by Elizabeth Kent
by Elizabeth Kent
Face yawned and stretched as he rose from his desk, rolling his head and shrugging his shoulders to relieve the stiffness in his neck. Two months of painstaking research and careful preparation had gone into this job, and he hadn't really even gotten started yet. Walking around the room to work out the kinks, he picked up a folder and reviewed the information.
Ted Wright: millionaire businessman, supporter of liberal and humanitarian causes, winner of several awards from employees unions for his unflagging support of equal employment rights and protection for racial and sexual minorities. Oh yeah, and drug smuggler and money launderer, too.
It was a smear campaign, said his supporters. A way to undermine his influence and good work in the community. There was no evidence to support the accusations.
And there wasn't. Trouble was, people associated with Ted Wright kept turning up dead. Or not turning up at all. That tended to worry the hell out of their families, one of whom had hired the team to look into it to try to prove the charges.
The old man who'd hired them admitted that it had been several years since his son had been in Wright's employ, since he'd disappeared. The father had been following the news about Wright ever since, and since others had disappeared after his son, well, it only seemed right to do something about it. Especially since he was getting on in years now, regretting that he'd not been on the best of terms with his son when he'd disappeared.
"What was the problem?" asked Hannibal. He didn't particularly like to pry, but the information might help. This trail was already way cold.
"We disagreed over his...lifestyle," the old man answered, looking away.
"Lifestyle?" asked Face.
Face winced at the use of the word. He didn't particularly like that term, though he'd heard it often enough. It had been drilled into him over and over during his Catholic upbringing that homosexuality was a sin. He'd agonized over that one as a youngster when he'd found himself thinking way too often about a kind young priest who'd joined the staff at the orphanage about the same time Face had discovered his body had a mind of its own. Guiltily, he'd poured out his heart to the priest in confession and been gently assured that he'd simply mistaken hero worship for love. He hadn't been too sure about it at the time, but having received no encouragement whatsoever from the priest, he eventually forgot his crush. Then he'd discovered girls, and he'd never looked back.
"So you kicked him out?" he'd asked.
Hannibal had given him a look that clearly told him to shut the hell up. However acrimonious their final parting had been, the man obviously felt guilty about it now. Rubbing his face in it wasn't going to help. Suitably chastened, Face had shut up and let the man finish his story.
"For awhile, things seemed to be going pretty well for him," said the father. "I saw his name in the business section of the paper from time to time. He was working his way up in Wright's business." He sighed and covered his face with his hands. "Sometimes he'd call me, try to make things right between us, trying to see if I was even a little proud of his success. But I said all the wrong things. Just...just couldn't seem to bridge the gap. Then eventually he just stopped calling. When I got worried, I tried calling him at work. They told me he'd been promoted to a different division, that he was unavailable. His apartment had been cleaned out when I went to check it. He disappeared without a trace, and Wright's company simply refused to take my calls anymore. I couldn't get the police to take me seriously, of course. When they found out my son and I were alienated, and then when Wright accused me of harassment, they washed their hands of the whole thing. There was nothing I could do."
"Why hire us now, then?" asked Hannibal.
"I'm dying," the old man said softly. "Which is fine. But before I go, I'd like to know for sure what happened to my son." He lowered his eyes, removed his glasses, and rubbed at the bridge of his nose. "I did love him, you know. He was my only son, the child of my old age. I just...I have to know."
Hannibal stood and lit a cigar. "We'll be in touch if and when we learn anything," he said. "But like I said, the trail's cold. It could be awhile..."
"And I could be dead by then," sighed the old man. "Well, it can't be helped. It'll be some comfort to know you're at least working on it," he said.
Hannibal nodded. "We'll do our best."
Face flipped the file shut, dropped it on his desk, and walked into the next room where Hannibal was reading the business section of the paper. "I need Murdock," Face announced.
"What for?" asked Hannibal.
"We're getting married."
"Oh, Face, I love it!" cooed Murdock, slipping the gold wedding band on the ring finger of his left hand.
"Well, don't lose it," said Face, putting a matching band on his own hand. "It was expensive. Maybe I can hock it when this is all over."
"Hock my ring?" Murdock gasped. "What about our vows to love and honor and cherish each other forever and ever? Does that mean nothing to you?"
"Shut up, fool!" growled B.A. "You ain't made no vows."
"A mere technicality," returned Murdock, climbing over the back of the couch in Face's apartment to fall on his knees at Face's feet, arms outstretched, head flung back. "Oh, I can see it now. You'll give me dozens of children."
"Dozens!" interrupted Face, sounding horrified but smiling as he played along.
"And they'll all have your beautiful blue eyes, and your seductive smile, and your golden skin."
"And your insanity!" finished B.A. "Just what we need `round here, a dozen crazy con men!"
"You're just jealous because he proposed to me and not you!" Murdock shot back, getting to his feet and holding out his hand in front of him to admire his ring.
"Alright, guys," Hannibal broke in. "Let's get back to business. C'mon, Face, finish the briefing."
"Just a second," replied Face. He walked to the kitchen, pulled a bottle of pills out, and slipped one under his tongue.
"You got another headache?" asked Murdock.
Face nodded, rubbing the back of his neck. He was tired. He was about to enter the employ of a man whose employees didn't always seem to enjoy the best health over the long haul. Wright had the resources to do a very thorough background check on him and on anyone connected with him. He didn't want anything to go wrong. He'd worked his way back through the identities they were about to assume, forging and planting everything from birth certificates and vaccination records to parking tickets, marriage certificates, and diplomas. It was a lot of hard, painstaking work of the kind that always made him tense and gave him migraines.
"You want me to rub your neck?" Murdock asked. He was serious now. He'd seen Face in the throes of a serious migraine, and it wasn't a pretty sight.
"Maybe later," Face answered with a smile. "For now, let's get on with this." He spread some file folders out on the dining room table as they all took a seat. "I'm going in as Richard Todd. Masters in Business Administration from Harvard, junior executive in a prestigious investment firm back east until news of my sexual orientation got me fired. I've heard about Wright and the awards he's won, and I'm anxious to work where my orientation won't matter. Murdock, you're Paul Huntington. You've got a Masters in Fine Arts and you're a freelance clothing designer. We met back east, and it was the scandal associated with our relationship that got me fired. You've come out here with me, and we've taken an apartment. Before we met you were hospitalized twice for depression, but you've been doing fine since we met. Is that gonna work for you?"
Murdock nodded. "Your love cured me," he said, hand over his heart. "That's very romantic of you, Face."
"That's not exactly what I was thinking when I made that up," Face admitted, "but if that's the way you want to play it, it'll do." Actually, he'd known Murdock was going to be away from the V.A. quite awhile on this case, and if he started acting weird, Face wanted there to be a logical explanation for it.
"Hannibal, you're Paul's father, Wallace Huntington. You're successful in the antiques business. You might want to read up a little on Asian art since that's the bulk of your trade."
Hannibal nodded, flipping through the folder of information Face had provided. He'd decided to let Face take the lead on this since he was the one going inside. Everything about Face's background had to be consistent and believable, and the best way for him to be comfortable with it would be if he'd made it up himself.
"B.A.," Face continued, rubbing again at his neck, "you're Calvin Hopkins. You're Wallace Huntington's valet and driver. You're also a buyer for his business, so you need to do some reading up on Asian art too. And we'll get you some new suits." He slid a file folder over in front of B.A.
B.A. looked at the folder and removed a piece of paper from the front. "What's this? Huntington Antiques? What're these little curlicues all over the place?"
"Ah," said Face, a bit uncomfortably. "That's the company logo. It, uh, needs to be painted on the side of the van."
B.A. opened his mouth to object, but observing the pinched look Face often developed when he was suffering a bad migraine, he decided not to say anything. Face had worked hard on his scam, wanting everything to be perfect. Well, this time he'd go along with it. If it ruined the finish on his van, he could always beat Face to a bloody pulp later. "Okay," he said, letting the subject drop.
"I've got you a nice place in Bel Air, Hannibal," said Face. "The owners are gone for at least a year, and all the records will show it's being leased by Wallace Huntington while he sets up an office here on the west coast. And Wallace is okay with the relationship between Rich and Paul, just disappointed that Paul didn't follow him into the antiques business."
"You've thought of everything," said Hannibal. "Good job."
"Thanks," said Face, pleased by the praise. "Tomorrow Murdock and I are moving into a small apartment near Wright's office."
"It's not like you to give up a cushy place like this," observed Hannibal, looking around at the beautifully appointed apartment.
"It has to be real. Rich and Paul couldn't be expected to afford this much, at least until Rich gets some promotions. I've already put down the first and last month's rent and damage deposit on the new place, and I'm starting work the day after tomorrow. And Murdock, you'd better get busy designing something. Starting next month, you're paying half the rent."
"Oh, Face, a place of our own! Something I've always dreamed of!" said Murdock dreamily, causing B.A. to roll his eyes dramatically.
"Don't get your hopes up. It's really, really small," said Face.
"Is there room for our children?"
"Only if we keep `em in a drawer."
Pulling up in front of a small, dingy apartment building, B.A. grimaced. Grimy yellow awnings topped tiny windows that looked that they hadn't been washed since the building was constructed. Only three stories high, the brick building was dwarfed by the much larger office buildings that surrounded it. There was no courtyard, there were no trees, there wasn't even a flower pot at the front entrance. It was drab beyond measure.
"You sure this is the right address?" B.A. asked, squinting at the numbers on the front of the building.
"This is it," Hannibal assured him.
"Don't look like no place Face would ever live," said B.A. doubtfully.
"Face wouldn't live here if it were the last building on earth," said Hannibal cheerily. "But Rich Todd would because it's all he can afford."
From an open and unscreened third floor window, Murdock leaned halfway out to wave at the van before Face grabbed his belt and pulled him back.
"Idiot, you're gonna fall out the window!" Face exclaimed.
"Aw, Face," said Murdock, "I didn't know you cared so much."
"I haven't taken out insurance on you yet," said Face, "so don't go making me a widower already." He bent to open a box and remove the few items that were in it and place them in a kitchen cupboard.
"This is a cute little place," said Murdock.
"It's a rat trap, and you know it!" said Face. "Probably a fire trap, too."
"Love makes everything look better," said Murdock.
"It's not doing much for that cockroach," said Face with a grimace, flinging a wad of newspaper at the insect as it fled across the kitchen floor and under the sink.
"Gee, I hope we don't have to have a pet deposit!" said Murdock, looking around under the sink. "It's okay, little guy, you can come out. We can all be friends."
"You're not making pets of the roaches!" Face exclaimed as he crossed the room to open the door for B.A. and Hannibal. "They come out, they die. Got it?"
"He's just kidding," Murdock whispered softly to the underside of the sink. "He's not really such a bad guy. I'm sure we'll all get along just fine."
"Where's the bedroom?" asked Hannibal as he helped B.A. wrestle a mattress into the apartment.
Face gestured to a curtained area on the other side of the room. "Right there."
As they deposited the mattress on the floor behind the curtain, B.A. looked around.
"This it?" he asked.
"I told you it was small," said Face.
"Need help with the rest of the furniture," announced B.A. as he headed for the door. "Where's the fool?"
"Making friends with the local fauna," said Face. "Hey, Murdock, c'mon!" he called.
"Emily's a real nice girl," said Murdock, closing the cabinet door and standing.
"You named the roach?" said Face. "Are you nuts?" Then he smacked his forehead. "What am I saying?" he said. "I forgot who I was talking to."
"Just remember," said Hannibal with a grin, "you're the one who proposed!"
"C'mon," said B.A. gruffly. "Ain't stickin' around here waitin' for no roaches to crawl up my leg. Gonna get this stuff unloaded and get out of here. Get that dumb sign painted on the side o' my van." He glared meaningfully at Face then smiled as Face turned away to struggle with a hopelessly stuck window. "Then I'm goin' back to my nice air-conditioned home in Bel Air!"
"Alright, alright, don't rub it in!" said Face grumpily, abandoning the window and following him out of the room. "You can be really cruel sometimes, you know."
Dan Carlson stood and extended his hand as Face entered the office. "Hey, Richard, welcome to Wright and Sons," he said, shaking Face's hand warmly. His cultured British accent and friendly tone made Face feel genuinely welcome.
Face had always liked British accents, though he couldn't really say why. Maybe because they seemed to speak of the fine breeding and superior education he'd always felt he lacked.
"It's good to be here," said Face. "I can't tell you how glad I was to get the job. Thanks."
"I'm glad you got it, too," said Dan, "but it's probably Mr. Wright you should be thanking. I present the list of final candidates, and he makes the choice. But I'm glad he chose you. I told him I thought you were hands down the best man for the job."
"Thanks," said Face, pleased that his aw shucks charm and impressive, if fictional, resume had done the trick again.
Dan turned as another man entered the room. "You remember Keith Clark?" he asked.
"Yes," said Face, extending his hand. Keith had been the other person on the interview team. Though their demeanor in the office gave no evidence of it, Face knew that Keith and Dan were a couple, one of Wright's success stories. Hounded from pillar to post in the south where they'd been living before, they'd found refuge, success, and happiness with Wright and Sons. Dan had become the company's personnel director and Keith its publicity coordinator. In return for Wright's kindness, they'd become two of his staunchest supporters, and because they were respected in the business world, their endorsement of him prevented others from falling away in the wake of the accusations made by his detractors. Though only a junior executive, Face was to share an office with Dan and Keith. He knew they were grooming him for bigger things.
They were an unlikely couple. Only slightly taller than Face, Dan was a robust black man whose energetic demeanor and warm smile immediately put others at ease. Being both black and gay, and having an accent that immediately labeled him a foreigner, Dan had had a particularly rough time in the small Mississippi town where he'd taken a job upon moving to the United States fifteen years ago.
In contrast, Keith was well over six feet tall and so thin that Face couldn't see how he ever found clothes that fit. His blond hair was thin on top and graying at the sides, and steel blue eyes that missed little looked out from under pale eyebrows. Keith took Face's hand in a surprisingly strong grip for a man who looked so gentle. "It's good to have you on board, Richard," he said, his soft southern accent another interesting contrast between him and his partner.
"Please, call me Rich," said Face.
"Well, Rich, why don't you put down your briefcase over there, and let's take you in to meet Mr. Wright," said Dan. "He asked me to let him know when you got here. In the meantime, Keith will put together some background information to help you get oriented before you start working."
"Great," said Face, anxious to meet the man he was here to investigate.
Walking down a long corridor with thick carpeting, Face admired the luxurious appointments of the offices they passed. Fine artwork decorated walls that were painted in soft hues of peach and lavender and sported real woodwork. This company belonged to a man who preferred luxury to practicality, who surrounded himself with beauty, and that was something Face could appreciate. It wouldn't be such a bad thing to come here every day after spending a night listening to roaches scurrying around his hell-hole of an apartment.
At the end of the corridor, Dan knocked softly on a door and then opened it. Across the room behind a massive oak desk sat Ted Wright. Looking up, he smiled when he saw Dan and Face.
"Dan! I see you've brought Mr. Todd around." He stood and came around his desk, offering Face his hand. Face quickly took in the personal computer and the banks of filing cabinets along the walls. This would be a good place to start his investigations.
"Rich," said Face. "I'm really pleased to meet you, Mr. Wright." Wright's hand was cool and slightly clammy in Face's grasp, and he had to stifle the urge to wipe his own hand on his trousers when Wright released him.
"Thanks, Dan," said Wright. "Why don't you leave us to get acquainted for a bit? I know you're busy trying to fill that service representative position."
"Sure, Mr. Wright," said Dan, stepping to the door. "C'mon back when you're done here, Rich, and I'll show you around."
"Thanks," said Face. So that was how things were around here. Everyone called the boss Mr. Wright, but he was on a first name basis with them. An interesting way to seem friendly and still keep people at a distance. Well, the best route to success with that kind of guy was sucking up, and Face was good at that. He put on his most winning smile and looked wide-eyed at Wright as he took a seat in the soft leather chair Wright gestured for him to sit in. Interestingly, Wright took a seat next to him rather than going back around to his own chair.
Wright was a large man, strongly built though not at all overweight, and even sitting down, Face had to look up to meet his eyes. His hair was jet black, though like Keith's, it was graying at the temples. His skin was very pale, not the swarthy kind of complexion Face usually associated with someone with such dark hair and eyes. Wright's eyes crinkled at the corners when he smiled. They were deep-set and black and glittered like chips of obsidian. Face thought they looked cold. But Wright's tone was hearty, and he seemed genuinely glad to be meeting with Face.
"Tell me all about yourself," said Wright. "I understand you had rather a rough time of it back east."
Face launched into his carefully prepared and rehearsed story. He had had Murdock drill him on it so many times in the last couple of days, he slipped easily into the role of Rich Todd, right down to the angry tremor in his voice as he described the betrayal he felt as friends and colleagues rejected him after they found he'd taken a flamboyant, outspoken fashion designer as his lover. Wright listened intently, watching Face closely as he described the ordeal of being humiliated by his boss, fired without cause, and disowned by what little family he had. Face finished his story and looked up at Wright, eyes wide and guileless. "That's why I'm so grateful you've offered me this job, Mr. Wright. I can finally be me, be what I am, without having to hide it from anybody. This is the kind of firm I want to work for. One that respects everyone, that treats all its employees the same. It's such a shame there are so few people like you."
Wright smiled widely, and Face knew he'd bought the story. Of course, he'd told it pretty convincingly, if he did say so himself. "Well, young man," said Wright, "that's a ringing endorsement of equal opportunity employment if I ever heard one. I'm only too happy to offer you a job here. I do pride myself on working for the underdog, but of course, in return I expect you to be a loyal and hard-working employee. I still have a business to run."
Face nodded his understanding. Wright reached over suddenly to lay a hand on Face's arm. Face jumped, and Wright pulled his hand away. "I'm sorry, Mr. Wright," Face apologized. "I...I had a couple of bad experiences back east, and I guess I'm still a little jumpy. I hope you won't take it personally."
"No harm done," Wright said soothingly. "Did somebody beat you up, son?"
"Yes," Face answered. That was an easy enough answer because it was true. He'd been beaten up dozens of times and would probably be beaten up some more. It was the nature of his work, sometimes. It was also true that he didn't like to be touched, and it made him jumpy when people he didn't know were overly friendly. But he knew his involuntary reaction had been stupid. It had raised a question he wasn't prepared to answer. He'd have to be more careful to control his reaction in the future.
"Well, you should feel safer out here. Overall, people around here are much more accepting of alternative lifestyles."
"Yes, I've noticed that," said Face. But not much, he thought to himself, remembering the speculative look and almost indecently personal questions he'd gotten from his landlord when he'd put Paul Huntington's name on the lease as next of kin as well as roommate.
"Well," said Wright, rising, "let's get you back out to Dan and let him show you the ropes. I want you to know, though, that my door is always open. If you have questions or problems, or if you even just want to talk, you can always come back here and see me."
"Thanks, Mr. Wright," said Face. He knew he'd be making frequent excuses to visit Ted Wright. He needed a peek at the contents of some of those file cabinets.
Hearing keys jingling, Murdock turned from the stove and glanced at the clock. It was seven thirty. Face had been on the job for two weeks now, and he'd worked late every night, coming home with armloads of files and manuals to study for the legitimate part of the job as well as the bits and pieces of things he'd managed to collect for the job the team had been hired to do. Murdock smiled to himself when he heard Face cursing softly as he fumbled with and dropped the keys in the dark corridor. He did that every night. Spoon in hand, Murdock pulled the door open as Face straightened. Face walked past him into the apartment, dropping onto the table the files he couldn't get into his briefcase.
"Dinner ready?" Face asked.
"Well, I like that!" huffed Murdock as he closed the door.
Face turned to him, puzzled.
"No hi, honey, I'm home? No gee, you're a sight for sore eyes, dear? No oh, the place looks wonderful? No hello kiss?"
"You're dripping spaghetti sauce on the floor," observed Face, loosening his tie.
"Men!" exclaimed Murdock dramatically, rolling his eyes as he headed back to the kitchen.
Following him, Face reached for a paper towel to wipe the floor. "You do look very fetching in that apron, dear," he said.
"Don't try to change the subject," said Murdock, adjusting the flame under the simmering sauce. "Every day it's the same thing. You come home, eat, work, and go to sleep. It's always, `Maybe later,' or `Not tonight, dear, I have a headache.'"
Face laughed, some of the day's tension easing. He looked forward to Murdock's goofiness at the end of a long day of keeping his guard up, saying and doing all the right things, sneaking a quick peek at confidential records whenever he could. He was tense, too keyed up to sleep most nights as he mentally reviewed his plan, trying to fit the bits and pieces he was learning into a whole pattern. It was a lot of work, and he didn't know how Hannibal did it with such seeming ease.
Returning to the kitchen and tossing the paper towel, he reached into the cupboard for some aspirin.
"Got another migraine?" asked Murdock.
"No, just a garden variety headache," Face answered. "Neck's stiff. Do we have time to go for a quick run before dinner?"
"Sure, if you want," Murdock answered. He turned the flame down low under the sauce and put a lid on it carefully, winking at Face. "Don't want Emily to fall in while we're gone," he said.
That night Murdock brandished a check made out to Paul Huntington as he poured them coffee after dinner.
"What's that?" Face asked.
"My first paycheck. I sold a couple of designs today."
"Really?" Face was genuinely pleased. "Good for you! Which ones were they? Who'd you sell `em to? Tell me it wasn't that feathered job you were drawing. Surely nobody wants to look like a purple chicken!"
"My purple chicken dress, as you insist on calling it, remains woefully underappreciated. However, they bought my designs for a matching vest and jacket, and they want more," said Murdock. He looked almost surprised at his success.
"I told you you were good at this!" said Face, sipping his coffee.
"Well, it's only a very small firm with a local clientele," said Murdock with a self-deprecating smile.
"Doesn't matter," said Face. "It's a start. Pretty soon you'll be giving the big boys a run for their money!"
"Are you forgetting this isn't for real?" Murdock asked gently.
"No," sighed Face. "I'm not. But this can be real for you if you want it to be. You have a talent, Murdock. Wouldn't you like to develop that, make a good living at it so you can have anything you want to have?"
"What makes you think I don't already have everything I want?"
"You're living with me in a roach-infested studio apartment, Murdock. When you're not here, you're in a room at the V.A. Is that really what you want? If you became successful at this, you could own this building and several others like it."
Murdock leaned forward and looked at Face intently. "Is that what you want, Face? You thinking you want to work your way up in a firm that invests its profits in drugs and regularly misplaces its employees? So you can get rich and have anything you want?"
Stung, Face glanced up angrily. "Of course not." Picking up his coffee cup, he walked to the window and looked out at the city street below. For a long time he said nothing, and Murdock didn't break the silence. "This is the way it was supposed to be when I got out of the army," Face finally said. "I was gonna finish my education, get a good job, work my way up. I was gonna be a successful businessman, have a nice house, a pretty wife. Hell, I might even have gone to church," he finished with a short laugh.
"You like this job, don't you?" said Murdock, coming to stand beside him.
Face contemplated the dregs of his coffee, swirling them around in the cup gently as he considered his answer. "Yeah," he said. "In a lot of ways, I do. Keith and Dan are really great guys. They want me to be successful. There's a routine there, a sameness that I guess I'm kind of comfortable with. It's work I understand, and I'm good at it. Knowing where their profits are going, what Wright's involved in...of course I don't like it. But if it were any other firm, someplace honest, well, I'd jump at the chance to work there." He laughed a little, looking back out the window. "Sounds kind of incongruous, doesn't it? A con man wanting an honest job." He sighed, stretching his neck. "Sometimes, I just want to be normal. Does that sound stupid?"
"Not to me," Murdock answered. "Sometimes I just want to be normal, too."
"You're not on the run," said Face, looking up at him. "You could stop ferrying us around, develop your business, concentrate on getting yourself out of that stupid hospital. You don't have to be like us. You could be somebody. Why don't you do it?"
Murdock sat on the windowsill and looked at Face thoughtfully. "I already am somebody," he said. "And so are you. Maybe not the somebodies we wanted to be, but maybe the somebodies we need to be."
Face rolled his eyes. "Don't do that Sphinx thing, Murdock," he said. "I hate it when you talk in riddles. Say what you mean."
"Life sucks," said Murdock, standing and taking Face's cup. "Get used to it."
"Well, that I can understand," said Face with a sigh as Murdock took their dishes to the sink.
He followed Murdock to the kitchen, rolling up his sleeves. "I'll wash," he said.
"I'll take care of it," said Murdock. "You get the door. Keith Clark and Dan Carlson are here."
"How do you..." Face began, but he was interrupted by a knocking on the door. "You got ESP or something?" he finished.
"I saw them coming up the front steps," Murdock answered.
Pulling open the door, he acted surprised to see the men on his doorstep. In fact, he was surprised they'd come to his apartment.
"Hey, Rich!" said Keith. "Hope you don't mind us dropping in on you like this."
"No, no problem. Come on in," said Face.
"Need to get that light in the hall fixed," said Dan as he entered. "I think I kicked somebody's dog on the way up the hall."
"Ah, that's just the neighbor," said Murdock as he entered the room wiping his hands on a dishtowel. "His wife's always kicking him out, and he has to sleep on the doorstep `til she lets him back in."
"Nice to see you again, Paul," said Dan as he shook Murdock's hand.
"Cute little place," said Keith, also accepting Murdock's hand. "Reminds me of one we had in Mississippi."
Dan rolled his eyes. "The one with cockroaches the size of poodles? Yeah, that was a charming place," he responded. "Weenie boy there wouldn't have anything to do with `em. Made me get out of bed every night and chase the little buggers back down the drain."
"Well, you are the oldest," said Keith. "It's your job! I just wanted you to feel like you were still useful!"
Murdock and Face exchanged an amused glance. Murdock could see why Face enjoyed these two.
Dan looked at the pile of folders Face had placed on the floor in the corner while they ate. "Look," he said, nudging Dan, "I told you he was sneaking out of there with files. Let's go see what he's got."
Murdock looked at Face, but he seemed unconcerned. He'd obviously already hidden anything he wasn't supposed to have. Dan and Keith made a show of riffling through the files, nodded sagely at each other, and turned back to the others.
