A cop, a gangster, and a bank robber walk into a bar—
There’s a joke here somewhere, but Tommy’s too punch-drunk to get a handle on it. Monsters. There are monsters. Demons and devils too. Dark things that crawl out of the sea with a damp, squelching sound like worms wiggling in your ears. Unnatural things, glistening, moving all wrong, dragging shadows with them that turn the whole world into the terrifying black space that lurked under your bed when you were five years old.
Hell is real, and he’s burning up.
“You doing all right, kid?”
It’s not really a bar so much as a backwoods speakeasy, one with a deep tomb of a cellar where they’ve voted three to zero to hole up until sunrise. O’Toole, the one doing the asking, is leaning against a pyramid of crates with his hands in his pockets. The crates are full of Bevo bottles that definitely aren’t full of Bevo. Best case scenario, it’s wine. McGlen is sitting by the door next to the heap of piled-up furniture, his chopper across his knee. Solid and silent, he might as well be part of the barricade. Above them, the burned out and battered house creaks as it settles, but there are no more footsteps, no thumps or skittering.
Maybe that’s the punchline. That Tommy’s a cop, a Muldoon for God’s sake, but it’s a couple of crooks who saved his bacon tonight.
“I’m fine.” He isn’t. He is in fact starting to think he has a responsibility to inform the two men that he’s feeling funny. At the very least, he should be documenting this. O’Toole and McGlen might be known to the law, and not for frequenting the Arkham Police Department pancake breakfasts, but they came out here to find the truth same as him. They might just be decent enough to bring his report to the station if something…
...if he can’t do it himself.
Strange thoughts, he writes, sitting down on a crate and balancing his notebook on his knee. Heartbeat loud. Fever.
His own handwriting looks like a forgery, close but not quite right. He traces over the last word and underlines it twice, the hair on the back of his neck standing up as he feels O’Toole and McGlen looking at him. He doesn’t want men like that looking at him. He doesn’t want men looking at him like that.
The notepaper is waterlogged and lumpy. He flips back to the map he made of the route he took here. His motorcycle is done for, and they’re about a half-mile northwest from the x that marks McGlen’s Durant. Maybe they killed all those things upstairs. Maybe there’s no sense in waiting until sunup. But there’s nothing but dark woods and a narrow footpath between here and the car. Even feeling funny, not thinking right, Tommy isn’t stupid enough to listen to the little voice telling him that some fresh air might clear his head.
Instead, he writes McGlen, Michael and O’Toole, James aka “Skids”. The names are already all over his notes, but he writes them down again to give his hands something to do, pressing so hard with the dull pencil lead that it engraves them into the next page. His heart’s ticking like a time bomb, and his muscles are winding up tight. He needs some hard work or a bucket of cold water.
There’s a rasp like sandpaper on a file as McGlen absently scratches his chin. He looks just as bruised and singed as Tommy feels, but he wears it like he’s used to it. His shredded jacket hangs off an overturned chair on the barricade, and his shirt is more tatter than linen, splattered with gore from that thing he mowed down.
Black blood, Tommy writes. Purple? Even in the waxy cast of the lantern, he can tell the color isn’t right. The stuff’s soaked down into McGlen’s undershirt, which might have started the day out white, depending on how good whoever does his laundry is. It’s the top half of a union suit, the collar hanging open to reveal a lot of dark chest hair. The short sleeve clings to the thickest arm Tommy’s ever seen, at least outside of a photograph of a prizefighter that he once clipped from the newspaper and kept for two weeks before burning.
He wants to—
It’s hot down here. No, no, that’s not right. It’s midnight in April in the cellar of an unheated house, and no one else is flushed. God knows he’s taken both men’s measure enough times to tell. He’s running a fever. He’s not thinking straight. He has a responsibility to tell them that, but he doesn’t want—
“What are you doing?” he asks sharply.
O’Toole has stooped down to open the satchel at his feet, something which in retrospect didn’t warrant the tone. What’s he going to do, take off with it? Hurl himself through the barricade and up into the nightmare of that house alone? It’s his pack anyway, even if it’s now carrying their only first aid kit and Tommy’s extra ammunition.
But these are criminals. Tommy can’t trust them. He needs to remember that. He needs—
“I’m getting a smoke, officer,” O’Toole says calmly, maybe with just a little too much gloss on the title. “The last time I checked, that was still legal.”
