The fourth time it happened, I drove Diefenbaker to hide under the desk and sang myself hoarse, going through every Stan Rogers song I could remember. Five times each.
The sixth time, at two in the morning, I called Ray.
Two week's worth of inane tasks and immobility shivered through me. I was quivering with the need to move, to run, to do something. Cold sweat prickled across my upper lip. I'd tried sleeping. When that failed, I tried counting sheep, then doing sit-ups and jumping jacks. I'd been pacing the lobby for forty-five minutes when I found the receiver in my hand and a persistent ringing in my ears. He must have turned off the answering machine; the phone rang eight, nine, ten times before he picked up.
"mmmyeah?" His voice was rasping and blurred.
I was silent. Shaking. I couldn't do it.
"Hello?" He sounded more awake the second time. More solidified.
I forced a single word past my numb lips. "Ray."
"Fraser? That you?"
I tried, and failed, to form a response.
"You okay? Where are you? What time is it?" I heard the rustle of bedclothes and imagined he was sitting up. I pictured him, naked and pale, hair alternately plastered to his skull and standing on end. He'd be reaching for his glasses and squinting at the LED display on his alarm clock.
"You at the Consulate?" he asked. And, when my silence persisted, "Of course you are, stupid question, she says don't leave, you stay. Fraser? I'll be right there. Ten minutes, tops. You hear me? I'm on my way. Ten minutes."
He made it in five.
At all times I am on the knife's edge of death, and there is nothing more exhilarating.
The true punishment of Chicago is the overweening banality that governs my every moment. My consular duties, such as they are, are characterized by their insignificance: stapling and collating, removing staples and photocopying. Filing, perhaps, on a good day.
Some things are not duties, precisely, but insipid activities I use to pass the time: sorting paperclips according to size, rearranging the office supplies in the top drawer, and dusting the radiators. Then there is the responsibility I once was proud to carry out, but now most dread: standing guard on the consulate steps. Hour upon motionless, meaningless hour at attention. There are days when one more minute would drive me over the edge into madness.
Working with Ray -- both Rays -- has been my saving grace. Rushing unarmed into danger keeps my looming insanity at bay. Each window through which I throw myself erases an hour, a morning, a day of sitting at my desk with nothing to do. The cases themselves keep my mental faculties in fine working order. I enjoy sorting the physical evidence in my mind, assessing the likelihood of each criminal scenario, putting the facts and theories together like the many pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. But I live for the mad rush into a dark warehouse, bullets whisking past my cheek, so close I can feel their heat. In those moments, I come fully alive again. Instinct takes over, and every movement I make is laden with import. Roll behind the wooden pallets or run through the door? Stand and face the gunman or try to disarm him by throwing a stone? A wrong move might result in death or dismemberment.
In a typical week, these circumstances generally arise often enough to keep my skills honed. The previous two weeks, however, were anything but typical. Inspector Thatcher had been unrelenting in her refusal to grant me time to work with Ray. Intellectually I could understand her position, and obviously it wouldn't do for me to question the direct orders of a superior officer, even if those orders seemed to me to be extremely harsh, even if the memory of working at anything case-related was becoming dim. Surely, I thought, she would relent soon and allow me leave to ... leave.
But each time she stepped through the door with another request for collated letters, I fought the ever-increasing desire to lunge across my desk. I could almost feel her slender neck between my hands, hear the panicked wheezing as I throttled her. I could almost see, with macabre pleasure, the knowledge of her imminent demise in her eyes.
Instead, each time, I swallowed back responses unbecoming a gentleman, ran my thumbnail over my eyebrow, and nodded agreeably. And each time I funneled my base anger into an aborted fidget, I felt more distant from my body. Each time I said, "Yes, sir," rather than give voice to my frustration, I drifted further away.
After two weeks of such treatment, I felt out of touch with the corporeal world. I felt like a marionette and a puppeteer at the same time. I pulled my own strings from a safe distance and watched my body go through its motions.
"I find," I said instead, "that I'm ill-suited to inactivity." My face felt numb.
"Ill-suited." Ray peered at me through the dimness. I had neglected to turn on any lights. "You find that?"
"I do, yes." He was so alive. I found myself wanting to lean in, drawn by his solidity. He was so present.
