Womack stared at the wall, lost in the shape of a crack, meandering across it in a jagged line. Wasn't sure why it'd caught his attention, but now that it had he couldn't take his eyes off it. White against the blue. Plaster and paint, though, not clouds and sky.
How long had it been since he'd seen anything but the black anyway?
He found the start of the crack and let his gaze fall into it, chasing along it, bumping and riding the twists, just like he had when he'd been chasing that gorram piece of shit Firefly -- no. Not going there. Not thinking about that.
He reached the end of the crack, where the plaster had flaked and splintered, tinier cracks extending out into the paint, and look at that, will you, the way the paint was bumpy and lumpy, and just who had walked away with pay for a fucked-up piece of shoddy work like that, anyway?
He blinked at the sharp knock that sounded, the room snapping back into focus, leaving him disorientated and dizzy. As he stood, heading for the door, he glanced at the wall again, searching idly for the crack.
Gone. What the fuck? He called out something to let his visitor know he was there and walked the four or five paces needed to put his nose practically flat against the wall. Took him a long few seconds to find it; a delicate, hair-thin line on a glass-smooth surface.
The knock came again just as the line began to widen and spread into a chasm and he jerked his head back, breathing fast and choppy.
Shit. Seeing things. Tired, that was what it was. Tired and -- yeah, what was waiting on the other side of the door would see him right.
What was waiting turned out to be not what he'd ordered.
Male, for one thing, and on the short side. Late twenties, maybe, unless he'd had work done. Womack might have been crooked but he was still a cop and he scanned the man up and down automatically, checking him out. Solid enough, but no fighter. And, given the lack of visible scars, that meant he usually kept out of trouble, or he was very good at running. Womack eyed the capacious, shabby bag slung over a shoulder and decided that the complicated straps holding it closed meant any weapon in there wasn't going to be reachable before he had time to break fingers. The clothing -- faded black pants and layered shirts under a bulky jacket made of some kind of leather -- could have hidden anything from a bomb to livestock, though.
"Uh, hi, man. I wondered -- look, can we talk? Inside, I mean?"
Womack ignored the greeting and the questions and stared at the face. Didn't look familiar. No one he owed money to, and if he did, the kid could forget it. He wasn't in the charity business. Blue eyes, thick brown hair tied back off a good-looking face, all cheekbones and pout, the pony tail making Womack remember… oh, God, yes, that rutting shepherd, who could take to breathing vacuum any time he wanted, any time soon.
Craning his head, he scanned the corridor in both directions and then raised his eyebrows at the patiently waiting man in front of him. "I asked for a woman and a bottle."
The man spread his hands, which, luckily for him, were empty. "No bottle. I could get one and come back if you want, but --"
He got a smile, sun-bright and inviting him to smile back. "I can't do anything about the other thing."
Okay, enough was enough. "You don't have to, sweetheart. Got me a knife right here and if your ass isn't wiggling its way out of sight by the time I get bored talking, I'll be happy to take care of removing everything man-shaped you've got."
Blue eyes turned disapproving. "Now, that's just plain wasteful."
Somehow, the man got past him and into his room, forcing him to turn his back on an open door. Anger bled through him, sour and black, and he reached out, grabbing the man by his arm. "Hold up." A tug and a twist and he had his arm wrapped around the man's neck, standing behind him, close, real close, breathing in a spicy smell of --
cinnamon and butter, soap and sweat -- no, more than that, more -- cowhide and dye, chemical and sharp
His grip slackened as his head spun with the onslaught of data but the body pressed against his didn't move until he shoved it away.
His gun was in his hand before the man stopped talking and turning back to face him. "Oh, I'm relaxed. I like shooting people. Doesn't bother me a bit."
A wide, generous mouth curved up at the edges. "In front of witnesses? Guess the stories about you are true, Lieutenant Womack."
"What stories? No --" He shook his head, trying to clear it. Wrong question. "What witnesses?"
The blue eyes turned speculative. "You tell me. Hear anyone coming?"
"Huh?" Womack didn't take his eyes off the man but he tilted his head, listening. Yeah. There was the hum of the rising elevator and the hiss of its doors opening. He concentrated and felt his head fill with the staccato beat of high heels on a hard floor, sounding louder than they should have been.