On any other night, Tommy might have gone a little pink in the cheeks. On a bad one he would have blustered, and on a good one he would have apologized. Now he’s too hot to even remember what blushing feels like. He rubs his face in irritation, his skin prickling, and sits back in silence as O’Toole fishes out a ragged pack of cigarettes and a sorry-looking book of matches.
Considering what that bag has been through, Tommy’s surprised either one of them will light. O’Toole took fewer hits than him or McGlen, fast on his feet and as slippery as you’d expect from a guy with his record. He took a dunk in the water at one point, though, and he grappled with that thrashing, spitting thing that might have been a vine or might have been a tentacle but wasn’t much of anything after Tommy blew it to pieces. He can still smell the stuff on himself, something like how he’s always imagined snake venom to smell, metallic and cold.
He tugs at his collar, his gaze fixing on where the cigarette sits on O’Toole’s lip. The smoke comes out slow, blue-gray and swirling, the wisps making patterns in the air that almost seem to say something before they disappear. Tommy breathes out just as slowly, shakily, his stomach going tight.
The corner of O’Toole’s mouth turns down. He holds the cigarette out in front of him, pinched between his finger and thumb, and examines it with a frown.
McGlen grunts, a question mark at the end of it.
O’Toole takes another drag and shrugs. “I could do with a cigar right about now.”
“Thought you were off them.”
“Yeah, I know. Doctor says I ought to stick to cigarettes. But I just…” O’Toole shakes his head. “I don’t know.”
McGlen reaches up into the remaining rags of his pinstripe jacket and takes out what proves to be a three-finger cigar case. He flips it open, revealing one cigar left inside.
O’Toole hesitates, then laughs under his breath. “My hero.”
It’s the first time Tommy has seen either of them smile. Real smiles, at least. Not the grim way your cheek twitches when you catch someone’s eye just before you reload and do something stupid. Not the way your lips pry back from your teeth when you go and survive it.
O’Toole stubs out his cigarette against the wall and pockets the dog end. He walks over to McGlen, his steps almost silent. McGlen hands over the cigar and takes out his lighter. Then O’Toole leans down, a lock of hair falling over his forehead, and McGlen lights his smoke for him, easy as you please.
They did time together. Cellmates down in Charlestown back in ‘21. Tommy pulled their records what feels like ten years ago but must have only been last week, when the two of them got tangled up in his investigation. He has a page in his notebook dedicated to cross-referenced dates of arrests and bookings, interrogations and sentences. There aren’t as many as he might have expected, but that probably says more about the Arkham Police Department than it does about either of them going clean and flying right.
O’Toole straightens up and gets back to his lean. He puffs on the cigar, and his eyes shut in what looks like bliss. Tommy tries to stop staring at his mouth, but all his gaze manages to do is jitter to his hands and then down the front of his body.
He hasn’t been to confession since Sunday. If he doesn’t make it out of here, he’s dying unshriven.
“You sure you’re all right?”
“I’m fine.” His voice cracks, to his horror. He ducks his head, fingers lacing tight behind the back of his neck to get a hold of himself.
“No need to get in a lather.” One almost-silent footstep forward and something too carefully casual in O’Toole’s voice. “You look a little red, is all.”
“It’s hot in here,” Tommy mutters at his knees.
It isn’t. He knows it isn’t, and they know it isn’t. In his upper periphery, he catches O’Toole and McGlen exchanging a glance. His hands clench as his hackles rise.
“All right,” O’Toole says, breathing out a writhing serpent of cigar smoke. “I have to ask. Did one of those things bite you? Scratch you, maybe?”
Tommy shakes his head. He’s had cuts that have needed washing out or painting with iodine, and he knows what that kind of blood fever feels like. It starts where you were hurt and radiates out from there. It doesn’t start in your brain, making you think things you don’t want to think about.
“No,” he says, “nothing bit me. Nothing scratched me. Worst I got was getting sprayed by that thing that slithered out of the fireplace, same as you, and you’re fine.”
He looks up and finds himself pinned under a long, considering look from O’Toole.
“Yeah. Now that I’ve got a cigar, I’m fine.”
