An excerpt from the novella by Josh Lanyon
That prickle between his shoulder blades meant he was being watched.
One hand on the mailbox, Taylor glanced around. There was a woman pushing a kid in a stroller down the long shady street. She was moving in the opposite direction. There was a guy in a parked Chevy reading a newspaper. Old Mrs. Wills was in her garden. She was shading her eyes, staring at him.
Taylor raised his hand in greeting.
She fluttered a hand back in hello.
The guy in the Chevy turned the page of his newspaper, remaining mostly concealed behind the tall pages.
A comfortable, quiet street in a small beach community. Old houses beneath old shade trees. But it was a neighborhood in flux. Old residents dying off, new residents not staying longer than a couple of years.
Taylor pulled the mail out of his box. The usual circulars and catalogs of junk he never bought and didn’t want. And a birthday card. From Will.
Taylor studied the pale green envelope for a long moment. He was aware of a tightness in his chest; a confused rush of emotions. Amusement, sure, but uppermost-- a sort of a feeling he couldn’t begin to describe.
That neat, careful cursive with which Will had spelled out Taylor’s name and address. Not like Will’s usual hand. Not that Will’s usual hand was sloppy; Taylor was the one who had to translate his hieroglyphics for the front office staff. But there was something painstaking and self-conscious about the writing on the envelope.
There was something else in the mail slot. Taylor pulled out a slip informing him that he had a package in the side locker of the mailbox stand. He unlocked the long cabinet, and sure enough there was a rectangular parcel addressed to him. He tucked it under his arm, slammed the metal door shut, and crossed the street.
The guy in the Chevy remained well-buried behind his newspaper.
Taylor cut across the patchy threadbare lawn of his house, took the three front porch steps in one, let himself into the house.
He locked the door behind him, looking down at the green envelope. Just the fact that Will had mailed him a birthday card. They’d be seeing each other that night -- barring Will getting delayed on his current case -- but Will had taken the time to pick a card and mail it. It was so...
It touched Taylor more than he wanted to admit. Of course this was a special birthday. Not one of the “0” birthdays; Taylor was thirty-two years old as of four o’clock that morning. It was special because ten weeks earlier Taylor had been shot in the chest and had nearly died.
It had been very close. The closest he’d ever come to checking out. He was still stuck on desk duty, although -- thank Christ -- this was the last week of that. He’d passed his fitness exam that very afternoon and Monday he’d be back in the field, partnered with Will again. Life would finally be getting back to normal. The new normal. The normal of him and Will as a... well, couple.
They had been a couple for one month now. Partners and friends for three years, and lovers for little more than one month. Taylor was still afraid to trust it. It seemed dangerous to be this happy, like it was tempting fate. He couldn’t quite forget that Will hadn’t wanted this change in their relationship; that love had taken him unwilling and off-guard.
He tore open the envelope.
It was the usual kind of thing. Sailboats, smooth water, and cloudless blue sky. Happy Birthday to My Sweetheart in sunshine yellow script.
His throat tightened. Hell. He’d never been anyone’s sweetheart before. No one had ever sent him a card like this. Will had even signed the inside “Love, Will.”
There was a parcel too. A brown cardboard box. The kind of thing wine was shipped in -- or good booze. The label was typed. Taylor used his pocket knife to slice through the tape sealing the box shut. Inside was a Styrofoam shell to protect the glass contents. He pried it out and sure enough it was a bottle. A wine bottle with a yellow seal. He nearly dropped it.
There was a cobra inside the wine bottle.
Black-brown hood flared, fangs barred, the coiled cobra stared blindly through the clear rice wine.
What the fuck?
It was dead, of course. Dead and pickled. Vietnamese Snake wine was an authentic Asian beverage supposedly valuable for treating everything from rheumatism to night sweats. It was also supposed to be a natural aphrodisiac with mystical sexual properties, although what the hell was natural about a cobra in a wine bottle?
Feeling slightly queasy, Taylor set the bottle on the kitchen table.
No way had Will sent that. He searched through the box packing materials to see if there was a card or a note. Nada.
A joke maybe. Probably. He had a few friends at the Department of Diplomatic Security who would find this kind of thing amusing. Except it was an expensive joke. These specialty wines weren’t cheap. And most of his pals at the DS were.
