to look suspiciously like my ass.”
Thomas raised his hands-- one full of his wine glass-- and shook his head. “I’m asking because I think I have a job you might be interested in. If Mike won’t slip out of the shadows and spank me for offering it to you.”
I snorted at the mental imagine. “Unless it’s a good old-fashion paddle hazing, I doubt you need to worry.” The steaks were searing nicely on the one side; I flipped them over. Thomas watched and waited for an answer as I spooned the melted butter over the tops. I sighed. “If it’s through BT…”
“No.” That was dismissed quickly. Issues of wardrobe aside, Thomas knew well enough to leave his professional life at the door when we saw each other. Knowing that he was still working for M was something that I didn’t love but was none of my damn business. The kid had to live his own life; he wasn’t my responsibility. The sex was good and I was glad to have him as a friend but after everything that had brought us to this place, well. We both agreed that there were some lines in the sand that shouldn’t be crossed anymore. BonTemps was one of them-- I kept to my side of the street and Thomas to his. As far as I was concerned he could keep the entire Financial District and its mobs of proper black jackets. I didn’t need to step foot there ever again. “It’s through a friend of mine. A lawyer.”
I set the spoon aside and let the steak cook. “A lawyer? Fantastic.”
“Ouch.” He’d read the dislike in my voice-- not that it was hard to read. I didn’t even try to pretend to like lawyers. Most of them were crooks with a far-too-mutable sense of the moral codes.
“How friendly are you with this guy?” Thomas’ look turned cagey and I took the glass from his hands. The wine was heady even from arms-reach, thick and fruity. I took a sip and let the tannins burn my tongue before settling it to the counter. Thomas tilted his eyes up to mine as I hedged him in. Our bodies didn’t quite touch. “You’ve slept with him?”
“You almost sound jealous,” Thomas muttered, his hands making a bold move across the back of my jeans. “But no. Ari’s never been my type.”
“I’m too busy to be jealous,” I said, kissing him, a brief pressure. He tasted just like the wine. Fingers dipped into the back pockets of my jeans and curled around the curve of my ass even as Thomas snorted. “So tell me about this Ari,” I said. “I can offer you my body in return.”
“The steaks will do.”
I laughed and pulled away from his hands. Reaching out, I touched the top of the closest steak, pressing down to test how done it was. With the spoon I tilted the pan and basted the steak again with the now-browning butter. “I suppose that I’ll let myself be used for my food. I do have the best meat, after all.” I winked and watched Thomas’ teeth slide over his bottom lip. “You really going to leave me hanging?”
A touch pushed already-tucked bangs behind his ear and his shoulders slumped. A hand waved the subject away. “My best friend Gibson’s sister, he’s her best friend.”
“Hell of a pedigree.”
“We were never in school with Ari though, he and Holly are way older.”
“And I thought you liked older men.” The flat was beginning to fill with the smell of charred meat. The steaks were quickly shuffled off the heat and onto the cutting board. Thomas’ eyes tracked their movement but for the moment I thought that it was more absent thought than hunger. I covered the meat loosely with foil.
“Don’t pick a fight,” Thomas sighed. I laughed and ducked away from the fingers that were suddenly jabbing into my side. I grabbed Thomas’ wrist and used it to move him; two smooth motions later and his arm was behind his back, the only thing between our bodies. I loomed behind him, threatening sweetly to push him down to the counter and-- if he was lucky-- fuck him right next to the steaks. “Why not,” I murmured into his ear, my lips brushing his neatly swept hair, “not feeling like getting punished tonight?”
Thomas knew better than to struggle and his only movement was a roll of hips back toward me. “You wouldn’t let the steaks get cold.”
“They have ten minutes to rest,” I said.
He groaned, the greedy sound slipping up his throat and spilling out onto the counter. My teeth grazed his earlobe as my mouth pressed closer. Hand slipping from his wrist, Thomas turned between me and the counter, his body shifting against mine. There was a sharp, hungry gleam in his eye that wasn’t entirely hidden by the kiss that he brushed across my mouth before sinking to his knees. Against jazz turned low on an old record-player I’d got at a garage sale, my pants hardly made a sound as they were unzipped and dropped. Thomas’ warm fingers took ahold of me and drew me out over the waistband of my briefs; the soft but filling line of my cock lay pink against the dark cotton. Thomas’ lips pressed to the top of one thigh and his nostrils flared silently. I left my lips parted just so, breath picking up its pace from normal to something more.