“Good for you,” Tommy says, his gaze dropping from O’Toole’s like a goddamn coward’s. His palms are damp. He has a—he’s hard.
There’s another silent exchange between O’Toole and McGlen. Think like a cop, Tommy. If the mood turns, it’s two against one. He can’t trust them. He can’t trust anybody. He tries to reach for his shotgun, just to have it somewhere more sensible than propped up against the wall, but his right hand is gripping his own leg and won’t come loose.
His body won’t listen to him. It wants him to listen to it instead. Wants him to give in to every terrible thing it’s ever wanted to do. He clamps his jaw shut, but it’s not enough to keep back the frustrated noise that scrapes in his throat.
“Hey,” O’Toole says softly. “It’s all right, kid. Just let me take a look at you.”
Something claws at his stomach from the inside. He shakes his head, his fingernails digging harder into his thigh, but it’s too late. O’Toole steps closer, close enough to touch, too close. Tommy’s vision goes darker, like a veil’s dropped over his eyes. Everything quiets behind the quickening thump of his heartbeat. Then the stone floor slams under his feet as he lurches himself upright, reaching out. He grasps a shirt front, yanking it hard as he throws himself forward, and his lips makes contact—
He tastes the phantom heat of smoke—
He wrenches himself away, hand over his mouth. His body tries to turn back, and he hurls himself at the wall to keep from grabbing at O’Toole again.
He wants, oh God, he wants to—
“Jesus!” O’Toole sounds far away as Tommy slams himself against the bricks again, but he can’t be, not if he’s grabbing him by the shoulders. “Little help here, Mick?”
There’s a distant clatter, and then the world falls away as he’s lifted off his feet from behind. He thrashes, trying to break free, but McGlen has several inches on him and enough steel in his arms to pin him in a bear hug. The clawing thing in his stomach swoons at the deep grunt of effort in his ear, leaving something bleeding inside him with every throb of his pulse. He lashes out kicking, but that doesn’t do him any good when McGlen pulls him down onto the floor with him and O’Toole scrambles to sit on his legs.
Weight and pressure. The smell of tobacco, sweat and liquor. The fever momentarily holds its breath and relief trickles through him like a swallow of cool water. The clamor in his head quiets down to one clear yes, exhilarated by the heavy warmth of one man holding onto him tight and another straddling his knees and grabbing him by the neck.
“What the hell’s the matter with—” Then there’s an awful pause as O’Toole looks down, an even more awful laugh, and all the burning shame comes back to him. “Jesus, kid. You’re going to put someone’s eye out with that thing.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, there’s something wrong with me. There’s something really wrong…”
Every little shift of weight, every movement of a muscle against him makes him twitch. His heartbeat is almost deafening, pounding in his ears and shutting out everything but the muffled sound of O’Toole and McGlen talking over him.
“...think whatever that thing spat was Spanish fly.”
“I don’t see you panting.” McGlen’s voice is deep enough to rumble against his back.
“No, but you don’t want to know what I would have done for that stogie.”
“That bad. And if it’s down to that stuff we got sprayed with, the kid took the brunt of it.”
“So what’s the plan?”
“I don’t know. I think maybe either he’s got to get it out of his system, or we’re holding him down all night.”
“You figure you can really die of the gimmes?”
“In the back of a dance hall, no. In a place like this, there’s a first time for everything. Either that or he tries to bash his head in again.”
“I don’t want a dead cop on our hands, Skids.”
“You hear that, kid?” O’Toole taps his cheek, halfway between a pat and a slap. “It’s your lucky day. If we let you up, are you going to behave yourself and go beat the bishop?”
He wants to say yes. Self-abuse is low, and doing it in the same room as someone else is even lower, but it’s not the lowest thing he’s thinking about right now. He means to say yes, tries to say yes, but his tongue sticks when he makes the mistake of opening his eyes and sees the soft, straight line of O’Toole’s mouth. The size of McGlen’s fists where they sit locked around his middle. If they let him go, he’s going to try to do something unforgivable again. He shakes his head.
“An honest copper,” O’Toole says, a half-smile flickering on his face. “Didn’t know they made those.”
McGlen barks a laugh.
A look goes over Tommy’s shoulder, and then O’Toole shrugs.
“What the hell. It’s already been a crazy night.”