"Finally," he muttered. He jerked his thumb. "You. Out. Now, unless you want a bullet as a souvenir."
The man moved away from the door, deeper into the room, folding his arms across his chest as if that would protect him. "I'm not going anywhere. We need to talk."
"And I need to fuck so forget it." He really didn't know why he was letting this guy keep breathing. Lost his edge. Somewhere out there, he'd lost fucking everything.
The doorway filled with a pair of tits followed by a leggy redhead wearing something that looked too expensive to rip off but flimsy enough that he probably wouldn't have to. And she had a bottle.
"Took your gorram time, didn't you?" he snarled at her.
Her simper froze, less because of his greeting than the gun in his hand. "Hey, mister --"
"That's Lieutenant, and --"
She was looking past him at the kid. "Price goes up if there's more than one of you," she said flatly.
"He's leaving." Womack glanced at the man and sucked in an outraged breath because the guy was touching his fucking stuff, running his fingers over the buckles on one of Womack's gauntlets, tossed onto the table in the corner. "Get your rutting ass away from those!"
Hands came up in a placating gesture. "Hey, just looking."
"He's leaving now," Womack told the whore.
"Oh, no, I'm not," the man said in a sing-song whisper with a smile attached.
"Oh, you really are. If you're lucky, it'll be through the door not the window." Womack looked a little closer at the woman, a memory surfacing. "Don't I know you?" He snapped his fingers. "Yeah, yeah, I do. A year back, maybe two, but you were blonde, then. Lorna. Linda…"
"Close enough." He pursed his lips. She'd cried. He hated it when they did that. He could tell from her expression that the recollection was mutual but she didn't back away.
"Hi, Lindy." The man was sprawled out in the room's only armchair now, working his hand inside one of the gauntlets, letting the glove swallow it up. "I'm Sandburg. Pleasure to meet you." He widened his eyes at Womack. "You going to pay the lady for the whiskey any time soon?"
"Look, I don't know what's going on --" Lindy began.
Womack shoved his gun back in its hip holster and grabbed the bottle from her hand, tossing it onto the bed where it bounced and rolled before coming to rest up against a pillow. "What's going on is that he's leaving and you're getting naked real quick. That too complicated for either of you? Because if I have to break it down any simpler, that's not all I'll be breaking, dong ma?"
"Was he in a good mood last time?" Sandburg asked Lindy.
"What?" Her eyes, an emerald deep and bright enough to be guaranteed fake, narrowed, giving the lie to her answer. "Yeah, I guess…"
"And he still hurt you, didn't he? Left you marked?"
"Wait just a gorram minute --" Womack snarled. Any marks he'd left had been accidental, heat of the moment. A man couldn't be blamed for those.
"I don't discuss clients --" she began, giving Womack an anxious look.
Sandburg gave her a sympathetic grimace back. "He's in a bad mood tonight, sweetheart. Whatever he pays you won't make up for the money you'll lose while you get pretty again."
Now that was just plain lies. He'd never hurt a woman that bad, not ever, and unless one pushed him, he never would. Womack opened his mouth to say so, but the girl gave a choked sound that was first cousin to a sob and backed off a careful step.
He hadn't been in the mood for a repeat anyway. She hadn't been all that much.
"I'm not paying for the whiskey," he told her through his teeth, slamming the door on her eager nod and relieved expression.
He turned, ready to kill, aching to hurt, and took one step before stopping dead.
"I'm better than her." Sandburg held up a leather-clad hand and studied it before touching the tip of his tongue to his middle finger, bending the others down, out of the way.
Oh, he knew what was going to happen next, he knew --
"I'll let you do anything."
The sweet-pink tongue lapped and licked the black leather shiny.
"And I'll do anything it takes to get you to listen to me."
The finger slipped past parted lips, in and back out, a slow fuck of a sinful mouth.
"Something's telling me you won't until you've come, am I right?"
He could hear the leather tear as sharp teeth raked over it but when Sandburg pulled his finger out with an obscenely wet pop, it didn't look damaged. Womack shook the sound out of his head and swallowed. He was hard. From a tease like that, blatantly crude. Too long without a woman… except it hadn't been that long.
