Shades of Ruby Begonia
"A retired flight attendant?" Blair Sandburg repeated.
"Wow. You must have seen some pretty exciting people and places in your career."
Detective Jim Ellison opened one eye to check out the person sitting across the narrow aisle beside his partner and let a small smile of satisfaction curl his lips. Late sixties. No, he reconsidered. Early seventies, he'd judge. Every immaculate hair in place in the short style that would soon need a touch-up of color from the steel gray that was just beginning to show at the roots. Carefully applied make-up couldn't disguise the wrinkles or the skin that had long ago lost its elasticity. All in all, she was a slender older woman who had fought the battle of age with all the weapons at her disposal. Still attractive for her years, except for tightness around her mouth, the cop decided.
He slid his long legs just a little further out to completely block the aisle as he shifted a little lower in an effort to find a comfortable position in the uncomfortable chair. They designed them that way, he was sure. Some fat-assed designer sat in 'his' comfortable chair in a high rise office and concentrated on ways to design a chair that was almost comfortable. Something that was just close enough that you kept moving, shifting, sure that if you kept searching you'd find that elusive comfort spot.
Sliding his foot sideways, he let it rest against his partner's ankle. He decided the woman was safe company for the grad student and he could relax enough to grab a quick nap before their delayed flight was called. How much trouble could Sandburg get into with a woman old enough to be his grandmother? They could swap exotic travel stories. His foot bumped the woman's purse and an envelope teetered on the edge of falling out of an outside pocket long enough for the Sentinel to see a name and address before it slid back down inside the bag.
Ellison propped his elbows on the metal chair arms and closed his eyes. He shifted slightly until he found a tolerable position and linked his fingers over his stomach, listening with half an ear as the woman with the captive audience of one settled in to give a detailed account of her personal history.
"I am seventy-three years old," the woman began in a tone that said she expected to be disagreed with, "although most people swear I look at least ten years younger than that."
'Yeah, right,' Ellison thought irritably. 'I'll give you three years, but not ten. Whoever says that is lying through their teeth.' He turned his hearing down a notch.
"Some even say fifteen." She waited for Sandburg to make an assenting noise before continuing. "I retired two months ago after almost fifty years of flying." There was a touch of anger in her tone. "I didn't want to, but I was forced into retirement. The state of affairs of the airlines currently is appalling. I feel like a thoroughbred who has been put out to pasture too soon."
Ellison felt a tiny spark of sympathy for the woman that he managed to squelch without too much trouble as he dialed his hearing a notch lower.
"The girls I flew with have always called me Princess Joyce, right from the beginning, because I insisted that everything be 'just so.' I always told them that I was a princess and for them not to forget it."
Any sign of sympathy died as the cop gave an inward flinch at the prim arrogance in her tone and he concentrated for a moment and was proud of himself when he tuned her voice completely out, letting the other conversations around him become a white noise. He listened only to the slow steady rhythm of his partner's heartbeat as he drifted off.
It was that same heartbeat that drew him from a sleep deeper than
he'd intended an indeterminate time later. Only what called to him from a dream of beaches
with perfect waves and a particular perfect body on that beach was not the same steady
rhythm that had lulled him to sleep. He could dream, even if the perfect body he dreamed
about had never shown any interest in his body. The familiar heartbeat elevated, now
almost a staccato beat that brought with it images of fear or danger.
Military training had his sentinel senses reaching out, searching for the danger before he was fully awake. Past experience kept him immobile, feigning sleep, while he searched. And he found nothing out of the ordinary. The same crowd sounds in the even more crowded gate area. The same whining kids complaining about being bored. The same whining adults bitching about being inconvenienced by the airline when any moron could see it was the Pacific Northwest's normal weather doing the inconveniencing not the airline. Ellison was sure that the airline people would love nothing better than to get this mob on their way. Given the choice, he'd have taken the kids complaining over the adults any time.
