The first rule of being a cop is to have a healthy respect for evidence. You're trained from your first moment at the academy how to look for it, how to handle it once you find it, how to conduct an investigation so that some high-priced conscience-deprived defense lawyer somewhere down the line won't be able to have it thrown out of court. There are rules of evidence, and by the time you've been on the force as long as I have, these rules have metabolized into your being at the level of your cells. Evidence is all you really trust. Instinct, gut reactions, intuition...they can be helpful, but finally, it doesn't matter what you think you know. The only thing that counts is what you can prove.
The converse holds true as well. It doesn't matter what you'd like to believe. The evidence tells the true story. It doesn't matter if you've put all your faith in a particular version of reality, one that you cling to it like it's the only thing holding you together. If the evidence says that black is white, then white it is. If the evidence says that the cornerstone of your belief system is a bunch of bullshit, then that's what you're forced to accept.
That's why I take it as an absolute testament to Sandburg's importance in my life that for a few minutes that day I suspended the rules of evidence and just plain out refused to believe what I was seeing. The team from Major Crimes was searching the studio of a photographer suspected of taking inappropriate pictures of children. Sandburg was proctoring an exam, so I was partnerless at the scene, the way I'd wanted it anyway given the nature of the case and Sandburg's soft heart. I mean, I'd needed to steel myself for what we might find, and I've seen this kind of thing before, unfortunately. No matter how tough you think you are, there are just some things that never get any easier.
That was certainly true of what I ended up finding. Nothing could have prepared me for that. I just stood there staring at those black-and-white prints, blankly, slack-jawed, like those synapses weren't going to fire, that information wasn't going to be processed, not if I could help it. I tried every permutation of doubt: maybe it wasn't him, maybe it was just someone who looked incredibly like him, maybe I wasn't really seeing a very young Blair Sandburg, naked and aroused and having sex with other men. Maybe there was some other interpretation, one that just didn't spring to mind right off hand.
I gave it my best shot, but I'm a cop. The rules of evidence reasserted themselves eventually, and I had to let the rationalizations and the disbelief go. There was no other explanation. I know sex when I see it, and I'd recognize my partner anywhere, in any guise, at any age. The pictures I was holding in my hand were photographic evidence of what had to be the stupidest thing Sandburg had ever done, allowing himself to be used that way, so exposed and vulnerable, so on display, getting fucked for the camera. By other men.
I can't remember the last time I felt that god-awful, like the world had fallen out from beneath my feet, like I'd been sucker punched in the gut. That's how hard my emotions hit me, a sick combination of rage and shock, terror and betrayal. All that jagged energy had to come out somewhere, and I rammed my fist into the wall, screaming "fucking bastard!" at the top of my lungs. I don't even know who I meantthe sick ass photographer who had recorded what should have been such a completely private moment or Blair for being dumb shit enough to allow it or the asshole who was...doing those things to my friend's body. Maybe I meant all of them. I don't know exactly. I was just pissed off, and I needed to hit something.
Under any other circumstances, my outburst would have caused a big stir, elicited a flurry of questions, maybe prompted Simon to send me home. But we'd already found other pictures, nude photos of the sick ass photographer's own children, and tension was running pretty high for everyone. The other detectives stopped for a minute to look at me as I stood there rubbing my bruised hand, not yet calm by any means. Some of the guys nodded their heads and murmured sympathetically, but then they all went right back to work, anxious to find whatever they could on this guy. That's the first rule of evidence after all: make it stick. Most of those officers were family men with kids of their own, and nobody likes to see children hurt or exploited. So they were all eager to find enough dirt to lock this guy up and throw away the key. They just assumed this was the cause of my temporary meltdown.
If only they knew.
The pictures of the younger kids weren't graphic or overtly sexual like the ones of Blair. They were also in black-and-white, and somehow that gave them a raw sort of dreaminess that spoke of childhood. It looked like summer in the pictures, and the kids were captured doing kid-like things: swimming in a lake, running around in the yard presumably of the family's house, napping in a hammock.
In some of the pictures, they were clothed, and in others, they were naked. But it wasn't the nudity that made them so shocking or anything the children were doing. It was something more elusive than that, something in their faces and the set of their bodies, earthy and carnal, like they were little forces of nature in the true meaning of the word, a savage, untamed sensuality practically radiating off them. It was so unnerving you could barely stand to look at it, at the same time that you couldn't tear your eyes away. And that's what felt the most appalling about what this photographer had done: that he'd allowed himself to see his own children that way, that he'd been brazen enough to record it for everyone else to see as well.
Even though Blair was a teenager in the pictures of him, maybe seventeen or eighteen, nearly an adult, they still had something of that same quality, an unspoken sensuality smoldering beneath an innocent, wide-eyed surface, a coltish sexuality on the verge of breaking free. It held me in thrall. I couldn't stop staring at it.
If I'd thought Blair looked young and innocent when I first met him, it was nothing compared to the tender, geeky sweetness of an adolescent Blair. It was amazing, really, how different he was and yet how much he'd stayed the same. He was about the same height then as now, but much slimmer, skinny really, still a kid, not yet filled out, not yet a man. But his face was the same shiny beacon of self-expression I knew so well. And that's what captured the photographer's real interest, not his body, but his intensely expressive face, registering his every feeling about the intimate acts he was performing. Something about that seemed even more like a violation than having his body used and exposed.
Several of the photos showed Blair performing oral sex for what looked like the first time, and the focus was all on his changing emotions, telling the story of this new experience for him. Blair was down on his knees, and the other man's face was cropped out of the shot entirely. Blair held the guy's cock in his hand, looking at it curiously, studying it, his forehead scrunched up with concentration, like he was expecting to be tested on it later.
In the next shot, his lips stretched around the cockhead, conscientiously, like he really wanted to do a good job, the same way he might have tried for a good grade in class. Frame after frame showed the kaleidoscope of his reactions: the first blush of surprise turning to a grimace at the bitter taste of precum turning to enthusiasm as his face lit up and he took the cock deeper into his mouth, displaying the usual Sandburg exuberance. And finally, most unsettling of all, the pictures showed a kind of serenity settling over his face, his eyes closed, his body relaxed, caught up in quiet enjoyment, sucking on the dick like he was a little kid with a pacifier, as if performing fellatio was the most intensely comforting experience of his life.
I don't know how to explain how truly devastating those pictures were, like they were a threat to my very survival, like the most precious thing I had was being sullied and stolen away from me. I reacted the way other people might have responded to a church being vandalized or the flag burned. We all have something we hold sacrosanct, and strangely enough for me that's Sandburg.
I don't know how this happened exactly, but somewhere along the way, he became my responsibility, at first down at the station and out in the streets, and then everywhere, all the time, just because that's the way I wanted it. Maybe it started with Lash and the whole Blessed Protector thing, just an off-the-cuff joke he made that sank into me and became part of my standard operating procedure. Or maybe it was because he's turned out to be the best friend I've ever had and the truest sense of family. Whatever the cause, he just became mine at some point, a part of my territory. I don't know. Maybe it's some Sentinel thing.
In any event, the attitude cases down at the station, the ones who thought it would be fun to give the hippie a hard time, quickly learned that when they messed with him they messed with me. I can be one hell of a bastard when I'm looking out for someone I regard as a member of my family. Before long, the other guys down at the station stopped giving Blair shit and started asking where my shadow was whenever I showed up without him, not even blinking, like it was the most natural thing in the world for us to be joined at the hip. Because he was my Sandburg, plain and simple, and everyone knew it.
Your Sandburg is a goddamned cocksucker. A protesting voice, thick with disgust, sounding suspiciously like my father's, came churning up from the dark sediment of my soul. My head pounded, and I rubbed my temples. Finding out that Blair had engaged in sex with other men had flung Pandora's box wide open, and all the old demons were rushing out, the things my father had tried so hard to pound into my head about real men and sissies, the ugly thinking I'd tried all my life to resist.
