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All at once, a dark bulk loomed up in front of them. Behind him, he heard the girl scream—
I looked up from the page.
"St. Jude's telephoned me back. Sure enough, you broke Sudsy's arm." John Cosgrove, our court clerk, was leaning on the door-jam to my small office as he shared the good news. "Better get back to work finishing up that report for His Honor."
"Aw, hell." With those words I scowled at him, shut my September '38 issue of Zesty Terror, and slung it on top of my unopened lunch pail. I hadn't felt like eating lunch that day, and reading hadn't been much better. This issue's cover bannered "Sacrifices for the Rat God!" – but, like usual, the story inside didn't live up to the ballyhoo. The hero broke free from his shackles in the laboratory and escaped the monstrous plague-bearing rats way too soon. He hadn't even been forced to grovel before the Frightening Doctor Tzu and his bootlicking minions. So I didn't mind setting my magazine aside to finish up work during my own time, even if that work was aggravating.
John shook his head, obviously swallowing a smile, and left without closing my door. The adobe pile of our County Courthouse could get hot in August, and we propped most of the doors and windows wide, hoping for a sea breeze to help along the overhead fans. The sweat between my shoulder blades wasn't because I'd worked over a witness while court was in session. No, the heat was getting to me. The violence hadn't, much. Losing my grip on myself? Okay, maybe that was getting to me, too.
Years back I'd been a cop in a bad neighborhood down in L.A., allowed to rough up pretty much anyone I chose as long as they didn't have either cash or pull. But now I was a bailiff of the Superior Court of Santa Teresa County, and I was supposed to keep my mitts to myself. Never having overindulged my fists or nightstick while I walked the beat, I'd been easy with the new rules until Joseph "Sudsy" O'Dea tried to rearrange the features of my boss, Judge Joseph Bandini, during an otherwise calm Thursday morning session. Said rudeness I found pretty annoying, which led to a debate resulting in a stack of paperwork.
Feeling glum, I leafed through my Webster's Dictionary. "Unprovoked, proceeded, subdued, confiscated . . ." There hadn't been much formal spelling taught back at the State Institute for Boys. There hadn't been much of anything taught there, to tell the truth. Given my early liking for studying contraband ten-cent novels when I should have been digging out weeds, I could understand big words, and even use them when I was talking, but somehow I couldn't spell worth excrement, E-X-C-R-E-
Again I looked up, but this time not very far. Judge Bandini is shorter than me, more so because he stoops. "Sir."
Like usual, it appeared that someone had dumped His Honor into a bowl and tried to stir. His pricey silk vest was askew, and not just because he'd recently fended off a gangster half again his size with nothing but a little wooden mallet. The vest had been askew when he arrived this morning, and years of experience told me it would still be askew when he took his homburg off his chamber's hat rack tonight.
He asked me, "How is that report coming along?"
"Almost done." I let myself sigh. "Sorry, Your Honor."
"Why?" He raised his eyebrows, which stretched out his usual squint enough to see the dark brown eyes, bright with intelligence. For a second they seemed to glint, and I thought of foxes and coyotes. "We already talked about your poor tactics when you let loose your temper."
"I also know you don't like fuss in your courtroom."
He raised both hands. "True, true." Nodding to himself, he ran his hands through his black hair, which a court stenographer I'd dated had told me came to him courtesy of old Spanish blood. That left him looking like he'd been out walking in a Santa Ana. He lowered both hands and strolled back and forth a little with his hands tucked into his rear trouser pockets, seemingly pondering what to say next. Like usual, the gestures appeared goofy. Too bad his routine was a bunch of baloney. If he'd really been the simp he tried to make out, I wouldn't be choking back an urge to get down on my own knees and grovel to him in apology, no monstrous plague-bearing rats required. At least he strangled the urge with a quick ruling on my apology. He turned to me and said, "This time the disruption was justifiable, given the alternative, a severely damaged me. Case dismissed." He grinned. He was fond of weak jokes. Unfortunately, so was I.
I grinned back, now stomping down hard on my impulse to lick his shoes in gratitude. They were the one neat thing about him, the same sort of black shoes he must have worn as a naval officer, polished up to a beautiful, glossy shine.
This was getting ridiculous. I felt like some middle-aged Fresno matron mooning over Clark Gable during dish night at the movies. I really didn't need my old problem showing up again, especially not directed towards my current boss. He wasn't supposed to make me feel this way. That was why I'd picked him, because he wasn't any kind of a tough guy that I'd ever seen, no big shot leader of men. Yeah, I'd learned that he knew what he was doing in a courtroom, and then some. So what? He was still a rumpled and fidgety character known more for kindness and smarts than for ordering folks around. Given my history, I shouldn't want him.
I wanted him.
* * *
Oh, sure, I could try telling myself Judge Bandini wasn't really my boss. Like most bailiffs in this state, I was technically a deputy sheriff, reporting to the Sheriff's Office here in Santa Teresa County. However, our County Sheriff was a political hack who had a hard enough time managing his regular deputies, the guys who patrolled the county's unincorporated acreage. Until recently, he'd left the court bailiffs pretty much alone as long as we did our work. That meant we'd spent most of our days keeping order in the courtrooms and doing whatever the judges we were assigned to requested. We'd also run errands for the senior courthouse staff, done some process serving, filled in over at the municipal court, and helped out at the jail from time to time by transporting prisoners, all without much fuss and formality: back then, official life was kind of casual in Santa Teresa. More important, the Sheriff's indifference had meant that our former Chief Bailiff, Sergeant Charlie Gibson, had been the one to choose which bailiff worked for which judge.
Charlie was a complacent fellow who lost a lot of money to me over the years playing pinochle. Even on the first day we'd met I'd had his number: he was a time-server, sweating out his last few years to a pension while daydreaming of fishing off the pier. He wasted most of a morning walking me around the entire courthouse, introducing me to the locals and showing off the pretty murals. The courthouse had turned out to be as fake Spanish as most buildings in Santa Teresa, only much bigger and better looking than usual. The clerks and stenos seemed friendly, all with that air of nervy contentment you noticed around anyone who had steady employment during the depression. Lucky for me: no one asked why I'd settle for a lowly bailiff's job when I'd been a rising young police sergeant down in L.A. Back then any job was a good job, so I didn't have to make up some story for my new colleagues.
We'd finished our tour next to the superior court's reception desk. Typical of Charlie, he didn't even lower his voice when he said, "All rightee, Carl. What with one promotion, two transfers, and one retirement, everyone's being shuffled around. So, out of the goodness of my heart, I'm asking if you know who you might want to work for. Heard any hen-cackling about Their Honors? Already got a preference?"