Unable to find any threat using only his hearing, he allowed his eyes to open a slit giving his partner a quick glance before cutting his glance sharply from side to side. Finding nothing, he turned his attention fully to the young man sitting across from him. Sandburg still sat in the same position, turned slightly toward the woman beside him, as he'd been when the cop had closed his eyes. Giving him a closer look, Ellison decided he was wrong. His partner as now more he searched for a description more upright. He sat stiffly now, every line of his body rigid, from the broad hands pressed firmly against his thighs, to the frozen smile plastered across his face. His normally sparkling blue eyes were focused rather desperately over the shoulder of the woman seated in front of him.
Turning his head minutely, Ellison searched intently for whatever was alarming his friend. Blair Sandburg was braver than most real cops and he'd seen the younger man face situations with only his courage and ingenuity that had left Ellison shaking. So whatever it was that had him on edge now couldn't be minor. The Sentinel felt his muscles tightening, his heartbeat speeding up as his body prepared to respond.
Only there was nothing to respond to. Everything he could see, everything he could hear, even using his senses, was perfectly normal. Without shifting, he sharpened his senses as he examined his friend. Sandburg had said something once about panic attacks but never having seen any evidence of them, Ellison had always assumed it was just talk. It wasn't until the smell hit him, burning its way down into his lungs, stealing his breath, that the Sentinel realized that the tension in his partner wasn't fear. Fear smelled rank, corrupt somehow. This was this was anger. Sandburg was pissed. Ellison's eyes opened in shock. It was more than anger. It was rage. The grad student was more furious than the cop could ever remember seeing him. And he was holding it all in, internalizing his wrath.
Ellison tensed to push himself upright but paused again when he realized where his partner's anger was aimed - at the innocent looking, seventy-three year old retired flight attendant. It was only when he turned toward her that, for the first time, he realized that although her mouth was still moving with that prim and slightly disapproving look, he could hear no sound. Giving only a moment's thought of disgust with himself that he had so completely tuned anyone out, even someone as innocuous looking as this, he adjusted his hearing. He winced and dialed back just a little at the penetrating, shrill pitch.
" and they're just so demanding. It wasn't like that in the beginning. And it just gets worse every year. I was reading just yesterday in the latest book by Reverend Robard called, "The Enduring Promise." You've read his books, haven't you?" Without pausing for an answer, she continued. "Such a dear man. His headquarters is in Iowa, you know. I try to fly out whenever he has a seminar "
Something niggled at his memory and Ellison shifted, nudging his partner's foot slightly for attention. He frowned when he was ignored. What on earth had the younger man so mad? Bored out of his mind the cop could understand. The sanctimonious, self-righteous tone of the chattering woman would have sent even a non-sentinel into a zone.
And then he heard. And he understood.
"Shallow Palm was such a lovely little town when I first bought my house there. You didn't find them there then."
Ellison inwardly cringed at the emphasis placed on the word. He wondered if it was a generic 'them' or a specific 'them'.
"Did you know there are whole blocks now where you won't even find a sign in English? First it was that Spanish from those Mexicans but I suppose that's to be expected in southern California," she conceded in a bitter voice. "But now it's one of those Oriental languages that don't even have a proper alphabet." Her voice was scornful.
Evidently her 'them' was generic. An equal opportunity bigot. Ellison was hard pressed not to laugh out loud. Not that there was anything even remotely funny in what the woman was saying, quite the opposite. But here was this narrow-minded, bigoted old biddy confiding, -- totally unaware -- in the original free spirit. There was not a biased bone in Blair Sandburg's body, he was easily the most tolerant person the cop had ever known. If he had a prejudice of any kind it was probably against prejudice.
Watching his friend carefully, Ellison knew it was going to happen. And he didn't think it was going to take very long. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the younger man was going to blow. All it would take now would be the right subject. His eyebrow cocked slightly as he watched. It might not even be that much, he thought, as he watched straw after straw being heaped by the bundle full onto this camel's back. One word. One phrase. Sandburg's left eyebrow had lifted slightly while his right eye quivered, almost twitched, with each word out of the woman's mouth. Mount Sandburg was on the verge of erupting. And the destruction was going to be devastating.