He contemplated the bottle for another second or two, but he had things to get ready before Will arrived. He wanted this to be a very good weekend.
* * * * *
Taylor was not going to be happy.
Will tried to tell himself that Taylor’s happiness was beside the point. Not that it didn’t matter to him, but it couldn’t be Will’s first consideration when it came to work. Taylor was a professional. He needed to understand that this was a) Not Will’s choice, b) All part of the job, c) No big deal, d) All of the above.
The long red snake of taillights slithered to another halt line in front of him. Will sighed and tapped the brakes, rolling to a stop. He turned up Emmy Lou Harris on the CD player. On the seat next to him, Riley, his five-year old German shepherd, licked his chops nervously. Riley liked traffic even less than Will did.
Traffic on the 101 was always a bitch these days, and it was especially a bitch on Friday evenings when half the Valley residents seemed to be pouring out every side street and crevice of the smoggy basin for a weekend in the mountains or at the beach.
It could take an exasperating hour just to travel from his Woodland Hills home to Ventura. Lately Taylor had been hinting that they should move in together. Will had ignored the hints.
Not that he didn’t like Ventura. He did. Living that near the beach would be great, in fact. And not like he and Taylor didn’t get along well. They had always got along well, even before they moved the relationship from best friends and partners to lovers.
Not a word Will would typically have used to describe one of his relationships. But then he wouldn’t generally describe his relationships as relationships.
The cars in front of him began to move again, brake lights flicking off, turn signals flicking on. The sea of traffic rolling forward once more.
And then stop.
“God damn traffic,” Will growled, and Riley flicked his ears.
Will closed his eyes, picturing his eventual arrival, savoring it, momentarily shutting out the smog and exhaust and noise of Friday evening on the 101, seeing Taylor’s face in his mind: that weirdly exotic bone structure. Wide green eyes that looked almost bronze, a wicked angel’s full, sensual mouth, the soft, dark hair with that new -- since the shooting -- streak of silver.
He did not want to fight with Taylor over this thing with Bradley. He especially did not want to fight with him tonight when he had been looking forward to this evening -- this weekend -- all day.
They needed this time together. It had been a rough couple of weeks with Will working late most nights and Taylor increasingly frustrated with desk duty. Taylor wasn’t the most patient guy in the world at the best of times. And this had not been the best of times for him.
Will had planned on a long weekend of spoiling him rotten, starting with dinner at Taylor’s favorite Japanese restaurant. But now...
So did he tell Taylor the bad news up front or did he wait till Taylor was properly fed and fucked?
Emmy Lou sang, “I’m riding a big blue ball, I never do dream I will fall--”
“What do you think?” he asked Riley.
Riley flicked his ears and stared out the window, panting softly.
“You’re no help,” Will grumbled.
* * * * *
Will parked behind Taylor’s silver Acura MDX in the narrow side driveway, and got out of his own Toyota Land Cruiser. Evenings were damp this close to the beach. The air smelled of salt and old seaweed; corrupt yet invigorating.
He let Riley out of the passenger side of the SUV. Riley trotted down the driveway to the large, overgrown backyard barking a warning to the neighborhood cats.
Will slid the gate shut. The house was an original Craftsman bungalow. It had been in terrible shape when Taylor bought it two years previously. Actually, it was still in terrible shape, but Taylor was renovating it, one room at a time, in his spare hours.
Will got his duffel bag of the back seat and the heavy blue-and-gold-wrapped birthday present. He felt self-conscious about that present; he’d spent a lot of time and a fair amount of money on Taylor this year.
Hard to forget that Taylor nearly hadn’t lived to see this birthday.
Speak of the devil. The side door opened, and Taylor came down the steps, an unguarded grin breaking the remote beauty of his face. There was a funny catch in Will’s throat as he saw him alive and strong and smiling again.
“How was traffic?”
Will opened his mouth, but the next instant Taylor was in his arms, his mouth covering Will’s in unaffected hunger. They were safe here. The cinderblock wall was high and the bougainvillea draping over the edge of the roof neatly blocked out the view of this driveway from the street.
“Man, I missed you,” Taylor said when they surfaced for air.
