A Dark and Stormy Night

I have a dim memory of an old episode from the tv series “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” about a storm and some nervous nurses waiting it out. Something about a nurse killer on the loose. In the final scene we find that one of the nurses is the actual killer. She was a big woman and I think she was a man in a wig. Anyway, that errant memory flittered through my mind and left a seed. Storm, nurses, murder afoot. After a wrote it, I had to go with a tongue in cheek title. Hence “it was a dark and stormy night.”

A Dark and Stormy Night

            A dim flicker of light glimmered at the office window. Candace, ‘call me Candy’, Johnson barely noticed as she continued inventory of the med stocks for what seemed the hundredth time that week. A few moments later a soft rumble could be heard in the distance.

            “Storm’s coming in,” Denise Patrick said. Master of the obvious, Candy thought sourly.  “It’s supposed to be a big one,” Denise continued. “I just heard about it on the radio.”

            “Just my luck,” said Candy, slamming a cabinet door.

            “Huh?” asked Denise.

            “Just my luck to draw the late shift in this rustbucket place with a storm brewing. By midnight we’ll have bedpans all down the hallway catching water from the leaky ceiling.”

            “It leaks? That can’t be very safe.” As I said, thought Candy, master of the obvious.

            “No, it’s not. But we’re not St. Joe’s. We’re a poor little clinic run by a poor little hospital in a poor little section of Philly.” Candy decided the only upside of the situation was they had no patients in their care for the late shift. The decidedly downside was that she had to work it with Denise. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was about Denise that rubbed her the wrong way. Pretty much everything. She was a mousy little hausfrau, seemingly afraid of her own shadow. She didn’t appear all that bright and Candy wondered how she ever got through nursing school. Candy, on the other hand, was a plus size blonde, brassy and full of life. She sashayed her way through her daily rounds, flirting with the patients, keeping up a light banter. It kept the men’s spirits up and she didn’t mind the occasional pat on her fanny. God knows some of them had seen horrors she’d never know. A smile and wink for our brave boys cost her so little, she thought. But working the late shift sucked. Especially with a freak storm coming in. But they were stuck until two am when the overnight relief came on.

            There was a bright flash of light through the window. The rumble came quicker this time.

            “It’s moving fast,” Denise offered.

            “Good, maybe it’ll do it’s thing and get the hell out of here fast, too. I hate having to dash out to my car in the pouring rain.” Another flash, shortly followed by a louder rumble.

            “Lordy, I hate storms.” Candy noticed Denise babbled when nervous. “We used to have bad ones back in Kansas. Big storms, and sometimes tornadoes and hail. I just want to crawl into a cellar and hide.”

            “Well, our cellar is over that way,” Candy nodded with her head, as she lifted a load of towels to be sorted.

            “I can’t go down there,” Denise looked at her with fear bright in her eyes. “That used to be the morgue. I don’t dare go down there.”

            “Don’t tell me you’re a nurse and scared of dead people?”

            “I just haven’t had much experience around them. I’ve only been a nurse for a few years.”

            “Well, honey, it’s something you’ll just have to get used to.” Candy figured Miss Mousy’s patients would be dropping like flies from her tepid care. Candy kept her men’s spirits from flagging with her brazen sexuality. She didn’t dial it down, and her men responded. She was a very popular nurse.

            A brilliant flash and crash almost simultaneously made them both jump. It was followed by the rattle of a hard rain hitting the flagstones outside. Over the next few minutes there were multiple flashes and the rumbling never stopped, rolling and echoing through the air and seemingly through their bones. Candy thought it sounded like a bowling alley with the constant rumble of the balls. Maybe I’ll get Hank to take me bowling this weekend. We haven’t done that in ages, she thought with a smile. Hank was back from the Pacific with everything intact. She was so afraid he would return with a loss of limbs or a shell-shocked zombie like she had seen so many times over the past months. Or not return at all. Stop thinking about downers, she told herself. Hank’s home and all is right with the world. The war is over.

            A sudden massive crash shook the entire building. Denise screamed and her pile of towels flew through the air.

            “Wow, that one was right on top of us,” Candy said. Then she silently chided herself. Now who’s stating the obvious?

            Candy felt a tap on her shoulder. She turned but no one was there. Then a cold splash of water hit her nose. She looked up and got hit in the middle of her forehead with another cold splash.

            “Oh, Hell’s Bells. I need a bedpan for this leak. You take the back hallway and check. I’ll finish looking around up here.” Within the next half hour they found fifteen leaks and had bedpans in place collecting the spillage.

