The telegram doesn't reach Carson until after he arrives at the hotel, one shy string of knocks against the door frame, pulsing in the pressure behind his eyes, and again where his glasses pinch the bridge of his nose. He opens the door, thanking the messenger with a brittle smile. "Unforeseen events. Symposium canceled," he reads out loud. The paper flutters to the floor. "Well," he says.
It's nearly midnight when he leaves the hotel, but Bourbon Street is all pretty lights and prettier men, and Carson buries his hands in his pockets and watches for the one who quirks his mouth and leers up at him from the painted steps.
"Anything I can do for you?" the boy asks when Carson stops in front of him, all long eyelashes and unforgiving smile.
"How old are you?"
"Twenty-two," he says. "Old enough."
Carson frowns. "You certainly don't look twenty-two."
The boy smirks and leans forward, resting one hand lightly against the inside of his thigh. "Then I suppose you'll be on your way."
Carson watches as he trails his fingers slowly up the inseam of his trousers. "Of course," Carson begins, "I'm frequently told that I don't look my age," and he flashes the stripe of green that's tucked artlessly against his palm.
Carson takes him back to his hotel, locking the door behind them as the boy begins to undress.
"How do you want it?" he asks Carson, sliding out of his underwear. "I mean do you like to fuck, or get fucked?"
Carson leans against the doorway, dizzy and fully clothed, watching the way the light curves around the muscles in his legs. He removes his glasses and sets them on the table. "Actually, I—" He looks away, almost shyly. "I'd really just like to touch you," he says, brushing the hair away from his eyes. "Would that be all right?"
The boy scratches behind his ear. "All right. Sure."
Carson crosses the room and studies him for a moment. For all his apparent youth, he has to lift his chin in order to meet his eyes. "Green," Carson observes, brushing their lips together awkwardly. "You don't see that very much."
He runs his hands down the bare skin of the boy's waist, pressing him against the wall before getting down on his knees. He can feel the boy's hands in his hair as he reaches up to stroke him, can feel the way he trembles when Carson moans softly and takes him in his mouth, struggling to breathe as he shoves his own hand desperately beneath the waistband of his trousers. It takes him by surprise when those fingers tighten in his hair, so tender in their urgency. He tugs his pants down around his thighs, squeezes his eyes shut and swallows.
"Here," Carson tells him after they've dressed, emptying half his wallet and leaving it on the table. He goes to lie on the bed, draping one arm over his eyes.
The boy's eyes go wide. "This is... Jesus." He takes the money, slipping it into his pocket. "Come and see me any time." He laughs prettily with a smile that Carson can't see, and Carson just opens his eyes against the coarse fabric of his shirt, blinking at nothing as the door clicks shut.
The first train to New York is at three o'clock the next afternoon. He sends word to his sister and checks his watch—it's hardly past nine—draws a bath and lies there against the marble, combing the soap through his hair until the water grows cold. He calls down for a glass of orange juice and throws his unworn clothing in next to the presentation he was meant to give on criminal law. The papers crinkle and bend as he snaps the suitcase shut.
Just before he checks out, a telegram arrives from one of the professors at Tulane, an old schoolmate of Carson's whose idea it was to invite him in the first place. Presumably an explanation, or maybe even an apology, but Carson just folds it up and drops it in the waste bin without reading it.
He arrives at the train station three hours early with a book whose pages he keeps forgetting to turn. There's clock above his head that chimes dutifully on the hour, but its warnings are in vain; when the train pulls away on the third and final bell, Carson is still gazing absently at his lap, five pages back from where he started because of the breeze.
He checks into the same hotel, following the bellhop down a foreign corridor whose air is stale with the lingering aroma of cigarettes. The room is just like his first one, only the bed is where the armoire should be and the doors are on the wrong walls. He doesn't remember the last time he ate, so he dines on his balcony on a rich soup of seafood and cream, staring out in the distance at the black and unsettling void of the Mississippi.
It's easy enough to find him a second time, lingering in the shadows of the doorway as he combs his fingers through the waves in his hair. "Hello again," says the boy, smiling viciously.
Carson jerks his chin. "Come on," he says sharply, but they've hardly turned the corner when the footsteps behind him go abruptly still.
"Hey, what is this?" Carson turns around just quickly enough to catch the angry glint in his eyes. "Go ahead, Bow, see if he paid me." The boy glares past Carson. "Filthy cops," he spits as he turns away, casting a hateful glance over his shoulder before taking off at a run.
