DELSYN played the blues, played his frustration and grief away with old songs, heart songs, songs that did the crying for him and let him laugh. Mostly, anyway.
It was hard, and it didn’t get easier. The summer before, he’d nearly died; he’d been long unconscious, and his brain had almost starved for oxygen—lacking the blood that was instead filling the spaces in his joints. He’d surprised everyone but his uncle Sonny James when, despite everything, he lived. Perhaps he’d surprised even Sonny when his brain recovered, worked almost like normal. But his joints hadn’t been so forgiving, and every bend of knee or ankle, every bit of weight to bear meant pain, sometimes as hot and swift as lightning.
He’d just turned eighteen. This wasn’t the way the world was supposed to work.
Del’s world had narrowed down mostly to Sonny’s acres, a beautiful place that he’d known all his life, but even there he couldn’t go wherever he wanted. A wheelchair is useless over rough, soft ground, and crutches worse, dangerous even. He loved this place and hated it for the trap that it had become. His music—his guitar and his mercifully spared hands—helped. Sonny did what he could: drove him up the coast to Neah Bay, into Port Angeles for a movie, into Port Clifton—the nearest town—for Frappuccino at Margie’s. A couple of times, Luki Vasquez—the man his uncle loved—had carried him on his back as easily as if he’d been a child, took him down to the beach, and helped him wade through the low waves at the edge of the Juan de Fuca Strait.
But he hadn’t once been in the forest, Sonny’s forest, the woods he’d grown up in—and that mattered. One night he’d felt particularly lost and frustrated, and after saying goodnight to Sonny and Luki, he’d left the house by the back door and made halting, unsteady progress on his crutches to the line of trees that guarded the thick forest beyond. The smells, cedar and dust and new-formed frost, were memory and real all at once, and Delsyn desperately wanted to be in there with the trees and insects, just breathing the same air. So, placing the crutches carefully where they didn’t sink, following one weak leg at a time, Delsyn went in.
He only made it a few steps before he needed to rest, so he propped his crutches against a familiar stump, a gigantic memory of the old-growth forest that once lived there, still rotting into red dust a century after it had been cut. He settled himself down carefully into its folds, glad he couldn’t see the bugs that were certainly feasting off the soft pulp even at this time of night. By shifting from foot to foot, he could rest his legs, and then he’d leave. But he was glad he’d come. For once, he’d go to sleep with sweet, forest-scented dreams.
He heard a scrabbling at his feet—probably a vole or a shrew, but he wanted to know just what it was that made the sound. “Light,” he mumbled. “I need a little light.” He always had his phone with him even though it was useless for making calls around Sonny’s place, where no signal could snake past the giant barrier of the Olympic Mountains. He used it to play games. He took pictures. He recorded his own music, the blues he loved to play. He planned to add the SD card to the tapes he’d made on an old cassette deck and give them to Sonny for his birthday in May, if he could wait that long. But for now he thought the phone could help him. He slid his thumb over the screen to light it up but soon realized the glow wasn’t enough to see the ground, and he knew he couldn’t bend down close if he wanted to be able to get back up. “Bummer,” he said and was about to slip the phone back into his pocket when he heard voices.
A man’s voice, rough and hard. “You’re an idiot! A fool, and if I’d known that before I got involved in your little retirement venture, I would have stayed miles away. Those twins are devious, worse because they’re stupid, too, and everyone in the life knows that—even their own daddy. You managed to pull them in, as lame as you are; that should have told you something.”
“I’m not sure it was them—”
“What an ass! They practically advertised the location. They’re the reason we had to move the samples.”
“And you’re the one who brought ’em here. Not the brightest, in my opinion.”
Del caught the sarcasm in the words, could imagine the man’s gesture encompassing Sonny’s land: “Here.”
“I know this place,” the first man said—a voice Delsyn didn’t recognize. “No one will look here. All we need is a little time when the owner—and his latest fuck—are absent, and we can move it again. Arrange it.”
“Don’t even, you bastard. You’re stupid, and thanks to your little minions, nobody’s going to touch this stuff until it cools off. We’ll be lucky to move the goods by spring.”
The men were moving now, Delsyn guessed; their conversation became obscured by a rustle through leaf-trash and brush. Then, suddenly, he realized the voices were getting closer, and all at once he felt very exposed, very crippled, and very scared.
One set of footsteps moved back into the forest, but the other seemed to be looking for an exit, and that one would pass right by Delsyn. If Del had been fully able, if he hadn’t needed the crutches, he could have held still. But he had no faith in his body, and panic sent him stumbling toward the edge of the trees. He wanted to be out before the man caught him.
He might be killed, he thought. He didn’t want to die hidden in the dark.