"Well, Rich, it's only been two weeks and you've already broken the first rule of the corporate jungle," said Dan.
"What's that?" asked Face, mentally reviewing the company manual he'd read.
"You're working too damned hard!" Keith exclaimed.
Standing beside Face, Murdock laughed and clapped him on the shoulder. "See, I told you!" he said. "He never has time for me anymore."
"Can't let that happen, Rich," Keith said to Face, who looked embarrassed. "Gotta have some balance. Sounds like you've got a good relationship goin' here. Don't want to neglect it."
"Listen," said Dan, "we thought you guys might like to go get a drink. It is Friday, after all, no work tomorrow. Have you been around to that tavern down the street?"
"No," said Face, his eyes straying to the pile of folders.
Dan caught the look. "For crying out loud, Rich! he exclaimed. "Surely you didn't think we expected you to go through all those folders just because we gave them to you! They're more for reference than anything else. You don't have to memorize the bloody things!"
Murdock thrust Face's jacket at him and pushed him toward the door. "We're going!" he said. He looked at Dan and said, "He hasn't taken me out in weeks and weeks. I'm starting to feel neglected."
As the evening wore on, Face was glad he'd accepted the invitation. His headache eased, and he found himself enjoying the company. Murdock slipped easily into his role, discussing fashion with the others, drawing quick sketches on the back of cocktail napkins, his natural warmth and humor drawing out the other men.
"Where'd you find that one? He's a real kick!" Dan asked when Murdock excused himself to go order another round of drinks.
"Oddly enough," said Face, telling the story they'd concocted, "he was doing a color analysis on my girlfriend at the department store one day. I walked in, took one look at him, and it was love at first sight. I couldn't believe it myself at first. Of course, it was hard on my girlfriend. I felt really bad about that, but there was no denying the attraction." He smiled and stood to allow Murdock to scoot back into the booth.
"Funny how it hits you, isn't it?" said Keith. "I was married when I met Dan. I'd done all the things a man is supposed to do: joined the service, found a nice wife, had a couple of children. All my life I told myself that if I just acted like I was expected to act, I'd get over this attraction I felt for other men. And I did love my wife. She was a good woman, a good mother. But after Dan took a job where I worked and we got to know each other, I realized one day I wasn't in love with my wife and never had been. It was like Dan filled this empty spot I didn't even know I had. God knows, I fought it as long as I could. I'd never known how hard life could be `til then. Small town Mississippi isn't very open-minded about same-sex relationships." He picked up his beer and drank.
"Added to that was the obvious complication of being a mixed-race couple," Dan continued, picking up the story with a compassionate glance at his partner. "Also not a very popular thing in small-town Mississippi. In short, we lost almost all our friends, Keith was kicked out of his church, and I was accidentally run down in a parking lot one night. We moved several times, but we never felt welcome or safe. After Keith was...attacked...one night, we decided to get the hell out of the whole state. We came here on our last bit of money, looking for any kind of work we could get. We were lucky to meet up with one of Mr. Wright's recruiters at a job fair. What was that guy's name?"
"Phillip," I think, said Keith. "Phillip Rudman."
Next to him, Face felt Murdock stiffen. This was the name of the man whose father had hired them. "I don't think I've met him," said Face. "Have I?"
"No," said Dan. "He's actually been gone quite awhile. I heard he was back east doing some recruiting there and got hired away by some other firm."
"Hm. You think there's another firm back east like Wright and Sons? I sure couldn't find one."
"Yeah," agreed Keith. "That was a bit odd, wasn't it? He seemed like the perfect spokesman for the firm. I was surprised he'd even be interested in working for someone else."
"Yeah," said Dan. "On the other hand, weenie-boy got his job, so I suppose we shouldn't look a gift horse in the mouth."
"I'm a little curious about something," said Face. "Who are the sons in Wright and Sons?"
Dan laughed. "That's a bit of a misnomer, for sure," he said. "Ted Wright actually is one of the sons. His old man started the firm in the thirties. There was another son who was supposed to inherit half the firm, but I don't know what ever happened to him. That was way before our time."
Looking across the room, Keith said, "Well, speak of the devil and here he comes!"
Murdock had already spotted him several minutes earlier when he'd gone up to order the drinks and had been watching him ever since. Ted Wright was standing at the bar, chatting amiably with the person standing next to him, but his eyes kept drifting to their table, watching the men chat, his gaze lingering on Face. Catching Wright's eye, Keith beckoned him over. Excusing himself, Wright came over to their table.
"How are you all doing tonight?" he asked, standing at the end of the table. "I'm glad to see you aren't burning the midnight oil in the office, Rich. I like my people to get out and have some fun."
"Why don't you join us, Mr. Wright?" said Keith.
Murdock and Face slid down to make room for Mr. Wright, and Face felt Murdock's arm come up around his shoulders. Murdock was the only person Face ever felt very comfortable allowing to touch him, but he still stiffened for a moment. Reminding himself that they were a couple, he relaxed as Murdock pulled him closer.
"You must be Paul Huntington," Wright said.
Murdock shook his hand and exchanged the usual pleasantries. The rest of the evening passed pleasantly enough, though by necessity the conversation was fairly general. Face didn't want to arouse Wright's suspicions by asking too many pointed questions. True to form, however, Murdock did ask about the other son in Wright and Sons and was treated to a sad story about Andrew Wright's sudden untimely demise in a hunting accident shortly before their father's death. "I still think it was Andy's death that finally killed my father," Wright said as he concluded the story. "He never really recovered from the shock of it."
"That's a shame," said Face. In truth, he hadn't been listening that closely to the story because he was aware that Wright's thigh was pressing closer and closer to his own, and it was making him kind of nervous. Face glanced at his watch and declared that it was time to be getting home.
"It's been great seeing you all out having a good time," said Wright. "That's what team work is all about. You work hard, you play hard. And sometimes you play harder than you work. Right?"
"Yes, sir," answered Face, though he was pretty sure Hannibal wouldn't agree with that assessment.
Dan and Keith headed in the opposite direction, but Wright walked them all the way to front door of their building. Heading up the stairs, they entered the third floor corridor where they promptly tripped over the neighbor. "What the hell's the matter with the lights around here?" Face asked irritably as he groped around on the floor for the keys he'd dropped. "I've replaced that fucking bulb three times since we moved in, and it doesn't last any longer than it takes for me to get in the apartment and come back out again."
"Emily doesn't like lights," said Murdock.
"Tell me you're not following me around loosening the bulbs!" exclaimed Face as he finally found the keys and eventually inserted the correct one in the doorknob.
"You wound me!" gasped Murdock. "Would I endanger you for a mere insect?"
"I wouldn't be surprised," Face grumbled as he went in.
Murdock followed him but turned and stuck his head out in the corridor before he closed the door. "Good night, Emily," he whispered. "'Night, Colonel. Get what you came for?"
"Got it," said Hannibal, picking himself up from the doorway the forgiven neighbor had only recently vacated. "If you get anything tomorrow, leave it in the same place."
"Tell him to screw the damned light bulb back in on the way out," Face muttered behind him.
For two months Face worked diligently at his job, impressing Dan and Keith with his skill and dedication. He was also called into Wright's office from time to time to help him out personally. If anybody thought it odd that a young man being groomed for an executive position was doing secretarial duties in the boss's office while the secretary sat outside with nothing to do, they didn't say anything.
Face didn't mind the secretarial duties. He could type and file with the best of them, and he knew at least some of the information he needed was in this office. Wright chatted pleasantly with him, sharing bits of trivia about the office and the staff. For all the filing he did, there was one cabinet directly behind Wright's desk that he never was allowed to get into. It was kept locked, and Wright had the only key. Wright explained it away by saying that was where he kept his confidential personnel files, stuff that was for his eyes only. Wright didn't leave him alone much, so on the occasions he did, Face was quick to pick the lock and go through the files. He couldn't be seen carrying anything out of the office, so whatever he found he had to memorize quickly.
Phillip Rudd's personnel file didn't mention an assignment back east. The notes were cryptic, with words such as "satisfying," "flexible," and "exceeds expectations," that could be interpreted any number of ways. Interestingly, though, toward the end of file, Face found words like "reluctant," "fearful," "uncooperative," and "no longer working very hard to please." The file ended with a single word: "terminated." Puzzled, Face returned the file and relocked the drawer as he heard Wright's footsteps approach. He busied himself at the other file cabinet as Wright returned to the office.
As Wright entered and walked past him, Face felt the hand that brushed against his back and stifled his natural reaction. Wright seemed to be finding a lot of excuses to touch him. It was always very innocent. A pat on the back, a hand sliding across his shoulders or down his arm was nothing he could fault. Still, it made him uncomfortable. After his return from the prison camp in Vietnam, he'd had uncontrollable reactions when people surprised him with an unexpected touch. More than once he'd found himself crouched in a corner with Hannibal kneeling in front of him, trying to talk him out of it. Thankfully, that extreme and humiliating reaction had faded over the years, and Hannibal and the others had learned not to touch him when he couldn't see what they were going to do. He'd become comfortable with their touch over time, but he still jumped when others laid hands on him. Knowing this about himself, he decided his discomfort with Wright was more his fault than his employer's, and he didn't mention it to Murdock or the others.
Wright's office was practically a home by itself. He had a private washroom, a hideabed sofa, a small refrigerator, and a microwave oven. He seldom had to leave the room, which sometimes made it difficult for Face to accomplish anything other than the job he'd been hired to do. He knew this case was going to stretch on longer than he had anticipated, but truth to tell, he was rather enjoying coming to work during the day and playing house with Murdock at night.
They were spending more and more time in the company of Dan and Keith, sometimes entertaining them in their apartment, sometimes going to the house Dan and Keith shared in the suburbs. Face found himself less and less inclined to think of them as the villains in this case and resolved to try to shield them from the repercussions when he finally brought Wright and his company down. He wasn't sure why he felt such a bond with these men. Perhaps it was because like them, he'd been given a raw deal, and when they had finally gotten the justice that so far eluded him, he didn't want to see them hurt again. When he brought up the matter with Murdock, Murdock agreed that it would be nice to shield them if he could but cautioned him not to let his feelings cloud his judgment.
The normal routine was that Face would sleep in the bed and Murdock on the floor. It was only fair, said Face, since Murdock was so determined to make friends with the roaches. If they were going to come out to play at night, he sure as hell didn't want them walking across him. Murdock agreed, and it was almost three months into their marriage that Murdock woke him up in the middle of the night.
"What? What's wrong?" Face asked, dragging himself up out of a sound sleep.
"I think I've killed Emily."
"I rolled over and heard a crunch."
"Well I'm sorry, Murdock. Sort of. But what do you want me to do? I'm not getting up in the middle of the night to hold a funeral service for a roach. Flush her."
Murdock sat on the side of the bed. "I think her brothers are coming for me. I can hear them in the walls."
"Oh, for heaven's sake!" Face sat up and listened. It did rather sound like there was more than the usual number of roaches scurrying about. "Oh, alright, get in," he said irritably.
As Murdock climbed in next to him and settled down to sleep, Face remembered that it had been a long time since he'd had another person in his bed. He hoped he wouldn't do anything stupid in the night like roll over on Murdock and start kissing him. But he had to admit, as the evenings finally grew cooler, it was nice to have another warm body in the bed.
As they spent more and more time with Keith and Dan, and occasionally with Ted Wright, they found it easier to pretend to be the couple they were supposed to be. Actually, Murdock had taken to it like a duck to water, but fantasizing had always been easier for him than it was for Face, so it was he who took the lead in making their relationship believable. Considerately, he never touched Face in front of the others without first subtly telegraphing his intention. As time went by, Face discovered that he could anticipate Murdock's touch and even looked forward to it. He tried not to think too much about why that was so. Or about why they shared the middle of the bed now instead of hovering at the far sides of it as they'd done at first.
"Well, what've we got?" asked Hannibal as he settled into an easy chair and puffed his cigar.
At the house in Bel Air, the team was gathered in the living room sorting through all the evidence Face had gathered. It was a woefully small pile considering the time and effort that had gone into collecting it, and Face knew it. "Well, not much," he admitted, settling himself next to Murdock on the couch. "From everything I can see, the business itself seems to be honest. Some of the tax deductions are a little iffy, but no more than you'd expect. He could be siphoning some money off the top. It looks to me like he's paying some pretty hefty salaries to people who are supposed to be recruiting investors or employees across the country, but even Dan says he doesn't know them personally, and he's the one who does the hiring."
"So how does he account for them?" Hannibal asked, leaning forward to sift through some of the papers on the coffee table.
"Wright told him he'd hired them independently because they reported to him and him alone. Dan says he plays a lot of things close to the vest. He's perfectly friendly, but he doesn't tell everybody everything," Face answered. "I can ask him a lot of questions, and sometimes he'll go on forever about the topic and other times he'll just tell me it's none of my concern. He keeps promising to teach me everything I need to know, but so far I don't feel like I'm learning a lot."
"But you're becoming quite the little junior executive," said Hannibal, his voice holding a hint of a challenge.
"What's that supposed to mean?" said Face.
"Nothing, kid," replied Hannibal, leaning back in his chair. "I just want to make sure you aren't getting so caught up in the novelty of having a key to the executive washroom that you're forgetting why you're really there. This isn't much to show for three months' work."
Face opened his mouth to shoot back an angry reply but bit it back when Murdock laid a gentle hand on his arm. Hannibal's misgivings were legitimate; it wasn't much to show for three months' work. Hannibal had shown a lot of faith in him by allowing him to set up this plan, and it was his responsibility to either make it work or admit defeat and hand the reins over to Hannibal. And if he were honest with himself, he knew he was taking a guilty pleasure in going to work every day. He'd admitted as much to Murdock before, and he knew he'd have to admit it again.
Hannibal hadn't missed Murdock's gesture or its effect, but he said nothing, only taking a pull on his cigar and waiting for Face's reply. Studying his hands, Face said, "I suppose it doesn't look like I'm getting much accomplished. And I guess I am enjoying having access to the executive washroom and everything that comes with it. But it's not that easy getting the information. I worm what I can out of Dan and Keith, but you know, they're working in that office, not just sitting around, and I can't always be asking them questions. They have to work, and they expect me to work too. And Mr. Wright...well, he doesn't leave me alone much. I don't think he's quite sure of me yet." Finally, he looked up, meeting Hannibal's gaze directly. "I'm doing my best, but if you think it's not good enough, I'm willing to step aside. I haven't forgotten why we're here."
Hannibal nodded. "That's all I wanted to know. What's next?"
Face felt Murdock's arm come up around his shoulders, and he unconsciously leaned into the quick embrace without even registering the fact that nobody from Wright and Sons was around. "We've been invited to spend the long weekend with Wright at his estate," he said. "Sort of a working vacation. Dan and Keith will be there, too. I'm hoping maybe there's something at his home that'll help us. I'm thinking maybe he keeps the most incriminating stuff there where it's better guarded."
"You sure that's a good idea?" Hannibal asked. "He's got armed guards patrolling the perimeter of his property." The estate covered several acres of sparsely populated property overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Security was tight, Wright had explained when he'd invited them, because over the years he'd gotten death threats from right-wing extremist groups who took exception to his liberal policies. He wanted to be sure he and his guests were safe.
"I don't see how we can say no," said Face. "Dan said someone as new as I am hardly ever gets invited out there and that he must think a lot of me to do so this soon."
"Face," Hannibal began.
Face raised his hands to forestall the objection. "I know, I know, it's all bullshit. I understand that. But I need to get on the inside and see what he's got there. It may be just what we need."
"Well, it's risky," said Hannibal. "If something goes wrong, if he finds out who you really are, B.A. and I probably won't be able to help you. You're right, though. If you haven't found what you need in the office yet, it's probably not there. And if it's not there, it's probably at his house. You'll have to go in. But be careful."
"I'm always careful," Face answered.
That was true. Of the four, he was the most naturally cautious, the least likely to do something dangerous without first giving it careful consideration. Knowing that, Hannibal was a little more inclined to give his blessing to the operation.
Two days later, Face and Murdock found themselves driving through a quaint little town only a few miles from Wright's home. "Wow, the town that time forgot," said Murdock as he scanned the old-fashioned storefronts on the tree-lined main street. It looked like the town had changed little since its birth in the thirties, an unusual little pocket of rural America to exist so close to a large city.
"Well, when you come down this weekend, remember that some of these people could be in Wright's pocket," answered Face, less affected than his friend by the nostalgic charm of the place. "Don't forget who you're supposed to be."
"Three days of togetherness, being a couple twenty-four hours as day," said Murdock dreamily. "Do you suppose our marriage can stand the strain?"
Face laughed. "Just don't keep asking me if I love you."
Face rolled his eyes and turned his attention to passing the car in front of them.
Pulling up to the gate, the men surveyed the defenses Wright had built around his property. All the vegetation had been cleared around the property for a hundred yards, and the perimeter was surrounded by a ten-foot high fence topped with wicked-looking barbed wire. There was only one way in or out, an iron gate with a manned guard box. Strategically placed lights would illuminate the entire perimeter at night, and pairs of armed guards made their way smartly around the grounds. And that was just the part they could see.
"Looks like a prison camp," Face observed quietly while the guard went back into his box to check their identification.
"Don't remind me," said Murdock uneasily.
When their identification proved to be in order, both men were issued a pass so they could come and go as they pleased, and the guard opened the gate and waved them through. The imposing Greek-revival style house seemed curiously out of place in the center of the fenced property, but it was a beautiful home. Pretentious, but beautiful. At a short distance from the house they could see a huge swimming pool and tennis and basketball courts. Dan and Keith's car was already parked in the circular drive before the house, and Face pulled his car up behind theirs.
A real butler answered the door, their bags were taken to their room, and they were ushered into the living room where Keith and Dan were already nursing drinks and visiting with Ted Wright. Face looked around appreciatively. Wright showed the same impeccable taste in furnishing and decorating his home as he did his office. Furniture was constructed and upholstered with the finest materials. Tastefully framed art decorated the walls, and the large windows opened onto a spectacular view of the ocean.
"I see you didn't have any trouble finding the place," said Mr. Wright.
"No, none at all," Face replied.
"Why don't you all change into something comfortable and go enjoy yourselves this afternoon," Wright suggested. "Dinner will be served at six thirty, so you've got a good two hours to kill. I'm going to do a bit of work in my office, but I'll join you later."
The four of them were engaged in a basketball game which Face and Murdock were winning hands down when Murdock looked up to see Ted Wright cross the lawn and sit in a folding chair to watch them play. Face was busy trying to steal the ball from Keith and didn't notice until he'd successfully gotten the ball and moved it back up the court to pass it off to Murdock. He spared the time for a quick smile and wave before he turned back to the game just in time to be knocked flat by Dan.
"Isn't that a foul or something?" he asked as Dan offered him a hand up.
"Yeah, but I'll forgive you for getting in my way if you don't let it happen again," Dan laughed, tossing him the ball. "Let's take a breather."
Laughing, Face turned to pick up his water bottle and take a few gulps as Murdock joined him. "Think we should let `em score a few points?" he asked Murdock.
"Yeah, why not," Murdock answered with a smile, knowing the men could hear every word they were saying. "After all, they're old guys."
"Y'know, if I could breathe, I'd come over there and make you take that back, you young punk!" declared Dan.
"Aw, c'mon, we'll go easy on you," said Face. "Next five minutes we'll go one on two. If you can't score some points that way, you should probably just kill yourselves and be done with it."
"Don't be too cheeky, Rich," said Murdock, laughing. "They're both bigger than you are."
"Yeah, but I'm fast," said Face, unperturbed. "After all, I've been dodging killer cockroaches for three months." So saying, he dashed out and proceeded to run rings around Keith and Dan.
"Jesus, how does he do that?" Keith asked Murdock when he rejoined the game.
"He's tough for a little guy, isn't he?" said Murdock. But his attention was focused more on Ted Wright than on Face. Wright's eyes followed Face wherever he went, and Murdock began to think maybe Face's choice of spandex shorts and a tank top was not such a good idea, though neither of them had thought anything of it when he'd pulled them on, anxious to get a little exercise to try to work off the headache he'd been developing. But the outfit showed off his trim shape to its best advantage, and Wright had certainly noticed it.
Just before dinner that night, Wright gave Murdock and Face a complete tour of the house. Having already seen it before, Dan and Keith retired to the den to watch the news. Murdock showed a great interest in Wright's library and home office, going on about wanting a nice office of his own to develop his designs, leaving Face relatively unbothered to study the room and its contents. He knew they'd find a way to get back in there before the night was over.
Murdock made it a point to watch Wright, noticing how often Wright sat staring at Face even when someone else was talking and how he stood very close to him and often touched him. He knew Face's aversion to being touched and could tell by the almost imperceptible tightening of Face's jaw each time it happened that he was not comfortable with it. He wondered how long it had been going on and why Face had not mentioned to him that it was happening.
As the evening wore on, Face grew more quiet and began to look a little ragged. "What's wrong?" Murdock asked him as they descended the stairs after their tour of the upstairs room.
"Headache," Face said shortly.
"Got your pills?"
Face slowed, letting Wright get further ahead of them. "Yeah," he said, "but I don't want to take anything yet. They make me sleepy, and I need to get into that office and do some looking around."
Murdock sighed. Face had switched medications several times in the last few months trying to find something effective whose side effects he could live with. The latest prescription worked provided he took it soon enough and wasn't doing anything that required much concentration.
"You gonna be okay without them?" Murdock asked.
"I don't know. Maybe if I can get in there fast enough."
They sat in the den with the others for what seemed a polite period of time before slipping out. Wright saw them go out but didn't follow them this time, as Dan had engaged him in conversation about the business. They wandered in a path that seemed aimless but eventually led them to the library. To their relief, it was empty, and Face quickly went to the computer while Murdock pulled the curtains, lowered the lights, and watched the door. Face turned on the computer and concentrated on hacking into Wright's files. He was not having a whole lot of success, and as his frustration grew, his headache worsened.
"They're gonna be looking for us pretty soon," said Murdock from the door. "How are you doing?"
"My head's about to explode, and I can't find a damned thing, but other than that I'm just dandy," Face replied, his voice reflecting his pain.
"Let's get out of here and come back later, then," said Murdock.
"Wait. Here's something," Face said.
"What is it?"
"Looks like bank account numbers," said Face. "And some names. I don't recognize these names, though." Quickly inserting a disk, he downloaded the file, slipped the disk into a pocket, and snapped off the computer. He knew it was only a matter of time before Wright found out the file had been accessed, but there was nothing he could do about it now. There wasn't time. They both heard Wright's voice talking to someone on his staff as he came up the hall.
Wright strode into his office and stopped short. Paul Huntington was kneeling next to a sofa on which Rich Todd lay prone, his jacket tossed over the back of the sofa and his tie loosened. A glass of water sat on the end table with a bottle of pills next to it. Rich was trying to press his head into the sofa cushion as Paul rubbed his temples. Murdock glanced up at Wright and turned his attention back to Face. "Sorry to be in your office, Mr. Wright," he said. "Rich was feeling faint, and I wanted to get him into a dark room and let him lie down awhile."
"How long have you been here?"
"An hour or so, I think," said Murdock. "We tried just walking around, but that wasn't working."
"Does he have anything to take for it?"
"Yes, but sometimes it takes awhile to take effect." Especially when he'd taken it less than thirty seconds ago.
"Do you mind if I use my computer for a bit?" said Wright. "I won't need to turn on the lights."
"Oh, sure," said Murdock. "We shouldn't even be in here bothering you. I think I'll just try to get him back to our room now." He turned his attention back to Face. "Richie, do you think you can make it back to the room?"
"Better hurry," Face said softly. "Think I'm gonna throw up again."
Murdock helped Face stand, retrieved the jacket and pills, and said goodnight to Wright on Face's behalf. As he helped Face out of the room and into the hall, he heard a startled exclamation from the room behind him and wondered grimly if they'd just been found out. Expecting to feel a gun muzzle in his back at any moment, he assisted Face as he stumbled up the stairs, eyes watering in the brighter light of the hallway. "That was a great way to get us out of there, saying you were gonna throw up," said Murdock as he opened the door to their room.
"Wasn't kidding," Face said as he pulled away from Murdock and went into the bathroom.
Murdock lay propped on one elbow watching the sky lighten from the gray of pre-dawn to a pink-shot turquoise. A cool breeze wafted in through the open window, and he could hear the waves in the distance. He yawned tiredly. It would have been a nice place to wake up if they hadn't been under the roof of a man who killed anyone he even suspected of betraying him and who by now had discovered that he had indeed been betrayed again.
Next to him Face breathed the deep, even breaths of someone deeply asleep. Despite a second dose of pain medication, a scalding shower, and hours of massage on his back and neck, he'd fallen asleep only a couple of hours before dawn and was not likely to waken soon. He lay curled on his right side, his face pressed into the pillow.
Murdock's eyes darted to the door as he heard footsteps approach. They were soft and stealthy and would not have been heard by anyone not already expecting them. Quickly he lay down, pulling the other man into his arms. With a murmured apology he hooked one leg over Face's legs and pressed the front of his body to Face's back. Their lives might depend upon the believability of this scenario.
Wright opened the door without knocking and saw what he was meant to see: Paul Huntington wrapped protectively around his ailing lover. As the steps approached the bed, Murdock raised his head and peered sleepily over Face's shoulder. He looked surprised at the intrusion but not frightened. Behind Wright, silhouetted in the light from the corridor, stood one of Wright's men holding a tray with a coffeepot and cups. Concealed under the tray, though, was a gun.
"Mr. Wright?" Murdock asked hoarsely, his voice giving every indication that he'd just woken. He cleared his throat. "Is everything okay?"
"Yes," replied Wright, stepping closer. "I came by to see how Rich was doing." He turned and signaled to the other man, who stepped inside and brought the tray to the bedside table. He kept his back turned to the bed as he set the tray down, and Murdock knew he was slipping the gun back into his waistband. "I'm sorry I didn't knock," Wright continued, "but I didn't want to disturb your sleep. I thought I'd just leave you some coffee. Sometimes caffeine is good for headaches."