He twisted around until he could lean against the stair-rail and contemplated me for a long moment. "Okay, let's talk about that, then. You never told me why she's got you under house arrest."
"Didn't I?" I said, knowing full well I hadn't.
He gave me a look that said don't play that game with me, and said "You said she was disappointed in your performance, which don't mean jack or shit. Thank God for Turnbull, or I'd never get any information."
"A whole lot of stuff that made no sense, mostly. But in between the lines, it sounded like she got her panties in a bunch over catching you in a clinch with someone. He just turned red when I asked for details, though. So I'm asking you. What did you do?"
"I didn't do anything wrong," I said, a reflex. But it was true, I hadn't, and that was certainly part of the problem.
Ray peered at me again and shook his head. " Yeah, no. 'Course not." He fell silent, watching me. He opened his mouth and then closed it. In the silence of the foyer the grandfather clock seemed to have an excessively loud tick.
Finally he spoke. "So what didn't you do that she wanted you to?"
Dragging it all up again felt like fingernails on a bad windburn, but I knew Ray wouldn't let it go. "There was -- the Inspector invited me to a dinner party." Ray scowled, and I knew why immediately. "It was more of a Consular function than a social engagement, Ray. Nothing untoward. At least --"
He shifted on the step next to me. "Keep talking," he growled.
I sighed, resigned to telling him everything. "Jean-Paul was someone I knew a long time ago. It turned out he'd requested my presence especially. He told Inspector Thatcher it was to renew our friendship, but --"
The next part was awkward. "Inspector Thatcher is used to a certain level of ... interest ... in the males of her acquaintance."
Ray nodded, impatient. "You mean she likes 'em drooling at her feet. I already knew that."
I studied my fingernails, unable to meet Ray's eyes. "Yes, well, it became apparent that Jean-Paul's interest was ... not focused on her."
"You mean -- wait, wait, wait. Skip to the end. She caught you and him --"
I nodded. In an instant, Ray was off the stairs and pacing, his fists clenched.
"Ray," I said.
"Where does she get off?"
"-- like to wring her neck!"
He whirled to face me. "What, Fraser? I can't get outraged over this? She's punishing you for -- what? Being attractive? Or because she thinks you're gay? Either way --"
"I believe she was quite embarrassed," I offered, not entirely sure why I was making excuses for behaviour I had, until that point, been just as outraged about.
"I don't doubt it, but that's no reason to do what she's doing."
I nodded, unable to disagree. "I believe she would have been happier if I had been ... a bit more distant toward Jean-Paul. She -- well, she said as much in the car. That I should have ... discouraged him."
Ray's pacing continued. He seemed in full detective-mode now, processing information and barking questions. "So how'd she find out, anyway? I'm assuming this didn't happen out in public, right?"
"No, we had ... she had booked a private room at the restaurant. And when she stepped out to freshen up and make a phone call ..."
"He jumped you?"
I smiled, despite the situation. "Nothing so crude, Ray. It was ..." I took a deep breath, finally ready to say it. "Any 'jumping' that occurred was ... more or less mutual."
Ray stopped his frenetic motion and leaned against the banister. He cocked his head to the side and raised his eyebrows, but didn't speak for a full minute. I had to turn from his gaze, the power of which unnerved me. It was an expression I'd seen him wear in every interrogation we'd conducted together -- he was piecing together a picture and verifying the facts. It was this very perceptiveness on which I had been counting. Surely now I wouldn't have to find the words all on my own.
After a minute had passed he nodded once and seemed to come to a decision. "Look, I'm not gonna beat around the bush with this. Did you and him ever do the nasty?"
I jerked my head around and stared at him. "No!" I said, surprised by his blunt question. "He ... no."
He nodded. "But you're telling me you swing that way." It wasn't a question.
"Yes, I ... yes." I felt my face heating under his intense scrutiny. I tried to decipher what he was feeling -- outrage, he'd said, but was there more? Jealousy, perhaps? Or was I projecting again, imagining it as I'd surely imagined all the other times our gazes had met and I'd seen something there. It was only because he reminded me of you, I wanted to say.
A look I'd never seen before came over his face -- part happiness, part relief, part ... something I couldn't even guess at. "Okay," he said, "Now that we got that out of the way, you want to tell me why I'm here at o-dark-thirty?"
