There was blood everywhere. It pooled on the polished stage flooring, was spattered against the imitation Japanese screen – utterly destroying the delicate beauty of the gold-leaf background and intricate brushwork. It had even splurged onto three footlights.
Gus’s chin magically gained twelve pounds and his throat started to constrict. This was the first dead body for a long time that had made him feel the need to throw up. He didn’t know exactly what had triggered it. All he’d been doing was staring at Shawn as he examined the body, the way his eyes gleamed bright when he was concentrating, the relaxed softness of his lips as he was making his observations. But he’d suddenly felt a tightness in his chest, a flutter in his stomach, and the two combined to result in detrimental consequences.
Gus spun on his heel and rushed back into the wings to find a paper bag, or bucket, or something, anything. He didn’t particularly want to see half-digested jerk chicken, but if he had to, he wanted to do it in a place where he wasn’t contaminating the crime scene.
“You do what you have to do, buddy,” Shawn called, but Gus ignored him.
It was all right for some. Shawn was able to tune out and hone his senses. Gus had no choice but to smell and almost taste the disparate sweetness. It hung thick at the back of his throat, metallic and saccharine, like he’d licked a chocolate-coated handrail, and there was no way in hell he would ever do anything that unhygienic.
She hadn’t been dead long. The forensics guys had told them that. The blood would be more congealed, the smell even less pleasant. The body rigid and cold as opposed to floppy and warm. Gus found this more disgusting than interesting, but he had a horrible feeling it was somehow meant to be fascinating.
After finding a toilet to lose his lunch to, Gus walked back to the stage, attempting a saunter but managing a stumble. He did not know why he kept letting Shawn drag him to crime scenes. Either he vomited, or he was glared at, or on those rare but memorable occasions, glared at while vomiting. He much preferred it when Chief Vick told them she had a crime she wanted them to investigate and Shawn was given photographs. At least that way he never ran the risk of bathing his shoes in a pattern of beige and orange that hadn’t been seen since 1977. But no. Shawn used his police scanner. And Shawn had to be at the crime scene early. And Shawn had a basic disregard for other people’s sensitivities.
“Dude, are you all right? You’re looking weird. Do you need a pepto-bismal? Some herbal tea? A hug?”
Gus narrowed his eyes. The hug sounded far too tempting. “I’ll be fine. Where are the real detectives?”
“Real detectives? Clearly you’re feeling like a grumpy-lump today. Are your underpants bunching up back there? Tickling you in places? Have they conquered the valley of Gus and are placing a flag? We’ve solved 48 cases, I think we’re real enough. Or at the very least, I am.”
Gus sighed. “You know who I mean.”
“Lassie just called to say he loves me. Also that he’d be late.”
“He called you?”
Shawn diverted his attention back to the dead body Gus was absolutely definitely not looking toward.
“Technically, he called Woody, but don’t confuse the issue with syntax.”
“You mean semantics. And you’re still wrong.”
“I’ve heard it both ways.” Shawn crouched down, pointing his index finger toward something, Gus wasn’t sure what. “Gus, take a look at this.”
“No, thank you.”
“No, really. Look at this.” A hand reached up and grabbed Gus’s wrist, pulling him down and almost over. “You see that ink-mark on her arm? Where’s that from? It’s familiar, but I’m drawing a blank.”
Gus reluctantly studied the mark. It was a shade of brown only slightly darker than the surrounding coffee-colored skin, he could barely make out a shape at all, but after a couple moments of study, he saw what Shawn must be seeing --- a little man with a cane and a hat. No, not a cane, a magic wand.
“Isn’t that the stamp you get from that club you dragged me to last summer? Free drinks for those with ink? There was a poster you wanted me to see. You said it looked like a poster of me as Magic Head, but it didn’t, not even a little.”
“It totally did. But you’re right about the other part. Hardeen’s, on State street, near the Granada. Good work, Gus. I’m proud of you. All this on an upset stomach.”
Gus stood back up and straightened his shoulders. He reflexively rubbed the part of his wrist Shawn has been holding. “So are you going to tip Lassie and Juliet off, or are we going to do some investigating first?”
Shawn raised an eyebrow. “You wouldn’t prefer a little mystery? A little je ne sais moi?”
“Just answer the question, Shawn.”
Shawn was about to do just that, his mouth open and already forming the words, when an unmistakeable howl rent the air in two.
“What do mean Shawn Spencer’s already here?”
Before he knew it, Gus was being shoved to the wings and down the stairs, Shawn’s hand warm and heavy against his back.
Gus hadn’t liked Hardeen’s much the first time they had gone there, and he liked it even less as they sat at a table and Shawn recounted what he had found out about the victim.
“Her name was Serafina Childs and she was a stage manager for Washington Smith Theater, not just there by coincidence or for fun. Apparently, she was a hard taskmaster; a veritable cross between Nigel St. Nigel and that scary ginger lady from that weird chain show.”
“You know, the one with the phrase. On NBC.”
“Firstly, we never got to actually see that, I couldn’t find a working torrent. We looked it up on google because you said I didn’t invent the game, and I’m man enough to admit that I didn’t, this time. And second of all, no matter how many times I tell you, you don’t remember that Jan Murray was a dude? Also, Chain Letter aired in the sixties, when we were not alive. This isn’t from that far back. You have to remember it, Gus. You were obsessed. You’d fire questions at me like a hundred miles per hour and then tell me I was... the silliest sausage, or the ugliest dachshund or... the wimpiest noodle.”
Gus wracked his brain. It was pinging his sensors. He’d gotten well-versed in deciphering Shawn’s many tangential references over the past forever, but there were days he couldn’t keep up. After some more thought, he clapped his hands together. He pointed for emphasis.
“The Weakest Link.”
“Yes! What was her name?”
“Her name was the Queen of Mean Anne Robinson, and I thought she was quite fetching.”
“Really, Lady Chatterly? Fetching?”
“Shawn, what was your point again?”
“No one liked Serafina Childs, and as a consequence, not many people knew much about her. Kind of like Lassie, before we softened him up.”
“Did you hear him yelling back there? I very much doubt Lassiter’s as soft as you like to claim he is.”
Shawn grinned. “He is. Like a marshmallow. Or better. A whole bag of marshmallows.”
“Maybe a freeze-dried bag made for Lucky Charms.”
“Well, he is magically delicious.”
Gus set his jaw. “Stop that.”
“Stop pretending you find Lassie attractive. It’s disturbing. I’m disturbed.”
Shawn’s eyebrows rose higher up his forehead and his voice got quiet. Eerily quiet. The kind of quiet he got when he was being sincere. “What if I’m not pretending? Is it so very wrong? I mean, hey, is your objection because he’s Lassiter, or because he’s a dude?”
Gus looked at Shawn, leaned back in his chair and gave a small smile of satisfaction. Shawn was good at the ruse, but Shawn liked women as much as he liked women, and if Shawn didn’t only like women, he’d hardly --- but no, that was too preposterous to even consider, Gus would know.
“You’re pretending.” Gus gazed at the waitress bringing them their drinks and turned his small smile into a full-fledged grin, nodding his thanks. “So, there are potentially a lot of suspects at her place of employment, which raises the question, why are we here?”
Shawn frowned, stopped the act and returned the query with his usual jovial boisterousness. “No one who was there today did it and we can always go back at a later date. However, I’m willing to bet that Miss Childs was here last night, and it’s best to follow that lead as soon as we get a whiff of it, don’t you agree?”
“You’re sure about this.”
“As sure as I am about most things. Which is pretty darn sure.”
“Why would she go to a place like this if she was so no-nonsense?”
“Why wouldn’t she?”
“It’s frivolous, for one. It has itchy seats, for another.”
“Maybe she was spying on the opposition. Hardeen’s has become way more popular than when we last came. It’s become the dopest place on the planet.”
Gus frowned. “Why?”
“You’ll see soon enough.”
Gus didn’t like the sound of that. He sipped his orange juice and glanced at Shawn’s june bug. “Should you really be drinking while we’re on a case?”
“I’m not a cop, I’m not ‘on duty’, I don’t see why there’s a problem,” Shawn said, taking a deliberately gigantic swig of his cocktail.
Gus glared. “Maybe it’s to do with the underlying reasons cops don’t drink on duty. Senses and reflexes get compromised.”
“My senses are like two hundred times better than anyone else’s, so I should be fine.”
Gus closed his mouth shut with a snap and refused to look at Shawn. He knew he should be used to Shawn’s willful ignorance against his wisdom, shouldn’t get too offended when he was ignored, but it was still frustrating. He purposefully concentrated on their surroundings instead of stewing on Shawn’s flagrant disregard for his advice.
The room was large, with a high domed ceiling. Round tables that could and did comfortably sit six people were interspersed with tables for two, candles adorning each one. A bar was on the right once you came through the front door and from there you could order food – in Gus’s previous experience, disgusting, ill-cooked food, but food nonetheless. Gus and Shawn were sitting five tables away from a makeshift stage with a star-spangled backdrop. Many of the people at the nearby tables had swiveled their chairs as if to look at the stage, and within a minute, Gus realized why. A show of some sort was about to take place.
“Not another magic show, Shawn. You know how I feel about magic shows.”
“You feel they’re awesome. But relax, it isn’t magic.”
“It’s not? Wait. You’re about to say it’s illusion, aren’t you?”
Shawn shook his head. “Not even that. Wait for it...”
Hardeen’s was a club designed for performances by people from around the world --- for everything from cabaret, burlesque, old-style vaudeville, to magic. Some of the entertainers were relatively famous, but as far as Gus was aware, the likes of Madonna or David Copperfield didn’t know it existed. Last time they had come, two Scottish magicians called Barry and Stuart had wowed the audience with Rubik’s cube tricks (Gus remembered they were Scottish because Shawn had spent the entire week afterwards doing his bad, bad Mrs Doubtfire impression.) Gus hadn’t liked them much, especially when it came to ‘Suicide in C Sharp’ a piece involving knives, arms, and what he hoped was a whole lot of red corn syrup. But, naturally, Shawn had been enraptured.
Gus waited. A young man came onto the stage. He was dressed casually, no stupid hat or cloak. He did have a goatee, though, and that was usually a bad sign.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen,” the man began in an English accent, sounding very similar to Maxwell Sheffield. Gus knew he should be ashamed that he could make that link, and he internally blamed Shawn. “If you don’t know me, my name is Lucky-lips Luciano the Linguist. It’s not my real name, of course, it’s my showbiz name, but I hardly think anyone would come to witness an act performed by Fred Nightingale. I am a master orator. I’m here on this Saturday night, or should I say Saturday afternoon, to unlock the secrets lurking amongst us. Desires, hatreds, mysteries, hunger. And all in the guise of a short, rhythmic parlor trick. Can I have a volunteer from the audience, please?”
A woman raised her hand and Luciano, or Fred, or whoever he was, waved her up onto the stage.
“Hello my dear, what’s your name?”
“Kelly, great to meet you.” Luciano made as if to shake Kelly’s hand, but as she returned the gesture he grasped hold of her wrist and brought it down to her side. “Now, call me crazy, but I’m going to cut through the danger zone here like a knife. I’m not going to use a pocket-watch or spinning wheel, but it’s possible you’re going to go into a trance, and I’ll steal a moment of your time, are you okay with that?”
Kelly nodded. Gus gave Shawn a dead-eyed stare.
“Hypnosis? You’ve brought me here to see a hypnotist act in the middle of an investigation?”
“It’s not the middle, it’s just the beginning. Also, yes.”
“You didn’t need me to tell you that stamp was from Hardeen’s, did you?”
“Of course not. But I like to make you feel like you’re involved.”
Gus turned his attention back to the stage, where the hypnotist was still talking.
“... hold your hands up near your face, with the palms facing each other? That's right, about five inches apart. Excellent. Now, focus your eyes on a point right in the middle of the space between your hands. Notice that you can see both your hands and you can see that imaginary spot. You can see me. You can see the walls. You can really see the whole empty room with your peripheral vision. You’re concentrated so much on this, perhaps you can only hear my voice. Warm and welcoming, not in the slightest judgmental. You no longer need to hold your hands up and can rest them comfortably at your sides. I wonder, while you’re feeling nice and relaxed, do you have a favorite song?”
“She’s a Maniac,” Kelly answered. She sounded sleepy.
“I’m not sure I know how that goes, but you probably have a very good idea stretching through your mind, with the beat of your heart. Would you be able to imagine the beginning, perhaps the chorus?”
Kelly spoke again, sounding like she was on another planet. “I can hear it, but it’s not very clear.”
“Maybe it’s not loud enough, you want to hear more. You can feel the beat, sense the chords, but the words are jumbled. You’ve thought of a way that you can hear it better. You start to sway to the music in your mind, but it’s still not enough, so perhaps you begin to hum.”
Kelly began to hum, very softly at first. She swayed from left to right and then began to run on the spot, face turning red with exertion. She got louder, until the lyrics were clear.
“She’s a maniac, maniac on the floor, and she’s dancing like she’s never danced before.”
She couldn’t sing. Not even a little. She was out of time, out of tune. Her dancing was similarly awful; large sweeping movements that made her jiggle from side to side like a hippopotamus, and considering she was slim, this was extra worrying. She was the Sanjaya of Hardeen’s, with people clapping along because of their own latent need for schadenfreude. As a fan of reality television, Gus was used to seeing stupid people doing inadvisable things, but up-close was different from the comfort of his armchair. Watching was different from doing. There was no objectivity, only empathy. It made Gus uncomfortable and he glared again at Shawn.
“She’s probably a ring-in, but this is embarrassing. I hate this kind of thing and you know it.”
“I don’t think she’s a ring-in,” Shawn returned, head tilted to the side.
Kelly continued to squeal and dance, looking everything like a fool and nothing like Jennifer Beals or Hall and Oates. She sailed across the stage, did a mock pirouette that almost had her crashing to the floor, stretched her arms up tall, all the while singing like a banshee, or a dolphin, or a banshee dolphin. Gus lamented his lack of earplugs.
Luciano was talking again. “I am thinking now that the music is getting quieter and quieter, fading to nothing. This has been a very positive experience for me and for you.” He took her wrist and shook her hand. “Thank you for coming up on stage like this, I know how daunting it can be. Go back to your friends, and don’t forget, free drinks for those with ink.”
Kelly looked blankly at the audience and then beamed at her friends, clambering down the steps off stage and to her table.
There were four more victims before Luciano finished his set. Each more embarrassing than the last. Every time, Luciano started with a long spiel about his life, but Gus sensed there was something more going on with the speeches --- he just couldn’t decipher what that might be. Finally, the crowd stopped clapping and Luciano exited the room.
“We need to talk to Luciano backstage,” Shawn said simply, standing up so quickly he pushed the table forward.
Gus followed him because there was little else he could do.
There was no backstage. There was, however, another room leading off behind the bar that was guarded by a very tall and muscular man by the name of Bill.
“Hi, we’re from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department. My name is Shawn Spencer and this is my associate Pointdingle D’Angelo. We’re checking that local businesses show no signs of having a certain batch of pistachio products on premises. There’s been a recent salmonella outbreak and I imagine the last thing Hardeen’s wants is a re-enactment from The Exorcist, unless it’s part of Kevin McDonald’s upcoming show.”
“If you do find these kinds of pistachios what’ll happen?”
“We’ll call in some guys in suits, do a sweep of the area, try to extract the offending article from already laid dishes. It’ll be messy, some might even say sickening, but it could prevent a lawsuit.”
Shawn offered his hand for a fistbump as soon as they entered and Gus had no choice but to match it.
“That was an impressive excuse you gave,” he said with a raised eyebrow.
“I read about the 2010 pistachio recall at Starbucks the other day. The best lies are couched in reality,” Shawn returned.
That sounded about right, Gus reflected. Like Shawn being a psychic detective. It was half true, because he was a detective --- the fact that his psychic powers were completely imaginary was inconsequential. Or Gus himself being sick earlier because of the dead body --- there had been a dead body --- the fact he hadn’t vomited at a crime scene for months was irrelevant, since he couldn’t think what else may have made him react so violently.
They were in a kitchen, a hustle of movement all around them. Shawn began lifting dishes up and sniffing them, carefully working his way through the room to a door on the side that had the words ‘green room’ scribbled on, seemingly with a sharpie. No one stopped him, or even asked what he was doing there, and Gus had more insight into why the tortellini he had eaten at Hardeen’s had been inedible.
In the green room --- which was not green, but instead cream-colored with accents of light blue --- several people were lounging on couches and chatting. There were weird looking people and ordinary looking people, and finally, in the corner, there was Luciano the Linguist, whom Gus had decided was a combination of the two. Luciano was sitting with a blond man who had a terrible hairstyle; long and yet somehow bouffant. They were sitting very close together, almost like they were conspiring. Or canoodling.
Shawn stepped toward them and Gus wondered what disguise he was going to use this time.
“Luciano! Luciano! I was so impressed with you today, man. My name’s Shawn Spencer, I’m the Head Psychic with the Santa Barbara Police Department. This is my colleague Burton Guster, he’s not. It’s great to finally meet you.”
Luciano looked up at Shawn with a wariness that was immediately suspicious. But he quickly cleared any hint of the initial emerging frown and smiled. “Good to meet you too.”
“You’re English, right?”
“But are you really? Or is it just part of the act?”
“No, I’m really English. Born in Greenwich.”
“Huh. That’s so cool. I’ve always wanted to see the place where time is so contrary it’s called mean.”
“That’s the wrong kind of mean, I think.”
The blond spoke up. He had the same clipped accent as Luciano, but none of the velvet in his voice. “Sorry, are you here on a personal or professional endeavor?”
“Neither? Both? I don’t know. I’m here because the spirits told me to be here and I learned early on that defying the spirits leads to some bad juju magumbo.”
Luciano gave the kind of exasperated and skeptical expression Gus figured Shawn was more than used to by now, because he sure as damn was. “The spirits?”
“I did tell you about the psychic part, yes?”
“He communicates with the dead,” Gus added, partly because Shawn had started pinching his thigh. “They tell him things, things he doesn’t always understand.”
“They told me I should come here and see you,” Shawn added. “That it was likely you knew Serafina Childs.”
“Serafina Childs? Yes, I met her last night, she volunteered for my act.”
“Oh really now?”
Gus stepped back to avoid Shawn’s flailing hand. He could already feel a bruise blooming from the first pinch and Shawn’s fingers were perilously close to his groin, which caused unwelcome sensations he did not want to think about.
“Had you met her before then?” he asked, ignoring Shawn’s crab-like opening and closing of his fingers.
“No. Never seen her before in my life.” Luciano turned to the man alongside him. “Derek?”
Derek shook his head. “I only saw her from a distance last night. I’m always behind stage. I work as Luciano’s props master.”
“And what was your impression of her?”
“I didn’t get to discover much of her personality before I put her under. She was good looking, seemed a little tightly wound...”
Shawn interrupted. “Did she come alone or with someone?”
Luciano shrugged and started to look bored. He glanced at Derek. “There was someone else sitting at her table, but whether or not they were together is anyone’s guess. We tend to get rather crowded whenever I’m performing. Many people share tables just so that they have a seat.”
Derek nodded in agreement. “Luciano is very popular. And because of that, I have to go prep for this evening’s festivities. Sorry, gentlemen.”
Shawn didn’t let the disruption stem his flow of questions. “What did you hypnotize Miss Childs to do?”
“I got her to pretend she was a witch. It’s one of my set pieces. A broom’s involved.”
“Would there be any footage available?”
“I think before I answer any more of your questions I’ll ask one of my own. What’s this about?”
Gus was about to answer when Shawn’s phone rang.
“Hey Lass, what do you mean where am I? Right away? We were planning on grabbing some curly fries, you want some? How about a taco? A coffee? Okay then, no need to sound snippety. We’ll see you in a few.” Shawn tucked his phone into his pocket. “Gus, that was Lassie. We need to go.”
Gus resisted as Shawn dragged him out of the building, but not to the full extent of his strength. He knew there was a reason Shawn was acting so strangely, a tense pulse of fear and distinct lack of humor in his movements.
“Shawn, we know she was here, why aren’t we pursuing it?”
“Gus, while you were gone puking up the rainbow connection, Woody the coroner told me that the knife wounds looked like they were self-inflicted.”
“She committed suicide.”
“But that doesn’t fit with what everyone was saying about her. She was always in control, always confident.”
“You spoke to her co-workers for what, two minutes?”
Shawn was agitated now, walking faster toward the Echo, a stutter in his stride. “She was particularly anal about recording the blocking and calling the show. She wouldn’t entrust these jobs to anyone else, even one time when she was bed-ridden with a ghastly contagion; she used Twitter to cue lighting and whatnot.”
“People kill themselves all the time, especially in stressful situations. Just because we’ve had a couple of suicide cases turn out to be murder, that doesn’t mean every case will be --- Shawn, why are you looking at me like that?”
“Because it was suicide. You’re right there. I just don’t think it was her idea. If Serafina Childs wanted to kill herself, she wouldn’t do it somewhere she could get caught and stopped, she sure as hell wouldn’t do it in such a messy and unordered manner. If it was something she had planned, it would be planned meticulously.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that the power of suggestion can be very strong. I’m saying that I think we just spoke to a murderer.”
“You knew,” Gus said, leaning against the station wall and crossing his arms.
“You lured me into a small, dark room with a potential killer. You told him our real names!”
Shawn feigned humility. “Don’t get too worked up. I could be wrong.”
“How many times have you been wrong, Shawn?”
“I was wrong about Wally and the Chop Shop, wasn’t I?”
“That one time. And then you figured it all out anyway.”
Gus didn’t dare look into Shawn’s eyes, or Shawn might see how completely and totally enraged he was. He wasn’t trying to get him killed, he knew that. He was just trying to solve the case, for the glory, or the satisfaction, or the points he’d score off Lassiter. But warning would have been nice. It would have been great. Not that he’d do anything about it, past experiences dictated that he would still follow Shawn like a kite on a string, but at least it would be a gesture.
Juliet walked by at that moment and then doubled back on herself. “Shawn? Gus? Why are you both lurking about in the shadows?”
Shawn’s eyes had glazed over, his body had gone stiff. Gus thought about leaving him like that for a half hour, because he knew he’d keep it up. He played along instead.
“I believe he’s in a trance. Can you hear me, Shawn? What is it that you need to say?”
Shawn didn’t move for a while but then he spoke, softly, monotonously. “I leeke-a to cuuk cheeckee, cuuk it in ell veys, cheeckee tosts better thun bouf, bork, bork, bork.”
“You see someone Swedish? A chef?” Gus hadn’t met the chef of Hardeen’s, so it was possible this was who Shawn was talking about. He might have seen a tattoo, or certain way of garnishing a plate, or something that no normal person would ever take note of.
Shawn seemed irritated, even through the trance. “No, not a chef. Merely a name.”
Gus knew Luciano wasn’t a Swedish name, but Shawn might not. “Uh?”