The words muddle up in Tommy’s head, not making any sense until O’Toole’s hands are poised right over his fly. Contact. It’s just barely there, but it’s enough to make him whimper. He can’t. He shakes his head wildly, trying to thrash again without an inch to do it in.
McGlen’s arms tighten around him, making his ribs creak.
“Calm down, kid,” O’Toole says. “Jailhouse rules. Just close your eyes and think of Norma Shearer.”
He can’t. All he can do is stare as the buttons on his fly fall open under a quick flick of O’Toole’s fingers. His mouth goes dry and his heart tries to crawl up his throat. Shame twisting up his guts. McGlen breathing heavier in his ear. Then nothing in the world but the feeling of O’Toole’s hand around him.
“Oh God, please. I’m sorry. Please…” The words spill out of him until he bites down on his tongue.
“Pull him up a little? That’s it.”
Tommy’s hauled back like he doesn’t weigh a thing, ending up sitting on a solid thigh instead of the floor. Then O’Toole is bending forward and Tommy’s looking down in rock-dumb puzzlement for a full second until he feels the wet touch of his mouth.
His eyes widen and his head falls back onto McGlen’s broad shoulder. The gray ceiling floats above him, pulsating rapidly in time with his breathing. It’s never felt like this before, never so terrifyingly good, like he’s sliding fast and smooth down the edge of a knife without getting cut. It shouldn’t feel like this, he shouldn’t—but the sensation, the sound makes him moan and try to push up even deeper into it.
McGlen’s grip on him lowers, stopping his attempt to buck in its tracks. “Hey, mind your fucking manners.”
He hears, feels O’Toole laugh, but then the tight, wet strokes are coming faster, and he couldn’t say anything if he wanted to. His head lolls restlessly. Warm skin, sandpaper stubble. His hands can’t reach far, but he catches hold of what might be O’Toole’s sleeve and grips it tight. He can’t stop moaning, the sound coming straight up from his chest, low and desperate.
It’s just a whisper, but it shivers into his ear. McGlen shifts under him, readjusting his grip, and the way his hands move over Tommy’s stomach sends the fever spiking. Tommy gasps, trembling as it hits him. His vision goes blurry, the ceiling swimming down over him now. He closes his eyes but he’s already washed away, jolted on hard waves between McGlen’s firm hold and O’Toole’s audible swallow.
“I’m sorry.” It sounds like someone else talking, panting, voice stretched thin. “Please. I’m sorry.”
There’s a stir of air, and then O’Toole sits up, dragging the back of his hand over his mouth. He looks down, and Tommy blearily follows his gaze. He’s still hard. Red. Wet with spit. He whimpers.
“You got another round in the chamber?” O’Toole asks, as mildly as if he’s asking for the time. Like Tommy didn’t just—in his mouth— “Come on, sweetheart. What do you need?”
“I—” The blurriness gets worse. His eyes are wet. The answer is there behind them, looming in that dark place, but he can’t make himself say it. He shakes his head.
“All right,” O’Toole says, nodding slowly. “All right. See, me, I quit smoking cigars a while back. They’re hard to get in prison, and when I got out, I did a little too much making up for lost time. They’re bad for my stomach, you know. Bad stomachs run in my family. You follow me?”
Tommy has no idea what he’s talking about, but the even, conversational tone is like a life preserver floating on the water. O’Toole’s voice is smooth and reasonable, and he somehow manages to talk like Tommy doesn’t need to be fitted for a straitjacket.
“So I’ve spent the last few months telling myself I’m not touching the things anymore, and it hasn’t been too rough. A cigarette will get the job done. But once I started wanting one tonight...well, knowing I wasn’t supposed to have one just made the wanting worse. Like poison ivy in my brain. I think I was about five minutes away from telling Mick here that I was going to borrow his car and make a run to the drug store. Probably wouldn’t have gone too well for me when I didn’t take Mick’s no for an answer, huh?”
“No, it wouldn’t,” McGlen says.
“No, it wouldn’t,” O’Toole agrees. “But Mick here’s a generous guy, and he fixed me up with what I needed. And once I had it, I stopped thinking about doing something stupid. Easy as that.”
Easy as that. Tommy hesitates, then nods.
“Now, me and Mick, we’re both generous guys. I’ve got to tell you, a couple of items aren’t on the menu, but we can probably work something out. All right?”