"I was scared," I blurted out.
"You?" he said, mock-astonished, but he sat back down beside me on the stairs.
I forced myself to continue. Short sentences seemed to be easiest. "I feel ... numb."
"Yeah? Physically, or just mentally? Like nothing matters anymore?"
"Both," I said.
"Hunh," he said, and fell silent again, his fingers drumming on his knees and then abruptly stopping. "Listen, Fraser," he said, "I got an idea. It's possible I'm totally out in left field -- hell, I might be in the parking lot, even -- but I got a hunch."
"I see," I said, not at all sure that I did. A hunch -- even from Ray -- seemed a terribly tenuous thing. What I needed was a rock to cling to, the promise of solid ground beneath my feet.
"Okay, here's how it is. You trust me?" At my nod, he continued. "Follow me, and don't say anything -- unless you want to tell me 'no'."
"I oughta kick her ass!" he muttered. I watched distantly as his biceps hardened, yanking me closer. Then --
I could feel his breath against my cheek; each exhalation scalded my neck. He turned his head. For a fraction of a second I could feel the scrape of whiskers against my jaw. The soft skin of his lips brushed my earlobe, and I momentarily closed my eyes, savouring the contact. He turned us as though we were dancing, swaying back and to the left. My body, thrumming from Ray's proximity, followed his.
"You feel that?" he murmured against my ear. "You feel me?"
I nodded, hardly able to believe it was happening. When my back was to the desk, Ray shifted his hands to my shoulders and pressed. I stiffened my knees, barely maintaining my position under the downward force he exerted.
"C'mon, Fraser." He pushed again. "I got you. C'mon." Trust him, I thought, and I allowed myself to sag under the pressure until my buttocks hit the edge of the desk. Ray stood in front of me, eyes measuring me. His hands left my shoulders to skim along my arms, down to the elbows and back up, then down again to brush over my own hands briefly before moving up to my shoulders once more. "Okay?" he breathed, and I nodded again.
His hands trailed the length of my chest then, down to my hips and back up. Everywhere he'd touched felt like it was burning. I couldn't take my eyes off his.
"More?" he asked, and this time I answered.
His hands pushed down on my shoulders again, and didn't let up until I was kneeling at his feet. I spread my knees wide for balance and placed my hands behind my back as though at parade rest. There, in the lee of the desk, I could smell Inspector Thatcher's perfume and shoe polish, an unwelcome intrusion.
Ray threw himself into the Inspector's chair, framing my body in the natural splay of his legs. He reached out his hand and touched my mouth lightly. His fingertips against my skin held me in thrall. I could feel him. It was ... intoxicating. In place of my previous numbness, I felt distinct sensations everywhere the borders of our bodies came together. I leaned toward him, a moth to his flame, hoping for more. My mouth opened and his fingers slipped inside. I touched them with my tongue, feeling the roughness of a hangnail and tasting salt and sweat and Ray. I sucked on them, more sensations awakening lower in my body. Excitement flared in my belly, in my groin. I sucked harder and Ray gave a breathless chuckle. "Oh, yeah," he said.
With his free hand he fumbled with his zipper, then tugged his jeans and boxers down his thighs. I watched, stunned by the casual ease with which he offered himself to me, thrilled by the thought that I hadn't, in fact, been as alone as I'd assumed all these months. I watched his wet fingers move slowly toward his lap. He took hold of his penis and stroked, stroked, stroked until he was hard.
Then he tipped his erection towards my mouth in mute invitation.
I leaned in. I could feel his heat against my face, so close my breath warmed his skin and feathered against mine. His salt-musk smell drowned out the last lingering traces of Inspector Thatcher. Ray and I were the only people in the room, and I felt as if we were the only two left in the universe. Here, in the dark like this, he was both stranger and friend. The unknown quality tingled through my nerve endings. Being on my knees for Ray was unexpectedly exciting.
I tilted my head forward that last half inch and licked the head of his penis. Ray's whole body jerked when I touched him with my tongue. A warm shiver shook through me. It was working. His taste spread through my mouth, trailing sensation behind it.