"Funny thing is," says a voice from beside him, "this hasn't been my beat in years."
Carson looks over at the cop, sliding his hands into his pockets because he doesn't know what else to do. "He seemed to know you," he says finally.
"I've arrested him three times."
Carson clenches his teeth and waits to be questioned, or worse, taken in, but the man only smiles vaguely and steps closer. He's older than Carson, though not unattractive. Dignified and confident in his own handsome middle age. "Well," Carson offers after a moment. "Goodnight, then."
The man laughs, eyes crinkling at the corners. "I could tell right away that you're not from around here, but that Yankee accent is the clincher. Vacationing with the wife?"
Carson smiles thinly. "No. No, I'm not married."
"Ah, well. I suppose you can't get into trouble that way. It's certainly easy enough around these parts," he says obscurely, "if that's what you're looking for."
Carson narrows his eyes. "I'd imagine."
"Of course," says the man, "sometimes that's exactly what you're looking for."
"Sometimes," Carson agrees.
"Forgive me," he says with more intensity than the words require. "Surely you have somewhere to be. I didn't mean to keep you."
Carson gives a dry laugh. "Actually," he says, "I should to be on a train to New York. But I'm starting to think that maybe I'd rather be here."
"New Orleans is a lovely city," the man says, and trails his fingers gently over Carson's wrist.
The man—John, he tells him lightly—takes him to a pretty house of blue and white, up a small set of stairs and into a darkened sitting room. "Make yourself at home," he says, disappearing down the hallway. Carson removes his hat and drifts along the wall, gazing at a row of photographs whose subjects have been lost to the dark.
When John returns he's wearing only his trousers and a thin shirt of cotton. "You must be dying in that coat," he laughs kindly, so Carson pulls the linen from his shoulders and drapes it over the back of the sofa, inhaling softly as one hand slides slowly around his waist. "Is it all right if I kiss you?" John asks.
Carson nods, letting John turn him around in his arms. He brushes Carson's hair away and whispers against his skin, kisses his jaw and undoes his clothing until he's lying breathless across the sofa. "Have you ever been with a man?" John asks softly as he kneels between his thighs.
Carson gazes at the ceiling, shaking his head. "No. No, not this way—never—" he gasps as John touches him, throwing his head back against the cushions. "God," he begs, digging his nails into the other man's back.
It's still dark when Carson wakes up, the damp morning air prickling at the sweat on his skin. He shivers and buries his face in the pillow, too aware of that heavy, unfamiliar warmth at his side.
When he opens his eyes again it's to the smell of freshly made coffee, deep and rich as it slowly pervades the room. He sits up, reaching for his glasses. He has no idea what time it is.
"Oh, good morning," John says from the doorway. He's already dressed.
Carson instinctively pulls the sheet up to his waist. "Good morning," he says.
"I'm afraid I have to work today," John tells him, leaning forward to adjust his tie in the bedroom mirror. He studies his own reflection for a moment. "A seasoned detective should probably have more sense than this," he says after a while, "but if you'd care to join me for dinner this evening—"
"I'd like that very much."
John looks surprised. "Of course, I didn't mean to presume..." He gives a small laugh. "I don't even know how long you're going to be in town."
"Does it matter?"
"No, I suppose not." He walks over to the edge of the bed and sits down. "You're welcome to stay here," he offers, resting his hand lightly beside Carson's knee. "If you'd like, of course. For the afternoon. For the night. It's only me here."
Carson looks at him closely in the dim light of the morning. There's an unnerving sincerity in his pale eyes. "Do you make a habit of inviting men you've just met into your house?" Carson asks.
"No," John says, and slowly pulls the sheet down off his hips. "Not generally."
Carson laughs as John begins to kiss him. "I could rob you blind," he murmurs against his throat.
John pushes him down against the bed. "Promise you won't," he says, and drops slowly to his knees.
It's hours before Carson gets up, even after the soft click of the front door announces that John is gone. He pulls the sheet up around his chest, breathing in the choking aroma of coffee as the sunlight stains the wall.
When Carson returns to his hotel there's a telegram from his sister waiting for him. He doesn't read it, just folds it up and sinks it into the depths of his pocket, then runs a bath and packs his suitcase yet again.