"Thanks, Mr. Wright, but I hate to wake him. He was throwing up most of the night and only fell asleep a few hours ago. We're both pretty wiped out."
Wright nodded, and Murdock's hold tightened fractionally as Wright's gaze lingered perhaps a bit too long on Face's body.
"Very well. We had some appointments to keep this morning, but I'll reschedule them for later this afternoon. Why don't you two go back to sleep. I'll see that you aren't disturbed."
"Thanks, sir," said Murdock. "I know he's anxious to do a good job for you." He stroked Face's upper arm gently. "Normally he's up with the sun, but these migraines are really incapacitating."
"Well, Rich is a good addition to my organization," said Wright, still looking at Face. "I like to think I do right by my people. You just come on down when you're ready."
With a jerk of his head, Wright motioned for his man to leave before he also turned and walked out. Breathing a sigh of relief, Murdock released Face and lay on his back, willing himself to sleep. For the moment, the danger had passed. They were making some headway now, but the next couple of days would be difficult and they'd both need to be fresh. Wright was suspicious, and that was not a good thing.
Several hours later, Face entered Wright's office with a cup of coffee in one hand and a handful of printouts in the other. Wright was in the middle of a phone call but signaled Face to sit and wait while he finished. When Wright hung up, he looked Face over appraisingly. Face knew he looked like death warmed over. He felt like it, too, but that was actually going to work in his favor this time, he hoped.
"How're you feeling, Rich?" asked Wright.
"A little better, thanks. I'm sorry I wasn't up and around earlier."
"I'm sorry, too. This was supposed to be a relaxing long weekend, and here you are sick only a day into it." He stood and walked around his desk to the coffee carafe across the room. Lifting it, he filled a cup then turned to Face. "Refill?"
Face shook his head. "No, thanks, I'm fine."
Putting down the carafe, Wright returned and stood just behind Face's chair, laying a hand on his shoulder. With an effort, Face remained relaxed even when Wright's hand found its way to his neck and began to rub it. "We have appointments in town in about an hour. I'm sorry to put you to work like this, but some things won't wait."
"It's okay, sir," Face replied. "That's why you're successful. You work hard and you're smart." He twisted his head around to look up at Wright, doing his best to look innocent and eager to please. "That's why I wanted to work for you."
"Really?" Wright came around to stand in front of him. It made Face uncomfortable to have this man standing so close to him, but he continued to gaze up at Wright worshipfully.
"I want to be part of something successful. I know I haven't been part of your business very long, but I learn fast. You're exactly the kind of businessman I want to be!" Face knew he was laying it on kind of thick, but so far Wright seemed to be responding.
Wright set his cup down and leaned forward to rest his hands on Face's shoulders. "I can teach you a lot. I can make room for you at the highest levels of this organization, Rich, but only if I know you are one hundred percent loyal. I can forgive many things, but not disloyalty!" Wright's voice had taken on a menacing tone.
"I'd never betray you, Mr. Wright!" exclaimed Face. "You're everything I ever wanted to be!"
Wright smiled and straightened, stepping back a pace. Face tried not to show his relief. "Good!" said Wright. "I like you, Rich. You've got a lot of potential. There may be others in my organization whom I'll be having to...let go soon, so you may be promoted faster than you thought."
Face licked his lips, not liking the direction this conversation was going. "Um...let go? Surely we're not having financial problems!"
Wright laughed humorlessly. "No, personnel problems. Someone has hacked into my personal files."
"Are you sure it's somebody on the inside? Couldn't it be a rival? If you're good enough, you can hack in from almost anywhere."
Wright nodded. "It's possible, I suppose, but nobody from the outside has ever successfully accessed my files. It's not that they got anything useful. I've got a complex system that isn't even all on computer, and I developed it myself to prevent anyone from stealing my...corporate secrets. It's a bitch to try and steal secrets from me!"
Tell me about it, thought Face. Aloud he said, "Is it anything I can help you with?"
Wright sat back in his chair and looked at Face over steepled fingers. "Maybe," he said. "You know, people like you. They tell you things. Even Keith and Dan confided in you, and they're usually pretty private about their relationship."
Face smiled. "Well, I guess they recognized a kindred spirit in me.
Wright nodded. "They've been spending a lot of time with you and Paul lately."
"I suppose they have," acknowledged Face. "I hope that's not a problem for you."
"Oh, no," said Wright. "I like to watch my people...being happy."
Face nodded, wondering uneasily just how much watching Wright was doing. Murdock had told him about Wright's predawn visit.
"What do you make of them?" Wright asked suddenly.
Face thought fast. If he was reading the situation correctly, Wright was growing suspicious of Dan and Keith, and that could be very bad for their health. And the two of them were logical suspects, as they knew more about the organization than almost anyone. For a moment he considered actively recruiting their assistance, letting them help him dig up the evidence he needed and take it to the police. The organization would collapse, but Wright was a powerful man with lots of friends, and Dan and Keith would be marked men. They'd have to enter the witness protection program and would probably end up in some redneck town where life would be hell for a couple both interracial and gay. He couldn't do it to them. Even if it meant turning Wright's suspicions on Murdock and himself, he had to keep the others safe.
"Well," he said, "they're great guys. I'd say we're becoming good friends. And you know, they have nothing but praise for you. You took them in as a couple, gave them good jobs, never once used their sexual orientation against them. They, at least, are two people whose loyalty to you you'll never need to question."
"You're sure of that?"
"As sure as I am of my loyalty to you, sir."
Wright smiled. "Well, I'm glad to hear it. They've always been an asset to this company. I'd hate to lose them."
"If you don't mind me saying so, sir, I think you should look a little further afield for your hacker," Face suggested.
"You have somebody in mind?" Wright asked.
"Well, no," admitted Face. "But I'd be glad to help you if you like."
Wright regarded him silently for a long moment as if weighing the risks. "Well, we'll see," he finally said. "Right now, we need to get to a meeting. What's that partner of yours going to be up to while we're gone?"
"He's driving into town to refill my prescription. I took the last two pills last night," Face answered.
Wright nodded. "Fine. I'll have the car brought around. Can you be ready in fifteen minutes?"
"Sure," replied Face, standing as Wright reached for the phone. "Thanks for everything, sir. Thanks for believing in me."
"You're welcome, Rich. Just remember -- loyalty. It's the only way to survive in this organization."
Interesting choice of words, thought Face. Survival was becoming his top priority. "I'll remember, Mr. Wright."
Wright watched Face walk from the room, punched a few numbers, and spoke into the phone. "Have the car waiting in fifteen minutes, and send Thompson in to see me now."
Murdock watched the rearview mirror as he pulled into the drug store parking lot. The green sedan that had been following him the last several miles slowed as it passed but didn't pull into the lot. He looked up and down the street as he got out of the car but didn't see anything out of the ordinary. Once inside the store he made his way to the pharmacy section. The store was virtually empty, and he couldn't see the druggist around as he lounged against the counter and rang the bell. Waiting for a response, he looked around. This was a real, old-fashioned drug store with a soda fountain adjacent to the pharmacy. Behind the soda counter a bored-looking man in mismatched shirt and trousers swabbed disinterestedly at the counter, not so much wiping up as redistributing the crumbs. Murdock figured he'd just missed the end of the lunch crowd. If a place this small ever got a crowd.
He turned back to the counter as the pharmacist approached. "Hi!" he greeted her as she came to the window.
She was tall and slender, with dark hair swept back off a high forehead. She smiled at him as she returned his greeting. "Hello, sir. What can I help you with?"
He returned her smile as he handed her the empty bottle. "I need to have this prescription refilled, please," he said.
The pharmacist looked at the bottle and nodded. "Are these for you?" she asked. "I hope you haven't waited until you had the migraine to refill these."
Mindful of Face's fear that some of the townspeople could be in Wright's pocket, Murdock stayed in character. "No, actually, they're for my partner," he replied.
"Partner? As in business partner?" she asked. "I wasn't aware of any new businesses in town."
"No, partner as in life partner."
"Ah, I see," she said.
"We're guests at Ted Wright's estate outside of town."
The pharmacist's smiled turned icy. "Estate. So that's what he's calling it these days," she said.
"What would you call it?" he asked.
"Gee, I don't know. Compound, maybe? Armed camp?"
Well, this one obviously wasn't in Wright's pocket. "I suppose it does rather look that way from the outside," Murdock said. "But he's an important man, and it probably pays to be careful."
She snorted in a very unladylike manner but didn't reply.
"You, uh, don't seem to like him much," Murdock probed gently. He'd have to remember to tell Hannibal about her. In a pinch, she might become an ally.
"Actually," she snapped, "I don't like him at all!"
"Are you willing to tell me why?" he asked.
"Long story," she replied abruptly, turning away. She obviously was not going to talk about it. "This'll be ready in about fifteen minutes. I'll page you over the loudspeaker. What name shall I use?"
"Huntington," said Murdock. "Paul Huntington."
Without another word, she walked away. Murdock glanced about again, making sure none of Wright's men were about, then casually made his way to the lunch counter, sitting on one of the red stools. The soda jerk had disappeared beneath the counter, evidently searching for something he had dropped. From the muttered curses floating up from the floor, he didn't seem to be having much luck. Murdock had to fight the urge to twirl around on the stool; it seemed an un-Paul Huntington- like thing to do, so he contented himself with drumming his fingers on the counter as he waited. He was about to give up when the clerk popped up in front of him so suddenly that he jumped.
"Things must be bad. You didn't even stop to look at the comic books on the way in."
Murdock peered closely at the man. "This is a new look for you, Colonel," he said. "Face would have a stroke if he could see that outfit. And that red hair! It's scary."
"It works for me," Hannibal replied. "Nobody looks too closely at the face when they see the clothes."
"Probably makes `em nauseous," Murdock offered.
"You got something for me?"
"Yeah, such as it is. I'll slip it to you on my way out. It's not everything, but it's a start."
Hannibal nodded then turned away to fix an ice cream soda. "You look tired," he said quietly.
"I was up most of the night," Murdock replied. "Face was sick."
"Yeah. It was really bad."
Hannibal turned back to the counter and put the drink in front of Murdock. "He seems to be getting a lot of those lately," he said, picking up his rag and flicking a few more crumbs around. "That's bad timing; I don't like it."
"He's been under a lot of stress lately," Murdock snapped defensively.
"You think it's easy for him to juggle all the different parts of this operation when we're not even completely sure what we're into?"
Hannibal stopped flicking and looked straight into Murdock's eyes. "You're worried," he said.
Murdock nodded, looking down and stabbing his straw up and down through scoop of ice cream on top of his soda, heedless of the soda that sloshed over the rim and ran down the sides of the glass to pool on the counter.
"Is Wright suspicious of you?"
"He knows something's up, he just doesn't know who's to blame. If he had any proof it was us, we could both be dead by now. I thought we were goners last night when he discovered someone had hacked into his computer and knew we were the last ones in the room, but for some reason he didn't make the connection. Or if he did, he didn't follow up on it."
"Can you keep him guessing?"
"I think so. For awhile, anyway."
Hannibal frowned and busied himself wiping glasses. "Maybe we should pull you two out and try this another way."
Murdock shook his head. "Face won't leave now," he said. "He's determined to finish what he started and to do it without jeopardizing Keith or Dan. He spent some time sucking up to Wright this morning, assuring him of his loyalty and theirs, and it seems Wright bought it, though he did have me followed. I think we're okay for awhile."
"Then what's the problem?"
"Wright seems to be taking a more...personal...interest in Face."
Hannibal watched silently a moment as Murdock renewed his attack on the ice cream. "Personal or sexual?" he asked.
"I'm not quite sure yet," Murdock admitted. "But I don't like the way he looks at Face, or the parts of him he looks at."
"Jealous, Captain?" Hannibal asked mildly.
"Damnit, I'm trying to keep us both alive here, Hannibal," Murdock hissed angrily. "Face is putting himself in a dangerous spot trying to get Wright's trust. Maybe more dangerous than he even realizes. I just have a bad feeling about Wright."
"Face has had men make passes at him before. He knows how to turn them away. But what is going to be a problem is if you two fail to convince Wright you really are a couple. If he thinks there's a chance you aren't, he'll realize why you're there."
"I know," Murdock answered, finally applying himself to his drink.
"If things get too bad, I want you to get him the hell out of there."
"Hannibal, if we leave now, Wright will make the connection to us for sure," said Murdock.
"Which will take the heat off your friends and get you two out of harm's way," Hannibal answered.
"But we'd never be able to go back in. Face would never speak to me again if I let that happen," said Murdock. "This is his plan, and he wants to do it his way."
"He'd never speak to you again if he were dead, either, Murdock. When it comes down to it, this is still my responsibility. Face's safety and yours are your top priority from here on out. If you're going to stay in this situation, you have to make a believer out of Wright, no matter what. And that's an order, Captain."
"Yes, sir," Murdock replied reluctantly.
Hannibal picked up Murdock's drink and mopped at the mess underneath it. "B.A.'s with the van. Call there to let me know when you've either got more information or are pulling the plug and getting out. In the meantime, I'll get better acquainted with the pharmacist."
"There doesn't seem to be any love lost between her and Wright," Murdock observed.
"There wouldn't be," said Hannibal. "Wright took a personal interest in her younger brother a few years back. Offered him a great position and opportunities for advancement, and he didn't have to hide his sexual preference." He looked at Murdock evenly. "Sound familiar? He was swallowed up in that compound one day and never came back out. Parts of him showed up at the dump, eventually."
Murdock sighed then stood as he heard his assumed name paged. Hannibal snatched the soda and emptied it into the sink, looking resentfully at the dirty glass as he rinsed it perfunctorily and placed it among the clean glasses he'd removed from the dishwasher. "Be careful, Murdock," he said without looking up.
Murdock nodded, placed on the counter a few bills folded around the disk, and returned to the pharmacy. The pharmacist would not meet his eyes as she rang up his purchase. "It seems you've had a bad experience with Mr. Wright," he offered gently. "I'm sorry."
The pharmacist nodded but still refused to meet his eyes. "Make sure your partner takes these at the first sign of the migraine. If he waits until the pain is bad, they'll be less effective."
"I know," said Murdock. "Thank you." He accepted his change then left the store. He glanced up and down the street again on the way out, and there was the green sedan waiting down the block. Knowing Face would be gone most of the afternoon, he led the sedan a merry chase all over town as he visited the art supply shop, the florist, the wine shop, the fabric store, and even a kinky love toys shop that seemed strangely out of place in this sleepy town. There he wandered the aisles for a long time, buying nothing, but making life miserable for his followers who'd been sitting outside in the hot sun most of the afternoon. Ignoring the pointed looks the elderly clerk was giving him, he finally selected a package of condoms and took them to the counter. The bulky, blue-haired woman impatiently flipped the ashes off her cigarette and onto a paper plate.
"Honey, you been here for forty-five minutes, and this is all you're buyin'?" she asked. "You sure you ain't just too shy to pick up any of the good stuff?" She batted her eyes at him seductively and pursed ruby red lips. "I could show you how to use some of it," she whispered coyly.
Murdock almost laughed aloud at the thought of playing bondage games with this prune-faced seductress. "Well, actually," he replied, lowering his voice and leaning forward conspiratorially, "you don't have anything else here I don't already own."
The lady managed to look both surprised and impressed. "Well, I'm getting some new stock in next week," she said. "Come on back then, and we'll see what we can do for you."
Murdock smiled his thanks, paid, and left. He figured he'd have enough time to get back to the estate/compound/armed camp and get a quick nap before Face returned. One way or another, it was looking to be a long night.
Murdock was sitting on the top step when Face and Wright returned. He walked to the car, opened the door without waiting for the limo driver, and pulled Face out of the car and into his embrace. Startled, Face hugged him quickly in return as Wright climbed out of the car behind him. As Face pulled back, Murdock looked into his eyes. "Uh-oh. Headache back?"
"Yeah," Face replied. "It's not too bad yet. Did you get my pills?"
"Yes, of course, Richie." He pulled out the bottle, opened it, and handed Face one pill. Face accepted it gratefully and swallowed it dry.
"Are you going to be alright, Rich?" asked Wright, stepping close and squeezing his elbow.
"Yeah, he'll be fine," Murdock answered on his behalf. "He's probably been in the car too long. We'll go get some fresh air, maybe take a little nap in the sun. Sound good?" he finished as he took Face's hand.
Knowing from Murdock's tone that something was wrong, Face nodded and allowed Murdock to lead him away. He looked back over his shoulder at Wright. "See you later, sir,"
Wright nodded and headed up the steps. Murdock headed casually to a spot under a tree in the center of the lawn, grabbing a blanket off a chaise lounge as he went by. He spread the blanket on the ground and sat, pulling Face down next to him.
"What's wrong?" Face asked.
"Lots," replied Murdock.
Before Face knew what was happening, Murdock put his hand behind Face's head and pulled him into a kiss. Startled, Face tried to pull away, but Murdock retained an iron grip on his neck.
"He's watching us out the window," Murdock mumbled against his lips. "Make it look real."
Not knowing what else to do, Face willed himself to relax and lean into the kiss, closing his eyes. Murdock eased him back to lie on the blanket and leaned over him, cupping his face gently between his hands. Trying to ignore a sudden rush of almost adolescent giddiness, Face tried to analyze the situation as dispassionately as he could. He concluded that they were in danger, which he already knew, and that Murdock was a very good kisser, which he didn't already know. Beyond that, he couldn't seem to think.
Murdock broke the kiss and pulled back. He lay on his side next to a somewhat breathless Face, propped himself on one elbow, and draped the other arm over Face's chest. "Sorry," he apologized in a whisper as two burly guards walked by on their way back to the house.
"It's okay," Face murmured, realizing that it actually was. "What's the problem?"
"Had to get you out here before you went up to our room. It's bugged."
"Bugged?" Face repeated. This was going to complicate the hell out of things.
"Thoroughly. Wright can see and hear everything we do there, and we don't dare disable them or he'll know what we're up to."
"Shit!" Face swore softly. "How much do you think he suspects?" He raised a hand to rub his temples.
Murdock sat up against the tree and pulled Face up to lean against his chest. Face sagged against him as Murdock gently rubbed his temples. "I don't know. He had me followed today."
"He was asking me a lot of questions today," said Face. "Kind of personal, too. "
"Me. Us. Our...relationship."
"Did you answer them to his satisfaction?"
"I don't know. I tried to be as vague as I could and changed the subject a lot."
"I've noticed he's rather taken with you," Murdock said. "Touches you a lot."
"I know," Face said.
"Why didn't you tell me?"
"I was hoping I was just overreacting. You know how I am. Stuff other people do all the time makes me jumpy. I thought I was just reading him wrong."
"No. It's more than a friendly interest," said Murdock. "I'd say he's got the hots for you, you little charmer."
Murdock turned his attention to Face's shoulders. Face began to slowly relax under his touch as the medication took effect. Pretty soon he'd fall asleep. "Face?"
"Once we're back to the house, we have to be Rich and Paul twenty-four hours a day. We have to convince Wright we're the happiest couple on earth, that we fill each other's every need." He felt Face stiffen as he realized the import of Murdock's words. "He'll be watching us tonight. If he suspects I'm not really your lover, we're both dead. If he thinks I am your lover, but I'm not making you happy, I'm afraid he's gonna be looking to take you to his own bed."
Face took a deep breath, held it a moment, then let it out and relaxed against Murdock. "I'm sorry I got you into this, Murdock."
Murdock slipped his arms around Face's chest and squeezed gently. "Don't be. But you're gonna have to resign yourself to giving Wright the thrill of his life tonight."
"I've...never," Face began awkwardly.
"I know," Murdock interrupted. "But we'll manage. We're going to have a nice, romantic evening. Just the three of us."
Finally able to see some humor in the situation, Face snorted with laughter as Murdock lay back on the blanket, pulling Face with him. Without another word, Face settled on his side, pillowed his head on Murdock's shoulder, and closed his eyes, too exhausted even to worry.
Shortly before dinner, Face woke. He sat up slowly, careful not to wake Murdock, and realized that, for the moment at least, his headache was gone. Taking stock of their situation, he wished mightily that they could just walk away from this whole damned mess and call it quits, but he knew that since he'd created the mess, it was his to clean up. There was no way around it, especially since they were virtual prisoners here. To allay Wright's suspicions, he was going to have to make love to his best friend, knowing that Wright would see and hear it all. He wasn't at all sure this was something he could pull off, and he feared what it might do to their friendship. Murdock was always saying he'd do anything for him, but Face didn't think this was the sort of thing Murdock had had in mind. Would Murdock resent him for this? He'd never admit it, of course, but how could he not resent having been put in this position? Face had made the job sound like a bit of easy playacting. He'd never dreamed he'd have to compromise Murdock like this.
Murdock sighed in his sleep and shifted slightly. Watching him, Face thought back to their kiss. Oddly enough, he'd actually enjoyed it once he got over the initial shock. That was a scary thought. But was it really a physical attraction, or was it just that in this vulnerable position, he was responding to the strength and safety Murdock had always represented for him? He didn't know. But he did know that he trusted Murdock implicitly. Murdock would never hurt him. If nothing else went right, he could at least cling to that. He sighed and looked out over the ocean. If this failed, it would be his fault, not Murdock's. As always, he was the weak link in their four-man chain.
During their incarceration in the POW camp, sexual assaults had been frequent and brutal. Like the others, Face had endured, but things had never been quite the same after that. He'd studiously avoided physical contact with anyone for a long time, even after he'd regained some control over his hypersensitive startle reaction. When he'd resumed sexual relationships again, he'd carefully chosen women who would let him be in control. He was a gentle, thorough, considerate lover, but he was always, always the one in control. But tonight could not be avoided, and he was not going to be able to take control, not even if his life depended on it.
He looked back at Murdock to find him awake.
"You look a little better," Murdock said.
"I feel better," Face replied. "Headache's finally gone."
Murdock sat up and brushed a few stray blades of grass from Face's sleeves. "You've rumpled your suit," he said. "How very uncharacteristic of you."
Face laughed a bit as he smoothed his jacket. "I know. I guess I'll have to go up and change before dinner." He stopped smoothing and looked at Murdock, all traces of humor gone. "Look, Murdock, I appreciate everything you've done for me. I'm okay to finish this on my own."
"You want me to leave," Murdock said.
Face knew that was the last thing he wanted, but he nodded. "I can't ask you to get into this any deeper. I've got Wright just about where I want him; a few more weeks and I should be able to bring him down. Why don't we just stage a big fight? You can storm off and go home, and I'll cry myself to sleep."
Murdock reached out and took Face's hands in his own. "Do that and I guarantee you'll have your head between Wright's legs before sunup, and you'll be way too busy with that for the next few weeks to do anything else," he said gently. "I'm not leaving you to go through that."
Murdock looked past Face's left shoulder to see a pair of guards pausing to light their cigarettes and knew they were also straining to overhear their conversation. Noticing his look, they moved off a bit. Face's fingers were icy in his grip, and Murdock rubbed them gently. "Are you gonna be able to go through with this tonight, Face?"
"I don't know," Face answered honestly, eyes lowered. "I know it's important, but," he broke off abruptly and sighed heavily before continuing. "I'm kind of afraid I'm gonna leap off the bed and go hide in the corner." He laughed a bit at himself, but it was a laugh full of misery.
Having seen him do it before, Murdock knew Face wasn't kidding.
"I'm so sorry you have to do this," Face said, finally looking up. "Are you sure this isn't going to...set you back?"
Murdock laughed softly. "I can see it now. You in one corner, me in the other, and Wright wondering what the hell was in our bed!"
"C'mon, Murdock, I'm serious," snapped Face impatiently.
"I know," replied Murdock. "You don't have to worry about me. I'm not as uncomfortable with this as you are."
"Yes," answered Murdock soothingly. "Please, just try to relax. You know I'd never hurt you. And if you have to do this, isn't it better to do it with a friend?"
"Yeah, I guess," Face replied, dropping his eyes again. "At least I know you're not gonna give me anything."
"Yeah, and I'm not gonna get you pregnant, either," Murdock joked, hoping to lighten the atmosphere. Face smiled but didn't look up. "Listen," Murdock continued, "if you have a panic attack, we'll deal with it. God knows I've had enough practice with my own. You can do this."
Face nodded. "I'm just...nervous. I feel like a virgin bride on her wedding night!"
Murdock laughed aloud at that. "I can see you as a lot of things, Facey, but not as a virgin."
Face smiled at the jest but didn't respond. He'd never told anybody that he actually had been a virgin until his brutal initiation in the prison camp. "Here come Keith and Dan," he announced, seeing the two men walking toward them. The two walked hand in hand, each carrying a tennis racket. Face envied them their easy affection and familiarity. He had never felt that comfortable with his lovers. Watching them, he realized that despite his Romeo reputation, he was missing out on something.
Murdock turned and waved to the two men then turned back to Face. "Everything's gonna be fine," he said. "Trust me?" It was a question, not a statement.
Face finally met his eyes and smiled back. "Always," he said.
Keith and Dan dropped onto the blanket next to them, Keith groaning dramatically as he flopped onto his back. "Man, don't ever play tennis with that old guy," he moaned. "He cheats!"
Dan cuffed him affectionately on the shoulder. "I don't cheat! You skinny little American boys just don't have enough stamina to keep up with a real man!"
"Hah! A real old man, you mean!" Keith shot back. He looked over at Murdock and Face. "I was holding back so the strain wouldn't give him a heart attack. Otherwise I'd have beaten the pants off him!"
Dan chuckled and leaned over Keith. "Well, you can try that tonight," he murmured as he waggled his eyebrows suggestively.
"Why, you dirty old man!" Keith exclaimed. He raised himself to his elbows. "You're on!"
Dan stood and reached down to help Keith to his feet. "Let's go, weenie boy," he said. "We'd better get cleaned up and dressed before dinner. Mr. Wright doesn't like to be kept waiting."
"You two coming, too?" Keith asked as he brushed off his backside.
"Yeah," replied Face, standing.
"You feeling better today, Rich?" asked Dan.
"Yes, I am, thanks," Face replied. "It's just that once I get one of these headaches, it keeps coming back every day for a week or so. Luckily, I travel with a really good massage therapist," he finished, glancing at Murdock.