I opened my mouth wide, intending to take Ray deep. Ray gripped my hair hard and pulled me back. My scalp stung from the pressure; I could feel the tug in my eyelids and temples. I dragged my eyes away from his exposed cock and up his torso. His T-shirt was rucked up, baring a portion of his abdomen. I watched the muscles there dance briefly, felt him tremble even as I saw them contract and release. The faded blue cotton covered his chest. His chin and cheeks were covered with his ubiquitous scruffy layer of beard.
I found myself absorbed in watching his mouth. His lips were parted to let in each deep breath. When he smiled down at me, the lines framing one side of his mouth deepened. He moistened his lips, a quick flash of tongue. I finally looked at his eyes. From this angle, they were shadowed. I could make out the darker shadow of his lashes, the slight reflection of light from the lens.
He waited until I had looked into his eyes, then grinned a slanting smile with only half his mouth. "Slow down," he said, tugging on my hair for emphasis. My head rocked back into his fist, and then forward towards his crotch.
I cleared my throat. "Understood."
I looked again at Ray's lap. From this distance, I could just barely reach him. I stretched out my tongue to its full extent and delicately licked the tip of his penis again. Ray's thighs quivered. I pulled against his grip until I could suck the head into my mouth. He untwined his fingers from my hair then, but left his hand in place on my head as -- a warning? Perhaps, but none was needed. I would go slowly, and savour this return-to-feeling, this blotting-out of the past two weeks, of the woman with whom I had shared certain things, but never this ...
I brought my hands from behind my back and used one to brace myself against Ray's leg. With the other, I encircled the base of his cock, one finger stroking his balls. He gasped slightly, then hummed. Questions flew through my mind -- How long has he wanted this? Why didn't he say? -- but none of them mattered enough to be given voice. All I knew, all I wanted, was the taste and feel and smell of Ray's cock in my mouth, on my tongue, filling me. Claiming me.
His. I was his then, to do with as he pleased. The thought rocked me, and my grip on his cock tightened possessively. He gasped again, then spoke hoarsely.
"After this, you're going to fuck me, Benton. Right here on this desk. Make me beg for it."
Warm. Warm and alive, as I'd thought. My fingers counted each rib, and at the top, like a punctuation mark, his nipple. I gently rubbed my fingers over it, feeling it get harder as I did, feeling Ray's cock get harder and then tasting the salt-sweet flavor of his pre-ejaculate.
His breathing got harsher, as did my own, and I drew back and teased just the tip of his cock with my tongue while I gently pinched his nipple between two of my fingers. I heard him mutter, "Gonna kill me - - Oh, God, yeah," and my good intentions were gone. I simply couldn't go slow any longer -- I had to know how it would be, had to feel it right then, that very minute. I lowered my head again and resumed my task. The combination of sensations was evidently enough to distract Ray from his earlier edict, and he gripped my shoulder hard as he orgasmed, his hips lifting again as he gasped and grunted.
I laid my head on his thigh, close to his softening cock, and closed my eyes. My mouth and tongue were tingling, and the rest of my body hummed with a strange blend of satisfaction and anticipation. I could feel a crease of fabric under my left knee and the harsh metal of Ray's zipper digging into my neck, but the possibility of moving seemed distant and far-fetched, like something I'd once read about. I heard Ray draw in a shuddering breath, then another, steadier one.
"Thought I told you to go slow," he rasped, but in a way that told me he hadn't minded my initiative.
"I don't always do as I'm told," I replied, and I heard him chuckle.
"Knew that. Thought you'd forgotten, though."
Another wave of feeling broke over me as I knelt there. "I ... had. Or nearly."
His hand was still on my shoulder, and he tightened his grip again. "Good thing I came over, then." I nodded, wordlessly. Ray continued talking, and at first his words made no sense to me, befuddled as I was. But he repeated them, sounding amused and impatient at once.
"Earth to Fraser. You got any lube handy?"
Sweat bloomed across Ray's lightly freckled shoulders, dampening the hair at his nape and trickling down his neck. He was stretched out across the inspector's desk -- legs spread wide, bent at the waist and bracing himself on the polished wood surface. I palmed his hip with my free hand, pulled him back at the same time I pressed my fingers in.
"Jesus, fuck!" His voice broke. I set my teeth around a vertebral knob and bit not-so-gently. A full-body shudder shook him.
He was noisy. Responsive. Everything I needed him to be to ground me inside my own skin. I licked his neck again, then pressed my lips to Ray's ear.
