MOUTH AND THE MUSCLE
By Sara Dobie Bauer
What happened after I saved Max’s life is kind of a blur.
The warehouse by the docks smelled like spilled motor oil and spoiled seafood. A big, blue moon reflected off black water. I walked fast, late for a meeting. My partner, Max, and I had been undercover two months by then, trying to bust a guy importing illegal drugs from Canada. We were close.
Max was already inside, talking. That was his strong suit. He was the brains; I was the brawn. He looked the part, too: medium height; marathon runner thin; ginger hair that he insisted was “auburn;” and non-prescription glasses he wore only when undercover to add to his smart, Brooklyn mouth.
Then, me: I looked like an ex-con who’d forgotten to shave. Over six feet with muscles built by Crossfit. Dark hair, dark eyes, and I kept my mouth shut, let Max do the talking. No one would ever suspect us for cops, not the way we looked, the way we acted: hung-over frat boys, picking at each other, pushing at each other. That was Max and me.
So just imagine my genuine fucking surprise when I walked into the warehouse to find Max on his knees with a gun in his face. The smart guy glasses were gone, replaced by a bloody nose and bruised cheek. His hands were tied behind his back. When he saw my dumbstruck ass, he didn’t break character. He looked scared; maybe he was.
“Tony,” he said, “tell them I’m not a cop.”
I stared at the two goons standing between me and my best friend. “What the fuck’s goin’ on?”
“Primo said he did some looking into this cunt. Said he’s NYPD.” Goon number one, his name was Chuck, and he was the one with the .45 pressed against Max’s forehead.
I chuckled. “Yeah, well, I’ve known this cunt for five years. You don’t think I’d know he was a cop?”
“Maybe you’re a cop, too.” Goon number two, Danny, pulled his piece same time I pulled mine: Mexican standoff.
“Hey, let’s not turn this into Reservoir Dogs, okay?” Max said. “You dicks know me. Do I look like a cop to you?”
“I’m sick of hearing you talk. Open your mouth,” Chuck said.
I kept one eye on Danny, one on Max.
“I’m sick of hearin’ you try talking your way out of this. Now, open your mouth so I can put my gun in it.”
“Fuck off, Chuck.” Only Max would have the balls to say something like that to a drug addict criminal with a gun in his face.
Chuck hit him good for it, gun to forehead, which almost sent Max sideways. He managed to stay on his knees, and Chuck grabbed him by the hair and forced the silver muzzle between his lips.
Here’s where things get kind of fuzzy.
Someone said my name — Tony. I think it was Danny. I knew he didn’t want to shoot me; Danny seemed an all right guy for a dirty stinking drug dealer. He said something else, but it was like being back in Afghanistan after a roadside bomb. All I heard was the high-pitched tone of those emergency alert signals on TV. Tunnel vision was back from my sniper days, and my target was Max: get to Max.
I guess we knew each other well enough — five years is a long time — for Max to see my eyeballs throb in my skull. The muzzle was still in his mouth, but he was ready to move.
I lowered my gun; so did Danny. I think I said, “Chuck,” which drew that asshole’s attention, which gave Max a chance to stop sucking a .45 and hit the ground. With military precision, two corpses hit the floor.
I picked Max up by his shoulders. I put my hands on the back of his head and kissed the son of a bitch — hard. His lips weren’t exactly moving against mine, and I think I heard a sound of dissent, but what was he gonna do with his hands tied behind his back?
I do remember he tasted like cheap coffee. Max was embarrassingly metro, so his lips felt like silk and he must’ve shaved that afternoon. I crushed his hair between my fingers until he pushed me back with his forehead against mine. Then, I crushed him to me in a hug that could have leveled a skyscraper. I had to bend over a bit to push my nose into his neck and smell what I knew to be knock-off Armani cologne.
Even though his chest rose in panicked gasps against me, he found the air to say, “I’m okay, man. Shit.”
* * *
Max wouldn’t look at me in the police cruiser. Not even in medical while the nurse fixed his broken nose. Not while we filled out a short bit of paperwork before the chief said, “You’ve both been through enough for one day. Go home and get some sleep.”
Max didn’t say bye, didn’t say thank you; he just left, and I was high and dry up shit creek. Yeah, sure, of course Max knew I was gay. He’d always been fine with it. Why wouldn’t he be? He was an open-minded guy. Under his advice, though, other guys on the force didn’t know. Max told me, years ago, it could make some people uncomfortable.