Too late. Aching to move legs that wouldn’t cooperate, Del shouted “Uncle Sonny!” But he was so afraid, his voice barely stumbled past the fear in his throat. And he was too far away from the house. And Sonny and Luki didn’t even know he was out here.
The voice seemed slimy, seemed to ooze up Delsyn’s spine. “Now, Del, take it easy. You know me. You know I’m not going to hurt you. All I need is for you to tell me what you think you heard so I can explain. You probably misunderstood. We wouldn’t want you to get yourself hurt, now would we?”
Delsyn tried to answer, hoping he’d be smart enough to talk his way out of it. But he didn’t because he couldn’t. Ever since last summer, when he got upset—good or bad—his throat and tongue locked up, like he couldn’t get the language in his brain to come out into the world. And then….
A blow—no more than a slap, but Delsyn felt the change. Felt the simple knot that had held his damaged brain together slip free. Not in the dark, he thought, and he pushed forward as he fell. With moonlight in his eyes and shining silver on the coastal fog around him, Delsyn began to die.
Later, he knew he was no longer home, knew they had taken him someplace machines could reach him with their long plastic arms. A place to wait. And while he waited, he heard things.
A doctor said, “… very probably will not wake up.”
Sonny answered, “But he woke up before.”
Sonny spoke to Delsyn, sometimes, discussing and scolding as if they were riding in the Mustang on the way to the store. The nurses came in, usually chattering, one of them sounding young and very sweet. Other patients, still able to cuss out loud. Even Luki, singing the blues for him in that scratchy voice when he thought no one else was around. Del wanted to smile. He wanted to touch someone. He wanted to sing too. Then his brain came apart a little more and he dreamed a little farther down in the darkness where it was far too quiet. He entered a tunnel that led to the other side of that line, that fence between life and death. He felt pretty good about it. He’d done the best he could to say goodbye.
And he thought that, after all, dying might have been his own idea.
LUKI VASQUEZ paced through rooms replete with luxury in his uptown Chicago home. Everything sparkled. While he’d been elsewhere, his housekeeper, Gerald, had taken excellent care of the condo, as well as the fortune in furniture that took up just enough of the floor space. Well, usually just enough. Now, the place would feel too big, too empty even if it was stuffed with Victorian plush and had a party going on. Not that Luki would ever have either one.
One thing occupied his mind, and it—he—stood about six two, had rich earth-brown hair and everything else Luki had ever wanted. Before he met Sonny James, Luki had not the slightest inkling that he wanted anyone at all. Now, his attachment had gone well beyond wanting. He stopped his pacing to lean against the wall of block glass that distorted Chicago’s lights into replicas of Van Gogh’s stars. “Sonny,” he said aloud, needing him, and the sound of his stressed, scratchy voice traveled through the bare rooms of his house, repeating. He wondered why he hadn’t noticed the echo before.
Since coming back to Chicago from the Northwest coast, Luki had kept himself busy. He read. He had some new suits tailored. He ran. He worked out at least two hours every day, not needing to go anywhere to do it—he had a well-equipped gym in the condo’s largest room, complete with attached sauna. Sometimes Luki did go out, though, to one of the rattiest gyms in town to practice his Tai Chi and other martial arts under the eye of his grizzled, long-time teacher. He sparred with his detectives too, or worked with his junior staff–nearly all of whom dreaded the encounters but oh-so-badly needed to study up.
And Luki threw himself into his business, pestering his incomparable admin, Jude, who mostly ignored him—as efficiently as she did everything else—and ran things as usual.
“Vasquez,” she’d say because she watched too many tacky TV shows, “take your hands off the keyboard and back away, and no one will get hurt.”
So, to get out of her way and safe from her evil eye, Luki took on some of the jobs his staff could have easily handled, at times leaving them to get paid for twiddling their thumbs. And he annoyed people in general by telling them things they already knew. His most experienced staff particularly resented his stepping in. Kim, for instance.
“Get out of here, Luki. Take some leave time.”
“I’m the boss, Kim. I get to say that. You don’t.” But he knew she was right; he even knew she cared.
His increased involvement—or interference, depending on your point of view—couldn’t hurt his business. It was, after all, his reputation as a detective, a former ATF special agent, that had driven his small security agency to the top of the heap in a matter of a few years. The wealth that success yielded was why he could pay his employees well—very well by industry standards—and hire only the best. That wealth was why last summer when some ugly hate crimes had been directed at Sonny—or so they thought—Luki had been able to drop everything else in pursuit of that one criminal. The chase had been terrifying even for Luki, even as cold, heartless, and hard-assed as he’d been before Sonny. It involved a truly sick perp, unthinkable cruelty, and a bomb. Brave and beautiful and seeming as different from Luki as the limits of possibility would allow, Sonny had matched him step for step in the chase and had surprised him at every turn. Not just in the crisis, everywhere. Weaving in his studio, walking gracefully in flip-flops, even making love… especially making love.