There was another kiss, if the drawn press of lips, slip of tongue, a gentle suck of pressure in the sensitive fold of my thigh could be called a kiss. I stroked my fingers through the soft strands of Thomas’ hair as he turned his face and rubbed the cool, soft surface of his cheek against the firming girth of me. I shivered, the sensation crawling down my spine and the muscles of my back, down into rear and thighs as they ached with the way I locked them in place. My free hand wrapped around the edge of the counter to help support my body. When Thomas wanted it he could make quick work of me… regardless of the steaks this promised to be something more.
Closing his eyes, Thomas nuzzled the base of my lifting erection, tasting it in small, teasing measures. He was abasing himself easily, willingly, always gorgeous with his desire to please. The flush of pink in his pale cheeks glowed. His tongue searched out, lower, lips following, and he mouthed one of my balls and then the other. The light sucking pulled a moan from me and without thought my chin was falling against my chest. For a dazed moment I watched Thomas work, bent in half with slender fingers resting so lightly on my thighs. Less than a friend, and more, and not truly mine ever again. Fingers calloused from guns and training followed the sharp line of Thomas’ spine from the nape of his hairline to the top of his starched collar and my cock twitched to see his body shudder. I breathed out loudly and relaxed. When I did Thomas’ mouth returned upward, licking the length of the shaft and showing his hunger. His lips brushed across the thick head and oily liquid disappeared a second later with the pink tip of a tongue.
As Thomas got more aggressive with his mouth it became harder to hold onto focus. My fingers ached around the edge of the counter with holding on and my hips ached to move, to set a rhythm that would be the beginning of the end. Thomas licked and nuzzled, circled the edge of my cock’s head with his tongue. My hand twitched, fingers clenching in his hair. The muscles in my thighs burned as I refused to chase his mouth. His chuckle was low against me, hardly more than a vibration that slunk into my balls and drew them high and hot. Finally his lips closed around me and his tongue rolled under the bottom of the shaft, drawing me into his mouth. Lips closing firmly there was an inward suction and suddenly his mouth was closed, wet, hot, and snug, around me. Begging for more. I closed my eyes then and let go of any last pretense of control.
My hips bullied forward a half an inch, more, sinking me down against the soft back of his throat. Thomas’ gag reflex fluttered and the dark corners behind my eyelids grew light. Breath caught in my throat and was shoved out. My mouth was dry.
The opposite of his.
There was a hiss of a deep indrawn breath through nostrils and Thomas leaned into the press of my body, swallowing down as much of me as he could until his lips were sloppy and warm against the skin of my groin. Saliva slipped and left tickling trails toward my balls as Thomas gagged and worked the head of my cock into the tight clench of his throat.
I’m not proud of the string of curses that I growled out at that new trick, losing myself momentarily as my body tried to curl around him, my ass straining forward even as both hands had grabbed fistfuls of almost-white hair. I bit my tongue, fingers hurting and knuckles white, holding on even though I knew it was goddamn useless. Thomas’ throat worked on the edge of choking, his fingers spread wide against my thighs and the tips stroking, curling down against skin. The rough edges of his breath through his nose hit my belly and made my abs clench-- and then it was over.
My teeth snapped together and for a breathless moment I held on tighter to him, unable to even care if I was hurting him as I throbbed my release down his throat. Thomas finally began to cough and I managed to pull my cock from his wet mouth, still mostly hard, twitching with the sensitivity that comes at the end of an orgasm. My knees hit the floor to either side of his and my palm shoved roughly between his legs as he dropped his head to my shoulder, his back still shaking with muted coughing. Under his slacks and my hand he was hard, a hot and insistent pressure that I treated to a rhythmic abuse. Thomas’ hips surged forward in tight, quick little bucking motions. Twice, three, four times and then he was grabbing at my shirt and giving a muffled cry against my shoulder as he came in his pants. Breathing hard his head slipped down, the top of it coming to rest against my chest. I stroked the soft, small hairs at the top of his neck as he pulled himself together and brushed a kiss against the nape of his neck.
A quick shower and change later and we cleared our plates in hungry silence. Appetites thoroughly roused from the recent exercise, even cool the steaks tasted wonderful. Thomas lifted the last bite of meat to his mouth with his fingers and I took his hand before it found a napkin, sucking the red juice from fingertips instead. “Any complaints?” My question was a murmur.