"Ah!" returned Keith. "Good looking and useful, too! You're a lucky guy, Rich."
Face smiled. "I guess I am," he replied. Tentatively he put his arm through Murdock's and felt it pressed to Murdock's side as Murdock drew him closer. Face allowed himself to lean slightly against Murdock as he walked. He could do this. He hoped.
Ted Wright was just taking his place at the head of the dinner table when Keith and Dan entered the room. Wright smiled pleasantly as they took their places side by side at the dinner table.
"Gentlemen, how was your tennis game?" he inquired solicitously.
"Just great, Mr. Wright," answered Keith. "You were right; it was a great way to work up an appetite."
Wright nodded. "Good, good!" he said heartily. It had also been a good way to get them out of the house so he could upgrade the surveillance equipment in their room. If they were his traitors, he'd soon know it. If not, well, they were inventive and enthusiastic lovers and always put on a good show. Between them and his other houseguests, he should have an entertaining if not enlightening evening. The houseguests in question entered the room just then. Rich Todd was a step ahead of Paul Huntington, Paul's hand resting lightly on his shoulder.
"I hope we're not late," said Rich.
"No, no, you're right on time," answered Wright, watching as Paul first pulled Rich's chair out for him before taking his own seat. Wright was interested to note how protective and solicitous Paul was of Rich. He supposed Rich's youthful good looks and complete lack of guile brought out certain traits in others. With Huntington, it was protectiveness. In himself it was possessiveness. And jealousy.
When both men were seated, Wright nodded at the waiter standing nearby to serve the first course. Then he sat back, saying little, watching and listening to the conversation of his guests. Rich and Dan discussed the stock market, soccer, and that year's Academy Awards nominees, with Paul providing uncanny impressions of various actors along the way.
Keith had little interest in any of those topics but listened good-naturedly to the conversation. He eventually glanced Wright's way and noticed Wright staring at Rich with an almost feral expression on his face. Could Wright be harboring lustful thoughts for Rich Todd? True, Rich looked stunning in a royal blue silk shirt and a brightly patterned tie with splashes of red, yellow, and royal blue. But Dan was quite a looker, and Wright had never looked at him that way. At least, he hoped he hadn't. Thinking perhaps it was his imagination, Keith glanced across the table and knew that Paul had noticed the look as well. Paul was frowning and his left arm stretched across the back of Rich's chair as if forming a barrier between Rich and Mr. Wright. He hoped Wright wouldn't notice Paul's unfriendly scowl, as it could create problems for Rich.
"Hey, Rich, that's some tie!" Keith broke in as soon as there was an opening in the conversation. "Is it one of Paul's designs?"
As he'd hoped, both Paul and Wright turned their attention to him.
Face fingered the tie. "As a matter of fact, it is," he answered. And as a matter of fact, it was. Thorough as always, Face had insisted Murdock design several ties, jackets, and vests, which he'd had made up at great personal expense. Despite Murdock's usual flair for the outrageous and flamboyant, his men's designs were tasteful, understated, and perfectly designed for Face's build and coloring.
"I've never seen a design quite like that anywhere," Wright commented.
"And you won't, either," exclaimed Face. "This is a one-of-a-kind. He designed it for me."
"Brings out your eyes," Dan said. "Good job, Paul."
"What can I say?" smiled Murdock, wrapping an arm around Face's shoulders. "He's so beautiful, he inspires me."
"Perhaps I could impose upon you to design some new clothing for me," put in Wright, signaling for coffee to be served.
Murdock smiled again and nodded. "I could always use the business, Mr. Wright. I'd be glad to." He was visualizing something with long sleeves that wrapped around and fastened in the back.
Say, can you two join us for a tennis game tomorrow?" asked Keith. "That is, if your headache isn't back," he continued, looking at Face.
"Rich may be pretty busy tomorrow," cut in Wright smoothly. He glanced meaningfully at Face. "Some problems have come up, and Rich has offered to help me straighten them out. But I'll try to leave him some time to play in the afternoon."
Face answered, "I'll get on it first thing tomorrow, sir. I'm usually up early."
"So I've heard," returned Wright with a smile. "If you'll all excuse me, it's been a fairly long day. I'll retire to my room and see you all in the morning."
If not sooner, Face thought sourly. But as Wright rose, he smiled brightly and offered his employer a cheerful goodnight.
The four remaining men retired to the living room and played a friendly poker game using after dinner mints as chips. Dan and Keith piled their winnings in a communal heap on their side of the table while Face arranged his in neat, color-coded rows but had to keep batting Murdock's hand away as he ate his own winnings and began on Face's. Keith and Dan looked on, laughing as they sipped their wine.
Murdock continued to fill Face's wine glass, steal mints, and tease him until Face visibly relaxed. Face knew what Murdock was doing and appreciated it. He finally felt the tensions of the last two days draining away and had achieved a pleasant buzz that felt good but was too far short of drunkenness to cause a hangover.
Eventually Dan and Keith excused themselves and headed up to bed. Knowing it could be put off no longer, Face also stood, looking at Murdock expectantly. Murdock pulled him into a hug.
Mindful of eavesdroppers, Murdock whispered, "Are you ready?"
"Yeah, I'm ready," Face whispered back, but his voice trembled.
Face let Murdock lead him up the stairs and into their room, trying to remember not to look at the hidden cameras Murdock had pointed out to him when they had come up to dress for dinner. But Face's jaw dropped when Murdock ushered him into the room ahead of him. Candlelight flickered softly at various points around the room, and soft music played in the background. Fresh flowers sat on the nightstand next to a bottle of champagne chilling in an ice bucket. It was exactly the same sort of incredibly romantic setting Face had often created for women he was trying to seduce. He turned to Murdock, his eyes wide. "Paul," he breathed, "it's, it's..."
"Romantic? Enchanting? Wondrous?" supplied Murdock helpfully, putting his arms around Face's waist. "A bit over the top, maybe, but what else can you expect from a guy who designs purple chicken dresses?"
Face laughed and Murdock pulled him closer. "Stop laughing when I'm trying to seduce you, you idiot!" Murdock exclaimed. "You're giggling like a schoolgirl!"
Face only laughed harder, returning Murdock's embrace briefly before turning away. "No, seriously, this is lovely, Paul. Thank you." He stepped to the ice bucket and examined the champagne. "This is my favorite brand!"
"I know," replied Murdock, bringing over two glasses.
"How did you pull this off?" Face asked, looking around the room.
"That invisible guy who turns our bed down every night and leaves these little chocolates on our pillow set it up for me," answered Murdock, pouring the champagne and handing a glass to Face.
Face sipped the champagne appreciatively then bent and picked up a package of glow-in-the-dark condoms off the pillow. "These aren't chocolates!" he exclaimed.
Murdock smiled and took the condoms, tossing them on the nightstand. "Just a gag," he said. "I had some time to kill, and I felt bad leaving the store without buying something." By the time Murdock finished describing the store and the pass its elderly proprietress had made at him, Face was convulsed with helpless laughter. It felt good to laugh again, to be sharing this joke with his closest friend, and for a moment, Face could almost forget Wright was watching. Almost.
Murdock kicked off his shoes and climbed onto the bed behind Face, gently massaging his shoulders. "Happy birthday, Richie," he said.
Birthday? Where the hell did that come from? They hadn't talked about birthdays. Face struggled for a moment to remember the birthdate he'd put on Richard Todd's birth certificate. "Paul, my birthday was six months ago," he said, playing along.
"I know, sweetheart," said Paul. "And I told you then that I'd make it up to you. I know you're still a little hazy on this," he continued, slipping his arms around Face's chest to pull him close. "You were still in the hospital on your birthday after the night those men jumped you in the parking lot and beat and raped you."
Face said nothing for a few moments while he got his thoughts in order. Murdock was obviously concocting a cover story in case Face did panic and make a dash for the corner.
"I...I don't really remember all the details," Face said softly. "Not even of the time in the hospital."
In his room, Wright refilled his wine glass and watched and listened carefully. This was something he hadn't known about.
Drawing on his memories of the POW camp, Face recreated the assault for his persona. "I only remember voices and...and hands. And it hurt so bad. I screamed and screamed, but nobody would help me."
"I know, baby, I know," murmured Murdock soothingly. "And it's taken a long time for you to completely heal."
Face nodded, not quite sure where to take this.
"Last time we tried to make love, it wasn't as successful as we'd hoped," Murdock continued.
"I'm sorry, Paul; really, I am," said Face. "I do love you; you know I do."
"Shh, I know, I know." Murdock pulled Face down to lie on the bed. "You show me that in a thousand ways every day. It was just too much, too soon, Richie. You weren't up to it." He loosened Face's necktie and ran a hand gently through his hair. "Tonight is just for you, just to help you remember how good it can be. Will you let me love you?"
"Y...yes," Face whispered.
"Good." Murdock placed feather-light kisses on Face's cheeks and forehead. "I won't hurt you. I would never hurt you. I love you, Richie."
Murdock straddled Face's hips and looked down at him. Trust warred with fear in Face's eyes as Murdock's strong hands gently cupped his face. "Trust me?" he asked softly, the same question he'd asked earlier that afternoon. It was Murdock asking, not Paul.
Face raised his hands to squeeze Murdock's forearms. "Always," he whispered and closed his eyes as Murdock bent to kiss him. They'd already done this once today. This was the easy part. This he could do with, well, with his eyes closed. Face breathed a deep sigh as he realized he had never, never been kissed like this before.
Murdock pulled back and looked at him. "You doing okay?" he asked.
"Yes," Face whispered without opening his eyes. "Don't stop."
Murdock smiled and slid down to lie flat on top of Face, propped himself on his forearms, and kissed him again. Face tasted after dinner mints as Murdock's tongue slid into his mouth. Mints and champagne. Damn, Murdock was really good at this.
Murdock pulled back again, and Face opened his eyes. "What's wrong?" Face asked.
"Nothing's wrong," Murdock replied as he removed Face's tie and laid it on a chair next to the bed. "It's just time to get ready for bed." Murdock stood and began stripping off his clothes. His movements were casual and unhurried.
Face lay watching Murdock disrobe but felt paralyzed, unable to stand and undress himself. This was ridiculous, he chided himself. He and Murdock had seen each other naked many times. But somehow this was different, and he couldn't bring himself to move. Murdock, however, acted pleased as he returned to stand by the bed.
"Ah, I love it when you let me undress you," said Murdock softly as he bent to remove Face's shoes. "It's like opening a gift."
If Face hadn't been paralyzed, he might have laughed at the corny line. Murdock pulled off his socks and gently ran his hand over the top of one bare foot.
Face felt all his muscles begin to tense and was immediately glad for the cover story previously set forth for Wright's benefit. He drew a deep, shuddering breath and forced himself to relax as Murdock unbuckled his belt, opened his slacks, and eased them down and off.
"Breathe, Richie, breathe," urged Murdock as he lay the slacks aside. His voice was soft and soothing. "It's only me."
You and Wright and God knows how many of his henchmen, thought Face. But he forced himself to look into Murdock's eyes. "I'm okay, Paul," he said.
"Good," returned Murdock as he unbuttoned Face's shirt and slid it off.
Face lay still and watched Murdock walk across the room to hang up the expensive trousers and silk shirt. It was just the kind of thing Paul Huntington would do. Murdock had this role down pat.
For all that he sometimes seemed all long arms and legs, here Murdock moved with grace and assurance, the candlelight highlighting the soft curves and smooth planes of the muscles in his back and buttocks as he buttoned the shirt and hung it up. He reminded Face of the lithe young athletes painted on Greek pottery.
Murdock returned to the bed and held out his hand. When Face took it, Murdock pulled him up and off the bed to stand in front of him. Face started to lower his eyes, thought better of it, and looked instead at Murdock's face. Murdock smiled, pulled him close, and kissed him again. Without thinking, Face responded, his arms going around Murdock's neck. Murdock's hands slipped under his T-shirt, running gently up and down his back. Face was fine with that. Murdock rubbed his back all the time when he had a headache. He could do this. Caught up in the moment, he'd almost abandoned rational thought when Murdock's hands slipped down to cup his buttocks, squeezing gently.
Face gasped and pulled away, stumbling backward. He'd have fallen if Murdock had not grabbed his arms to steady him. Realizing what he'd done, Face folded his arms across his chest to try to control his trembling and slow his breathing. He looked up at Murdock, tears in his eyes. "Oh, God, Paul. I'm sorry. I'm sorry," he said shakily.
"Did I hurt you?" Murdock asked, concerned.
"No, no," gasped Face. "It's not you. I just...I couldn't help it. I just remembered...it felt like..." Face was practically incoherent, and Murdock feared he might slip and give something away.
"It's okay, sweetheart," he murmured soothingly. "It was just a flashback. Remember, the doctor said you might have those." He opened his arms but stayed where he was. After a moment, Face stepped into his embrace, still trembling. "It's my fault, Rich," Murdock continued, holding the other man close and swaying gently. "I should have told you what I was doing before I touched you there. I should've remembered what they did to you."
Murdock did remember. He remembered Face being dragged back to their cell naked and semi-conscious, his buttocks and thighs a mass of torn flesh, with deep, painful wounds that became infected. In his mind, Murdock could still hear Face screaming as they held him down so the colonel could clean the wounds. And that was not the last time he'd been brought back to them in that condition.
Shit! thought Face. Get a grip before you get us killed! He took some deep breaths, trying to bring his body back under control. Slowly he relaxed and unfolded his arms, wrapping them around Murdock's waist and resting his head against Murdock's shoulder. His heart still hammered, but he was once again capable of rational thought. He sighed softly and felt Murdock's arms tighten around him. "You're too good to me, Paul," he said softly. "Nobody else would put up with me like this."
"We're a couple, Rich," returned Murdock, resting his chin atop Face's head. "A team. What happens to you happens to me, and we'll get through this together, however long it takes."
Face closed his eyes and relaxed against Murdock's chest. "I could never get through this without you," he murmured, and he wasn't sure whether he meant Paul or Murdock.
"Anything you need, anytime. You know that." Murdock kissed the top of Face's head. "Do you need to stop for tonight?" he asked.
Murdock was giving him an out, Face realized. But he knew that a frustrated Wright was a dangerous Wright. He had to finish this. He pulled back and looked up at Murdock, meeting his eyes. "No," he replied softly. "Let's try again."
Murdock smiled and nodded his approval. "I'm going to finish undressing you now," he said gently. "Is that alright?"
"Yes," Face answered, his voice stronger, "it's alright."
Murdock again slipped his hands under Face's shirt, this time pushing it up and pulling it off over his head. Face shivered a bit, more from nerves than cold.
"Bit chilly in here without clothes, isn't it?" said Murdock.
"Yeah, it's kinda frosty," Face agreed, trying to sound as calm as Murdock.
Wright spoke without glancing away from the monitor. "Have the air conditioning turned down."
From the darkness, a disembodied voice answered, "Yes, sir," and spoke quietly into the phone.
Wright watched as Rich's last article of clothing pooled around his feet. Rich stepped aside as his lover bent to pick up the briefs and put them on the chair. There was no doubt about it, Rich was as beautiful as any man he had ever had. His chest was smooth as alabaster, his stomach flat, his legs long and lean. And his genitalia...Wright reached out a hand to touch the screen. Oh, yes, he was perfect...perfect. Rich turned away as Paul put an arm about his shoulders to lead him back to the bed. As Wright expected, the back was as beautiful as the front. The dark tan on his back and legs contrasted sharply with his pale buttocks. Even in the dim light, Wright could make out some scarring, but that wouldn't matter. He could overlook that. Eventually, perhaps, he'd arrange an accident for Huntington. He could make Rich forget Huntington, forget the rape, forget everything but him. Rich would be his, body and soul.
For several minutes Face and Murdock simply sat up in bed sipping champagne, taking of inconsequential things. Murdock knew Face needed time to rebury his memories. Finally Murdock took the empty glasses and reached across Face to set them on the nightstand, gently rolling Face onto his stomach at the same time.
Face watched as Murdock poured some oil on his hands, rubbing them together as he moved down and positioned himself between Face's knees. Face looked back over his shoulder apprehensively. Surely Murdock wasn't going straight to that!
Seeing his look, Murdock shook his head. "I'm just going to touch you, love. Rub your legs and back, help you relax. Okay?"
"Yes, that's okay," agreed Face, resting his head on the pillow. Murdock gave great back rubs.
Murdock ran his hands gently over Face's shoulders, finding knots of tension and applying pressure to work them out. He was used to doing this for Face, and it was a touch Face was comfortable with. But doing this with an audience was tough. Murdock could feel the younger man still trembling under his touch as he continued to work.
"How does that feel?" he finally asked when he could sense some of the tension diminishing.
"Better," Face replied.
"Say, y'know that evening jacket I've been designing for you?"
"The gray one?" Face asked, playing along. He always enjoyed Murdock's flights of fancy, crazy as they often were, and had years of practice encouraging him.
"What about it?"
"I'm thinking of adding some embellishments."
"I'm thinking of edging the lapel with sequins."
"Sequins!" Face sounded annoyed.
"Or maybe rhinestones."
Face groaned into the pillow.
"You wouldn't wear rhinestones?"
"Do I look like Liberace?" Face shot back.
"Well, I don't know. I've never seen this side of him," Murdock answered.
Face laughed. Nobody else ever put him at ease like this, helped him over the rough spots with humor. Lying there, he realized that without him sensing when it had happened, Murdock's touch had become lighter, a gentle, teasing caress. This was the touch of a lover, not of someone working out tension. Face registered the sensation at the same time he realized that he'd finally stopped shaking. He stretched a bit, settling himself more comfortably on the bed.
"I'm okay now, Paul," he said. "Thanks."
Murdock ran his hands down along Face's side to his waist, stroking slowly and gently back up his ribs and down along his spine. He hesitated just above Face's hips.
"It's okay," said Face, and Murdock's hands gently continued down. Other than a slight catch in his breathing, Face remained relaxed and passive.
"I love your skin, Rich," Murdock said. "Like silk." He leaned over to plant a row of kisses across Face's shoulders and along his spine as his hands continued to trace a path down Face's body from ribs to thighs.
Face realized with some trepidation that his body was reacting to Murdock's intimate touch, and he wasn't entirely sure what to do about it. He shifted himself slightly onto his right hip, hoping the light was too dim for Wright to see him blush.
Murdock hooked an arm under Face's shoulder and gently turned him onto his back. Noting Face's embarrassment, he pressed himself close to Face's side so that his own arousal was evident. Face's eyes widened, and he turned his face to meet Murdock's eyes as his breathing quickened.
"You're doing fine," Murdock whispered too low for the listening devices to pick up over the music. "Turn off your brain and just let your body have its way."
Face nodded but swallowed hard as Murdock kissed him again. The fingers of Murdock's left hand trailed over his chest and stomach. Face remained still, eyes closed, as Murdock's kisses moved down his neck to his chest. He gasped aloud when he realized what Murdock's tongue was doing to him. Murdock lifted his head to look at Face, realized the reaction had been one of pleasure, not of fear, and returned to his task.
Face lifted one hand to stroke the back of Murdock's head, hardly even aware of what he was doing. Finally, he opened his eyes and found himself looking directly at the spot where the hidden camera lay. Murdock happened to glance up at him then and knew exactly what he was looking at. He scooted back up the bed and took Face's head between his hands, forcing him to make eye contact.
"It's just us," he breathed. "Nobody else matters. Nobody else exists. Make yourself believe it."
Face nodded and kept his eyes on Murdock as Murdock moved to lay atop him, slipping his arms under Face's shoulders to hold him.
"Not too heavy for you, am I?" he asked.
Unable to speak, Face shook his head.
For long minutes, Murdock lay still, letting Face get used to the feel of Murdock's body pressed against his as they kissed. Then gently, slowly, he began to move his hips. "You're beautiful," he murmured. "So beautiful." His lips found Face's again, and he felt Face's body move in response to his, tentatively at first, then with greater urgency. And then they were lost in each other.
Wright watched as first Rich and then Paul climaxed. Their movements slowed and they lay still for a long time, holding each other close. Finally Paul rolled off of Rich, snagged a towel from the nightstand, and cleaned them both off. Rich lay on his back, eyes closed, utterly spent. Wright reached out to caress the screen again before Paul pulled the covers over Rich, extinguished the candles, shut off the music, and climbed back in bed to pull Rich into his arms. Wright frowned. He had to have Richard Todd. He had to!
Face woke slowly the next morning, roused by the smell of fresh coffee. He turned over on his back and saw Murdock sitting up in bed sipping coffee and sketching. Face hauled himself upright, squinting at the clock. It was only five a.m.
"Room service been by already?" Face asked.
"I went downstairs for this." Murdock gestured at the carafe on the table across the room. "I'll get you some."
"No, I'll do it. You can keep working." Figuring there probably wouldn't be anyone up this early to see him, Face walked across the room, fixed a cup, and brought it back to the bed."
"What're you doing?" he asked as he climbed back into the bed and under the covers.
"Some preliminary sketches for Mr. Wright," Murdock answered. "Take a look at this one."
Face almost choked on his coffee as Murdock showed him a picture of a sequin-studded straightjacket in black-and-white prison stripes. He managed not to laugh aloud, just in case they were being observed. "A bit flashy, I think," he said. "But it's a good start."
"Yeah, I suppose you're right," Murdock said, erasing the image. "What if I come with you this morning while you work? Maybe being in his office soaking up the ambience will inspire me. And when Mr. Wright comes in, I can do a color analysis, decide if he's a winter or a spring. My first inclination is winter, but I could be wrong."
Despite their performance the previous night, Murdock was obviously not willing to leave him alone with Wright. "I suppose it'd be alright for awhile," Face answered.
"He's such a great guy, welcoming us both like this," Murdock enthused. "How could you ask for a better boss? He treats you like a son!"
Murdock obviously didn't think it was too early for someone to be up and watching.
"I think of him that way, too," said Face. "I wish my father had been like him."
If Wright were watching them, he should be just about apoplectic by now. What a blow to the ego to be considered a father figure to someone he was trying to seduce! Murdock smiled at the thought.
Face turned toward Murdock and laid a hand on his thigh. "I don't think I said a proper thank you last night."
"Well, you fell asleep pretty quickly."
"Did I? Not very romantic of me. I'm sorry."
"Don't be sorry," said Murdock, reaching up to stroke Face's bare shoulder. "Your climax was all the thanks I needed, baby."
Face looked down, blushing. "Now that I've let you have your way with me, you evil man, are you gonna go away and never call me again?"
Murdock laughed aloud. Taking Face's cup and setting it on the nightstand with his own, he drew Face into his arms. "I'd call you every five minutes if you'd let me get away with it!" he said. "I'll never be able to get enough of you."
Face settled against Murdock's chest, listening to his steady, slow heartbeat. "Last night was fantastic. I didn't...remember...what a wonderful lover you are. Thank you."
"You're welcome," Murdock answered, holding him close as they dozed off.
Wright snapped off the monitor impatiently. The boy obviously loved his partner. For the moment, anyway, killing him was not an option. He'd just have to figure out something else.
Face and Murdock entered Wright's office an hour later with two cups of coffee, Murdock's sketch pad, and a satchel of color swatches. Closing the door behind them, Face made a show of going around switching on lights and Murdock of holding color swatches up to various objects in the room while rambling on about picking up Mr. Wright's aura. When they determined from their examination that Wright had not had listening devices or cameras installed in this room as well, Face produced a set of lockpicks and sat at Wright's desk.
"Keep an eye on the hall," said Face as he picked the lock on the file drawer. "We probably don't have much time."
"That seems a really obvious place to keep incriminating evidence," said Murdock doubtfully.
"I know, but it may be its very obviousness that makes it a good place to hide something," Face replied as he completed his task and pulled open the drawer.
Murdock opened the door a crack, listening intently. Behind him he could hear Face going through file folders. Ten minutes later, the paper rustling stopped. Murdock risked a glance over his shoulder and saw Face looking intently at the papers in one folder, his lips moving silently. Murdock knew he was memorizing the information. Face had a phenomenal memory, especially for numbers. Careful not to disturb him, Murdock returned his attention to the hallway.
Face had just finished with the contents of the file drawer when Murdock hissed, "Company's coming!"
Swiftly Face closed and relocked the cabinet and moved to a chair on the other side of the desk while Murdock arranged himself elegantly in a nearby armchair and began sketching.
Wright was expecting Murdock but wasn't pleased to see him when he came in. Nevertheless, he returned Murdock's greeting pleasantly.
"Good morning, Rich," he said to Face as he accepted the cup of coffee Face had risen to get for him.
"Good morning, sir," Face returned.
"I trust you passed a pleasant evening after I retired," Wright said as he moved to his chair and sat down.
Face allowed himself a shy glance at Murdock, who grinned back at him. "Yes, we did," he answered simply.
"Have you had a chance to look at those financial statements I gave you yesterday?" Wright asked.
Face nodded. He had studied them in detail. It wouldn't do to look like he was slacking on the job he'd been hired to do. "Everything seems to be in order, sir, but some of the interest amounts had been figured incorrectly. I fixed them and revised the totals. Now we only have to see if they match what you have in your records."
"You haven't tried to do that?" Wright asked.
"No, sir. I figured if I was supposed to be looking at them, they wouldn't be personal," answered Face.
Standing, Wright fished a key from his pocket and bent to unlock the file drawer and pull out a manila folder. "Actually, you couldn't have gotten to them anyway," he said. "I keep this drawer locked."
Face and Murdock exchanged an amused glance over Wright's back before Murdock returned to his sketch. Wright straightened and handed the folder to Face, who didn't miss the way Wright's fingers brushed his in the process. "Will you check your totals against these?"
"Sure," answered Face. Returning to his chair, he feigned great interest in the file, though he'd already examined it and knew the numbers matched his revised totals.
As Face pretended to work, Murdock stood. "I wonder if I might have a few minutes of your time," he said to Wright, his hands full of color swatches.