Not a real tactful way to talk and no sort of a way to do his job, dumping that kind of choice onto an ignorant newcomer. Good thing the receptionist was already out at some soda fountain getting her lunch. Even so, I glanced over at her empty desk and the four framed photo-portraits that hung on the adobe wall behind it. Judge Sperry was up there, tall, serene, and dignified, a good example of the East Coast aristocrats who'd used Santa Teresa for a summer colony after the turn of the century. Judge Osborne had a scowl like a thunderhead on his handsome face, and seemed like he was about to squash someone with his gavel. Judge Harrer was a big guy, maybe bigger than me, and looked to have the sorrows of the world hiding behind grave and craggy features. Bandini was a little younger and kind of dark, maybe with Mex or Italian blood. The photographer caught him with a goofy smile on his face, and something had gone wrong with his tie. He squinted, too.
It didn't seem like a hard choice. "Judge Bandini sounded as if he might be an easy boss."
Charlie snorted. "Yeah, if you do things ex-act-a-lee the way he wants. But he's not one for yelling at a guy, true. Okey-dokey, boy. Your funeral. Bandini it is."
Bandini it was. At first, I couldn't figure out what Charlie had hinted at. I found the Judge to be an easy man to work for, always even-tempered and with a friendly word for his staff. He knew what he wanted, too. And our new courthouse had all the modern luxuries, like telephones installed where you needed them, and decent lighting, and a cooler full of soda pop in the staff lunchroom. Most of the public minded their manners while court was in session, and the few who didn't were easy to stare down.
After three years Charlie retired, and the Sheriff decided to stick me with Charlie's job as Chief Bailiff: I didn't mind becoming a Sergeant again as part of the promotion, and I really didn't mind the raise that moved my wages from starvation to scant. The extra duties were nothing compared to what I'd had to do back in L.A. during the brief time I'd been a police sergeant there.
After three years, though, I'd also realized what Charlie'd been trying to tell me that first day we met. What was the old saying? There was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do them. And then there was Judge Bandini's way. When he was in a courtroom, his way was the right way. Maybe that realization was part of what got my dick into trouble.
* * *
"Now, then." Judge Bandini spread both hands out wide, and the Naval Academy ring on his left hand flashed a little in the morning light slanting in from the windows. "I really don't want any more disturbances like yesterday morning's. We've already been delayed, and the calendar of this court is crowded enough as it is." His eyes narrowed more than usual as he squinted hard at a prosecuting lawyer known for grandstanding. "Do I make myself clear, counselor?"
The guy didn't even try to look injured or put-upon. He'd been in Bandini's court too many times to say more than, "Yes, Your Honor." He probably didn't want the judge asking one of his famous "innocent" questions that'd blow a hole in the prosecution's case you could drive a farm truck through. Men who'll bear up under all sorts of pressure sometime collapse at the prospect of looking like a fool.
"That's nice," said the Judge. "That's very nice. Call your next witness, please."
To be fair, the Judge had some reason to lean a little on the assistant D.A. The guy's team had been the one that'd summoned Sudsy as a witness all the way up from L.A. yesterday morning.
I'd seen Sudsy around. He'd enjoyed himself on Central Avenue and around Culver City, both neighborhoods I'd patrolled, preying on everyone from the Negro songbirds to the movie stars. Sudsy was too well connected to be bothered by the likes of me, but I knew his reputation, and his temper was said to be wild. The D.A.'s office had subpoenaed him only for the sake of newsprint inches, which was stupid. When he came into the courthouse with an attorney that morning, we bailiffs were awake, believe you me. Too bad that, with his lawyer watching, we couldn't take Sudsy aside to pat him down and sharply remind him of proper court manners.
This guy had bathed in expensive cologne, I'd thought as I swore him in. I noticed the smell and how little I liked his eyes. But Sudsy settled into the witness box like a shark settling into the shallows. And then the Assistant D.A. went fishing.
A couple of times the Judge had reined back questions at the request of the defense. After a while, his head had tilted to one side, a sure sign of trouble for someone. Sudsy wasn't so subtle. He turned brick red, also a sure sign but one showing that he should have laid off the nightclub meals. True, the prosecution was trying to imply that Sudsy was involved with everything from the Rape of Nanking to the dope-selling of which Powell, our defendant, was accused, but, in his profession, Sudsy should have known how to put a lid on it. Looking back, Sudsy probably had something to do with the dope. I kind of wonder if he didn't have something to do with the Rape of Nanking, too. That sure would have chewed up my nerves.
Suddenly, right in the middle of the lawyers jawing back and forth, Sudsy announced, "I don't have to take this."
"I'm afraid you do, Mr. O'Dea," the Judge said, voice pretty mild.
"No, I don't, I got a lawyer." He pointed out into the audience. "Hey, you. Why are these rubes bothering me? I don't even live in this burg, and this guy Powell's nothing to me. To hell with such crap."
"Mr. O'Dea." The Judge brought his gavel down, but it was the tone of his voice that turned Sudsy's head back around. "Unless you want to be cited for contempt of court, and possibly spend even more time in this burg than you'd planned on, I'd suggest bringing yourself under control. And watch your language."
"Bullshit," said Sudsy.
"A night in jail?" the Judge suggested, eyebrows raised. "We have a nice jail. You might suit each other."
Sudsy moved fast and without warning. He was up from his chair in the witness stand and climbing over the Judge's bench even as I started to move myself. Then everything seemed to slow down. I had lots of time to watch Sudsy take a brutal, awkward swing, to see the Judge block with one hand and bring his gavel around with the other in a blow that twisted Sudsy's head hard to one side. Then I reached Sudsy, got both hands on his left leg, and yanked him backwards.
He tried to kick me in the face, but what a waste of time that was. Probably if I ever meant to, I couldn't do what I did to him again. I dragged him entirely off of the bench, back through the witness box, and onto the courtroom floor. Somewhere the crowd in the courtroom was shouting and screaming. The witness chair got involved, making part of the trip with Sudsy, almost knocking me off of my feet. But Sudsy was the one who went down, and I was still standing.
I'd like to think my main concern was whatever item he was groping for underneath his coat. Maybe. In any case, now I had my nightstick out and I used it. At least I kept it to his arms and legs, but that's about all I can say for myself. Good thing the beating didn't last more than a few seconds: I had a reinforced piece of hardwood in hand, not the poor item they issued to green deputies.
"Sergeant. Stop." The voice shattered my focus like a baseball hitting a window. Stick cocked back across my torso, I paused and looked. Sudsy was curled up on the tiled floor, his hands over his head, glaring up at me with the expression of mixed hatred and wariness that meant I'd made him fear. He'd probably try to get me for this, but good luck. There were characters in L.A. who would be very put out by him causing a huge ruckus in some hick court. And it seemed like I'd broken his left arm. The two realizations calmed me down enough that I lowered my nightstick. I kept my gaze on him, though. He stayed still, very still.