He shook his head at me, the smile lazy and indulgent. “On the contrary. My compliments to the chef.” Thomas still looked a little undone even after the food, his cheeks pink, damp hair falling from behind his ear, and tie lost purposefully somewhere under the cabinets. He curled his fingers into a loose fist and rested his chin on it, his elbow on the counter next to his empty plate.
One of my feet was propped on the rung of his barstool. The record had finished and the sounds of evening in the city filtered in through the open windows. I sat back and stretched. “In that case, tell me about this lawyer friend of yours and his problems. I’d say that I’ve paid handsomely for the information.” The truth was that retirement probably wasn’t the only reason that Mike had been on my ass. Since the case with the Carlin brothers I’d been floating. At first it was out of necessity because of needing to heal but after that… I’d been through worse, of course, but it was hard to let your brain in on that secret when it wanted to fuel nightmares. I hadn’t said as much to Mike but he knew my habits well enough after working together for as long as we had; I didn’t need to say anything. It was sweet of him to worry but a vacation wasn’t going to help. Neither would a puppy.
I’d taken a few small, inane jobs here and there-- the most exciting of which was getting to snap racy pictures of a sloppy asshole cheating on his wife with a male prostutite who had so much body hair that even I had a hard time imagining what the sex would actually feel like-- but I knew that they weren’t enough to flush the last of the clinging memories of Jamie and what we’d gone through together out of my system. I need a real case. I needed to get back in it.
Thomas tapped his fingers against his cheek and then sat back, the lethargy in his pose bleeding away as he considered. “Ari’s a junior lawyer at Gordon & Gray and--”
I stopped him there. Gordon & Gray were infamous in San Francisco. If you lived in San Francisco and had anything at all to do with the Justice system-- or, hell, just made a habit of reading the paper-- you knew about Gordon, Gray, and all of the very wealthy clients that they represented. Defense lawyers for the rich and richer... the most basic makeup of their livelihood was enough to make my skin crawl. “I thought you had good taste in friends.”
“I’m just saying. If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck…”
“Ducks don’t talk.”
“David!” he laughed, tossing his arms out to the side. “Are you really going to turn this job down because you’d have to work with someone from Gordon and Gray? Because that’s what it sounds like you’re trying to do. You don’t even know what it’s about.”
Shit, he had a point. I mean-- I did too. But now I had to wonder if even just a little bit of it was an excuse. I bit at the inside of my cheek and considered as I poured Thomas another glass of wine. There was a whisper of glass across countertop as he pulled it to him, but he didn’t drink. “I think it’s illegal for lawyers to discuss their clients.” He rolled his eyes and stood up, walking away from the counter. I turned to watch him, slinging an elbow over the back of the barstool. “Some people would call it rude to walk away in the middle of a conversation.”
“Like we were having one.” He rummaged through the notebooks and papers on my coffee table, the current disheveled state of which I would absolutely blame on Mike. The man didn’t understand how to recycle. Finally extracting a folded newspaper from the pile, Thomas turned. The paper was slapped down on the countertop in front of me and Thomas tapped the picture on the front.
She was gorgeous in a simple, understated way that was as good as hanging a plaque around her neck with her pedigree and net worth on it. Dark glasses covered eyes above deep coral lipstick and the collar of her coat was turned up against the flash of the paparazzi. Mike and his tabloids. I looked at the headline: Mina Burns Off the Hook!! I especially liked the use of the double-exclamation marks. Nothing said “take my paper seriously” like abused punctuation. “I remember hearing about this. Husband’s body was found in his car, the entire thing burned.” Gruesome. “This is the case?”
Thomas nodded and took a drink. “That was her second husband. The first committed suicide after he lost the family’s money.”
One spouse was an accident, we liked to say on the Force. Two was coincidence. Three was the trend. This Mina was still ahead of the curve.
“It’s still illegal for him to discuss details of the case.”
He swallowed. “Jesus, David. I know. He didn’t. I knew Ms Burns.”
Not what I was expecting. “You what?”
“It’s not like we’re friends or anything,” Thomas said, “but I remember her from parties, events with my parents.”
I grabbed the plates and stacked them. “Did you know her husbands?” The plates were placed in the sink. I reached for the cutting board.
“He…” Thomas stopped. Nodded. “The first, he was nice. He’d gone to school with my dad.” Small circles of the rich and famous, I guessed. “Grown up here, like my folks.” Old money, in other words. “The second, I’ve only heard of him. My grandparents only socialized with the people they liked; they’d sort of aged out of doing things for appearances sake. They’d known Peter Burns because of my dad but after his funeral Mina wasn’t here or there to them.”
