A silver-framed photograph of the two of them together was on a dresser in the boy’s bedroom: Leo in red-striped swimming trunks, his torso tan and lean, a few strokes of curly hair between his pecs; the boy in a Speedo swimsuit. Leo’s arm was thrown casually across the boy’s shoulders in what could have been mistaken for manly camaraderie.
Leo, a.k.a. Leonard Nash, now held in the county jail on ninety-seven charges of fraud, embezzlement, racketeering, and assorted other felonies, had put the boy up in the townhouse apartment. Clark Holland was seventeen; he couldn’t have afforded it. The whole place was decorated in black and white and shades of gray. There was very little litter around. No dishes were in the kitchen sink. The wastebaskets were empty, except for a single crumpled tissue at the bottom of the black and white wastebasket in the bathroom. There were no books stacked around the chairs (no books at all, only magazines like GQ and Esquire), no clutter of papers on the coffee table, nothing to give any feel for Clark as a real person who sweated and blew his nose and needed something to occupy his mind.
Mick got a look at all of it one Friday morning between eight and nine o’clock. Clark was out. Mick had watched him go, then used one of Leonard’s keys to let himself into the apartment. He had to try a couple to find the right one.
Several days after Leonard’s arrest, when Mick was sure the police were paying no particular attention to Leonard’s house, Mick had gone through it carefully. Getting into the house was no problem. Mick had a key, had had it for years because they were friends and had been since they were kids. In one of the drawers of Leonard’s massive roll-top desk, Mick found a ring of more keys, and he took it, sure that it was Leonard’s duplicate set, that one of the keys was a key to Clark’s apartment. He was not disappointed.
Mick ended his search where he had started it, in the boy’s bedroom, looking at the photograph on the dresser. It was impossible for him to have neutral feelings about that picture; just looking at it caused him to clench and unclench his fists, caused air to course audibly through flared nostrils. He knew the man in the photograph was “Leo” to the boy, not only because of gossip he had picked up recently, but also because that was the name on the letters he had found tied with a ribbon in the box underneath the bed.
For twenty-five years he had called the man Leonard. They had gone to high school together. Though Leonard hadn’t played football — really, he wasn’t big enough for that in those days — he had run track, and there was no one faster at a hundred meters. Mick had gone to all the track meets to watch him run. Leonard had been at all the football games.
Standing braced before the picture, Mick felt a stab of acute grief at the loss of what had been a great friendship, of what had at least seemed a great friendship, even if it had been founded on deceit and treachery. They were drinking buddies through their twenties, and they picked up women together. When one of Leonard’s business deals got too rough for Leonard to handle alone, Mick was his muscle. When one of Leonard’s partners or suppliers or customers needed encouragement of a certain brutal nature, Mick provided that encouragement. The payoffs supplemented his income as a roughneck and eventually permitted his retirement from the oil derricks.
Several years ago, though, it had begun to seem to Mick unlikely that the good times could last. Leonard got too greedy; he plunged too deeply into flimflam ever again to surface. And then, and then…
He could hardly bring himself to think about it, his discovery of Leonard’s other life — Leonard’s life with Clark and, he now knew, with others before Clark. How it had taken Mick so long to tumble to it in a town of eighty thousand people, he didn’t know. Everyone said the town was a goldfish bowl, with every affair, every indiscretion, every rivalry a matter of common knowledge. One exception to that, apparently, was the homosexual community, which was far more insulated than he ever would have guessed.
The discovery ruined everything. Mick came to hate Leonard too much even to confront him with what he knew, so the warmth between them became politeness, and the politeness became a chill. Mick had avoided confrontation; he could not have faced it. Besides, revenge was sweeter. Oh yes, revenge was sweet. Leonard was now held on the top floor of the Pepper County Courthouse, purported to be an oven in August with its antiquated air conditioning, and for eight days he had received not a ray of sunlight. Sweet revenge. A smile played around Mick’s lips as he thought about it, and at last he could turn away from the picture of Clark and Leo in their seminude embrace.
His stomach gurgled, and he realized he had not eaten breakfast. His wristwatch told him it was nearly nine-thirty. His search had not turned up what he was looking for, which meant he was going to have to talk to Clark. The boy had visited Leonard at the courthouse every day this week. The two were talking about something.
Clark was dawdling, though, making Mick wait for his breakfast. “It is an indignity up with which I shall not put,” he muttered, quoting his favorite of Winston Churchill’s many one-liners. He could come back. There was nothing to prevent him from doing that.