I really thought I'd thrown off all that old shit the minute I left home, when I finally got away from the old man. I made a point to treat everyone the same. I never indulged in hateful comments like the ones I'd heard in my father's house, not even in the army or on the job where such trash talk would have instantly made me one of the guys. I made it clear to everyone that I didn't like that kind of crap. I even struck up a few casual friendships with some of the gay guys down at the gym, just to prove something to myself. It was never anything too deep, just chitchat about training regimens, trading tips about protein shakes and vitamin supplements. I never held what they did in their bedrooms against them. I never thought about it. I never cared.
But I did care what Blair did. Everything in his life, everything that happened to him, even if it was before I met him, made a difference to me. God, he was so young in those pictures, so wide-eyed and tender, so inexperienced in the world. Don't kid yourself that he was some kind of innocent. The cruel voice insisted. That boy took to cocksucking like he was born to it. I stood there trembling all over, frozen and ambivalent, not certain if I was pissed off at Blair or outraged on his behalf.
It was only the thought that there might be other pictures, that other people might see Blair so exposed and vulnerable that finally kicked me into action. I tore into the slide trays, went through the stacks of prints in a frenzy, looked for the negatives, but I didn't find anything else, which was quite a relief. My explosion of searching left me out of breath and a little sweaty, both from the exertion and my fear.
Rafe came up to me and put a hand on my shoulder. "We all know how you feel," he said, his voice low and hoarse with sympathy.
Every muscle in my body jerked with sudden alarm. I couldn't imagine what else Rafe could possibly mean but that they all knew about those pictures of Sandburg. I was terrified for my partner, feeling his humiliation as if it were my own, and he would be humiliated if those pictures got out, a distinct possibility if they went into evidence. There were still plenty of cops down at the station who'd like nothing more than to see the hippie taken down a peg or two.
"It's really hard seeing pictures of kids like that," Rafe continued. "But Simon sent an arrest team over to the guy's house. We're gonna get him."
I nodded. I couldn't look Rafe in the eye. I didn't want him to see the relief in my face, completely out of keeping with the circumstances. I probably should have been ashamed of myself. I mean, Rafe was worried about those young kids, and all I could think about was protecting my grown up partner who ought to be able to take care of himself. But I didn't feel guilty, just determined and impatient for Rafe to head back out to the car. When he finally did, I hurriedly stuffed all the pictures of Blair inside my jacket and zipped it up, hiding them, stealing them. This was such a basic violation of the rules of evidence that they didn't even bother to cover it at the academy.
But then again, if there was a course on what to do when you found pornographic photographs of your partner at a crime scene, I must have missed it.
I probably should have taken the photographs home, shown them to Sandburg and listened to his side of the story. A part of me wanted to do just that. But the other part, the part that was hard and hateful, kept insisting that I already knew everything, that the photographs said it all. I'm not used to doubt. I've always been a black-and-white kind of guy, the right decision always so apparent to me. But this thing with Blair had me lost in shades of grey, nothing even remotely clear. My indecision froze me in place. I hid the pictures in a shoe box at the bottom of my closet and tried to put them out of my mind, tried to get on with things as usual, until I could come to some kind of resolution, either confront Blair with the pictures or destroy them for good.
Of course, that was so much easier said than done.
I was sitting on the couch flipping channels when he finally came home that night, late like he always was on Wednesdays when he held his study group.
"Hey, man," he said as he came through the door and hung up his jacket on one of the pegs.
That made him turn back around to stare at me, surprised. I almost always called him "Chief" when we were relaxing around the house together, and even occasionally by his first name when I was feeling particularly companionable. I ordinarily reserved "Sandburg" for when we were working together down at the station or when I wasn't particularly happy with him. I could see him scrambling to figure out what he'd done to annoy me, and I also saw the confusion in his face as he failed to come up with anything. For once, it wasn't as simple as leaving the bathroom a mess or using up the last of the milk without buying more.
"Hey, man, you want a beer?" he asked, breezily, trying to get back onto even ground with me.
"Yeah, sure," I said.
He went to the refrigerator and got us both beers, bringing them over to the sofa. He handed me one of the bottles and sat down. He watched me carefully, focusing all that laser-sharp curiosity of his on me, taking a casual sip of his beer, trying to figure out what was wrong.
"So...bad day?" he finally asked.
I shrugged. "It was a day. You know, the usual."
For once, I was really glad that I was the human lie detector with the Sentinel senses and Blair wasn't.
"Mmmm," he said, a quizzical look on his face. "So what went down? Bust any bad guys?"
"Yeah," I said, staring down at a spot on the carpet, not looking him in the eye.
"Was it something upsetting, Jim?" he finally came right out and asked, tired of dancing around the issue.
"Yeah," I said, taking a long sip of my beer. Hell, that was the understatement of the century.
"What was it? It might help you to tell me."
I shook my head. "I don't think so."
"Come on, Jim. You know it's never good to close this stuff off. It always comes up to bite you on the ass later down the road."
I laughed at that, a bitter, humorless noise. "Yeah, you're right, Sandburg. The past is like that. It never stays buried the way you think it will."
I couldn't help turning to look at him, to see if that would bring up any reaction. But he just nodded, that patient "I'm listening" look on his face.
"So tell me," he coaxed.
"We busted a photographer for taking obscene pictures of his own children."
"Oh, man," he said, his voice filled with distaste for the crime and compassion for me, for what I must have seen.
"There's nothing lower than that, is there?" I asked.
"Can you imagine what that would be like, Sandburg? To be that kind of coward. To hide behind the lens of a camera while you're defiling something that should be...well, beyond sacred. Sick fucking bastard."
Blair swallowed hard, watching me, listening carefully as the rage came boiling out of me. Of course, he had no idea the true source of it.
"I can't understand why anyone who would willingly take off their clothes for the camera. Grownups, I mean, people who can choose, not like those kids who didn't have any say in it. Can you understand that, Blair? Can you understand why people want to do that? Why they spread themselves out like some kind of sleazy buffet, while someone takes sick ass pictures of them? What? So the perverts will have something to jack off to? And why? For a few bucks? For the cheap thrill of it? Tell me why, Blair." I glared at him. The images of him naked and at the mercy of other men, their sexual plaything, floated up behind my eyes.
He watched me thoughtfully and spoke calmly, in the low, even voice he uses when he guides me through some problem with my senses. "From what I understand there are lots of reasons people get involved in that kind of thing. A history of sexual abuse or rape. To buoy up a flagging sense of self-esteem. To get attention. I'm not saying they're good reasons, but as long as it's adults we're talking about, I think we have to respect their choices, even if they're not the same ones we'd make. I don't think we should judge."
Not the same choices you'd make, my ass.
"So being exploited in porn is okay as long as it only happens to adults, is that it, Sandburg?" I asked, my teeth clenched. I don't think I'd ever been more tense than that, my whole body wired tight.
"Adults have freedom of choice. They can walk away. And not everyone who works in the sex industry is exploited."
"Where's the dividing line?"
"I don't think I understand what you mean."
"When is it not exploitation any more? At eighteen? Or is it the legal age of consent? That's thirteen, fourteen years old in some states. And even if they are legally adults, what if they're emotionally young and naive, defenseless, with no one to look out for them? What if the people making the sick pictures of them are a lot older, a lot more experienced in the world, know how to push their buttons and manipulate them into getting what they want out of them? Can you honestly tell me that's not exploitation?"
He paused a moment and considered. "No, you're right. That does sound coercive. I guess it all depends on the situation and the people involved."
"Yeah, I guess it does," I said.
When the person involved was Blair, it made me absolutely insane.
"So the pictures you found were pretty awful, huh?" he asked, softly.
"Let's just say that I saw some things at the scene that really upset me."
"I'm sorry, man," he said, resting his hand on my shoulder.
I tensed when he touched me. I couldn't help it. A part of my mind was still spewing those ugly things I'd heard in my father's house. Another part of me just wanted to shake him really hard and ask him what the hell he'd been thinking, find out if he had been coerced or manipulated, and then track down the people who'd hurt him and set things straight. But the conflict split me in two and made me mute. I just sat there staring a hole of fire into the wall as he pulled his hand back and watched me, completely confused by my reaction.