“Alvar? No. Benedikt? No. Rasmus? No. Sven? Nnnn... yes! Sven. Sven is what I need to say. Sven, Sven, seven and ten, Singaraja Bali. No, not Bali. Gali. Svengali.” Shawn jumped up and out of his trance, dancing on the spot. “Svengali.”
Gus looked from Shawn to Jules. “Does this mean anything to you?”
“Hypnotism,” Juliet said promptly.
Shawn nodded his head swiftly. “Nailed it!”
She gave a wide-eyed stare. “You need to tell Detective Lassiter. He wants to see you.”
If Lassiter had mellowed toward them at any time in the past couple of years, it wasn’t showing now. His eyes were burning pinwheels and he looked like he’d just swallowed a lemon, sans peel, whole. It was intimidating.
“I want to know everything you discovered when you gatecrashed my crime scene.”
“One, Woody’s favorite film is *batteries not included. Personally if I were going to go for schmaltzy Jessica Tandy films I’d go Cocoon for added Guttenberg, but who am I to judge? Two, you have powerful and commendable lungs, Lassie, do you yodel as a vocal exercise?”
“And three, Serafina Childs went out last night, possibly to a club.”
“Yeah, we already know that. The assistant told us as much. How about giving us something useful for a change? Any idea where?”
“I’m seeing a beautiful, if not aggressively made-up woman in sparkly clothes. Nope, she’s gone. Oh, there she is again, only wearing something different. No, invisible once more. Now only half of her can be seen. And there are chains. And swords. And whips? I’m seeing a BDSM club. No. Not that. More family-friendly.”
Gus couldn’t take it anymore. He had to stop this before an hour went by with no results. “That sounds like an illusionist’s act.”
“Yes,” Juliet said with enthusiasm and a smile. “And that fits in with your earlier vision, Shawn.”
Lassiter scowled. “What earlier vision?”
“Oh, didn’t I tell you? I sensed hypnotism.”
Juliet was looking up at the light fitting with a far-away gleam in her eye. “Do you know of anywhere there might be magic, Carlton?”
Lassiter appeared to scowl deeper, if such a thing were possible. “Why would I know a place like that? We’ll get McNab onto it.”
Gus immediately felt sorry for McNab, especially since it was obvious Shawn wasn’t going to divulge his secret. And why, exactly, wasn’t Shawn going to divulge his secret?
“Spencer, is that everything?”
“For now, Lassie, for you? Yes.”
“Good. Now scram.”
Gus had already started walking before Lassiter’s mouth closed. He couldn’t wait to get to the Psych office to interrogate Shawn within an inch of his life. Shawn was holding back important information when usually he was only too happy to let Lassiter know he was a step ahead of him. Gus wanted to know why.
The office was warm and sticky, sunlight streaming in through the venetian blinds. Gus turned on a fan, grabbed a water, and stood close to Shawn’s desk, doing his best not to glare and failing. Shawn reclined back in his chair, sneakers on the table and eyes closed. They hadn’t spoken during the drive back to the office, Gus because he was concentrating on the road and pacing himself so as not to explode, and Shawn for reasons that Gus hoped would soon become clear.
“Shawn, do you know what the term partner means?”
“Yeah, Henry told me way back when. It’s the wooden part of a ship used to strengthen the deck near the mast.”
Gus took a long, shuddering breath. “Not that kind. The other kind. The kind we’re meant to be to each other.”
Shawn’s mock-innocence was grating. “Oh, that sort of partner? The one all about trust and forgiveness and patience?”
“The one all about you telling me what you’re up to so I don’t punch you in the neck, Shawn. Why didn’t you tell Lassiter and Jules everything you know?”
“This whole thing is gonna be... delicate. Solving a crime and proving a crime are two entirely different aquariums of fish. And Luciano is smart.” Shawn frowned, lips pouting. “Perhaps the smartest nemesis I’ve gone up against yet.”
Gus refrained from pointing out that they’d hardly ‘gone up against’ anyone, keeping his cross-examination short and sweet. “So?”
“So Lassiter and Jules aren’t allowed to entrap criminals, no-way, no-how. But we can.”
“You terrify me.”
“With my awesomeness, right?”
Gus turned resolutely away from Shawn’s toothpaste-commercial worthy grin. “I’m still confused about what you’re planning.”
“That might be best that way.”
Gus was about to protest, but Shawn was standing up. “Where are you going?”
“I have things to do in places. Don’t worry, I’ll check in later. You’ll be super impressed to know I took down the names of the people I interviewed earlier, so in the meantime, could you find out more about Serafina? Maybe start with a search first and then move onto some calls? Perhaps finish with a smoothie or iced tea?”
Shawn was out the door before Gus could retort. He smoothed his outraged expression into a mask of calm, willing the knot underneath his shoulder blade to shrink.
“Here I am, doing all of Shawn’s grunt-work, as usual, while he’s out, gallivanting around.”
Gus turned on his laptop.
“Shawn would mock me for using that word.”
He took a sip of water and waited for his operating system to load.
“But that’s because his vocabulary is stilted – one might say commensurate with that of a twelve year old boy. Things in places.”
He typed in his username and password, eyes narrowing as he saw his Halle Berry desktop picture had been replaced with one of Shawn in the exact same pose and costume. Which, considering it was a beach shot, was just unnerving.
“I hate you, Shawn,” he muttered, knowing it wasn’t true. His eyes lingered on the picture for a while, from the comically exaggerated pout, to Shawn’s hands on his hips. He had to give him points for costume accuracy, even if it did leave little to the imagination. His hand hovered over his mouse as he analyzed the amused twinkle in his friend’s eyes. “Why do you do this to me? Why do I let you?”
After three hours and six interviews, Gus reflected that he hadn’t exactly found new information. He’d had a lot of confirmation of what Shawn had already gleaned, from multiple perspectives, in more than one language. But nothing new. He hoped interview number seven was going to be more enlightening.
He smoothed down his shirt and practiced his soft and sweet smile. He wanted to appear consoling and understanding before his intense interrogation kicked in, and after hours of relentless bitterness, his ability to fake empathy was beginning to wear thin.
“It’s very kind of you to speak to me in your time of grief,” he said, sitting tentatively where Dougal McAdams had gestured, on a moldy-green couch that was covered in dog hair. He tried very hard not to look as uncomfortable as he felt, but he was not keen on the idea of coming away from this interview with little more than a hairy butt.
He looked around the apartment. A hairy butt looked the least of his troubles. He could catch any manner of diseases from this place. Did the man not know the meaning of the word ‘house-proud’?
“Grief? Oh, right, yeah, grief. Well, anything to help inquiries. You said you’re a psychic investigator?”
“No, my partner’s psychic. I’m just...” there for administration purposes, the voice of reason, his sidekick, “an investigator. Can you describe to me your relationship with the deceased?”
“There was no relationship. Serafina was very clear about that. If I so much as looked at her funny, she’d start screaming sexual harassment. And it sucked because she was so, so hot. All the guys wanted to do her. No one even came close.”
Gus stopped himself from rolling his eyes just in time. “I meant more along the lines of working relationship.”
“I’m the lighting technician for Washington Smith Theater.”
“So you’d work with the stage manager often, right?”
“All the time. Which is why it was so hard she was such a heinous bitch.”
Gus flinched and Dougal extended his hands out in a placating gesture that was not at all effective. “I’m sorry. I know I’m not being very respectful of the dead, but Serafina, well, she was never respectful of the living. I think she hated everyone who was not her. No one could live up to her exacting standards. On the very first day she was hired, she fired three people over the tiniest mistakes. Didn’t even give them a chance to prove themselves to her. She’d come straight from England, she’d said, where no one stood for parochial laziness, and just because she was back home, she wasn’t going to stand for it here.”
“You wouldn’t happen to have names and details, would you?”
“Names, yes. Details, not so much.” Dougal shrugged, but mid-shrug seemed to have a realization, head tilting slightly to the left. “Except for Dudley Woodford. Dudley managed to land the booking gig at Hardeen’s. You know the place?”
Gus did not grin manically or jump up and down, and Shawn was nowhere to be seen to fistbump, but his glee was palpable. “Yes I do. I know Hardeen’s.”
“Yeah. He lives in an apartment about a block from here. I’ll write down the address, along with what I know about Steve and Julie, the other two who lost their jobs.”
Gus handed over his notebook and watched attentively as Dougal wrote the address down. “Thank you. One more question. This might be a bit... sensitive.”
Dougal shrugged. “Fire away.”
“What would you say about Serafina’s mental state? Did she seem depressed in any way?”
“Depressed? No. Tightly wound --- always. We actually had a theory that she fed off stress, like some kind of anxiety-hungry vampire.”
Gus raised his eyebrows, trying not to conjure the mental imagery. “She couldn’t have been overcompensating? She felt so dark on a personal level she had to control every other aspect of her life?”
“I guess so. It doesn’t sound like her, but I didn’t really know her for her, if you know what I mean?”
Gus nodded. He didn’t truly know his co-workers either. He’d tried to get beyond a shallow ‘hello’, but between Shawn, and, well, Shawn, he hadn’t gotten very far. He had never known whether to be more disturbed that this was the case, or by the fact he usually didn’t exactly care --- Shawn had always been all he ever needed and wanted where friendship was concerned. He’d had Joon, Drake, Diddle, and Tony in college, other people that he grew attached to, but when Shawn came back ---
“Is that all?” Dougal asked, “I have a job interview in a couple of hours and I don’t want to be late.”
“You’re already leaving the theater?”
“This was planned last week. I’ve been interviewing for other jobs over a month now.”
“Because of Serafina?”
Dougal made a sound of assent.
“So you don’t need to find a new job any more, do you?” Gus asked, because it seemed illogical to thrust yourself into the ranks of the potentially unemployed in the current economic climate.
There was a slight, dry smile, and then, “I think at this stage the best thing for me would be a clean break. Start from scratch.”
“Good luck, I guess.”
“Thanks. I’ve got a good feeling about this one. I hope you find the information you’re after. I’m sorry I couldn’t be more help.”
Gus stared at his hands on the wheel. He did not relish the idea of another interview before eating something. He did not know what he wanted to eat. There were so many choices, and, if he were truthful to his own private musings, he didn’t like eating by himself anyway. He was so deep in concentration, Gus didn’t notice his phone was ringing until it started to vibrate insistently against his leg.
“Hey Shawn. I interviewed everyone on the list just like you asked.”
“Did it help?”
“A little bit? I can’t say for sure until we methodically cross-reference my notes.”
Shawn’s voice was rich and warm. “I don’t do anything methodically, you know this by now. Can you make it back to the office?”
“Yeah, okay. See you in about twenty minutes.”
Gus put away his phone, then tapped against the center of the steering wheel with his thumbs. He should have told Shawn about Dudley straight away. It had been deliberate that he hadn’t. He didn’t want to do another interview by himself and he hoped Shawn had finished whatever grave task he’d set himself so that they could continue together. But first they’d have to get some food.
He started the car, concentrated mostly on driving, and didn’t ask himself why he was so reluctant to go it alone.
There was the distinct aroma of Chengdu chicken wafting out the door to the Psych office. Gus found himself tilting forward and following his nose, walking quicker than he had initially intended. His stomach was performing an impressive impersonation of a mountain lion, ominous growls emanating loud enough that Gus wouldn’t be surprised if Shawn could hear. Inside the office Shawn’s desk was cleared of the piles of paper that had been stacked tall either side of his computer earlier that day. Two plates were set opposite each other at the edge of the desk, cutlery and napkins at the ready. Shawn came out of the back room brandishing an electric fry pan from which heavenly-scented steam billowed. As pleased as most of his other senses were, Gus’s common sense was on red alert.
“What have I told you about cooking in the office?”
Shawn concentrated on ladling the chicken onto the plates. “It’s a fire hazard and one of these days I’ll give myself a boo-boo. I know.”
Somewhat appeased, Gus sat down, eying the small rings of green onion garnishing the chicken. “This looks and smells amazing.”
“Thank you. I try,” Shawn called from the other room. He came back and sat down, immediately loading up his fork and taking a gigantic mouthful. It was almost sinful, how much Shawn could fit in his mouth in one go.
Gus cut a slice of chicken in half with the edge of his fork. “While you’ve been having fun in the kitchen, I’ve been doing actual work on the case.”
Shawn spoke with his mouth full. “This took, like, twenty minutes, forty minutes tops. The rest of the time I was working on the case also.”
“Yes indeed. Now, what was it you found out?”
Gus didn’t want to stop chewing to answer a question that involved more than two syllables. This Chengdu chicken was good. Spicy but not too hot, a revelation of flavor. He figured he could get away with not having to swallow straight away. He managed to mumble, “She was a hard-ass,” mid-chew.
“Is this literal or figurative?”
“Both, possibly. But she was untouchable. She didn’t want to know anyone else, or for anyone else to know her.”
“So, she was shy?”
“Not so much shy as a misanthropist.”
Shawn’s brow crinkled in confusion. “Isn’t that a type of flower?”
“No. Think of Henry.”
“Do I have to?”
Gus nodded. “What would you say is his defining feature?”
“He’s a hard-ass.”
“He doesn’t trust anyone, believe in anyone, or even remotely like anyone, except for some of his old cop buddies.”
Shawn played with a piece of chicken, swirling it about in the sauce on his plate. “But Serafina Childs was young and beautiful.”
“So was Henry, once. Well, young. And he must have been moderately attractive to have had you.”
Gus regretted saying it as soon as the words were out of his mouth, but his mortification came tenfold with Shawn’s gaze and automatic Zoolander-inspired pout.
“Are you saying I’m beautiful?”
Gus put as much conviction into the single syllable as he could. “No.”
Shawn got the hint. “Did you find anything else out?”
Gus maintained a look of innocence that he was sure was convincing, and if it wasn’t, Shawn was ignoring it anyway. “I may have a lead.”
“Dude. You start with the lead, not finish. What kind of lead?”
“One of the people who used to work at Washington Smith now works at Hardeen’s.”
“Awesome to the max. And you have their details?”
“I’m not a complete rookie.”
“You’re not a rookie at all. Oh, I almost forgot. I got you a smoothie too,” Shawn said. He reached under his desk before rearing back up, shaking a jumbo-sized plastic cup and giving the little half-smile he usually used when he was buttering someone up for nefarious reasons. It was cute, he knew it was cute, and even Gus had trouble being immune to its charms.
“I was getting one for myself and thought you might like one.”
“You made dinner and you got me a smoothie. Who are you and what did you do with the real Shawn Spencer?”
Gus peered at the smoothie intently. There didn’t appear to be any flakes of inedible substances. It was a fairly uniform color. No strange smells accosted him. He was only half-listening as Shawn spoke.
“You know, Gus, sometimes your suspicious nature wounds me to the core. Other times it merely makes me laugh. Ha, ha, ha!”
“Forgive me for a lifetime’s experience getting in the way of trusting in your benevolent behavior.” Gus glanced at his now-empty plate. If it weren’t such an unsanitary and uncouth act, he’d be licking it round about now. He could feel his outer shell soften. “Thank you for dinner, it was delicious.”
“I’m glad you enjoyed it,” Shawn said, his voice low and more muted than usual. His eyes crinkled at the corners and Gus could see in the twist of his bottom lip that he was proud of himself.
Gus sipped his smoothie and did not offer to assist Shawn as he moved to collect the plates, instead watching him with relaxed interest. Once again he wondered what exactly Shawn had been doing since they’d parted ways hours before.
“We’ll go talk to your lead tomorrow?” Shawn asked. He looked up with his head tilted to the side, green eyes curious as they settled on Gus.
“It’s too late now, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, yeah, I think so.”
“I’ll type up my notes. You might notice something I missed during the interviews when you read through them.”
“That could wait until the morning, couldn’t it? A new envelope came from Netflix today.”
Gus looked down at the small notepad in his top pocket and then at Shawn’s face. The puppy-dog eyes and pout won.
Gus changed chairs, idly watching the set of Shawn’s shoulders as he organized the DVD. He’d been getting steadily more muscular over the past few months. This was even more evident as his shirt stretched across his shoulder blades and triceps. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed that before. Shawn looked --- good. Healthy. Like he’d finally started listening to Gus’s advice. Gus felt something warm and tingling settle in his stomach.
Gus had been annoyed when he’d first arrived at the office, all set to stand his ground and argue until the end of time, and all it had taken was one good meal and a kind act to tamp down the fire of his rage. He supposed he should feel embarrassed that he could be so easily bought, but mostly he felt pleasantly full. This was one of those rare moments when Shawn revealed he appreciated him more than he sometimes let on. When Shawn turned back around and smiled, Gus felt something within him twist. He put it down to having eaten too quickly.
Gus was once again on note-taking duty, which was good, because it was all-consuming and meant his mind didn’t have any time to wander. He’d had some really weird dreams about magic wands and Shawn, with Chief Vick as a ballerina, and he did not want to analyze them, because he was fairly sure he wouldn’t like the results.
Dudley Woodford received them with a calm, friendly countenance. He smiled generously and spoke with slow, deep tones, and Gus had the impression of a charming man, which made him automatically suspicious.
“Yes, I knew Serafina Childs. Her death is a tragedy. I actually owe her a great debt --- opening up the opportunity for me to take my current position at Hardeen’s, which I’m guessing you know about, if you knew to come to me?”
“You’re saying you’re glad she fired you?”
Dudley laughed. “I wasn’t at the time. I was furious. White-hot anger and vows of revenge. But as the booking agent for Hardeen’s I make almost three times as much a month than I ever did at the Smithy and I get to meet some of the world’s most interesting people. I’ve gone from being no more than a glorified ticket clerk, to having some actual influence in the Santa Barbara entertainment world.”
“So you bore Miss Childs no ill will?” Gus asked, because he wanted to make doubly positive, and sometimes, in detective stories, all it took was persistence to get criminals to confess everything.
“I wouldn’t put it like that. I thought she was a spiteful Ice Dragon. I certainly didn’t like her. But I didn’t kill her, if that’s what you’re inferring.”
“We’re not inferring anything. We’re implying,” Shawn said, mock-dramatically.
“Actually, I think we might be doing both?” Gus added a couple of notes to his book. “So, uh, did you happen to see Miss Childs at Hardeen’s, the night before her death?”
“I did. It probably makes me sound callous to say this, but she was hilarious. Pretending to fly around the stage, getting excited when her broom started to vibrate. It was a just comeuppance, far more the kind of thing she deserved than murder.”
“Do you think it was humiliating enough that she’d kill herself over it?”
“No. She would sue. She’d tear the club apart brick by brick. And that’s if she’d felt humiliated, which she wouldn’t, because Luciano always hypnotizes his victims to feel positively about the act. The whole point is to get them to come away from the experience happy they’ve made fools of themselves.”
“That’s a neat trick, I’ll have to learn it.”
“No, Shawn. That is a definite no.”
Dudley interrupted the swift flick-attack they conducted. “You know that Serafina suggested I work at Hardeen’s, don’t you? It just came back to me, but that’s why I went for the job, even though it wasn’t advertised. She’d used it as a snide cut-down.” He put on a falsetto. “‘If you still want to work in the industry, you could always go to that joke of a theater down the street. I’m sure they don’t care about the quality of their employees.’”
Gus noted that down, pursing his lips as he thought about it. That was interesting, it definitely suggested something, but what, he couldn’t quite articulate, other than ‘it always came back to Hardeen’s.’
Shawn’s phone rang and he held up his hand in apology. Gus could tell they didn’t have anything else to ask and he said goodbye and thank you to Dudley, following Shawn outside the café.
The shouting on the other end of the line was so loud, Gus could hear every word Lassiter said.
“Why didn’t you tell me it was suicide?”
“That’s not in my job specifications, Lassie, you know this, you co-wrote them. The criterion for my position is to solve crime and look sexy while doing so, but not to be the communications bridge between you and the forensics department. What makes you so sure I knew?”
“You knew. Your friend Woody told me he’d told you to tell me. You didn’t. Why?”
“Never, ever waste my time again, Spencer.”
Shawn slid his phone away with a look that was almost a smile. “Our plan is now afoot.”
“Our plan?” Gus asked, finding himself falling into step beside Shawn as he walked down the road.
“My plan. With special Gus dispensation.”
“You’re not usually this secretive. About anything.”
“How can you say that for sure?”
Gus huffed out a sigh. “What’s going on?”
“I’ll tell you tonight. Tomorrow at the latest. For now, you have a round, and I have research. So, uh, good luck with work and I’ll see you at the office at six?”
Shawn wandered off and Gus scowled. Usually, he had to remind Shawn he had a real job, not the other way around. Usually, Shawn protested vociferously at any mention that Gus should be away from him, and certainly never encouraged it. Usually, Shawn told him everything --- too much --- even when Gus begged him not to.
These were not usual times.
By the time six o’clock rolled around, Gus had been concentrating so hard on being a perfect sales rep, he’d all but forgotten how annoyed and perplexed he was regarding Shawn. He therefore didn’t complain when Shawn said they were going out, and even let him drive the Echo. When they arrived at their destination, though, Gus complained.
“You have got to be joking.”
“Nuh-uh. Nope. This is my serious face. See?” Shawn managed to get his mouth in a perfectly straight line and his eyebrows flat, so he looked like Sam the Eagle more than anything else, and that would ordinarily make Gus want to laugh. But then he looked at Hardeen’s again and he whined.
“Wow. I would be totally offended if I didn’t know you don’t mean that.”
Gus climbed out and slammed the car door. “I do mean that.”
Shawn did the same. “But, Gus, our death plan is to get crushed together in the great molten gummi bear incident of 2055, so if I’m damned, so are you, buddy.”
Gus refused to speak to Shawn for the next thirteen minutes. They were a long, tense, uncomfortable thirteen minutes that felt more like thirteen years. He was incensed. He was furious! He was wondering why he was letting this bother him as much as it was, since Shawn had done much worse than this to him over the years, but part of it was that he’d thought this would be a recreation of the dinner they’d had together last night, and he was disappointed. Because last night should have been about work and wasn’t, and tonight shouldn’t have been and was.
When their drinks arrived, Gus was further annoyed to see that Shawn was going for maximum alcohol consumption yet again and that prompted him to say his first words in thirteen minutes and twelve seconds.
“You’re going to make yourself sick.”
“I know what I’m doing, Fussy Gussy.”
Within another ten minutes, the lighting in the theater changed, and Gus listened to a hundred chairs shifting to face the stage. He wriggled his own chair around. The stage lit up with a spotlight and Luciano slid into view, his hands artistically melodramatic and regal.
“Good evening ladies and gentlemen. If you don’t know me, my name is Lucky-lips Luciano the Linguist. It’s not my real name, of course, it’s my showbiz name, but I hardly think anyone would come to witness an act performed by Christopher Mackintosh.