Soon as I got home, I opened a fresh bottle of scotch. I drank straight from the bottle. I gargled and spit some out in the sink, where dishes stacked up. One of them looked fuzzy. I had to get that taste of coffee out of my mouth. Fast.
I didn’t remember shooting Chuck or Danny, but I sure as shit remembered kissing my best friend. I had a terrible feeling I’d remember that for the rest of my idiot life. For all I knew, Max already put in for a new partner, a transfer maybe, because let’s face it: gay guys aren’t supposed to kiss straight guys, especially not when they’re best friends.
Women liked Max; no, they loved him — the smart mouth, the Brooklyn accent, the way he walked. He had a great walk, like he always knew someone was watching. That someone was usually me. I took another swig of scotch.
The buzzing sound wasn’t in my head; someone was downstairs at my apartment door, asking to be let in. I reached for my piece, even though none of Primo’s boys would find us. They had our first names, but that was it. We even left the scene as-is so Primo would never be sure if we were cops; he just knew we were murderers. Better that way.
I pushed the intercom. “Who is it?”
“Fuck.” I leaned my head against the wall.
“Let me in, man.”
I buzzed him up and left the front door open, happy to cower in my favorite recliner with my guilt and booze.
He closed the door behind him, locked it: the habitual paranoia of a born and bred New Yorker. He wore usual Max attire: dark jeans, dark button-down, leather jacket. His face wasn’t bloody, just bruised. At least his nose wasn’t crooked anymore.
He put his hands in his pockets. “You gonna drown in bad scotch, or are we gonna talk about this?”
“Nothing to talk about. You can get a new partner, transfer, whatever.”
“Fuck, Tony, you think I came over here to dump you?” He sighed and turned a slow circle in my cluttered living room. I could tell he was getting that big brain together. “How long?”
“How long you been looking at me as more than your partner?”
“Just today, because you were scared?”
I took a gulp of scotch that made my eyes water.
“Great, so longer than today. How long?”
“What does it matter?”
“It matters to me,” he said. “Just tell me you ain’t in love with me.”
“Aw, fuck, Tony.” He fell into the couch next to my chair. “Gimme that.” Pulled the bottle of scotch from my fingers. “How’d this happen?”
I stared at the floor.
“Hey!” He snapped his fingers at me. “Say something. This is a two-way conversation, ass.”
“It’s not like I woke up one morning, and…” I turned my palms up.
Max didn’t say anything. He just glared at me.
“We’ve known each other a long time…” I looked at him. Christ, he was good-looking. The biggest lie I could’ve told: I’ve never masturbated thinkin’ about you before. “We’ve been through a lot, you know, and so maybe over the course of time, I grew fond.”
“Fond is not what I felt pressing against my hip tonight, Tone. What we gonna do about this?”
“We don’t gotta do nothing. Pretend today never happened.”
a swig of scotch and didn’t hand the bottle back. “When’s the last time you
went on a date?” I blew
air out between my lips. “What you talking? We’ve been under cover for two
air out between my lips. “What you talking? We’ve been under cover for two
“Yeah, and I got laid last week. When’s the last time you got laid?”
“Tony, I’m straight. You can’t wait and hope one day I wake up hungry for cock.”
I made a disgusted noise and stood up.
He must have stood, too, because all of a sudden, he had his hands on my shoulders and was staring up at me with those fine-looking blue eyes. “What happened today?”
I shook my head.
“I thought I was gonna lose you.”
“And when I didn’t, I just had to feel you were alive, okay?”
“Okay.” He nodded.
“But I do love you, so I’m kinda fucked.”
He swept his hand over his mouth. “Yeah.” He sat back down on the couch, and I slouched into my recliner.
“Got any gay brothers who look like you?”
He chuckled, thank Christ. “Whatever else happened today… you saved my life. Thanks, Tone.”
I handed him the bottle of scotch.
He took a swig while I studied his face. He got that look about him: the one he gets right before he solves some big case, always before my puny brain can figure it out.
He said, “How’d Chuck know I was a cop?”
“He said Primo told him.”
“And someone told Primo.”
Max paused, his lips barely touching the bottle top. “What if there’s a mole in the department? Think that mole would know where you live?”
“Shit.” I half-stood just as my apartment window broke and what sounded like a metallic rock rolled across the living room floor.
