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So Swing Your Rope Slowly...

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Tough to be inconspicuous, skulking around an art museum in a snug black sweater and a big black coat with your hat pulled down over your face. All Hobie can think is, he must be sweating fit to perish with all that wool on. Hobie Doyle is used to all kinds of weather; even the creeping chill from off the bay just has him wearing a more substantial undershirt. But Burt Gurney was a bona fide star, back before any of this kicked off. He understands the importance of the right costume.

They'd agree to meet here, in with a whole lot of paintings of fruit and statues of pretty girls letting their hair down, and to not make a big fuss. When Hobie makes it to Gallery B, Gurney is already there; a big man in black, leaning against the gallery wall between two big gilt frames and looking pretty as a picture with his ankles crossed over each other. His hand is on his hip, holding his hat, and the other hand is swinging a black alligator-skin grip.

If Hobie were Burt, he'd say something nice about old times, but he's not. He's just plain old Hobart Doyle here to pick up somebody's dirty laundry before it makes the papers. And maybe a little more.

Best not to get any closer. There's a little white plaque at about elbow height; the inscription is printed in letters about a millimeter high. Hobie has good eyes; he always has.

Hobie clears his throat. "I may not know much about art, but maybe you ought to give that Bouguereau a little room to breathe."

"Cute. You know, in some places, they think art is for the people. Not something you pay ten dollars on a Saturday to go stand behind a velvet rope and gawk at. Art that serves society instead of valorizing stuffy dead people in powdered wigs. Art that says something."

Hobie glances around the room before his gaze comes back to Burt's. The temperature drops about three degrees. Maybe he should've brought an easel, or a big pad of paper. Just to make it less conspicuous.

On the far wall is a Bible scene in oils. Hobie contemplates, for a moment.

"They make good pictures there? I mean, motion pictures."

Sidelong, he can see Burt smiles, puckering the scar in his cheek. "Dismal."

They're alone. The gallery closes at 5. Hobie slides one foot forward on the black and white tile, tracing out a lowercase arc.

"I'm not supposin' there's some ulterior motive for all this."

"What, from me?"

Gurney's face is big and honest, even now. The scar sweeping down his cheek gives him a rough-and-tumble air, but at least it's clean-edged and nothing to endanger an eye or an ear. Worse things have happened to handsomer men. Now he just looks like a riverboat pirate in a turtleneck. There's dog hair on his black boiled-wool coat.

"Couldn't be."

He sets down the grip and exhales. "You better know what you're tangling with here, pal. The papers for Larrabee, just like we said."

"Well, I'll make sure it all stays in good hands. I'm much obliged to you for not kicking up a fuss this time." Hobie's never met Larrabee, but he hopes he appreciates what Burt Gurney is willing to do for a friend.

"I never liked gunplay."

He'd been none too shabby at it the last time they crossed paths -- hard to hold a pistol straight with the ground slipping out from under you, cowboy boots carving scratches in the packed snow, with the sea roaring beneath you and the smell of canned fish thick enough to scorch your eyebrow hairs. Hobie'd had the high ground, but that wouldn't have saved him. Burt had fired an impossible trick shot -- and he'd done it through the gap between Hobie's striding legs, without so much as an embarrassing graze to write Carlotta about when they got back to safety. He'd made the shot and then vanished like a phantom.

Now here in a San Francisco picture gallery he can still feel that frosty air snapping at the back of his neck, and that lucky shot whizzing between his knees to meet its mark.

Hobie figures they'll meet like this from time to time -- Canadian cliffsides and late-night stakeouts and that kind of thing. Chasing each other all up and down the West Coast. Maybe some time he'll commandeer a submarine and pay Burt a visit on his turf, see how he likes it. Maybe he'll get to see some of this people's art Burt is always talking about, full of muscular metalworkers with no undershirts on shaking hands. That part doesn't sound half bad.

Gurney is smiling crooked now, a little bitterly. "Back in Arizona. I didn't break your heart, did I?"

"A man's got to know when he's licked."

It'd been one way out of a tight spot. Hobie could live with that. What did one night mean? Heck. One night with a ranch hand didn't mean nothing except that he'd gotten lonely. Maybe it's a little lonely, being a Communist spy.

Burt hands over the grip, and his empty hand falls on Hobie's shoulder, broad and soft. For a big man, he's graceful. The handle's still warm.

"So long, comrade."

"See you later, partner."

He's getting the hang of sarcasm now, but in some ways it's dead earnest -- partners are partners. Hobie's a little cog in a great big studio machine and Burt Gurney may not have been much higher up the Red ranks himself if his second fall from grace says anything -- not the one that had Mr. Mannix himself hopping around putting out fires, but a lesser fall muffled by the Iron Curtain. He owes some ugly characters some serious favors. But he's got grit, and Hobie knows exactly how far to trust him.

Hobie won't stand for kidnapping movie stars and blackmailing directors, but blacklists and witch hunts are no great shakes either. There's got to be some kind of justice. People like to know they're getting a fair shake -- that their father-in-law is dealing straight with them or that their new beau wasn't lying about being single and eligible. That goes for writers and that goes for actors -- certainly for extras, some of the scraps he's waded in on over a box lunch or a stolen script.

Hobie just sticks out his chin waiting for the bad news -- that the cops are closing in on them already, that the Soviets are planning on dynamiting the Golden Gate Bridge. But Burt Gurney grabs the front of his shirt in those big meathooks of his and hoists him up for a kiss.

The kind of kiss that knocks the air out of your lungs -- Hobie's never received any complaints about his kissing skills, but the way Gurney does it could knock your front teeth out if it weren't too late. The polite thing to call it's probably passionate, but once the initial rush of romance passes Hobie's just anxious about his orthodontia. But all in all it's nice. Cinematic, even. Couldn't happen in a nicer place, surrounded by gilt frames and varnish smells and paintings done by people who've never seen a steer in their lives. Hobie's hands are on either side of Gurney's big neck, his belt buckle is digging into his hip.

"I gotta go," he says, brushing past him with his big coat swinging. "A little something for you."

Hobie feels something fall into his pocket, and when he sticks a hand in to retrieve it he finds a roll of film.

Guess that's what you call a liaison. Laurence Laurentz spent six weeks trying to teach him to pronounce the word "liaison" and he's still rolling the word around in his mouth whenever he walks away from Burt.

Brisk steps in the opposite direction, out past the Impressionists and the suits of armor and the Chinese wall scrolls. He can hear Burt's loafers on the tile floor behind him, receding into the dark.