"Beg me," I said, remembering what he'd said earlier. He sucked in a sudden, wet breath and rolled his hips back against me. I rocked forward, pushing my erection against his thigh.
"Ben," he said. "You gotta. I want -- Oh, oh fuck."
The room was thick with the smell of sex. I inhaled deeply. I could taste him in the air. I was replete with sensations. It was deeply physical, intensely arousing. I added another finger, pulled back to watch my four digits disappear inside Ray. He shivered and dropped his head forward.
I barely heard it. One word, puffed out on an exhalation. His shoulders bunched with tension. I bent my head and sank my teeth into his trapezius. His skin was sharp with salt. He barked a sharp, wordless cry. And then he was begging in earnest, one word blurred into a mantra.
"Please," Ray said. "Please. Pleasepleaseplease." He was shivering continuously, thrusting back onto my hand. I felt as if I might fly apart.
I felt as if I could fly.
I slicked my penis and moved into position. I withdrew my fingers and in the same motion entered him.
Heat and a feeling of utter rightness overwhelmed me for a moment, until he pushed back, restlessly. We moaned as one and I began to move in and out of him, as slowly as I could.
"Ffffuck ... oh, God, please," chanted Ray. "I ... can't ... "
I wasn't sure exactly what he meant, but I understood the feeling behind it somehow. It was too much, all of it. I'd gone from no sensations at all to a surfeit. Everything was centered on the joining of our bodies. I was sure I couldn't endure one more second without screaming, and I never wanted it to end.
I bent my head to taste his skin again, wanting to see if it had changed. My teeth nipped, almost without my permission, and he stiffened and groaned sharply once more.
"Christ, please, Ben ... your hand, something ..."
I snaked a hand under him, finding his renewed erection and grasping it firmly. One, two, three strokes and he was coming, panting and making a mewing noise I was sure he'd deny later, were I so unwise as to bring it up. My own orgasm caught me by surprise a few strokes later, and I collapsed on Ray's back.
"So," said Ray after a minute or ten, "you able to move at all?"
"No," I replied, straightening anyway and pulling out of him reluctantly. Now that it was over I wasn't sure what to do, what to say, where to look. Everything had changed, and I hoped it would be for the better, but ... I couldn't tell. I began gathering my clothes, donning the armor of my boxer shorts as soon as I pulled them out of my jeans. I risked a look at Ray, who had also straightened and turned and was watching me, resting one hip on the edge of the desk.
"We good?" he asked, in his usual blunt fashion. I nodded, then found my voice.
"Thank you," I said, unable to think of anything else. Ray seemed to find it amusing.
"Not for the --" I gestured vaguely at the desk. "You're a good friend, Ray. I -- if you hadn't come over --"
He stopped me with a look, then walked closer, to stand in front of me. His hand came up to caress my cheek, then he leaned in and kissed me once, softly, sweetly.
"Like I said, just ask. Although maybe we could try a bed next time. I hear that's fun too."
"The Goat's in a no-parking-zone out front. I need to move it. Plus I can't remember if I locked my front door."
"Yes, of course," I said, disappointed but trying to hide it. We couldn't be joined at the hip, after all.
"How long's it take you to pack a bag?"
"What?" I asked, sure I hadn't heard correctly.
"We're not sleeping on that cot tonight, and I'm not leaving you alone yet. Grab your toothbrush and a change of skivvies and let's go."
"But ... the Inspector ..."
"Can take a flying --"
He looked at me, frowning, then said, "I'll have you back before she gets in. But I'm pretty sure it's illegal to keep you prisoner here, Ben. You might want to remind her of that. If you're done punishing yourself, that is."
I gaped at him. He continued. "There's nothing wrong with Jean-Paul liking you more than her, and there's nothing wrong with what you did either."
"I didn't want --" I stopped and considered. Truth be told, I had enjoyed the interlude, until I'd realized how badly the Inspector was taking it. But now that I knew I could have what I'd really been looking for ....
Ray was watching me carefully, waiting, I presumed, for the end of my sentence. I chose to begin a new one. "I don't want Jean-Paul."
Ray's smile was beautiful. "Then what are you waiting for?"
I kissed him again, quickly, before turning to gather up his clothes and the rest of mine. He was right -- the waiting was over. I had found my solid ground.