"Let me know if there's anything I can do, huh?" he finally said.
I nodded, not looking at him. I couldn't trust myself to look into his face. I didn't know what I'd do, what I might say. It took every ounce of energy I had to keep my emotions somewhat reined in.
"Listen, I have to go finish up some work for tomorrow, but if you want to talk about it some more, come and get me. Okay?"
"Well...goodnight then, Jim."
He headed off to his room, and I downed the rest of my beer, just sitting there in the quiet living room, listening to the sounds of his page turning and the scratching of his pen and the clicking of his computer keys. These were the sounds I always associated with him, like it was his theme music or something. I usually found it so comforting, Blair being Blair, everything in its proper place, everything right with my world. But that night it felt like a lie, a clever subterfuge. My partner, my best friend wasn't who I thought he was. That notion made me want to hurl the beer bottle across the room just for the sheer pleasure of hearing it smash against the hard brick of the wall, to watch it explode into a million pieces like my life.
But I didn't want to face more of Sandburg's questions, so I picked my butt up off the couch and went into the kitchen to put the empty bottle in the recycling bin. I headed upstairs, stripped down to my boxers and slid into bed. As I lay there trying unsuccessfully to get comfortable, I could still hear Blair working away in his room, the familiar scratch, scratch, click, whoosh that got inside my head and mixed with the pictures of his body being used, making me feel sick to my stomach. My head pounded. My senses hurt, and I wished to hell that I could turn them off, wipe my memory clean. The back of my throat ached from trying to keep all that emotion inside, but I wasn't certain if I wanted to cry or scream my head off.
I tossed and turned some more. I closed my eyes. I opened them again. I couldn't find any relief. My attention kept going back to the doors of my closet. It was almost like they were mocking me, reminding me of the secrets that were hidden behind them. Go on. You know you want to do it. Examine the evidence again. Remind yourself what he did, what he is. The hateful, seductive voice inside me whispered. I flipped over onto my side, turning my back to the closet, but I couldn't stop flashing back on those images of Blair.
Finally, I threw back the covers and got up. I walked over to the closet, yanked the doors open and took out the shoe box, bringing it back to bed with me. I opened the lid like I was afraid there was something inside that would bite me. I had a kind of obsessive dread about looking at the pictures. I couldn't stop myself, but it was a thousand different kinds of agony to see Blair like that. I leafed through them and took out one of the pictures I found the hardest to look at, just for an extra measure of torture.
It was one of the shots of Blair getting fucked. He was lying on his side, one arm stretched above his head, one leg pulled up to give his partner access to the tender places of his body. The other man was curved around him, his cock deep inside Blair's body. The guy was a good ten years older than Blair, and it made me seethe. It was just what I'd said to him earlier: when someone older and more experienced talks a younger, more vulnerable person into something that isn't in their best interests, that's exploitation, isn't it?
I was looking for any way that Blair was the victim, if not exactly violated then at least duped. But I had the rules of evidence to contend with, and I just couldn't find the proof for what I wanted to believe. There was nothing in the picture to suggest that the other man was hurting Blair. In fact, the guy smiled at him with affectionate good humor, touched his hip with obvious tenderness.
And then there was Blair, fisting his own cock, his face intently focused, his mouth half open in pleasure, eyes heavy lidded, his expression suffused with an inner luminance, a quiet, rapt ecstasy. I thought about everything I knew about my strong-willed partner. If I couldn't get him to stay in the truck when his life depended on it, how was anyone going to talk him into doing something with his body that he didn't really want to do? Who the hell was I trying to kid? All the evidence was there in the picture. Blair had gotten fucked of his own free will, and he'd loved every minute of it.
Because he's a faggot. I shook my head violently, trying to fend off the malicious voice. I crammed the pictures back into the box and jumped out of bed, shoving it into the bottom of the closet, shutting the doors again. I threw myself back down onto the bed and closed my eyes tightly shut. I didn't really expect to sleep, but I just didn't want to see any more images of my friend doing things that made him nearly unrecognizable to me.
I definitely shouldn't have been the one to interrogate that bastard of a photographer the next day down at the station. But of course, Simon had no idea what had happened at the scene, and I was the lead investigator on the case. So I ended up in the box with the pervert.
I went in feeling hostile, no big surprise, and the guy's attitude only made it worse. He sat there so calm and cool that I just wanted to erase the smug look off his face with my fists. Sandburg's always telling me that I need to develop more healthy ways of dealing with my aggressive impulses. God knows he's right. But that wasn't the day to start.
I walked slowly and purposefully over to the table and sat down opposite him, silent, just watching him a good long while with a cool, steady stare. I knew there was more than one way to get rid of that self-assured attitude of his. It worked too. He wasn't nearly the cool customer he pretended to be. Most people aren't. My experience is that a perp may come in with a swagger, but when it comes right down to it, the cops scare the shit out of them. It wasn't long before the jerk was sweating like the pig he was.
"So are you finished staring me down yet, detective?" he finally asked, nervously, although he was still trying to cover it up with tough guy bravado.
"I was just looking to see what kind of sick bastard takes photographs like that of his own kids," I told him.
"There's nothing wrong with those pictures," he said, hotly. "I'm an art photographer, not some porno hack lurking down at the bus station promising runaways a modeling career."
"Mmm," I said. "There's just one little problem with that. You see, possessing nude photos of minors with the intent to distribute them violates the state's anti child porn laws."
He sighed with exasperation. "I don't expect you to understand the aesthetic concerns behind my work."
I shook my head. "No, I'm just a poorly informed city employee who thinks sickos who exploit their own kids for art or profit are pretty damned reprehensible.
"I am not exploiting my children! I didn't pose them. I didn't ask them to take off their clothes. That's just how they are during the summer, running around, playing. My wife and I have a healthy attitude toward nudity, and the kids have picked up on that. I captured what I saw. There's nothing salacious in those photographs."
I arched an eyebrow at him. "Isn't there?"
"No. They're my children, and I love them. I'd never hurt or take advantage of them. And I'd kill anyone who touched them. The last thing I'd want is to offer them up as some kind of masturbatory fantasy. But that doesn't mean I can just ignore what I see."
"That's how you see your own children?" I spat back at him.
"It's how they are. In my line of work, you can't let love blind you to the truth of your subjects. Sure, it's a hell of a lot easier to overlook eroticism where we'd rather not see it, where we expect only innocence. But still, the sensuality is there. It doesn't make it go away to pretend otherwise."
I shook my head at him. "You're just inviting people to look at your kids and see sex."
"We can't control our perceptions or other people's, only what we do about them. I can see that my children are earthy creatures with sexual natures without inviting a damned thing. And as I said before, I'd kill anyone who dared lay a hand on them."
"We're going to prosecute," I told him.
He smiled at me. "Go right ahead. I already have the ACLU on their way down here. I didn't do anything wrong, and it's not going to stick. Face facts, detective, you're all the dupes of that right wing Christian group that tried to get my exhibit canceled in Seattle last year. In case you didn't realize it, that's the source of the anonymous tip that allowed you to get a search warrant for my studio. Well, those people failed in Seattle. It never even went to court. And they'll fail now. You may not understand what I do, but I can promise you it doesn't meet the state's definition of child pornography. I'm a loving father and a responsible family man. My kids are bright, happy, well-adjusted people. Nobody has been hurt here."
"You're right about one thing. I don't understand what you do. How you can take something so private..." I broke off before I could finish the sentence, before I grabbed the guy by the collar and choked him, demanding an explanation for those pictures of Blair.
He smiled at me again, knowingly this time, and I didn't like it one little bit.
"It's interesting what you hear when you're waiting around to be interrogated," he said. "Like I overheard that your partner's name is Sandburg. I knew a young man once by that name."
I glared at him, rage and terror swelling inside my chest until my ribs hurt.
"He was a very beautiful boy. He didn't think so, but I saw it. I showed him just how beautiful he truly was."