Clark had gotten to the landing outside his apartment at five minutes before nine o’clock that morning, but he had not gone inside. Ever since they had arrested Leonard at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport, four hours’ drive up I-35, he had been paranoid. They had detained him, too. For hours they had questioned him, and he lived with the feeling that they were watching him, that everywhere he went, someone followed. Whenever he returned to his apartment he experienced a feeling of violation. He would know that someone had been in his apartment while he was gone, that someone else’s hands had poked through his clothing, that someone else’s face had peered from his mirrors. It was infuriating. He fumed over imagined violations of his right to privacy until finally he remembered a trick he’d seen once in a spy flick. That night at three A.M., he used a cheese knife to smear a half-inch line of tree resin on his door and door frame. When he left his apartment, whenever he left his apartment, he would pull a long, curling hair from the top of his head and, as casually as he could (he might be watched), slap it against the resin on the molding and the door. The August heat kept the resin tacky enough to hold the hair. That one unbroken hair, stuck in the yellow, glinting streak of resin, gave him some feeling of security again, some feeling of control.
Until now. Returning from the International House of Pancakes, he saw that the hair was broken. It was there, but a full quarter-inch was missing from the middle. Someone had been there; perhaps someone was still inside. Breathing rapidly, so rapidly that dark spots appeared in his field of vision, he retreated from the door. For more than half an hour he watched it through a giant holly bush at the corner of the next building.
He saw Mick leave the building and lock it, saw Mick hesitate and pull a piece of hair from the resin. He heard the harsh sound of Mick’s laughter. Mick knew his trick now.
It gave him the shakes. He knew Mick, knew who he was to Leo, but that only made it worse. For the first time, he had an idea of how the cops had known to look for him and Leo at Gate 11 of Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. His sense of violation deepened.
He watched Mick cut across the grass to a BMW parked by the curb at the edge of the apartment complex. Then, despite his fear, Clark went back inside his apartment. He knew what Mick was after. It was the money.
The first thing Clark did was to get his largest butcher knife from the kitchen and tuck it into the waistband at the small of his back. He had to be careful with the knife there, the blade pressed against him, but he wanted the knife within easy reach.
He called Trevor, to see if he could go over there for a while, but Trevor didn’t answer his telephone.
Which was good, he decided. He wasn’t going to be driven out of his home. Mick was big, sure, lots bigger than he was, but no one was so big that a butcher knife between the ribs wouldn’t stop him. And Clark was fast. He’d handled himself in lots of dicey situations before, as had any gay guy growing up in Redneck, U.S.A. If Mick came back, Clark would be ready.
Midafternoon found him drowsing on the couch, lying on his side to keep the hilt of the knife from digging into his back. It was supposed to be over one hundred degrees today, and though his air conditioner ran constantly, it was a little too warm inside the apartment.
It had been warm inside the airport that day, too. For the past month, the whole state had sweltered in the worst heat wave in Texas history. In memory, Clark is sitting by Gate 11, a pretty seventeen-year-old with dark blond hair lying in curls on his forehead. He is conscious of the way he looks, for it is the way Leo will see him, the white flight bag between his feet, the bag’s straps held in both hands between his knees. He knows he is pretty.
Glass walls allow a view of the runways, though the view is constricted by the huge 747 parked at the gate. The plane has the markings of Trans-World Airlines. The boy, watching it from a seat in the no-smoking section, expects to be on it soon. When Leo comes.
“Is everything set?” a man said.
And Leo Nash sat beside him. He was wearing black alligator boots, olive drab slacks, a blue-and-white-striped shirt that had no collar. On his wrist he wore a gold Rolex.
“Bags checked?” Leo asked.
“Good boy.” He laid a hand on Clark’s wrist. The hand lingered a moment, almost tenderly — Clark would always remember those tender moments — then tightened perceptibly. Clark was instantly alert. A man in a brown suit had stopped just inside his field of vision on the right side; now another man turned toward them, his back to the glass wall overlooking the runway.
Clark’s heart lurched with an instant’s apprehension, but the man in front of them merely stood with arms folded, apparently looking past them.
Clark glanced at Leo, who exhaled softly and rubbed his hands together as if to dispel the perspiration on them. It was impossible that anyone had tracked them here; Leo had told him that. It was just their nerves.
“They’re supposed to start boarding in ten or fifteen minutes,” Clark said to comfort Leo. Once boarding started, Leo would be making one last trip to an airport locker for his all-important carry-on, just as they had discussed.
“Good. Good,” Leo said.
