Don't Look Back
An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
The moon was enormous -- ripe, red-gold, hanging low in the sky. From the flowering jacaranda, the mockingbird was scolding. Chjjjj... chjjjj... chewk.
Peter stumbled up the brick path. His foot caught and he went down, on his knees, breathing hard. His hands were white blurs on the warm stone. He tried to focus and he could see the ink splotches of blood -- his blood running down his face and dripping onto the bricks.
His stomach rose in protest. Swallowing down his nausea, he pushed back to his feet. The black velvet leaves of the elephant ears seemed to twitch, listening, as his footsteps scraped unsteadily up the path, past the sundial and palely glimmering statues, past the solar lanterns fuzzily glowing.
The shadows cast by the jacaranda stretched chill and dark in the warm summer evening, but the darkness edging his vision had nothing to do with the deepening night. There was blood in his eyes now; he wiped at it uncertainly.
Peter reached the top of the long, shallow garden steps. The back entrance of Constantine House loomed before him and he staggered forward, feeling for his keys. He leaned against the door, resting his head on the painted surface, fumbling in his pockets. He pushed a key into the lock; it turned, and the door swung open spilling him into the hallway.
Half blind with blood and pain, he wove his way down the hallway toward the main exhibit room and his office. His foot caught on the Oriental runner and he went sprawling. Somewhere in the distance an alarm bell was clanging. He opened his eyes. Dimly, as though looking through a telescope, he could see the cool, white marble face of Kwan Yin gazing down at him. She held a little vase pouring nothingness out over his pounding head. But it wasn't nothingness. It was nectar. Invisible nectar to feed the hungry ghosts.
Far, far at the other end of the telescope the serene face of Kwan Yin receded, grew tinier and tinier…until at last it pinched out like a match spark in the night.
* * * * *
He was chuckling, a deep, sexy sound as he pushed Peter back on the satiny cushions. Was this for real? Was he going to go through with it? Peter blinked up as his tie was unfastened, tossed aside, his shirt unbuttoned, laid wide. The evening breeze -- scented of smog and jasmine -- felt cool against his overheated skin, like the lightest breath. Unlike their own breathing which was hot and heavy and strained sounding. Gasps and groans that were pure skin flick. For a moment Peter was thrown out of the mood, his normal self-consciousness and reticence reasserting itself.
He narrowed his eyes, trying to see the other's face in the summer darkness, but a warm weight lowered itself beside him. Their mouths locked; their cocks rubbed rigidly together.
Oh God. That felt good. That stiff length of soft skin and hardness -- hard as bone -- as desire throbbed through Peter, his heartbeat echoing in the pulse of his cock. So much sensation at once. It was overwhelming…but good. Warm breath and the tang of sweat on clean skin, the tickle of chest hair against his nipples, the glide of muscles as powerful arms pulled him close, legs wrapping around his own. Yes, it was really happening, and he wanted it to happen. He was happy to let go, loosing his doubts, his concerns, his anxieties because this just felt right. And he refused to second-guess himself, to freeze up. He had waited a long time for this.
A long time. A lifetime.
Because this was Cole. Cole. His heart seemed to swell with emotion, happiness filling his chest because it was Cole with him. Together. The way they were meant to be. Finally…
Peter's lashes stirred.
He opened his eyes and the first thing he saw was the cop's hard face. He wasn't sure how he knew the man beside his bed was a cop…he didn't know him.
Or did he?
He was big. Not fat. Big. Tall, broad, muscular. Like a bull. One of those beautiful sleek, powerful bulls they use in bullfighting. Like Isidore Bonheur's sculptures. Lean, fierce features, smoke dark hair, hard blue-gray eyes, and a thin mouth that looked inclined to sarcastic asides.
Even on that first glimpse under the fluttering of eyelids, Peter felt a jolt of alarm, the knowledge that something was seriously wrong. He opened his mouth and a funny sound came out. Then another face slid into view. A woman's face, calm and professional. A nurse. She said soothingly, “It's alright, Mr. Killian. You're going to be perfectly alright now.”
She sounded very sure of it, and he relaxed. He did feel alright. He felt warm and floating, relieved that the hard, unfriendly face had gone. Even happy. He'd been dreaming about he'd been dreaming. It was confused and faraway now. He let it go. Let everything go.
The second time was the real awakening. He opened his eyes with a start. There was another nurse at his bedside, and she said something to him, something calming, something reassuring. He responded. Things got a little fuzzy and then sharpened again. His room seemed full of people, and a doctor was there asking him questions.
It was confusing. Tiring. His head ached. A lot.
“What happened to me?” he mumbled.
“You've got a concussion, Mr. Killian.”
He thought that over. It wasn't an answer, was it? Or was it? “How?” he asked.
“You were injured during a robbery.”
A robbery. Like…a mugging? He couldn't seem to remember, although it didn't seem like the kind of thing one would forget. It was all very bewildering. He wanted to go back to sleep.
“I don't remember,” he said, and his eyelids drifted shut.
The next time he opened his eyes the bull -- the cop -- was back.