Now, no amount of activity, violent or not, could drive away the big Sonny-shaped shadow that dogged along beside him.
So as he wandered through his bare rooms, Luki traded the perfect, flawlessly tailored clothing he usually wore even at leisure and donned tattered jeans and a faded flannel shirt. Just what Sonny would have worn, and it helped keep Sonny alive in his mind, a man rather than a thin shade. He’d look a lot better than me wearing this, he told himself, padding over the hardwood floor to the only room in the house he ever smoked in, wondering on the way when the floor had become so cold. Once he got there, he switched on the silent fans and the omnidirectional heat, sank into the leather of the only easy chair in the house, and lit up. In his mind, he could hear Sonny clearly, as if his lover stood right next to him. Or sat by him on their love seat. Or sat on the floor at his knees making drawings for a tapestry he would weave so resplendent the world would probably weep. “You should quit,” he’d say.
Luki knew he should quit. Knew that cigarettes… cigarettes and hamburgers were the only flaws in his otherwise perfect health regime. Smoking would someday, probably soon, take a toll. Perversely, when he met Sonny he’d started smoking more than ever before, just because Sonny’s existence in the world nudged him off his solitary perch, the place where he seemingly rose above the world of emotion and let other men into his life only occasionally to practice his skills at cold but perfectly executed sex. With Sonny? Anything but cold. Although still close to perfect. He smiled at the memory of Sonny’s surprised looks when Luki showed him something new, something that, in all his gay years, he’d never felt.
“Luki, please,” he’d say.
Yet, Sonny had sent Luki away. When Delsyn lay impossibly still in that room at the rehab with tubes exchanging his fluids and instruments ticking off the seconds of his life, surely Sonny must have been glad for Luki’s love, his arms, his hand to hold. Yet just when Luki thought Sonny needed him most, that’s when he’d pulled back inside himself to be alone with his grief and fear. He’d sent Luki packing from the rainy Northwest forest and sea—to Chicago, of all places. Funny that Luki had never known how much he didn’t like Chicago until he’d lived for a few months in Sonny’s surprising and isolated home. Tasted the salt in the morning air, blown inland by the ever-present wind over the Juan de Fuca Strait. Watched Sonny dip naked into the frigid waters and rise up, sunlight flashing off his smooth, wet, brown skin like an aura of jewels. Sat before a yellow fire built of wood Sonny had cut and split, Sonny’s head on his shoulder, Sonny’s long hair falling over Luki’s bare chest—tickling, teasing, a promise.
And that promise had not been, could not have been, broken. Sonny loved him, even believed that he was beautiful, had woven that belief into an incredible tapestry, with the sky and the straits the same pale, pale blue as Luki’s eyes, with his skin the same dark tone as the wet sand on the shore. When Luki looked at it, he could almost believe that he was the beautiful man Sonny’s flawless art portrayed. That the long scar that sliced down the left side of his face—the scar that had shaped his life–had no more weight than any other piece of him—less, perhaps.
“I’m not beautiful,” Luki had said after he’d seen that weaving. Crying. Actually crying!
“You are,” Sonny had answered, more angry, more hurt, than Luki could have imagined. “I see what’s there. I always, only, ever see what’s there, and that’s what I weave.”
Now, when his forgotten cigarette had transformed into a precarious cylinder of ash, Luki squashed it in the smokeless ashtray Gerald had nagged him to get. “I’ll try again,” he said, just as if someone would hear, as if he wasn’t alone… utterly alone. For the fourth time in the last two hours, he dialed Sonny’s number. It rang… it rang… it rang and Luki left another message. He went to bed in Sonny-like fashion, wearing all the same clothes except the flannel shirt.
DARKNESS, a river, a cruel boy’s voice on the riverbank.
A dream Luki had dreamed a thousand times before. But this time….
“Luki!” Another, sweeter voice calling and a hand reaching out, impossibly reaching all the way to the water from the bridge overhead. He’s come for me, Luki thought, he’s come to help me! But then he heard the voice again, not offering help but needing it, pleading. Luki would have died in the river if it meant he could help the man behind that voice. “Sonny,” he yelled. “Sonny, hang on, just hang on, baby, and I’ll be there.” But try as he might, he could not reach that empty hand before it started to rise, and then he couldn’t reach high enough to grasp it before it disappeared into the blind, black dark above.
“No! You can’t take him!”
“You can’t take him!” Luki woke himself up with the scream. Got out of bed, drank some water, lit a cigarette even though he wasn’t in the right room. He picked up the phone and somehow punched in Sonny’s number despite shaking like a drunk in detox. “Pick up, Sonny. Please pick up.” The pleas were of no use, and after he left one more begging message, he planned a course of action. At last. He was good at action.