After breakfast, Wright hustled Face back into his office, this time suggesting politely but in a tone that brooked no opposition that Paul would find the den an excellent place to work on his sketches. Unable to find a good reason to object, Murdock acquiesced. They had known that he'd be unable to stay with Face every minute, and in a hurried and whispered conversation on the way to the breakfast table, Face had assured him that he'd be able to deal with any passes or groping that might come his way. Wright wouldn't try anything too blatant at this point.
Except for a brief meeting with Keith and Dan midmorning, Face was closeted with Wright until midafternoon, not even breaking for lunch. Wright had Face reviewing personnel records, phone records, anything he could think of to try to find who had hacked into his computer. Face made list after list, trying to look helpful without actually fingering anyone. While he had little or no sympathy for anyone in Wright's organization save Dan and Keith, he didn't want to set anyone up for murder, either, and that's what would happen to whoever Face's theft was laid on.
Face was aware of Wright's gaze following him as he moved about the office from file cabinet to desk and unconsciously took to crouching rather than bending over when he realized where Wright's eyes rested most of the time. For the most part Wright kept physical contact casual. When Wright released him for his tennis game, Face crossed the room to return files to one of the cabinets. There wasn't much room between the cabinets and the table that stood between them and the small washroom just beyond. On his way to the washroom, Wright had to squeeze behind Face's back to get past the cabinet. Face jumped involuntarily as Wright put his hands on Face's shoulders and allowed his groin to brush Face's backside as he squeezed by. It was only a momentary touch, the kind of unavoidable contact he'd had a hundred times with his team as they worked in close quarters. When they did it, he was hardly even conscious of the touch anymore, simply shifting out of their way as they had intended. When Wright did it, it felt like a serious violation of his personal space. He quickly finished with the files and was gone by the time Wright returned from the washroom.
Dan, Keith, and Murdock were waiting for Face on the tennis court. "You've been busy," Keith commented as Face greeted them.
"Yeah," said Face noncommittally.
"Must be the new golden boy!" exclaimed Dan.
"What happened to the last golden boy?" asked Murdock jokingly, using his sketching pen to draw faces on the tennis balls.
Dan and Keith looked at each other uneasily. "Well, I think he and Mr. Wright had a falling out one day. In fact, it was at one of these executive retreats. We never saw him again after we heard Mr. Wright arguing with him. I assume he quit."
"Jeez, that's too bad," said Face. "Mr. Wright seems like such a good employer. You can't beat the benefits package, the pay is good, what's not to like?"
"Well, I don't know exactly what happened," answered Dan, "but Mr. Wright was not happy for a long time after that. It's one of those subjects we just don't talk about."
"Well, if you ask me, it's pretty stupid to walk away from a job like this," said Face casually. "I don't know how he thought he could do better anywhere else."
Keith looked ill at ease, shifting from foot to foot. "Well," he began, "it was looking like he and Mr. Wright were...somewhat closer than...well, than most employers and employees are."
"I'm sure that was completely innocent," returned Face, bouncing a tennis ball on his racket. "Wright had probably taken a fatherly interest in him like he has in me."
Keith didn't look convinced and didn't look any more at ease, but he said no more as they began the game.
Face climbed the stairs, pulling off the shirt of his tennis outfit as he headed into the bedroom. Walking into the bathroom, he began stripping off his clothes as he waited for the water to warm. Murdock followed him.
"Is this room wired too?" Face whispered, knowing the running water would cover the sound of his voice.
"Only for video, not for sound" answered Murdock, pulling off his own clothes. "Who wants to listen to toilets flush?"
"We need to talk," Face said.
"We'll talk in the shower," said Murdock. "Let's hope they can't read lips."
"I haven't had this much company in a shower since I was in the army," Face grumbled. He stepped into the shower, lifting his face into the warm spray. Murdock stepped in behind him but didn't touch him until Face opened his eyes and saw him there. Looking at Murdock's grin, Face found himself desperately wishing he really were Rich Todd. Murdock's affection was genuine, Face knew that. But Murdock was also a consummate actor. What had happened between them last night was just another role to him. And he played it damned well.
Face stepped to the side as Murdock moved under the spray with him. As their lips met, Face reflected that when this was all over, he'd probably need a shrink worse than Murdock. Rich Todd was falling desperately in love with Paul Huntington. And within weeks, both Rich and Paul were going to cease to exist.
"What's wrong?" asked Murdock.
"Nothing," answered Face, reaching for the shampoo. "I guess it's showtime, huh."
"Yeah," agreed Murdock, taking the shampoo from him and squirting some out into his hand. "This is baby shampoo!" he exclaimed.
"So?" responded Face defensively. "I've got sensitive eyes. That off-brand you've been buying makes me itch."
"Poor baby," Murdock laughed. He placed the bottle back on the shelf and turned back, hesitating. "It's okay for me to do this?" Murdock asked, not sure how Face might react.
"Yeah, it's okay," answered Face. "Let's give `em something to watch."
Closing his eyes, Face steadied himself with a hand on the wall while Murdock washed his hair. "You saved my ass last night," Face said softly. "Thanks. I almost blew it."
"It's okay," returned Murdock. "I didn't mean to set you off like that. But it might have worked out for the best, anyway. If you react that way again, he'll assume it's because of the assault."
"Still, I'm sorry I lost it."
"Don't be sorry," said Murdock softly. "Some things you never really get over. I should know. I'm going to move you back under the spray now."
Murdock's hands gently maneuvered Face backward until he stood under the spray and the shampoo was rinsed out. When he opened his eyes, Murdock was smiling at him.
"What?" Face asked.
"Did I ever tell you you're really cute when you're wet?"
Face laughed and took the shampoo back. "Your turn," he said.
"Don't be too enthusiastic," Murdock said as Face's hands massaged his scalp. "My hair falls out easy."
"I'll be careful," said Face, "but I've always heard baldness was supposed to be a sign of virility."
"Ooh. Do you want me to shave my head?"
"No, we've got plenty of time," said Face, wishing it were true. "We'll wait for it to fall out by itself."
Murdock let Face finish rinsing his hair, then reached for the bar of soap, working up a lather before he reached for Face. As they moved closer together, Murdock asked, "What were you so busy memorizing today?"
"I think they're addresses of storage units, locker numbers, and possibly lockers at the bus terminal too, although that's kind of tacky for someone as sophisticated as Wright," answered Face. "They'll probably lead us to other people who are holding on to at least some of the rest of the information we need. I need you to get them to Hannibal tonight. You can run into town for some pencils or something."
Murdock rubbed soapy hands over Face's shoulders and arms, pleased to note that Face was not pulling away from his touch. But he shook his head firmly at Face's request.
"No. I'm not leaving you alone in this house tonight."
"But this is important!" Face insisted quietly.
"Is it everything? Can we walk away from here tonight and not come back?" asked Murdock.
"No, it isn't everything," answered Face. "But it's something."
"It'll wait for tomorrow," returned Murdock. "It's dangerous for you to be here alone."
Face was silent a moment. "What do you know that I don't?" he asked quietly.
"That last golden boy left here in pieces," said Murdock, pulling Face closer, rubbing his hands over Face's chest before reaching around to caress his back. "He was offered much the same position as you have now, under the same circumstances. And Wright killed him. Before we talked to Keith and Dan this afternoon, I thought maybe he was here trying to dig up dirt on Wright and got caught. But it's looking like Wright had the same interest in him he's got in you."
"You know I can break his neck if I have to," said Face. "I can handle him."
"Kill him and you'll never make it out of here alive. You know that as well as I do. He's still got the help watching us like hawks. You'd have to give in to save your life."
Face sighed, accepting the truth of Murdock's words.
"Your best shot is with me here," Murdock continued. "Wright won't expect me to leave you before the weekend is through anyway. Tomorrow afternoon we go back to the apartment. I'll contact Hannibal then and get the information to him. In the meantime, I don't want to turn my back on him. The longer we're here, the more he scares me. He wants you too bad."
"Figures," said Face, looking away. "Nobody else ever wanted me, but now I've got some power-crazed pervert lusting after my body."
"You don't know that," whispered Murdock, resting a hand in the small of Face's back.
"Don't know what?" asked Face.
"That nobody else ever wanted you. Maybe you just never noticed."
Face's mind whirled in confusion as Murdock kissed him softly. Was that Paul talking again? Would it even be smart to ask? Did Murdock feel anything but the kind of fierce protectiveness he often displayed when one of the team was in danger?
He moaned softly when Murdock's tongue slid into his mouth and returned the kiss with equal fervor. This time he didn't even flinch as Murdock's soapy hands slid over his buttocks, pulling him close, his caress gentle as his fingers moved in lazy circles over Face's back and buttocks. Jesus, could it be? Had this really been right in front of him all these years? Not one of the lovers he'd taken for the last fifteen years had ever made him feel this...this desire that was more than physical, that reached to the very core of his being. Slowly Murdock's hands slid back around to Face's chest and down the front of his body, and Face gasped when Murdock began to fondle him gently. Murdock wrapped his other arm around Face's waist, pulling him close. Face trembled, his body responding to Murdock's skillful touch.
As he climaxed, Face pulled away from the kiss to bury his face in Murdock's neck, his arms encircling Murdock tightly, knees nearly buckling from the intensity of his reaction. "Oh, my God," he whispered. "What are you doing to me?"
Murdock understood it for the rhetorical question it was. He bent his head close to Face's ear. "This is what it feels like to be wanted," he said quietly. "To be touched by someone without having to do anything to earn it, without having to con them into giving it to you. Just because they want to. Because they love you."
Face looked up at Murdock, his eyes bright with unshed tears. "If this is part of your act, I'm gonna kill you myself," he whispered fiercely.
"No act," Murdock assured him. "For me, it's never been an act."
Satisfied, Face rested his head on Murdock's shoulder again, content for awhile simply to be held, to feel Murdock's warm hands moving over him. How could he have lived without this for so long? He hoped it was driving Wright insane.
As his body stilled, Face looked up at Murdock, reaching up to kiss him. He'd never initiated any kind of non-violent physical contact with another man before Murdock, and he was still unsure how to proceed. Murdock's own arousal had obviously not been satisfied yet. Tentatively, Face allowed his hands to trail over Murdock's chest as he looked up at him shyly. "Some Romeo," Face said self-deprecatingly. "I'm afraid to go past first base with you!"
Murdock smiled, taking Face's hand and pushing it down the front of his own body. "Let me show you," he said softly.
Eventually they finished their shower and went down to dinner hand in hand. The wine had already been poured, and the salad was just being served as they got to the table. During dinner Face began to feel drowsy. The effects of too many sleepless nights, he supposed, as he fought back a yawn. Too tired to eat, he only picked at his food. Curiously, Murdock was showing the same symptoms, but that was to be expected. He'd had too many sleepless nights himself, lately, and too much worry. The two retired before dessert, with apologies to their host and fellow guests.
Face's legs felt heavier and heavier as he trudged up the stairs. This wasn't just too little sleep. Something was wrong. They barely made it to their room before they collapsed on the floor. Face clutched weakly at Murdock. Still mindful of the listening devices, he whispered, "What's he done to us?"
Murdock shook his head. "I'm sorry...I'm sorry," he whispered weakly. "Whatever you do, don't...don't give him...an excuse to hurt you. Stick...to...the...plan." Murdock lost consciousness, and Face was quick to follow.
Face's return to consciousness was accompanied by a violent headache and nausea that tied his gut in knots. Moaning, he tried to roll onto his side. Someone turned him, held his head while he vomited, then helped him lie down. He opened his eyes as a dark, blurry form bent over him. He flinched away from the hand that was laid gently on his forehead.
"Rich?" It was Dan's voice. Unable to recall where he was or what had happened, Face remembered only that he was supposed to stick to the plan.
"Paul?" he asked groggily. "Where's Paul?"
"He's in our room," answered Dan. "He's quite ill too, but he should be okay."
"What happened?" asked Face, blinking to try to bring things into focus.
"I'm not sure," answered Dan. "Keith and I saw you struggling up the stairs and figured you must be sick. We followed you up here and found you both unconscious on the floor."
"Mr. Wright?" Face asked.
"He's just downstairs; shall I get him?"
"No!" answered Face quickly. "Don't...don't."
"He's been talking with a doctor on the phone. Thinks perhaps it's a touch of food poisoning, though I don't see how that can be. We ate the same thing as you, and more of it."
"Dunno," said Face weakly. "Paul?"
"He's still unconscious, but he's breathing, his color looks good, and his temperature and pulse are both normal. How are you feeling?"
"Like shit," answered Face, darkness drawing him down again.
"Just close your eyes and rest," Dan advised him. "Keith and I'll drive you back home tomorrow if you're not up to it."
"I'll leave you, then," said Dan.
"No! Please...please stay," said Face. "Stupid, but... hate to be... alone." He fought to remain conscious.
"Sure, I'll stay," said Dan soothingly. "Just relax."
"Wake me...when Paul... comes to" said Face.
"Yeah, I'll wake you," said Dan. "Rest now."
Sick and dizzy, Face closed his eyes and drifted into darkness.
Twenty minutes later, Wright entered the room. Dan looked up from the magazine he was reading. "Hi, Mr. Wright. What'd the doctor say?"
"Bedrest, fluids, the usual."
"Sure is strange how that hit them so fast."
"I've talked to the house staff. I'm told Rich and Paul were drinking champagne in here last night. Perhaps there was something toxic in that."
"I suppose it could be," said Dan.
"He asleep?" asked Wright.
"Why don't you go on back to your room? There's nothing more you can do for him here," suggested Wright.
"That's alright. He asked me to stay," said Dan. "Doesn't like to be alone when he's sick."
"I'll stay with him," said Wright. "You can go check on Paul. Rich wanted to know when he woke up."
"Alright, then," said Dan. "One of us'll be back when Paul comes to."
Wright nodded absently as Dan left the room. He moved to sit on the side of the bed and watched Rich sleep. Damn those two anyway! he thought to himself. If they hadn't interfered, he'd have Rich safely ensconced in his own room now, exploring that perfect body, teaching it what real pleasure was. Now he'd have to be content with just a few minutes alone with this beautiful man.
He crossed the room to the door, locked it, and returned to the bed, pulling off the covers. Rich didn't stir, and his breathing didn't change. He was deeply asleep, and the aftereffects of the drug Wright had slipped in their wine would probably keep him that way.
He laid one hand on the flat stomach, feeling it rise and fall with Rich's breathing. It felt as he'd imagined it would...hard muscle under incredibly soft skin. He allowed his hand to move up Rich's body, over the ribs to the smooth expanse of his chest. He rubbed his thumb over a nipple, felt it harden under his caress before he moved his other hand up and rhythmically stroked both nipples with his thumbs, rubbing gently at first, then harder and harder until he could feel the warmth of chafed skin under his thumbs. He bent to take a nipple in his mouth as he'd watched Paul do last night, knowing he could do it better. He could make this man moan in ecstasy, beg for his touch. He knew he could. His other lovers hadn't appreciated his ability, but they hadn't been perfect. Rich was perfect. Rich would know how to appreciate him. His jaw tightened as he imagined how it could be, and he bit down hard, tasting blood. Rich moaned but didn't come to. But he obviously liked the feeling. Wright took the other nipple in his mouth and bit down, lapping blood, moving his mouth and biting again and again, wanting to hear that delightful sound once more. Rich continued to moan, his head moving feebly against the pillow.
"Yes, baby, you like that don't you? I knew you would," Wright said. He waited patiently for Rich's breathing to even out again before moving his hand toward Rich's groin. He eased Rich's legs apart, not touching yet, just looking. He wanted this experience to be perfect for both of them.
In the next room, Murdock was vomiting violently into a basin as Keith tried to keep him from falling out of bed. When he finished, he lay back on the bed shakily as Keith bathed his face with a cool cloth. Finally opening his eyes, he saw Keith standing over him and Dan seated at the foot of the bed. He looked around wildly and realized he was not in his own room.
"Rich!" he cried, struggling to sit up, fighting a wave of dizziness. "Where's Rich?"
"Back in your room," said Keith. "He's gonna be okay. Relax."
Murdock clutched his midsection as his guts twisted.
"You sure he's there? Is he alone?"
"No, he's not alone. It's alright. Mr. Wright is with him."
"Shit!" Murdock jumped out of the bed and promptly collapsed on the floor. Keith pulled the basin over as Murdock vomited again. He pushed them away when they tried to help him back to the bed, struggling to rise.
"Paul!" said Dan, sounding alarmed. "What's the problem? He's alright."
"No!" cried Murdock, "I...I have to get to him...I have to!"
"Alright, alright," said Keith soothingly as he assisted Murdock to his feet. "We'll go." He looked at his partner, shrugging.
"Why did you leave him alone?" said Murdock miserably, trying to stay conscious.
"Mr. Wright told me to come stay with you so I could go back and tell him when you..." Dan stopped abruptly. Wright had reminded him Rich wanted to know when Paul came around, but Rich had been asleep twenty minutes before Wright came in. How had he known?
Keith was struggling to put a robe around Murdock when Dan came to take his other arm and help him out of the room and down the corridor.
Wright combed his fingers through the soft hair that grew at Rich's crotch. Later they'd shave that off. Wright didn't like body hair much. He wanted his lovers to look a certain way. Lean, muscled, hairless. Rich would be pleased with the improvement.
Face struggled through a gray haze to consciousness. Something was wrong. He struggled to process the sensations his body was sending his confused brain. He was on his back. He was naked, cold. Somebody was...was touching him! He wanted to cry out, to pull away, but he couldn't quite get his body to move. He dragged his eyes open and recognized Ted Wright sitting on the bed. His hands were between Face's legs, stroking, squeezing, pinching, pushing his legs apart. Wright didn't notice he was awake. My God, where was Murdock? Why wasn't he here? Stick to the plan, stick to the plan...that was all he could remember. Don't give him an excuse to hurt you. Shit! It already hurt! Face closed his eyes, his breath coming in quick gasps. Mistaking it for arousal, Wright continued to fondle him roughly. In his mind Face screamed in abject terror, but he forced himself to lie still even when he felt he could finally get his limbs to move. The small part of his mind that was still working rationally knew he didn't stand a chance in his drugged state. Dear God, how had he gotten into this again? For almost fifteen years, nobody had touched him intimately without his consent, without his being fully aware of and directing their actions. He'd sworn he'd never again let himself feel the helpless, hopeless shame he'd felt in the prison camp. And it was happening again.
Footsteps hurried down the corridor, the doorknob rattled, and someone knocked loudly. Wright released him with a muffled curse and hurriedly threw the covers over him before he went to the door. As he opened it, Murdock practically fell into the room, supported by Keith and Dan.
"Is everything alright?" Dan asked. "Why did you lock the door?"
"I didn't want the house staff to barge in and bother him." replied Wright.
Breathing heavily, Murdock stumbled toward the bed, dragging his supporters with him. They helped him to the bed, where he crawled up and lay next to Rich, glaring balefully at Wright. Keith turned to Wright with a bright smile. "He insisted we bring him here as soon as he woke up! Thanks for coming by, Mr. Wright. Dan and I will take care of them now. You should probably get some sleep. You've got meetings early tomorrow morning."
As Wright was leaving the room, Rich was rolling over and vomiting again, his body seized with violent shaking. Dan helped him, cleaned him up, and lay him back on the bed next to Murdock, who was struggling mightily to stay awake.
"Paul...Paul!" Rich cried, reaching for him blindly.
Using his last bit of strength, Murdock pulled the trembling Face into his arms. "I'm here," he said weakly. "Sleep now...shh."
Dan and Keith settled into chairs across the room, troubled by the bits and pieces of a puzzle they each saw falling into place. They exchanged a long look before settling back to keep track of their charges for the night.
Dan and Keith worried as neither Rich nor Paul slept much that night. Despite the drug in their systems, they continued to struggle back to wakefulness. Rich in particular seemed afraid to sleep, curled into a tight ball next to Paul's side whenever he was awake and not vomiting. By morning they were slightly more aware of their surroundings and capable of coherent conversation, but that was about as far as it went.
"Shall I drive you two back to your apartment?" asked Keith as he handed Rich his T-shirt. Rich slipped on the shirt without coming out from under the covers, but Paul struggled out of bed and stood shakily as Dan helped him pull on some clothes.
"Thanks, but I think we're gonna call my dad," said Paul. He glanced over to where Rich was attempting to finish dressing without being seen. "I'm not sure either one of us is up to taking care of the other right now."
"Well, one of us will drop your car off at your apartment this afternoon, then. Boy, whatever was in that champagne you two were drinking must've been pretty potent," said Keith.
Murdock nodded without answering. He knew that whatever had been slipped to them was strong and that because Face had skipped lunch and eaten little dinner, the effects were harder on him. He cursed himself for having been so careless; he should have seen this coming. He didn't know yet exactly what had happened last night when Wright was alone with Face, but he could tell by Face's expression and his unwillingness to let the others see or touch him that it had been bad. Hannibal was going to kill him. This is exactly what he was supposed to have been guarding against, and he'd let it happen.
"Paul? Is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me."
Hannibal frowned. Murdock didn't sound good. Something was wrong.
"What's the matter? You sound sick."
"Um, I am. Food poisoning, I think. Rich and I are both pretty sick."
"Where are you, son? Still at Mr. Wright's estate?"
"We'll pick you up there. We'll swing by your apartment on the way and pick up some clothes for you. Do you need anything else?"
"Just some medicine. Rich is having a hard time with his stomach." Hannibal could tell from the noise in the background that that was true.
"Sure, son, I'll take care of everything. Can you hold on for another sixty minutes?"
"Yeah, Dad," answered Murdock tiredly. This conversation had taken about all the energy he had. "See you later."
Hannibal hung up and turned to B.A., who sat watching him expectantly.
"Looks like my days as a soda jerk are over," he said. "Something's gone wrong."
"They in danger?"
"For now, no. Whatever it was, it's already happened. But they're both sick; I want `em out of there."
B.A. reached for his keys. "Plan didn't work?"
Hannibal shrugged. "Could still be salvageable. We'll see."
They were supposed to be coming in from L.A., not from right outside the estate, so they sat in the van impatiently, Hannibal worrying over what could have gone wrong, until B.A. judged enough time had passed and started the van, pulling out from behind the bushes and onto the main road.
Face sat in an armchair in the bedroom, looking out the open window and toying absently with the pull cord for the blinds. Murdock sat in the other chair, eyes closed, trying to force back the nausea that was threatening to send him back to the bathroom to empty his stomach. There was a knock on the door, and Ted Wright stepped into the room.
"How are you two feeling this morning?" he asked, standing just inside the doorway.
Knowing he had to keep up appearances, Face smiled weakly as he turned in his chair. "A little better," he said, but he didn't sound like he meant it.
"I'm really sorry about all this. I'll get in touch with someone at the winery for you and let them know about that bottle of champagne." He crossed the room to stand in front of Face.
Don't touch me, don't touch me, don't touch me, Face begged silently. Wright squatted in front of him, laying his hands on Face's knees. Face fought for control as he met Wright's eyes.
"Take a couple of days off, Rich. Get yourself to feeling better, and when you come back to work, we'll pick up where we left off."
Face nodded slowly. "Thanks," he whispered.
With a knowing wink, Wright squeezed his knees then stood, extending his hand to Murdock.
"Take care of yourself, Paul. I trust you'll be coming by soon as well to show me those sketches?"
Murdock took his hand, wishing he could twist the arm behind Wright's back and break it. "Yes," he answered. "I'll be working on them."
"See you later, then," said Wright, leaving the room with one last backward glance at Face.
As soon as Wright was gone, Face stumbled to the bathroom and emptied his stomach again.
Murdock looked out the window to see the van coming up the long drive. Wright had evidently left instructions that they were to be allowed to enter. He sighed in relief as B.A. got out of the van to open the door for Hannibal and then stood with arms folded, looking menacing as he waited. As Murdock watched, Hannibal, dressed as the prosperous businessman he was supposed to be, climbed the short flight of stairs to the front door where he was greeted immediately by Wright. Holding onto the furniture along the way, Murdock made his way into the bathroom to find Face leaning heavily against the sink as he rinsed his mouth and splashed cold water on his face.
"They're here," Murdock said softly.
Face nodded. "I...I don't know if I can make it down the stairs," he said, swaying.
Murdock eased him to the floor and sat down with him. "I know what you mean," he said. "God, Face, I'm so sorry."
"Not your fault," Face whispered. "Just...just have to get out of here." Hannibal and Wright appeared in the bathroom doorway. Face's vision swam as he looked up.
Hannibal crouched in front of them, dismayed at their appearance. Normally overdressed for every occasion, Face had managed to struggle into only a T-shirt and jeans, shoving bare feet into tennis shoes that he hadn't even had the strength to tie. Both men were unshaven, uncombed hair hanging limply across their foreheads. He laid a hand on each of their shoulders, feeling them both tremble under his touch, and asked solicitously, "How are you?"
"I'm not sure we can get off the floor," replied Murdock for both of them.
"We'll get you down," Hannibal assured him.
"Why don't you help Paul, and I'll get Rich," suggested Wright, reaching for Face's arm.
Hannibal saw panic in Face's eyes. It was a look he seldom saw, and he knew immediately what it meant.
"I'll do it," said B.A., shouldering his way past Wright and into the bathroom. He'd followed the others up the stairs, as anxious to get these two out of here as Hannibal was. As Hannibal helped Murdock stand, B.A. crouched in front of Face. "I'm gonna help you up, Mr. Todd," he said, making sure Face knew it was him and not Wright. Face nodded gratefully as B.A. put his hands under Face's armpits and lifted him effortlessly to his feet. Drawing Face's arm across his shoulders, he got him down the stairs and into the van as Dan and Keith followed with the bags.
Wright turned to Hannibal as he got Murdock settled into a seat and stepped back out of the van. "You'll let me know how they're doing?"
Hannibal accepted Wright's outstretched hand. "We'll take good care of `em," he said, promising nothing.
The drive back to town was silent. Hannibal knew neither one of his men were up to answering questions, and Face was about to lose his battle with his stomach by the time they arrived at Hannibal's place. For his part, B.A. kept his eyes on the road and on the green sedan that was following them.
"Well, they know where I live now," commented Hannibal as the sedan passed them, continuing on up the road after B.A. pulled the van over in front of the house. The two story Tudor-style home was elegant, the landscaping terribly conventional. Not to Hannibal's taste, but then, he didn't have to live here. Not for long, anyway.