The thin mouth curled into an unfriendly smile. “Well, Peter, we meet again.”
“Yes,” Peter said, trying to focus. His vision was off. “Do I know you?”
There was silence. The gray-blue eyes -- which looked more gray than blue -- narrowed. “Are you saying you don't?”
Peter's heart began to pound. “No.”
“I don't know you.”
Another silence. Another smile -- a rather cynical one. “Is that so?”
“Should I?” Peter managed. His temples were now starting to pound in time with his heart. All at once he felt very ill.
“What do you remember?”
“I--” Peter stopped. He had the sensation of sand sucking away beneath his feet. “Who are you?” His voice sounded faint and faraway even to himself.
The other laughed and then the dark face reformed itself in a sneer. “Honest to God. You've got to be kidding. You're not seriously going to try and pull that?”
Peter stared at him, he couldn't think of anything to say even if he could have forced words out over his rising panic. This couldn't be happening. This something was wrong. And he could not let this guy, whoever he was, know how very wrong things were -- that much he knew instinctively.
“I think you should go,” he said.
“Oh, you do?” Unimpressed, the cool eyes studied him. “Why? If you don't know who I am?”
Peter said honestly, “Because I don't like you.”
Another one of those hard laughs. “I see you do remember something. What else do you remember?”
Peter opened his mouth. Nothing came to him. This was impossible.
Wait. He knew the nurse had called him “Mr. Killian” and this asshole had called him “Peter.” And the doctor had said…something about a mugging.
“It's--I know who I am. But some details are vague.”
“How convenient.” Unfriendly mockery. “Well, let me refresh your memory. I'm Detective Michael Griffin of LAPD Robbery and Homicide Division.” Griffin pulled a flat wallet-looking thing out of his jacket and flashed a very large, very official looking badge in front of Peter's nose.
Peter narrowed his eyes. This made sense up to a point. He had been knocked out -- in a robbery -- so it was reasonable that the police would interview him. Right? But Detective Griffin was acting like Peter was the criminal, and clearly they had some kind of history.
And that was very hard to believe. Peter doubtfully studied Griffin's face. Peter was a law-abiding person. He knew that about himself. He had no doubt whatsoever on that score. Maybe he couldn't remember everything, but he knew he was not the kind of person who got into trouble with the law.
And anything else was out of the question.
Ah. So that was an additional something he now knew about himself. He liked guys. He was…gay. And comfortable with the idea.
But Maybe Griffin didn't like guys who liked guys? Maybe that was the problem with Michael Griffin. Although how would he know about Peter's sexual preferences? Peter couldn't imagine him confiding such a thing to…well, really to anyone. Nor did Griffin seem like the kind of guy anyone would want to confide in. Even had he been Peter's type. Which he wasn't. Even if Peter couldn't quite remember what his type was, he was quite sure Griffin was not it.
“Is your memory coming back?” Griffin inquired.
“I was knocked out.”
“Oh right. And now you have amnesia. That's the story?”
Griffin did not like him either. That was clear. And Peter did not feel well enough to deal with it. He closed his eyes. Opened them. Said, “Can we…talk about it later?”
“You're not curious about what happened to you? I'd think you'd be very curious…since you can't remember anything, right?”
Peter watched him. “I was mugged?”
Peter tried again. “I was robbed.” Griffin was from Robbery Homicide so that was a safe bet.
His thinking processes must have been transparent because Griffin said slowly, “You're guessing. Or you're pretending to guess.”
God. This asshole was too much. Peter closed his eyes. He couldn't deal with this right now.
When the silence stretched -- when Griffin didn't go away -- Peter opened his eyes and surprised an odd expression on the detective's face. Mostly suspicion, or maybe wariness, but there was some other emotion that Peter couldn't read. It vanished the moment Griffin saw that Peter's eyes were open.
“Why don't I help you out with a few points? Your name's Peter Killian. You don't like to be called 'Pete.' You're thirty-five years old, unmarried, a native Angeleno. You're the curator at Constantine House. Is this ringing any bells?”
Peter licked his lips. There was a horrible taste in his mouth and his head was pounding sickly. He knew he didn't want to hear anything more. He knew he needed to.
“You've been curator there for a little over three years -- during which time the museum has lost slightly over a hundred thousand dollars worth of antiquities and art objects.”
Griffin paused politely. Peter moved his head in slight negation. He couldn't have spoken even if he'd known what to say. His heart was thudding as though he'd found himself cornered by an attack dog -- which was kind of how he felt. Griffin wasn't quite baring his teeth, but somehow the effect was the same.
“Two nights ago, for reasons known only to you, you went down to the grotto in the back of the museum garden and, to all appearances, surprised thieves in the process of removing a priceless tenth-century painted mural.”
Tenth century. A very bad year -- all one hundred of them. The “Leaden Century” as described by Cardinal Baronius. The darkest of the Dark Ages.
“What was a priceless artifact doing in a grotto in the back of a garden?”
Griffin ignored that feeble protest. “Apparently you were struck over the head and left unconscious while the thieves made off with the wall painting -- at which point you regained consciousness, made your way back to the museum, and triggered the alarms by not disarming the security system when you let yourself inside the back door.”