I swallowed hard, and my throat ached. I averted my eyes, not wanting him to see the feelings I couldn't keep off my face. There was no point in trying to intimidate him now or scare him into giving up a confession or anything else we could use in court. The interview was completely out of my control. The minute he'd brought up Sandburg's name it was all over.
He leaned forward. "But I'm sure it wasn't your Sandburg. The boy I knew...well, I kind of doubt he grew up to be a cop."
I met his eye, and my hands shook. In that exchanged glance, we both understood each other perfectly. There was no point in continuing. I pushed back the chair and stood up, heading for the door.
"Oh, detective," he called.
I turned back around. "Yeah?" I asked, impatiently.
"The most interesting thing about my work is that even if you don't approve of it particularly it still makes you think. It pushes you beyond your boundaries. It shows you things about yourself you may never have wanted to know," he said. "That's what art does. I like to think that there are images somewhere in the body of my work that would affect you that way, Detective Ellison. I don't know why, but there's something kind of flattering in the notion that someone who finds my aesthetic so unseemly might be secretly sitting around at home poring over my photographs, unable to look away. Do you think that's possible, detective? Do you think there are any of my pictures that could impact you that way?"
He was smiling, looking bemused, as I stormed out of the room, banging the door loudly behind me. Simon came out of the observation room.
"What was that all about, Jim?" he asked, looking both concerned and confused.
"Asshole was trying to push my buttons," I said, my jaw clamped down tight, my whole body rigid with tension.
"Well, it looked like he was doing a pretty damned good job," he said.
"This case..." I said, breaking off with a wave of my hand.
"Yeah, I know. I'm with you on that."
"What do you think about what he said in there?" I asked.
"About it being art instead of smut?"
"I don't know. It sure as hell doesn't look that way to me, but you never know," Simon said. "If there was a case in Seattle that never even made it to court, then it's probably not looking too good."
"I just can't believe that. It's total and complete bullshit, Simon!"
"I know, Jim. It's not the way any of us wants it, but what can we do? We'll just have to keep pushing ahead and see what happens."
"There's gotta be something more we can do."
"Afraid not, detective," Simon said, clapping me on the back and heading back to his office.
I don't know how long I stood there fuming. I was so angry it was almost like I went into a kind of emotional zone out. I wanted that prick behind bars, and now that probably wasn't going to happen. I wanted everything to be the way it had been between me and Sandburg before all this shit started, and the chance of that was about as likely as hell freezing over.
Things just got worse after that. Damn it, I used to be so good at repressing shit that bothered me. That's what knowing Sandburg has done to me; it's put me in touch with my feelings, just what I always wanted.
I kept trying to handle this whole thing in my usual fashion anyway, attempting to shut my reactions up behind a steel door in my mind, a technique I learned a long time ago, when it was too dangerous in my father's house to express anger or any feelings at all, really. But I could feel that imaginary door straining with the force of what was locked up behind it, the barrier stressed and failing, all my fury and fear, outrage and disgust seeping into my attitude and behavior whether I wanted it to or not.
All of this is to say that I was one hell of a prick to my bewildered partner. Now, this wasn't the first time that's happened. I'm not proud to admit that Sandburg can be a convenient target for me. I'd taken things out on him in the past, things that weren't his fault, that had nothing to do with him at all. Sad to say, he's grown used to it, and at first, when I started sniping at him, he must have assumed that the case with the kids was still bothering me and that's what was making me a complete bear to deal with. He pumped up his long-suffering patience and humored me every time I made some outrageous demand or reamed him out for something completely pointless and silly. He probably figured I'd get over it soon enough, feel really sorry I'd treated him like shit, and do nice things for him for a week or so to make it up to him. That was my usual pattern.
But Sandburg's a sharp guy, and pretty soon he pieced together that it was only him I was being a jerk to, that it was personal, that it was about him. I could see the change in his face and the way he held his body when he figured it out. After that, when I barked at him about leaving his stuff strewn all over the loft, he flinched and stared at me with the most unbearably hurt expression.
A part of me hurt along with him, deeply ashamed of myself for treating someone who'd done so much for me in such a shitty way. But that door in my mind was practically coming off the hinges, so close to buckling once and for all, and the demons kept rushing out, making it impossible for me to stop myself from being an asshole to him. I screamed at him about the bathroom, gave him the cold shoulder when he was late for a stakeout, brushed off all his offers to come down to the station with me and help out with my paperwork, tuned him out when he tried to talk to me. No less than six different people in Major Crimes asked me where Sandburg was when he didn't come into work with me for several days in a row. I guess I'm not that subtle, because they'd all picked up on my hostility towards him. Each and every one of them suggested that I cut him some slack.
I didn't take their advice. I should have, but I couldn't.
The night when everything finally went all to hell, Sandburg was out on one of his dates. That left me alone to stalk around the house like a person going out of his mind. I tried the usual things to calm myself down. I sanitized the whole damned place until it was as sterile as Cascade General and they could have performed open heart surgery on the dining table. I reorganized my closet, even though it was completely well organized in the first place. Basically, I just took everything out and put it back in the same place, in the same tidy fashion. A little crazy, I realize, but it gave me something to do and kept me from thinking.
Unfortunately, it also brought me face to face with the shoe box where I'd hidden the pictures. After I'd put everything else back, I kept it out, holding it in my lap, tempted but trying to resist the lure to look at the photos once again, to torture myself with the sight of Blair doing...those things. I lost the fight, no big surprise. I was already on a downward spiral, and there wasn't anything between me and rock bottom, nothing I could catch onto to pull myself up out of my obsessiveness. I took the pictures out and sorted through them, reacquainting myself with the finer details of Blair having sex with other guys, all the inventive ways in which they had used his body.
I took the box downstairs with me and helped myself to a beer...well, actually any number of beers, one right after the other. I sat there drinking and looking at the photos. Funny, the alcohol did nothing to drown my sorrows. The battle between the two halves of my soul raged on. I stared so hard into those pictures it was almost like I was in that bedroom myself. I stroked my thumb along the glossy surface of one of the photos, following the line of Blair's curls tumbling over his shoulders and down his back, one unruly tendril curving along his cheek. He was so young, so tender, so sweet, so joyous. I swallowed hard. The photographer may have been an asshole, but he was also right. My partner had been a beautiful boy. A soft place inside me whispered that he'd grown up to be a beautiful man.
I shook my head hard to clear away that unexpected thought. Look at how you're starting to react to him. You just found out about this, and already it's having an effect. You've got to get that little faggot out of here before you turn into one yourself. I shook my head even harder at that. Shut up! I mentally screamed at the hateful voice. I wasn't going to stand for anyone calling my best friend a faggot, not even my own fucked up subconscious. And the last thing I wanted was for Blair to move out. Blair was home, family. Blair was warmth and laughter and caring. He was the only thing standing between me and a sad, lonely lack of a life.
What's the matter, Jimmy? My father's cruel voice suddenly taunted, even after all these years still so clear inside my head. You like your little friend, huh? You like the boys, Jimmy? You want to be a cocksucker, boy, is that it? A little cumdrinker. You prepared for the consequences? Are you? Cause believe me, everybody's gonna know what you've been doing the instant they see you. It's gonna be written all over your face.
I sat my beer down. I'd lost count at that point whether it was the fifth or sixth one of the night. My head was spinning, my hands trembled, and my whole body had started to shake. I shook my head violently, trying to force that horrible voice out of my thoughts. My stomach heaved, and I clapped my hand over my mouth and ran to the bathroom. I sank down on my knees in front of the toilet, but I couldn't actually vomit, my body out of control, just dry heaving until I was weak and exhausted.
I didn't understand what was happening to me. I didn't know where that voice had come from or what it meant, only that it belonged to my father. But I couldn't remember the conversation. I didn't know if it had actually happened or if it was all in my imagination. I had no recollection of what he was talking about, what those terrible things meant.
I don't know how long I stayed there on the floor of the bathroom. It was a pretty good long while if the stiffness in my knees was any indication when I finally managed to pull myself up and stumble back to the sofa. I curled up into a corner of the cushions and held a throw pillow over my chest, clutching it like I was afraid I'd fall apart if I loosened my grip even a little bit. It could have been hours that I sat there. I don't really have a sense of the time passing. Eventually, the cold, endangered feeling started to recede. I relaxed my arms a little bit, let the pillow slip from my grasp. I felt wired and exhausted all at the same time, deeply confused and more than a little freaked out.