"C'mon, you two," he said, reaching for Face's seatbelt buckle. "Let's get you to bed."
Barely conscious, Face allowed B.A. to assist him into a bedroom, where he collapsed on the bed.
"You want me to help you?" B.A. asked, stepping back.
Face shook his head.
"I'm goin' to get you somethin' to drink," B.A. announced as he left the room. "Need to flush that crap outta your system."
Left alone, Face kicked off his shoes, peeled off his jeans and T-shirt, and climbed shivering under the covers. Knowing that his illness was as much emotional as physical only added to his shame. His chest hurt, his nipples sore and chafed, the bites burning. He knew he needed to get some antiseptic on them, but he didn't even want to look, didn't want to know what had been done to him. His groin ached terribly. Pulling a pillow against him to at least provide some semblance of protection between himself and the world, he lay staring blankly at the opposite wall.
B.A. returned with a glass of juice, setting it on the nightstand.
"Need to drink that when you can," he announced gruffly.
Face nodded but said nothing. B.A. sat on a chair by the bed, leaning forward to rest his elbows on his knees. "That man hurt you?" he asked softly.
"I'm okay," Face whispered, still staring past B.A. at the wall.
"That ain't what I asked," said B.A.
"I'm okay," Face repeated.
"You want me to stay?" B.A. asked.
"I'm okay." Face repeated his mantra. "Where's Murdock?"
"Across the hall. Hannibal's seein' to him."
"My fault," whispered Face. "My fault."
"Ain't nobody's fault; least not nobody here. Now you rest. Things'll look better after you've had some sleep."
Face closed his eyes, hugging the pillow tightly. B.A. stayed until Face's breathing evened out and his body relaxed in slumber.
Hannibal found B.A. pacing the hallway in front of Face's room when he came out of the room where Murdock had finally stopped vomiting and fallen asleep.
"How's the fool?" B.A. asked.
"He'll be alright," Hannibal answered, "once he gets some fluids in him and gets some sleep. How's Face?"
"Not doin' too good," B.A. answered. "I think that man hurt him."
"I think so, too," agreed Hannibal grimly.
"He don't want to talk about it," B.A. offered. "Won't admit he's hurt."
"We'll let him sleep," said Hannibal. "I'll check him over later. Right now he's too sick to think straight."
"Whatever happened, he keeps sayin' it's his fault."
"Murdock keeps saying it's his fault."
"He say what happened?"
"I didn't question him about it," Hannibal said. "He's under a lot of strain as it is. He needs to sleep before he answers any questions. Much as I'd like to go kick some ass right now, we need to let these two rest and recover before we do anything else. C'mon, we've got other work to do," he finished, heading downstairs.
Hannibal opened the door to Murdock's room and looked in, as he had several times in the last couple of hours. Murdock lay on his back, one arm clutching the covers to his chest, sound asleep. He hadn't moved a muscle since the last time Hannibal had checked. Quietly he closed the door and moved to Face's room. Face's sleep had been much more troubled as he tossed and turned, thrashing about. Having nothing left on his stomach, he was reduced to painful dry heaves that sent him stumbling, sometimes crawling, from the bed to the bathroom a couple of times an hour, but he'd steadfastly refused all offers of assistance.
Opening the door, Hannibal stepped softly into the room and found the bed empty, the covers in disarray. He glanced toward the bathroom, thinking Face was sick again, but that room was empty. With the curtains drawn, the room was dim, so it was a moment before he spotted Face lying on the floor in the corner, knees drawn up to his chest, a small, shivering, miserable ball. He clutched the pillow to his chest as he had even when he knelt over the toilet bowl. Knowing that trying to manhandle Face back to bed would cause him to panic and simply bolt into a different corner, Hannibal sighed and stripped a couple of blankets off the bed. He crossed the room and crouched in front of Face, draping the blankets over him but being very careful not to touch him in the process. B.A. stepped into the room as Hannibal stood back.
"Uh-oh. It's happenin' again."
Hannibal nodded. "We'll get him back to bed after he's fallen asleep. In the meantime, don't touch him."
"I'm gonna kill the bastard that done this to him," growled B.A. softly. "Ain't right. He's been doin' so good these past years."
"You're gonna have to take a number and get in line," Hannibal answered, his voice dangerously low.
"Should we stay?" B.A. asked, watching Face stare wide-eyed at nothing.
"No, he needs some privacy," said Hannibal. "He can't hurt himself in here. Just keep checking on him. He'll be alright."
"He better be," muttered B.A. as he turned to follow Hannibal out of the room.
They tried several times over the next few hours to persuade Face to return to his bed, but every time they touched him, he jerked awake and pressed himself further into the corner. Finally they just settled for making him as comfortable as they could, setting a basin on the floor near him in case he wouldn't come out of his corner even to vomit, and left him alone.
Late in the afternoon, Murdock woke. He was disoriented for a minute before he remembered where he was. Slowly he sat up, rubbing his hands tiredly over his face. His stomach had finally stopped flip-flopping whenever he moved, and except for a dull and persistent headache, he felt better. His hands still shook, though, as he reached for the small glass of juice that had been left on the bedside table for him. He was just finishing it when Hannibal came into the room.
"You'll need more of that," Hannibal said.
"Not right now," Murdock answered. "Let's see if this stays down first."
"Feel any better?"
"Yeah, but I still feel like I could sleep for a week," said Murdock. "How's Face?"
"He'll be alright."
Murdock knew an evasive answer when he heard one. "But how is he now?" he asked again.
"Well," admitted Hannibal, "he's not doing too well." He laid a restraining hand on Murdock's arm as he attempted to get out of bed. "That may not be a great idea right now," he said.
"What's happening?" demanded Murdock.
"He's in the corner," answered Hannibal simply, knowing that would tell Murdock everything.
"Shit," said Murdock. "I have to go to him."
"First I want to know what happened last night," Hannibal said. "He just doesn't do this anymore."
Murdock looked down, twisting a corner of the blanket viciously. "It's my fault," he said.
"I don't care whose fault it was," snapped Hannibal. "I only want to know what happened. So tell me. Now!"
"He drugged us. Our friends got to us before he did and put us to bed in different rooms. Somehow Wright got them to leave him alone in the room with Face." He fell silent.
"I don't know. I was still unconscious part of the time. Maybe twenty minutes."
"Hell," muttered Hannibal.
"I don't know exactly what he did to him, but he did something, or Face wouldn't be acting like this. He wouldn't let anyone see or touch him this morning when the others were in the room, and when we were alone, we couldn't speak freely."
Hannibal nodded. "He bugged your room."
Murdock nodded in return. "Video and audio."
Hannibal watched Murdock closely, waiting for him to say something else, but Murdock fell silent.
"He wasn't convinced you were a couple?" he asked, unsure how else to phrase the question.
"He was convinced. That's why he had to get to Face while we were both unconscious." He looked up at Hannibal guiltily. "I should've protected him better. I let my guard down. I thought that as long as I was there, Wright'd be satisfied just to watch us and not make a move on Face until we were ready for it. This is all my fault."
"It's impossible to foresee everything. You did what you could; now let it go. Did you two get anything that'll help us?"
"Face got some stuff, but I'm not sure if he'll remember it now. He said it was addresses of storage facilities, locker numbers, stuff like that. And he got some information from files he was snooping through the day before yesterday, too, but he needed access to some of Wright's other files to crosscheck them."
Hannibal nodded but didn't comment. The addresses might yield some valuable information, but he doubted it would be all the evidence they'd need to bring Wright and his operation down.
"Please, Hannibal, let me go to him," pleaded Murdock. "He'll listen to me. Let me stay with him."
"You're not well enough to play nursemaid yet," said Hannibal, noting Murdock's waxen complexion.
"I just want to be with him. He needs me. He'll go back to bed if I'm there."
Hannibal sighed. "Alright," he said reluctantly. He steadied Murdock as he climbed out of bed and reached for a robe.
Murdock groaned softly when he and Hannibal entered the dim room where Face was curled up in the farthest, darkest corner. Most of the bedcovers had been removed and laid over Face, who now lay with his eyes closed. Hannibal stood in the shadows where he could see without being seen while Murdock crossed the room softly and knelt by Face, watching him quietly. Without saying anything, he lay down beside him. Sensing movement near him, Face jerked awake again and cowered back.
"It's just me, Face," whispered Murdock. "It's okay."
"It's me, Murdock. It's okay. We're safe now. We're out of Wright's house."
Face didn't answer, only watching him closely. He tried to think, tried to reason out where they were, but his mind absolutely refused to function. There was a plan. Wasn't he supposed to stick to a plan? Who was he supposed to be now? Why couldn't he think?
Murdock slowly reached out and stroked Face's fingers. Face was holding the pillow so tightly, his knuckles were white. He allowed Murdock's touch, tense but unresisting. Murdock ran gentle fingers over the back of his hand, up his forearm and down, a soothing touch. "You're doing great, Face," he said over and over. "Everything's okay; you're doing fine."
Slowly, slowly Face relaxed, responding to Murdock's reassuring words and tender touch. It didn't matter who he was supposed to be. He just wouldn't use names. Just play along. He could trust Murdock. As he relaxed his grip on the pillow, Murdock lifted his fingers away from it.
"Why don't we go to bed?" asked Murdock quietly. "It's really uncomfortable over here."
"Can't see me here," mumbled Face sleepily.
"Baby, Wright's not here," said Murdock. "Only Hannibal, B.A., and us. We're safe. They'll look out for us."
Face hadn't heard past the first sentence. "Not here?" he repeated. His eyes roamed around the room, lighting in the corners of the ceiling.
"No cameras here, Face. Nobody listening. It's just us." Slowly he lifted Face's hand and began to ease the pillow away. Face resisted, trying to pull it back. "It's okay, it's okay," Murdock repeated, finally pulling the pillow away and dropping it behind him. He held out his arms. Face crossed his own arms over his chest protectively but slid over into Murdock's embrace, laying his head on his shoulder. Murdock held him close for a few moments, kissing his forehead. "Your bed's a mess," he whispered. "Let's go to my room and get some sleep. Can you make it? I'll help you."
Face nodded tiredly, clutching a blanket to himself as he allowed Murdock to help him stand. Murdock wrapped the ends of it around Face's shoulders before the two of them haltingly crossed the hallway to the opposite room. Seeing Murdock had Face well in hand, Hannibal left them alone.
Murdock eased Face onto the bed, and Face turned away, curling up on his side.
"Cold," Face whispered, tugging weakly at the covers to bring them up to his neck.
Climbing in behind him, Murdock covered Face warmly then curled himself around his friend, pulling him into his arms. Face hissed in pain as Murdock's hand inadvertently brushed his chest.
"Sorry," Murdock apologized. "Relax now. You're safe here. Hannibal and B.A. are right outside. We can sleep as long as we need to. Nobody's gonna get past them." He continued to murmur comfortingly as Face relaxed against him and both of them fell asleep.
It was night before Murdock woke again. A light had been turned on in the room, and two glasses of juice were waiting on the bedside table. In his arms, Face was dead to the world. Murdock pulled away from him carefully. Face rolled over onto his back as Murdock's support disappeared, but he didn't wake. Murdock looked him over critically. His face was drawn and pale, his eyes rimmed by dark circles. A bruise was developing on his collarbone. Frowning, Murdock eased the covers back and almost gasped aloud. Hearing a muffled curse behind him, he looked over to see Hannibal standing near the foot of the bed looking at the same thing he was. Face's chest was mottled with vivid red and black bruises, the nipples red and swollen, outlined by the unmistakable pattern of inflamed human bite marks. Clear fluid oozed from spots where the skin had been rubbed entirely off. It was no wonder he hadn't wanted to be touched.
"We've got to get those cleaned up before they get infected," said Hannibal.
"Let me do it," said Murdock.
Hannibal shook his head. "It's gonna wake him up, and it's gonna hurt like hell. I'll need you to keep him calm."
Unhappily, Murdock accepted Hannibal's reasoning.
"Shall I have B.A. come in and hold him?" asked Hannibal, not sure if Murdock was up to the struggle.
"No, I can do it," replied Murdock.
Hannibal looked at him doubtfully but left to gather what he needed while Murdock gulped his juice and pulled on a pair of pants. B.A. did indeed return with Hannibal, carrying a bowl of water and some towels, but he only sat them down on the nightstand and crossed the room to sit in a chair by the window.
"They're back," he announced, looking through the curtains.
"What're they doing?" asked Hannibal as he deposited antiseptic and gauze pads next to the bowl.
"Keep an eye on `em. I'll let you know if I need you over here." Hannibal turned his attention to Murdock. "You ready?"
Murdock nodded. He sat against the headboard of the bed next to Face, pulling Face's arms up over his head and holding his wrists. Hannibal wrung out a cloth and began scrubbing at one of the bites.
Face woke with an agonized gasp, his hips arching off the bed as he fought to pull away. Hannibal grabbed his legs, pushing him back to the bed.
"Take it easy, kid!" he said. "Lie still!"
Face opened his eyes, looking around wildly. Seeing Murdock sitting above him, holding his arms, he finally grasped the situation and lay still.
"I'm alright, I'm alright," he said shakily. "Shit, what a way to wake up."
"Sorry," Hannibal apologized. "This has to be done before those bites get infected."
Looking down at himself, Face saw the marks for the first time. Shamed, he closed his eyes and turned his head away. "Go ahead," he said softly.
Exchanging a look with Murdock, Hannibal returned to his task. Face lay silent and mostly still throughout, though his muscles trembled with the strain. Eventually Hannibal straightened and laid aside the gauze pads he'd been using. "Done," he said.
Face nodded without opening his eyes, trying to steady himself with a couple of deep breaths. Murdock released his wrists, and he lowered his arms, wiping sweaty palms on the sheets. Murdock slid down to recline on one elbow beside him. "How you doin?" he asked.
Face essayed a smile that was almost successful. "Okay," he whispered, opening his eyes. "Stop worrying."
"Can you drink something?"
" I think so. Can you help me sit up?"
"Sure thing." Murdock slid an arm under Face's shoulders to raise him while Hannibal piled pillows behind him. Face managed to get his arms under himself and lever himself to a seated position, wincing at the pain in his chest and between his legs.
Hannibal sat carefully on the side of the bed next to Face, careful not to jostle him, and handed him the juice. "Drink it slowly or it'll come right back up," he advised. Face nodded and sipped obediently, allowing Hannibal to steady his shaking hand. Hannibal looked him over carefully as he drank. While Face was coherent now, a definite improvement, his skin was still an alarming shade of gray, and his discomfort was obvious from the way he breathed.
"Sorry I can't give you anything for the pain, kid," said Hannibal, "but I don't know how it would mix with whatever you've got in you now."
Face nodded without looking up, then handed the cup back after several small sips. "That's all I can do for now," he said. He leaned back against the pillows, closing his eyes tiredly for a few moments. Soon he pushed back the covers and moved to get out of bed.
"What's wrong?" asked Hannibal.
"Nothing's wrong," Face answered, a touch impatiently. "I'm going to the bathroom!"
Hannibal moved off the bed as Face carefully slid out. Murdock slid off the bed as well and put an arm around Face's waist. "Let me help you," he said.
Hannibal held up the bottle of antiseptic. "Do you need this?" he asked.
Face shook his head, looking at the floor. "It's just bruising," he answered, his voice low. "Just aches."
"I'll get you some ice," said B.A., rising to leave the room.
Face nodded his thanks, not looking up. He accepted Murdock's assistance in the bathroom, taking the time to brush his teeth and wash his face. He slowly made his way back to the bed, exhausted.
Looking grim as he stripped off his pants and climbed into the bed beside Face, Murdock wordlessly accepted the towel-wrapped ice pack from B.A. and helped Face position it comfortably as the other two shut off all but one small light across the room and stepped out. "Careful with that," he whispered into Face's ear. "You're always saying you're gonna freeze your balls off, but I don't think you really want to do it." At that, Face smiled, a genuine smile. "There," said Murdock, smiling in return. "I love it when you smile. Shows off all those perfect white teeth."
"Don't mention teeth!" said Face, shivering as he shifted gingerly.
"Sorry," said Murdock contritely.
"Hey, it's okay," said Face, seeing the hurt in Murdock's face. "It's a joke."
"I know," said Murdock, running his fingers through Face's damp hair. "It's just hard to see you hurting like this."
Face sighed and closed his eyes. Murdock's fingers felt good in his hair. "My lips don't hurt," he said and sighed again as Murdock slipped an arm under his shoulders and carefully bent to kiss him.
Later they lay side by side in silence, their fingers entwined.
"I was in the corner again, wasn't I?" Face asked quietly.
"Yeah, you were," answered Murdock.
"I'm sorry," said Face.
"No, don't apologize," Murdock said comfortingly. "I'm the last person you should apologize to for having..."
"Mental problems?" Face finished for him.
"It's not a mental problem," said Murdock. "I've got mental problems. You're just having an emotional reaction to a traumatic experience. Perfectly normal."
"Thanks, Doc," said Face.
"Bill'll be in the mail," murmured Murdock.
"Wright knows where we are, doesn't he? He's watching the house."
"Don't worry. He's not gonna get past B.A. and Hannibal. Just sleep. Let them take care of the rest of it. You trust `em, don't you?"
" `Course I do," said Face.
"Then sleep. The colonel'll need your report in the morning. Until then, you've done your part for awhile. Just rest."
Hannibal turned as B.A. walked into the kitchen and sat down to eat the meal Hannibal had prepared.
"They ain't come back," he announced.
"I doubt they're very far away," said Hannibal.
"Think they'll try anything?"
"It'd be stupid, but so is drugging and molesting your houseguest."
"What're we gonna do about it?"
"Right now, nothing. We can't report this assault, we can't pin any other assaults on him, and we haven't got enough evidence of his other crimes yet to take to the cops. For the moment, he's holding all the cards."
"You ain't sending Face back in there, are you?"
Hannibal sighed. "I don't want to."
"But you `goin to anyway, ain't you?"
"B.A.," said Hannibal, "I've been letting Face make his own decisions about this operation, since he's the one on the inside."
"Yeah, and look where it's got him," said B.A. bluntly. "Hidin' in corners like a whipped dog."
"I know, I know," replied Hannibal, rubbing his eyes tiredly. "But that may be just why I have to let him go back."
"Don't follow you," said B.A., reaching for the milk.
"He feels very strongly about doing this the way he has planned, not risking other men's lives, bringing down the organization from the inside. And really, if it's going to come down, that's the only way it'll happen. If I tell him he can't go back, he's going to believe it's because I've lost faith in him. He's going to feel like he's been victimized twice."
"You let him go back, he may be victimized more than that!"
"Look, I don't like this any better than you do. But we have to do something. Aside from his other crimes, which are bad enough, Wright's lured other young men into his company and abused and killed them. He'll do the same to others if we don't stop him."
"Don't like usin' Face as bait!" B.A. declared stubbornly.
"B.A., he's a grown man. For all that we all feel protective toward him, you know he's not a little kid who needs it. He can kill as easily as you can."
B.A. raised his eyebrows doubtfully.
"Well, maybe not as easily as you can," continued Hannibal, "but easily enough.
"Then how come he layin' in there with an ice pack between his legs?"
"We hardly ever take a job that doesn't have risks," said Hannibal, somewhat testily. "If he's willing to accept them, I have to let him go back. God knows I'd rather just take Wright out with a shot between the eyeballs, and I could do it, too. But we've never stepped that far outside the law before, and I don't intend to start now."
B.A. sighed, knowing it would be pointless to argue further. When it came down to it, this was really between Hannibal and Face. "Murdock ain't gonna like it," said B.A.
"I know it," said Hannibal. "But he's also going to have to accept that Face isn't his kid brother. He can't protect him all the time."
"Kid brother, my ass!" exclaimed B.A. "Crazy fool ain't up there kissin' no kid brother! He got it bad for Face!" he finished with a sly smile.
"Well, you're unusually observant," commented Hannibal mildly.
"Have to be dead not to see it," B.A. said gruffly. "Murdock been followin' Face around like a big ol' sad puppy for years, `fraid to say anything. And Face been chasin' women around, tryin' to fall in love for just as long. `Bout time they figured it out. Stupid fools deserve each other!"
It was about as romantic a speech as B.A. had ever made, and Hannibal was impressed. "Somehow I thought you'd disapprove," Hannibal said. "I've underestimated you."
"Don't matter who you love, long as you got somebody," said B.A. "Ain't my place to disapprove. And don't try to tell me you didn't see it comin'. You been throwin' `em at each other for years."
"Well, it finally worked, didn't it?" said Hannibal. "Nobody ever said a plan couldn't take some time to come to fruition."
B.A. stood to take his plate and Hannibal's to the sink. "Still don't change the fact that Murdock ain't gonna want Face goin' back in there. And ain't none of us gonna be able to be there to watch his back all the time."
"No, you're right. Murdock won't like it. But he'll respect Face's wishes, even if he does try to talk him out of it."
B.A. sat down again and looked Hannibal directly in the eye. "You gonna be able to live with yourself if he don't come out of there? Or if he come back so bad he spend the rest of his life hidin' in a corner?"
Hannibal shook his head, suddenly looking and feeling his age. "I remember every man I ever sent to his death, B.A.," he said. "You think they don't weigh on my conscience or that I don't think about them every time I send one of you into a dangerous situation?"
"Gotta be done sometimes, I suppose" said B.A., relenting. "We all accept the risk. Just don't want us sacrificing Face if we don't have to. He almost as big a pain as Murdock sometimes, but I'm kinda used to havin' him around."
Hannibal stood. "I don't know about later," he said, "but at least tonight we can keep him safe. I'll take first watch. You go get some sleep."
B.A. nodded and went upstairs, extinguishing lights as he went. Hannibal lit a cigar, turned off the rest of the lights, and kept a silent vigil, the shades of all the young men who'd died under his command keeping him company as they did every time he kept watch over his men.
Murdock woke early the next morning. Beside him Face lay on his back, his head resting on Murdock's shoulder, staring up at the ceiling. Murdock shifted a bit to look at him. Face's color looked better, but the dark circles remained under his eyes. He didn't look like he'd slept well.
"You feeling any better?" Murdock asked.
"Some," said Face. "How're you?"
"I think I'm okay now," said Murdock. "The thought of food doesn't make me want to barf up my socks, anyway. Why're you awake already?"
Murdock said nothing in response, but he pulled his arm out from under Face's head, rolling onto his side to look down at him.
Face reached up behind Murdock's head to pull him down for a kiss. Finally releasing him, Face spoke quietly. "I have to go back."
"I was afraid you'd try to talk me out of it."
Murdock sat up and leaned against the headboard. As Face sat up painfully, Murdock pulled him back against him. Face relaxed against Murdock and closed his eyes.
"I knew you'd do this," said Murdock. "I laid here last night thinking of all the arguments I could to convince you to stay, all the things I could threaten you with. But in the end, you're who you are, and I know you have to do this because it's the right thing to do. It's killing me to do it, but I agree with you. You have to go back."
Face reached for Murdock's arms and pulled them around himself. "I love you, Murdock," he said.
"I love you too," Murdock said.
Decision made and shared, Face finally slept.
Showered, shaven, and dressed, Face sat next to Murdock on the living room sofa, writing on a pad of paper. "Thanks," he murmured as B.A. put a cup of coffee on the table in front of him. He continued to write furiously, sometimes closing his eyes in concentration, sometimes shaking his head in frustration, erasing something, and starting again. "Shit, I should've done this yesterday," he muttered angrily as he leaned forward over the pad. "I'm forgetting things."
Murdock rubbed his shoulders comfortingly. "You couldn't even remember your own name yesterday, Face, or where you were. You couldn't have done this if your life depended on it. Just relax. It's all in there. Take your time; it'll come back to you in a few minutes." He took away the pad and pen, tossing them on the table and pressing Face against the back of the couch. "Lean back here and close your eyes. Don't even try to think about it. Just rest awhile."
Face obeyed, slumping back and closing his eyes. Watching them, Hannibal knew he'd made the right choice throwing them together all these years. They were good for each other.
Face discovered that Murdock was right. As he relaxed, he could visualize again the papers he'd seen. Without opening his eyes, he began reciting the information as if reading it off the papers. Murdock picked up the pad and pen and recorded it. The information filled up three sheets of paper, front and back. It was, thought Hannibal, an impressive display of memory.
Accepting the pad from Murdock, Hannibal looked it over as Face sipped his coffee. "Good work, Face," he said. "We'll start tracking these down. Now what?"
Face's fingers tightened on his cup. He didn't want arguments now. Knowing he had Murdock's support, though, made it easier for him to say the words. "I'm going back in."
Dead silence greeted his words. He looked up at Hannibal, who puffed his cigar and regarded him thoughtfully. "You sure this is the way you want to handle it?" Hannibal asked.
"It's the only way," Face said simply. "I have to go back, and I have to find a way to get back to the estate. I'm sure it's where the rest of the stuff is."
Without a word, B.A. stood and left the room. Face watched him go but said nothing more.
"Alright," said Hannibal. "But you're gonna wait a few days. That'll give us time to see what we've got here, and it'll give you time to heal."
"I'm in no rush," Face admitted with a wan smile.
"Murdock and I will go check out these addresses," said Hannibal. "B.A. will stay here with you. And I want you to go back to bed and get some rest."
"How're you gonna get out of here?" asked Face. "Isn't Wright watching the house?"
"I've got a plan," said Hannibal. "How does pizza sound for lunch?"
An hour later, the pizza delivery truck pulled up in front of the house. Two lanky young men in celestial blue Heaven's Own Pizza shirts and hats got out and started unloading two dozen pizzas.
"Don't know why this freak insisted on two delivery people," grumbled one of them uncelestially, loading up the other's arms with pizza boxes before gathering up an armful himself. "Rich people always give lousy tips anyway, and now we'll only have to split it."
Staggering under the weight of the pizza, the other couldn't spare breath for a reply. The front door opened and the boys were ushered into the house. Three minutes later, they staggered back out, followed by a large, irate black man. "Fools! What you think we gonna do with that much pizza? Said two, not two dozen! Look like we're havin' a party here? You see any cars? You see any people?"