As Griffin spoke Peter had a dizzying and fleeting impression of images. A small cave, flashing shadows, voices echoing in argument, he delicate lines and muted colors of a painting two riders on horseback Chinese, yes. A tomb painting, yes. He did remember.
He remembered something.
It took a few seconds to absorb the implications of Griffin's flat pronouncement.
“You don't think that's what happened?”
“I think it's convenient. Like your amnesia.”
Peter let that sink in too. He had the disconcerting sensation of trying to feel his way through the smoke.
“You think I was involved in the robbery?” he managed at last.
“No! Of course not.”
“I thought you couldn't remember?”
Peter tried to sit up. Not a good idea. Quite a bad idea, actually. Despite the railing, he nearly overturned right out of the narrow hospital bed. His stomach overturned too as his brain seemed to slam the roof of his skull. Dimly, he was aware of Griffin grabbing him and putting him back against the pillows. Griffin said something to him, but he couldn't make it out. Maybe Griffin rang for help because he could hear a buzzer going off. Peter felt sick and woozy and cold all the way through. He needed to make Griffin understand, needed to convince him, and he already knew that was going to be a hopeless cause. Griffin's mind was made up. He believed Peter was guilty.
Then the room was full of people. There seemed to be a lot of noise and activity. Somewhere behind the wall of sound he could hear Detective Griffin protesting -- and being overridden. Peter put a hand to his head, touching some kind of bandage; his skull felt like it was about to split in half. Someone leaned over him, there was pinch in his arm and suddenly the commotion faded out.
It was quiet again. Warm. Dark. There was black tide rushing toward him and he stepped out to meet it.
* * * * *
Mouths locked, their cocks awkward, poking, stiff as they moved against each other. A slow wriggle that turned into humping -- uncomfortable, embarrassing -- but then slowly, rhythmically finding themselves in step, moving faster, faster, picking up a frantic kind of speed. No longer awkward or strange, just give and take, a lovely reciprocity. He could hear the hard steady pound of the heart beating against his own. A husky voice speaking against his ear…the words were lost. But that was all right. Even without the words, this was what he had been waiting for, what he had wanted for so long.
Why had he been afraid of this? Why had he thought this wasn't possible?
He woke, startled, to sterile silence. Had he spoken aloud?
“So, Professor Peabody, I guess your memory is coming back?”
Professor Peabody? He opened his eyes.
Blue sky and clouds. That was nice. Strange. But nice. Ah. Florescent lights behind decorative diffuser panels. He turned his head -- very carefully. Medical paraphernalia and a face he'd hoped he'd dreamed up. Although given his most recent dreams, maybe not.
Detective Griffin was at his bedside once more, faithful as any lover. Well, he'd known that reprieve couldn't last. Griffin had been a no show yesterday evening, but here he was bright and early as though standing in for Peter's nearest and dearest. That was unsettling, now that Peter thought about it.
“Why isn't anyone here?” Peter asked.
“I'll try not to take that personally.”
But Peter had already figured it out. There wasn't anyone. No family. Friends…he looked doubtfully at Griffin. Those blue-gray eyes that didn't seem to miss anything. Even if Peter had a crowd of friends queuing up outside the room, Griffin would not be letting them in till he got whatever it was he wanted from Peter.
Which was what? A confession of guilt?
When Peter didn't speak, Griffin said, “I guess you're wondering where Cole is?”
The flash of impatience was almost concealed. Not quite. “You woke up asking for him. Now you're pretending you don't know who he is?”
He had to tread warily here. “I was half asleep.”
“You're trying to tell me you don't remember Cole?”
Cole. Did he know who Cole was? He couldn't picture him. And yet the name seemed imprinted on his consciousness. Too important to forget.
And yet he had forgotten.
Peter's stomach knotted with tension. He was sliding out onto some very thin ice; he could feel the chill. What division did Griffin work for? Robbery and Homicide? Was that what he'd said? Peter couldn't remember. But there was something about Cole. He could feel it. Something bad. Something too painful to bear.
“Who is he?”
“Cole Constantine? He's the great-great grandson of MacBride Constantine.”
Peter must have looked blank because Griffin's sarcastic mouth quirked and he said, “Captain MacBride Constantine. The founder of Constantine House. The salty old sea dog who ripped off all those treasures from foreign climes and dragged them home to Southern California.”
“What is he to me?”
Griffin's slanted eyebrows rose. “Good question. For one thing, he's your employer. Well, one of them. He's on the trustee committee for the museum. And” -- he seemed to be scanning Peter's face closely -- “you were college roommates and best friends.”
“You tell me.”
Peter stared. Griffin had a thin, cruel face, he thought. His eyes were wintry, like old ice.
“Has something happened to him?”
The tension knotting Peter's muscles seemed to wrench tighter. He was afraid now -- starting to shake with it.
“Like…something bad.” He blurted, “Is he dead?”
Griffin laughed. “Worse than that. He's married.
Copyright 2000-18, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.