The man in the brown suit who had appeared on their right was leaning against the gate counter, waiting to speak to the ticket agent, so he was all right, too.
But Clark’s heart had taken on a faster cadence, and his happy thoughts were failing to slow it. “’Ay attention,” Leo said quietly, without looking at him and without moving his lips. He leaned forward to adjust his thousand-dollar boots.
“Oh, my feet have been killing me,” Leo said in conversational tones. Out of the comer of his eye, Clark saw him lean over until an airport locker key fell from his shirt pocket and into his hand. Leo placed his hand again on Clark’s forearm and squeezed hard enough for Clark to feel the imprint of the key.
Clark put his hand over Leo’s and smiled into his eyes. Leo withdrew his hand from beneath Clark’s, leaving the key in place and the whole of his fortune in Clark’s right hand. “Sunshine and surf,” Leo said. “I’m looking forward to it.” Clark’s heart was pounding like a trip-hammer.
“Do we have company, Clark?” Leo asked. “What do you think?” The man at the counter was looking at them now. Leo smiled genially and gave the man the finger.
The man by the plate glass started forward.
A hand closed on Leo’s shoulder, and a voice behind them said, “Mr. Nash?”
Clark stood up without his flight bag and, looking about him vaguely, tried to wander off.
“We’d like you to come with us, too, if you would, please.”
Leo, they handcuffed on the spot, and two men walked beside him. Clark walked beside the third, his hands free, but the other man’s hand resting lightly on his arm.
He kept his hands open to allay suspicion, the fingers of his right hand curled naturally. Against his right palm his thumb held the locker key. Whether they knew he had it, he did not know. That they would know soon enough unless he did something, he did know.
They passed the restrooms and the gift shop. Another waiting area opened on their right. The men holding onto Leo’s elbows were on Clark’s left. The man holding his arm was on his right, boxing him in.
His eyes focused on a potted tree against the wall they were approaching. The man on his right was bigger than he was, but there wasn’t any choice. When they got there, Clark shoved him into a pregnant woman holding a baby against her chest. Out of the comer of his eye, Clark saw the baby going up, the woman going down, Clark’s guard reaching out to both in an effort to save them. Clark took two steps forward and cut right, tripping over a big blue suitcase pulled along behind a flight attendant and going down. With both hands he reached out to catch himself, and both hands hit his target, the pot the tree was sitting in, his left hand clutching at the porcelain side, his right hand plunging deep into the soft, artificial loam.
His head hit the carpeted floor as he felt his hands dragged behind him. Cold handcuffs bit hard into his wrists, and he was hauled roughly to his feet.
Leo was lying face down on the tile floor of the walkway, one foot of the man in the brown suit on his lower back, a .38-caliber revolver pointed at the back of his head. When Leo raised his head, his nose trailed bright blood.
The pregnant lady sat with her legs straight out before her, and she cooed comforting things to the baby she clutched to her breast. The baby stared bright-eyed about himself.
They jerked Clark forward so hard that his head snapped back. He didn’t mind. In fact, he was smiling. The locker key was safe. They did strip-search him, but uselessly. Through all the hours he spent locked in the small, stuffy airport office, through all the hours of questioning, the key was safe.
For nearly twenty-four hours after they released him, he stayed in Dallas. He moved his car from the airport parking lot to a residential street, then walked a bit and took a bus downtown where he took a cab for several blocks and got out in front of Neiman-Marcus. He entered the store nonchalantly through the front door and scurried for the door on the opposite side. On foot he circled a couple of city blocks and cut through an alley. Always he stared at those around him, picking out individual faces from the crowd, alert for any flicker of special awareness.
In time he knew he was not followed. He returned to the airport, walked back and forth past the potted tree near Gate 11. He had been so long — suppose the key was no longer there? And did he dare to fish for it before dozens of staring eyes? And suppose the police were still here, searching, or even awaiting his return? He had no choice. Sitting with studied weariness beside the potted tree, he worked his hand into the loam. He found the key, the number of the airport locker engraved upon it.
He got Leo’s heavy carry-on from the locker, and he got out.
It was the sound of another key in the door of his own apartment that interrupted his reverie and sent him scurrying toward the door, checking the knife in the waistband of his pants, pulling out his shirt to hide the knife handle.