“I am a master orator. I’m here today to unlock the secrets lurking amongst us. Desires, hatreds, needs. And all in the guise of a short, sweet parlor trick. It’s actually kismet that I’m here at this very moment. I had a crash earlier on, a nasty run-in with a Plymouth Barracuda. I was particularly saddened because I almost managed it so that I was barely a lick away, but then we mashed bumpers and that was that. We exchanged numbers like the best of friends, but now his insurance is going to make me pay with all of the royalties from my kiss-and-tell exposé on Tim Burton. And I have to tell you that fills me with disgust, because I’ve been saving those smackeroonies to use on some new lipstick for my partner. But enough of my life story, can I have a volunteer from the audience to give you a demonstration of the kinds of things I do?”
Gus looked around the theater, wondering who the poor target would be, and was disconcerted when the spotlight flashed in his direction. He was even more disconcerted when he realized this had happened because Shawn was waving his hand up in the air enthusiastically.
“Excellent, we have a willing victim, oh wait, did I say that? I mean perfectly safe participant, of course I do,” Luciano said as Shawn made his way onto the stage.
Gus blinked a few times in shock and wanted, quite desperately, to tell Shawn he was a crazy fool for constantly putting his life in danger. He watched as Luciano put Shawn into a trance, the way Shawn swayed slightly, just as Kelly and the others had during the matinee. He tried very hard to bury his overarching sense of apprehension as Luciano spoke soothingly.
“You no longer need to hold your hands up and can rest them comfortably at your sides. I wonder, while you’re feeling nice and relaxed, is there something you’ve been wanting to do for a while?”
“Yes,” Shawn said, sounding weirdly distant.
He began to walk off the make-shift stage, and for a moment, Gus was worried he wouldn’t go via the steps and he’d literally break an arm or a leg, or worse, his neck, but he clattered down the wooden stairs, and over the parquet floor, and soon was standing in front of Gus. Which was unsettling in and of itself, because the spotlight was shining on them and so were over a hundred pairs of eyes. What was more unsettling was Shawn resting a hand on his shoulder and the other against his jaw, and then leaning forward.
Gus opened his mouth to tell Shawn to snap out of it, just as Shawn pressed close and kissed him. It wasn’t a chaste, closed-mouth kiss, either, but a kiss with tongue, Shawn licking over Gus’s teeth and deeper, stroking gently. His thumb worked in soft circles against Gus’s neck and he insistently pulled him closer. He tasted like pineapple and spearmint --- a not entirely unpleasant sensation --- and he was a good kisser, Gus wasn’t so shocked that he could ignore that. He wasn’t too forceful, or too wet, and never once did it feel like he was trying to crawl inside his mouth. Gus had a momentary lapse in judgement and found himself winding a hand into Shawn’s hair. A momentary lapse that had him craning up and answering Shawn’s kiss with a sound suspiciously like a moan.
It was at least two full seconds before he came to his senses and started pushing Shawn away, his chair scraping against the floor with a high-pitched squeak. Shawn moved back, still entranced, lips swollen and glistening.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing?” Gus squealed, standing up and stepping back to create more space between them.
“He’s not thinking,” Luciano said, coming up to Gus’s side. He spoke more quietly, shielding the microphone. “He’s not aware of what he’s doing. Please don’t take it in any other spirit than a jest.”
Gus assumed he must have looked murderous, because Luciano began leading Shawn away, casting him some very worried looks over his shoulder. Gus sat back down, tense all over. Luciano ushered Shawn onto stage before he stated, in firm and clear tones that ‘this had been a very positive experience for them both.’ He took Shawn’s wrist, and Shawn snapped out of the trance, immediately asking Luciano when he was going to start making him cluck like a chicken or turn into a wolf when he heard a whistle.
“It’s over, you have already been under,” Luciano said. His carefree tone was contradicted by his anxious glance in Gus’s direction.
“I have? What’d I do?”
Gus glared as there were catcalls from the audience. Shawn grinned, blinding-white.
“It sounds like I did a very sexy striptease,” he said, responding to the catcalls with eyebrow raises, finger-guns and smirks.
“It was the next best thing,” a red-headed woman yelled from the front of the theater. She turned in her seat and leered at Gus.
Gus could feel heat spreading up his skin as he waited for Shawn to make his way back to him. He wanted to get out of Hardeen’s right the hell now. He was even contemplating fleeing without Shawn, that’s how worked up he was. He wasn’t about to admit that fleeing without Shawn tended to be his default.
“You’re blushing,” Shawn said as he sat down. “I can actually see you blushing.” He tilted his head. “What happened?”
Gus couldn’t find the words within him. He pursed his lips and avidly stared anywhere but at Shawn for a good ten minutes. Shawn obviously assessed his response as uncommunicative and didn’t attempt to engage him in conversation. It was an uncharacteristically kind gesture, that, knowing Shawn, probably had nothing to do with him accommodating Gus and everything to do with all the other secretive hijinks he’d been up to lately.
Gus didn’t pay any attention to Luciano’s other acts, only peripherally aware that they were all mortifying acts of ridicule. He couldn’t stop thinking about how much he hated that Shawn was always getting him into scrapes, how much the imposition grated, how much he wanted nothing more than to dig a hole into the parquet floor, crawl down, down, down and never come up again.
Luciano finished his set early according to the program on their table, but still not early enough for Gus’s liking. Shawn went to the bathroom, and Gus was reveling in the fact it was almost over until he saw Luciano winding his way toward him. The last thing Gus wanted was to talk with a potential murderer and definite creepy hypnotist.
Luciano looked apologetic. “Are you all right? You seem a bit… thunderous.”
“I do not appreciate being publicly molested,” Gus returned, as close to a snarl as he could get while not baring teeth and making cheetah claws.
“No, I can tell. Look, I’m really sorry about that. Usually, the friend realizes what’s about to happen and laughingly turns their hypnotized paramour away.”
“You’ve done that before?”
“Oh yes, many times. It’s probably my most popular piece,” Luciano said, blithely ignoring the vein Gus could feel popping out from his own neck. “Most of the time I choose football players, those in the armed forces, men for whom ‘macho’ is anything but a derogatory slur.”
“Then why’d you pick Shawn?”
“This time I went for confident rather than macho. Doesn’t seem to have diminished him, though.”
Gus narrowed his eyes. “He doesn’t know what he did.”
“You didn’t tell him?”
“No, I did not. And I absolutely will not.”
“Ah. I see. It’s like that, is it?” Luciano said, sagely. He seemed to realize how much of an asshole he sounded because he spread his hands out and continued, “I really am sorry. As I said, the kiss rarely ever lands.”
“That’s not comforting at all, but thank you oh-so-much for the apology.”
Luciano took that as the intended cue to leave and gave Gus one last sweeping look before he walked toward the bar in smooth, languid strides. Shawn arrived at Gus’s side shortly thereafter, rubbing his hands down his jeans so as to dry them in a way Gus had told him not to since they were five.
“Ready to hightail it out of this joint?”
“I’ve been ready all evening.”
Three minutes later they were in the Echo, Gus checking and rechecking that his rear-view mirror was in alignment.
“Are you gonna talk to me any time soon?” Shawn asked, sounding less like his cocky, arrogant persona, and more like the insecure man he was inside.
“Not if I have any say in the matter,” Gus replied, ignoring Shawn’s subsequent snort.
Gus started the car and began driving out of their parking space, carefully attentive to the traffic.
“Note to self,” Shawn said, tapping his fingers against the car door interior. “Burton Guster completely detests being kissed.”
“I do not completely detest being kissed,” Gus said. “I detest being kissed without my full consent.” There was a beat and then Gus realized what Shawn had said. “… how do you know you kissed me?”
“Oh, yeah, about that. I wasn’t really hypnotized.”
Gus swerved the car particularly brutally around the corner he’d previously been skilfully turning. “You son-of-a-bitch, Shawn.”
“Wait, wait, wait, time out --- did you just call me a son of a bitch?”
“Yes I did.”
“Gus! You can criticise my flaws, you may even go so far as to mock and chastise me, but how dare you call Madeleine a bitch?!”
Shawn was not really outraged, nor was he appropriately remorseful. If anything, he was amused, Gus could tell by the tone of his voice. He let go of the steering wheel he was clutching so that he could punch Shawn in the fleshy part of his arm. There was a satisfying slap of skin against skin. He’d only had presence of mind to take some of the heat off the action at the last second, so he wasn’t surprised when Shawn squealed and rubbed at his newly sore spot. It must have hurt. He felt proud.
“Dude, what is your damage?”
“My damage, Shawn? That would be my reputation. Or maybe even my sense of good will toward you. How about our entire friendship?”
“This wasn’t about humiliation.”
Shawn was doing that thing he did where he tried to sound so reasonable he just wound up sounding insane. “No. I didn’t kiss you to mock you. And I’m sorry if you think I did.”
“Then why did you?”
“I wanted Luciano to believe he could hypnotize me. It was that simple.”
“If it was that simple, you should have told me.”
“But then you’d be expecting it. And Gus, we both know that deception is not your fort.”
“You mean forté.”
“No, I mean fort. With a moat. And alligators. And a portcullis. You cannot hide within deception. The ability eludes you.”
“That’s a lie and you know it’s a lie.”
“Is not and you know it’s not.”
Gus couldn’t concentrate on the road. His rage was consuming him. Suddenly he was all too aware that the phrase ‘seeing red’ was a cliché for a reason. His vision blurred and all the traffic lights smeared into a kaleidoscope of color seemingly intent to make this whole situation even worse. He looked for somewhere safe to slow down. He needed a breather. Shawn was still murmuring something, but Gus couldn’t hear, he couldn’t concentrate. All he wanted to do was reach out and strangle Shawn.
“We’re like brothers. You shouldn’t have done this to a brother,” he said, deep and slow as he pulled off to the side of the road.
“I don’t think of you as a brother. I never have. I’ve thought of you as the coffee to my cream, the tail to my head and a tragedy mask to my comedy, but never as a brother.”
“Get out of the car.”
“I said get out, Shawn. Call Henry to pick you up. Text Lassiter. Catch public transport. I don’t care. Get out of my car. Now.”
“You cannot be serious,” Shawn said, before looking at Gus. He unclipped his seat belt. “You are. You’re very serious. Okay.” He made as if he was about to clutch hold of Gus or something. Gus scooted as close to his door as he could and Shawn made a sound like a surprised gasp.
Shawn got out the car, but hovered like he thought Gus was going to change his mind. Gus drove off, pointedly not looking in his perfectly adjusted rear-view mirror. He needed to not think about Shawn for a few hours, but already he could see this was going to be close to impossible.
Gus really wanted to sleep. Gus couldn’t sleep at all. His mind kept telling him he had overreacted. The tumult of all his senses told him he really had not. There were so many things to be angry about, so many that made him angrier than he thought he may have ever been before, so many that he couldn’t even list on a one-to-ten scale of how angry they made him, because they were all eleven. And yet, because he was a good person, he still felt bad about leaving Shawn at the side of the road. Shawn could and would fend for himself, and totally deserved Gus’s condemnation, but more than twenty-five years of friendship meant that Gus was still worrying about him.
He was worrying enough that he decided he’d visit Shawn’s apartment in the morning, just to check he was still alive.
Gus had skilfully avoided thinking about why he was angry by attempting to catalog the severity of his anger, but having made his mind up about going to see Shawn, said mind was now unoccupied, and therefore musing.
Shawn had gotten him stuck in a bank during a robbery and left him there. He’d very nearly caused a situation in which Gus would have been a horror movie cliché. He’d made him test death-defying stunts for a daredevil. Shawn had risked Gus’s life at least once every two weeks since coming back from his tour of the world. A kiss, in comparison, was an act of kindness.
But it didn’t feel like kindness, it felt like a cruel joke. It didn’t just cross the boundary of common decency, it leaped over it like a banana-mad bonobo, cackling crazily. And Gus --- well, he could put up with a lot, but apparently he couldn’t put up with this.
Gus didn’t want to question it.
Shawn didn’t look apologetic, or remotely pleased to see him. He looked disgruntled and disheveled, hair sticking up every which way, purple under his eyes. He’d answered the door holding a bowl of Cupcake Pebbles, and he brandished it toward Gus like a weapon.
“Oh hey. It’s you. Are you done reading the Huffington Post while eating Cocoa Puffs, or are you here to blow my apartment down?”
Gus responded to Shawn’s barb with the first words that came to mind. “You do not have the right to be angry at me, Shawn.”
“I don’t? You left me sixteen blocks from my apartment. My cell’s battery was dead. I had to take a bus. A bus! I did not like to take the bus, I could not help but make a fuss, I cursed the name of my friend Gus, I made it clear that I could cuss.”
“You are such a child.”
“I’m a child? I’m the child here? Dude, you’re acting like I’ve given you cooties. Of the two of us, the most childish one is not the poor bastard who trashed a perfectly good pair of Keds walking the final three blocks home at one in the morning.”
Gus thought he should probably say something empathetic here, but instead he felt his eyes narrowing. “You deserved it.”
“For kissing you, or not telling you I was gonna kiss you?”
“You really think that if you’d told me your plan, I would’ve let you get away with it?”
“No. No, I didn’t. Which is why I didn’t tell you.”
It shouldn’t have felt like a shock to have this confirmed, but somehow it still did. Gus’s abdominal muscles tensed and for the first time in forever he wanted to damage Shawn. Seriously, genuinely sock him, until he was writhing on the ground in pain. The fury blindsided him, all-encompassing. He closed his eyes and balled up his fists.
“Exactly,” he shouted, putting all of his anger into that one word. He wasn’t going to attack his best friend. He wasn’t going to acknowledge the compulsion.
“It was a kiss, Gus,” Shawn entreated, as if it was harmless, as if it was simple. Gus opened his eyes again, staring in wonder at the ease with which Shawn spoke. “I put my lips on yours, slipped my tongue into your mouth. I didn’t start a nuclear war with North Korea, I didn’t kill sixteen adorably fluffy puppies with a chainsaw. I kissed you. It’s not a big deal.”
“Yes it is, because it was unwarranted and unwanted.”
“You kissed me back,” Shawn said, keeping his voice low enough that it sounded like a menace. “You didn’t immediately push me away.”
He had a point. He had a point that Gus was resolutely ignoring.
Gus flailed. “I wasn’t thinking straight.”
Shawn squinted at his neck like he was having one of his ‘visions’. “Huh.”
“You usually use a double Windsor but today you’ve gone for a single.”
“Nothing. I’m just trying and succeeding to distract you.” He sighed, flopped down onto his couch. The milk from his cereal came perilously close to sloshing all over him. “What do you want from me, Gus? What? A 1959 vintage Impalas ‘Sorry (I Ran All the Way Home)’ LP? A 1964 Chevrolet Bel Air? A 2012 apology? Because this is that last one. I’ve already said it and I’m saying it again. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you in advance that I’d be making sweet love to your velvet lips.”
“Knock it off.”
Shawn continued, starting to turn red, sweat at his temples. “I’m sorry you’re such a homophobic asshole.”
“I’m not homophobic.”
“Oh, really? This whole song and dance routine has nothing to do with you being worried people might --- gasp --- think you’re gay?”
“I’m not gay.”
“I never said you were. I never even implied you were. I didn’t think I’d ever actually kiss you, but you didn’t stop me and suddenly we were macking. I couldn’t pull away, it would reveal that I wasn’t entranced. So what did you want me to do, Gus? I obviously couldn’t trust you to follow my plan.”
There was pain in his gut at the level of accusation and anger in Shawn’s words. He let his indignation continue to get the better of him.
“It was a stupid plan and I don’t even know why you’d want Luciano to think he could hypnotize you.”
“Because soon he’s gonna hire us to prove his innocence to the police. And while he’ll think he can wrap us around his little finger, we’ll gather the concrete evidence needed to convict him.”
Gus took a step back from Shawn. “You really are insane.”
“In the mainframe.”
“It’s membrane, Shawn.”
“Maybe in your reference, but not in mine.”
Shawn stood up, setting his bowl on the floor, moving toward Gus like he was going to pat him on the shoulder. It took a lot of self-will for Gus not to back away again.
“I know you’re mad at me,” Shawn said, quietly. “And if I weren’t Vain McArrogant, I could probably understand why.” He frowned. “I know I shouldn’t’ve put you in a situation you couldn’t deal with. It was wrong, and I’m sorry. I mean it this time. But I need you. I’m not sure I can do this on my own. Luciano may not be able to play me like a puppet, but that doesn’t mean he’s not dangerous in other ways.”
Gus studied Shawn like Shawn was probably studying him. There was the barest hint of a tremor in his hands and his breathing was shallow and quicker than normal. He was nervous. Gus was surprised, but Shawn didn’t know how he was going to respond. Throughout their lives together, Shawn had almost always known how Gus would react to him, but not now, not here, not about this. Worse than that, Gus didn’t know. His anger twisted within him, tearing at his insides. He felt like he was constantly at war with himself; with one side advocating Shawn’s swift and merciless execution and the other telling him he was being a big fat failure for getting so worked up over… over something that felt so much bigger than lips touching.
Shawn really hadn’t declared nuclear war. Nor had he bludgeoned puppies. The only way to save Shawn from himself was to go along with his crazed schemes.
Gus made another decision. He decided to forgive Shawn, just a little bit. Not enough that he’d stop being angry, but enough that he’d stay by his side. It didn’t entirely feel like a choice he’d made, more a necessity, but he figured there was some free will in there somewhere, there had to be.
“I will stand by you against the crazy murderous hypnotist. But only because I don’t want you dead, and only then because you owe me thousands of dollars and three packets of skittles.”
Shawn’s relief was palpable. Enough that it almost encouraged Gus to feel the same.
“This probably isn’t a great time to tell you I also owe you the packet of redvines you keep in your desk at the office, huh?”
“That was my emergency stash, Shawn!”
“It was an emergency! Leonard Cohen came on the radio and it was succumb to depression or block it with sugar. The sugar won.”
“I --- I don’t know what to do with you. I honestly do not know how I haven’t killed you by now.”
“Because you gag at the first sign of blood?”
“I could always poison you.”
“Yeah, you could,” Shawn said, eyes lighting up like a firesale, like he’d had a revelation. “So the question is, why didn’t he?”
Gus couldn’t always follow Shawn’s mental processes closely enough. This was one of those times. “Who?”
“Luciano. Why not hypnotize Serafina to write a note and take a pill? Why choose a method so brutal, that gruesome? This had to have been heavily personal --- an emotional killing, no matter the pre-meditated nature of the method. It was harsh, bloody vengeance.”
“I’m guessing it was love-related.”
“Yeah, I’m inclined to agree. Money’s an amazing motivator, but not like this.”
“What do we do next?”
“I’m gonna go take a shower. I can still smell public transport on my skin, even though I scrubbed and scrubbed. But after that, why don’t we check out what Lassie and Jules are doing?”
Gus raised his eyebrows. “You expect me to wait around during your morning cleansing routine?”
“You’d prefer to have me in all my sweaty man-funk glory occupying your awesome but admittedly tiny Echo? I think you can wait, don’t you? Anyway, there’s a nearly full packet of Cupcake Pebbles with your picture on it. You look very fetching with red bangs.”
Gus watched Shawn wander into his bathroom before going to the space that served as a kitchen and pouring his own bowl of deliciously aromatic cereal. He hoped that this was the beginning of the end of the tension between them. It ought to be. Shawn knew he’d done wrong and Gus knew he knew, so he should really get over it, like he was always forced to get over Shawn’s impositions. But he felt twitchy. He wanted to shout at Shawn. Things weren’t yet as okay between them as they were both so willing to pretend. It worried Gus.
In Gus’s tiny Echo, Shawn smelled like his favorite aftershave, which was kind of impressive, since he clearly hadn’t actually shaved. Gus manfully resisted mentioning this, concentrating on the horrible nature of Shawn’s plan.
Shawn thought he was nine times smarter than he was. Nine times more charming. Nine times luckier. The problem was that Shawn was smart, and charming, and lucky. Gus only hoped Shawn would realize just how lucky he was before he injured himself trying to find his limits.
“You know you’re the last person Lassiter wants to see.”
“That can’t be true. I know for a fact the last person Lassieface wants to see is his mother. I might be in pentultimate place, but somehow I doubt it. There’s at least four names above mine on his ‘never, ever, ever sending a Christmas Card’ list.”
“You mean penultimate.”
“Whatever, Word-a-day Wussypants, which, by the way, is totally what I’m introducing you as next.”
Gus felt his eye-lid flickering. It only did that in moments of crushing stress. He always knew Shawn was going to be the death of him, but he hadn’t always suspected premature aging.
Lassiter was creepily pleased to see them. Gus had never liked that look on his face. It was eerily close to that of a manta ray, planning to swoop and devour.
“We have a suspect,” Lassiter crowed.
“Well done, little Lassie,” Shawn congratulated, being handsy with Lassiter in the way he’d always been, only right now it made Gus’s blood run cold. He turned away and only half-listened to their discussion. He focused on the tray of cupcakes on Henry’s desk. He knew they were too good to be true, but he honestly didn’t care about that. They looked delicious. He hovered closer toward them.
Shawn spoke jovially, but even when he was barely paying attention, Gus could hear the tension in his voice. He hadn’t expected this development to come so early. “But how could you have a suspect when Serafina Childs committed suicide?”
“You and I both know she had assistance. You may like to conveniently forget I’m a detective, Spencer, but I never have.”
One of the cupcakes looked like it was decorated with Reese’s Pieces. Whoever made these cakes was some kind of evil genius. Gus could feel his mouth starting to water. He drifted ever closer. There were sparkling sprinkles on the tray. The invitation practically had capital letters. It shouted “GUS, COME EAT ME. EAT ME BEFORE SHAWN SEES ME. EAT ME NOW.”
“Have one if you like, Gus,” Henry suddenly said, appearing at his side with all the stealth of the Jackal.
Gus could hear Admiral Ackbar in his head, but the idea of tasting something that looked so sweet was incredibly, overwhelmingly tempting. His hand shot out before his brain could stop him. He opened his mouth wide and made to take a gigantic bite, but instead confined himself to a nibble. He wanted to savour.
They were Reese’s Pieces, and they were good.
“Gus, we’ve known each other a long time,” Henry was saying, all scary eyes and mock-friendly tones. Gus nodded, because his tongue was currently occupied with salt-sweet heaven.
“I’d like to think I am in some ways like a Godfather to you,” Henry continued. It brought unbidden thoughts of Brando to Gus’s mind, but he simply nodded again. “So you know you can tell me anything.” Henry lowered his voice and leaned close. “What’s going between you two?”
Gus coughed up a little peanut-buttery chocolate piece that had become lodged and swallowed several times to clear his throat.
“I do not know what you mean, Sir,” he eventually managed. He glanced furtively Shawn’s way, but Shawn, along with Lassiter and Jules, was nowhere in view.
“Don’t lie, it’s beneath you. It’s not every night I get a panicked call from my son. Granted, it happens more frequently than it should, but this was different. He said he’d screwed everything between the two of you up. What did he mean?”