"I don't do men --"
He was closer to Sandburg. How had he got closer? Blue eyes blinked up at him and that wet, leather-clad finger traced the shape of Sandburg's lips real slow before slipping inside to be sucked on briefly, hard enough that the kid's cheeks dipped hollow.
"You'll do me. I'm different." Sandburg stood, stripping off the long glove and holding it in his hand, limp and heavy. "And then we'll talk. Deal?"
"I could kill you where you stand and they'd throw me a party."
Sandburg smiled, blue eyes cold now, the geniality stripped away. He looked older. "From the way they're talking, you'd be the entertainment. Man, you're dead meat. A joke. Suspended without pay pending an investigation? Right… We both know what that means, don't we? You're finished. Through."
"You… How did you --?"
"I have sources. And I'm interested in you." Sandburg tossed the glove at him and then shrugged out of his coat, dropping it onto the floor where it landed half over the bulk of his carry bag. Without the coat he looked smaller but more of a threat, somehow, standing poised to move, bare forearms showing more muscles than Womack had expected. "I can help you."
"I don't need any help." His fingers found where the leather was wet and lingered there. He could feel the slipperiness of the spit filling in the grain of the leather, making it smooth.
"Now, see, you said that without thinking," Sandburg chided him. The shirt followed the coat and for a moment, as Sandburg worked a torn black T-shirt over his head he was blind.
Womack could've jumped him, broken him, left him bleeding. He didn't. Too busy staring at the soft dazzle of a silver ring dangling from a nipple. It shone and twinkled, bright and --
Two thuds, bang, bang, as Sandburg's boots got slung against the wall were enough to snap him out of his abstraction but by then it was too late.
Sandburg kicked his way clear of his pants and stared at him, naked, hard, and shivering slightly. "You didn't say stop, so I kept on going, but, you know, we could have done this with me wearing a lot more clothes."
"Real romantic, aren't you?"
"I can be. This is business. Different rules."
"Rules?" Womack shook his head, stalking slowly around Sandburg. He wanted to push his hand inside the glove and feel the residual heat there. Wanted to shield his skin, make it safe and hidden. And he wanted to run his gloved hand over Sandburg's skin, push two fingers, three, into his mouth, his ass, feel the distant heat soak through the leather to his skin. "I don't think so. And I'm not interested in anything you've got to offer."
"So why am I standing here naked?"
Good point, but he had an answer. Wasn't the truth, but it would do better than the truth. Most lies did. "Makes it funnier when I kick you outside and keep your shit in here with me."
Sandburg shook his head and didn't stop for a while, his deep, rich voice sounding a mile away from panic; closer to stubborn. "No. Oh, no way. You need me. I've been waiting for you --"
"What the hell is this? You're trying to scam me, is that it?" Tiring of the game, Womack stopped behind Sandburg, wrapped the long tail of hair around his fist, and hauled Sandburg to him, so that Sandburg's ass was snuggled up against him again. He worked the glove on one-handed with the ease of practice and stroked his gloved hand across the bent-back bow of Sandburg's throat. Even through the tough, supple leather he could feel the hammer stroke of each pulse beat, hypnotic and alluring.
A life, counting down to death. How many had he stopped before they were due to run down to silence? He'd never counted past the first few. Some had been official, some… personal.
This one was going to be real personal.
"Want a last word?" he whispered into an ear that carried two rings through the lobe, the holes dark dips in pale skin. "I'm partial to 'please' and I'll be kind and let you throw in a 'no' if you want. People seem to think they go together."
Sandburg's throat rippled in a convulsive swallow and then he relaxed. Some people did that; met death smiling, happy. He hadn't figured the kid to be that sort. Expected a struggle, but Sandburg's arms hung down by his sides, hands not even fisted. Maybe a babble of words, but the kid seemed to have run out.
He began, a little regretfully, to clamp down, squeeze, and twist. Maybe he'd settle for choking him unconscious and dump him on the darkside of town. It wasn't much different than murder but hey, he was a cop; he'd sworn an oath to protect folk. Or maybe he'd just mouthed the words silently and taken the money. Too long ago now; he couldn't remember.
A tendril of hair, caught in the fitful wash of the room's air, brushed his chin and he paused, just for a second, counting the hairs, one by one by one by --
Now that had to be the oddest last word he'd ever --
And no one called him that, no one, ever, but he was already pushing Sandburg down and to the side, and drawing his gun, already putting nice, neat holes through the foreheads of the two men who hadn't had to do more than open the door because he hadn't locked it, had he, being distracted and all.