First, a shower. Then as the mid-March dawn broke over the windy city, he called Margie. Margie was up, and she didn’t seem at all surprised to get a phone call at 4:00 a.m. Pacific time.
“Luki,” she said. From the hollow sound, he could tell she was already downstairs from her apartment, in the street-level coffee shop she ran, and from which, it seemed, she ruled the small town of Port Clifton. “I thought you’d call sooner.”
It drove Luki nuts that she always had him figured out before he did, but this was no time to quibble about it. “Margie, I can’t get hold of Sonny. Is he okay? Do you know what’s up?”
She must have put her hand over the phone in the mistaken belief that it kept him from hearing what she said. He could hear it just fine, though the muffling annoyed him. “Ladd,” she said, speaking to the man that used to be Luki’s best detective before he struck up this late-in-life romance. “I don’t think he knows.”
Ladd’s voice came on then. “Hey, Luki. Listen, it’s about Delsyn. He’s been… he died, and Sonny’s pretty much out of it, if you know what I me—”
“I’m coming. Have Jude book me a flight leaving in the next ninety minutes and a car from SeaTac.” Luki belatedly remembered Ladd didn’t work for him anymore and added, “Please.”
Black. Black shoes. Black socks, black jeans; calf-length, tailored, black wool coat. Sonny took the clothes out of their long-stored plastic shrouds, his eyes of their own accord seeking out the white silk strips across the chest and shoulders of his ribbon shirt, the short white streamers which would be anchored over his scapulae and left loose to flutter as he moved, or danced, or stood in a breeze. Not that they would move today—they’d be buried under the black coat. And Delsyn would be buried under the black ground.
“Nephew,” Sonny whispered into the air that he’d let go cold, so cold indoors that he could see a faint shadow of his breath float into the room. So cold it hurt, which was one reason he’d let the fire die. The pain could replace the tears he would not cry. And then, too, the fire had no right to live, to crackle and sway, brighten and warm the day. No, if Delsyn had to die, then the fire would die too. Sonny would see to that.
He needed tight braids bound far back behind his ears, but braids like that are impossible to do for oneself, so he gathered his white ribbons and took his hair to Margie’s, resolving not to cry no matter how many times she tried to tell him it would be okay to do so, no matter how much she tried to comfort him.
Before minutes passed, or so it seemed, he stood at the grave, the cold March wind biting his face with sharp teeth like tiny arrows, with the man he’d called to say words at the graveside, a Lummi elder he knew from the few years he’d spent up north in Bellingham where frost was likely to coat the rooftops on a gray March day like today. Sonny knew the elder’s words, his prayers in four directions, the sage and cedar he kindled and passed to the small band of mourners around the grave—all of these things—were meant to help Delsyn’s spirit pass.
And to ease my pain.
Sonny couldn’t let that comfort happen. My nephew, my boy, is dead. And it’s my fault.
ON THE freeway, flying north to the ferry dock at Edmonds, Luki drove so fast he accused himself of driving like Sonny. It couldn’t compare, of course. Me, driving like this, it’s reckless. Him, flying through the traffic and rain, it’s just cool… so damn cool. Plus, he reminded himself, Sonny would be driving his Mustang, which even he, Luki the uninitiated, knew was a bitchin’ ride—whereas Luki driving this maroon PT Cruiser because it was the only car he could drive off the rental lot in five minutes, now that was just comical. Luki smiled. It felt good, but it couldn’t last, and he let it go.
He had his mind so focused on just driving, just moving, just getting “there” as fast as he could, that he wasn’t really sure he hadn’t missed the exit to the ferry dock. Last he’d checked, the ferry was running on time for once, which Luki had taken to be a good omen. But it wouldn’t help if he drove right past, which he just might have done. Hell, he might right this minute be the subject of hot pursuit by the State Patrol, sirens and lights and bullhorns going full blast, and he probably wouldn’t have noticed even that. All he could think of was Sonny, alone, hurting and needing him—surely needing him.
I’m coming, Sonny. I’m coming home. Home to a state he’d never seen until a year ago. Home to a windswept, rain-drenched peninsula most of the world would remain blissfully unaware of for entire lifetimes. Home near a town he might have driven straight through the first time he’d seen it—would have if he hadn’t seen Margie’s Cup o’ Gold Café and drooled for a cup of coffee, black and sweet. And he wouldn’t have stayed, not long at all, but that had changed. Everything had changed the day Sonny Bly James walked past him on the boulevard, tall and strong and beautifully brown from head to toe.