Thomas had been raised by his grandparents after his parents had died in a car accident over a decade ago. He’d never talked about them very much. I had always assumed he didn’t have many memories from before they’d passed; he’d been so young when it happened.
I leaned onto the counter across from Thomas and gave my head a slight shake. “So Ari got Mina Burns off the hook,” I tried to say it with the enthusiasm of two exclamation marks and Thomas made a sour face, “and… their work is done. Why does Gordon, Gray, and Ari need me?”
“Ari didn’t get her off. He’s a junior at the firm. He just got assigned the case two days ago.” The tabloid between us had been bought the first night Mike had been with me when we’d gone out to walk off jetlag and get him a pack of cigarettes. A week ago.
“Is that the official word?”
I shrugged as well as I could in my position. “Yes. Keeping an active case warm when there’s nothing to do. Means the police are still looking into it but Gordon and Gray feel like their job is done. Again, I don’t know why they’d need me.”
Thomas sat back against his chair and cradled the glass of wine between his hands. “All I know is that Ari told me that he was hiring a private eye and I convinced him to wait until I could offer you the job first. I told him that you were good.”
“Gilding the lily,” I murmured, pushing back from the counter. The sink light was turned off, leaving the kitchen dim in the wash of the living room lamps. Thomas smiled up at me as I came around the counter. His bottom lip had a faint red line where he’d been placing the glass to sip.
“Of course not,” he said with a low laugh. “What I actually told him was that ‘I knew a good dick.’”
I leaned down and kissed the laugh from his mouth, slow and deliberate. “Give me his card. I’ll allow one exploratory meeting with this lawyer to let him push his agenda and call it services rendered for those office chairs I definitely didn’t need that you purchased without my say-so.” He snorted as I traced the line of his spine through the tshirt he’d borrowed from me after the shower. It was a little too large on his lithe frame. I took my seat next to him again as he shook his head.
“I would try to explain to you that your clients need somewhere to sit--”
“--I have a lap. It would have worked out, especially if they’re attractive clients.” Thomas raised an eyebrow, his mouth puckering into a twist that said exactly what he thought of my seating policies. “Fine!” I laughed. “Fine.”
Thomas pulled his wallet from his jeans and pried a thick, important looking business card from one of the sleeves. Ari James, Attorney at Law.
Sounded like a dick.
“So you’re getting into bed with Gordon and Gray? You’ll catch something..”
Lina Xu shook her head. Wings of wispy black hair stuck to her temples. Standing on one of the outdoor basketball courts at the local YMCA, we’d already been playing for almost an hour and the sun had been up for two. It had still been dark when Thomas had found his skinny tie and slipped out for work in yesterday’s clothes.
I assumed he’d just buy something new on the way.
She checked the ball at my chest with unnecessary force. “Hey now,” I said, managing the catch, “my legs are firmly closed for the time being. I just want to know what you know about them. You’re my inside woman.” I faked to the right and pushed past her on the left. The basketball made hard, packed sounds against the clay of the court.
She followed at an easy lope; I was out of shape but we were both getting tired. “Satan in a Valentino suit? Gordon, at least. I’ve never had the displeasure of meeting Gray.”
“G and G will eat you for dinner.”
“I’m an expensive date.” I managed a spectacular dribble over Lina’s thigh, just under her left arm, and made a break for the three-point line. Hitting white I jumped and watched as the ball sailed cleanly through the wire basket rim. Lina laughed and swore at me so I patted myself on the back even as I hung over my knees, breathing hard. The ball bounced away toward the brick and chain-link barrier that separated the Y from the sidewalk on Quesada Avenue. “Look,” I exhaled, unused to sprints anymore, “I’m not getting into bed with anyone. This is a friend of a friend thing. I’m just meeting the guy and seeing what he needs and that’s all.” Straightening, I stretched my back. Lina rubbed her face with a forearm and headed to collect the ball.
“I feel like I’ve said this to you before, but you know what they say about curiosity and the cat.”
I grinned. “Call me a pussy again and we’re going to have words.”
Lina lobbed the ball to me. “Please, Krause. I know it’s hard to believe but I’m just not attracted to you. Please stop trying to get into my pants.” I barked a laugh. We both headed to the bleachers.
“How’s the wife?” I handed Lina the ball and she pushed it into her duffel.