Obviously I wasn't in the best frame of mind when Blair got home. Not that it's an excuse for what I did, for what I said, but it does help explain it. I heard him coming up in the elevator, and I hurriedly returned the box of photos to their hiding place in my closet. Then I sat back down on the sofa and tried to pull myself together, tried to look like everything was normal. He breezed into the loft, whistling under his breath, practically beaming with afterglow, obviously in a hell of a lot better mood than I was.
"Hey, Jim," he said and hung up his coat.
His shoulders hitched at the cool tone in my voice and the pointed use of his last name, but he didn't say anything. He just went into the kitchen and poured himself some juice, standing at the counter to drink it.
"I hope you're not going to leave that dirty glass in the sink," I called to him.
I heard the sharp, hollow sound as he slammed the glass down onto the formica counter top. He came striding out of the kitchen, right up to the sofa, and glared down at me.
"What?" he asked, sounding exasperated.
"What?" I threw the question back at him, all mixed up inside from whatever had happened to me earlier, taking it out on him yet again.
"Are you mad at me about something?"
"What could I possibly have to be mad at you about, Sandburg?"
"I don't know. That's why I'm asking." His hands flew in the air as he spoke, expressing his consternation.
That's when it hit me, a big strong whiff of him, his scent covered over by some woman's, the smell of her perfume and sweat and sex. The pictures of Blair on his belly with some naked guy between his thighs paraded through my imagination, making my head hurt. And now here he was reeking of pussy. It enraged me, like he was purposefully lying to me, making me his dupe.
My face twisted into an ugly smile. "Date go well tonight?" I asked.
"Don't change the subject."
"Hey, I'm just making conversation here."
"I don't know what that has to do with..."
"Got lucky, huh?"
"Look Jim, I'm trying to..."
"She must have been a wild thing in bed, huh? I can see that mark she left on your neck, like she was really into it, like she really wanted you to do her. Some women are like that. Insatiable. Can't get fucked enough."
"Is it the same way with men, Blair? Do they get just as wild with you in bed? Do they leave their marks on you when they fuck you?"
He blanched and froze, his mouth opening and closing several times, little starts and stops, at a loss for words for what might have been the first time in his life.
"Don't bother to deny it. I've got the evidence. Photographs of one of your little escapades."
He looked completely confused at first, his whole face screwed up in a frown. I could almost see the wheels turning in his mind, trying to figure out what I was talking about. It didn't take long for realization to dawn, and then all the blood left his face.
"How?" he finally asked, his voice soft and filled with misery.
"The case the other day that I didn't want to talk about. Along with the photos of those kids, we also found the shots of you."
I didn't think it was possible, but he turned even paler. His face flashed one overwhelming question at me, and I could smell the beginning of fear.
"No one else saw them," I told him. "Luckily, I got to them first. I took...they're in safe-keeping now. I tore that place apart to make sure there weren't any others."
"Why? Why? Did you want your little foray into porn publicized? Did you want Simon and Brown and Rafe and all the rest of Major Crimes to see you that way? Would you like to have copies of those pictures of you sucking cock and getting your ass fucked making the rounds down at the station?"
He flinched and shook his head, looking both hurt by my harshness and deeply embarrassed. He lowered his eyes. "No, of course not," he said, his voice almost a whisper. "But...it wasn't like that, man. It wasn't the way you're making it sound."
"And what way is that?"
"Dirty. Like it was degenerate or something. Because it wasn't."
"How was it then, Blair? Was it beautiful? Did the earth move? The heavens weep?"
"Don't do that, Jim."
"Don't do what, Sandburg? Ask you what it was like getting banged by a bunch of guys while somebody recorded it for posterity? Don't you want to share that part of your life with me? You're a big talker. Why don't you tell me what it was like to be their sex toy, performing for the camera like a little whore?"
His eyes widened. His mouth hung open for a moment, and then he pressed his lips together in a hard, grim line. "Don't, Jim. I'm serious, man. You're crossing the line here."
"Did they pay you for it?"
"No! How can you ask me that? Jesus, Jim, you know me. How can you even suggest something like that?"
"Apparently I don't know you nearly as well as I thought, Sandburg."
"That's just great. So what then? I must be a prostitute?"
"You never know who it's going to turn out to be."
"I don't believe you, man."
"Did they give you drugs?"
"No, they didn't! And fuck you for even asking. You know I don't do drugs. I've never done drugs. You sure can be one hell of a prick when you want to be, Jim."
"How old were you?"
"What the hell does it matter?"
"If you were underage, then we can add another count of kiddie porn against the scumbag photographer. And your playmates can be charged with statutory rape. What are their names, Sandburg?"
He set his jaw. "None of your goddamned business."
I took a step toward him, the rage building. I was grinding my teeth so hard I must have been doing permanent damage to my molars. "Tell me their fucking names!"
"You're impeding a criminal investigation."
"Bullshit! Even if I was underage at the time, the statute of limitations must have run out by now. We both know this has nothing to do with justice, that it's completely personal."
"Why are you trying to protect the people who used you like that?"
He shook his head. "Nice try, Jim. But I know you don't believe that. If you really thought this was something that had been done to me, you'd be pissed off all right, but not at me. If you believed they'd raped or drugged or hurt me, you'd never blame me for it. You'd be out busting heads, getting even for me. You wouldn't be standing here calling me a whore. But you've seen the pictures, so you know it was something I did of my own free will, that I wanted it, that I liked it. And that's what bothers you. That's why you're pissed off. That's why you...that's why you hate me for it."
I flinched when he said that. He's your best friend, and you're hurting him. Is that really what you want? He thinks you hate him. Is that really what you want him to believe? A pained voice deep inside me demanded. My head pounded violently. I closed my eyes, but that brought the images from the photos roaring back into my head: Blair on his knees, Blair with his legs spread. My father's voice kept thrumming away at me with its hatefulness. Fag, fag, fag...
"I understand that you're upset about this, but can't we talk about it reasonably?" he pleaded. "It was a long time ago. I was young and experimenting. It's not like doing it for the camera became a lifestyle. It doesn't have anything to do with the way things are now."
He shook his head vehemently. "No! I never lied to you."
"Why didn't you tell me you were a queer?"
Hurt flashed across his face at my use of the pejorative term, but it was followed quickly by a spark of anger. "You never asked," he said, his arms folded across his chest, defiantly.
"Why would I ask? When you're busy putting on this big act about being the Sandburg babe-magnet love machine. You did that on purpose. You kept coming home smelling of women to get me off my guard."
That was the last straw for Blair, and his eyes blazed with fury. "Oh, yeah, Jim," he grated, his voice dripping with sarcasm. "I've just been biding my time, fucking women to keep you in the dark until I could make my big move and have my way with you some night when you were defenseless and unsuspecting."
In some part of my head, I knew he was just being sarcastic. I can read Sandburg like a dime store novel. I know when he's being a smart ass, pushing my buttons because I've done something to mortally piss him off. But my father's taunting voice still echoed in my head. They're gonna know just what you're good for...a little homo who gets what he asked for. My stomach clenched with cold sickness. I don't know how to explain the feeling I had in my body, like just having a body put me in the worst danger of my life, so helpless, so violable.
I took a menacing step toward Blair. I'd kicked over into survival mode, and somehow I'd identified him as the threat to my safety.
Blair's eyes darkened with rage and the kind of disappointment that could end a person's world. "You want to hit me, Jim?" he hissed through clenched teeth. "You want to beat the shit out of the little faggot who wormed his way into your life under false pretenses? Huh? Is that what you're thinking? Is that what has you worried? Like maybe I was having impure thoughts about you the whole time I've been living here. Is that what's got you all hot and bothered, Jim? That you've had a faggot around here for the last three years, sharing all your private moments, threatening your manhood without your even being aware of it?"