He hadn’t missed the ferry dock after all, but he might have done so while he was taking his walk down memory lane. Pay attention, Vasquez, he scolded—just in time. He slowed onto the ramp and into the line of waiting vehicles. The ferry had pulled in but was still expelling eastbound passengers and cars, so he’d have some waiting to do. He did what Luki always did while waiting—got out of the car and lit a cigarette, then another one, planning ahead for the ferry, on which, this being Washington, it was illegal to smoke. He contemplated lighting a third, even though he knew it might make him a little “green around the gills,” to quote his ex-Marine Corps dad, long since dead. But the gate opened and he didn’t have to decide.
Once on board the ferry Puyallup, bound from Edmonds to Kingston, Luki moved directly to the bow, where he stood for a while under the covered deck out of the coldest, windiest rain and watched the little spit of land that the town of Kingston rested on draw closer. It would be a short ride, but it seemed long. Long enough, anyway, to let himself succumb to the weariness he’d held off all day since waking from that dream… that bone-chilling dream early yesterday morning. For him, it was now eight o’clock a day later, though here the sky was still night dark at 5:00 a.m. He sat in one of the deck chairs with his coat over his face and let himself sleep. One hour of rest, then disgorged from the ferry in the shell of the PT Cruiser, up highway 104, over the Hood Canal Floating Bridge—quite an adventure on a rainy pre-dawn morning.
Weak, wet daylight arrived along with a need for contact. Still driving, he told his phone to call Sonny. No answer. Not even the machine. Margie, then.
“Luki, I was just going to call. I don’t know why, but Sonny’s arranged the funeral—well, really just a graveside—for 8:45 a.m. in Port Angeles.”
“Yes, dear. Now you’ve got plenty of time. Just stay right on 101 and don’t turn east to Port Clifton—”
Luki growled into the phone, “I know how to get to Port Angeles!”
Margie went silent on the other end of the connection. Luki had never known her to be silent before except once when hate words had been scrawled on her living room wall, and then it only lasted seconds. Clearly, he’d hurt her feelings, and he thought that if he didn’t patch things up, Margie might never speak to him again.
“Margie, I’m sorry—”
“No need for apologies, Luki.”
“I know how to get to P.A. What’s the cemetery? I’ll put it in my GPS.”
“Mount Angeles. I always liked that name.”
Luki milked the PT Cruiser for every rpm it could give, but still the funeral was all but done when he got there. He saw Sonny standing alone, no one near, even Ladd and Margie off to one side. Sonny with his shoulders strong but his head bowed. In black. Shirtsleeves in the rain, a long black coat over his arm, white ribbons streaming from his black shirt and wrapped through tight dark braids falling from the base of his skull straight as arrows down his back. Luki had never seen any of it—the braids, the shirt, the coat, or Sonny with his head bowed in the rain. The sight confused him for just a moment, but as the funeral ended and the mourners started to leave, Sonny stood alone, looking down into the grave as though contemplating joining his nephew there. Luki gathered his wits and stepped out to go to his lover’s side.
But before he’d taken two steps, car tires skidded ever-so-slightly on the gravel drive, doors opened and slammed, and three Sheriff’s deputies from two counties got out of two cars, all business, eyes on the grave. The burial had taken place in Clallam County, and the local deputy hung back while the man and woman from Jefferson County—home of Port Clifton and Sonny James—took a few brisk strides forward. The man had his handcuffs ready. The woman’s hand rested on the butt of her gun.
Sonny turned. His gaze slid past Luki, almost but not quite stopping. He didn’t expect me. Luki decided to wait and think about that hurt later, after whatever was about to happen was done happening. He made himself pay attention to Sonny’s expression for the purpose of security—and not the emotional kind. Sonny’s dark eyes, usually so alive and quick, stared out at the world completely flat but for perhaps a single angry spark. And dry, not even red. Where are his tears? He didn’t frown, but all the muscles of his face were set rigid, hard like stone.
The handcuffs clicked and tightened on Sonny’s wrists and his rights were being read out like an extra sermon for the dead. Finally, Luki shelved his observations for later and ran forward, planning to interfere with the law in any way he could. “Hey,” he said, in his best voice-of-command. “Wait!”
The officer who had rested her hand on her gun made as if to pull it, and Luki’s first, strongest instinct spoke up loudly, telling him to go for his own weapon, to show this cop how dangerous it was to draw your handgun when you didn’t know enough about your target. He stopped himself, realizing it wouldn’t do Sonny any good—or him for that matter—if he shot a cop or got shot by one beside Delsyn’s new-dug grave. But he had to do something. They were taking Sonny away like a criminal, which he wasn’t, which he couldn’t be, and that was so impossibly wrong.
He said, “My name’s Luki Vasquez. I’m private security, used to be with ATF.” He added that credential because sometimes it could give him an “in” with law enforcement—like comrades in arms. “This man has been a client of mine”—not a lie—“and I’m hoping you might give me some information. What’s he going to be charged with? As I said, I know him, and it looks to me like you might be making a bad mistake.”