            “At the rate the rain’s falling, we’ll have to empty them before the next shift comes in. What a gruesome night. Glad I’m going home and not coming in.”

            Over the next hour the flashing and rumbling would sometimes abate for a few minutes but always came back with renewed vigor. Candy didn’t know if it were multiple storm fronts or the same storm just circling. Either way, they were receiving severe punishment from the elements.

            Another particularly violent crash hit and the lights flickered and then failed altogether. Denise emitted a short shriek.

            “Oh, ain’t this just grand,” Candy said sarcastically. She had several other choice phrases that came to mind but didn’t want to totally offend Denise’s delicate sensibilities. The sudden darkness was total. After a few moments their eyes had adjusted but it was still nearly impossible to see anything.

            “The generator’s supposed to kick on when the power goes out,” Candy complained. “I wonder why it hasn’t tripped yet?”

            “I don’t like it.” Candy jumped because Denise’s voice was right at her elbow.

            “I think there’s some candles in the supply cabinet. Let me check.” Candy groped her way to the supply cubbie behind the nurses’ station. Within a few minutes she had a couple of white tapers lit and sitting on the desk.

            Candy had just said, “Well, ain’t this comfy,” when the phone rang.

            “Bellhaven Clinic,” she said automatically into the phone. “Oh, hi, Ray. Yeah. Yah don’t say. Well, the power’s out. No, it didn’t kick on. Where? Crap. He said what? No. No. I said hell no.” She listened for a moment more and slammed down the phone.

            “What?” Denise wanted to know.

            “The main road’s flooded. Ray said our relief might not be here till daylight. We have to stay all night.”

            “But, I don’t want to.”

            Candy glared at her. “You think I do? I would walk out on ‘em, but the road is flooded so I couldn’t get home anyway. Either way you look at it, we’re stuck. By the way, Ray told me how to get the generator on. We just need to push a button on the side.”

            “Oh, good. Where is it?”

            “In the cellar.”

            “Oh.” Denise’s eyes were wide.

            “Oh, for Pete’s sake. Are you that afraid of the cellar? Come on. I’m not going down there by myself.”

            “But there used to be dead people there. There might be spirits.”

            “Oh, for crying out loud. Come on.” She roughly grabbed Denise’s arm in one hand and a candle in the other.

            Once in the cellar they found that other undiscovered leaks had let water in and there were small puddles in various places. They found the generator and, sure enough, there was a big red button on the side. Candy pressed it. Nothing happened. She pressed it again, holding it longer. The generator made a wheezing noise. Then after a few burps it began a soft hum. Looking up toward the door they noticed a soft glow meaning the emergency lighting was working. They hustled up the stairs, ready to leave the dank and disquieting place behind.

            The emergency lighting was just sparse dim lights that did little to enlighten the place and nothing to dispel the gloom. Still, they could see.

            Candy decided it was time for a break. She plopped down in a chair at the nurses’ station and picked up her Hollywood magazine. She ruefully noted it was two months old and she had read every article at least twice. She tossed it aside.

            “Well, I ain’t doing much else tonight. I’ll take my double time pay sitting on my bum. How about you, Toots?” Denise approached the desk looking fearful and browbeaten.

            “Yes. Me too.”

            “That’s the spirit, girl. Show some gumption.”

            Denise picked up the Hollywood magazine and looked at it. After a moment her eyes grew wide.

            “What?” Candy asked.

            “Are they really making a movie about that man who killed those seven co-eds? That was so awful. Why would they make a movie about it? I was almost too scared to go to work for a week after it happened.”

            “Sorry, hon. Blood and sex sells. It’s gotta have one or the other.”

            “But that’s so awful.”

            “Yeah, and it’ll make ‘em a bazillion bucks. People love a good horror story. I think they call ‘em slasher movies. You know, like Hookman or the Midnight Caller or the Scarecrow.”

            “I don’t know about that. All that kind of stuff scares me. Especially the Scarecrow.”

            “Listen,” Candy said loudly. Denise clutched her heart. “The rain. It’s stopped.” They both noted how quiet it was for a moment. There were more flares followed by rumbling, but it was no longer directly over them. It still rolled and echoed, drawing out each rumble. “I think we’ve survived the worst of it,” Candy said with as much enthusiasm as she could gather. She looked at the clock and it was just now two am. She should be getting off right now. The long night loomed.