Moving with alacrity, the delivery boys dumped the boxes in the back of the van and fled. B.A. returned to the house, slamming the door behind him hard enough to rattle the windows. He stomped back into the kitchen where two shirtless, hatless delivery boys sat looking with wide eyes at the large bills sitting on paper plates before each of them.
B.A. glanced out the window then turned to nod at Face. The green sedan was still there. "Hope you boys like pepperoni!" said Face with a grin.
Late that evening, Murdock and Hannibal slipped back in on foot. B.A. went to the garage to start the van, and the pizza delivery boys pulled themselves away from their video, donned their uniforms, and were ushered into the back seat.
"Now remember, boys," said Hannibal, "this is a top secret government project. Your cooperation and your silence are saving lives."
The boys nodded, jaws working as they snapped gum in tandem.
"Your van was hijacked and you were tied up and rolled down the embankment." He gave them a length of rope, suitably knotted, to help them prove their case. "You only just managed to escape. Got it?"
"Yeah," said one of them. "And we'll roll around in the dirt some so we look like we've been down there awhile!"
"Good thinking, son," said Hannibal. "You'll make a fine government agent someday."
B.A. drove to a grocery store several miles away, followed by the green sedan. He parked at the far end of the lot, and the boys slipped out, making their way undetected across the street by keeping to the shadows. That was, they knew from videos, the way real spies did it. Meanwhile, B.A. kept the men in the sedan occupied by wrestling with the grocery carts in the front of the store, making satisfying and distracting crashing noises as he struggled to get the first one free of the rest. Finally, a tiny old lady, tired of waiting for her turn, rested her cane on the side of the cart.
"Here, sonny, let me help you with that," she said.
B.A. stepped aside, and the cart slid neatly out as she pulled. "There, that wasn't so hard, now was it?" she said as she turned the cart and surrendered it to him.
B.A. managed to look chagrined. "Thanks ma'am," he said, "but you can keep it. I'll get another."
"It's alright," she replied, turning back to the carts. "There's a line forming. You go ahead and take that one."
Figuring he'd called enough attention to himself to allow the boys time to get safely across the street and down the embankment, B.A. graciously accepted the cart and entered the store, pulling the shreds of his dignity around himself as he headed for the dairy section.
Face opened his eyes as Murdock slipped quietly into the room. "Sorry," said Murdock. "Didn't mean to wake you."
Face shifted to the center of the bed, making room for Murdock to sit on the side. "Didn't," answered Face sleepily. "Heard the van start. Get the kids away?"
"Yeah, B.A.'s taking care of `em." He sat on the side of the bed, taking Face's hand in his own. "How're you feeling?"
"Sore," Face admitted. Though he didn't like having his wounds on display, clothing was too uncomfortable, and he'd pulled it off when he climbed into bed.
"It'll hurt for awhile," said Murdock, gently rubbing Face's hand between his own from wrist to fingertip, tracing the fingers individually. Face sighed contentedly. He hadn't realized such a simple gesture could be so comforting.
Murdock lifted Face's fingers to his lips, kissing them. "Do you know I watch your hands all the time? When you eat, when you clean a weapon, when you're driving. Even when you're biting your nails."
"I don't bite my nails!"
"Yes, you do. You have beautiful, expressive hands. Sometimes it's been all I can do not to reach over and touch them. But I figured you'd probably slug me."
"There was a time I probably would've," Face answered. For awhile he lay silent, reveling in Murdock's tender caress. "Do you think B.A. and Hannibal have figured it out yet?"
"You mean us?"
Murdock smiled. "I think they figured it out before we did," he admitted, "but they haven't said anything, and they probably won't."
"What'd you find?" Face asked.
"All the storage facilities are close to the airport, the harbor, and the bus station. The lockers are leased long term under a variety of names.
Including Trevor Wilson."
"The last golden boy. He's leasing them in the names of his former lovers? That's sick!"
"Victims," corrected Murdock gently, "not lovers. But yeah, that's what he's doing."
"You get into any of `em?"
"Took some fast talking, but we did. A few each near the bus depot, harbor, and airport." He stopped talking.
"Well, what was in `em?" Face asked impatiently.
"It's in code, but it looks like a name and address in each one."
"Pretty clever," remarked Face. "It's his little black book spread out all over the place. You might stumble across one of his contacts, but never across them all unless you had that list I found."
"Which makes me wonder why he kept the list. I still think that was too obvious a place to put it."
"You think it's a trap?" asked Face.
"I think it'll be a trap if we remove anything from those lockers, especially if we remove anything from more than one of them. He'll remember we were in that office alone."
"So this is all useless? Is that what you're trying to tell me?"
"Not entirely useless, no. We can follow up on some of these people. We know who they are now."
"Maybe we can plant the seeds of doubt, turn some of them against him. They might be able to bring him down where we couldn't," said Face hopefully.
"Well," said Murdock hesitantly, "I'm not sure that's gonna happen. He's got some insurance."
"Insurance? What're you talking about?"
"In each locker there are...photos."
"Probably of the men whose addresses are in the lockers. In...compromising positions...with the men whose names the lockers are leased under."
"Shit," said Face. "Shit. He's selling these guys to his contacts then blackmailing the contacts."
"You think that's what he has in mind for me?"
" I don't know. Maybe. But he seems so possessive of you." Murdock shrugged. "I don't know how to read him," he finished. "I thought I knew crazy people pretty well, but he's too crazy even for me to figure out!"
Face sighed. "I still have to go back," he said.
"Why do you think he's never tried to seduce Keith or Dan? They're in a position a lot like mine."
"Because they're not you," said Hannibal, entering the room.
"Dan is a middle-aged black man. Keith is middle aged, balding, and skinny as a rail. A nice guy, but not terribly attractive to someone like Wright."
"How do you know that?" asked Face.
"All the men in the pictures, all of Wright's victims, looked like you, Face. Young, athletic, well-muscled, lean without being too thin."
Murdock nodded. "Makes sense. They're not aware of it, but Dan and Keith are his procurers. They're in charge of recruiting, but he makes the final decision on who gets hired. They round up the prospects, and he chooses his prey from the pool. It's no accident there's such a resemblance between them and you. You're the type he wants."
"And I think he's looking for the perfect specimen," added Hannibal. "Someone who'll let him mold them to his exact specifications. Someone who enjoys his cruelty."
Face gestured to his abused chest. "This is damned hard to enjoy," he said.
"Right," said Hannibal. "Which is why none of the others have lasted. They must've either objected or tried to leave him. He doesn't look like the type who's used to rejection."
"So he rents them out to his contacts, and they accept it because it gets them out of his bed. Then he kills them and uses the pictures to blackmail the contacts. Jesus, it's unbelievable," Face said.
"I don't see how Keith and Dan could be so blind," said Murdock.
"Maybe they're not," said Face. "But really, after all they've been through, I'm sure it's easier for them to ignore their suspicions, if they have any. And if they do, and they act on them, they'll be next on Wright's list."
"Are you sure they're worth working this hard to protect?" asked Hannibal gently.
"I have to believe that they are," said Face. "I'm not as good a judge of character as you are, I know, but these are decent guys, and they've been treated like shit for years. I don't want to be just one more person who screws them over. They've offered me friendship, and there haven't been that many people over the years who've done that. I...I don't know if you can understand this, but I feel like I owe them my protection."
"I do understand it, kid," Hannibal replied. "But how are you gonna protect them if you can't even protect yourself?"
"I'll think of something," said Face, looking away.
"That's a lousy plan," said Hannibal.
"You got a better one?"
"Then I guess we'll go with mine."
Hannibal sighed but didn't reply. He exchanged a worried glance with Murdock as Face rolled away from them. Murdock pulled the covers up around Face's shoulders and stood up.
"I'll be back a little later. Shall I bring you some dinner?"
"No," Face whispered. "I'm gonna sleep."
"Okay." He leaned over, kissing Face's temple softly. "I love you," he murmured.
Face nodded and closed his eyes. When the light snapped off and the door closed, he opened his eyes and lay awake long after the others had left.
The strains of a Bach Brandenburg Concerto filled the room as Dan flopped over and hit the snooze alarm.
"You do that every morning," murmured Keith, pulling his partner back toward him without opening his eyes. "Why don't you just set the damned thing for later and stop waking me up five different times every morning?"
"Just do it to piss you off," said Dan, pulling Keith closer.
"Heartless bastard," said Keith, settling his head in the crook between Dan's neck and shoulder. "Don't know why I put up with you."
"I don't either," admitted Dan. "Must be my charm and good looks."
"And your money. I know you're loaded, pal, and one day I'm gonna get my hands on all of it. Where you been hidin' it, anyway?"
"Locker at the bus depot," answered Dan. "One day I'm cleaning it out and heading for the Bahamas."
"On the bus?" asked Keith. "Good luck!"
Dan laughed softly.
"You suppose Rich will be back in today?" Keith asked.
"That's what he said when I talked to him yesterday," said Dan.
"He sound okay?"
"Yeah, he sounded good. He said he was anxious to get back to work and that Paul was driving him crazy fussing over him."
"Sounds like Paul," said Keith. "He can hardly stand to be away from that kid. Typical newlyweds!"
"I seem to remember someone following me around rather closely once upon a time," returned Dan. "Wonder who that was?"
"Wasn't me, I assure you," said Keith. "I don't like you that well."
"Must've been your evil twin," said Dan. "The virile one."
"Oh, him," said Keith nonchalantly. "He's a girl, y'know."
Dan laughed heartily as Keith pulled away and sat up. Sitting with his arms on bent knees, Keith looked down at Dan, seeming to want to say something.
"What's wrong?" asked Dan.
"Dan, do you ever notice the way Mr. Wright looks at Rich?"
Dan sighed. "Yes, I do."
"You think something's going on between them?"
"Like with Trevor?"
Dan sat up as well and considered his response. "Trevor didn't have anyone when he came here. There was no reason for him not to get it on with Mr. Wright if they both wanted it."
"But what about Rich?" Keith asked.
"Rich and Paul are crazy about each other;anybody can see that. Rich would never willingly betray him."
"What about unwillingly?"
"You mean, do I think Mr. Wright might drug them and fuck Rich while we're in the next room with his lover throwing up all over us?"
"Crudely put, but yeah," said Keith.
"Yeah, it could happen," said Dan. "But I don't know that it did."
"Something happened," said Keith. "Those two couldn't get out of here soon enough, and Rich was obviously traumatized." His voice grew soft. "I've been there. I know that look."
Dan drew Keith into his arms. "I know you have, love."
"Do you think we should try to do anything to...to..."
"Protect him?" finished Dan. "No. If he were that freaked out, do you think he'd be coming back to work? He could just quit."
Dan hesitated. "Yeah, like Trevor."
"Did Trevor quit?"
"Trevor disappeared. Whether he formally terminated employment, I don't know.
"But you have your suspicions," guessed Keith.
Dan nodded. "Yeah, I have my suspicions," he said. Laying back down, he pulled Keith down on top of him and kissed him. "There's time to worry about Rich later. But for now, I want to forget all that and make love to you. As long as Mr. Wright invited us to use this big soft bed for one more weekend, we might as well take advantage of it. C'mon, weenie boy, light my fire."
"Mmm," sighed Keith, "I love it when you talk dirty."
Dan chuckled, running his hands over Keith's naked back. "I haven't even gotten started yet," he said.
Ted Wright gestured with one hand.
"Get Thompson in here," he said.
Wright watched the screen. A pity this would be the last time, he thought, but he had Rich now. Rich was coming back to him. He didn't really need anyone else anymore. He and Rich could pick up where they had left off.
Face adjusted his tie in the bathroom mirror one more time before turning to Murdock. "How's it look?" he asked.
"Like it was made for you!" joked Murdock, knowing that it had been. It was another of his designs.
"You'll come have lunch with me today?" Face asked.
"I'll be there by one. One-thirty, tops."
Face nodded and turned back to the mirror, putting the finishing touches on his hair. Murdock slipped his arms around Face's waist and held him close, meeting his eyes in the mirror.
"You okay?" Murdock asked.
Face had lost track of how many times he'd been asked that question in the last several days. But he knew that this time it was more than just an inquiry into his health. "I'm terrified," he admitted.
Murdock sighed and held him tighter for a moment before releasing him. They'd said everything that needed saying the night before in each other's arms. Slipping on his jacket and picking up his briefcase, Face went downstairs to the kitchen where B.A. was pouring himself a glass of milk. "Hannibal still upstairs?" asked Face.
"Yeah," said B.A. shortly, not turning around.
Face set down the briefcase, noting the tension in B.A.'s back. "I'm sorry, B.A.," he apologized. "I know you're angry that I'm going back."
At that B.A. turned and met his eyes. "I ain't angry, man," he said softly. "Just worried about you." He reached into his pocket, took something out, and held it out to Face. It was a package of condoms. "Whatever you have to do, if it comes to it, you use these," he whispered forcefully.
Face accepted the package and put it in his own pocket. "I'm hoping it won't come to that," he said softly.
B.A. took a step closer and laid a hand on Face's shoulder. "You a fast talker, Face, but sometimes things happen you just can't talk your way out of. Don't want that bastard givin' you nothin'. Ain't just V.D. no more, man. You could die."
Face nodded. He knew B.A.'s words were true. "Thanks, B.A.," he said quietly. "No matter what, I'll find a way to protect myself."
B.A.'s grip tightened. "You promise me you will!" he demanded. There were tears in his eyes.
"I promise," Face answered.
"Okay, then," B.A. said, releasing him. "I'm goin' to pull the van around."
As B.A. left the room, Hannibal walked in. He slipped a package into Face's jacket pocket as he passed him on his way to the coffee pot. Face knew what it was. "You too?" he asked.
Hannibal nodded as he reached for a cup. "Same speech, same promise," he said.
Face nodded. "Same promise," he said.
"Murdock coming down?" Hannibal asked.
"I'm here," announced Murdock. He held out a package to Face. Face rolled his eyes but accepted it. "Christ almighty!" he exclaimed. "Did you guys leave anything at the store?"
"This is serious, Face," said Murdock.
"You must know I don't intend to need these."
"I know you don't intend to. And I know I don't want you to. But as much as I want to deny the possibility, I have to be realistic. If he gets you in a position where you can't say no, I want to at least know he's not passing anything along to you. As many partners as he's had, you never know."
"People could say that about me, too," Face joked, trying to lighten the atmosphere.
"Only someone who doesn't know how careful you are," said Murdock. Face had told him before that he had no intention of fathering a child he couldn't be around to raise with a woman he didn't want to be married to. He was scrupulously careful in that department. Face nodded, pocketing the third package, serious now. "Okay," he said simply. "Let's go."
Hannibal held out his hand. "Good luck, lieutenant," he said simply.
Face accepted his hand solemnly, picked up his briefcase, and left with Murdock. Watching him leave, Hannibal couldn't help but feel he'd just sent Face on a suicide mission.
Murdock strolled into the lobby of Wright & Sons whistling casually. He nodded to the receptionist, who was used to seeing him come around, and walked into the office Face shared with Dan and Keith. He saw Face sitting at his desk with Ted Wright standing next to him, pointing to something on a piece of paper; Dan and Keith were not in evidence. Face looked up, saw Murdock, and smiled widely. Standing, he hurried across the room, arms open. "Paul!' he exclaimed. "God, is it lunchtime already?"
Pulling him into a quick hug, Murdock glanced up to see Wright looking daggers at him. "Bit early, yet," said Murdock, "but I wanted to show Mr. Wright my designs for him."
"Ah, good!" said Wright heartily. "I've been looking forward to seeing you again! I trust you recovered from the food poisoning?"
"Fully," said Murdock. "Why don't you take a look at these while I take Rich to lunch. When we come back, you can let me know if there are any changes you'd like me to make."
"Would you two like to join me for lunch?" asked Wright.
"No, thanks," said Face. He wasn't letting another morsel of food or drink pass his lips when he was here.
Murdock slipped an arm around Face's waist. "I've got reservations at Chez Henri," said Murdock. "A little table for two in the back. Private. Romantic."
Face smiled, looking at Wright. "It's where he proposed to me," he said. "Our favorite place."
"Well, take your time," said Wright magnanimously. He could afford to wait.
"Thanks, sir," said Face, pulling on his jacket. As he and Murdock left, he stopped by the receptionist's desk, waiting for her to finish with a phone call before he spoke to her. "Sandra, has there been any word from Keith or Dan yet?" he asked.
"No, sir," Sandra replied. "Nobody's heard a thing."
"Will you page me if you hear from them?"
"Sure thing, sir," she smiled, turning back to answer the phone again.
"Trouble?" asked Murdock as they left the building and walked down the street.
"I don't know," replied Face. "They didn't make it in today."
Murdock nodded. That was worrisome. "How's Wright been?"
Face sighed, opening the door to Chez Henri's and letting Murdock go in first. "Surprisingly polite," said Face. "Keeps the conversation to business, hasn't touched me once. It's almost more scary than if he were actually groping me."
Murdock nodded as he followed Face and the waiter to a small table in the back. He'd never eaten here before, but he knew Face's fondness for fine cuisine. He'd actually been here once to liberate the escargot but had been disappointed to find them already minced and in their shells. Laughing, Face had consoled him, saying, "It's not like they keep them slithering around like they do lobsters, Murdock. And anyway, it's quick and painless; they never knew what hit `em."
Halfway through lunch, Face's pager went off, and he left the table to return the phone call. When he returned, his face was white. He looked lost. Murdock stood quickly and led him to his seat. "What's wrong?" he asked.
Face struggled to control his reaction. "They're dead," he whispered. "They...found their car over a cliff in Laurel Canyon."
Murdock sighed and closed his eyes.
"He had them killed. I know he did!" whispered Face vehemently. "That sonofabitch murdered them!"
Murdock nodded. "Probably," he said. "But why?"
Face shook his head. "I don't know. I told him they were loyal, that he didn't ever have to doubt them." Had his tone or his gestures given something away? Had he somehow caused Wright to suspect they were the ones who were stealing his secrets? Was he responsible for their deaths? Shit, shit, shit! This whole fucking plan was going right straight to hell in a handbasket!
Murdock reached across the table to take his hand. "It's not your fault," he said.
Face didn't answer. He stood, his face a grim mask, and put some money on the table. "I have to get back," he said.
They walked back to the building in silence. Just before they entered, Murdock took Face's elbow and leaned close to him. "Face, don't do anything stupid. Please, be careful."
Face nodded, but when he looked up, there were tears in his eyes. "I failed them, Murdock. I failed them."
"Don't lose sight of the objective, Face. Take him down, but do it without getting yourself killed. There's nothing you can do for them now, but you don't have to follow them." As Face turned and walked into the building, Murdock wasn't sure Face had heard anything he'd said.
He accompanied Face past the sobbing receptionist and back to his office. There he found Wright standing by Face's desk, holding Murdock's sketches out to him. There were actual tears in his eyes, but Murdock wasn't fooled for a moment as he took the sketches back.
"I'm sorry," said Wright, his voice choking with emotion. "Right now, I just can't even think about these. Perhaps another time."
Face crossed his arms over his chest and looked at the ground as Wright pulled him into a hug. "There, there, boy," he said consolingly. "It's a terrible thing, a terrible tragedy. Don't try to hold it back." He pulled Face closer and pushed his hips against Face's thigh, letting him feel his arousal.
Face pulled back, his hands over his mouth. "Paul," he gasped, "I'm...I'm gonna be sick."
Without a word, Murdock dropped his sketches and hustled him to the bathroom. When Face was finished losing his lunch, Murdock sat him down on a bench in the men's room and bathed his face with a wet paper towel. Not knowing whether they were being observed, Face said nothing to Murdock, but Murdock had good eyesight, and the evidence had been plain to see.
They emerged from the bathroom to find Wright sitting on Face's desk waiting for them. "You okay now, Rich?" he asked.
"Yes, sir. I'm sorry."
"Nothing to be sorry about; can't help your body's reaction to extreme emotion, can you?" he asked.
Face shook his head.
"I'd like to let you go home and do your grieving in private, Rich, but I really need you here more than ever," said Wright.
"I understand, sir," said Face, returning to his desk.
"Good man," said Wright. He looked up at Murdock. "I'll bring him home tonight," he said. Murdock was obviously being dismissed.
"No, that's okay. I have an appointment in this part of town late this afternoon anyway. I'll come by and pick him up," said Murdock.
"Very well," said Wright, obviously not happy but unable to do anything about it.
Three days later Face stood pale but dry-eyed under leaden skies at the graveside service for Keith and Dan. Fittingly, the weather had turned cold and rainy overnight. Wright stood on one side of Face, tears rolling down his cheeks. Murdock stood on the other, arm tightly linked through his, lending him what strength he could. The elderly parents of both men spoke to each other for the first time in the twelve years their sons had been together. Knowing he was being unfair, Face hated them for their rejection of their sons. All his life he'd longed for a love like theirs, not knowing until recently that that's what he was looking for. By refusing to acknowledge their love, they'd driven Keith and Dan right into Wright's arms and ultimately to their deaths. In a way, this was their fault. But no, he reflected, it wasn't really. It was his fault. Somehow he'd said or done something to arouse Wright's suspicions, and Keith and Dan had paid for it with their lives.
Wright's hand stole up to rub Face's back. As Face tensed beside him, Murdock stepped a bit to one side, pulling Face into his embrace and out of Wright's reach as the caskets were lowered into the graves. Face heaved a tremendous sigh and leaned into Murdock's embrace, feeling his arms tighten around him. Christ, could things get any worse?
"It's been a week since Dan and Keith were buried," said Wright to the assembled staff. "One of the longest, hardest weeks of my life."
There were nods and spoken words of agreement around the table.
"I've put off making the decision because it's just so painful, so hard to replace people as valuable as those two were. But I've finally had to fill their positions." He stepped behind the chair Face was sitting in, putting his hands on Face's shoulders, squeezing almost hard enough to hurt. It was the most intimate contact he'd initiated since the funeral service. "I've decided to combine both their positions into one, and I've found the right man for the job. Rich Todd."
Pleased but unsurprised, the staff applauded and congratulated him. Face did his best to look pleased and embarrassed at the acclaim, smiling shyly at his colleagues.
"It's going to be a lot of work, a lot of late hours, I'm afraid, and I expect you to give him all the support, encouragement, and respect you gave Dan and Keith and that you've always given me. I think you'll agree that he's worthy of it."
More applause greeted this speech. Dan and Keith must be rolling in their graves, Face thought bitterly. They're dead because of me, and now I've got their jobs. Way to climb the corporate ladder!
Dismissing the rest of the staff, Wright kept Face behind. He handed Face an envelope.
"What's this, sir?" asked Face.
"Think of it as a bonus to go with your promotion," said Wright kindly. "I know your lunch at Chez Henri's was interrupted by the sad news. I've made reservations for you and Paul there tomorrow night. It's on me."
"I...I don't know what to say, sir," Face responded, looking for a trap. How could he poison them in a public restaurant?
"Just say you'll go. I've made reservations for the late seating. Not too many people there that time of night; you'll practically have the place to yourselves. Please, just go and have a good time. God knows, after all you've been through, you deserve it."
"Thanks, sir. I'll talk to Paul about it tonight."
That night Face made love to Murdock over and over, taking the initiative with an intensity and single-mindedness of purpose that left them both sweat-soaked and trembling. Finally out of energy, Face lay atop Murdock, holding him tightly.
"Face, what's wrong?" asked Murdock.
"Nothing's wrong," Face answered. "Please, just shut up and hold me."
Murdock sighed. "If I hold you any tighter we'll be stuck together forever."
"Would that be so bad?" Face whispered.
Murdock ran fingers tenderly through Face's damp hair. "Not until I have to pee," he joked.
Face shoulders shook with laughter, but within seconds his laughter became wracking sobs. Frightened, Murdock sat up, pulling Face up against him. In fifteen years, he'd never seen Face cry. He'd screamed in pain; he'd hidden away inside himself, silent and empty; he'd cursed and thrown things. Tears had gathered in his eyes, but he'd never let them fall.
"Face, what's wrong?" Murdock asked again.
Face was unable to explain his reaction even to himself. It was some time before he could even talk at all. Murdock held him close and rocked him comfortingly until he calmed. The strain of the last several weeks finally must have caught up with him. Wiping his eyes, he pulled out of Murdock's embrace.
"I'm sorry," he said, sniffing. "I don't know what's wrong with me. Hormones."
"Talk to me, Face," said Murdock.
Face shook his head. "I really don't know, Murdock. I didn't mean to do that. It just hit me." He was silent a few minutes, sniffling quietly. "Have you ever had the feeling that somehow everything's gotten away from you? That's it's spiraling out of control and you can't do a damn thing to stop it?"
"Face, it's me!" Murdock answered softly. "Spiraling out of control is what I do best!"
"How do you live with that feeling?" Face asked.
"Why do you think I'm locked up in a mental hospital?" said Murdock by way of an answer.
"Am I making things worse for you?"
"Baby, you've been driving me crazy for years," said Murdock. He settled Face back on the pillows and ran his hand possessively over Face's body. "And this is all the therapy I need, right here. Your body next to mine. Waking up in the morning with your head on my chest. I'm not missing the V.A. at all."
Face stared up at the ceiling. "When I came up with this plan, I thought I could see where it was going every step of the way. Now...I can't see it at all. It's like...it's like a dark passage, and I'm just stumbling through trying to find the end. I don't even know if there is an end. Or what's gonna be there."
Murdock leaned forward to kiss him. "I'm gonna be there. Remember that."
"What if something happens to you?" Face asked, finally voicing his concern.
"Even then I'll be there. No matter what."
Face sighed. "Will you at least be careful until this is all over? Stick close to Hannibal and B.A.?"
Murdock could see this wouldn't be a good time to argue with him. "Like glue," he promised. "But not until after dinner tomorrow. I'm gonna order the most expensive thing on the menu, the best wine, the biggest steak. I'm gonna bleed that sucker dry!"
Face twined his arms and legs around Murdock and settled down to sleep.
"The most expensive thing on the menu is escargot."