Gus could not believe Shawn had spoken to his dad about this. His dad, who he was always complaining about, who he had been estranged from for years, who was absolutely terrifying. You did not tell Henry Spencer your secrets, you deftly concealed them and prayed he wouldn’t try to investigate. Shawn really did have a death-wish.
And for Shawn to go to such lengths as to call Henry? There was obviously a reason Gus was feeling so unsettled. Shawn felt it too. Things were broken.
“We had an argument,” Gus hedged, staring sadly at his half-eaten cupcake. He’d lost his appetite. “It was worse than usual. But Shawn hasn’t screwed everything up.” He mentally added ‘I hope’ and then kicked himself for it. “You know, sometimes he just drives me insane. He has no basic understanding that his actions have consequences.”
“I know how you feel,” Henry commiserated. “Sometimes it’s like he has no clue there’s anyone else in the universe. There was the big bang and then there was him, anyone else is a collection of shapes and colors.”
“How do you deal with that without going crazy all the time?”
Henry raised an eyebrow, and for a second he looked exactly like Shawn. “You’re asking me?”
Gus sighed. “Stupid question, I know.”
“Gus, you’re the only person I know who’s ever had any kind of control over Shawn. Deal with it the way you always do. Tell him when he’s done wrong. Explain why. Go a little crazy if you have to.”
“I will. Thanks, Mr Spencer.”
“I know you boys will fix this. You’ve always managed to in the past.”
Henry clapped him on the back, again so reminiscent of his son, and moved toward the Chief’s office. Gus glanced down at his cupcake and debated with himself whether it was worth the feeling of nausea. Shawn came barreling past at that very moment, the grin on his face not even slightly faked. Lassiter was hot on his heels, expression a solid eight on the ‘desire to murder Shawn’ scale.
“Gus, let’s roll.”
“That was quick,” Gus said, following Shawn out of the station. He was partly ecstatic to be walking far away from an oddly sensitive and understanding Henry, partly missing his appetite and the half-eaten cupcake now sitting back on Henry’s desk, and partly feeling a curious combination of anger and angst toward Shawn. He imagined himself as a Rubik’s cube and thought about the time it would take to get his colors to match up again, help him keep these emotions in check.
“They’re questioning Dudley,” Shawn replied. “Dudley’s their suspect. Can you believe it?”
“Well, yeah, because I hadn’t entirely ruled him out.”
“Oh, please. Like someone who could win a Morgan Freeman, Christopher Lee crossover impersonation contest would choose hypno-suicide as their MO.”
“Shawn, that sounds like the perfect voice for hypno-suicide,” Gus said, climbing into the Echo, and waiting until they were both ready before starting the car.
“Point,” Shawn murmured. “But not game, set and match. We already know who the killer is. Hint --- it’s not Dudley.”
“I don’t know how, but I sometimes forget that you’re so arrogant.”
Shawn took the insult like a term of affection, giving an expression that could only be described as fond. “You need elephant training.”
“Would that include lessons in stomping? Because I would like lessons in stomping.”
“You don’t need it, dude, you’re a regular Eleanor Powell.”
“As amazing as Powell undoubtedly was, couldn’t you liken me to Sammy Davis Jr?”
“I wish I could, but to be honest, I don’t want to. At all. Those times I’ve watched you tippity tapping? That was Ship Ahoy material, Gus. That was Born to Dance.”
“And now I regret every invocation I’ve made for you to show an interest in my interests.”
Shawn beamed at him like --- like he was home, and Gus reflexively gripped tighter onto the steering wheel, fingers working independently of his mind. Shawn noted his reaction and his demeanor switched, mouth set into a thin line.
“What are we supposed to do now?” Gus asked. He had a horrible feeling he wasn’t entirely asking about the case.
He suspected the same of Shawn’s answer.
This wasn’t the first time Gus found himself wishing that real life was like television. Normally by now there’d be a smash-cut to the action. A new lead would present itself out of thin air, or they’d realize they’d make a mistake in their assumptions. There’d be some kind of forensics montage overlaid with dubstep or poignant pop. You didn’t get six and a half hours of reconciling accounts, two hours of choosing new films via Netflix, and having a forty-seven minute argument over whether or not wasabi and pickled ginger could be considered condiments in your average television crime procedural. Gus was the first person to admit that aspects of his life seemed directly lifted from The Mentalist, but, sadly, one of those aspects was not the pace.
It didn’t help that, beyond the aforementioned condiment conversation and subsequent twenty-minute contest on the correct pronunciation of ‘ketchup’, he and Shawn hadn’t really been talking. Gus could sense all of these words between them; bon mots and phrases and paragraphs. But none of them had been spoken. Gus didn’t know where to start and he was guessing Shawn didn’t either. Gus didn’t want to start, but he wasn’t sure he could say the same for Shawn.
So it was a relief when real life imitated fiction and Luciano the hypnotist arrived at their door. A creepy, not-totally-comfortable-feeling relief.
“I’m here to beg your assistance,” Luciano said, stepping through the doorway with a concerned expression. Gus couldn’t tell if the expression was due to the fact he was reduced to asking Shawn for help, or because he needed assistance in the first place.
“I’m here because my brother hasn’t yet acquired his American driver’s license,” Derek stated, propping himself against the wall and looking bored. Gus was going to complain about the paint-work, but he was mostly relieved that the question of Derek’s relationship with Luciano had been cleared up. It had been bugging him, just a little bit. He wasn’t exactly proud of this fact.
Shawn put his fingers to his head. “I am sensing that you’ve been contacted by the police,” he said. “That every breath you take, every move you make, a gigantic bumblebee is watching you.”
“Erm…” Luciano said. “I suppose you could put it like that, yes. You see, I’m really rather famed, as hypnotists go. And the police have this ridiculous theory that Serafina Childs was hypnotized into killing herself. Currently, they’re questioning Dudley Woodford, in charge of booking at Hardeen’s, but it’s only a matter of time before they cast their aspersions on me. I need your expertise to catch the real killer.”
Gus was slightly worried that Shawn’s predictions had come true. Shawn could think like a cold-blooded killer. He could anticipate what that person would do next. It was what made him a brilliant detective, but it was also what occasionally made him a defective friend. Perhaps Henry was right. Maybe all Shawn ever saw of other people were shapes and colors to be rearranged. You couldn’t really empathise with a square, but you could cut it in half to make two triangles.
“We’re happy to help,” Shawn said enthusiastically. He swivelled toward Gus. “Aren’t we, Gus?”
“Overjoyed,” Gus answered. He didn’t take his eyes off Luciano.
Luciano stared back at him, looking vaguely uneasy, like he knew Gus was mentally pushing him into a cactus over and over, and then imagining pouring salt over his wounds.
“Wonderful!” Luciano said, very nearly concealing his discomfort with over-the-top cheer. “We have a couple of items that we’re hoping will aid the investigation. Show them, Derek.”
Derek rolled his eyes and then produced a photograph of Serafina sitting at one of the tables at Hardeen’s. She was clearly talking to the person sitting next to her, though they were shaded from view due to lighting and the fact they were wearing a Stetson. Gus averted his concentrated mental attack of Luciano to study Shawn. Shawn had narrowed his eyes slightly, his pupils had overtaken his irises, and the set of his jaw had tightened. Gus knew that expression. Shawn wasn’t only using his specially honed gifts, he’d noticed something important.
The second item Derek produced was a receipt paid by Serafina’s credit card. There was way more food and drink listed than one woman could consume in a night.
They were clever, as deliberately manufactured evidence went. They seemed plausible. But Gus couldn’t help but think they were too convenient and he knew that’s what Shawn would say as well.
“These will definitely help,” Shawn murmured. He looked up suddenly, manner strangely stiff. “There’s the little matter of our fee.”
“Yes, of course. I’m willing to pay whatever you think is necessary. You have to understand, it’s a matter of reputation. It isn’t true that any publicity is good publicity in my line of work. My audience needs to be able to trust that my control over them is essentially harmless.”
“I know what you mean. I can never reveal the true extent of my powers. People freak out.”
“Is that why you work with the police, as opposed to having your own show or newspaper column?” Derek asked. There was an edge of hostility to his tone and Gus didn’t like the way he was glaring.
“No, not really. For me, it’s more about duty.”
Gus wondered how true that was. He knew that Shawn could probably have become a millionaire by now if he didn’t insist on using his talents to solve crime, and Shawn certainly seemed earnest enough. But duty meant protection meant caring about others, and all too often it seemed like Shawn was playing a game, solving a puzzle for nothing but fun.
“Thank you, Mr Spencer,” Luciano said, eyes wide and bright and hopeful. He was a damn fine actor. “You have no idea how encouraged I am to have you on my side.”
When Luciano and Derek finally left the office it was past nine pm. Gus was dog tired from his night of tossing and turning. He collapsed onto his la-z-boy and watched Shawn pouting to himself in his own chair. A question was itching at the back of his mind.
“Did you mean it, what you said about duty?”
Shawn shrugged, intense in his supposed nonchalance. “You tell me.”
Gus thought about it. He had always wondered why Shawn didn’t give up investigative work after Yang. If it had only ever been a game, he would have quit, wouldn’t he? The risk was too great. Gus had been there to witness the sleepless nights. He’d seen Shawn startle awake after an afternoon nap with a pained yell. Shawn may have treated many cases as if they were pinball games, easy to win with some fast button-pushing and a tilt, but not every case, not the ones that mattered.
The real question was; why didn’t Gus give up?
At first, he couldn’t deny it, it was for Shawn. Because Shawn was back in his life and this was the best way Gus knew how to keep it that way. But he grew to enjoy the feeling of satisfaction he gained helping people, the sense of purpose he had, and also the realization that there were those who’d been sidelined by general society, discounted, and someone had to help them, it might as well be him.
Duty played a part. It wasn’t everything, but it was significant.
“You were telling the truth,” Gus said quietly, surprising himself with the revelation.
Shawn clapped his hands together and pretended to be laughing hysterically, rocking his chair from side to side. “Wrong! I’m totally in it for the cheap thrills!”
The urge to punch came on strong. Gus moved forward and placed his hands on his shoulders to keep him still. “Shawn, be real for a second of your life.”
Shawn stopped, frowned. “You don’t like me when I’m real,” he said in a small voice. His hands moved up as if to clasp Gus’s, and Gus moved away before he could really think about it. He ignored the pounding of his blood.
“It’s been a long day,” he said. “We’re both tired.”
“Yes, it is, and yes, we are,” Shawn agreed.
He didn’t look at Gus as he gathered up his things and left.
There was no sleeping to be had. In the darkness of his room, Gus couldn’t avoid thinking about what he’d been ignoring. The distant dripping of his faucet, the noise of a dog barking somewhere in the night --- nothing could sufficiently distract him. All he got were queries and uncertainties reverberating through his mind, speeding up, slowing down, begging to be answered.
Shawn had always been a constant in his life, had always been reliable --- even if that was ‘reliable for being unreliable’. Gus had been defining himself by his relationship to Shawn ever since he could remember. When Shawn had left him to journey the world, Gus hadn’t felt entirely whole. When he’d come back, he was once again complete.
But it hadn’t been romantic or sexual. Occasionally, as a teenager, his hormones had gotten the better of him. He’d wondered, once or twice, if they should practice the skills they’d need with girls. But not to the point that the touch of Shawn’s hand could make heat travel through him. Not in such a way that he regularly entertained thoughts of exploring Shawn’s whole body, finding the parts of him that made him lose all pretense and just be. Because he didn’t, he really didn’t, and if he’d maybe been staring at Shawn a little longer than usual lately, well, he had eyes, he could look wherever he wanted. And if he’d kissed Shawn back, it had been because of shock. That didn’t mean he had to change and suddenly redefine who he was. Gus was very happy with the man he was, with the life he was living.
The man he had been. The life he had been living.
Shawn didn’t look at him as he opened the door to his apartment. He turned away and silently made Gus a pineapple juice. It was six in the morning and Gus had gotten twenty minutes of sleep at the most, not all at the same time. A quick glance confirmed for him that Shawn must have had about the same.
“Look,” Shawn finally said, mid-sigh and proffering of super-sweet breakfast drink, “do we need to have a manly talk about this? Or better yet, a talk where we actually reveal our true emotions and open up? Because if so, I may need a few minutes to collect myself and the courage that I keep in a jar by the door.”
“All I want is the truth. That’s not too much to ask, is it?”
“All right, but I’ll expect no less from you. Maybe even a little more.”
Gus nodded. “You start.”
“Do you have a question at least, because otherwise this might go on forever and I have an appointment with a beatboxer. We’re performing the theme to the A-Team, I’m doing it Vivaldi-style...”
Gus ignored Shawn’s attempts at deflection, skilful though they were. He was already imagining how a beatboxed-vivaldi-style A-Team theme might sound. “Did you feel something when you kissed me?”
“Lame. Of course I felt something. I felt you. You were right there under these things we call fingers!”
“You know what I mean.”
There was a beat. Two. Eventually Shawn looked up. His eyes were bloodshot and his pupils blown wide. He looked exhausted, and stressed out, and as unlike Shawn as Gus had seen him since immediately before and after the whole Yang incident.
“What do you want me to say? I’ll say it. Whatever makes you happy.”
“But it wouldn’t be the truth, would it?”
“Dammit, Shawn, why do you have to be so obscure all the time? This isn’t a game, or a competition to see who can annoy the other the quickest, we’re not on show for everyone to see.” Gus gestured at the empty expanse of Shawn’s apartment. They were constantly alone together, but this time Gus felt it. He also felt the distance between them.
“Hey, I’m not the one who’s been leading the gay panic parade with his shiny twirling baton.” The anger in Shawn’s tone physically hurt and Gus winced. He flinched further as Shawn continued. “Yeah, I felt something, okay? I felt like I was kissing my best friend in the entire world and that this was the way things were meant to be. I felt like I’d finally found what I’ve been missing all these years. Clearly, I was wrong.”
This was exactly what Gus had been fearing and avoiding this whole time. He had no idea in the world how to respond. His mouth starting moving before his brain could catch up. His brain had been crazy slow the past few days.
“I didn’t hate kissing you. I thought I would, but I didn’t.”
“No. But now you’re acting like it was the worst thing that could ever happen to you.”
“Not the worst, but, dude, there are boundaries for a reason. Kissing is not within the parameters of our friendship.”
“And why not? What is it, Gus? Are you dissatisfied with my body? A tiny part of me says yes.”
“You’re a man! And I’m a man! And men who like women...”
“Can also like men,” Shawn interjected, as if sensing Gus couldn’t complete the thought.
Gus flailed. “But I don’t. I never have. If I did, you would probably be on the list.”
Shawn blew air through his nose like a bull about to charge and when he spoke there was acid in every word. “Probably? Well, that’s truly comforting, thank you so very kindly for that sentiment.”
“I’ve been attracted to women my whole life.”
“Really? As a two month old? I’m shocked and appalled that you were such a little deviant.”
“Can you be serious for a second?”
“No. You know me, Gus. I can’t have this conversation. It’s...”
Too painful, Gus’s mind supplied. For once it was way ahead of the rest of him. Too real. This was Shawn in pain and it was all Gus’s fault. He flopped onto Shawn’s couch and stared at the floor. Yes, Shawn cared about other people. He cared about Gus. And Gus was doing nothing but hurting him.
“I don’t want anything to change,” he said in a small voice.
Shawn settled next to him and grabbed hold of his arm a shade too hard --- unnecessarily, because Gus wasn’t going to yank his arm away like his fight or flight reflex was telling him he should. Gus lifted his gaze to match Shawn’s and was taken aback by the steadiness he saw there. Everything between them in the last few days had been so hesitant, riddled with the things neither of them wanted to say, but this was unwavering confidence.
“GusGusGusGusGus, maybe I’m a little angry, and maybe I’m a little something else, and maybe this is gonna take some time, but, could you imagine us not being best buds?”
“I wouldn’t want to.”
“Exactly. So, chill. I’ll get over it. But, you know, you have to as well.”
“And one day we’ll look back at all of this and laugh?”
“Sure.” Shawn’s confidence flickered. “We may need to give each other some space.”
“I thought you needed me, on the case?”
“I do, I definitely do. But afterwards? You’re always complaining I never let you finish your route. Maybe we need a couple of weeks to do those individual things we always push aside.”
About nine different voices were screaming ‘no’ inside Gus, but if this what Shawn needed, if this is what he wanted, if it was what would fix this, fix them ---
“That sounds like a plan.”
“An awesome plan.”
“As long as it’s only a couple of weeks.”
Shawn’s lips twisted up, his expression became fond, and he nodded.
They ate breakfast together, (Lucky Charms and Cupcake Pebbles combined. It was heavenly), and then Shawn brought out the photograph and receipt Luciano and Derek had supplied. Gus was impressed by his ability to move straight onto the case. That was one of Shawn’s many talents --- the ability to switch off genuine human emotion and go back to being a one-dimensional gimmick. At the moment, Shawn was exaggeratedly squinting, halfway toward one of his ‘it’s a clue’ faces. If Gus didn’t know any better, he’d think he was having an aneurism.
“We’ll have a busy day chasing down the answers to these,” Shawn said absently.
“How are they gonna help? They’re obviously a fabrication.”
“Mmm, maybe. And in being so, they can help tell us more about Luciano’s motives. You can tell a lot about someone by who they choose to frame.”
Gus wasn’t so sure about that, but then, he’d never solved a case by himself either.
“Shawn,” Gus said delicately. “If this is our day to be honest, can you tell me where you went when I was doing all the interviews? What was so important?”
“Oh! I went to see Madeleine,” Shawn said, as if surprised Gus would want to know. “She taught me some more about how not to get hypnotized. I was drinking those times we went to see Luciano because it helped me take things out of focus. She told me years ago that I would probably be more susceptible to hypnotism because of my ability to concentrate on small details and my suggestible nature. She helped me practice controlling how I see clues.”
This settled the last of the questions Gus had been playing over and over in his mind. He hadn’t realized he was as physically tense as he was until that moment. His shoulders lowered and his toes uncurled. He’d been expecting… he didn’t know what he’d been expecting, but his vague notions had all been so much worse than the truth.
“That makes a lot of sense.”
“She also made me the most delicious caramel brownies in the history of the universe, and told me to bring you five, but I ate them all before I’d gotten back on my bike.”
“I’m not sure honest-Shawn is a new-and-improved-Shawn.”
“Perhaps not. But he’s better than weirdly-angsty-and-disappointed-Shawn, right?”
Gus silently agreed and grabbed hold of their new evidence. Upon doing so, he noticed something he hadn’t in the quick glance he’d previously bestowed the photo. “I recognize this watch,” he said excitedly. “I’ve seen it before.”
“And this is why I need you, buddy,” Shawn said, quieter than usual, but still enthusiastic.
Dougal wasn’t surprised to see them, which was frankly destructive for Gus’s theory that Luciano must know Dougal had some dirt on him and was framing him to keep him silent.
“That was quicker than I thought it would be,” Dougal said sadly.
Gus really hated people sometimes. “You’re a lying liar who lies!” he exclaimed, pointing emphatically.
Shawn frowned at him as he sat on Dougal’s moldy-green couch. Dougal’s place was neater than it had been the other day. He’d been expecting company. Books and magazines were no longer strewn everywhere, and the dog hair had been cleaned up. The dirty dishes that had been in the sink last time were nowhere to be seen, hopefully washed and packed away.
“I’m sorry, I am, but I knew what it would look like if I told you Serafina and I had one time when we were enemies with benefits. It was sex, nothing else, and she dumped me straight after.”
Dougal smiled winningly. Gus cursed his charm. He had his charming moments, but he didn’t exude charisma like other people he could mention. He suddenly had a mental image of Dougal and Shawn exuding charisma like a pasta-maker exuded linguine. It made him hungry.
“Nothing else? Nothing at all?” Shawn produced the photograph. Dougal peered at it, brow creasing in concentration. Shawn kept speaking. “You’re wearing the same watch as the man in this photograph. Explain that.”
“Everyone who worked for Serafina has this watch. She insisted we wear them so that we’d all be perfectly synchronized. And before you think it was her one kind gesture, giving us these lavish timepieces, she made sure the theater took the cost out of our wages and reimbursed her.”
“Why should we believe you?” Gus asked. Accused.
“My watch isn’t identical to the one in the photo. See?”
Dougal pushed his wrist forward and pointed to the watch-face. “This watch apparently works 660 feet underwater. The one in the photo works to 2000. You can see it has an extra digit, here.” Dougal now pointed at the photo. Shawn didn’t even crane closer before he nodded in agreement. Gus suspected he’d already made a note of it. “We were all given one or the other. Several of us complained when we realized we were expected to pay the same amount out of our wage, even though we could have paid less over a longer period of time.”
“Any idea whose watch this is?”
“Not really, sorry. I didn’t exactly pay attention to who got which.”
There was a firm knock on the door and Dougal excused himself. Shawn looked around the apartment and wrinkled his nose. It was damn near adorable how Shawn could criticize other people’s living conditions when he practically lived like a 12 year old boy fending for himself.
Dougal had been gone a while before Gus got up, peered around the corner and saw what was taking so long. Dougal was wrapped up in another man’s arms, face tilted up as they kissed. He looked content, joyful. Gus stared for a moment, finding his feet unwilling to move. Dougal had his fingers curled into the taller man’s hair, his hips rhythmically rocking forward.
It took a few seconds for Gus to make his way back to Shawn. Shawn looked up at him, curious.
“I thought Dougal said he had sex with Serafina?” Gus whispered.
“Then why’s he kissing some dude in his hallway?”
“He bats for both sides. I could have told you that the second we stepped into the apartment. There’s a picture on the window sill of him with his current boyfriend; I’m guessing the dude he’s making out with as we speak. They’ve been together for, like, three weeks. I don’t think Dougal is the most fastidious of cleaners, because I can see a bra under the grey armchair that’s been lying there long enough to gather at least two months’ worth of dust.”
“So what you’re telling me is…”
“He likes dicks as well as chicks, Gus, yeah, is that really so hard to understand?”
“Cute. Very cute,” Gus intoned, eyes intent on the photograph. He would never understand why Shawn always chose to push, push, push, even when something should have been resolved. It shoved him out of a false sense of security. “Speaking of chicks, do we know for sure that this is a man?”
“Um, no. Why do you ask?”
“That is one fine wrist, and I mean that literally as well as figuratively. I think this could be a lady.”
“That just widens our field of suspects.”
Gus narrowed his eyes at Shawn. “What do you mean ‘suspects’?”
“You know, deliberately planted, not actually the murderer suspects.” Shawn looked toward the hallway. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t really want to wait for Dougal to realize he needs to come up for air. We should leave.”
“I couldn’t agree more.”
Shawn tapped Dougal on the shoulder as they walked out the apartment. Dougal waved farewell, still entangled with his boyfriend. Gus allowed himself a glance at Shawn to check whether he was as mesmerized as he had been, but Shawn was resolutely staring forward, not at all concerned or fascinated by the men making out.