He stops twice before returning. Once for a sandwich and once at the telegraph office. Something came up, he scribbles across the form. May be awhile. He gives John's address to the clerk.
Sitting on the bus, he dimly realizes that he's going to run out of clothes, and maybe even money, but the lights of the French Quarter are alive and bright even in the mid-afternoon sun, and the tireless whir of banks and boutiques, of shoes stores and law offices, are a small but welcome comfort. He stares out the window and waits for the driver to announce his stop, watching the colors blur and vanish through the smears on the glass.
John cooks a lavish meal of oysters and greens and Trout Meuniere, brushing his lips against Carson's neck as he pulls his chair out from the table. "There's more wine in my cellar than I know what to do with," he says, prying the cork from a six-year-old white Bordeaux.
"So what happens to all that confiscated liquor?" Carson teases. "You divide it up and take it home?"
John shakes his head, laughing as he raises his glass to his lips. "That bathtub gin will burn a hole right through your chest. I thought you deserved the real thing."
"Hardly," Carson murmurs, cutting neatly into his fish.
They talk as they dine; John tells him that he's been with the New Orleans Police Department since he was twenty-two, and that he plans to retire within the year. Carson tells him that he works for the District Attorney's office, and that he can understand why he'd want to retire.
"You aren't in town for long, then," John says. "Surely they need you back in New York."
Carson toys with the stem of his glass. "They think I'm giving a presentation at Tulane for the weekend. They don't know that it's been canceled." He looks up, smiling faintly. "At least, I hope they don't."
"You know, my daughter goes to Tulane," John tells him. "Of course, she wouldn't hear of living at home. She said she wouldn't be able to study with her father peering over her shoulder all the time. I wish I saw her more often than I do," he admits, "but I suppose there are certain...advantages to her absence."
Carson swallows his fish. "I didn't know you had a daughter," he says finally.
"Her name is Laura. Here, just a moment." John disappears into the sitting room while Carson empties the last of the wine into his glass. "This was taken last summer," John says when he returns, lingering behind Carson's chair as he sets a small silver frame down on the tablecloth.
"She's very pretty."
John smiles wistfully. "She looks more and more like her mother."
"I didn't know you were married."
"I was." John lays his hand against Carson's shoulder, brushing his fingers lightly over the back of his neck. "Of course, I later discovered that being intimate with a woman never excited me half as much as being intimate with a man, but I cared for my wife very deeply. She died when Laura was two."
"I'm sorry," Carson says, turning away from the girl's forlorn gaze.
"Don't be sorry for what you can't control. We all survive somehow. And I still have a daughter who means the world to me."
Carson frowns, reaching up to caress the hand at shoulder. "Your trout is going to get cold," he warns, and places the tips of John's fingers against his lips.
John opens a second bottle of wine that disappears as quickly as the first, and Carson starts caressing his leg beneath the table, narrowing his eyes until John finally groans softly and sets his fork aside.
"Leave it," he murmurs when Carson reaches for his plate, moving behind him to slide one hand slowly around his waist.
Carson lays the porcelain down next to Laura's pretty frame, sitting forgotten at the edge of the table. She smiles mournfully up at him from behind the glass, but Carson only closes his eyes and turns away, following John down the darkened hallway as he reaches for the buttons on his shirt.
When Carson wakes up it's to the fitful rhythm of a fleeting summer storm, crashing against the window as warm hands glide gently over his skin. John kisses his shoulder and threads whispers through his hair, tangling their legs together beneath the soft cotton sheets.
"What are you going to tell them," Carson sighs as John's fingers dig into his hips, "when they want to know why you're late?"
Laughing softly, John kisses his neck and presses him down against the bed. "An odd concern, coming from you. I do enjoy the occasional day off, you know."
Carson's breath catches in his throat. "I'm glad," he says after a moment, and John just slides beneath the covers and gently spreads his knees apart.
They spend the entire morning in bed, making love in the relentless summer heat until John's hair is damp with sweat and Carson's voice is raw. The rain stopped falling hours ago, but Carson can still hear the water trickling softly from rafters, can still see the ripple of John's curtains when he presses his hands to his eyes, blinking away the patterns in the lace as his muscles begin to ache.
"I like New Orleans," Carson says absently as John places the sugar on the table.
"You've hardly seen New Orleans."