"Oh, damn," Murdock said in a small voice. "I'm gonna have to eat my little friends?"
Closing his eyes, inhaling Murdock's cologne, Face could almost shake his feeling of impending disaster. But not quite. In his heart of hearts, he knew that after tonight, he and Murdock would never make love again.
Almost too keyed up to eat, Face continued to look around Chez Henri's suspiciously. They sat side by side, facing the door, knowing Hannibal and B.A. were sitting across the street in the van watching the front entrance.
True to his word, Murdock had ordered the most expensive thing on the menu, short of escargot, and was trying to enjoy his meal while Face picked at his. "Will you eat, please?" Murdock finally hissed in exasperation. "And at least pretend to be having a good time. You've hardly said two words since we got here."
Face turned his eyes from the door to Murdock.
"People are going to think we're having a lovers' spat," said Murdock.
"Maybe if we did that'd keep you safe," said Face.
"We've been down this road before," said Murdock. "We'll be fine. Eat before I hold you down and feed you."
Face sighed and applied himself to his meal, which was surprisingly good and didn't seem to have been poisoned at all. Walking back to the car arm in arm with Murdock, Face began to relax. They walked near the edge of a small crowd of people who were leaving the restaurants and theaters in the area. Face was reflecting that there was safety in numbers when a car swung around the corner, tires squealing. Before his mind could even register the sound of gunfire, the woman in front of Face spun away from her husband and dropped like a stone. Murdock fell against Face, knocking him to the ground. Around them people dove for cover, screaming in fear as windows shattered in the hail of gunfire.
As quickly as it had begun, it was over. Shakily, Face sat up, rolling Murdock over and looking down at him. Blood poured from a wound in Murdock's neck and another in his head. Face opened his mouth to call his name, but no sound came out. Behind him he could hear the cries of the man whose wife had fallen; he could hear the death rattle in her throat as the man screamed her name over and over.
Frantically, Face pinched shut the wound on Murdock's neck, trying to stop the bleeding, but his hands shook and his fingers kept slipping. Suddenly, mercifully, B.A. and Hannibal were by his side, pushing him back. As B.A. put his fingers over the neck wound, Hannibal gave Face a quick glance to be sure he wasn't seriously injured then turned his attention to Murdock. Of all the people who had fallen, only Murdock and the woman seemed badly injured. The wail of sirens heralded the arrival of police and paramedics. As they moved to make room for the paramedics, Hannibal lifted Face to his feet and supported him with an arm around his waist as he swayed. Face stared at him mutely, unable to ask the question.
"It's bad," said Hannibal. "But he's alive."
Behind them a team of paramedics worked on the injured woman while another firefighter held her sobbing husband. The look they exchanged spoke volumes as they bent to what they both knew was a hopeless task.
Face tried to focus on what the paramedics were doing to Murdock. Their lips moved, their hands moved, they made noises, but he couldn't hear them over the roaring in his ears. His vision began to dim. Moments later he found himself lying on the ground looking up into the kind eyes of a firefighter. He tried to pull away, tried to see where Murdock was, but a second firefighter held him down, moving to block his view. "Take it easy, sir," he said. "Let us take a quick look at you, make sure you're not hurt."
Hands moved over his body. He gasped a little as probing fingers moved through his hair. "Right there?" questioned the firefighter, fingering the sore spot. "You've got a little bump back here. Must've hit it when you fell." The fingers moved about some more. "Looks like a few superficial cuts on the side of your head here from flying glass, too. Nothing too serious."
Lights shone in his eyes, fingers found his wrist. Calming some, he tried to slow his heart rate and his breathing, wanting to get away from them and to Murdock's side. He twisted his head, trying to see what was happening, but again the firefighter blocked his view.
"They're taking good care of him," the first firefighter said soothingly. "They're just about to get him loaded on the ambulance. I know he looks a mess, but his vital signs are stable. Your other friends are with him now. I just want you to relax now, let us see to you."
Having seen to other minor wounds, a third team of paramedics crouched by Face's side. "How's he doing?" asked one.
"Could be a slight concussion. There's a little bump on his head back here."
Then there were more lights in his eyes, more fingers moving through his hair, more vital signs taken and recorded. Finally B.A. stepped into his line of sight. One of the firefighters moved aside to let him kneel at Face's side.
"Mr. Huntington's goin' to the hospital with Paul," said B.A., hoping Face would catch on. "I'm to stay with you, Mr. Todd."
The paramedic restrained Face when he tried to lift his head. "How is he?" Face gasped out.
"Seems to be doin' okay, so far," B.A. answered honestly. "Seems he was lucky, as usual." He turned his attention to the paramedic. "How's Mr. Todd?"
"I'd like to take him in," the paramedic answered. "He may have a slight concussion, and he's had a terrible shock." He glanced over B.A.'s shoulder at his colleagues, who were performing CPR on what he could clearly see was a dead body. "I'd like the docs to check him over. If they say he's okay, then they'll probably let you take him home."
B.A. nodded and returned his attention to Face. "There's nothin' you can do for Paul right now, Mr. Todd," he said matter of factly. "Let `em take care of you now, and me and Mr. Huntington'll let you know how Paul's doin' as soon as we can. Ain't nothin' you can do to change it right now, anyway."
This bit of practical wisdom had its desired effect, and Face reluctantly surrendered himself to the care of the paramedics.
At the hospital, Face was treated and released to B.A.'s care. He dressed hurriedly, frantic to join Hannibal in the surgery waiting room. He cursed angrily as his fingers fumbled with the buttons on his shirt. B.A. moved to assist him, batting his hands away from the buttons.
"Docs are gonna take real good care of the fool," said B.A. soothingly. "Don't you worry. He made it this far, he gonna make it the rest of the way."
Face rubbed his aching head, not wanting to hear any more reassurances. He needed to see Murdock for himself, watch his chest rise and fall as he breathed, touch him to be sure he was still warm and alive. Until he could do that, he would believe nothing.
As they left the treatment room, two grim-faced paramedics and a doctor stepped out of another one, crossing the waiting room to the husband. "I'm sorry," Face heard the doctor say as he and B.A. turned the corner. The man's cry cut through him like a knife, and Face stopped, clutching at the wall for support.
B.A. put an arm around him. "C'mon, man," he whispered. "Ain't nothin' you can do for him. Ain't your fault."
Hannibal turned from the window as B.A. assisted Face into the surgery waiting room and deposited him on a red plastic sofa. "Any word?" asked B.A.
"Not yet," said Hannibal. "The woman?"
B.A. shook his head.
"How's he?" asked Hannibal, inclining his head toward Face, who so far had not moved or spoken.
"Takin' it hard," said B.A. "But the docs released him. No concussion, just a bad bump and a few cuts."
As they waited, Face silently drank the cup of soda Hannibal brought him, tore the cup into small pieces, paced around the room, and tore the pieces into pieces. Eventually he fell into an exhausted doze.
Finally, the surgeon stepped into the room. "Mr. Huntington?" he asked.
"That's me," said Hannibal, standing. Beside him, Face lurched to his feet, and Hannibal reached for an elbow to support him. Concerned, the surgeon looked at Face.
"This is my son's partner, Rich Todd," explained Hannibal.
"Sit down, son," said the doctor gently.
Face knew what was coming before the doctor even opened his mouth again. "I'm sorry," began the surgeon.
"No!" Face yelled. Hannibal and B.A. dragged him back as he tried to launch himself at the shaken doctor. "They said his vitals were normal! They said he'd be okay!"
"I'm so sorry," said the doctor. "Things seemed to be going well, but he took a turn for the worse in surgery. We did everything we could, but it just wasn't enough."
"No, no," Face moaned over and over, unable even to breathe as he fell to his knees.
Hannibal sat on the couch, pulling Face up next to him. Face trembled violently, moaning, but he did not cry and he would not let either of the others touch him, pulling away whenever they tried. He sat with his hands clenched between his knees, staring ahead as the surgeon finished offering his condolences and left.
B.A. let his tears fall, unashamed. Hannibal stood and walked to the window, trying to collect his thoughts, accepting as his due the crushing guilt of having lost yet another man. Maybe two, he thought, examining Face's reflection in the dark window. He turned and walked back to where Face was sitting, crouching in front of him. He wondered whether Face would want to see Murdock's body or whether it would be best to get him out of here and home right now.
"What do you want to do, Face?" he asked. "Do you want to see him?"
For long moments there was no answer. Finally, Face met his eyes. "I need some time alone. Please. Just leave me alone. Just for awhile."
Hannibal nodded. "Alright. We'll give you some time. You'll stay here?"
"I just need some time alone," Face repeated.
Motioning for B.A. to follow him, Hannibal left. They walked down a long corridor and around the corner to another waiting room where B.A. slammed his fist into the padded wall. "Damn stupid fool," B.A. sobbed. "Why'd he have to go get himself killed?"
When they returned to the waiting room fifteen minutes later, it was empty. A note lay on the coffee table, and Hannibal picked it up and read it. "Shit!" he swore violently.
"What is it? Where is he?"
Hannibal handed the note to B.A. It read, "I'm going back in. Don't try to stop me, and don't try to contact me. Get rid of the apartment and everything in it. When it's over, you'll know. Take care of Murdock for me. Make sure everything's done right, the way he would have wanted."
"We have to stop him!" B.A. exclaimed.
"Too late," said Hannibal. "We'll only make things worse if we try to go in there. And we're two men short."
"I ain't forgotten," said B.A. sadly. "What're we gonna do?'
Hannibal sat on the couch, head spinning. "I need to think," he said.
Face stepped through the doors of the emergency entrance to find Wright's limousine parked in the small emergency lot. Talking to Wright was the surgeon who'd informed them of Murdock's death. Face melted into the shadows and watched them talk, though they were too far away for him to hear. Obviously the surgeon was in Wright's pay. He'd killed Murdock during the operation, finishing what their assassin had started. Well, he'd deal with the surgeon later.
As he stood hidden in the shadows, the grief-stricken husband from the shooting was led out by his relatives. He was calm now, sedated, but his eyes roamed the parking lot as if looking for someone, and he kept turning to look back over his shoulder at the doors of the emergency room. I'm gonna take care of it for you, Face promised the man silently. I'm gonna take care of it.
The surgeon slipped away from Wright and returned to the hospital, not seeing Face in the shadows. Face memorized his features for later. As Wright walked toward the building, Face chose his moment and ran out, barreling right into him. Wright caught him, looking closely at his face.
"He's dead!" Face cried. "He's dead!" He buried his face in Wright's shoulder and summoned up tears. It wasn't very hard.
Wright's arms closed around him, holding him close. "Oh, my God. I'm so sorry. I came as soon as I heard."
Face continued to sob on his shoulder. "Please get me out of here," he moaned. "Please."
"Of course," Wright murmured soothingly, leading Face to his car. Once in the car and on the way, Face's sobs subsided as he allowed Wright to pull him into his embrace.
"He was all I had," Face whispered. "I'm alone now. I'm alone."
"No, you're not alone. Not anymore," said Wright. "I've got you."
No, thought Face to himself. No, Mr. Wright, I've got you.
Hannibal sat with his head in his hands, almost too numb with grief to even think. In the space of half an hour he'd lost them both. He could only imagine what kind of damned fool thing Face was trying to accomplish by going back into the lion's den. Someone walked into the room, and Hannibal looked up, expecting it to be the nurse who'd come to tell them where to collect Murdock's personal effects. A young man in surgical scrubs blinked at them tiredly.
"Yes," Hannibal answered, automatically responding to his assumed name.
"Your son has just come out of surgery. It was touch and go there for awhile, but it looks as though he's going to be alright."
"What?" asked Hannibal stupidly.
The surgeon crossed the room to sit next to him. He was used to family members being in too much shock to process his words. Both men stared at him as if seeing a ghost. He was damned glad to be bringing them good news this time. It had been close. "Your son, Paul," he began again. "We've just finished surgery and are taking him to recovery for awhile before we move him to ICU."
"He ain't dead?" demanded the other man, glowering.
The surgeon raised his eyebrows, surprised. Really, they didn't seem nearly as pleased by the news he thought they'd be. "No, he's not. He's very much alive, and barring any unforeseen complications, he's likely to remain that way. One bullet tore a large chunk out of his neck, just nicking the jugular. He was very lucky. The other bullet gouged his skull. He's got a fractured skull, and of course it's sometimes hard to tell what's going to happen with those, but his chances for a full recovery are pretty good."
"Christ," Hannibal swore softly, rising to his feet. "What a mess!"
"Look, Mr. Huntington, you've had a really hard evening," offered the surgeon sympathetically. "If you like, I can get you a sedative. Paul's likely to be unconscious quite awhile anyway. Maybe you two should get some rest."
Smiling, Hannibal turned back to the surgeon. "No, we're fine. But thanks. Thanks for saving him." He extended his hand.
"You're welcome," said the doctor, standing to shake Hannibal's hand. "I'm glad to have been able to bring you good news. I'll send a nurse in to let you know when Paul is moved to ICU, and you can go in and sit with him for awhile."
Hannibal nodded as the doctor left. He turned back to B.A.
"Don't know whether to laugh or to cry," said B.A. "Got one of `em back, only to lose the other one. They sent that fake doctor in here `cause they knew what it'd do to Face. That mean Wright got a plan for him."
"Yeah," agreed Hannibal, "but this note means Face has a plan for him as well. I don't like it one damned bit, but we're gonna have to sit back and let Face play out his hand, one way or the other."
"He could get killed," B.A. reminded him.
"I know," said Hannibal unhappily. "I know."
Wright motioned to his driver to lower his window as they stopped at the front gate of his compound. The guard stepped out of the guard box and approached the car. "Yes, sir?" he asked.
"We're in seclusion until further notice," said Wright. "Absolutely nobody comes in without my personal authorization. Give out no information to anyone about Richard Todd. Nobody is to know he's here."
"Yes, sir," replied the guard, stepping back and punching the button to open the gate.
Face lay against Wright, feigning sleep, listening to the conversation. Good. He could do what he had to do with no interference from Hannibal.
Wright roused Face when they got to the house, personally assisting him up the stairs, heading for the room Face had shared with Murdock. Face's chest constricted with a pain he had no need to dissemble. "Please," he choked. "Not that one."
"The next one?"
That was the room where Dan and Keith had spent their last night. Face didn't want to sleep there, either. He shook his head.
"Would you like to sleep in my room?" Wright asked gently.
Eyes filling with tears, Face looked up at him. "Yes, please," he said. "That would be really nice."
Surprisingly, the first several nights, Wright slept in another room. Face ate little during those days, and sat listlessly on the front steps most of each day watching the perimeter guards go about their rounds, every day pushing his grief back into the deep, dark hole he'd carved out of his soul for it. He couldn't afford to be distracted by it.
One night Face heard the bedroom door open and turned his head, opening his eyes. Ted Wright stood by the bed, already naked, staring down at him hungrily. And so it begins, thought Face. Forgive me, Murdock. Forgive me. He smiled up at Wright sweetly and reached under his pillow for the first of many packages of condoms he was destined to go through in the next several months.
Hannibal sat by Murdock's bed watching him sleep. Mindful of the I.V., he lay a hand on Murdock's forearm, squeezing it gently in reassurance as Murdock tossed fitfully. In the days that followed the shooting, B.A. and Hannibal had had many opportunities to be grateful for the thoroughness with which Face had built a paper trail to support their assumed identities. Though careful to avoid reporters and television cameras, they cooperated fully with the investigation, and the impersonal sympathy of the police assured them that their secret remained safe. Hannibal was especially grateful for that because it meant he could leave Murdock in the hospital to get the care he needed. The hardest thing they had to do was explain Rich Todd's sudden disappearance and abandonment of his lover. The police told them he'd disappeared from work as well, simply never showing up. Hannibal declared his puzzlement and disappointment over and over but allowed as how Rich Todd had sometimes seemed to have difficulty dealing with his emotions. Since he was not a suspect in the shootings, the police eventually let the matter drop.
Though they sheltered him from the knowledge of Face's whereabouts for several days, they eventually had to tell Murdock the whole truth. As they'd expected, he took it hard, sinking into a depression that had them fearing they'd have to return him to the V.A. hospital. Falling back once again on Face's careful preparation, Hannibal brought in records of Paul Huntington's previous hospitalizations for psychiatric care, and the hospital assigned Murdock a psychiatrist. Then Murdock contracted an infection which set his physical recovery back, and it was some time before they were able to take him home.
Once home Murdock filled sketchpads with design after design, all of them in dark, somber colors, all of them the tasteful, elegant cut Face preferred. Every afternoon he sat staring out the window at the front walk as if waiting for Face to return from the day's work, and his eyes clouded with disappointment every night when Face failed to return. He ate little, spoke little, and slept poorly. His grief and fear ate at Hannibal, making him irritable and short-tempered. Unable to deal any longer with inactivity, B.A. and Hannibal began following up on the leads they'd gotten previously, gathering what evidence they could from Wright's associates. It was mainly important in that it kept them busy, gave them something to do besides sit and worry. What they managed to find would be good corroborating evidence, but they knew that the evidence they really needed was still hidden either at Wright's office or at his residence, and as weeks stretched into a month and then two months, their fears grew. They stayed at the house, not willing to leave just in case Face did return.
Wright was satisfied with Rich Todd. He had proven to be the lover Wright had sought for years, and Wright congratulated himself over and over on his victory. Rich reveled in Wright's touch, letting Wright teach him what love really was, what sexual gratification was really all about. Wright allowed him his little obsession with condom use because Rich had proven to be so creative with them, and really, he could afford to be indulgent. As he'd hoped, Rich had forgotten Paul Huntington and given himself to Wright body and soul. He was an apt pupil, learning quickly how to please Wright, not at all bothered by Wright's exotic sexual appetites. He never mentioned his former lover, seeming to mark the beginning of his life from the day he'd taken refuge under Wright's roof. And that was just fine with Ted Wright.
Moaning on cue as Ted Wright thrust into him brutally, Face welcomed the familiar pain. It was his penance, and he accepted it philosophically.
"Show me how much you love this, baby," he heard Wright whisper in his ear.
Failing to reach climax was not allowed; it was one of the rules of the game. With the ease of long practice, he shrugged inwardly and turned his attention to summoning up the appropriate physical response. It didn't matter. It meant nothing. Nothing meant anything, anymore. Inside, where it counted, he was empty. He was a whore. Whores weren't expected to feel anything. And he didn't.
As the months had passed, Face had begun to die, his soul eaten out by grief and guilt. He taught Rich Todd everything he needed to know, passed on the necessary skills and knowledge, then began to fade from existence. One morning Rich woke up, sliding out from under Ted Wright's heavy arm, and realized he was alone in his body. Face was dead. And Rich Todd wouldn't be far behind.
As Rich carefully erased all traces of his entry into Ted Wright's personal files, he laughed to himself at how easy it had all been. Assuming the threat of exposure had died with Dan and Keith, totally taken in by Rich's act, Wright trusted him. He slowly learned where Wright had secreted important information, gaining access to computer files as Wright allowed him to handle more and more of the business. He was never allowed to leave the compound; business that had to be conducted in person was conducted by Wright himself. But it didn't matter; everything Rich had needed was here, and soon he'd have gathered all the evidence Face had told him to get. He could finish the job and follow Face into oblivion. That would leave only the whore, the creature that was and always had been at the center of Templeton Peck's being despite his attempts to disguise it with fancy clothes and smooth talk. Of the three of them, only the whore had the strength to do what needed to be done now.
B.A. sighed as Murdock got out of the van and entered the house. Murdock was slowly improving, eating and talking again, and sometimes, though rarely, speaking of the future. Knowing the inactivity was as hard on Murdock as it was on them, Hannibal had allowed him to assist them in their cautious investigations of Wright's business partners. Secretly, B.A. thought Face was probably dead. If so, he hoped it had been quick. In their investigation they'd come across police photos of the dismembered corpses of one of Wright's former lovers, and he dreaded the day they'd come across pictures of Face's corpse, his glazed eyes staring back at them across the boundary between life and death.
Hannibal wouldn't give up hope that Face would return, though it was more for Murdock's sake than his own. Despite his improvement, Murdock still wandered the house restlessly every evening, looking out the window at the front walk, imagining the sound of keys jingling and Face cursing softly as he dropped them in the dark.
"It's been six months, Paul," the therapist had said, "and you've had no word from Rich. Perhaps it's time to cut your losses and move on."
"He'll be back," Murdock had insisted.
"Why hasn't he contacted you, at least sent you a letter to explain why he left?" the therapist asked. "If he loves you as you say he does, don't you think he'd do at least that?"
"There's no if," said Murdock stubbornly. "I love him, and he loves me. He'll come back!" He knew that if he just kept saying it over and over to himself, he could make it true.
"Where do you think he is, Paul?"
Murdock stared out the window and was silent for a long time. "Lost," he finally whispered. "In a dark passage. Looking for the end. But he'll find it; I know he'll find it."
Sighing, the therapist made notes on her yellow legal pad. This guy was not ready to deal with reality yet.
Ah, he'd judged the timing perfectly. Bracing himself, the whore lifted his hips to meet Wright's thrust one more time, then Wright was throwing back his head and screaming in ecstasy as he emptied himself into the whore's body.
So intent was he on the sensation, Wright hardly felt the sharp, thin blade as it slid between his ribs and angled up into his heart. With a gasp, he looked in disbelief at the ivory-handled knife sticking out of his chest then back into the eyes of the man underneath him.
"Rich..." he gasped.
Almost gently, the man rolled them over and lifted himself off of Wright, shaking his head. "Rich is dead," he announced softly.
"Wha...what?" Wright's hands scrabbled about feebly, looking for a weapon or some way to summon help, but the other man made sure everything was out of his reach and sat cross-legged on the bed next to him.
"Rich is dead. He asked me to say goodbye to you. He finished his part, and he passed on a few hours ago. I guess you didn't know about that. Shall I fill you in?" Calmly, in an emotionless monotone, he explained how Face and Rich Todd had duped Wright, how they had been gathering evidence of his crimes, and how that evidence would soon be delivered to Face's old friends. "Of course, in your case, it won't matter much because you'll already be dead. That wasn't part of the original plan, of course, and I suppose we could've just killed you from the beginning and been done with it. Rich and Face talked about it, but they figured all this evidence should ensure that none of your friends get the idea to pick up where you left off, so they took the time to gather it. Besides, they didn't really have it in `em to kill you in cold blood. Not like me. But like I said, they're gone now. It's just you and me, babe."
"You'll...you'll never..." croaked Wright.
"Get out of here alive?" the whore finished for him. "Maybe not, but don't count on it."
He bounced up off the bed, wiping his bloody hands on the sheets. "Hey, don't you want to know where I've been hiding everything?" With a smile, he reached between the mattresses and pulled out several file folders and computer disks, holding them up. "Last place you'd look, isn't it?" he asked triumphantly, laying them on the bedside table. "Right here where you've been fucking me for the last six months. You've been laying right on top of `em every night!"
He turned to pick up his clothes, making a show of examining his body in the mirror. As it had been for six months, his torso was covered with bruises. White scars and newer red welts crossed his shoulders, chest, belly, groin, and thighs, mute testament to the teeth, razors, and belt buckles that had regularly broken the skin. Turning his back to the mirror, he looked over his shoulder and saw the same evidence reflected there. "Don't suppose the cops would arrest me for killing you once they saw these marks," he remarked conversationally. "They'd call it justifiable homicide, you know. They'd assume after six months of abuse, I finally found a way to escape and had to kill you to do it. And of course, I wouldn't tell them I let you do this to me on purpose. They wouldn't know I'm just a whore."
Wright was beyond hearing, but it didn't really matter. "Besides," the whore continued, "I knew eventually you'd get tired of me like you did all the others, and I'd wind up in several garbage sacks scattered around the city. And you know, it's always better to be proactive. That's what you are...well, were...and Rich learned a lot from you."
Finished dressing, he slipped the files into a large envelope which he tucked into the back of his pants, zipping his jacket to help keep it in place, then turned his attention to one last task before walking to the door. "Say hi to the devil for me, Mr. Wright," he whispered on the way out, turning to take one last look at the dead man. "I expect I'll be seeing you down there one day soon."
He slipped out of the room, down the stairs, and out of the house undetected. He strode across the compound, making no attempt to conceal himself. It would be impossible anyway, and if his movements were furtive, the guards would be alerted too soon. People were used to seeing him out and about, though not at this late hour. They weren't likely to challenge him until they saw him going over the fence. If he were lucky, they'd be looking the other way at the fire he'd set in the bedroom as he was leaving. This was the riskiest part; if he blew this, the evidence would never get out.
To his relief, he made it to the well-lit perimeter unchallenged, but his luck ran out as he was scaling the fence.
"Hey, you!" a voice shouted. "Stop!"
Heedless of the barbed wire as it tore at his clothes and skin, he scrambled the rest of the way over the fence and dropped on the other side. Turning to run, he stumbled as a bullet grazed his shoulder and another bit into his side, but he recovered and ran for his life. He couldn't remember how he knew, but he knew how to evade his pursuers, how to hide, and in spite of his injuries and their best efforts, he eventually lost them.
In the pre-dawn darkness, Hannibal opened the front door to retrieve the morning paper shortly after he heard it smack into the big flower pot outside. Damned paperboy couldn't hit the broad side of a barn with a tank, but he was managing to destroy every plant in the neighborhood. Stepping out, he nearly stumbled over a fat envelope. Looking around and seeing nobody, he picked the envelope up and examined the front. A dark red stain marred the surface, almost making it impossible to decipher the one word written across the front: Hannibal.
Hidden in the shadows across the street, the whore watched as the silver-haired man closed the door. Then, clutching his side, he stepped out of the shadows and walked away, head down. He still had one more thing to do, one thing he'd promised Rich before he died.
"You okay, mister?" Cruising back from his route, the paperboy had nearly ridden the man down, having to swerve onto a lawn to miss him.
The man nodded without answering. The paperboy watched him leave, wondering whether he should wake his mom and tell her there was a stranger in the neighborhood. Nah, he looked like he was leaving, anyway. Riding his bike back over the mangled vegetation growing at the edge of the lawn, the paperboy promptly forgot the incident as he pedaled home.
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