The next stop in their journey was revisiting Washington Smith Theater. Gus was starting to feel dizzy from running around in circles. And yet, for some reason, he almost craved that, to extend this as far as he could, spinning around and around like a gyroscope tilting on its axis.
Washington Smith was shrouded in black crepe paper, hanging in loops from the ceiling. The imitation Japanese screen Gus had admired was nowhere to be seen. The stage backdrop was of a moonlit night and the curtains had been replaced by thick black velour.
“No need to look so alarmed. We’re staging a production of Hamlet,” a stagehand said. He looked young, closer to twelve than twenty, and he didn’t appear to be very impressed by them even though they’d said they were detectives.
“This isn’t a display of mourning for Serafina Childs?” Gus asked, because he felt like someone had to remember a life had been lost.
“Nope. We’d have rainbows and confetti if this was related to that bitch’s death.”
“That’s not cool,” Shawn said, gratifyingly disapproving. “For all her repulsiveness, ball-breaking and cruelty, she was still a person and it’s tragic that her life has been cut short.”
Gus felt a swell of affection for Shawn in that moment. It reinforced the idea that there was a sense of duty to Shawn’s actions. That, yeah, maybe he was going about this in the most dangerous way he knew how, but Shawn was investigating Serafina’s death because someone had to care.
“Whatever, Gramps,” the stagehand said, dramatically rolling his eyes.
“Scram,” Shawn groused, waving his hands to emphasize his command. “Darn kids refusing to get off my lawn,” he said as an aside once the kid had disappeared.
“He could have helped identify the watch,” Gus pointed out.
“We don’t need him, we only need to find where the accounts were kept. If she wanted everyone to pay for the watches, Serafina must have recorded it somewhere.”
"Say we find out who this person is, talk to them and discover they'd just dropped in to say hello to Serafina, or pass her a message, we'll have spent the morning chasing useless information, all because the real killer wanted us distracted."
“There is always method to my madness, Gus, you know this. For instance, hasn’t it occurred to you that this person may be a witness to what transpired on stage and can give us an unbiased account?”
Gus shrugged. That hadn’t actually occurred to him. Wasn’t he normally the one making logic out of Shawn’s chaos? He’d been so inside his own head lately he was finding it difficult to concentrate on the case.
They had toured the theater the first time they’d been here, gathering surface information and annoying as many employees as they could. Gus hadn’t noticed how creepy the place was at the time. As they walked in the direction of the tiny offices that had once been a prop room, Gus felt a definite shiver rush up his spine. It was the tall ceilings and ornate curlicues in the theater itself, the pokey dankness of the labyrinthine hallways that comprised the rest of the building. Energy thrummed from the walls, the air was stale. Gus hadn’t registered that he was leaning into Shawn, seeking comfort, until Shawn stopped, pushed him back and gave him a wounded look.
“Could you… not?”
“I can’t even touch you now?” The words rushed out before Gus could stop them, but actually, on reflection he was glad, because some things just had to be out in the open.
Shawn looked at him like he’d said the most insulting thing imaginable to the Dalai Lama. “Really, Gus? Really? The whole ‘I need time’ part of our conversation this morning did not sink in at all. Yeah, I would really prefer it if you didn’t touch me.”
“Sorry,” Gus said, hollowly. “This place is wigging me out.”
“Then let’s hurry.”
Gus stared at Shawn’s back as he moved away and sped up. He couldn’t decide if Shawn was punishing him in kind; I can’t kiss you, so you can’t lean into me or whether it genuinely affected Shawn to have Gus near him. And if it genuinely affected Shawn, just how strong was the attraction he was feeling? For how long had he been suffering this way? They were touchy-feely 99% of the time they were with one another, so had Shawn been hating that, or loving that, for months without Gus knowing?
Serafina’s office was miniscule and filled to the brim with ledgers. There was a computer sitting on a desk that must have been assembled in the room, way too big to fit through the door. Shawn was on the other side. He pulled out three of the ledgers and waved his hand in the direction of the computer.
“You do the tricky technological bit, I’ll go old-school.”
They set about their tasks in silence, Shawn wearing a perpetual ‘it’s a clue’ face. Gus couldn’t find any files that looked remotely like what they were looking for. He did find some email correspondence that made him raise his eyebrows. He would have said that Serafina didn’t do romance, but skimming over the emails he noticed references to flowers, hot tubs, and ‘that night on the beach’.
“I’m gonna forward these on,” Gus said, clicking on the eleven or so emails that looked promising.
“Great. I think I’ve found what we’re seeking as well,” Shawn replied, distractedly. “It looks here like Serafina paid for those watches out of her own money.”
“How could she afford that?”
“I have no idea. But we’re going to find out.”
He grabbed a spare piece of paper, wrote some names down and then did an impromptu victory dance. Or so Gus thought, until he realized Shawn was actually trying to disentangle himself from the cable attached to the nearest telephone. There was a thump and then Gus looked down to see Shawn’s legs half-bound as he wriggled on the floor. Every movement he made bashed his head against the large black table.
“Do you need help?”
“Am I allowed to pull you up?”
“God, Gus, it’s like you can’t even go ten minutes without mauling me.”
Gus rolled his eyes, reaching down to prize Shawn’s legs out of the telephone cable. Shawn made annoying breathy little moans as he did so. Sounds that didn’t exactly fit with the situation. Gus stretched his hand out and clasped Shawn’s, immediately noticing small details he never had before --- like how Shawn curled his thumb into the fleshy part of his hand with a little too much pressure, and how their pinkies rubbed almost sensuously. His skin was tingling, all quick, intense pulses that made his heart stutter.
If this is how it felt every time for Shawn, instead of just because attention was being called to the touch, then Gus could understand the need to limit contact. He pulled Shawn up and moved to the other side of the room, so that they had a good three foot distance between them. Shawn’s reactions were starting to make more sense to him than his own, given the evidence, and this was not a happy thought.
Three women had been given the 2000 ft dive watch, alongside two men. Shawn thought they should also interview the men, just in case they were bird-like and dainty and stylish in a Stetson. Gus agreed, thinking that one of the reasons they’d had to go back to Washington Smith was due to cutting corners. It was probably better to over-compensate than under.
“I also told Luciano we’d go to his matinee,” Shawn said as they made their way to the car.
“Uh, in the afternoon, when matinees are usually held.”
“No, I mean when did you tell him that?”
Shawn smiled. “When you and Derek were discussing your favorite teas.”
“Lapsang souchong is delicious and calming. There is nothing wrong with acknowledging that.”
Shawn put on a posh English accent, badly. “I do enjoy a pot of smoky black in the morning, I find it absolutely revitalizing!”
“I don’t know if anyone’s ever told you this before, but you’re kind of an asshole.”
“Yeah? Well, takes one to know one,” Shawn retorted, which would have been fine and warranted and totally normal, except that it was said with underlying heat.
Everybody lies, Shawn had once said. Gus hadn’t known he was quoting House M.D at the time, because he did not need a show in his life that used the term ‘lumbar puncture’ every episode. Everybody lies. And maybe he was right. Perhaps it was true. If they weren’t deliberately lying outright, they were omitting information, or guilelessly repeating the lies someone else had told them. They were letting their own biases cloud their objectivity, or lying to themselves.
The maxim ‘everybody lies’ appeared to be holding true throughout the morning. A couple of their interview subjects were people Shawn had briefly spoken to and Gus had extensively interrogated, and it was funny how, given the same questions said only slightly differently, the nature of their answers radically changed. They were much more on edge, far less verbose. Accusation hung in the air and acted like a barrier between the investigators and the investigatees.
It was the fifth person they talked to, a woman called Marcelle Furler, who admitted to being the person in the photograph. Marcelle was a small, mousey woman with refined bone-structure yet appalling fashion-sense that Gus imagined he could see starring in a film like She’s All That. There were shelves of hats in her house, each hat more hideous than the other. The Stetson from the photograph was one of the few conventional ones, perched on the middle shelf between a top hat that looked like it had been through a shredder, and a snapback with a Pikachu on the front. At this moment, Marcelle was wearing a lime green fascinator with a huge orange gerbera on the top. It was very Blossom.
“What you’re saying is, you were at Hardeen’s with Serafina the night she was killed?” Gus clarified.
“Why didn’t you mention this before?” Shawn asked, exasperated in the way he almost never was at others’ stupidity. It had been a long four hours.
“Everyone was being so nasty, I thought they’d turn on me if I admitted we were sort of… friends.”
“I thought Serafina didn’t have any friends?”
“I think she thought of me more as her minion.” Marcelle broke down in a flood of tears and Gus and Shawn exchanged a significant glance. “But we spent so much time together, I thought of it as friendship.”
Gus got his writing hand ready. “Tell us everything you know.”
Marcelle, as it turned out, did not know a whole lot.
No, Marcelle had not noticed anything out of the ordinary. It certainly didn’t seem like Serafina knew Luciano when she went up on stage. Yes, she had laughed at Serafina’s hypnotism, as had Serafina, in the second before she reverted back to herself --- and then she simply appeared slightly confused it was over. Yes, Serafina was there because she was scoping out the competition. She was also planning ways to sabotage the rival theater’s success. She’d said she was trying to see how easy it was to sneak a bag with a dead cockroach in it into the theater, but had forgotten the bag. Yes, they’d eaten and drunk everything on the receipt, that’s what led to the next part of Marcelle’s recount.
She’d had to leave Hardeen’s early because one of the many things she’d eaten hadn’t agreed with her (“the tortellini” Gus mouthed to Shawn, “or the hot wings” Shawn mouthed back. They spent a minute mouthing other foods to one another.) Marcelle had assumed Serafina would leave shortly after she did. She couldn’t think of anyone in Serafina’s life that she could be exchanging romantic emails with. Serafina had had a few one night stands, sharing wild sexual exploits in stories with Marcelle, but nothing approaching an actual relationship in the years they’d known one another. No, she couldn’t say she’d expected Serafina to kill herself, but stranger things had happened, like her Uncle in Alabama waking up one day after a stroke and speaking with an entirely German accent.
“That was on the annoying side of distracting,” Gus sighed, driving toward Hardeen’s.
“Yeah, I concede that it was not the fount of information we needed. There was one thing that Marcelle gave us, though.”
“And that was?”
“The reason Serafina was there and why she would have volunteered for the act.”
“I hadn’t thought of that.”
“And that’s why you’re the Robin to my Batman, the Toto to my Dorothy, the Troy to my Abed.”
Gus stretched his hand out for a fistbump, temporarily forgetting Shawn’s embargo on casual touch, and was dismayed when he was forced to draw his hand back to his chest. He was feeling a lot more like the Marigold to Shawn’s Midas.
Gus gazed at Shawn’s pina colada with jealousy. He could do with a drink, but he was way too responsible, no matter how tempting it was to drown his anxieties and sorrows.
Luciano was going through a long spiel and Gus thought he’d figured it out --- there were specialist code-words embedded in his story, things he was saying to prime his subject. In this case, it was song lyrics. Gus recognized the rhythm in how Luciano was saying ‘wouldn’t you like to know what’s going on in my mind.’ He was anticipating another horrible song and dance number performed by an unwitting victim. And, oh, he was right, because there was a straitlaced businessman getting up on stage, and there was Luciano putting him into a trance, and there was the poor bespectacled schmuck suddenly gyrating on stage and singing ‘Big Spender’.
Except, it wasn’t so horrendous, because this guy could really sing. And even Gus had to admit he appeared to be having a hell of a time. He was using his suit jacket sleeves like they were a feather boa, twirling about like Christopher Walken in a Fatboy Slim music video, singing like Tom Jones.
“Dude, doesn’t this bring out your inner performer? That could be you bojangling it.”
“As long as I was in full control of my faculties, yes, yes it does.”
Shawn took another sip of his drink. “You’re so insistent on always being in control.”
“So are you, in your own way.” Gus stared at him, eyebrow raised. “You can’t tell me, Shawn, that everything you do, every step you take, is spontaneous and improvised. I’ve seen you planning, and you might not call yourself meticulous, but you go through all the options in your head, like you’re choosing from a drop-down menu.”
“You’re so observant,” Shawn said, mocking --- but not fun and cheerful, more with something like anguish in his eyes.
“You’ve been rubbing off on me.”
Any other day, Shawn would have followed that up with a lecherous grin and “I wish!” It was all the more noticeable for its absence.
Two of the acts during the matinee were happy, joy-filled displays of talent and harmless fun. The other two were the same as those from the other day, the fateful day; excruciating exercises in human delusion and cruelty. Gus didn’t need to see someone convinced they were a snake, writhing all over their boss. He didn’t need the image of a buxom young woman convinced she couldn’t take her hands off her butt or she’d float up into the air.
Luciano was smooth and charming every second he was on stage. He did not seem like the kind of man who would use his powers for evil. But, then, wasn’t it always the nicest guys who were the scariest psychopaths?
“Green room time,” Shawn said when Luciano has taken his bows.
Gus followed him, though he really didn’t want to. This time, Bill the bouncer let them through with no question. Either he was worried about another pistachio crisis, or Luciano had told him they’d be coming.
Once they were in the green room, Shawn rubbed a hand up Luciano’s arm and clasped him on the shoulder. Gus looked on, not entirely acknowledging his sudden spike of jealousy. So, it was okay for Shawn to touch anyone else.
“You were amazing, man. I swear, if we had a lovechild, we’d have to name him Mandrake the Magician. With your powers of hypnosis and my genius-level intellect, he’d be unstoppable.”
“I’m not sure my wife would approve,” Luciano said, laughing good-naturedly. Gus narrowed his eyes.
Gus didn’t mean his next question to sound like an indictment, but it did. “You’re married?”
Shawn rolled his eyes at him, all ‘of course he’s married, doofus, didn’t you see the signs, there’s, like, twenty’.
“You’ll have to come for dinner. Belinda makes the best corned beef hash this side of Atlantic and she’s curious to meet you.”
“Corned beef hash?” Shawn stage-whispered. Gus shrugged.
“Have the photograph and receipt been any help?”
“Huge. Gigantic. Epic. Actual footage of the night in question would be better, though. You never did tell us whether it existed.”
“That’s because it doesn’t. We don’t record any of our shows.”
“That is a tragedy,” Gus said, and if he didn’t mean it in the slightest, neither Luciano nor Shawn had picked that fact up.
They spent the next hour chatting, seemingly aimlessly, though Gus was well-versed in Shawn’s information-gathering techniques, and Shawn accepted a dinner invitation for that night. He had always gotten along well with killers and Luciano had a manner about him that was beguiling.
“My real name is Lucas,” he admitted, “but my nickname’s been Luciano ever since I told my year three primary class I ate pizza every morning and every night. Derek’s always been rather jealous of me for that. They used to call him dirty Derek, because he once fell in a puddle. Nicknames stick, in Britain.”
“I call Gus Word-a-day-Wussypants!” Shawn exclaimed joyfully.
Luciano snorted in amusement and Shawn’s smile became blinding. Gus took a deep, steadying breath.
“Where is Derek?”
“Sourcing some new props from England for the show, as well as booking a couple of new venues. Derek was underselling himself as my props master, he’s actually my manager. He always has been the modest one.”
“Why do you think Serafina killed herself?” Shawn suddenly asked, eyes weirdly intent.
“I really couldn’t say. I didn’t know her. The police said there was nothing in her history to indicate depression, but there isn’t always, is there? Sometimes people just give up. I had a friend like that, in sixth form. Celeste. Outwardly, she seemed the happiest girl around. We spent our whole time laughing and joking together. And then, one day, she stepped in front of a van. Deliberately, witnesses said. Not vague or spaced out. She timed it precisely. I never did find out why. She hadn’t kept a diary, just letters from some boyfriend none of us had ever met. I always thought they were really weird. They sounded nothing like her.” Luciano sighed, deep and affecting. “It’s sad.”
Gus’s fist was itching to punch Luciano and his smug, arrogant face. As if it wasn’t bad enough the man could cold-bloodedly suggest suicide in 2012, he’d done it before? When he was a teenager? The guy was a creep of the highest order.
“I have to get ready for the six o’clock show,” Luciano said abruptly. “Thanks for your support, I really appreciate it. I’ll see you at about eight thirty?”
“Of course. And you’re welcome,” Shawn replied, all winsome charm and flashing eyes.
Luciano waved goodbye with a cheery smile and disappeared to another part of the theater.
When Luciano was gone, Shawn’s face went pale and he looked stricken. “I didn’t imagine that, did I?”
“No, you did not.”
“This is even darker than I thought and I thought this was dark in a Pink Floyd ‘Dark Side of the Moon’ kind of way.”
“We have to stop this monster,” Gus said, agreeing wholeheartedly.
Shawn gazed at him as if seeing him for the first time. “We really do.”
They kept spare sets of clothes at the Psych offices, which was good, because Shawn wanted to examine the emails and Gus was not feeling the freshest he could be, but he didn’t want the hassle of rushing home then back again.
Gus had unbuttoned his top three buttons by the time he realized Shawn was staring at him, all deer-in-the-headlights, dry lips smacking together in shock and something else, something Gus found confronting. He was torn between continuing what he was doing and halting his actions. Both of those options would lead to more torture for Shawn and their newly fragile friendship.
He settled on doing his buttons back up and collapsing onto his la-z-boy.
“Isn’t it a little sudden? You being attracted to me?”
Shawn gave a hollow chuckle. “Unfortunate, definitely. Annoying, frequently. Sudden, no.” He glanced at Gus quickly. “It kind of… comes, hangs around for a little while, and eventually goes. I think I spent the entirety of eighth grade worshiping the ground you walked on and imagining us marrying and becoming old together a la Tonto and the Lone Ranger. But you were so hung up on Christy-Lee Cullinan, so when Janie Holliday came along, I let myself fall for her. When it happened again, a year later, I convinced myself you were my body’s way of keeping the juices flowing.”
Gus wrinkled his nose up, allowing his disgust at this description cloud his mounting horror at the implication of Shawn’s confessions.
“It’s one of the reasons I left,” Shawn said, staring at his hands. “When things between me and Henry exploded into a great gelatinous blob of hideousness. I wouldn’t have gone, I kept telling myself to stay, but I was --- I wanted you so bad then and I knew I couldn’t have you, so I had to go.”
“You’re sorry, you never meant to hurt me, I know, Gus, I know.”
That had been exactly what he was going to say, but somehow it didn’t seem like enough, not nearly. The hairline fracture between them widened into a fissure.
“I wish I could be the man you need me to be,” Gus said instead.
Shawn looked surprised. Appalled. He bent, hauled Gus out of his chair, and hugged him tight before putting him at arm’s length. “Dude, you are. You totally are. You exceed expectations times nine thousand. It’s not your fault you’re not wired to be the man I sometimes want you to be. I understand that, I do, even if I sometimes act like I don’t.”
Throughout their childhoods, adolescence and adulthood, Gus had never particularly thought of Shawn as generous, but here, now, he realized how mistaken he was. In an instant he remembered every time Shawn had allowed him to be himself, not caring about the contradictions, improbabilities and peculiarities. How he simultaneously didn’t care Gus was black and yet also celebrated it --- which Gus had totally taken for granted until he’d gotten to college and discovered just how rare Shawn was. He was the only person who accepted Gus unquestioningly, who put up with his vagaries and his impulses, and expected him to do the same. Who asked the world of him, but gave it back in return. He pulled Shawn into another tight embrace, clutching the back of his neck, breathing against him like he was his only source of air. It felt so good having Shawn in his arms, comfortingly solid and real and his --- his best friend in the entire world.
“It’s not that I don’t appreciate that you can be a total cuddle-bunny,” Shawn began, shifting awkwardly. “But we don’t have a lot of time and I really need to check out those emails.”
Gus let Shawn escape, got his spare set of clothes and moved into the back room. He’d have to be more careful from now on, until Shawn found someone new to occupy his attentions. He knew it was difficult, Shawn being attracted to him for the moment, but it wasn’t impossible. As he changed, Gus started to draw up a mental checklist of all the people he could hook Shawn up with. If Shawn had someone else, a new girlfriend or… boyfriend, which Gus still found mindboggling, but he could learn to understand, it’d be like he’d never wanted Gus in the first place. Plenty of people were friends with those they were sexually attracted to, with that attraction never leading to anything but the occasional late-night dream.
The whole world of attraction? Goodness. It was the worst.
Gus had told Shawn that he’d probably be on the list of ‘guys he’d be attracted to, if he were attracted to guys’, but it wasn’t totally true. Shawn would be at the very top of the list, were Gus attracted to guys. He’d always thought, even when he was a kid, that there was something very pleasing about the set of Shawn’s face. An asymmetrical evenness, an imperfect perfection. His eyes were rich and intelligent. His smile --- the private smile reserved only for Gus --- the sweetest thing Gus had ever seen. Gus wasn’t blind or stupid. Others would call Shawn handsome. Overly effusive lovers would call him beautiful. Physical attractiveness? Shawn had it. Gus has noted that more than once. But it was more than that. It was spiritual attractiveness. And Shawn had that as well. Gus had spent entire years of his life never aspiring to be more than Shawn’s best friend. Being with Shawn gave him everything he wanted, everything he needed.
It was kind of a shame Gus wasn’t attracted to guys. But he couldn’t help a fact that had always been true.
Shawn’s voice interrupted Gus’s musing, echoing through their offices. “I’ve read these emails a billionty times each and still can’t see a code or pattern. I see a lot of gooey sentiment, including from emails supposed to be sent from Serafina, but there’s no cryptography or substitution, as far as I can make out.”
Gus walked back over to Shawn, feeling immeasurably better in his new attire. Shawn didn’t look up, continuing to speak.
“There’s no repetition that feels off. The only thing I’ve seen that’s bizarre is the email addresses. There’s more than one, including from Serafina. I’m beginning to think they’ve been spooned.”
“You mean spoofed.”
Shawn squinted up at him. “I don’t know, isn’t it sporked?”
Gus couldn’t contain his affectionate smile, and maybe it was relief the truth was out in the open, or terror at what was to come that evening, or too much thinking about how he could do so very much worse than Shawn, but he had a flash of dragging Shawn into another embrace. He swallowed against the vision, his Adam’s apple feeling too large in his throat. For a second, more, he imagined a world in which he hugged Shawn as often as he’d been visualising, without it being weird; pressing him tight and never letting him go. It was a warmer, happier place than reality.
“You know how you said there wasn’t a pattern or code in the main body of the emails?” he asked, mostly to distract himself from his racing imagination, but also because he’d noticed something hinky he couldn’t put a finger on.
“Yes, Gus, I said it a minute ago,” Shawn replied, rolling his eyes and using an obnoxiously condescending voice.
“Did you check the email headers?”
Shawn looked back at the screen, clicked into another couple of emails, then jumped up, clapping his hands. “Oh! Ohhh! See? This is why you’re my boy.”
“You know that’s right.”