Tommy manages another nod.
“So, what? You want to lay one on me again?”
He swallows over a lump in his throat, his shoulders hunching in embarrassment as he remembers grabbing him.
“We’ll call that a maybe. You liked getting your cock sucked. That’s fine, who doesn’t? Think a second time will do the trick?”
“Or maybe,” O’Toole says with an easy shrug, “you’d rather take it than give it.”
He blinks, the wetness in his eyes stinging now.
“Have I got it?”
He doesn’t know if he nods so much as he twitches, but his head jerks down.
“Fine, we can do that.” O’Toole’s hand settles on his hip. “What were you thinking? Do you want to get on your knees, or do you want to get bent over?”
Tommy’s breath leaves him in a rush. There isn’t even a real picture in his head for those last words, nothing that he hasn’t shoved away into the darkest corner of his imagination. There’s only the impression of it, like letters on an old sign showing through in the right light after they’ve been painted over. The idea of it. Buried deep but taking up so much space under his feet that it feels like the ground might give way any second.
“All right. Don’t worry about it.” O’Toole squeezes his hip. “I’m going to let you in on a little secret, Officer Muldoon.”
O’Toole’s hand leaves his hip and reaches past him. Tommy’s chest tightens as he’s pressed close between the two men.
“Everything a smart guy thinks he’s got a handle on can go out the window in one night. Can’t count on knowing if anything’s real. But one thing’s for sure in this world, and that’s the fact that the Big Man can always get it up.”
Whatever O’Toole’s hand is doing behind Tommy’s back pulls a satisfied hum from McGlen.
“Doesn’t need the Ritz. Doesn’t care if he nearly got his block knocked off by the boogeyman, or if you’re all wearing eau de squid guts. If he can’t scratch your itch, no one can.”
McGlen licks his lips. Tommy can hear it. “Spit’s not going to cut it.”
“First aid kit,” O’Toole says. “Should be some Vaseline in there.”
It ought to be worse, letting it happen. It ought to be the worst thing that could happen to him. If the world were the right way up, then fighting should mean clawing his way back to sanity and giving in should mean hitting the rock bottom of crazy. Instead, the world feels more solid as Tommy lets himself be laid out on the floor. Rough wooden planks under his back. The everyday smell of dust, stone and damp. Little sounds like the opening of the satchel, the lid of a jar turning on its threads, the rustle of clothing.
He thinks of creeping vines as four hands move over him at once, getting the rest of his buttons open, stroking him until he squirms, getting his pants down and turning him over on his belly. He thinks of creeping tentacles as something cool touches him, leaving a slippery trail. The knowledge of what it really is seems just as impossible as anything that happened upstairs.
A pat on his back. “Get your knees under you. A little more. Good.”
The hard discomfort of the floor is reassuring. It feels like kneeling in church, or in the corner of the classroom back at school, waiting for someone to forgive him. He closes his eyes, and hot tears slip down his cheeks. A big hand curls around his hip, making his hard-on throb. There’s another slippery touch, blunter this time, and then a pressure that builds until he chokes on his next breath.
“Does it hurt too bad?” O’Toole asks from somewhere just above him.
He wants to say yes, but all that comes out is a quiet moan. It doesn’t feel anything as bad as he thought it would, and that just makes it worse.
O’Toole chuckles. “I think you’re good, Big Man.”
He’s good. It’s good. Oh God, it’s in him, in him all the way. It goes so deep that all he can do is gulp for air.
“That’s a lot, huh?” O’Toole’s hand is mercifully cool as it runs through his hair.
He makes a faint noise that means yes. He then makes it again, louder and lower, fervent as an oath when McGlen grabs his shoulder for leverage and starts really moving. He braces himself, shocked by the thrill as McGlen screws into him. Again. McGlen’s thighs hitting his own. Again. That dizzy rush shooting through him faster this time.
“Oh God,” he gasps. “Oh, Jesus Christ…”
His hand is only half his as it leaves the floor. He gropes down, touching himself, hesitant at first, clumsy, and then with growing urgency.
“That’s it,” O’Toole says, steadying him as he’s rocked forward. “That should take care of you. Get you where you need to go.”