“Step aside, sir.”
“Maybe you can just tell me—”
“Let it go, Luki.” Sonny’s eyes flashed past him once again. His coat fell to the ground but he kept walking toward the police car with the open door and the Clallam man standing next to it. Sonny folded himself past the back door, the deputy pushing his head down to clear the frame.
“What the hell, Sonny?” Luki asked—almost a shout.
Sonny didn’t turn to look at him at all, and except for a sidelong glance or two, even the deputies paid him no mind. As the law drove away with his lover, tires crunching gravel in the lot, Margie and Ladd came up next to him. Luki thought he might be sorry he ever learned to love anyone at all, much less Sonny. Because Sonny didn’t want him. Sonny had sent him away, hadn’t even called him when Delsyn died. He picked up Sonny’s fallen coat, an exquisite garment with years of service—maybe a lifetime of service—left to give. Yet Sonny had let it go, let it fall. It might be maudlin, Luki suspected, but he felt kinship with that tailored coat.
He’s letting me fall too. Pushing me away again.
LUKI had a key to Sonny’s house, of course. Unwilling to go there, he got into Margie’s and Ladd’s Volvo, folded Sonny’s coat, a tailored garment of fine black wool—how could Sonny of the blue jeans and T-shirts have a garment like this? He let Ladd drive him to Margie’s while Marge drove the Cruiser.
“You ought to get her one of those, Ladd, she seems to like it.”
“Yeah, but you looked pretty silly driving up in the damn thing, boss. If it wasn’t a somber occasion, I would have given you hell.”
Luki fought down a bubble of laughter, said instead, “I’m not your boss. You left me for a woman.”
“I didn’t say you were my boss, or even a boss. You’re just ‘boss’. Luki ‘Boss’ Vasquez.”
“Ladd, stop being funny! I don’t want to laugh, and I’m too tired to stop it. Just get up off the jokes for a bit, okay.”
“All right, Luki. Okay, but listen to this. When horrible things happen, it doesn’t make them any better if you refuse to find the world a funny place. Doesn’t help at all. And it is a funny place. Damn funny, bottom line. You never know what’s going to happen. People surprise you at every turn. Every damn turn. Even people you thought you knew.”
Luki barely heard the last of Ladd’s big-brother type lecture, wondered only briefly at the bitter, stressed tone to the last of his words because the back of the reclined seat pulled his head down forcibly and made him fall asleep. Something about Ladd’s driving—or about being in a Volvo—put him right out. He didn’t dream, or didn’t remember, though somehow when he woke up he expected to be in water. That might have been because he’d drunk so much coffee his bladder felt as big as a swimming pool. So he got out of the Volvo before it stopped and headed into the little office at the back of the Cup o’ Gold and hurried into the teeny bathroom at the back of the office. He flipped up the lid, peed, then threw up. The one was not related to the other. The one was biology. The other was love. And fear.
Cleaned up a bit, he headed upstairs to Margie’s… Margie’s and Ladd’s homey apartment. Margie knew Luki better than he thought she should and slapped patties into a pan for hamburgers. Ladd ushered him into a much nicer, roomier bathroom than the one downstairs, directed him to strip and get into the shower. He did as he was told, and Ladd stole his clothes. He was too tired to shout about it, so after he’d turned off the shower he sat on the stool wrapped in two towels. Why, he wondered, is so much water running down my face?
Ladd knocked lightly and pushed the door open just when Luki was palming his eyes. Hard. Ladd gave him some light sweats and a robe. “Here, boss. Put these on for now and come eat your burger. Marge will skin you if you don’t. When you wake up— Don’t look at me like that; she’s got you slated for a nap. You know damn well you’re going to take one.”
“Fine, so when I wake up, what?”
“I’ll be back from Sonny’s place with your clothes.”
“Just how long do you think I plan on sleeping?”
“Long enough for me to get to Sonny’s and back with your clothes.”
Luki gave in, ate his hamburger… superb hamburger and slept on the couch, knowing that what they offered him wasn’t sleep and food but an oasis in the desert, or maybe dry land in a swamp, a place for him to gather his personal resources. He didn’t exactly forget that Delsyn was dead and Sonny accused of murder and locked up, but he let it be what it was and let himself breathe. And sleep. Sleep for so long it was beginning to grow dark in the admittedly early March dusk. Odd thing was, he did wake up just as Ladd came in with his clothes. From Sonny’s house. Which is an hour away and an hour back. What the hell?
A little annoyed, and thinking he might be confused, he said, “I thought you were going to wake me up as soon as you came back.”
“He did just get back, dear,” Margie interjected. “Didn’t he tell you he had to look for something out there…? What was it, Ladd?”