I took another step toward him. The endangered feeling in my body was unbearable. Make it stop. Do anything necessary. The survival voice demanded. But a different, saner part of me kept insisting that he was still the same Sandburg he'd been yesterday and the day before that and every last day I'd known him, the Sandburg who watched out for me and kept me from going crazy with the Sentinel thing, who made sacrifices for me, who died because of me, the man who was the best friend I'd ever had. Could you actually hurt him? The sane voice asked, thick with disgust. After everything he's done for you?
"Is that it, Jim?" Blair asked, continuing to press. "Because I have to tell you, man, I never expected this to make such a difference to you. I never took you for a 'phobe. I've never heard you make any hateful remarks. On the job, you always treat everybody with the same respect. Last year, when there was that rash of gaybashings, you were one of the only cops who really cared about catching the assholes who were doing it. So why does it matter so much that I'm bisexual? What? It's okay as long as it doesn't hit too close to home?"
"Shut up," I warned him.
"Or maybe you just feel gypped, huh? I mean, you think I'm a whore, right? I've been living here for the past three years not paying a dime 'cause I don't have any money when I could have been settling the debt in trade the whole time. So maybe it's time to pay up, come through with the back rent, huh, man? Is that it? Should I start paying with my ass? Or maybe you'd like your cock sucked? 'Cause now that you've seen those pictures you know what I'm really good for."
"Shut the fuck up!" I screamed, putting my hands over my ears, trying to block out those words that sounded way too much like the scary voice inside my head. My stomach heaved. I thought I might throw up from the sick combination of rage and terror twisting my gut.
"So which is it, Jim? Kicking yourself for not seeing through me, for not figuring out that I'm a fairy, hell, practically a hooker and a porn star? Or are you pissed off that you didn't get yourself a piece of the action a long time ago?"
I don't have an excuse for what I did next. My arm just drew back of its own volition. My hand formed a fist without my permission. The fury felt like a toxic chemical burning in my blood. My lungs were on fire; that's how hard I was breathing. Blair ducked his head and threw up his arms to shield his face, an involuntary response, expecting a blow, trying to defend himself. That's what finally jolted me out of attack mode, my absolute horror that I had Blair cowering in fear, that I was the danger he was trying to protect himself from. Blessed Protector, my ass.
All those driving emotions just drained away from me then, and I was left with only a cinematic kind of shock, like I'd been watching someone else say those hateful things to his best friend, threaten him with physical violence. That's how hard it was to accept that I was the one who'd done that. And then I saw his face, wide open and stunned and more hurt than I'd ever seen him, and I felt the most intense shame and regret of my life, like it was a physical force knocking the wind out of me.
He dropped his arms. "Don't, Jim."
"What else is there to say? You've made your feelings perfectly clear. You're disgusted by what I did. You don't want a queer living under your roof. I hoped that our years of friendship, all the shit we've been through together would mean more than that...well, anyway, I am who I am. I did what I did. I can't change any of it, and even if I could, I wouldn't."
"Blair, please, let me..."
"I'm going to pack what I can take with me now, and I'll come back for the rest later."
"Can't we at least..."
He just shook his head sadly. "I can't live here with you hating me. There's plenty of things I can take, but not...I'm just going to go get my shit together and get out of your hair."
I watched him turn and disappear into his room. I stood there frozen to the spot. What the hell have I done? Oh God, oh God. Part of me desperately wanted to go in and try to make it up to him, do anything, get down on my knees, beg him. But the hateful voice had only been banished to the background, and the fear was just lying low, not gone, not forgotten. You're safe now. Both of those voices said in unison. I was shaking on the inside, deep down in my bone marrow, and I couldn't make myself move.
He came back after a little while carrying his duffel bag, lap top and backpack. He didn't look at me until he got to the door, and then he paused there awkwardly, one hand on the door knob. "Uh...well, I guess this it," he said, sounding so lost and forlorn, his face blank with disbelief like he couldn't understand how we'd reached this point, like he didn't know how to process the fact that this was how our three years of friendship was going to end.
I couldn't believe it either. I stared back at him helplessly, no idea what to say, the paralysis still holding me in its grip. When I couldn't answer him, the sorrow in his face deepened.
"Good-bye, Jim," he said quietly and left.
The sound of the door slamming shut after him made me jump. It was loud and sharp, and I felt it in my body like a physical blow.
"Good-bye, Chief," I whispered, a cold, sick fist clenching my heart.
I kept thinking that Blair would come back, even as I could feel his presence in the loftthe echo of his voice, his scent, the sense of his energybeginning to dissipate and fade. I just really thought he would come home.
But he didn't. I went into a kind of holding pattern. I dragged myself to work and back home again, but that's pretty much all I could manage. I was listless and unnerved. I'd lie on the couch or on my bed and drift off for hours at a time, staring into space, not zone outs exactly, more like I was just really checked out emotionally. It felt like something was trying to surface inside me, something from the past, something connected to those terrible things that had unspooled in my mind, the cruel, cruel words spoken in my father's voice. But whatever it was, I didn't want to know. I wanted to push it away, fend it off as long as I could.
Down at the station, I could feel Simon watching me. He kept asking me where Sandburg was, and I kept putting him off, making up excuses about how busy Blair was. I wasn't ready to admit to myself that Sandburg wasn't going to be working with me anymore, so I couldn't admit it to Simon either. But Simon is nobody's fool. He knew something was up, and he finally called me into his office to have it out with me.
"Sit down, Jim," he said, when I came in to see what he wanted.
Whenever he called me "Jim" on the job, I knew he'd slipped into friend mode and was probably going to bring up stuff I really didn't want to talk about.
"What is it, Captain?" I asked, trying in whatever feeble way I could to bring things back to safe ground.
"You want to tell me about whatever it is that happened between you and Sandburg?"
I sighed heavily. "Not really."
"Where is he today?"
"I...I don't know."
"Do you have any idea when he plans to grace us with his presence again?"
I shook my head, trying to ignore the dull, hollow ache in my gut that reminded me just how much I missed Blair. "I don't know that either," I admitted. "Although my guess is...I don't think he's going to be coming back any more."
Simon studied me closely and finally nodded. He opened his top drawer, took something out, and threw it onto the desk. I couldn't seem to get my eyes to focus, and it took me a few moments to piece together that it was Sandburg's observer's pass. It was like my senses just didn't want to accept that Blair was gone from my life for good.
"He came by yesterday while you were out to turn that in. I wanted to let you tell me in your own good time, but I got tired of watching you brood over whatever it is that went wrong between you two," Simon explained.
I picked up the pass and stared down at it. It's one thing to suspect something very, very bad is going to happen. It's another to have final confirmation. The steel band around my ribs tightened, and I found it increasingly difficult to breathe.
"So what happened, Jim?"
"I messed up," I said, my voice all scratchy, my throat like sandpaper.
"Funny," Simon said, leaning back in his seat. "Sandburg said he was the one who screwed up. Said he should have come clean about some things with you before you found out the hard way."
I shrugged. It didn't really matter whether I was the one who'd messed up or Blair was. The simple fact was that things were fucked up between us, quite possibly beyond the point where we could still fix them.
"You know, Jim, when Sandburg first started coming with you to the station, I didn't think too much of him. I'm sure that doesn't come as much of a surprise. It's not like I ever tried to hide how much he annoyed me, what with the hair and the earrings and that thin blue line bull..."
Simon broke off with a wave of the hand. "But just between you and me, over the past three years, I've come to respect the kid, the job he's done around here, the way he's made you less of an asshole to deal with. In fact, and this may surprise you, there aren't too many people I respect more than I do Sandburg. You and the kid are good together. You're good partners, good friends, good roommates. And I can't believe that after all you've been through together, after all the times you've been there for each other in the past, that you can't work out...whatever this thing is. So why don't you be the Jim Ellison I know and go do something about it? Talk to the kid, apologize, make it up to him. Best friends and good partners don't exactly grow on trees, you know, Jim."
I nodded. "I do know that, Simon. I'm...I'll try."