"A person should have the right to live in the kind of neighborhood that they want to live in, with people around them who share the same ideals, the same belief systems. When I bought my house twenty-five years ago, you didn't have to worry about such things. These people knew their place and didn't intrude. We didn't go into their neighborhoods, they didn't come into ours. And that's the way it should be." She reached down to lift her black leather purse onto her lap, stuffing her envelope firmly back inside. She tightened long thin fingers over the top as if any second someone might try to rip it from her grip. "And now I've had to put my house on the market. My lovely home where I'd planned for the last twenty years to retire," she mourned. She gave a little sniff and squared her shoulders, reaching to pat lightly at hair that wouldn't have dared to be out of place. "But I'm sure I'll love Iowa. I've met some wonderful friends in Reverend Robard's ministry."
And then it came. That final straw.
"I just couldn't bear to stay there one day longer. It was one thing to work with them. I didn't have any choice then. But to have them move right next door." Her voice rose to a penetrating pitch that seemed to stab directly into the Sentinel's brain.
He found himself wondering which 'them' it was this time. She'd already covered the Hispanics and Orientals. Who next? African-Americans? Ellison watched and didn't have a doubt the woman's fingerprints were permanently embedded in the leather of her purse so tightly was she squeezing. And his partner? If it didn't stop soon, Sandburg was going to have major dental bills from the cracked molars. There was a vein throbbing in the young man's temple Ellison had never seen before and he found himself astonished at the restraint.
The woman's voice turned venomous. "All I have to do is stand up on tiptoe in my upstairs bathtub and when the sun is just right you can see right into their bedroom." She shuddered.
Ellison's mouth twisted in distaste. Oh, it was those 'them'.
"And the Supreme Court had the audacity to strike down that Texas ruling. Why, just the other day dear Reverend Robards was lecturing on this very thing. Them with their pride marches and their deviant "
Blair Sandburg surged to his feet.
Jim Ellison surged right along beside him. Without a clue what he was going to do, but he was determined to give his partner whatever backup he needed. As far as the cop knew Sandburg had no personal interest in preventing the biased tirade pouring from the woman's mouth. The Sentinel had never noticed anything about his friend that would suggest he was anything but a straight heterosexual man, no matter how much he wished otherwise. It was the whole injustice of the attitude that drew the younger man to the fight.
Princess Joyce's mouth hung open, deviant still dribbling out from between suddenly slack lips as she stared up at the man towering above her. For the first time since they'd met, Jim Ellison felt short standing beside his friend.
"Why, you you..."
Words failed the younger man and Ellison looked at him in concern. The rage burning within the shorter man had not diminished at all. The cop turned back to the elderly seated woman, his eyes taking in the two crimson spots of color right below her eyes that made her look as if she had an extra pair of eyes staring madly out of withered cheeks. He knew he had to say something. Had to do something
From somewhere deep within the hidden recesses of his mind a seed awakened, blossomed, within seconds growing to full flower. Back in his early vice days. Years before. A towering black man, who would have made Simon Banks look small. Out of south Georgia. A raging queen, and damn proud of it, in a red bustier and six inch heels, who went by the stage name of Ruby Begonia.
Languidly draping his left arm over his partner's shoulder, the tall cop shifted his weight so that he was leaning into the younger man. He let a generous lazy smile curve his lips and he ducked his head to catch the woman's attention. "Would that be the Reverend Bernard Robard, ma'am?" he drawled in a voice so unlike his normal one that he felt Sandburg grow suddenly still beside him. From the corner of his eye, he watched his friend's head swing toward him, his mouth opening and closing in a very passable imitation of a trout out of water.
"I'm sorry, ma'am. I was half-asleep but when I heard my dear friend's name mentioned it woke me right up. Why you remember Bernie, don't you, sweetie?" Honey dripped off a southern accent so thick Ellison would have been afraid of attracting flies had they been outside. "You met him at that little get together we went to just outside Palm Springs." He delicately placed a long finger against his lips as he considered. "What was the name of that charming little town? Shallow Tree? Lone Palm?" A smile of delighted memory lit the tall man's face. "I know," he claimed. "It was both. Lone Tree Avenue and the town's name was Shallow Palm." He looked down into the wide, totally glazed eyes of his friend and almost lost the mantle of Ruby Begonia that seemed to have settled over him to a fit of laughter. "Now what was the name of that couple we were staying with that weekend, Sweetums? Do you remember? Steve or Bob or Paul or some such thing."