Cautiously I straightened up, ready for more work if he tried anything else. But he was done. Two of the other bailiffs, responding to all the fuss in the courtroom, had come up behind me, ready to help. I told them, "Search him, but be careful both of him and the arm. The city guys will want to discuss his temper with him, but he'll probably need a trip to St. Jude's first."
Turned out that he had a set of knucks in his trouser pockets, one of those stupid, fancy Mex affairs with a switchblade hidden inside. Moron. What was that toy supposed to be, his teddy bear? I was amazed he was smart enough not to carry a gun. Maybe his lawyer had talked to him.
My guys got Sudsy up onto his feet and out the big double doors, although I might have gone easier on the arm than they did en route. Another bailiff was clearing the court. Seems we were having a recess, what a surprise.
During all of this, some slice of my attention had been reserved for the Judge's handling of Sudsy's attorney, who couldn't seem to decide if he was more appalled by his client or by the courts of Santa Teresa. The Judge wouldn't play ball, though, and His Honor was alone when I went up to his bench.
Bandini gave me the kind of study he usually reserved for witnesses. He'd told me once that some reactions only stayed on a man's face for a moment, so he'd stare intently when he was searching for something, holding your gaze. "How are you?"
"Fine, your honor. I think Sudsy – Mr. O'Dea – may be injured, though."
"Have John find out about that, and notify me in chambers." He picked up his mallet, examined the cracked handle, put it back down, and sighed. Then he said, "How was he injured?"
"Looks like I broke his arm. He'll be eating soft for a while, but I don't think you busted anything except maybe a couple of teeth." I paused, and then added, keeping it down, "I lost my temper."
"I noticed. That's not at all like you." The Judge made a clicking noise with his tongue and waggled all his fingers, an ambiguous gesture that I couldn't quite interpret. "You should be careful not to give way in such a manner, even when you feel provoked. It provides tactical openings for your opponents." He was still studying me. Reaching some decision, he folded his hands and said, "Ah, well. So much for a quiet day. Gather up all the attorneys from wherever they've ended up and move them along to my chambers, would you, Sergeant? And talk to John. We'll have to cancel the rest of this day's sessions."
That was Thursday's morning session, not destined to join my favorite memories. Today's session, by comparison, was as smooth as Ronald Colman sliding in close to his leading lady. The hours still dragged, though. By the time I got the courtroom emptied and Powell safely back into his cell in the jail wing, most of the staff was gathering coats, hats, and purses. John was flirting with Edna, one of the stenographers, but even they seemed set to leave. For some reason John winked at me as he left, but he'd always had delusions about my rampaging through the thickets of the female clerical staff. In any case, no one was going to stick around late on a Friday afternoon if they didn't have to.
I had to stick around. There was a note waiting on my own desk from John: Judge Bandini wanted to see me in chambers. For a bit I just stood there, turning the note over in my hands. Then I took a deep breath and got going.
I needed another deep breath before I knocked on the thick, fake-Moorish door.
He was seated at his big mahogany desk and had open law books scattered all over the place. He saw me, smiled, put his fountain pen back in its holder, and got up.
"Have a seat, Carl. And don't bother being so formal. You're not actually in any trouble, temper or no." Turning back around from closing the glass front on a bookcase, he raised his eyebrows. "After all, if you were going to have difficulties from yesterday's dust-up, so should I. Mr. O'Dea's jawbone was, in fact, cracked."
Well, I tried not to grin. The Judge ignored me. "No, this is about more pleasant business." He glanced over at the Nipponese-style clock hung on the far wall over more bookshelves. "I see it's after six. A drink? A cigarette?"
"No, thanks." If I worked at it, I could keep the sir out of there, but I couldn't get myself to take a drink from his hands. I did choose the big leather chair, rather than one of the two smaller chairs off to one side, when I sat down. I also made myself lounge a little. His Honor's really casual with his staff for a Judge, I told myself. So act like an ordinary guy who's having a friendly chat with his foreman after shift. Like usual, acting out the friendly part wasn't hard, but I'd have been more comfortable up on my feet. Or down on my knees.
The Judge smiled at me, the goofy near-beam. "I'll miss you, Carl. But my loss is Judge Harrer's gain."
There it was. There was what our Sheriff, in his desire to seem busy during an election year, had come up with, a couple of months ago. Instead of being assigned to any one Judge, we'd now be rotating from courtroom to courtroom on an annual basis. We bailiffs weren't happy. The staff wasn't happy. Even the Judges, so high above us in their wood-paneled world, were rumored not to be happy. But, by gosh, things would now change around the courthouse.
I didn't want things to change. I hadn't realized how much I would resent even the notion. Maybe that was the rest of why I'd been so off-balance these last few months. I'd gotten used to being happy.
The Judge had kept talking. "—know you'll do well for him. You've done well for me, and I'd like to show due and material appreciation. Would you care to join me for dinner on Sunday at, say, La Fuente?"
Without waiting for the rest of me, my chin was nodding. Fine, okay, the society widow he was courting was over in Europe so the Judge had free time to be the benevolent boss. I had both free time and a chance at a free meal. This was all very normal, and really good cover. The rest of me voted not to overrule the nodding chin.
"You do like Mexican cuisine?"
"I sure do. Thanks." In fact, I was a sucker for Mex food. Every little old lady who sold Sunday tamales in my neighborhood had helped beat the path to my house's door.
"Good. Let's say, hmm, seven o'clock?" Without any real reason to do so, he consulted his pocket watch. Then he settled back in his chair to throw more verbal rose petals at my feet, gesturing as he spoke.
Given the state I was in, you'd have thought I'd be cherishing each golden word of praise that fell from the Judge's lips so that I could press them into my memory book. Either that or you'd think I'd be contemplating his shoes.
Nope. I spent the rest of our conversation scheming how I could get my ashes hauled in the next forty-eight hours, so I had half a chance of enjoying my free and fancy dinner at the best Mexican restaurant in the city. Given the time I had to work with, it seemed like I was heading for a Saturday in the City of Angels.
Blondie's head bobbed up and down as he worked on me. He was pretty good, I have to say. His one hand was cupping my balls, rolling them a little. His mouth was warm and wet around my cock, clever-tongued and letting me in real deep. It wasn't his fault that I was somewhere else entirely inside my own head.
Slowly he snapped on the heavy, green rubber gloves, first onto the right hand, and then onto the left, taking his evil time over the task. Then, still slowly, he turned to survey the helpless, muscular figure that hung in chains before him, tormented by the unceasing attentions of the foul and horrible device.