There would ordinarily be a hug or fistbump at this juncture. There wasn’t.
Shawn looked at the clock in the bottom right corner of the screen. “Dammit, we’ve got to get going. I’ll get changed and I guess I’ll solve on the fly, which really doesn’t make any sense, no matter how small your Echo is.”
Gus ignored the non sequitur, not in the mood to correct Shawn when he knew there was no point. He was fighting the urge to follow Shawn into the other room, chat with him as he’d strip down, glance over his toned muscles and not have it be a ‘thing’, as they’d do any other day. It wasn’t any other day and he was going to have to accept that.
The house that belonged to the probably psycho, improbably Shawn-beloved Luciano was stunningly gorgeous, a fact Gus was unafraid to share with Belinda, Luciano’s wife. She smiled serenely and thanked him, and because he was a gentleman, Gus didn’t say ‘the same applies to you, hubba hubba’. He thought it.
The house gave the appearance of being a grand idea scaled down. Like the owners had wanted it to seem like you’d need a star map to find it, but couldn’t afford to achieve the effect except in miniature. It was in the style of an Italian villa; all Romanesque columns, louver shuttered windows, gleaming white walls, and wrought-iron balustrades for the two balconies that jutted out of the second story. The front doors were carved mahogany, and too large, really, for the fascia of the house, but Gus guessed that keeping with the vision of what the architect had wanted the house to look like was more important than what was feasible. As Belinda gave them a quick tour --- telling them Luciano had called to say he’d be a quarter of an hour late --- Gus admired the poplar trees of the garden (and it was a garden, Gus whispered to Shawn, not a backyard, as it was artfully landscaped) and Boston ivy growing up the wall.
Shawn hadn’t had any luck with the email addresses on the car-ride over so he was quieter than usual, only giving an Oprah-inspired compliment with exaggerated voice-work once instead of the six or seven times Gus was used to.
“We’re in the wrong business,” Shawn said as an aside, staring around like a kid in a candy store --- mostly because they were in the kitchen and there were literal glass jars of redvines, m&ms and British-style humbugs.
“If you hadn’t eaten all my redvines, Shawn…”
“I would be a puddle of Leonard Cohen flavored tears, Gus.”
Belinda glanced at them both hurriedly, a worried frown creasing her brow. “Can I get either of you a drink?” she ventured. She had a similar accent to Luciano and Derek, but it wasn’t as crisp. Her words didn’t come out as bullets --- sleek, and hard, and piercing --- but like Nerf-darts. If they were said with enough force they’d have the potential to hurt, but Gus didn’t think they’d be killing any time soon.
“I would like that very much, thank you, Mrs Linguist.”
“It’s Linehan, and please, call me Belinda,” Belinda replied, looking even more worried.
“I would appreciate a drink also, Belinda,” Gus said, because he’d never really understood why people found his and Shawn’s ability to rant at one another for fifteen straight minutes intimidating, but for some reason they invariably did.
“How long have you known Luciano?” Shawn asked.
“Oh, Lucas and I have been together forever, it seems. We met when we were seven and after years of platonic friendship fell in love when we were twenty-five. At least, that’s how I tell it. If you listen to Lucas, he’ll say he loved me the second I stuck bubble gum in his hair.”
“So, still at age twenty-five,” Shawn quipped.
Belinda smiled. Talking about Luciano had relaxed her. Gus felt a stab of anger on her behalf. There was no doubt in his mind that she had no idea her husband was a double-crossing murderer. She deserved better.
“How did you finally decide he was the one?” Gus asked, because he thought if there was some hesitancy or reluctance, there might be hope for her yet.
“It wasn’t a decision so much as a realization. I came to see that the most important relationship in my life, the one that most reflected who I was and who I wanted to be, was the one I had with Lucas.”
“No other relationship could compare to Sixteen Candles? They were all St. Elmos Fire, mediocre in every respect?” Shawn asked.
“No, not really. The other relationships I’d had were worthwhile, valuable. I’d loved those men at the time. It wasn’t a sudden revelation that my idiot of a best friend was the love of my life and the only one for me. It was a gradual understanding that we brought out the best in one another. And even though that also came with the worst, it was a price I was willing to pay.”
Gus felt even worse for Belinda. She was truly love-struck. He needed to talk to Shawn to find out how they were going break the news to her, immediately. He excused himself from the table, asking where the bathroom was located, and spent a good sixty-two seconds trying to get Shawn to notice his signal to follow him.
Shawn followed, eventually. Perhaps it was for the best there’d been a pronounced delay, but Gus wanted to ask these questions before the insane hypnotist executioner came back home.
Shawn was looking at him weirdly, tentatively slouching against the wall instead of coming close as Gus was indicating he should do. His posture changed when Gus started to speak.
“What are we going to say to Belinda? ‘I’m really sorry, Belinda, but your idiot best friend love of your life is actually a psycho killer, better run run run run run away?’”
“I don’t think she’d face up to those facts,” Shawn replied, “she’d be all tense and nervous, and she couldn’t relax.”
Gus nodded vigorously. “Exactly.”
“I don’t think we can say anything. How do we know she isn’t in on it?”
“That English rose is not part of a murder conspiracy, Shawn.”
“Of course,” Shawn deadpanned.
“What do you mean, of course?”
“You’ve fallen for her already. Wow, Gus, wow.”
Gus pitched his voice up, extra indignant. “I have not.”
“Dude. You wanna be the chocolate surrounding her lush strawberry filling.”
“I do not! Yes, Belinda is attractive, and no, I am not blind and stupid, but all I feel for her is pity. She’s in love with a man who isn’t who she thinks he is.”
Shawn blinked a couple of times, stared at the carpet. “We can’t tell her. Not before Luciano’s arrested for the crime.”
“We have to watch this poor woman get heartbroken, is that it?”
“Yeah, that’s it. Unfortunately, hearts get broken. It’s kinda how the world works.” Shawn brushed a hand through his hair. “We’ve gotta be getting back. Crunchy gravel sounds and headlight glare tell me Derek’s car just pulled into the driveway.”
They had a short argument involving extensive pointing and mock-whispers about who should go first and eventually decided they should arrive back together. Belinda looked up at them in a very knowing way and Gus felt heat rise up his skin at the suggestion in her eyes. He had to remind himself that people had always looked at him and Shawn that way.
The kitchen smelled good, the scent of baking in the air, or was it roasting? Gus had forgotten to google what corned beef hash actually entailed. He was about to ask Belinda when Luciano and Derek came into the kitchen, Luciano holding his hands out for a hug. Shawn stepped into his arms before Belinda could, making a soft “hmmm” sound. Gus didn’t know what his game was, but it was not cool. Luciano laughed, but pushed him away with a modicum of force, rolling his eyes at Belinda.
“You’ve met Shawn and Gus, I see,” he said with laughter still in his voice.
Belinda nodded, but her eyes were trained on Derek and Gus did not think he was imagining a guardedness in her expression. Her lips thinned out and her eyebrows lowered a fraction, making her look stern for the first time since they’d met. He’d have said she didn’t have the capacity to look stern. She pulled Luciano off to the side. They were whispering, but Gus made out the words ‘haven’t’ and ‘enough’. Shawn was obviously watching too, and he most likely caught more since he’d been teaching himself to lip-read.
Derek, on the other hand, didn’t look all that concerned, helping himself to a humbug and sitting on one of the stools by the breakfast bar.
“Good day, was it?” he enquired, polite to a fault. Gus wondered whether he knew anything of his brother’s actions; if, indeed, that was why he seemed surly all the time. Perhaps he knew it was only a matter of time before Luciano was caught and then he wouldn’t have anyone to manage. Or even something less mercenary than that and more brotherly.
“I’ve had better, but I’ve also had worse,” Shawn replied, and for a second, Gus thought he was going to reveal the events of the day, but instead he went on, “like the day I realized the video store had lost the only known copy of Theodore Rex ever seen in Santa Barbara. I’ll let you decide if that was good or bad.”
Derek was nonplussed, sucking on his boiled candy. Gus shifted from one foot to the next, waiting for Luciano and Belinda to finish their conversation so that the nightmare evening could begin. He really wanted to be back at home, curled up watching Phineas and Ferb and not having to wonder if he was being secretly poisoned, hypnotized, or both at the same time.
But Luciano still needed them. If he caught onto Shawn’s act, then they were in trouble, but currently? Killing a fake psychic detective and his best friend would only draw more attention. He should stop worrying. He didn’t.
“I’m famished,” Luciano said, suddenly, loudly, cutting his discussion with Belinda short. She shot him a look of betrayal, but asked him to lay the table and settled into the role of loving wife with well-practiced ease.
Gus watched as she doled out some pink and white substance, alongside some aromatic steamed vegetables and a sprig of parsley. It looked revolting. Gus had seen a lot of disgusting foods in his life, had made some, eaten most. But this took the cake and smashed it into a horrible million tiny pieces. A short glance at Shawn confirmed his suspicions that he was feeling the same way.
“This was my Grandmother’s recipe,” Belinda was saying, not heeding Gus and Shawn’s twinned looks of horror. “She was from Lancashire, which is in Northern England, and she developed her own version of the meal during World War 2. Provisions were scarce, you see. Corned beef was one of the few meat products you could rely upon obtaining.”
Gus thought it would be impolitic to ask if this recipe shouldn’t have stayed in World War 2. He sat at the table as asked and eyed the plate set before him.
Maybe he was wrong. Maybe Belinda was in on Luciano’s plan and they’d agreed that a fake psychic detective and his best friend dying from food poisoning was the best way to distract the SBPD as they made a hasty getaway?
Shawn dove into the hash with his fork, puffing cool air onto the mashed potato resting on his fork. His puckered lips helped Gus focus. If Shawn could do this, so could he. He mirrored Shawn’s actions. They both took their bites at the same time.
The ghastly repulsive taste he’d been expecting never came. The mashed potato and corned beef in his mouth was slightly salty, and a touch greasy, but it tasted good. Not exactly wholesome, but certainly not loathsome. He'd been misjudging the meal based on its appearance. Had been letting the cultural divide between them take over his common sense.
"No offense, but this is way tastier than it looks," Shawn said.
"Shawn, you do realize that prefacing any comment with 'no offense' indicates that you know what you're about to say is super offensive."
"I'm not offended," Belinda interjected. "I'm glad you like it."
As he shoveled more away Gus figured it was the best kind of comfort-food on a cold, chilly evening. Granted, he wasn’t used to too many cold, chilly evenings. Late at night during Winter it could get just this side of freezing, but mostly the temperature was mild. Corned beef hash seemed far more suited to colder climes. This didn’t stop him from clearing his plate. He was almost tempted to lick it.
Everyone enjoyed the meal, judging by the lack of conversation. Derek was the only one who kept up a running commentary, talking about Luciano’s tour dates. He was apparently going to Las Vegas in June. This was apparently good because there were a lot of magic aficionados there, including many collectors.
As it became obvious they’d all eaten their fill, more discussion started to build. Shawn talked a little more about Psych, Belinda told them all about the gardening she’d been doing. Gus rubbed his belly as he settled back in his chair.
Gus noticed that Luciano’s accent had drifted to sound more like Belinda’s than the posh accent Shawn had been mocking since they met. He sounded less like Giles from Buffy when he was talking and more like the actor who played him during the interviews that Shawn insist they watch on Youtube (along with self-explanatory The Adventures of Merlin, a weird yet relatable show called Manchild and over-the-top comedy Little Britain --- really, Gus should have twigged Shawn was genuinely bisexual as opposed to fooling around many, many years ago.)
Luciano was telling a story about the first hypnotism act he ever performed, and it was funny, it was hilarious, watching him act out the one person he’d actually hypnotized coming round. In those early days, it was mostly a charade, he said; all the other audience members were ring-ins. But then one man had stormed on stage and insisted he be next, and because Luciano had been learning about hypno-therapy and neuro-linguistic programming through Derek’s studies, he gave hypnotism a whirl. To this day, he said he wasn’t sure whether it was a placebo effect --- the guy wanted to be proved wrong, despite his claims --- or if it was attention grabbing, or what, but Luciano made that guy glide around the stage like he was wearing ice skates and attempt to toboggan down the stairs.
“Do you still have ring-ins?” Gus asked, wondering if maybe they’d been overselling his talent.
“No. No, I developed my skills. Really, I cold-read the audience and look for markers about who is the most suggestible. I pretty much know from the beginning who I’m going to hypnotize, and which bit I’m going to use. I mean, you haven’t seen it, but some shows are more successful than others. Once every couple of weeks I get someone who doesn’t go under and at that stage I either ask them if they want to fake it, or let them on their merry way.”
Shawn shifted in his chair. “Sorry to bring this conversation down, but you don’t you think it’s possible that Serafina was hypnotized to kill herself, do you?”
“No, I don’t. Not if it’s straight hypnotism we’re talking about. The general maxim is that you can’t hypnotize someone to do something they wouldn’t ordinarily do --- at the very least something they wouldn’t ordinarily do drunk. If there’s no history of depression, no indication of things going wrong in her life, she shouldn’t have been suggestible enough.”
Derek gave a sound of assent which caused Belinda to startle and then glare in his direction.
“How do you account for her death?” Gus asked.
“I don’t know. But I can tell you one thing. Dudley Woodford didn’t kill her. He’s the calmest, kindest person I’ve ever met. That’s why I’m so sure the police will come after me next.”
“We’ll find the real killer,” Shawn assured him.
Gus nodded, almost taken in by the assertion. Since when had he started to believe the murderer wasn’t Luciano? This game was too dangerous. Like being in a human-sized Mouse Trap, with a sadistic Rube Goldberg at the helm. He was finding it hard to keep track of which lies were related to which consequences.
“How are you going with the investigation?” Derek asked. His accent had stayed as pure and clipped as it had sounded from the beginning.
“Awesomely,” Shawn lied. “Awesomely to the max.”
“We had something English, now it’s time for something American,” Belinda interrupted, flourishing Pecan pie.
“You are too generous,” Shawn said, “but I think I speak for both of us when I said we’re extraordinarily full. Bursting at the seams. Stuffed.”
Gus was about to shake his head and tell Shawn he couldn’t be more wrong, but he noted the warning expression and hand gesture Shawn gave him and agreed.
“Thank you for the lovely evening,” he added.
Luciano escorted them out of the house, waiting to check they’d gotten into the Echo before going back inside. Gus wondered if it was him being polite or paranoid. Was it paranoia if they really were out to get him?
In the car, Gus turned to Shawn. “Who was being the better liar there?”
“I think we all were,” Shawn said. He pulled out his iPhone. “Which is why I need to crack this code. Can you drop me off at my apartment?”
Gus drove to Shawn’s apartment and nudged him when it was time for him to go in. Shawn’s eyes had glazed over and he didn’t seem to register Gus when he got out the car and went inside. Gus watched him for a while, feeling unsettled and confused, but when he began to yawn, he set off for his own place. He had a long overdue appointment with uninterrupted sleep.
Gus didn’t remember what happened in his dreams, only the emotions embedded in them. Joy, contentedness and belonging dissolving into fear, awkwardness and loss. When he woke up, it was with the sad realization that he hadn’t had a very restful night and there was no way he’d be getting back to sleep. Gus loved sleeping. He counted it among his top five activities. There was little better than curling up under the covers and slipping off into a world with no responsibilities or adventures. The part of him that resented constantly working adored the night-time. So to have that peace be shattered cut close to the bone. He deserved his solid eight hours and he deserved them to be as trouble-free as possible.
All of the complaints poised at the tip of his tongue went out the window when Shawn knocked on his door at seven in the morning looking bloodshot, jittery and in desperate need of something, anything, Gus wasn’t sure what. He was talking a mile a minute, bouncing on the balls of his feet.
“I’m so close, so close, Gus, a quarter of an inch. This close.” He held his fingers up. It was less than a quarter, more of an eighth. “But I’m missing something, there’s a teensy tiny detail I’ve lost or forgotten, and it’s crucial, it’s the answer, I know it is.”
His eyes were red-rimmed and blink after blink became longer and longer. Gus ushered him into his place and pushed down on his shoulders to get him to sit still on the couch. Shawn’s mouth opened in surprise, he gazed up at Gus, and for a second Gus wondered if this is what it would be like if he returned Shawn’s attraction --- if he’d push Shawn wherever he wanted him and there’d be no resistance, just stunned compliance until Gus made his move. He stood straight and said, with clear, pronounced tones, that Shawn needed at least an hour-long nap.
“You can’t go on like this,” he said to Shawn’s vociferous objections. “You have more chance solving this case if you’re completely lucid.”
“You think I wouldn’t sleep if I could?” Shawn asked, hollow-voiced. “I’ve tried. But I have a lot on my mind. And cracking this code? It’s imperative, you know? It has to happen. I keep turning it over and over and over and over and---”
Gus sat down next to Shawn. Shawn scooted to the side, as if to escape, but Gus wouldn’t let him. He grabbed hold of Shawn’s unkempt product-less hair and yanked his head to the side, down to his lap.
“Ow, ow, ow, ow,” Shawn whined.
“Be quiet. I’m trying to help you.”
Shawn attempted to get up again. Gus held him down, but let him get into a more comfortable position. Shawn’s head was pillowed in his lap, his legs dangling off the armrest of the plush couch. He’d lain like this before, during movie and tv nights, sometimes demanding Gus put popcorn into his wide-open mouth. Gus had never complained about the arrangement, because he appreciated the extra body-heat and brushing his fingers through Shawn’s hair was soothing. Gus picked a cushion up off the floor and encouraged Shawn to clutch onto it. Shawn always liked to hold onto something when he was sitting or lying down.
He started to stroke his fingers against Shawn’s scalp, curling a swirl against his temple with the tip of one finger. Shawn stared up at him, clearly perplexed, lower lip pouting.
“You need to rest, Shawn,” Gus said, softly. “Clear your head of all your worries and concerns. Calm down. The answer will come to you.”
“If I sleep now I’ll lose precious time.”
“If you don’t, you’ll lose precious sanity. Remember our sophomore year in High School? When you got hooked on caffeine tablets and stayed up night after night reading Dickens, Austen and the Brontë sisters? How you literally spent a month making next to no sense to almost everyone except me? And I had to translate? You can’t do that now. I forbid it. I need you to be what passes for normal in your mind.”
Shawn closed his eyes, but Gus thought he was doing it for show rather than necessity. Shawn frequently played for an audience that wasn’t there, but it stung, now, it hurt.
“I think I’m wrong, Gus,” Shawn said, sounding lost. “I think I’ve been wrong this whole time. About everything.”
“Shhh,” Gus whispered, lulling Shawn with steady, rhythmic strokes through his hair. “I’m here for you.”
Shawn made a snuffling sound that Gus thought resembled the words, “I wish,” but even though he’d closed his eyes to appease Gus, his breathing had genuinely slowed and shallowed out.
Gus continued ruffling his fingers through Shawn’s hair. Each touch made him feel a unique combination of comforted and nervous. This was the kind of intimacy Shawn had been rejecting yesterday, and everything Gus had started to realize about the reasons why gathered like a snowball. It was hard to ignore the frisson of excitement that wound its way up his spine at the glide of his fingers against Shawn. This wasn’t the first time they’d sat this way, but it was the first time he’d noted the welcome pressure against him, how secure he felt from having Shawn so close. How the possibilities seemed almost endless. He’d thought it once and now he thought it again: if this was how it always felt, then --- God --- he could see how it would be nearly impossible to give up.
It wasn’t the same as meeting a beautiful woman and thinking he had to impress and win her. It wasn’t his blood pounding through his veins so hard he could barely hear. But it was powerful, what he was feeling. It was unlike anything he’d felt before. His senses combined to overwhelm him, until all he could think about was how good it felt.
Entangled with all of that was the driving need to protect Shawn, to support him. Lives were on the line, or at least had the potential to be, and there was no way in hell Gus was going to stand by and let that happen. Shawn needed his wits about him, and if that meant cuddling up on the couch, well, he’d made far worse sacrifices over the years.
Shawn dozed for approximately two hours. Gus timed it, watching Shawn’s features soften in repose. He made subtle cooing sounds in his sleep, as he’d always done. It was rhythmic and calming and Gus figured he could have a nap, too, but ensuring he kept brushing his fingers through Shawn’s hair seemed more important somehow.
When Shawn woke up, he gazed at Gus bleary-eyed. For a little while, he looked content, as if waking up to the sight of Gus was all he could ever hope for. But soon he seemed to come to his senses.
He rolled off the couch and pointed in an accusatory fashion, like he was about to blame the failure of the Knight Rider remake on Gus, when they both knew the culprit was David Hasselhoff for not backing it 100 percent.
“You let me sleep?”
“I made you sleep.”
“Dude, not cool. In fact, positively hot. I just lost precious, precious time.”
Gus ignored Shawn’s ire. “Show me what you’ve got so far.”
Shawn pulled out his iPhone and showed him. It mostly looked like a bunch of random gibberish and squiggles, with a number or two thrown in.
“This is close?”
“It is, at the very least, adjacent.”
"No, Gus, really. It's a substitution cipher. I just can't quite figure out the substitutions yet. I had finally decided that letters represented numbers, which is why I came to you, and then you used your Gusly wiles on me to waste hours of deduction time."
Gus looked at Shawn's working out again. He noticed a couple of commonly repeating units.
"If they're numbers, they could represent times, right?" he asked, making a mental note of how frequently some of the letters were used.
"That's what I was thinking! Oh, Gus, you truly are the jelly to my donut."
Gus kept concentrating. "I think the R is a zero."
Shawn leaned close. Gus instinctively gravitated to the warmth of him.
"If that's the case," Shawn said, "maybe the U is a three. I tried that last night and then became epically confused."
Gus looked for a pen and paper. He found problem-solving easier using more traditional methods. He also felt like he had to keep his hands occupied, or he might find himself stroking them against Shawn’s perfectly rumpled hair again.
By lunchtime, and four scrawled pages of notes, they had what looked like a series of times and dates, as well as some other number strings they couldn't decipher.
"These would be awesome if we had any idea what they were for," Shawn said, too honest for his own good.
"And if they weren't all set in the past."
Shawn tilted his head to the side. "Which is weird, don't you think? Considering this email was sent last Friday. Why would Serafina be writing about two months ago?"
“I don’t think we’ll ever understand why Serafina Childs did the things she did,” Gus said on a sigh.
“I wonder if Henry can help? Maybe he’ll have more of an idea?”
Gus wrinkled his nose. “If we’re gonna keep company with other life-forms, you need a shower.”
Shawn didn’t look very offended. He not-so-surreptitiously took a sniff and then said, “I’ll get ready at my apartment and meet you in the bullpen in an hour?”
“Why bother? You’ve borrowed my clothes before. I think I even have one of your shirts left here from the hot sauce incident two weeks ago.”