“At Sonny’s?” Luki couldn’t quite get a handle on what was bothering him.
“No, Margie. Look, you got Luki all worked up—”
I wasn’t worked up.
“I… I was looking for something at the marine supply. Did I tell you I bought a boat, Luki? We’ll have to go out some time, when things have calmed down.” Ladd’s smile didn’t look right. Luki tried to sort it out, thought maybe there was something more about Sonny Ladd didn’t want to tell him. But why?
Because I scare the shit out of him when I’m upset.
No, I don’t. I scare the shit out of most people, but not Ladd.
Margie called, “Come to the table now, you two. If you let the gravy get cold I’ll put you both on that boat to spend the night.”
Luki and Ladd exchanged an eye-rolling look that seemed to put things between them back on an even keel. Luki told himself he’d been imagining things, creating a problem where none existed. For now, he pulled out Margie’s chair. “Madam?”
“Oh, Luki, you’re such a gentleman.” She took her seat and smiled, then added, looking down into her plate, “Sometimes.”
They laughed—even Luki, almost—and dug in. Meatloaf. “Margie, how did you know I secretly love meatloaf?”
“Ladd knows you very well, dear.”
Luki nodded, ate, and let that comment go by.
Once the meal was done, Luki found that dressing in the clothes Ladd had brought back wasn’t as easy as it should have been. They smelled like Sonny’s place. Like the place Sonny had shared with him, which he had thought of as his place too—thought of it that way with the awe usually reserved for miracles—until Sonny sent him away. But, doggedly, Luki put his best jeans on. Leave it to Ladd to bring him jeans when he had business to take care of. One leg and then the other, zip, button, adjust. Socks, shirt, shoes, gun. He hated himself for wanting to laugh, hearing the music from “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly” and feeling like Clint Eastwood in his younger days, preparing for the shoot-out.
I’m not going to laugh. There is nothing fucking funny about any of this. He climbed into the PT Cruiser and buckled up. Okay. Maybe I’ll laugh about the Cruiser. But only inside because, damn it, damn you, Sonny, there really isn’t anything fucking funny. Not even a little.
AS TINY jails went, Jefferson County Jail, right there in Port Clifton, wasn’t bad. The way it was set up, with the barred wall running only halfway across the cell, afforded the jailed suspect a modicum of privacy for the toilet, at least, although certainly that wasn’t the intention. They wouldn’t have had room for the desk in the lobby on the other side—which was barely larger than the cell—any other way. When Luki walked in, bringing a chill with him that was either from the March wind or from his habitual attitude, he took in everything with a single glance. That was all it took.
The deputy in charge was actually, clichés aside, reading a magazine. Rifleman. What, or rather who, Luki didn’t see was Rona Germain—a largish woman with short graying hair, an infectious deep laugh, and a presence that commanded any room, no matter how large. So, when she did come in, this tiny jail to one side of the small police station posed no problem at all.
“Mr. Vasquez,” she said, tilting her head in greeting.
“Ms. Germain,” Luki nodded.
She laughed, and Luki almost smiled. Though they’d been on opposite sides of more than a few cases, they’d long since passed from acquaintance just over the line to friendship. Luki had given her the details of Sonny’s case—those that he knew—over the phone, so she didn’t ask, only took the single necessary step to the desk where the officer sat, with magazine nowhere in sight, looking bored but expectant. “I’m here to see my client, Mr. James.”
“You have some sort of ID?” After she produced it, he glanced at Luki with what looked an awful lot like a sneer. Addressing Rona again: “James, uh, knows you’re his lawyer, right?” It seemed as though the officer, with his greasy comb-over and wrinkled shirt, might resist.
But Rona had a reputation in certain circles, earning her a moniker: “The Problem Solver.” “I am retained to act as Mr. James’s attorney, whether in defense if someone should mistakenly bring formal charges, or to see to it that he’s released on recognizance—as he’s hardly a flight risk—while officers of the law finish investigating and come belatedly to the conclusion that he is indeed innocent of any crime relative to Mr. Delsyn James’s death.”
Probably used to housing only overnight drunks, the officer seemed overwhelmed. Dumbstruck, he slowly turned his gaze to Luki. To Luki it looked like a plea for assistance, but Rona knew better, and she smoothly took care of the problem of Luki’s access to Sonny, as well.
“Or,” she said, just as if she’d never stopped speaking, “in the event that he needs his basic rights protected, such as the right to see his attorney and his attorney’s aides while waiting to be charged or released within seventy-two hours, of which quite a number have already passed. And Mr. Vasquez has contracted to be my aide, applying his considerable investigative and peacekeeping skills to this travesty of justice.”