"So, Mr. Riemann, you wished to discover the darkest secret of my laboratory," the Doctor said, thoughtfully. A gloved hand went down to adjust a pulsing dial on the object that squatted like some indescribable tick around his captive's groin, and the sound of the machine's labor grew louder. At the slight change in volume, Riemann groaned behind his gag.
The Doctor cackled, hideously.
Sometimes I panhandled guys for change to pay for my gas before we got down to business. Then I could tell myself that I was being paid, which helped. This particular character was small and older than me, which helped even more right now. But fantasy helped most of all.
"You wished to know the truth, and now you do," the Doctor said. "However, you will pay for your knowledge. Yes, you will pay." Slowly, he leant towards his victim, whose hips were now writhing helplessly.
The Doctor smiled at the sight. His next words would have sounded friendly to one who didn't know what lurked behind those glinting brown eyes. "You will pay with your contribution to my plague serum research. Mankind must be freed from its long ordeal. Science must be served." Now his tone was fanatical. "You will serve!"
Reaching out, he laid one gloved hand gently on the sweat dappled, heaving chest in front of him. He patted the straining muscles once, twice, and then, abruptly, twisted the dial on the terrible device again.
Filled with unspeakable, obscene pleasure, Riemann screamed.
Christ. Pathetic. But even so, good. My hips were thrusting. Now I was fucking the mouth of my host, but he was keeping up just fine. Inside my head the Doctor – all right, the Judge – was smiling at me, and it didn't look goofy at all. I came, hard. Blondie didn't let go but continued working, kept trying for more. Both the irony and his mouth made me sore.
Blondie finished swallowing it all down and then abruptly let loose to scuttle backwards on his knees, away from me. I paused in buttoning up my fly and frowned. Uh-oh: I suspected what was coming next.
I was right. My frown was enough to keep him going. "Don't— Don't hit me. Please." It might have sounded better without the bulge in his grey wool trousers, but I still wouldn't have thought he only needed common sense and a glass of warm milk to calm down. Calm was never what guys seemed to want from me. Some wanted my kind of looks, some my size, some just my cock. I had also run into a few who wanted to fear me. Little did they know.
He'd done his job, and now it was time to do mine. I picked him up by his shirt and belt, and threw him into his sofa, which was way too big and soft anyhow. Then I pinned him (cautiously, although I was careful not to let that show) and started to scream abuse (not all that loud) into his face from about three inches. I'd probably have to give him a few phony slaps, too. Might as well hand out an Indian burn, for all the damage I really meant to do. Sheesh. But I'd played this game a couple of times before. I got back up, grabbed his fine linen shirt front, which had lost some buttons, and gave him a few more hard shakes, watch the neck. Sure enough, his bulge was even bigger. Just another Saturday night date in the movie colony. Too bad my host wasn't the real screwball in this room.
* * *
I wasn't all that happy as I drove my Model A back along the Pacific Coast Highway, stealing glances at the moonlit waves and brooding over my evening. Slapping guys around never did me any good. Still, at least Blondie had shot his wad without getting hurt like he would have if he'd tried his little number on some random goon or on one of my old colleagues. Before I'd left I'd cautioned him about that, although it probably wouldn't work.
My particular dates always seemed to want "real" men, normal-acting men, just like my own cock did. And, seemingly, a guy who'd hit you without warning after you'd blown him was classified as a "real" man. What a bunch of baloney we all cut and passed around. At least the out-front Hollywood fairies were real enough men to screw around without assaulting a stranger who'd sucked them off, just because they were feeling fearful or mean. If you thought about it, there was actually nothing manly about such cowardice and sloppiness. Seemed to me, there should be a better source from which guys like Blondie could get their particular thrill.
Still. I was in no place to pass judgment. Knowing all I did, here I was with as bad a letch for a guy like Bandini as the rest of them had for their mugs and yeggs, telling myself stupid stories to make up for what I couldn't have. And not that my tastes mattered anyhow. Looked like I was too "real" a man to be read as my real self, a fellow as eager to get down on his knees as any peroxided chorus boy. No, I had to slap around strangers instead. If only I wasn't so big—
If I wasn't so big, I'd probably be dead now. Something would have happened after I lost my jocker patron, Poet Tommy, to the white cross back when I rode the rails as a runaway. TB was a nasty way to die, and I'd been a mess for a year after he went. If I hadn't grown so big while under his protection, one of the circling sharks would have bitten a chunk out of me, and then I'd have been nothing but an easy, bleeding meal.
If I wasn't so big, my former "older friend" in L.A. wouldn't have suggested that I join the police force and then made some telephone calls for me, so that I'd become even more interesting by his standards. Too bad his standards weren't my standards. If I wasn't so big, my fellow cops might have suspected the truth, what with all the reading and none of the drinking – drunks talk too much – and me getting along so well with the working girls without the usual excuse of wanting to sample their services. If I wasn't so big, I might not have been able to stop those cheap hoods outside a certain private club in Culver City from rolling that Santa Teresa bigshot without having to call in nosy reinforcements. The guy had been happy to pay me off by easing my move into the Sheriff's Department. Returning my favor let him put his bad night behind him, and it never hurts to have a buddy with a badge.
This was my life. I'd live with being big. I'd live with being a homo who wanted to be down on his knees. And at least I'd had my ashes hauled, so maybe I wouldn't jump the Judge at dinner tomorrow night.
* * *
La Fuente was quiet that evening. Most folks still had their Sunday dinner early in Santa Teresa, and not all the wrought-iron tables on the flower-patterned tiles around the fountain were taken. The ones that were, though, held the meals of some pretty ritzy characters. Good thing I had bought a nice suit when I got promoted to Sergeant again, so the guy at the front desk didn't try to direct me around back when I showed up asking for the Judge.
Bandini spotted me even before the waiter got me through one of the archways into the main dining room. He hoisted up an arm, and waved it around all over the place. The other diners ignored him: most of the Santa Teresa upper crust types knew each other, and the ones who didn't would pretend that they did. And the Judge, or so I'd heard, was notorious for mingling with the lower orders when it came to his job and his hobbies. On the way to his table, I didn't get a single one of the frosty glares or long, considering looks I'd have earned by coming into La Fuente on my own. The few inquisitive glances were no more than what I'd expected. My suit wasn't that good, after all, and my shoes were real cheap.
There was a hum of conversation and the smells of flowers and food were wonderful. Overhead, a mariachi band was serenading on the wooden balcony that ran around the big room: I thought I recognized them from my own neighborhood. The waiter wanted to move my chair and napkin around for me while I was trying to get seated, which was annoying, but I took my menu and kept my cake hole shut. Good food is always worth some work, and those particular enchiladas turned out to be worth a lot of extra labor.