“You saw me this morning.”
“For three minutes in front of Varga, Jabowitz, and Cooper. It’s not the same.”
“No,” agreed Will, “it’s not the same.” His gaze rested on Taylor’s face; his heart seemed to swell with a quiet joy. “Happy birthday.”
“Thanks.” Taylor’s smile widened. “Hey, I got your card.”
“Oh.” Will was a little embarrassed about that card. To My Sweetheart or whatever it said. Kind of over-the-top. He’d bought it on impulse. Taylor was smiling, though, and no sign of mockery, so maybe it was okay.
“Is that for me?” Taylor asked as Will retrieved the tote bag and parcel he’d dropped when Taylor landed in his arms.
“Nah. I’m heading over to another party after I get done here.” Will shoved the blue-and-gold present into his hands. “Yes, it’s for you.”
“Okay if I open it now?”
“You’re the most impatient guy I ever met.” Will was amused, though.
“Hey, I waited three years for you,” Taylor threw over his shoulder, heading up the stairs into the house.
“Yeah, remind me again how you whiled away the hours in that lonely monastery as you waited?”
Taylor’s chuckle drifted back.
Will heeled the side door shut and followed Taylor through the mud porch and into the kitchen.
This was one of the first rooms Taylor had renovated: a cozy breakfast nook with built-in window benches, gleaming mahogany cabinets and drawers with patinated copper fixtures, green granite counters and gray green slate floor. The numerous cabinets were well designed and well organized. The care and priority given the kitchen might have deceived someone into thinking cooking played a role in Taylor’s life. In fact, the kitchen had been designed to please Will -- the only person who had ever cooked a meal in that house.
There was a German chocolate cake on the table in the breakfast nook. Will’s card was propped next to it with a couple of others: To Our Son, To My Son, To My Brother, What is a Brother? Happy Birthday, Uncle. Greetings from the whole tribe. To the side of these was a wine bottle-shaped science experiment gone awry.
“What the hell is that?” Will peered more closely at the pickled contents of the wine bottle. What it was, was a fucking cobra. The cobra stared back sightlessly at him, fangs bared.
“It’s my snake. I’ve been waiting all day to show it to you.” Taylor wiggled his eyebrows salaciously.
“Funny,” said Will, glancing at him. “Where did you get it?”
“It came in the mail.”
“Who sent it?”
“You don’t know?”
“The card must have got lost.”
They both studied the bottle.
“What is the liquid?”
“Is it poison?”
“It’s not supposed to be. In fact, it’s supposed to be a cure all -- and an aphrodisiac.”
“I bet bourbon works just as well and you don’t have that nasty cobra aftertaste.”
Taylor’s smile was preoccupied. Will gave him a closer look.
“You don’t have any idea who would have sent something like this?”
Taylor shook his head. Will laughed and threw an arm around his wide, bony shoulders.
“Nah.” But Taylor’s brows were drawn together as he continued to gaze at the bottle. “Weird though, isn’t it?”
Taylor had some weird friends. And weirder acquaintances. He had been in the DSS longer than Will, signing on right out of college, and he’d been posted to Tokyo, Afghanistan and, briefly, Haiti. The next time he was posted overseas it would be as a Regional Security Officer responsible for managing security operations for an embassy or for a number of diplomatic posts within an assigned area. That was one reason Will was hesitant to move in with him. Not a lot of point in setting up house when one or both of them could be stationed overseas within a year or so.
Taylor didn’t see it this way, of course. Taylor’s idea was they should move in together immediately and they’d deal with the threat of a future separation when -- if -- it happened. He’d always had a tendency to leave tomorrow to take care of itself, but getting shot had cemented his determination to live every day as though it were his last.
Will understood that. He even agreed with it, in principle, but what happened to him when Taylor was posted overseas for three or so years? Things weren’t as simple as Taylor liked to pretend.
He glanced at Taylor’s profile. He was frowning, and Will did not want him frowning on his birthday.
“Hey,” he said softly. Taylor’s head turned his way. “Want to open your present?”
“Sure.” Taylor started to pull the gold ribbon on the parcel he was carrying. Will put his hand over his.
“Your other present,” he said meaningfully, and Taylor started to laugh.
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.