Shawn hesitated, then retrieved a towel from Gus’s linen wardrobe and made his way to his bathroom. The sounds of ‘Hungry Like the Wolf’ filled the air and Gus went searching for Shawn’s shirt and other clothes that he thought would fit. He thought he’d have plenty of time, given Shawn’s usual propensity for half-hour showers, so he dawdled, attempting basic color co-ordination. But he hadn’t counted on Shawn’s ability to speed anything up if it was to comply with his own whims. He was still standing in his room when Shawn appeared, hair flattened against his head and droplets of water cascading off his chest and biceps.
Gus stopped what he was doing and stared. He knew this is what he was doing, but he couldn’t stop. This was by no means the first time he’d seen Shawn topless --- his desktop picture was still set on Shawn-as-Halle --- but Gus was frozen to the spot, his tongue too large and dry in his mouth, with his inner voice smoothly suggesting ‘if you licked Shawn right now, you wouldn’t have that problem’. A second inner voice sounded scandalized as it shouted for the first to shut the hell up.
Shawn was just as frozen as Gus, ineffectively attempting to hitch his towel up higher, because it was slipping down. And wow, Gus knew that Shawn had put on weight in the last couple of years, an early-thirties version of the freshman fifteen, and that the last few months of taking more care in exercise meant he was toning up, but seeing it in the flesh was different. He couldn’t help but imagine what it would be like to press up against him, seek out where he was firm and where he was soft.
“Clothes,” Gus said suddenly, gesturing at the bed. “For you.”
He walked out of the room as fast as his legs could comfortably carry him. He did not spare Shawn a second glance as he came fully dressed into his kitchen and declared himself ready to take on the world. Gus did, for the first time since this had all began, seriously wonder how he had so successfully been lying to himself.
Shawn didn’t say anything as they drove to the station. He examined their notes some more and made occasional harrumph sounds. Gus concentrated on the road. Actually, Gus only concentrated on the road so much as his survival instincts allowed him. Most of the time, he was concentrating on asking himself the questions he’d been avoiding for four days.
Questions like “if I didn’t like Shawn kissing me, why did I kiss him back?” and “how come every time we’re close I just want to be closer?” and “why I didn’t notice this sooner?”, all slightly clouded over by “am I out of my damn mind?”
He’d kept telling himself he wasn’t attracted to men, but it wasn’t true. It wasn’t true and that realization terrified him. Shawn was a man. Gus was attracted to Shawn. Nothing about Gus’s attraction to Shawn was strictly platonic. No matter how often his mind kept saying that wanting Shawn in this way was the worst idea in the world, his body had no such concerns. His body kept telling him it wanted Shawn on a primal level. Gus hated his traitorous body. All this time he hadn’t been angry with Shawn because he hadn’t asked permission. He’d been angry because he’d awakened something that Gus had gotten so good at ignoring, discounting and denying.
He’d been good at self-denial ever since he could remember. Shawn-denial? Major failure. He was never inclined to deny Shawn. But telling himself he couldn’t have, do, want something? Telling himself things couldn’t be how they felt because that just wasn’t how the world worked? It was easy. It had been drilled into him from a very young age. Freedom to say and do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted? Those things were not for him. They were for braver people than he. Whenever Gus had attempted that kind of courage, he’d only been shot down in flames. The one concession he’d ever made --- namely, Shawn --- was one that gave his parents constant pain. (How many times had he had the “it’s not that we dislike Shawn, it’s just that we don’t like him as your best friend” conversation with his parents? Too many to count. And when Shawn had secretly dated Joy, oh my gosh. This? Would kill them.)
And the thing was --- the very important thing was --- it wasn’t like Gus could turn around and tell Shawn he’d been wrong and had now changed his mind about the whole ‘I’m not into dudes’ thing anyway, because being attracted to Shawn was the worst idea in the world. Shawn was changeable and irrational and, sure, sensational, but Gus had gotten married to a woman like that, the last thing he needed was a man.
Shawn would only get bored and move onto the next available idiot and Gus wasn’t sure their friendship could stand that. Shawn had said so himself, that he’d want Gus until another Janie Holliday came along. Or Abigail Lytar. Or Juliet O’Hara. And since that field also included other men? Luciano. Lassiter. That guy from the nearest Dunkin Donuts. What chance would Gus have in the long run?
Gus knew that these were the precise reasons his subconscious had been doing an awesome job of convincing him he felt nothing when they touched, why he had spent so many hours stubbornly not thinking about the situation. He’d been protecting himself. The force of newly-showered-Shawn eclipsed all protection. Actually, it was probably more likely the two hours of petting Shawn beforehand had erased it. He was so screwed.
They made it to the station intact. Naturally, the first thing Shawn wanted to do was go talk to Henry, which was not great, as far as Gus was concerned, because Henry was reason 987 as to why wanting Shawn was bad news. And, yes, Henry was giving them the third degree with his eyes.
“Hey ho, my little papa bear,” Shawn said, clearly unheeding the unsubtle interrogation.
“Shawn,” Henry said, still staring at him like he was trying to break a perp.
“I have questions that I don’t want Lassie and/or Jules to hear,” Shawn continued in a whisper, pretending he hadn’t noticed the tone of Henry’s voice. “What say you let your son buy you a meal? I hear it’s Senior Citizen Sunday at Fishy Joes.”
“When you say buy me a meal, does that mean you’ll actually be paying?”
“Gus will be paying, but he’s practically a son.”
“I want the documentation that proves it,” Henry scoffed, before taking another look at Gus and looking chagrined. Gus guessed his expression spoke more of outrage than out-right terror to provoke that about-take. “I have been feeling hungry since my shift began three hours ago, which is when you were supposed to check in, boys. I warn you, because you’ve made me wait, I’m in a lobster kind of mood.”
“When are you not? Your hands are practically pincers.”
“All the better to pinch you with, Shawn.”
“Dude, you’ve already scarred me for life. One more pinch won’t make much of a difference.”
Once upon a time they’d exchange this kind of badinage with bitterness embedded in their turns of phrase, but when he wasn’t dreading spending more time with Henry, Gus was pleased to note that this had transformed into a lot of affection. Because his mind was very one-track at the moment, it gave him some hope to think that even if he and Shawn became estranged, they could pull it together eventually.
Fishy Joes was a themed restaurant, but it wasn’t terrible. Gus sat and picked at his food as Shawn showed Henry the list of dates, codes and times.
“Ever seen anything like this before, dad?” Shawn asked.
Henry stopped vivisecting a lobster in order to glance over the list. “Yeah, a few times. Why?”
“Serafina Childs was exchanging emails with someone. These were embedded in the email addresses and other header information. What do they look like to you?”
Henry pointed a greasy finger at the notepad. “These look like cargo tracking numbers, and these to me indicate drop-off or meeting times.”
“Huh. For, like, smuggled goods?”
“Yeah. Or drugs.”
“Ohhhhhh,” Shawn said slowly. He frowned down at the list again. “Could Serafina have been involved in drug-running?”
“She did buy those watches. As a way to launder the money, perhaps?” Gus offered, shocked that he was able to keep his spiraling panic under lock and key. Shawn stared at him like he’d forgotten he was there.
“Good point. We’re on fiiii-yah today.” Shawn attempted to flick gang-signs. His attempt was pathetic and Gus told him so, which earned him a well-aimed side-tap and a fair amount of hand-flapping that he found impossible to resist engaging in. Gus mentally added ‘reason 988’ to his mental list of ‘this is why wanting Shawn will only bring you untold trouble.’
Henry was back gnawing on his lobster. “Good to see things have returned to normal.”
Gus stopped flapping at Shawn and gazed down at his lunch. If only that were true. Shawn seemed to agree with his internal musings, because he looked from Gus back to Henry furtively.
“Do you think you two could work together to find out more information regarding these tracking numbers, while I guard Luciano?”
“I do not like the idea of you being alone with that man,” Gus said, finding it hard to keep the concern out of his voice.
“Who is Luciano and why shouldn’t Shawn be alone with him?”
“He’s a hypnotist and we think he’s the killer,” Gus said just as Shawn said, “he’s my shiny new friend.”
Henry stopped eating and glared. “I have a better plan. How about I help you guard Luciano, Shawn, and give some tips to Guster for his search into tracking numbers?”
Shawn voiced his disapproval in a series of vocal grunts. “That is a horrible plan.”
“Yeah? Unfortunately for you, I am your boss in more ways than one, so it’s the one we’re gonna follow through.”
As they ate together, Henry gave Gus some contacts to hassle and because he had so much to take in and absorb, Gus successfully avoided thinking about his Shawn-related idiocy for twenty minutes. After that his time was up and he was left to his own devices. Oh, boy. He felt positive Henry knew that Gus was harboring an illicit crush on his son, if only because he glanced back at Gus when they left the table and gave him what could only be described as a warning. Exactly what Henry was warning Gus about, he couldn’t say. But he could guess, in increasingly gory detail.
Gus paid for their lunch, of which he’d only managed six or so bites, and went to his Echo. Already, he was missing Shawn, but also passionately thankful he wasn’t within cuddling distance.
Gus knew that it was wrong to be bored when conducting important investigative work, but that didn’t stop boredom from rolling over him like the evening was beginning to roll over the day. He’d texted with Shawn to ensure nothing untoward was occurring in his absence, and received increasingly frustrated texts about Henry’s ability to drive Shawn up the wall. He was secure in the knowledge that Henry hadn’t left Shawn’s side, and he didn’t think danger was possible when the most over-protective parent in the history of the world was watching over his son.
Gus had found out information on five of the six tracking numbers they’d scavenged from the emails and was well on the way to finding out about the sixth. He’d traveled to two warehouses, the harbor mail center, and now the airport. The workers at SBA were surprisingly accommodating, but then, he had name-checked Henry. He had to wait until a guy called Manny was off his evening break and then he’d have all the corners of the puzzle. None of the missing middle jigsaw pieces, but at least the basic shape. Gus imagined it as a large rectangle, with a blue sky at the top.
So far, he’d discovered that all the tracking numbers corresponded to shipments that purported to be illusion equipment from England. Harnesses, pulleys, ‘boxes of different shapes and sizes’. Each piece of cargo was supposed to correspond with essential items from an illusionist’s act. But they had been packed in crates, and a couple of those crates had been huge, so Gus reasoned there’d be space for the shipment of less geeky, more illicit products.
It had to be that. Because no one would kill over ‘five identical trick straitjackets’.
Gus had also spent the equivalent of three hours throughout the day thinking about the kiss that had turned his life topsy-turvy, inside-out and upside-down. Now that he had acknowledged he’d more than liked it, thinking about the kiss entailed imagining what it would be like to do it again. The taste and texture of Shawn, how he’d rubbed circles into the soft skin of Gus’s neck. He wondered, if they kissed again, whether Shawn would be more aggressive? Or more tender? Would he giggle into Gus’s mouth the way he used to with Sindi Dubchek when they were fifteen? There’d been the hint of Shawn’s stubble against his skin when they’d kissed, and Gus had not found that at all unpleasant, so what would it be like after a few days of Shawn not shaving? Like, this evening? And why was that arousing more than curiosity in him?
“Hey, I heard you wanted to talk with me?” a burly, friendly-looking man that Gus presumed was Manny asked. He had some crumbs in his beard and it reminded Gus that he hadn’t eaten since lunch, and even then, not much.
He got his head back in the game. “I was told you handled a crate with the tracking number 00678908756. I was just wondering what you could tell me.”
Manny raised his eyebrows quizzically. “It’s possible I handled it, but to be honest, I shift a ton of packages. I don’t remember them from the twelve digit tracking labels hidden from view.”
“Your colleague Janette said it was about three feet tall, one wide and one deep? She said you’d gotten a splinter from picking it up, so you’d definitely remember it.”
“Why didn’t you say so before? Yeah, I do remember that crate. It’s heavy and it rattles. It was supposed to contain a hollow box, yeah? But I swear, unless that box is made of lead, it has more in it. We’re not allowed to open crates once they’ve supposedly been through customs so there’s nothing I can do.”
“Can you tell me anything else about it? Like when it was picked up?”
“It hasn’t been. A courier’s collecting it tomorrow. Not sure how long they’ll hold it for.”
“You have been very helpful, thank you, Manny.”
With the fourth corner of the puzzle put into place, Gus thought they were a step closer to solving the mystery. Keeping in mind that it was Shawn’s intention they take a break from one another’s company once all was said and done, he started to debate as to whether he should keep all of this knowledge to himself. Duty prevailed, as it invariably did in his life. He’d drive over and tell Shawn all he’d found out.
Shawn was flirting with Lassiter when Gus arrived. Twilight gave Henry’s porch a charming ethereal quality, and Lassiter had that ‘I am a rock-god’ smirk on his face he usually wore when he thought he’d bested them in an investigation. This was the smirk that Shawn had admitted on several occasions he kind of loved.
Gus felt what he considered a totally rational stab of jealousy at seeing Shawn cozying up to Lassiter. Anyone would feel annoyed seeing their partner in crime detection consorting with a major antagonist. Gus would be inclined to call him the enemy, if he weren’t keenly aware they were meant to be allies, and that Lassiter’s crazy eyes were crazy but not hypnotic.
“… me to find out and you to wait for me to tell you, Lassaertes,” Shawn was saying, eyes and smile twinkling with mischief.
Gus wanted to punch Lassiter for contributing to that smile, especially since, as had been happening more and more over the past couple of years, Lassiter was smiling back.
“Spencer, please do remember that I can charge you for obstruction of justice.”
Shawn’s smile widened into a grin. “You just want me in the cells so you can have your wicked way with me.”
“There’s nothing wicked about justice,” Lassiter proclaimed, then changed his tone entirely. “Really, Shawn, if you have information that’s germane to this investigation, you need to pass it along.”
“And if I thought it would help, I would. But my vibes are being blocked. I’m getting the snow show, every night, around 3 am, as if it was the 90s and none of the networks had stooped to late-night-slash-early-morning Christian programming.”
Lassiter sighed deeply and turned toward his car, for the first time noticing Gus in the shadows.
“Guster,” he acknowledged as he swept past.
“Lassiter,” Gus returned, because he was attempting to tamp down on his rage and it would not do to be uncivil.
Objectively, he knew he should welcome the connection between Shawn and Lassiter. He wanted, nay, expected Shawn to move on, didn’t he? Why not with Lassiter, who gave off the air of being lonely 23 hours out of 24 and could do with a fun-loving influence in his life? Why wasn’t Shawn allowed to find him attractive and flirt? Objectively, it was brilliant that he did, it would solve so many of their problems. Subjectively, Gus wanted to get all up in Lassiter’s grill.
Gus couldn’t stop his voice coming out all growled and guttural as he advanced. “Shawn.”
“Gus,” Shawn said warily, frowning.
“I’ve been out all day working on the case. I see you’ve been busy doing your best to get into Lassiter’s pants.”
There must have been anger written over Gus’s whole face, because Shawn’s frown deepened, he looked cut up, shredded.
“I’m so sorry I deigned to look in another man’s direction,” Shawn intoned. Gus was about to nod, and then he noticed Shawn’s bitter inflection. “I need to stop being such an abomination.”
That was wrong. Shawn had to know Gus wasn’t genuinely homophobic, right? Not only was Gus not the kind of person to hate others for anything other than a really good reason, he believed in equal rights. They’d had these conversations the few moments they’d veered toward serious conversation. Shawn couldn’t be thinking Gus was considering him less than human simply because he liked guys, could he?
“No, Shawn, no. It has nothing to do with Lassiter being a man, and everything to do with him being Lassiter. He’s like a disappointing first course in a restaurant famous for disgusting desserts. He’s bad, but you know he could be worse, so you’re weirdly thankful, even though he’s still awful.”
Gus leaned forward and grabbed Shawn’s wrists. Shawn made as if to wrench himself away, but Gus didn’t let go, so all it resulted in was them standing closer than usual. They usually stood close together anyway, so this was close. Gus could feel Shawn’s warm puffs of air against his face, could see the gold flecks in his eyes. He did not mind in the slightest.
It would be easy, so simple, to press forward and show Shawn just how much Gus had come to realize he meant to him. But if Shawn had a shot with Lassiter, the noble thing would be to step aside.
“I was taken aback at first, I admit that. I didn’t act my best. But I am not small-minded. You have the right to be with whomever you want. And if you’re serious about Lassiter, I’ll support you,” Gus said, stroking his thumb against the soft skin of Shawn’s wrist.
Gus didn’t think he was imagining the extra shine to Shawn’s eyes. Suddenly, it was hard to breathe, and Gus had to gasp. His gasp coincided with Shawn’s next bombshell.
“Lassie’s straight, Gus, man-crush on Special Agent Ewing, Juliet’s brother and the man your man could smell like notwithstanding. He doesn’t mind my flirting, but he’s never been interested in anything more.”
Shawn tried to step away again, but Gus held firm. He tilted his forehead down to Shawn’s until they were breathing the same air. It felt necessary, vital, that Shawn understand, deep in his bones, that Gus would always accept him for who he was, especially since, at the moment, Gus had no idea whatsoever who he was himself. More importantly, he needed Shawn to know he cared for him. Shawn looked at him; vulnerable, hopeful. It was the hope that Gus was clinging to.
“You can’t catch a break,” he said teasingly, knowing that even pathetic humor was better than none at all.
“I can’t catch a man. Or a woman, lately. I should let Henry take me fishing more often.”
Gus cradled Shawn’s head for a moment, a touch that Shawn craned into, and then, as if by mutual decision, they both stepped away from one another. It wasn’t what Gus wanted to do. He wanted to close the inch gap between them and confess he’d discovered more than information for their investigation that day, but he --- he couldn’t.
“Where is Henry, anyway?”
“He’s gone to get dinner. You’re gonna stay, aren’t you?”
“You know that’s right.”
“Good, because I have some much-needed venting I need to get out soon or I might explode, and for some weird reason my dad doesn’t like it when I vent about him to his face.”
Gus slept soundly that night, with only two memorable dreams; neither of which were appropriate for early morning recall. He stretched and performed his morning ablutions, and to keep himself from imagining Shawn joining him in the shower (he could still picture the way midday sunlight glistened off his shoulders), Gus cataloged the advancements they’d made in catching Serafina Childs’s killer.
Shawn and Henry had told Gus all about their day after he’d recounted his findings. Lassiter and Jules had finally cottoned on to the idea that Dudley Woodford would be the last person to commit murder and had set their sights on Luciano. They’d taken him in for questioning and he’d pointed to his ‘friendship’ with Shawn, which was why Lassiter had been not so subtly grilling Shawn for information when Gus had alighted on Henry’s porch.
“This is what we know,” Shawn had said. “Serafina was a meticulous hardass who was brilliant at her job, crap at dealing with people. According to the records we could find she’d spent the past six months exchanging emails with someone --- maybe a few someones --- using a substitution cipher in spoofed email addresses to indicate cargo tracking numbers, as well as drop-off dates and times. That cargo, originally from England, contained illusionists’ equipment, but also had free space, heft and weight. Two months ago, she used a large sum of money to buy everyone who worked at Washington State an expensive watch and then demanded they pay the money back through their salaries.
“Six nights ago, she went to Hardeen’s on State Street for a meal with her minion Marcelle, where Luciano the Linguist, AKA Lucas Linehan, an English hypnotist, used his skills to put her under and led her to believe she was a witch. Later that night she killed herself with a series of knife wounds to her arms, abdomen and torso, even though she had no history of depression.”
“None of this is concrete evidence,” Henry had piped up.
“No. It’s all circumstantial,” Shawn had agreed. “Which is why I think we need to give the case a little push.”
Gus had not liked the tone of his voice. It was altogether too innocent. “And how do you propose we do that?”
“Lassiter couldn’t hold Luciano, so he had to let him go. I think I need to tell Luciano about what we’ve discovered regarding the cargo. That way, he thinks there’s another voice that needs to be silenced. Basically, we trap him.”
Gus had hated that plan, more than he’d hated any other harebrained scheme Shawn had ever come up with. Henry similarly thought it sucked and blew. But Shawn was adamant and they both knew that if they just kept pushing him he’d go out and do it on his own. They’d pledged support.
That was what they were supposed to be doing that day. Gus felt a chill run down his spine thinking about it. He wrapped himself in his biggest, fluffiest towel, drying off quickly and biting into a slice of toast as he dressed. He didn’t have time to eat the pancakes he craved. He did have time to look at himself in the mirror. He was pleased to see he was looking the best he had in days.
Shawn looked a lot better, but he did not look his best. He mostly looked disgruntled. Gus had the irritating urge to hug him.
“Our plan has been delayed,” Shawn said. “Lassie’s taken Luciano in for questioning again. Toxicology came back on Serafina and it wasn’t completely clean. Woody found an injection mark behind Serafina’s ear. It seems she wasn’t only hypnotized. She’d been jabbed with a small amount of hyoscyamine.”
“Of course. Hyoscyamine is said to increase suggestibility because of the strong hallucinations it can provoke in some patients,” Gus said. “Isn’t this good news? We can go to Belinda and distract her, search the house and find out if there’s hyoscyamine in their medicine cabinet, or hidden elsewhere.”
“I guess,” Shawn said reluctantly. “Only --- you know yesterday, when I told you I thought I’d gotten everything wrong?”
“You were rambling due to sleep deprivation.”
“I think there’s something that we’re missing. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but there’s a detail we haven’t accounted for.”
“You just don’t like the idea of Lassiter stealing all your glory.”
“That too. God,” Shawn whined. “How long has this case been going? A month?”
“Try a week.”
“That’s way too long. Don’t we usually solve cases in, like, thirty-nine minutes, with three minutes left over to goof off?”
“In your dreams, Shawn.”
“In your dreams.”
Gus thought about his dreams and blushed. He manfully hid that by being take-charge and assertive. “What do we do next?”
Shawn shrugged. “What you said, I guess. We go to Belinda. We surreptitiously search the house. We each have double-handfuls of M&Ms. I swallow my pride and give Lassiter the concrete proof he needs to arrest Luciano.”
Of all of Shawn’s plans, it was probably the best, but it was hampered by Belinda not being home and the house having a not-horrendous security system. Gus had tried to get Shawn on his shoulders to look in at the bathroom window, but the bathroom window was opaque and Gus’s muscles were weakened from recent insomnia. They trudged away from the house.
“I thought you’d never ask.”
They went to Carlitos Cafe Y Cantina because La Super-Rica Taqueria point-blank refused to make either chimichangas or burritos. Gus didn’t mind too much. Carlitos was what Gus would call pleasant and Shawn would mistakenly call cromulent, and they could decide how next to proceed outside under one of the shades. It was a warm, breezy day and the smell of cheese filled the air.
Shawn ordered an avocado and sour cream chimichanga and Gus a burrito asado.
“I feel like I’ve spent the investigation continually distracted,” Shawn said, tilting back in his chair and peering up between the gaps in the shades. “I’m a better detective than this. How come I didn’t see the mark behind Serafina’s ear?”
“There’s been a lot going on,” Gus pointed out.