            They went to the front window and looked out. There were no street lights, but by the occasional flashes of lightning they could see tree limbs scattered about. Some lawn furniture was missing or overturned. The yard crew had their work cut out for them. But the rain had stopped.

            “You don’t really believe all those slasher stories, do you?” Candy asked. “They aren’t real. Just stories people tell to frighten each other or the kids.”

            “Daddy said the Scarecrow is real. He wouldn’t tell me a lie.”

            “Well, maybe. But I think he’s overblown. One kook kills a few people wearing a scary mask and everybody goes crazy. I bet the others are just copycats. Or didn’t even happen. There is no demented serial killer running around killing, killing…”

            “Nurses.”

            “Well, yeah. I don’t believe it.”

            “I wish I was that sure.”

            After a few more minutes of desultory conversation Candy said she had to go to the ladies’ room. She could tell Denise didn’t want to be left alone but she was damned if she’d invite her to the bathroom. The girl needs to grow a spine, she thought. Then she got an idea of a fun prank. After finishing her business, she quietly slipped out of the lavatory and crept to a linen supply closet. She grabbed a pillowcase. Using her scissors she cut two eye holes, and drew some black lines on it with a felt pen. She pulled it over her head, cinching it around her neck with a draw cord. She pulled an abandoned old black great coat from the closet to hide her nursing whites. She crept up the hallway, just out of sight of the nurses’ station. She picked up a bedpan, dumped out the water and tossed the pan into the room. The clanging of the pan startled Denise, eliciting a shriek. Candy jumped into the room using the lowest voice she could muster and said “The Scarecrow has come for you!”

            Denise’s earlier shriek was nothing compared to the scream she now emitted. She ran from the station screeching as if all the demons of hell were after her. Barely able to contain her laughter, Candy pursued her down the hallway. Denise ran into a supply closet and closed the door behind her. Candy thought, what an idiot. Now she’s cornered. I guess I need to teach her how to handle an emergency.

            Denise was crying, trembling and hyperventilating so hard she could hardly hold the door handle. She braced herself to keep the Scarecrow from opening it. Oh lord, I’m so scared, she thought. She looked around to see if there were any type of weapon or protection in the closet but it was too dark. She just trembled and moaned, holding on to the knob as if her life depended on it. She never heard the click as the door was locked from the outside.

            After what felt like hours of kneeling hanging onto the knob, her hands began cramping. She whimpered, not daring to let go. She kept catching herself almost falling asleep, jerking upright each time. Finally she did not catch herself and fell into a fitful exhausted sleep.

***

            Denise jerked awake. At first she was disoriented, finding herself on the floor in a closet. Then the fear grabbed her heart like a vise. The light coming under the door was brighter than the emergency lighting so either the power was back or it was morning. She carefully twisted the doorknob. Or tried to. It refused to move. She realized it was locked and she was trapped inside.

            As she considered her predicament she also had another realization. The monster who had chased her last night was wearing a white skirt and shoes under the black coat. It was Candy all along. She played a mean trick on me, she thought, feeling incredibly foolish. Gathering her courage, she rattled the doorknob. She shook the door, shouting, “Candy, let me out!” She beat on the door and pleaded with Candy to let her out, but no one came. She was kneeling by the door crying when she heard sounds outside. Fear still spiked through her, but she knew she needed to get out. She heard what sounded like people talking. Multiple people was good. That would be safe. She pounded on the door, yelling for help. In a moment she heard the click as the door was unlocked. The bright light of day blinded her as it was opened and unknown arms pulled her up. She fought down the urge to struggle against them.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe now,” said a man’s voice. As her eyes adjusted she could tell he was wearing a policeman’s uniform. “It’s all over now.”

            “I was locked in,” Denise began, not knowing exactly what to say, totally disoriented.

            “That’s okay. Come outside and have some coffee.” That sounded like a wonderful idea so she allowed the officer to lead her outside to an ambulance where there was coffee and some doughnuts.

            Denise looked around. There were a number of official looking cars in the parking lot.

            “Where’s Candy?” she asked.

            “You need to drink your coffee first,” said the policeman.

***

            Inside two detectives were conferring.

            “Well, the MO is the same. Slashed from side to side. She bled out in minutes. The same message written in blood. I don’t know why he didn’t take them both, like over in southside last month. Maybe he didn’t know she was hiding.”

            “She was lucky. Looks like she barely escaped the Scarecrow.”