Deputy Svindsen cleared his throat, apparently planning to man up. “Well,” he said, puffing his chest out a bit. “Everyone in the county knows Mr. Vasquez is hardly impartial where it comes to Mr. Ja—”
“There is no rule,” Rona replied, her voice just like silk, “that says an attorney or an attorney’s aide in any case must be impartial. In fact, Deputy Svindsen, I could represent my twin sister or my own child as long as I didn’t represent them both one against the other. We’re short on time. Will you have us speak with our client in his cell? If so, this room will need to be vacated, otherwise confidentiality would clearly be breached.”
Luki and Rona followed the deputy down a four-foot hallway behind the bathroom to a room… a closet with no windows. When they got there, the deputy pointed to the alarm buzzer, then left to go get “the prisoner”—someone, Luki reflected, Svindsen had likely been on a first name basis with for years. When the deputy had gone, Luki took a small leather-bound notebook out of his vest pocket, scribbled in his distinctive loopy script, Please, Sonny, and passed the slip to Rona.
“Give it to the deputy to give to Sonny if he refuses to come out.”
She looked at it, and right before Luki’s eyes, her face changed, eyes narrowed and lips parted like a person in pain. Her response—either sympathy or pity—was more than Luki had bargained for, and he found himself chewing his bottom lip in an effort to keep the ice in his eyes. He was afraid she might speak, and that would be too much. She didn’t, only nodded and slipped the note, folded, into the pocket of her classic, light wool blazer.
He needn’t have written the note. Not two minutes had passed before the deputy brought Sonny to the interview room—interview closet. In handcuffs! Rona put her hand out to stop the ice-cold, quiet threat Luki would otherwise have offered and took care of the problem herself, calmly instructing the deputy to “please remove the handcuffs.”
To his credit, Svindsen looked a little embarrassed. “I’m supposed to leave them on, ma’am. It’s for your own safety. He’s held on suspicion of murder, after all.”
“Deputy Svindsen, I assure you that I and Mr. Vasquez are perfectly safe. And remember that word, ‘suspicion’. It’s important. Now, I’ll thank you to remove Mr. James’s handcuffs and leave the room.”
“What do you mean, your client?” Sonny asked the minute the door latch clicked behind Svindsen’s ass. “I don’t even know who you are. And I’m not shopping for a lawyer.” He didn’t even look at Luki.
At a loss for an explanation as to why Sonny would behave this way toward him—or rather not behave at all toward him—Luki simply stood, staring at his lover. Although he meant to say it in a clear, loud voice, he whispered, “Sonny, look at me.” No response. Hadn’t he heard? Luki was in the process of deciding whether to clear his throat and give it another go when once again Rona took charge, contriving somehow to make it seem as though she got a call on her cell that she simply must take.
“I’ll be back in just a moment. Luki, please continue to question our client.” She left with a wink.
Sonny scratched his head, cleared his throat, and finally looked at Luki and rolled his eyes. He acted so much like the old Sonny that hope dawned for Luki, and he started to return the look with a smile. But as soon as Sonny caught himself, he dropped the expression and turned away.
“What do you want, Luki?” His voice was as deep and candy-sweet as ever. It made the words hurt all the more.
“I want….” Luki cleared his throat and tried again. “I want to get you out of jail, get these ridiculous charges dropped. And I want to go home with you.”
Sonny slapped his hand down on the table, hard. “Well, guess what, Luki Vasquez, what you want isn’t what I want. Just leave it alone. It’s fine for me to be right where I am. Head back to your home in Illinois and leave me be.”
“Fuck, Sonny! Fuck! Look at me, dammit! What are you doing? So, fine, you don’t want me. That’s coming crystal clear. But you don’t have to rot in prison for a crime you didn’t commit in order to get rid of me. What is that about?”
Some silence passed, maybe a minute, and then Sonny spoke, still looking at his hands on the table. “I never said I didn’t want you.” Nothing more.
“Look at me.”
Still nothing—maybe Sonny’s lips tightened with determination. Luki wanted to go to him, to touch him, hold him, kiss him, shower him with love and comfort. But Sonny had put up some sort of invisible shield, and Luki was afraid what would happen if he touched it. “Look at me. Look at me!”
Sonny breathed a little harder, nostrils flaring—as if fighting for control.
Finally, Sonny did look up, so suddenly Luki flinched. “Luki, it’s not about you. I belong here. Let’s just say I’m guilty. Thank Ms. Germain for me and let it be.”
The eye contact grounded Luki. He let his breathing slow down, and when he spoke again, he sounded like himself. “What do you mean you’re guilty? Did you do what they’re saying you did? Did you go into Delsyn’s room at the rehab and… I don’t know… pull some tubes or turn something off?” Sonny looked away again, but then turned back, his brown eyes bottomless, like black holes. Luki had to fight to keep from being sucked into them, but he held his ground and returned the gaze, waiting.
“You know damn well I didn’t.”