The Judge made an effort to be social over dinner, and so did I, but the effort came surprisingly easy. All my urges aside, for a guy from his background, he was okay. If he'd been another cop, some good-natured senior sergeant, we might have been heading somewhere, perhaps towards twice-weekly beers at the local cop bar or maybe meatloaf with the little woman and an unattached sister-in-law, followed by evenings of pinochle. As it was, we talked politics. Then we discussed if Sudsy could cause trouble, which led to my spinning him some stories about how things worked down in L.A. In turn he told me about the local machine, a lot glossier and quieter affair run on favors, friendships, and gentleman's agreements. The guys in smoke-filled rooms were much easier to ignore up here, or so he said. I'm sure he found that to be true.
"Yeah, the fellow who helped me into the Department has never needed to bother me since," I said.
His eyes glinted a little. "Nice to have a quiet patron." Then he changed the subject to the local public library. I was more than happy to follow his lead.
Turned out, we had something to talk about there, too. Library cards are free, so I had one and used it. Reading still beats digging up weeds, after all. We got onto the subject of books, and ended up arguing Treasure Island versus Kidnapped. He was also a fan of Two Years Before the Mast, no surprise given his old Spanish blood and naval background. I was realizing that I liked him almost as much as I wanted him. If only he hadn't been a Judge. Or if only he was the kind who could drink, fuck, and forget, and I had no sense. Or if only my cock would shut up. If, if, if: oh, the tragedy of it all. I ordered the fried ice-cream for dessert.
I'd walked to the restaurant from the little house that I'd emptied my pockets to buy. It was only about a mile and a half away. But since we'd started eating, the fog had decided to roll in. When we got outside, the Judge looked around at the red-tiled buildings obscured by the murk and shook his head. "God help all mariners out on the channel in this." The fog horn punctuated his sentiment. "Why don't you come over to the house for a nightcap? Then I'll run you home."
What a stupid, stupid idea. "Sure, that'd be great."
The Judge said in the car, "I got caught out on the channel in my sloop a couple of months ago, when I wasn't watching how fast the fog was drifting in past the islands." He chuckled. "That was a dismal afternoon, and a much-needed reminder about paying attention. Here we are." He drove slowly through an open pair of wrought-iron gates and down what I wasn't surprised to see was a long, graveled driveway. Although he only drove a DeSoto, I'd heard both he and his late wife had lots of family money.
The building was maybe a couple of decades old, designed in the California Moorish style. There were colored, glazed tiles, palm trees, bougainvillea plants cascading down adobe walls, and all the other showy stuff that the rich places south of town were known for. Still, the house was nice. Too big, though, even if it was small for the neighborhood. The Judge didn't have kids, and he must have rattled around the place like one dried pea in a maraca.
"Nobody home?" I asked him.
"My servants come in days. I prefer things quiet. Although perhaps," he shook his head, "not this quiet." Ocean fogs swallow noise: I'd always hated them when I was walking a beat. Like the thought was a cue, my mind went to work:
High on the sea-cliffs overlooking the town, a single light could be seen in the uppermost window of the Institute. Inside, within a chamber muffled by tapestries that rippled in the drafts from the fireplace, hiding and revealing strange woven scenes of dissipation, a single, small figure reclined upon the oriental pillows of the divan. In his hand he cupped a goblet filled with wine, red as blood. Before him on the rich turkey carpet crouched the large, naked figure of—
Enough, already! Enough damn fairytales.
Straight-arming off that little beauty of a daydream kept me busy enough not to be bothered when the Judge fetched me a bourbon from his bar. We were in a perfectly normal room, if a fancy one, with panelwork, lots of cherrywood bookcases, and a green rug on the floor that looked to have come from China. I thought the painting over the mantelpiece might be of the Judge's late wife. The place was dignified, not degenerate. There wasn't even a fire, for Christ's sake.
We parked in a couple of tapestry armchairs by the unlit fireplace. All I had to do, I kept telling myself, was drink the drink, chat some more, and leave. Not that hard. Down, boy, down. The Judge was already chatting, something about the navy, him discovering he was musical back at the Academy, and the passions he chalked up to his Spanish ancestors, stuff that I might have been interested in most times. I made noises, but I don't think they were the right ones. He stopped, blinked a little, and said gently, "I've lost you."
I couldn't help but smile. "My fault. Sorry."
"No, I'm still being too obscure." He took a long sip from his drink. "My job, to find a proper opening statement, no matter how good I think my evidence is." He shook his glass, letting the cubes chime a little against the good crystal. "After all, hope can be misleading."
Suddenly, bourbon or no, my mouth was desert dry.
"Now, Carl. You're a truthful man. I've been getting the feeling for quite a while that there's something you wished you could tell me. And after Thursday's little bout of temper, I've decided that there's something you badly need to tell me. Interest is now duty, at least for me." He leaned back as he propped his feet up on an ottoman, bringing those neat and beautifully polished shoes into clear view. "So, what's up with you?" He pointed two fingers at me, smiled coolly, and his face seemed to firm up the way it did behind the bench. "Don't make me misconstrue the details. Confess."
I tried to fight the impulse, I really did. No good. Unable to stop myself, I got up, walked over to him, and then my knees hit the floor.
The Judge sat bolt upright and studied me, his expression opaque, for what must have been the longest fifteen seconds of my life. Then he said, "Get up, Sergeant." Even the way he was sitting had suddenly changed.
I did, feeling half-sick and half-excited, trying not to think past the Judge's next words.
"Come closer. I'm going to ask you a few more questions, so get comfortable."
That was the moment when I actually chose. I got back down onto my knees next to the ottoman. As for the Judge, he watched me settle before he leaned forward and said, "You do that with some style. Had a lot of practice kneeling?"
I met his gaze. "When I was a kid riding the rails, and then for a while in L.A. before I got so big. Not for years, Your Honor."
"Years." He nodded to himself, and then, without warning, back-handed me.
My head swung around with the blow and I'm sure I scowled at him, but I managed to get my half-raised fist back down by my side where it belonged.
He shook his head. "That blow may leave a mark, although I hope not. It shouldn't injure you badly. One more time, without the surprise."
This time he slapped me, quite deliberately, in a way that I well knew hurt but did no real damage. From most men, it would have been more humiliating than the backhand.
"That, on the other hand, won't even leave a mark. Would you let me repeat this little exercise?"
"I'd—" Even though I wanted to say that I would, I had to be honest. "—try, Your Honor."
He caught the pause, and a corner of his mouth flicked up. "The exact truth. That's good." He lifted his hand, the one with the ring on it this time, and seemed to consider his aim. I kept still, and he said, "You're not enjoying this. Right, Sergeant?"
"No, Your Honor."