"That's what I like to hear. Now go finish up that report on the Phillips case. I'm sure the commissioner will be calling any minute now wanting to know where we stand on it."
I nodded again and got up to go back to my desk.
"And Jim?" Simon called as I was reaching for the door knob. "Go talk to the kid soon, huh? It's getting kind of depressing watching you wander around the bull pen looking like somebody died."
I went home that night and thought about what to do. I really meant it when I told Simon I was going to try, and I honestly intended to go talk to Blair. But the more I thought about it, the more I remembered what I'd said to him, the more the queasy, unnerved feeling about the past kept rising up inside me, the more I lost my nerve. Instead of calling Blair, I ended up lying on the sofa, drinking more beers than I could count yet again, falling into a kind of stuporous sleep sometime in the wee hours of the morning. I didn't wake up the next day until the sharp buzz of the phone startled me out of my virtual coma.
"Ellison, where are you?" Simon's voice barked into my ear.
"Uh..." I mumbled, looking around for my watch which I'd taken off at some point last night. I found it under one of the sofa cushions. I was an hour late. "I'm sorry, Captain. I'm just...I'm a little under the weather this morning, but I'll be right there."
"You do sound a little weird...stuffed up or something," Simon said, relenting a little. "Are you sure you feel up to coming in?"
"I'm fine, sir. Really. I just needed a little extra time this morning. I'll be there as soon as I can."
"All right then. See you soon."
I hung up the phone and quickly got myself ready. But by the time I actually made it to the station, I was nearly two hours late. When I walked into the bull pen, everybody looked at me curiously, but nobody asked any questions. I guess they were afraid to. Since Blair had been gone, I'd started taking my bad mood out on them. I'd overheard several of my fellow detectives wondering where Sandburg had gone off to, really wishing he'd come back to the station and get me off their backs.
It was going to be a day of paperwork, so I sat down at my desk and dug into the mound of files sitting in my in-box. It's not like that kind of work is ever interesting, but with my head so seriously somewhere else, it was even slower going than usual. I plodded along, filling in forms and typing reports into the computer. This was the kind of thing Blair always helped me with. He's a hell of a fast typist, what with all the practice he's had in his career as a student, and he's so quick and easy with words that he can finish two of these reports to every one I get done. I shook my head and tried to clear away thoughts of Blair. I threw myself into the work in front of me as much as I could. I was really trying to keep it together.
I would have been fine, or at least I think I would have been fine, if it weren't for that asshole photographer. I mean, I wasn't exactly happy or anything, but I was holding up until he came to gloat. When the jerk's ACLU lawyers arrived, they went to work on the DA big time, citing Supreme court decisions and that case the prick had told us about in Seattle, along with magazine articles that called this guy one of the country's most promising artists. Before we knew what was happening, all the charges had been dropped, and the DA actually apologized to the guy for the "overzealousness" of the police department. Fucking prick. Both of them, the photographer and the DA. Anyway, they let him go, which wasn't sitting too well with any of us. But we were all trying to get by it and not let it keep us from doing our jobs.
Probably if I hadn't been so preoccupied, it would have occurred to me that the guy might want his pictures back, the ones of Blair that I'd basically stolen from his studio. But I was preoccupied, so when the prick photographer showed up at my desk that day, I was completely surprised.
"Good afternoon, detective," he said, smiling at me, that smug expression of his firmly back in place.
"What do you want?" I snapped at him.
"Oh, don't worry, Detective Ellison. I'm not going to ask you to do anything as harrowing as apologize."
"That's good, since I have nothing to apologize for."
"False arrest? You don't think that might deserve a little 'I'm sorry'?"
"It was a good bust. If the DA is too much of a wuss to take the case forward, I can't really help that."
The guy smiled even more broadly. "You know, I have to admire that about you, detective. I mean it. I really respect the extent to which you honestly believe you're righteven when, of course, you're not. It's quite refreshing to meet a man who has the courage of his convictions."
"Is there a point here?"
"Yes, actually. It's because I admire you that I've decided to call everything even between us. And I do mean everything. Whatever you've taken from me...well, I'm willing to let all that go."
I froze, at last understanding what he meant, finally realizing why he was there. It genuinely startled me. At some point, I'd just begun to think of those photographs as mine
"Oh, don't thank me, detective," he said dismissively, with a wave of the hand. "I suspect some things are better left in your hands than mine. And actually I have another little gift for you." He set his camera bag down on the edge of my desk and began rummaging around in it. He took out a white sleeve with negatives inside and handed it to me. "Here's what you didn't find at my studio. I keep the negatives of my...er, more sensitive work in a safe place. I just wanted you to know that I don't have any improper intentions with those pictures. I suspect you'll feel better with the negatives in your own safekeeping."
I held that little cellophane envelope in my hand very carefully, like it was something of great value or was way too hot to handle, both of which were true, I suppose.
"Besides," the guy said. "Somehow I suspect you'll get more enjoyment out of them than I will. Mine was a purely aesthetic interest, while yours...well, I think we both know what your interest is."
"Get out," I said, the pulse throbbing in my temples, my hands beginning to shake.
He laughed again. "Take care, detective. Tell him I said hello."
I stowed away the envelope with the negatives in my jacket pocket and sat there at my desk, not sure what to do next. He knows. That thought kept pounding through my head. But what did he know? I didn't understand my own panic. He knows. Shit. Shit! I began to sweat profusely, and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. I closed my eyes tightly and bent over, elbows propped up on my knees, holding my head in my hands. I was feeling dizzy, and my stomach was doing somersaults. He knows what you are, what you want. He knows what you're good for. He saw it...he saw it written all over your face...
The world suddenly turned upside down, and I wasn't a grown man sitting at my desk trying to do my job. I was a kid, coming home from football practice, walking along with my best friend, Joey Phelps. Oh God. Joey Phelps. I hadn't thought of him, hadn't remembered his name for almost thirty years. But in my mind now, I was an eleven year old boy, and he was my absolute best friend in the world. We walked together on the sidewalk headed to my house, and when we reached the Ackerman place, we burst into a run, racing each other the rest of the way, like we always did.
This time I won, and I turned to rub it in a little as we both clambered through the door. He jabbed me in the ribs with his elbow, and I swatted him. We both laughed and raced up the stairs. Sally called to us from the kitchen to be careful and not run, but that only made us giggle harder. We went crashing into my room and shut the door behind us, throwing all our stuff, our gear and school books, onto my bed. I made a leaping dive at him, and he countered with a block. We started wrestling with each, laughing as we did, tumbling around on the floor and then onto the bed, until we were out of breath with exertion and laughter.
Somehow, he ended up on top, pinning me. And then the moment turned into something else. We weren't wrestling anymore. He was lying on top of me. His dick was hard, and so was mine. Our breath became labored with both excitement and fear. He finally rolled off me to lie beside me on the bed, and we both just stared up at the ceiling, waiting for the other to do something, to react.
The room swirled again, and I was once more my forty year old self, seated at my desk in the bullpen, clutching my head with a monster headache. My father's voice was back again, more cruel than ever. They're gonna know what you're good for. They're gonna use that mouth of yours, the one that likes kissing boys so much, and cum down your throat. They're gonna pull your pants down and bend you over and use your ass 'til you scream, 'til you bleed. And how are you gonna stop them, Jimmy? When you're just a little homo who's getting what he asked for, what he deserves. I nearly threw up. I knew I had to get out of there. People's voices buzzed around me as I made my way to Simon's office, saying I didn't look too good, wondering what was wrong. I knocked on Simon's door.
"Come in," he bellowed.
I stuck my head inside. "Captain? Uh...I'm really not feeling too well. Probably that flu that's going around. If it's okay with you, I'd like to go ahead and take off now."
It took every last bit of energy and sanity I had to make those words come out in any semblance of the English language.
Simon gave me the once over. "You look like shit, Ellison. Get your butt home and take care of yourself. It's all paperwork today anyway. I'd rather not have you around here infecting everybody else."
"Thanks a lot, sir."
"You know what I mean. Go. Feel better."