"Brian and Peter," a stunned voice whispered.
Ellison looked around in surprise at the woman still seated before them. "Why, yes. I believe it was! Don't tell me you know them? Have you ever met a sweeter couple? Weren't they just made for each other?" He gave a little gasp. "Don't tell me you're that same flight attendant who lives next door to those boys! But, girlfriend, you don't look a day over seventy-five! And I could swear they said you were seventy-eight."
The exaggeration of her age put the annoyance back in the woman and she straightened her spine, lifting her chin. "Seventy-three," she said in an irritated voice. "I'm seventy-three."
"Well, I still say you don't look a day over seventy-five. Does she, Honey?" He turned mild blue eyes onto his partner.
Sandburg's mouth moved again and something that sounded suspiciously like, "Errk," came out in a high pitched squeak.
"See? There you are," Ellison turned back toward the woman with the proof of his statement. He gave another of those little gasps. "And to think you know Bernie Robards too. Why isn't it a small world?" He turned back to the stunned man. "You remember Bernie, Precious. You kept calling him Bernie Ro all weekend." Turning his attention back to the woman, he waved his hand in her direction. "Let me tell you, I could share some things about that boy that would curl your hair." He stared at the straight gray hair so correctly coifed. "Well, maybe not," he added doubtfully. "But I'm sure it would just shock the little pink panties right off you. The things that man can do with his tongue should be outlawed." He shivered. "Come on, Sweetcheeks, we just have to go somewhere a little more private." And before he actually thought about it, Ellison dipped his head and kissed the man beside him full on the mouth. Raising up, his tongue slipped out to moisten his lips and the taste of Blair Sandburg burst on his taste buds. He froze, numbly turning back to his partner. He stared at his friend, looking into the wide blue eyes that stared back at him. He watched as Sandburg's tongue slid out and slowly traced the area Ellison's lips had touched before slipping back inside that hot cavern with a small hummed sigh.
Drawn by something he didn't stop to identify, the Sentinel dropped his head again, only pausing long enough to breathe, "Chief?" in question. Sandburg answered him with a slight lifting of his head, his lips parting as he waited in expectation.
Their lips met and from somewhere buried deep in his memory Ellison remembered a description of a perfect kiss and it had nothing on this one. It wasn't long. It wasn't overdone. A brief touching of lips, a very tiny taste with the tip of his tongue of a mouth he wanted to dive headfirst into. The intensity left him shaking, stealing his senses away so that the only thing left in the universe for those few seconds was the man in his arms.
"Fuck, Chief," the Sentinel breathed when he could again.
"Sounds like a plan to me," the younger man sighed pressing his forehead against the chest so conveniently in front of him.
"Well, I never!" an outraged voice proclaimed.
Ellison turned to look down on her in pity and answered in his normal voice. "No, ma'am. I'm sure you haven't. And I feel sorry for you. Let's get out of here, Chief." He turned to find his partner already reaching for his backpack. He stooped to grab his own carryall and when he straightened he took one last look at the former flight attendant. Her lips were pressed firmly together, the tiny wrinkles puckering her mouth like a prune. Her eyes were narrowed little steel BB's as they stared up at the two men as if they had personally fulfilled any justification she needed for her biased views.
Something about her prissy look just reached right down into the heart of Jim Ellison where that little spark of orneriness resided that lived within each and every person on the face of the earth. And he fought it, he really did, for about half a second. Then he gave in and the cloak of Ruby Begonia descended on him again. "You just tell ol' Bernie Ro hi for us next time you see him, would you?" He reached down as if to shake her hand and the woman shrank back in horror so he turned it into a little wave. "And I don't care what Bernie says, you don't look a day over seventy-nine!" Sliding his arm around Sandburg's waist, he guided him forward and let the still stunned man precede him.
Threading their way through the crowded waiting area, they were halfway down the aisle when a shaky whisper from his partner reached him. "Who are you channeling, man?"
Reaching the main concourse aisle, Sandburg turned to wait for the bigger man to catch up and for the first time Ellison felt a tiny thread of trepidation.