“Fine. Getting us unpacked. You’ll have to come by for dinner sometime when it’s up and running.” She paused, jacket in hand. “Listen to me. David Krause making house calls? Hell would freeze over.” I pushed her shoulder lightly with mine and dropped onto the bench. “You don’t have time for us tragically normal humans, with our spouses and our love of corningware casseroles.”
“Is Martha Stewart a lesbian?”
Lina waved my joke away and shoved her jacket through the straps of her bag. The temperature had rose with the sun. My shirt stuck to my back. “You know what I’m saying.” she said. I did, but I was glad she didn’t give me a chance to talk about my lack of desire to make myself a third wheel to a very happily married couple. “Anyway.” She pulled her legs up to cross them on the bench, reaching for her water bottle. “All I know is that Gordon and Gray are doing their normal cockroach routine; they’re everywhere, stuffing up the piping.”
“That’s a disgusting image.”
She shrugged and took a drink. “Lawyers.”
“Josea Ramirez and Mina Burns had Gordon and Gray on retainer.”
The water, even warmed from sitting out in the sun, was good. “Josea Ramirez was the new husband?”
Lina looked at me. “Current, and dead, husband.”
“She still went by her old name?” Interesting.
“It’s the Bay, David. What’s amazing is that they resisted the urge to do a name smash when they got married. So basically,” she went on, “because of Gordon and Gray’s hollering about protecting their client’s reputation, Ms Burns hasn’t had to so much as sneeze in the direction of a police station since her husband died. In very quick order her alibi cleared, she took a polygraph, she’s no longer a person of interest. All wrapped up in a pretty bow. I told you that you just should have transferred to the SFPD. You could have been in on the ground floor on this if you’re so interested in Mina Burns.”
“I told you that I’m done being a cop. It’s not that I miss the system, Lina.” I did, a little. On the Force there was always a guy next to you, a teammate, protege, boss, an easy drink down at the Lucky Duck on the corner with its pictures of precinct chiefs through the years. Having Mike around-- even retired-- had reminded me of that. “You can take the guy out of the precinct, but you’ll never take the detective out of the guy.”
“No one has ever said that,” she said, standing and putting an arm across her chest. She sighed as she held it, stretching. “She’s untouchable. Gordon and Gray locked us out.”
My eyebrows raised. “You don’t like her.” Mina Burns.
She shrugged. “I don’t like anyone who can afford to own a home in this city.” Her eyes narrowed on me for a moment-- I had bought my loft, after all. Lina knew what I was thinking and had the decency to look abashed. “You’re in Bayview. That doesn’t count. I meant the people up in Nob Hill.”
“The old money.”
“Old, new. Doesn’t matter. I’m just saying that money flushes clean a lot of things in this town.”
Thomas. Ari? I wondered. He was a lawyer for a Grand Old Law Firm. His entry had either been born or bought and if it was neither-- if he’d fought to get there-- that was worse. Fighting for a place at the table with hyenas. I pulled my own sweater from my bag and held it to my nose to check it; Lina made a face and rolled her eyes as I slid my arms into it. “You think she did it?” I asked.
Lina tossed up her hands. “What do I know? She’s not my business. And she isn’t yours, either.”
“For a friend, I know. But really, David? If you don’t know how to advertise I can recommend a few good people in the area; you don’t need to be taking jobs as favors anymore.” Lina had seen me at my very worst in those first few months in this city-- she had taken me home from a bar fight, dead-drunk, and tossed me in the shower with my clothes on. I remember her saying to me on that occasion, you are better than this.
And things had gotten better, thank god.
Maybe this job was nothing, wouldn't pan out. Maybe I’d hate Ari and refuse to help even if it wasn’t. But Thomas had asked and if I did take it the paycheck would keep me in steak and coffee for months. Maybe I’d buy something for the walls of the office-- Gordon and Gray could no doubt afford it. A job was a job and at least this one was on the up and up. Bonus points because I probably wouldn’t have to kill anyone.
I scratched at my left forearm. “Speaking of advertising, I’ve always wanted my business logo on a park bench like they have in the movies,” I said, picking up my duffel bag. “It would be great, someone having an epiphany while sitting on my face.”
Lina zipped her own bag and swung it over her shoulder. “Way I hear it, that’s not the only thing you like someone having while sitting on your face.” I lunged at her and she laughed, dancing away. “Come on, old man. I’ll race you to the bus station. You need to get back in shape.”
I broke into a run. It always felt good to be back on the horse.