He settled back, hiked his eyebrows and ran a hand along his chin. "And yet you're on your knees to me. A rather rare combination, in my limited experience."
Then he smiled. "However, I understand. Back at the Naval Academy, we'd beat the insolence out of the plebes, usually with a broom handle. They'd end up with long strings of blood blisters the size of your thumb tip, all across their buttocks and thighs. It was amusing to see the occasional arrogant bully break like so much balsawood." He tapped the academy ring on his finger against the arm of his chair once, twice. "Too bad they usually recovered before they wielded the broom themselves. And I never did like the damage done to the other plebes. It seemed a lot like shining brasswork with steel wool." For a moment, his smile dampened down. "Coarse, and often not effective."
He shrugged. "So I learned that power and pain aren't always spliced together. At sea, I found other ways to subdue men than with raw physical intimidation, ones that leave fewer traces and don't bother the blameless. Not to mention, I enjoy being underestimated during the performance of my duties. It adds a subtle pleasure to certain situations."
I bit my lips so I wouldn't lick them, and his lips widened back into a smile. "Up onto your feet, Sergeant. I think it's time to take this conversation upstairs."
The Judge climbed the big staircase in front of me, and then went down the corridor to open a heavy, paneled oak door. The bedroom inside was large and furnished for a man, not a woman. All the furniture was mahogany and expensive looking, and the bedspread and curtains were of thick, dark brown velvet. The bed had posts and a canopy up top, like some bed in a movie about murder at an English manor. There was a big picture of two sailing ships, fighting, framed on one wall. I was surprised not to see a valet. No, on second thought, that didn't surprise me at all.
While I'd been rubbernecking, the Judge went over and opened the diamond-paned windows to let in some air. "There's a nice view across the back gardens to the channel from here, and an even better one from the terrace by the swimming pool. You should see it some time when there's no fog." He turned back around and his lids opened a bit wider. His chin went up and his eyes glittered. "Right now, though, how about your undressing for me?" The words were more of an order than a question. Obedient, my hand went up to my tie. This was a task I could manage.
I'm okay looking, I guess. Hiking is cheap recreation, and I use our downtown boxing gym to keep fit for the job. But no one will be paying me to star in a Jungle movie any time real soon. My own ancestors must have been blacksmiths or farm laborers. Hulking, one guy down in L.A. had called me. Also, my cock was making assumptions. It was already so full that I felt a bit sheepish as I stood there naked before him, hands behind my back in a cop's parade rest.
"Turn around." I did. For some reason, it's always harder when I can't see. There was a pause, and then he said, "Face front." He studied me, expression cool and then stepped forward to examine my cock. I tried to keep my eyes aimed over his shoulder, but I could feel myself respond to his gaze.
Judge Bandini just tilted his head to one side, a hawk spotting prey. Then he went to his mahogany wardrobe, opened it up, and pulled a locked wooden chest out from under the hanging clothing and more of those highly polished shoes. The chest was big and I was a little surprised that he had no trouble. "Speaking of shore leave, here's my old sea chest, supposedly saved for reasons of nostalgia." He opened the padlock with a key from his watch chain. "There's safety in my obsession with sailing, too. It gave me a reason to keep these particular souvenirs of my Asian cruises, although I'd be hard-pressed to explain why they're made of silk, rather than hemp or sisal." He got up, turned, and showed me the neatly coiled ropes. "I haven't had an opportunity to deploy them in a very long time. It's not something I'd try on the sort of draftee that I've paid for services since my wife died. But I'd enjoy the chance to use them on you."
Boy, my knees were getting some exercise that evening. Before my brain had caught up with the rest of me, I was on the floor again. Good thing the Judge favored thick rugs on his hardwood planks.
As he tied me to the fluted bedposts, spread-eagled on my belly, he hummed as he worked. What the hell kind of boss-man hummed? It wasn't very intimidating. On the other hand, who cared when he was tightening a bight of rope around his right front bedpost even as I twisted my neck to watch? And his sheets were nice and soft, even if I couldn't rub around on them as much as I wished that I could. To tell the truth, I was far enough gone that the humming sounded half ominous and half soothing, like listening to a backcountry wildcat purr. Engrossed, I watched and listened without saying a word. I hadn't even commented when he'd folded up my good dress-shirt and stuffed it underneath me, between my cock and those nice sheets.
He'd wrapped each wrist and ankle with a wide strip of leather folded in half lengthwise before he'd set to work with the rope, so I wasn't feeling much pain. But I sure wasn't feeling much give, either. Experimentally, I tugged. Nope. I pulled harder, strained. Still nope, and barely a creak from the bed frame. If I'd thought my dick was swollen before, I'd been fooling myself.
"It's a well-constructed bed, isn't it? And all those knots are set properly, too. You're not going anywhere." The Judge nodded his head in obvious satisfaction. Then he surprised me by grasping each of my hands in turn and rubbing them, watching intently for something he didn't bother to explain. He moved on to my feet, down where I couldn't see him, and checked the same whatever-it-was, which made me glad I wasn't ticklish.
However, when he was done, instead of moving on to whatever else he had in mind, he got a straight-backed chair, turned it around next to me where I could see him, and straddled it. Arms folded over the back, he said, "A bit more of duty, now. We're going to have another little chat. I hope you haven't made a habit of letting people who've already hit you move on to tying you up without your asking about what comes next."
I wanted him to get on with it, but not having what I wanted was good in a way, too. "No offense, Your Honor, but I've worked for you for years, now."
"Men behave differently inside the bedroom than the courtroom, Sergeant, as we both know." Well, I meant for my face to display polite disagreement. My expression must have shaded towards eye-rolling, though, because he chuckled before he said, "Thank you for your vote of confidence, or not, as the case may be. Especially since it's been so long since I've tried anything this formal and complex: years, as you keep saying." Then the smile disappeared. "Nonetheless." He waited, his expression now grave, his posture as still as if I'd been a witness in the box. The room got so quiet I could hear the fog-drip outside.
For once, instead of a fairy tale, my brain gave me the picture I needed: me, last night, trying to warn Blondie about going home with random thugs. Aw, hell. "I'm sorry, sir."
"Rather late, but well-intentioned."
I bit my lip, and then kept going. "Maybe you should untie me, Your Honor." Crap, crap, this was not how the fantasies went. I was in trouble, with nothing but common sense to fall back on. And what good was common sense to a naked guy with a stiff dick?
The Judge drummed the fingers of both hands on a cross-bar of his chair, although the gesture looked thoughtful rather than impatient or odd. I hope I didn't look as glum as I felt. He studied me, and then said at last, "Or maybe I shouldn't. Let's examine the evidence at greater length. I can tell you've done something like this before. Also not recently?"