I lifted Max by the front of his shirt and threw him into my bedroom. I kicked the door shut and covered his body with mine like I would have back in Afghanistan. The grenade shook my apartment but didn’t knock in the door.
I was moving in moments, and barely registered Max: “That’s one way to get me into your bedroom.”
I glanced over my shoulder at him as I went for the gun in my bedside drawer, and he was open and closing his mouth, trying to pop his eardrums, no doubt. I’d been around so many fuckin’ bombs, I didn’t even notice the ringing in my ears.
He looked at me from the ground but already had his Glock pulled. I palmed my trusty 1911. We took stances at opposite corners. Anyone coming through my door was in for two bullets to the head. We heard some stomps and whistles, which was when Max leaned his head against the wall and crossed himself.
“You will not be the last person I kiss before I die,” he said. “The fuck am I gonna explain that at the pearly gates?”
“I’m fine with it.”
“You would be, homo.” He laughed.
I couldn’t take my eyes off the way his face wrinkled when he laughed, and I laughed, too. We got so damn giggly during gunfights.
Then, they were inside. Would have been a lot smarter if they hadn’t blown the place first. They would have caught us having a “moment” over some scotch and shot us dead. Criminals are so dumb.
Max let me take the first one, considering I was the ex-sniper, not that my partner was a slouch; shit, I taught him everything he knew. I was in tunnel vision mode when the shooting started, but those street thugs were no match for two heavily trained cops. Made me sort of feel bad for ’em.
Primo sent his boys into a slaughter. Maybe he did it on purpose — just a warning, yeah? — or maybe Primo wasn’t as good at fights as he was at dealing dope. Didn’t matter. I was just happy to have things back to normal for a second: me and Max against the world.
We stood over a bunch of dead bodies in my living room to the background sound of sirens outside. Of course someone called the cops. Must have sounded like an old gangster movie in there.
“I could use a smoke,” Max said.
“Worst decision of my life.” He looked at me. “You got nicked.”
I hadn’t noticed. My shoulder was bleeding.
* * *
The bullet was a through and through. I sat in the back of the ambulance, gritting my teeth, and watched my partner talk to the chief.
Max was a hundred percent Irish, but sometimes he used his hands like he came over on the boat from Sicily. Our chief — a decorated Vietnam vet and one of the only people who didn’t think much of Max — had a horrified look on his face. Lord knew an internal manhunt sucked the life out of any precinct. It was gonna be a long couple months.
My partner’s short ginger hair stuck up in the front. His face was shiny from earlier sweat. The collar on his shirt was all messed up, and if I looked close, his hands shook a little as he gestured wildly in the air. He’d never been a soldier, but I bet he coulda sold a Bible to an atheist. One of the things I loved about him.
I watched the chief poke fingers into Max’s chest and whisper something right in his face. Yeah, I understood: we’d have to keep it all on the down low to trap our rat. Max nodded and made his way toward me. Somewhere, he’d found a cigarette.
He climbed in the ambulance and sat across from the guy sewing my skin. Max said, “Pandora’s legs are way fuckin’ open.”
“They’re going to get Primo right now, although he might already be in Canada. He shouldn’t be a problem no more, not for awhile at least.”
“Sir, you can’t smoke in here.”
Max rolled his eyes and flicked the cigarette onto the pavement.
“Hey, uh, EMT guy, could you give us a second?”
He shrugged, set down his tools. The ambulance shifted as he stepped outside.
“Are we okay?” I said.
Max chewed his thumb. “Yeah, sure. We’ll hit up some Irish pubs and find you someone who looks like me.”
“It’s not about the way you look.”
“You’re my best friend.”
He looked up at me, nodded. “You can’t be in love with me anymore, Tone.”
I nodded in retort and watched him jump out of the ambulance and pick up his still smoldering cig from the street. He walked away, hand in his pocket.
Fuck it. I might never wake up to those baby blues, never bring Max his morning coffee in bed. But I could be near him every day, talk to him, kill the bad guys.
If that ain’t romantic, I don’t know what is.
Sara Dobie Bauer’s short fiction has appeared in The Molotov Cocktail, Stoneslide Corrective, Blank Fiction, and Solarcide. Her e-book “Forever Dead” is available from Amazon. You can learn more about the author at http://saradobie.wordpress.com.
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