I shut the door behind me and grabbed my jacket on the way out. The wait for the elevator felt like the longest few moments of my life. My head reeled. I was cold all over. My overwhelming instinct was just to hold myself together long enough to get home. Then I could let it all out, whatever it was.
I drove like a madman. I'm glad I didn't come across any uniforms out patrolling. They would have pulled me over for sure, and I'd have been hard pressed to explain what the hell was wrong with me. Finally, I made it to the loft. I staggered a little as I made my way inside and into the elevator. By the time I got to my own door, I can honestly say that I'd never been so happy to be home in my life.
I pushed the door open and locked it behind me. I stumbled over to the sofa and sank onto the cushions, my whole body shaking. The world started to tilt again, and I was back in my old bedroom at my father's house, eleven years old, sporting a boner like nobody's business for my best friend. Joey finally made the first move, turning back over to face me, touching my erection through my football pants, very lightly, just the very tips of his fingers brushing against the thick fabric. But my dick leaped at his touch, getting even harder, more hard than I'd ever been in my life. I gasped at the sensation, at the unexpectedness of my own reaction. Joey only smiled and started touching me with more pressure, stroking my dick.
Finally he pulled back, and I moaned at the loss of that teasing pleasure. "It's...uh, better if you take your pants off," he said, blushing, lowering his eyes, not quite able to look at me.
"I...I will...if you will," I stuttered.
That made him look up. When he did, I saw the fire of determination in his eyes. I'd made it into a challenge. That was something we both understood very well. It was something neither one of us would back down from.
We both squirmed out of our pants and underwear. It seemed silly to be partially dressed. We were kids and did nothing by halves. So we took off our shirts too. We lay on our sides facing each other, just staring. I'd seen naked male bodies before, my brother and my father and other kids when we went swimming at the lake in the summer without our suits on. But this was different. I was so supremely aware of the nakedness, both mine and his, and I was restless with curiosity, itchy to touch and be touched.
This time I made the first move, reaching out for him with shaking fingers, touching his warm, smooth chest, resting my palm flat against his stomach and beginning to move it in circles. He reached for me in return, and we slowly, carefully explored each other's bodies. When he finally put his hand on my dick, I was throbbing deep inside myself in a way I never could have imagined. We stroked each other, jerked each other off, as we'd so recently learned to do to ourselves. He came in my hand, and then I came in his. Afterwards, we lay there beside each other, sticky and a little dazed, our arms flung across each others' bodies, sated and amazed that we'd had that kind of hunger in the first place.
As I lay on the sofa in my grown-up home watching the parade of childhood images, I tried to find any other explanation. It was all in my imagination. It was some movie I'd seen and transposed onto my own life. But it wasn't. Joey Phelps. Now that the steel door he'd been trapped behind had begun to open, I remembered him perfectly clearly. I remembered the little crinkle of his dimples, the freckles across his nose, how he smelled, how he looked when he caught one of my passes, the way his face lit up and he jumped up and down with sheer, animal joy, the quizzical look on his face as he'd licked my juice off his hand that day, tasting my cum for the first time.
Shit! I wrapped myself in the afghan on the back of the sofa, but I couldn't get warm. The cold wasn't on my skin. It was coming from deep inside me, making my body shudder. I'd had sex with another boy, and I'd forgotten everything about it, even the boy's name. What's the matter, Jimmy? You like your little friend, huh? You like boys, is that it, Jimmy? My father's voice exploded in my head, spewing the same hateful words from the other night, only now I understood what they meant. Oh God, oh God.
The steel door opened a little further, and more memories surged out. I remembered how Joey and I would come back to my house in the afternoons after football practice, tell Sally we were going to do our homework together and race up to my bedroom. We couldn't wait to fling our clothes off and get down to what was really important, gaining complete knowledge of each others' bodies, finding all the many ways we could touch each other to give and receive pleasure. I remembered how it felt when I would see him on the other side of the classroom or down the field from me when we were playing football, the way my stomach would do a flip flop and suddenly I'd go all hot and liquidy inside, like I was made of something molten. I'd blush a little, and he'd see me and turn red too, both of us knowing exactly what the other was thinking.
And finally I remembered the day it all ended. We'd spent the afternoon, as usual, up in my room touching each other, bringing each other off. I walked him down to the door. He was about to reach for the door knob, when I caught his arm and pulled him back around to me. I wasn't ready for him to go. I didn't want him to just walk out the door like nothing had happened. I wanted some more substantial good-bye. I wanted to kiss him, something we'd somehow never done in all our gropings together.
He moved nearer, his belly touching mine. I put one hand on his shoulder, and he wound an arm around my waist. We leaned in to each other and pressed our mouths together. His lips were warm and soft. I could feel the outline of them as I moved my own lips across them. He opened his mouth just a little, and I slipped the tip of my tongue against the inside of his lip. It was so warm and wet, and I could taste him. My senses exploded. My body sang with pleasure.
That must have been why I didn't hear the door open. I was so focused on how wonderful he smelled and felt and tasted. I didn't realize my father was standing there in the doorway watching us kissing until an angry hand grabbed my arm and yanked me violently away from my friend.
"What the hell is going on here?" my father demanded, his face scarlet with rage.
"I...it's just..." I stammered.
He slapped me across the face with his open hand, so hard my ears rang and it left the imprint of his fingers on my cheek. He took Joey by the arm and started dragging him to the door. "Get the fuck out of my house, you little queer, and don't you ever come back here again. You hear me?"
"No!" I screamed, starting to cry, pleading with my father.
"Shut up!" he yelled at me and then turned back to Joey. "I won't have you turning my son into a little faggot like you are."
"Dad, it's not his fault. Please..." I begged.
But he didn't listen. He opened the door and pushed Joey outside, almost making him fall, slamming the door behind him. Even with Joey out there and me inside the house, I could still hear him crying. I could hear him stumble down the stairs and run up the front walk to the street. I tracked his heartbeat and footsteps and little intermittent sniffles as he made his way up the block, heading home. I listened as hard as I could until I finally lost the last faint trace of him, while my own tears streamed down my face.
My father turned his attention back to me. "Okay, you little cry baby faggot, it's time you learned your lesson."
He dragged me upstairs to my room. The house was roaring there was so much noise, and it hurt my ears. Sally was pleading with my father not to hurt me, holding on to his arm, trying to get me away from him. Stevie was crying at the top of his lungs, obviously terrified that something awful was about to happen. My father was yelling at them to shut up and mind their own business.
Finally, he pushed them both away and shoved me into my room, coming in after me and locking the door. I don't know how many times he hit me; it was all kind of a blur in my memory, my father's hands coming toward me in a flurry and the sharp, stinging pain on my skin. The next thing I clearly remember was being huddled on the floor, covering my face with my hands, trying to protect myself, and my father standing over me, glaring down at me.
That's when he said it.
"What's the matter, Jimmy?" he taunted me, his face red and his chest heaving, hands on his hips, looking like just the thought of me disgusted him. "You like your little friend, huh? You like the boys, Jimmy? You want to be a cocksucker, boy, is that it? A little cumdrinker. You prepared for the consequences? Are you? Cause believe me, everybody's gonna know what you've been doing the instant they see you. It's gonna be written all over your face. They're gonna know just what you're good for. They're gonna use that mouth of yours, the one that likes kissing boys so much, and cum down your throat. They're gonna pull your pants down and bend you over and use your ass 'til you scream, 'til you bleed. And how are you gonna stop them, Jimmy? When you're just a little homo who's getting what he asked for, what he deserves. Huh? Now, is that what you want for yourself? Or are you gonna get rid of that little friend of yours and get yourself back on the straight and narrow and be a real man who takes care of himself? Cause believe me, you can't have it both ways. Either you're a man who's tough enough to defend himself or you're a little homo who takes his chances."
"Daddy, please!" I wailed, cowering on the floor, feeling sick and cold way down deep in my gut, terrified by the things he said would happen to me.
"And I don't ever want to hear you sniveling like a cry baby. Not ever again. Do you understand me?"
When I didn't answer, he kicked me viciously in the back. I screamed out in pain.