"Yes, Your Honor." This was where I had to take a deep breath to push the rest of it out. "Most folks I've met who tie you up only do it so they can knock you around. I'm no good that way. Push me too far and I fight back. That's why I stopped trying before I did worse than hit someone."
"You managed to get loose." He looked mildly interested. "Any damage?"
If I could have, I would've shrugged. Lousy mail-order cop-supply handcuffs weren't the Judge's problem. "I didn't really hurt him, not anything like he wanted to hurt me. Should I give details?"
"No. Some other time, perhaps, if there is another time." He pursed his lips, and then said, "I'm surprised that you could stop, as you put it."
"Sort-of stop. I go down to L.A. sometimes. But when I try for anything fancy, it seems to end up working backwards, which isn't all that good. I guess I'm kind of poor at what I want." Hurriedly, I added, "So I read a lot. Pulp magazines, mostly. 'The Slaves of Saturn's Rings'?"
If I'd had a hand free, I'd have slapped myself for adding that last sentence. I really thought he'd laugh again. Instead he nodded and said, "That's sensible, and a lot less pretentious than reading and re-reading De Sade or Nietzsche. Catharsis, the Aristotelians called it."
Maybe the nod is what gave me the courage to tell him one last story he might want to hear, the hard story, the one I was most ashamed of. "When I was a cop, there was this Detective Sergeant attached to the Red Squad down in L.A. A real good-looking guy. Sometimes he needed help when talking to suspects, and technically the detectives outranked us. He was tops at giving orders. But before long I realized his – entertainments – were making him nothing but stupid about who'd actually done what. I quit. That's when I walked out and quit the department." Shutting my eyes so I wouldn't have to see him, I said, "I guess I'm not even obedient, when the road gets rough enough." Opening my eyes, I waited.
The Judge raised his eyebrows. "Really? I'd say good for you. You're supposed to respect your duty more than you like your fun." Then he stood up, looked down, and added, tone placid, "Although I also like my duty, especially under these circumstances. The simple joys of interrogation. Lucky me." The front of his trousers was tented out a lot more than I'd have guessed. I'd thought their loose tailoring was just part of the over-all rumple. Boy, there are times when I'm glad to be wrong.
He straightened and his face smoothed out from the squint, the way it usually only did when he was delivering a sentence. This time, his eyes were amused. The verdict was in my favor. "However, that's enough work establishing background even for a fortunate judge." His hands went to his fly buttons.
Longer than I'd expected, thicker than I'd expected, and a nice, dark purple as it stood away from his trousers. The head was already slick. If I wasn't slobbering, chalk it up to good discipline. I know my mouth was working like I was seven, still at the Institute, and had successfully lifted an ice cream cone.
Now the Judge was stroking himself. "I'm not as impressive as all that, Sergeant, only longer there than I'm short overall. Keep a sense of proportion, please." His hand didn't pause, but his eyes narrowed. "Now you're trying to don that plebe face again. Don't. If something's funny, smile. Ah, that's better. Ah."
The second "Ah" wasn't about anything I'd done. His cock was definitely oozing from the tip and moving some, too. He let loose of it, and went back over to the open chest. Reaching inside, he pulled out some cheap cotton bandanas, the kind you can get down in Tijuana, and started humming again, "Anchors Away" of all things.
I bit my lips but didn't try to keep the worry off my face. He was way too smart to try stuffing one in my mouth before—
The Judge must have read my expression, no surprise. He stopped, his posture patient, waiting for me again. I'd fought for this verdict: was I going to appeal now? Taking a deep breath, I asked, "Uh, Your Honor, is that for a gag?"
"No, Sergeant, merely for an entertaining flourish." The smile of approval he gave me before he went back to his work was edged. "Intelligent of you to ask, though. You're correct in assuming that I'd prefer not to choke you to death." Leaving me to consider that image, he picked up a second bandana. "This could be done much more simply, but I never can resist a chance to practice my skills with knots. An old sailor's vice. One of many." Turned out that cheap bandanas tied together with some unneeded, fancy knots still made a dandy blindfold.
When he was done everything was dark, and there was a long silence, maybe while he admired his work. Christ, I wanted to come. Or just have him touch me. Talk to me. Something, anything. I couldn't hear him breathe, or move. The sound of my own heart pounding drowned out all other noise.
My mind kept trying to fill the darkness and silence with fantasies, but I shoved them all away. They weren't what I wanted. I wanted –what he wanted. Oh, yeah, that was what I wanted. Something, anything real. "Please, Your Honor," I heard myself say, "Please." No hiding the truth now: I was begging.
"The magic word, is that what the schoolteachers call it?" He chuckled, but I could hear that he was enjoying himself. His voice was so close that he must have been standing right next to me. "All right. There are various fancy alternatives now, as you may or may not know. Some of them are painful, some also quite humiliating." He touched my shoulder, briefly, gently, and I twitched like a horse. "Don't forget that before you next allow yourself to be tied down. Some are merely odd. You might like odd, I think, whether you intend to or not. And it's good for a man to see new horizons."
I bit my lip.
"However, it's already been a big evening and we're probably both more tired than we think we are." I heard the creaks as he got onto the bed and slung a leg over me, and I could feel his weight straddling my bare butt and thighs. "Here's another maneuver that I haven't bothered to deploy for a good, long time. Although I believe you'll be worth the extra effort. Let's find out."
I needed to push up my hips but I couldn't do much, really. I just had to wait and it was – excuse the expression – hard. But then I felt the pressure on my asshole, almost too abrupt and all the better for that. The Judge shoved into me roughly, and I heard myself produce a word muffled in his sheets that would have been obscene if it had been audible. At some point during the silence he'd added something slick to help the penetration, but he sure hadn't added much. I didn't care. He hadn't stopped because I was commenting. I wouldn't have wanted him to. He wanted me to yield.
When he'd dug all the way in, there was one of those pauses, the ones that, in court, usually meant he was about to produce some bomb of a comment. But this pause was him savoring my ass, and when he let out his verdict of a pleased growl, I tried to buck hard again. No dice with him on me, and that was great, too. Instead he was the one to move, and he wasn't fooling around. He fucked in and out of me, the pace measured but without mercy, and all the feelings that mattered were of his cock, the cloth and buttons of his suit, and the hands gripping me firmly. But I could smell the sweat of his excitement, and hear the muted sound of his flesh ass-fucking my flesh. Best of all was the sound of his breathing, even but harsh with his control.
The Judge was pleased, I could tell. He liked what he was doing enough that he didn't last as long as I wanted him to, but that was okay because he went on as long as he desired. When he pushed in hard and ground his hips against me, I shuddered. It was like he was trying to force his balls to follow his cock deep inside me as he came. Then he was panting, and all of his weight pushed me down. I could tell he'd spent up my ass, big time. My own cock tried to twitch.