The animation was back in his friend's face, the blue eyes sparkling with life. "You should have let me talk to her, man."
Ellison looked at him carefully. "You were so far beyond talk, Sandburg, I wasn't sure you were capable of it. Besides," he continued when the younger man started to protest, "you know as well as I do that there was absolutely nothing you could have said to change her mind in the slightest way."
Sandburg looked away, his jaw clinching in remembered anger, unable to deny the statement. "Flight attendants are not like that, Jim. They're just not," he stated flatly, turning back to face his friend. "Naomi and I made friends with flight attendants all over the country when I was a kid and even stayed with them sometimes and they were never like that."
It's not the profession, Chief," Ellison told him a little sadly. "It's the individual. You know that."
Sandburg dropped his head, his long hair shielding his face. He sighed, studying his shoes for a long moment before he cocked his head and stared up at the tall man beside him. "But Bernie Ro, man?" he asked incredulously. "Bernie Ro?"
The tall cop blushed. "I'm sorry, Chief. I don't know where the hell all that came from. I just knew I had to say something or you were gonna blow your top and then you'd have felt bad for days about yelling at some little old granny lady." He guided the younger man down the concourse. "All of that just sorta bubbled out."
"Bubbled? Bubbled?" Sandburg repeated in shock. "Jim Ellison, you've never bubbled in your life!"
"Well, I did this time, okay, Sandburg?" the cop demanded roughly. "Just get over it."
Sandburg came to a stop, dragging the other man to a halt beside him. "How did you know all that stuff about her?" he demanded.
Ellison shrugged. "Read the address off the envelope in her purse."
"But you even knew the names of the guys next door."
The cop grinned. "No, I didn't. She supplied that herself. I just mentioned a couple of names and she corrected me."
Sandburg eyed him, "That's pretty sneaky, man," he said admiringly. He rocked up on his toes. "But don't you think she's gonna know it was all a crock? I mean as soon as she talks to her friends, she'll know."
A sly grin slid over the cop's face. "Well, that's the best part. Good old Reverend Bernard Robard was arrested in Washington DC for soliciting a prostitute. A male prostitute, Chief," he added dryly.
Sandburg snorted then reached to cover his mouth as laughter threatened to explode.
"I read about it at the news stand when you were buying that magazine," Ellison explained. "It wasn't until she got started on the gay guys next door that it all clicked."
"Oh, my god," Sandburg gasped.
Ellison gave his partner a nudge to get him moving again. "Let's move it, Chief."
"Where are we going, man? Our flight doesn't leave for over an hour," he protested.
"Well, I've got to get something to eat and I'm hoping we can go somewhere away from all this noise."
Sandburg noticed the frown then and turned to survey the length of the concourse. "Come on." He started forward.
Half dozen steps later the Sentinel heard his partner's heart rate shoot up and he cringed a little.
"So, that, ahhh that little kiss was just part of the act, right? Part of Princess Joyce's 'wake up and smell the coffee' bit?"
Ellison hesitated. How did he answer that? He felt the rush of heat pouring off his friend. Finally he nodded. "Yeah, sure, Chief," he said. And he felt the thud of his partner's heart and smelled the tinny scent of disappointment. "At least the first one was," the taller man added softly.
"Jim?" Sandburg hesitated then he asked without looking around, "Did you just come out to me?"
Ellison's eyes flickered shut for half a second as he considered denying it. But with the taste of his partner's lips still lingering in his mouth, he found he couldn't. "Yeah, I guess I did." He waited. He knew if he turned his sense of touch up just a fraction higher, he'd actually be able to feel his partner's heartbeat that currently pounded so loudly in his ears.
Sandburg drew a deep breath and rocked up on his toes with his next step. A grin split his face. And seemingly totally off the subject he said, "Little pink panties, Jim?"
Ellison snorted as he reached to touch his friend, his fingers lightly tracing the line of the strong back. "Well, what can I say?"
Sandburg looked up at him with a wide grin as his arm slipped around his partner's waist and his broad palm came to rest firmly over the right globe of Ellison's ass. "Not much, Sweetcheeks. Not much."