Mick had waited until dusk. In the distance, people moved like shadows across the grounds of the apartment complex, but Mick knew that he was no more than a shadow to them himself. He heard Clark’s feet on the tile floor on the foyer, just as he realized he had the wrong key in the lock. One hand on the knob, he stepped back to watch the peephole darken as Clark checked him out. With his other hand, he sorted out what he hoped was the right key. Clark didn’t open the door; instead, the peephole brightened again as Clark’s head moved away from it.
If Mick had rung the doorbell, Clark might have recognized him and thrown open the door to find out what tidings Mick brought of the beloved Leo. Or he might not have. Ringing the bell might merely have alerted Clark and eliminated even the possibility of surprise.
He rang the doorbell now to keep Clark’s mind occupied as he put the new key in the lock and turned it. The door opened a crack, but Mick found he was pushing against Clark, braced against the other side. Mick smiled at the thought of Clark trying to hold the door against him. He applied his shoulder, and, sure enough, there was Clark straining mightily to hold the door, his face red beneath his blond bangs.
“Hey there, precious,” Mick said to him. “Aren’t you going to invite me in?”
The boy stepped away from the door. “I know you. You’re Mick.”
“Uh-huh, friend of Leo’s. Shouldn’t that make you glad to see me?”
“Don’t call him that.”
“Nobody calls him that but me.”
Mick smiled at him, his eyes hard. “You weren’t the first I heard it from,” he said.
“What do you want?”
“Money.” He put his hand on Clark’s shoulder in a friendly gesture, but he gripped the muscle at the top of Clark’s shoulder between his thumb and forefinger as he did so, which took a lot of the friendliness out of it. If Mick got too friendly he wasn’t going to get any information.
Holding Clark by the shoulder, Mick led him out of the foyer into the living room. All the floors on this level of the townhouse apartment were tiled in black and white, and great fluffy throw rugs were scattered about like Muppet turds.
Clark’s head was twisted toward his shoulder in ineffective defense of the trapezius muscle; the effort distorted his gait enough to make him a cripple. He was wearing loose cotton pants and a black, long-sleeved jersey. His yellow hair was combed forward in soft waves.
Mick sat him in one of the leather easy chairs, white in keeping with the apartment’s monochromatic design. He released the boy’s shoulder and walked around the glass-and-chrome coffee table to sit on the arm of the white leather sofa. The boy’s eyes darted here and there as if he were trying to come up with a plan. His breathing was clearly audible in the high-ceilinged room.
Mick wasn’t too worried about any plan Clark might come up with. Clark was about five-nine and slight of build. Mick, by contrast, was several inches over six feet in height, and he weighed two hundred forty pounds, none of which was fat.
“I thought you were a friend of Leo … Leonard’s. How come you’re hassling me?”
“I’m not hassling you, I just want to make some conversation. You know, the thing that really surprised me about Leonard’s arrest was that nobody seems to have recovered any money. What do you think, was Leonard leaving the country with nothing or what? It doesn’t seem like him. I mean, how was he going to live?”
Clark’s gaze seemed fixed on Mick’s nose, which had been broken repeatedly in childhood and never set properly. It was the one feature Mick was sensitive about. “This is about money?” Clark said. “I can’t believe you’re here about the money. I mean, man, Leo thinks of you as his friend.”
“Yes. And I have always thought of my friend Leonard as a heterosexual. Life is full of these little disappointments.”
“Slimeball? Ooh, that’s pretty harsh. I think I’m shaking.” Mick took a pair of pliers from his hip pocket and studied Clark meditatively. Clark’s eyes had focused hard on the pliers, which Mick held in his right hand, opening and closing them casually.
“I understand you were at the airport with friend Leo when they picked him up,” Mick said.
“What do you know about it?” Clark’s voice was a whisper, nearly inaudible. Mick smiled.
In a slightly stronger voice, Clark said, “You ratted him out, didn’t you? He trusted you like you were his own brother, and you ratted him out.” The anger that sparked in his eyes seemed to give him strength. Mick pressed on.
“Did Leonard send his money on ahead of him, or was he taking it with him? I’d swear he had to be taking it with him.”
“If Leo had money, do you think he’d be cooling his heels in a jail cell? He’d make bail and be out of here,” the boy said with a sneer.
“Huh. Bail, you know, is set at a million dollars. It may be that he doesn’t have quite a million dollars. It may be that he doesn’t even have the ten percent for a bail bondsman. But let’s say he does have the money. Leonard has one hell of a lot of creditors out there, and if he posted a million-dollar bond, all that money would be out there in the open where his creditors could get at it. Might be worth a short stay in a jail cell to avoid that.”
Clark didn’t say anything.