He pulled out abruptly, rolled away, and I had to swallow a noise that might have turned into a whimper. Now I was trembling in long, hard shudders that I couldn't suppress as my body refused to obey me. I felt the Judge's hand run along my back, tracing along a muscle. I forced myself to be still.
"No, no, that's fine. Good boy." His voice was firm and husky, his words slow with repletion, which didn't make my shaking go away. He chuckled, and slapped my ass. "All right, I comprehend your problem." Reaching out, he grasped what was formerly my best shirt, and tugged it slowly out from beneath me. Then that firm, clever hand snaked underneath me and wrapped around my dick. "And a nice, big problem it is, too. But I want some serious results here, Sergeant, do I make myself clear?"
He sure did. And if he hadn't, his hand would have made his meaning real clear all by itself. I pulled hard against the ropes holding me as he worked, his stroke slow and almost impersonal as he dealt with the resistance of his sheets and my weight. But then he paused and ran one considering finger along the underside of my cock, stopping just below the slit. He retraced his path, using the nail, and then abruptly burrowed his hand around to squeeze. That did it. I felt the familiar surge along my thighs and buttocks as my cock loaded up to spend. I choked back more noise and he pumped me once, hard, and squeezed again. When I did spend, it was in a way that I hadn't for years. My spunk seemed to spill for minutes, making a mess of both my groin and the sheets.
He waited until I was done, until I'd stopped twisting and heaving and grunting. At last he said, "Not bad," and I felt the tug as his hands went to the first knot on the blindfold.
For a while after the blindfold was off and the ropes were untied, I lay sprawled out on the bed, my mind blank. But then he sat back down next to me and put one hand on my ass, seemingly unconcerned that his softening, stained cock was still bobbing loose from his shorts and trousers. He asked me, "Any serious damage? Report."
"No, Your Honor." The words had been delivered in his usual, friendly style, and it soothed me. "I might be bruised a little, and I think my right ankle is chafed. And your tiepin scratched my back up some." I found I could look him in the eyes. His hair was even more ruffled than usual. He needed a shave. His eyes seemed contented.
"A few bruises are fine, especially after Thursday. No one should notice. I am out of practice, though, if you're chafed." He picked up the rope that had held my right ankle and examined it, running it through his hands with critical care.
I got up, even though I didn't want to. For a moment I was about to head for the bathroom, but then I paused. This wasn't my place, but his. Feeling shy, I cleared my throat.
He looked up from his work and raised his eyebrows. Then he said, tone mild, "Through the far door. You'll find what you need."
As I went into the bathroom, I spotted a bowl, a washcloth, a piece of soap, and some small towels all neatly laid out on the marble sink top, and felt myself grin. Seems my cock hadn't been the only one yearning this evening.
He was still sitting, still examining his knots and ropes, when I came back into the bedroom and knelt in front of him, holding what I needed. Looking down at me, he smiled. "Go on."
I washed his cock, now soft, with care. Then, seeing he was still smiling, I dared to duck my head and follow the path of the washrag with my tongue, and then explore farther. The judge made a noise of mild pleasure. After a few seconds, he reached down and tangled his fingers in my hair. It was quiet for a while aside from the sound of my tongue and mouth at work. I really liked the taste of him, salt and sharp together. In a bit, though, he freed his fingers to thwack me gently on the side of the head. "Don't waste your labor." So I pulled loose, dried him off and put him away in his trousers, trying not to be too sappy about it.
The judge stood up and stretched. "I'm going to have to get this suit cleaned and pressed. After I change, you can sponge the pants. Drop it off at the Chinese Laundry over on Los Robles on your way to work tomorrow, please." Tilting his head, he grinned. "Still waiting for my permission to move? Fun time's over, Sergeant. Clean yourself up, if you would, and get dressed."
I knew it was okay to say, "You might want to send out the sheets, too. I shot pretty hard."
"Yes, I noticed. I was highly flattered, believe you me." Then he frowned and jerked his head towards the door to the corridor. "But after you're done putting yourself back together and squaring up this room, you'd better leave the suit for now and follow me down to the library."
While I worked, he changed into some of his sailing togs, and somehow I wasn't surprised to see they were salt-stained but neat. Now that he'd ridden me, the muscles weren't as big a surprise, either. I'd bet that, even with the broken arm to compete, Sudsy was feeling that mallet blow today. Why, Mr. Judge, without your glasses, you're beau— Amused now by the pulp magazine clichés still sneaking into my brain, I headed downstairs, again in his wake.
When I was seated in a fancy armchair, feeling a little uneasy because he was still standing, he went over to the bar in a corner. "Another drink, Carl?"
Host's privilege, I reminded myself. "Bourbon on the rocks again?"
"I can manage that." He brought me the drink, and then sat down with his own drink. His eyes were steady on me as he took his first sip. Then he asked, "You want to be the one offering me a drink, don't you?"
"Yeah, except maybe down on my knees again." I sighed. "I got it pretty bad."
"Pretty good, from my point of view." His eyes opened wide, and I felt my heartbeat pick up some. But I tried not to let anything show on my face. "Pretty damn good and sitting right down the corridor from me for over four years. Amazing. What are the odds? Long enough to belong in one of your stories, long enough to only be plausible in real life." And then he smiled, this one small and almost sad. I sat up straight in my chair, my drink forgotten. "So, Carl. Do you think this is dangerous, our spending this sort of time together?"
I didn't want to say yes, but I said, "Yes, especially for you. Your Honor."
When his smile grew edged again and his eyes went dark, I knew I'd given the right answer. "Good, so don't get sloppy." He set his own drink aside on a coaster on the small rosewood table next to his chair. "I'm afraid you'll have to learn to play cribbage. I never was any good at pinochle, but I could make a case for having the occasional two-handed cribbage evening at home. I'll teach you how to sail, too, since everyone knows I have no sense about anything to do with sailing, including social strictures." He shook his head. "My last deckhand was awful. No talent for taking orders out on the channel, where there can only be one Captain. Then, when he did pipe down at last, he didn't know how to prompt me. I need crew, not cattle." He hiked up his eyebrows. "Understood, Sergeant?"
I grinned, not worrying about if it was joyous or what. Laundry, cribbage, and sailing: it sounded so routine, so solid, so gorgeously real. "Aye aye, sir. I get you."
"I bet you do." He chuckled. "Better buy some decent black shoe polish, too."
"That's my boy." His voice was measured, almost kind.
After all of my groping around in the dark, those words were as true a judgment as he ever handed down. I bowed my head, accepting his verdict.
Not guilty. Just glad.
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