“Yeah,” Shawn said, hollowly.
“You’ve been two steps ahead this entire case. You can’t help it that Lassiter’s got longer strides and has finally caught up. Like you say, you’ve been distracted. We both have.”
Shawn leveled Gus with a look --- fond and wistful and maybe a little full of regret. Gus ignored the prickling under his skin at that. Yes, Shawn had been distracted. What had he been distracted by? Only the seemingly imminent dissolution of a life-long friendship. The life-long friendship. Their life-long friendship. The last few days had been full of earthquake-sized ruptures in their comfort with one another and it was all wrong.
Shawn didn’t eat his chimichanga. He stared at it, poked it a couple of times, and finally offered it to Gus, the smallest, tightest grimace tugging at the corners of his mouth. In over 25 years of friendship, Shawn had never willingly sacrificed an entire chimichanga to him, it just hadn’t happened. One time they’d been on stakeout together and Gus had been ridiculously ravenous because he’d just gotten off his route, his stomach growling so loudly it drowned out the radio, and Shawn hadn’t even deigned to give him the last eighth of the second chimichanga he’d been eating. Another time, Shawn had had food poisoning and was vomiting literally every thirteen minutes or less. He ordered 3 mini chimichangas and ate them all with a raccoon-like possessive glint in his eye, not heeding Gus’s protests that it was way too much food for a well man, let alone a sick one. Shawn never didn’t eat chimichangas.
And this was when Gus realized it must be love.
Shawn loved him. In every way. It wasn’t friendship plus sexual attraction. It wasn’t something Shawn could separate in his mind and therefore get over, like he claimed. It wasn’t something that would last for one glorious burst and then dissipate when he’d gotten bored. It was ‘wake up in the morning thinking about Gus’, it was ‘the world being a brighter place because Gus exists’, it was ‘sharing Gus’s hopes and dreams, victories and failures’, it was ‘I will give you my chimichanga, because you’re my favorite.’
And Shawn knew. He knew he’d been in love the whole time. He knew that how he felt had nothing to do with Gus being convenient, and everything to do with Gus being the one he wanted to spend the rest of his life with. He knew, but he wouldn’t admit it, because he also thought he knew that Gus didn’t have it within him to reciprocate his feelings.
Gus swallowed thickly, willing himself to calm down. Panic was rising up his spine, threatening to envelop him in a cloud of anxiety. His whole body was in knots and the last thing he wanted to do was eat, but he thought indicating this would be like rejecting Shawn all over again. ’No, I don’t love you that way and I don’t want your chimichanga either. How could you be such a damn fool to think I ever could?’
He ate, quietly, listening to Shawn prattle on about going back to Hardeen’s. He ate and tasted nothing. He’d never felt so weak in his life.
Hardeen’s was closed down because Luciano was at the station and they didn’t currently have any prepared reserve acts. The comedy magic act that had been in the green room a few days before had moved on to San Francisco and the next act wasn’t going to arrive until the next weekend. Bill the bouncer let them in, giving them this information as if he and Shawn were long-lost best friends. Gus allowed himself a moment to wonder how Shawn had that effect on everyone who didn’t end up wanting to punch his lights out.
A closed-down Hardeen’s was just as creepy as a Hamlet-hosting Washington Smith, and none of the cobwebs were silly string. The parquet floor took on the kind of clackety staccato with every step they made that belonged in 1990s slasher films. Illumination filtered in from a couple of dim house-lights and exit signs.
“We should search for the hyoscyamine here,” Shawn said. “To cover all our bases. And while we’re searching for that we might find other evidence that’ll make Lassiter look like a prize nincompoop.”
“You have a problem,” Gus asserted, but he could see Shawn’s reasoning. “If we split up, we could search this place properly in, what, an hour?”
“Race you. I reckon it’ll take me twenty-eight minutes to search the East side of this theater.”
“That’s not fair! You have Shawnvision on your side.”
“You have Gussmell.”
“They are not commensurate and you know that.”
“Commensurate? Really? What’re you gonna say next? Are you gonna tell me off for gallivanting? Haaaaaa,” Shawn mocked, waving his hands around.
“Suck it, Shawn.”
“You suck it.”
“No, you suck it.”
Shawn gave Gus the worst kind of shit-eating grin. “You won’t let me.” And with that, he disappeared into the East wing of the stage, Gus blinking at his retreating form.
It was true. Gus hadn’t given Shawn the time of day. Then, he hadn’t trusted him because of his own insecurities. Then he’d been too feeble and inadequate to simply talk to Shawn and explain all of this. The last of that triptych was probably the worst crime of all. They told one another everything. Or, at least, they used to. Gus could make all the excuses in the world for his latest behavior, but nothing excused his stupidity in jerking Shawn along like he was deliciously spiced chicken.
As he walked around the West side of the theater, lifting props and trying to determine where an insane hypnotist might hide a drug that would make his victims highly suggestible, Gus thought about that. He dissected his feelings. What was it that he felt for Shawn? What was it that made his blood pump and his heart race, his world have meaning?
The answer came in a single heady rush. He loved him, it was that simple. It was more than simple, it was right --- he loved him and he wanted him. And, sure, he was half-rigid with terror, and fully-boneless with worry, but wasn’t he always when Shawn was involved?
Life as he knew it? It was ‘wake up in the morning thinking about Shawn’, it was ‘the world being a brighter place because Shawn exists’, it was ‘sharing Shawn’s hopes and dreams, victories and failures.’ It would have been ‘I will give you my chimichanga, because you’re my favorite’, had he currently one to give.
Gus had only half-heartedly been searching for the hyoscyamine, because he figured Shawn had remembered some kind of compartment and had headed straight there. It was his way. If there was adulation to be had, he’d grab for it. Gus had long found it endearing, though sometimes the scales tipped into frustrating. Gus hadn’t been able to find anything else of consequence, either. Everything he looked at was either a prop for someone’s act, or some kind of cleaning aid. If there was evidence to be found in this theater, Gus would bet it was on the East side. That was, after all, where the kitchen and green room were located.
He was about to turn around and head in Shawn’s direction, when he noticed that it looked like the door to the First Aid box on the wall had been left slightly ajar. It made him hesitate. He saw the wisdom in hiding a drug among other drugs.
The cabinet was full of adhesive plasters, disinfectants and painkillers, and there, in the bottom left corner, there was an unmarked bottle. Gus snatched it up, shaking it to hear liquid sloshing around inside. He clicked open the lid and Gussmell came in useful after all. The liquid wasn’t a disinfectant or a painkiller.
Gus went in search of Shawn, his heart thumping rapidly, but whether that was because of his discovery or his decision to bite the bullet and tell Shawn the truth, he couldn’t say. He started in the kitchen --- because Shawn had to be hungry and that’s where he’d begin his own examination --- and followed on to the green room. There was no sight of him. He walked back out into the main hall of Hardeen’s and was about to call out his name when he noticed a shadow ahead. Gus rolled his eyes and stalked toward the stage, clattering up the steps.
The shadow wasn’t Shawn, like Gus had been assuming. It was Dudley Woodford. And he was holding a gun. That was all that Gus saw, before blackness descended, obscuring all vision and thought.
Gus came to with a throbbing head and wounded pride. Shawn had been right in that he’d been wrong, and now his life was in danger, because Dudley Woodford was not the kind, conscientious man everyone mistook him for. Also, he’d been knocked out from one hit to the head. That was weak.
Gus was expecting to be tied up, but he wasn’t. Instead, he was propped up in a chair on the side of the stage and Dudley was standing straight in front pointing the gun at him. Dudley was also blinking rapidly.
“Why’d you do it, man? Was everything you said a lie? Serafina did you a favor, my ass.”
“I haven’t lied to you,” Dudley whispered.
“Really? That’s the line you’re gonna spin me? So when you said you didn’t kill her, that wasn’t a lie, it was an embellishment of the truth?”
Dudley crouched. “Look, would you keep your voice down? He’s in the theater somewhere.”
“I know he is, he’s my partner. Even if you kill me, he’s gonna have you arrested. He’s also going to be broken, so, you know, watch out.”
“What are you talking about?” Dudley asked.
“This has never been about Serafina’s smuggling racket. It was revenge, pure and simple. She screwed you over, so when you saw your chance, you drugged and hypnotized her, implanting the idea of suicide in her fragile, suggestible mind. You’ve learned a lot from watching Luciano; his hypnotism skills are unparalleled. And you wanted justice.”
Dudley crouched lower and froze. Two more figures had come onto the stage. Gus had been going to cry out, but Dudley put a hand over his mouth and in the second it took for him to remember he could still make a hell of a lot of noise, even if it would be muffled, he realized the two figures were Shawn and Lucia… no. It wasn’t Luciano. It was Derek.
“I’ve worked it out, haven’t I?” Shawn was saying. Slurring. He lurched to the left and then the right, shook his head like he was trying to clear his mind. “See, Luciano practically said as much the other night, but I wasn’t as focused as I should have been. He said he’d been learning hypno-therapy through your studies. You’re the real hypnotist.”
“Yes, Shawn,” Derek said, sardonically, “your amazing psychic abilities strike again. My little brother’s hypnotic powers extend to drawing a line in the sand that a chicken can follow and seducing lonely old women into believing he could care for them. He’s never had any true talent. I’m the one who taught him the rudimentary skills required in putting someone under, and I’m the one who writes all of the scripts Lucas delivers whilst on stage.”
“You and Serafina had a smuggling racket spanning from England to America. It was an extraordinarily lucrative endeavour. But she was trying to cut you out of the profits. She purposely gave you the wrong date on one of the shipments. Said it was going to arrive in two weeks, when actually it arrived two days ago. It took me a while to figure out because I’d decoded the dates in the American style. But you’re British, you put the day’s date before the month. And to accommodate you, Serafina used to do that too.
“Until this one time, she thought she could pull one over on you. Gave you whatever evidence you needed to trust her without pointing out it was Americanized. You discovered this because you never trusted her in the first place, regardless of any evidence she did or didn’t provide. Never trusted her, even though you were having wild monkey sex together whenever you could.”
Derek laughed, full-bodied and icy cold. “Indeed. You’ve learned so much.”
“Hey, it wasn’t your first time using your skills to commit homicide. After all, you’d had such success when Celeste dumped you all those years ago. Tell me, did you use the same trick with hiding your true messages to one another? Don’t tell me. There were no emails then, so instead the codes were written under the stamps on the envelopes that contained ridiculous love-letters?”
Derek leaned in close to Shawn, putting his greasy paws all over his shoulders. If Gus hadn’t been trapped by Dudley, he’d be bashing his ugly blond head into the stage round about now.
“You really do know your stuff. There I was thinking you were merely a two-bit fraud.”
“Takes a fraud to know one,” Shawn spat back. “What have you done with Gus?”
Derek’s whole demeanor changed at that. He flicked his head up, scanned the theater. Luckily for Gus, the house curtain was mostly shielding him from view, and Derek had looked to where the tables stood empty.
“I didn’t realize your little lover was here. What fun. Do you know what I think I’ll do? I think I’ll hypnotize you into killing him and then killing yourself. Murder-suicide. A truly Shakespearean tragedy. We always destroy the ones we love.”
“He’s not my lover. He’s my best friend.”
“You liar. I was here when you two kissed. That was not a kiss between friends. You love him, even if he doesn’t love you. Which he most likely doesn’t, by the way. You’re very obnoxious.”
Gus stretched forward at that, wondering how best he could take advantage and overcome Derek, rescuing Shawn in the process.
“You wouldn’t know anything about friendship, or love. You and Serafina were a perfect fit, weren’t you? Both completely ruthless. You’re a regular Caligari. You’d have killed her even if she hadn’t tried to rip you off.”
There was a tap against his shoulder. Gus looked up and saw that Dudley was sliding deeper into the shadows. The gun was lying in Gus’s lap.
“It’s so sweet that you’re stalling for time.” Derek yawned.
“Oh, is that what you think I’m doing?”
Derek swayed from side to side in front of Shawn, speaking rapidly, but in a monotone. Gus slowly, slowly stood up as Derek launched into a laboured spiel.
“Listen, Shawn, fate may be up against your will, you may want him to wait until you give yourself to him, but I’m sure his hammer will come down upon your head, bang bang. You can follow him into the dark, when there’s no-one beside him as his soul embarks. You can call him a wild rose. We all know that from the first day you saw him you knew he was the one. Never wait or hesitate, get in kid, before it's too late. He shot you down. Bang bang. Right to the ground. Bang bang, Shawn, that awful sound…”
Gus began to creep forward, flinching as his shoes clickety-clacked against the wooden stage flooring. Derek produced a flashlight from his pocket and shone it into Gus’s face.
“There he is now,” Derek said, voice rising in pitch and fervour. “He makes you live, but because of that you both must die. Kill him, Shawn. It’s the only way you two can ever truly be happy. Who wants to live forever, anyway?”
Gus swallowed thickly as Shawn advanced on him, eyes glazed over. In his preparations against falling under Luciano’s spell, Shawn had never taken into account being drugged. He also hadn’t been drinking at all that day. He was just as suggestible as any other man --- maybe, as Madeleine had warned, even more so. Gus did not want to die. Not when he’d finally realized he had so much to live for. Now he’d never know what it was like to wake up next to Shawn because they’d spent the night exploring one another’s bodies. He’d never get to lick into his mouth after a pineapple smoothie, or indulgently feed him whipped cream and strawberries, eyes darkening as his fingers were suggestively slicked. They’d never grow old together and adopt a pet bunny called Mr Chomper, who’d gnaw through all their computer wires and television cables.
Gus raised the gun at Derek and spoke in even, measured tones.
“Call him off, or so help me, I’ll shoot you dead.”
“I don’t have to call him off. He’s going to stop you at any moment. Then I can wing my miraculous escape and you can die.”
Shawn had gotten close, so close. Gus could count the hairs on his chin. He grasped hold of Shawn’s arm.
“Shawn, it’s me. Gus. Your best friend. You don’t have to do this.”
“I do,” Shawn said in a flat, low voice. He stepped right up to Gus, free hand outstretched like he was going to strangle him. “You always destroy the ones you love.”
It happened in a split second. Gus thought Shawn really was going to strangle him, and brought his arms up to shield himself, but what Shawn actually did was take the gun. At the exact same time, Dudley sprang up behind Derek and held him in a choke-hold. Shawn aimed the gun he’d requisitioned and pointed it straight at Derek’s head.
“For instance, I love hammy British arch-villains in movies and TV. Adore them. They make my little heart sing,” Shawn declared, sounding triumphant.
It would have been totally badass, but then Shawn listed dangerously to the side, whatever he was drugged with taking full effect, and Gus had to wrap his arm around his waist to keep him upright. Gus clasped his hand around Shawn’s on the gun and kept it pointing straight.
“The only Shakespearean tragedy here today is your haircut,” Gus added.
Shawn giggled hysterically. After a minute, they shared a fistbump with their free hands.
“Please be calling the police now,” Dudley pleaded. “I’m strong, but I don’t know how long I can hold him.”
Lassiter and Jules visited Shawn in the hospital, even though he was only staying overnight for observation. It was crowded in the room, would have been even more crowded if Henry hadn’t gone down to the hospital canteen, and Gus pressed into the corner, next to a flowering gerbera sent by Marcelle.
“I don’t know whether to applaud you for being brave, or condemn you for being stupid,” Lassiter grizzled.
“I’m doing both, simultaneously,” Jules pronounced. She sat next to Shawn on the bed and smiled winsomely. Gus watched her with tired eyes, feeling that horribly familiar stab of jealously settle low in his gut.
“Juliet, I’m unwell and you malign me? This is why we can never be.”
“We can never be because I only like you as a friend, Shawn,” Jules said, belying her statement with an affectionate noogie against his head.
“Story of my life. And millions and millions, if not billions, of other people’s lives. Seriously, it’s a crazy common narrative.”
Lassiter cut through Shawn’s rambling. “Lucas Linehan was devastated about his brother, but is willing to give evidence that will contribute to the son-of-a-bitch going down for a long time. We also have Dudley Woodford’s testimony. Then there’s you two idiots. It’s actually looking like we’re gonna get justice.”
“I couldn’t imagine killing over magical memorabilia,” Jules sighed.
“Really? I could. A vintage piece can sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars. If I had no soul, I’d filet my granny for that kind of money.”
“And how do you know that, Carlton?” Juliet asked sweetly.
“I’m warning you, O’Hara, do not ask questions you don’t want the answers to.”
Shawn clapped his hands together like an excited six year old girl. “Is Lassie a master magician? I demand a demonstration.”
The only demonstration Lassiter looked like he was going to give was mass murder. Gus looked from Jules to Lassiter to Shawn.
“Weren’t they smuggling drugs alongside the magic junk?”
“Not even,” Shawn said. “When you went to get me these very delicious redvines, which, thank you, by the way, Jules and Lassie filled me in on the whole operation. It turns out, Serafina Childs’s and Derek Linehan’s contacts were stealing classical, vintage, old-timey equipment, like Houdini’s straitjackets, then smuggling them over here to sell to collectors.”
“We requisitioned the crate that you discovered thanks to your tireless investigative work,” Jules said, dipping her head respectfully at Gus. “It was an example of the saw-a-woman-in-two trick from 1919, complete with dummy legs. Apparently it would have fetched $456,000.”
Gus collapsed further into the corner. His whole life had been turned higgledy-piggledy all because of a few old magic tricks? He would never understand the world.
Seeing the way Shawn was proudly beaming at him, though? That didn’t stop him from loving it.
Shawn was released early in the morning. Henry wanted to pick Shawn up, but Gus begged to be the one to do it. Henry must have seen the desperation in his eyes, because he stepped aside, only warning Gus to take care of his son once, instead of the five times he obviously wanted to.
Shawn chatted amiably in the car about the different grades he gave the hospital food, but there was a shadow over his whole disposition and it was making it hard for Gus to react appropriately. There was distance between them again --- painful, cold distance --- and it was tearing Gus up inside.
At Shawn’s apartment, he lingered in the doorway.
“I guess this is where we part ways for a while, buddy,” Shawn said, awkwardly toeing at his boot and rubbing the back of his neck.
Gus shook his head, stepped through the door and closed it behind him. “I know that I’m normally meticulous about sticking to plans, but I can’t do that this time. I don’t want us to spend the next couple of weeks apart. I don’t want us to spend any long period of time apart. Ever again. We did that once. It did not work.”
“How come you’re saying this now?” Shawn asked, looking at Gus like he’d miraculously grown three heads, and all of them magic.
“Because…” Gus began, then realized it was easier to say with actions.
He leaned over and kissed Shawn full on the lips. Part of him was afraid that he wouldn’t feel anything. That he’d been manufacturing any kind of sexual attraction because it would solve a few of the problems between them. That his mind had been playing tricks on him because it was more traitorous than his body. But Shawn was so sweet, his lips soft and yielding, and Gus couldn’t fake the way his pulse raced and his skin tingled, how his hands pulled Shawn closer all of their own volition.
Shawn tilted his head up and to the left. “Gus, what’re you doing?”
“I’m kissing you, Shawn.”
“I can see that. I can taste that. Why?”
“Because you terrify me, you always have, but I wouldn’t want to live any other way.”
Shawn pulled back completely, putting at least three feet between them. “I hate to be the thunderstorm conclusion to a totally awesome day at the carnival, but that probably won’t be enough.”
“I also really, really like kissing you.”
Shawn’s eyebrows raised. “Okay. That sounds good.”
There was more kissing. Wonderful kissing. Deep, yearning, luscious kissing. And then Shawn pushed against Gus’s chest, his expression awash with that fragile look Gus wasn’t used to seeing.
“Shawn, we don’t need to talk about this.”
“I think we do. I’m willing to man up if you are.” Shawn took a deep, exaggerated breath. He moved deeper into the room and sat on the couch, dragging a cushion up as a shield. Gus settled next to him as he spoke. “I can deal with us being friends. It’s not even an ‘only’ thing, because us being friends is the awesomest thing in my life, always. I don’t want you to think that I’m gonna spend the rest of our days resenting you, or getting jealous, spiking your smoothies and calling you Bud behind your back, just because you don’t feel what I feel --- and okay, I know I haven’t always been a model citizen. I’ve made you do things you don’t wanna do. Like wear gold lame to work and that time I told you to pee in that weird goblin fountain. In my defence, you’ve never really stopped me beyond, you know, a glare or a teeny tiny punch. But that’s besides the point. What I want to say is ---“
“This isn’t pity kissing, this is lust kissing.”
Shawn’s eyes were wide and hopeful, with a shimmer of confusion. “Lust? Really?”
“You lust me?”
“I lust for you. Which I think we can both agree is something you’ve known about longer than I have.”
Shawn whispered. “I thought you did, but then you went Westboro on my ass, so I assumed I’d been hoping so hard I’d made it up inside my head. What happened to being attracted to women your whole life?”
“Didn’t you know? A man who likes women can also like men.”
Gus’s reaction was one of reluctant amusement. He knew that Shawn was deflecting, but, honestly, if that was the worst Shawn was going to do? He could handle that.
“I think part of me has always been aware that what we have isn’t --- it’s not what I’ve wanted to pretend it is. That’s the part of me that wore gold lame to work, but never peed in that weird goblin fountain, I can’t believe you thought I did that, there are such things as basic hygiene practices, Shawn.
“I’ve been in danger more times than I can count. I’ve done things I would never even think of doing if it weren’t for your suggestions. I’ve taken risks, pushed myself, and I’ve lived instead of merely existing. I’ve done that because of you. I need you. And if we remained friends, and nothing else, there would be a whole world I’d be missing out on, just because of fear. Because that’s it, Shawn. That’s all it’s ever been. Letting that consume me? That’s messed up. I choose to face my fear and accept that I enjoy kissing my best friend, regardless of how that contradicts everything I thought I knew. I choose to investigate where this can take us. I’m sorry I freaked out on you.”
“Did you practice that speech?”
“Yes I did.”
“It’s impressive. I’m impressed. Gus, I’m sorry I freaked over you freaking.”
“I forgive you.”
“I forgive you too. I forgive you times nine thousand. More kissing?” Shawn used an inquisitive inflection, but his hands were already wrapping around back of Gus’s head and he’d started pulling him close.
The cushion came between them, but like any ridiculously self-imposed barriers they’d contended with over the past week, it could be thrown away. Gus chucked it over the back of the couch and pressed tight into Shawn’s body, feeling the firm and soft of him, carefully avoiding where he knew he was ticklish… for now. The kiss started out close-mouthed but somehow not chaste, until Gus licked into Shawn’s mouth and tasted delicious pineapple. He worked on finding the best angles to make Shawn whimper and arch up against him, and it was good. He couldn’t believe he’d caused himself so much angst in the past week when he could have been enjoying this, enjoying Shawn. Now that they were here, his reluctance didn’t make any kind of sense to him, at all.
Gus kissed his best friend in the entire world and knew without a doubt that this was the way things were meant to be.