Carson brings the coffee to his lips, watching him over the rim of his cup. "Maybe I like what I've seen."
"What about your job?"
"There are jobs everywhere."
John gives him a thin smile, setting his teaspoon aside. "I won't deny that I enjoy your company, Carson. You're charming and well-educated and, frankly speaking, exceptionally attractive, but you can't expect me to believe that having an affair with a forty-five-year-old man is how you envisioned spending the rest of your life. How old are you, anyway? Thirty? You're closer to my daughter's age than to mine."
"What does it matter?"
"It doesn't, I suppose." Then he pauses. "Did you really come here to give a presentation on criminal law, or was that something you invented for my benefit?"
"I did," Carson insists. "It took me all night. The papers are still in a crumpled mess at the bottom of my suitcase. It was a very good presentation. Would you like to read it?"
John lowers his eyes. "No. No, I apologize," he says, brushing his fingers gently across Carson's wrist. "I have no real reason to doubt you. I just... You're so very young. I suppose I can't quite figure you out."
"One could say the same of you," Carson reminds him. "After all, you just made breakfast for a man you hardly know." He lowers his coffee. "Maybe there's nothing left for me in New York."
"I suppose that's your decision to make."
"It is," Carson agrees, and leaves the table to go take a bath.
When he comes back, John is sitting on the living room sofa, turning a small slip of paper over in the palm of his hand.
"What's that?" Carson asks, cleaning the lens of his glasses.
Expressionless, John hands him the card. "Telegram. It came while you were getting dressed."
Carson looks down at the note, and his blood curdles in his veins.
Nancy does nothing but cry day and night for her mother and father. She refuses to play. She refuses to eat. Such a loving child hardly deserves to be left with neither. Please come home. Eloise.
"Ah. It's from my sister," Carson says distantly. "I gave her your address. I hope you don't mind."
Carson folds the telegram in half and says nothing, just stares vacantly at a blemish in the wood of the table.
"You told me you didn't have a family," John says.
Carson doesn't look at him. "That's not true. I told you I wasn't married."
"But you were. You were married." Carson can hear the anger rising in his voice, seeping into his words like slow-spreading poison. "You have a daughter."
"I do," Carson admits after a moment, wringing the telegram in his hands. "Her mother—my wife—she passed away in the spring. There was nothing the doctors could do. There was nothing anyone could do. Nancy is our only daughter. She's barely three."
"And does she mean so little to you? After what I told you—"
"You don't understand," Carson says, shaking his head.
"Oh no? What don't I understand?" John demands angrily. "How much it hurts to lose someone you love? The heartbreak that overwhelms you when you wake up and remember that she isn't there? My daughter—our daughter—she's all I have left. To think that you would abandon your only child—"
"But you don't understand," Carson insists desperately, cradling his head in his hands. "We aren't the same, not at all." He lets out a sigh that wracks his entire body. "Because I don't think I ever loved my wife, not like you—not like I should have. I married her because it was what I was supposed to do. I supported her. I even cared for her. But I never loved her. When she became sick... God, you don't know the resentment I felt. The guilt. That sickening sense of relief when it was finally over. And now I'm supposed to go home and be a father to our child? How?" he demands. "How can I possibly face my daughter when hearing her laugh only reminds me what a wretched excuse for a human being I am? How do I begin to care for her when, in three years, I'd never bothered to learn?"
John says nothing for a long time, then takes Carson's hand in his, pressing the rumpled telegram roughly against his palm. "That's just it," he says, not unkindly. "You learn," and all Carson can think is how he's seen that beautifully mournful smile before.
The four o'clock train to New York is already waiting when Carson arrives at the station. He lays his suitcase across the seat next to him, turning the key in the lock as the scenery begins to fall away. Beneath his shirts and trousers lies the mess of papers that had once been his presentation on criminal law. He puts them back in order, smoothing the pages over his lap before setting them aside. He refolds his clothing and places it at his feet, lays everything out across the floor until the suitcase is nearly empty.
At last he removes a small silver frame from the lining at the bottom, carefully wiping away the fingerprints from her smile; she had always been such a joyful child. When she laughs her eyes shine like the Mississippi's forever-fleeting sunrise. Like the bright, blurry lights of New Orleans, lingering in the night until they become one with the sky. They're the same piercing blue as her father's, caught in the edges of her mirrored frame as he looks away and begins to cry.