They fell in messy heaps of bone and skin. Sandburg was sprawled out, bare legs splayed wide, ass up and inviting. Womack rolled his eyes, stepped over him, and went to check on the men.
"Who were they?"
Sandburg sounded curious, not hysterical, which was about all that stopped him from getting acquainted with a nice warm bullet of his own.
Womack extended his hand back without looking and pointed the gun, cocking it as he did. The solid, metallic grind of the chambered round echoed in the suddenly silent room.
"You're aiming at the chair."
Sandburg was just a laugh a fucking minute. "The bullet will deflect and rip out your spine."
The disbelieving silence lasted a beat longer, enough time for Womack to get what he needed out of the pockets of the corpses -- money, weapons, ID -- without having to think up anything else to say.
"I just saved your life."
"Really?" Womack straightened, wondering why no one had come running and then realised they'd been expecting to hear shots and had been paid to look the other way. "I don't remember that."
His bag was in the corner, still packed, holding most of what he owned now. "What a man hallucinates as he's dying is between him and his God."
"Funny." Sandburg got to his knees and began to gather his clothes and get dressed -- still hard, which didn't surprise Womack much as his own cock was in a similar state. God, if he didn't get laid soon, he was going to get blisters on his palm.
"Yeah, I try to go through life with a song in my heart and a smile on my face." The whiskey he left where it was; might have been drugged. He pulled on his coat and walked over to the table to collect his other glove, keeping part of his attention on Sandburg. He'd had enough surprises for one night.
"You didn't tell me who they were."
"That's right. I did a good job of not telling you, too. Why am I not surprised that you don't take hints?"
Sandburg shrugged, tugging up his pants. "You haven't hinted. You've just been rude. I came here to help you, man and you've been hostile, you know that?"
He was ready to leave and he wasn't interested, no, he really wasn't, in what Sandburg wanted, but on the slim chance that he'd get a straight answer he paused at the door and waited, knowing that was all the invitation the kid would need.
Sandburg kept his mouth closed until his boots were on, his jacket fastened, and his bag slung over his shoulder. "You want to know why I'm here?"
Time was running out. Womack could feel it. "I have to go."
"Take me with you."
"I know somewhere safe we can stay."
He'd just killed two men he'd worked with for a decade. Men who'd rolled over on him and spilled every detail of every crooked deal he'd ever done in exchange for their freedom. There wasn't anywhere safe in any sector. Not now.
"Dream on, kid."
"Don't call me that."
"Sandburg, then." He hunched up his shoulder, uneasy and unsettled. "You said it yourself; I'm dead. Stay close and you will be, too. I don't know why you came looking for me tonight, but --"
"Tonight?" Sandburg laughed. "Try eight years of looking. And now I've found you, I'm not letting you die. No way."
"You know, insanity isn't that attractive a quality."
"I'm not insane." The full mouth went thin and set. "And you're not, either. What's happening to you -- I know why. I know how you can use it."
Womack stared at him, his gun rising with his temper. "You don't know anything!"
Sandburg didn't move. "I know what you are."
Footsteps coming. Coming to check why his men hadn't gone back downstairs --
Window. Going to have to be the window…
"What am I?" he said as he eased it open and looked down into the alley below. Too far below.
"A what?" Maybe if he dropped something to cushion his fall. Yeah… the mattress. Or the kid, if he didn't stop yammering.
"You're special. Chosen,"
"I knew it!" He spared Sandburg a glare as he began to wrestle the mattress to the window. "That hair… you're a shepherd, aren't you? Trying to save my soul?"
"By letting you fuck me through that mattress you're about to -- what are you doing--? Oh, right, I get it. Clever."
"Yeah…" He nodded at Sandburg. "See you around, Shepherd."
"I'm not a --"
Womack swung over the ledge, hung by his hands, looking up into a troubled face and blue eyes, and then let go.
Landing hurt. He missed the mattress by a gorram foot at least.
Sandburg hit it dead centre and bounced, a grin on his face.
That didn't surprise him either.
What did surprise him was that when Sandburg took off, telling him to follow and stay close, he did it.
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