“If Leonard did have a large sum of money with him at the airport, and you were with him, and the money didn’t turn up on his person or in his luggage, it stands to reason that you must know something about it. Why did the cops let you go, boy?”
“They didn’t have nothing on me.”
“I believe you.”
“And I don’t know nothing about any money. I told them that, and they searched me, and they searched my car, and when they didn’t find nothing, they let me go. Just stay in Texas, they said.”
“Makes a good story, but I don’t believe it. I believe there’s a substantial sum of money out there, and I believe you know where that sum of money is.”
“Well, there ain’t no money, and I wouldn’t tell you anyway.” Clark started to stand, but only got halfway up before Mick had reached across the coffee table to grab hold of his cheek with the pliers.
“Do you see how the second part of that sentence negates the first?” Mick said, squeezing just hard enough with the pliers to hold onto its plug of cheek. “Do you see? ‘I wouldn’t tell you anyway’ doesn’t mean anything at all unless there is in fact money, unless there is money and you know something about it.”
Clark had frozen in place, halfway out of his chair. “It hurts,” he said woodenly. Mick squeezed a little tighter and twisted the pliers a quarter-turn. Genuine alarm showed for the first time in Clark’s eyes.
“I don’t want to hurt your face, boy. If you tell me about the money, then I’ll leave. You’ll still be healthy, and this whole unpleasant incident will be no more than a fading blemish on your day.”
“I don’t have the money.”
“By which you mean it isn’t here. I know it isn’t here.” If the money were here, it meant that he, Mick, was a nincompoop for not finding it when he searched the place this morning. “What I want to know is where it is.”
“Suppose I don’t know.”
Still holding onto his ounce of flesh, Mick walked around the coffee table so that he was standing above Clark. “Oh, that’s the really unfortunate possibility. Because, how can I know that you’re telling the truth? I’d have to pull a plug out of your cheek here.” He released his hold and grabbed a piece of the other cheek. “I’d have to pull a plug out of this cheek, too. I’d have to yank a plug off the inside of your biceps here, maybe a plug out of your thigh…” He had Clark thrashing about in an effort to escape the grip of the pliers. Mick held onto that last plug of thigh and squeezed it. “You don’t know anything about any money, and by the time I leave here there’ll be pieces of you lying all over this floor.”
“There’s a key inside my right front pocket,” Clark squeaked. “It’s the key to a safety deposit box I rented Monday.”
“The number’s on it.”
“Yes, so it is.”
“The bank’s First National.”
Mick let go of the boy’s thigh. “See, that wasn’t so bad, was it? You’ve got a little red spot on your face there. You may have a bruise on your leg. But we both came out of this pretty good, don’t you think?”
He pocketed the key and turned toward the door, thinking: Why does it have to be a safety deposit box? Why do I have to get the key so late on a Friday?
“Oh, Mick.” The boy’s voice was high-pitched, and, as Mick turned, the boy launched himself, shrieking. His right fist was in the air, coming down.
Mick didn’t see the knife until it was all over. He blocked the descending arm at the elbow as a matter of course and drove a short jab into Clark’s ribs. The kid doubled straight over. As he came up, Mick hooked his right hand into the side of Clark’s face, swinging hard enough to spin Clark around: When he pitched forward onto his face, it was away from Mick. Clark’s head bounced on a fluffy throw rug, which was probably all that saved his head from splitting open. That was good. Already Mick had begun to realize he might need Clark to get into the safety deposit box.
When Clark did not move, Mick turned him over, and that was when he saw the knife. The steel-and-hardwood handle protruded from Clark’s throat. The blade was buried.
Blood erupted suddenly from around it, spurting up into Mick’s face with its first pulse. Mick stumbled back, throwing Clark back onto his face, swiping with his free hand at the blood that obscured his vision.
He had to stay back to keep his feet out of the spreading pool, but he stood over the body, blinking, trying to think, trying to see. Maybe they would think Clark had fallen on the knife by accident, and maybe they would think he caved the side of his face in when he hit the floor. Maybe pigs could fly. Hoo boy, hoo boy. Nothing he could do about the body. It looked as natural as it was going to look where it had fallen, best to leave it. His prints, where had he left his prints? At least the blood wasn’t on his shoes. His car was out there, though, so he couldn’t spend very much time here, had to get out, had to go. First things first. Have to do some quick housecleaning, then I can go. Ah, the stench, enough to make you sick. Ah. Oh. What did he … Oh, crap!
He left thirty minutes later. It was fully dark by then, and nobody saw him go.