Tommy pushes into the warmth of him, the mellow smell of smoke and the comfort of his voice. The scratch of wool. The feeling of something hard under his cheek and the flash of shameful excitement as he realizes what it is. He turns his mouth, wanting to—looking for something to stifle the awful sounds he can hear himself making.
“Fuck, he’s tight,” McGlen groans behind him.
“I just bet he is. Jesus, I think he’s trying to—all right, kid. Hold your horses, you’ve got it.”
O’Toole’s fingers move, brushing against Tommy’s lips as he gets his pants open. He pulls it out, stroking himself. Tommy squeezes his eyes shut tighter, knowing what he’s going to do, knowing what he wants to do. O’Toole’s hand is on his cheek, his thumb running over Tommy’s bottom lip. His jaw gives way to the slightest pressure. Then his mouth is full, his tongue weighed down, the back of his throat closing up.
It doesn’t stop Tommy from moaning, but it quiets him down at least. Makes it sound like it’s someone else. Some pervert on his hands and knees, taking it at both ends from a couple of no-good criminals. A no-good criminal himself, breaking laws laid out by God and the state of Massachusetts. And worse, liking it.
He can picture him in that black space behind his eyes, that stranger. Lips stretched wide around another man’s cock, sucking noisily as it slides in and out of his mouth. Back arching as he’s rocked by the force of a man twice his size giving it to him from behind. Open for it, wanting more, barely holding himself up with help and one trembling arm as he jerks off frantically.
“There you go, kid. That’s good.” A hand around the back of his neck, so nice and cool. “Jesus, Mick, might want to—”
“Uh-huh.” Panting, almost growling as McGlen speeds up.
There’s a burst of light as the fever breaks. The heat pushes up out of him, raw and bright, racking him in a fit and driving a wail from his throat. He catches the smell of metal, something oily and poisonous forced out of his skin by a rush of clean sweat. He comes, keeps coming, pulling at himself until it hurts.
Fingers dig into the back of his skull. O’Toole pushes, stills, pushes again, and then there’s only the sound of the sea rushing in Tommy’s ears as he swallows. Slippery, brackish, sliding down his throat. He goes limp, sobbing in relief and held up by someone else’s strength as McGlen finishes with him.
The chill finally reaches him, raising goosebumps all over his damp skin. He shivers hard, his teeth chattering, his mouth empty but his jaw aching. Feels the warmth of a hand on his back, rubbing briskly.
Time passes. He doesn’t know how much, but at least he knows which direction it’s going. He lies wrung out and unprotesting as someone swipes a handkerchief over his chin and fixes his pants for him. The world moves around him, but he’s tethered to it, aware of being turned over, aware that he has his head resting in someone’s lap.
When he can bring himself to open his eyes again, he confirms that it’s O’Toole’s. The cigar has been rescued and relit. The smoke curls over Tommy’s head, drifting aimlessly.
He sits up, woozy for a second, and immediately regrets it. He’s sore where he— His face goes hot, but it’s only skin deep.
O’Toole gives him a look so bland that it crosses back over into knowing. “Don’t worry about it, kid. Haunted houses are like the pen. A patch of lavender in either doesn’t count.”
Tommy stares as O’Toole takes another puff of his cigar, at his mouth, at the barely-there rise at the corner of it. Then he laughs. It’s not a good laugh, but it’s a real one, shaking something loose deep inside him. He puts his head between his knees and laughs long and hard until he hiccups the last of it out.
No one interrupts him, but when he finally lifts his head, McGlen is mutely holding out a flask. Tommy wipes his eyes and starts to say no, but O’Toole takes it and gives it to him.
“It’s medicinal. We’ll both swear to it in court.”
Tommy breathes out another faint laugh. His hands are still a little shaky as he unscrews the top, but they’ve settled by the time he takes a gulp. The stuff burns like iodine on a cut, tingling down his throat and into his stomach. He gives the flask back to O’Toole, who takes a pull of his own before passing it back to McGlen.
McGlen pockets it, then reaches over for Tommy’s shotgun and puts her back in his arms with a clap to his shoulder.
O’Toole squints at his watch, taps its face, and shrugs. “Three hours and change until sunrise, if this thing’s still working right.”
They settle in together, backs against the wall and guns at the ready. Keeping watch over the door. Listening to the soft sighs of the house as it settles. Waiting to see whether the three of them are going to walk out of here again.