The Attack

Maybe you’ve seen all the stories I’ve posted. If so you know that I had an experience involving a corvette one night that left an indelible imprint upon my psyche. I used this event to write two stories, one a straight up memoir of what happened (Little Red Corvette) and one a gruesome extension on what could have happened (The Undertaker). Well, I’ve revisited that landscape again and come away with another ‘what if?’ While The Undertaker was quite sensationalist, The Attack is much sadder and much more horrifying because it is commonplace. Harming another should never become commonplace. We cannot call civilized any society that accepts this type of incident as just another day, nothing to see here, move along. We need to be better than that. Okay, enough soapbox. On with the show.

The Attack

When I was a kid, my best friend was Will. Our dads had been best friends growing up, and since we lived about 200 yards apart it was logical we would be thrown together. I was a year older and we were quite different, but it somehow worked and we were very close throughout our childhood and adolescence. Will dated Tina during most of high school. She dumped him when he was sixteen. I then broke the Number One Bro Rule. I dated her – twice. It was wrong but she was kinda hot and I was kinda 17. If it’s any consolation, she ditched me on our second date and went home with another guy.

Will and I eventually worked around it and stayed friends. After high school he met a nice girl and they got engaged. Early in the engagement she was killed in a car accident. Will was particularly wrecked because his sister had died in an auto accident when we were young. By this time I was off at college. I found out later he had moved in with a woman in a nearby town. I was just hoping he would find himself, or at least a little happiness after all the crap life had handed him.

***

Will apparently found himself. On his 21st birthday he came to visit me in the small city not far away where I had settled. He said his birthday present to himself was to come out of the closet. Then he said, “I’m gay.” I just looked at him as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. My expression probably said, “And…?” This wasn’t exactly a newsflash. I knew he had broken off with his live-in lady friend and he had spoken a number of times about going to ‘the club’ in my city. ‘The club’ was a gay bar. I guess what he was getting at was that although he was living as if he was not in the closet, he was now announcing it to the world. It apparently didn’t go over well. You have to remember this was about 1980.

When I didn’t say anything right away he sarcastically said, “So, aren’t you going to turn against me like everyone else has?”

I wasn’t surprised by the response he was getting. We grew up, and he still lived, in a very rural, very conservative, very Baptist, very southern community. They are kind of like, hate the sin, crucify the sinner types. I had long ago shed many of the bigoted views I was brought up with. I told him, “Will, you’re my friend. I love you. Nothing would make me turn against you. You’re still you.” He looked like he needed it so I hugged him. I detected a couple of sniffles. He said, “It’s a sucky way to find out who your real friends are.”

But Will was one for living out loud, so he proudly carried on in his community, visiting the club in the city on a regular basis. He sometimes stopped by to see me on the way in or out of town.

***

One particular Saturday afternoon about a year after coming out he showed up at my door

and said, “How about coming to the club with me.” My immediate response was, “Not gonna happen.”

“It’ll be fine. I want you to see this part of my life. I won’t let anybody touch you.”

“Really not gonna happen.”

We went around for awhile until he said, “For years I went with you to straight bars. You can do this for me.” I prepared to argue that this was different, but somehow…it wasn’t.

I grudgingly agreed to go.

He said, “I’ll be with you. Nobody’s going to rape you.”

“Really not helping.”

***

Why was I so unwilling to go? Maybe somewhere down in our lizard brainstem is a primeval fear of ‘other’? At this point in my life I knew a few gay people. I guess I was hypocritically okay they were gay as long as I didn’t have to see it or think about it. Not so much removed from the bigotry I was trying to overcome.

So, I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 as it was just starting to fill. As we walked past some tables a nice-looking gentleman said, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” He was dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt. A bit old, 35-40, which was ancient to me at 23. I politely declined and quickly caught up with Will.

“You should have accepted the drink,” he said.

“Hell no,” I responded. “He would have thought I was available for negotiations.”

“It’s just a drink.”

“No way. It’s never ‘just a drink’. I’m not selling what he’s looking for.”

“You’re such a prude,” Will laughed.

***

We found a bar with some stools available. I had only sat for a minute when a lumberjack came up beside me. I call him a lumberjack because he looked like the guy on Brawny paper towels, decked out in tight jeans and a flannel shirt. He was nice looking and all muscle, with that little mustache that all gay men seemed to have. He leaned on the bar and smiled at me. I looked to Will in a panic.

“Just ignore him. He’s harmless.” At 6 foot plus and 200 pounds of muscle at the peak of his power he decidedly didn’t look harmless. He decidedly looked like a predator and I decidedly was feeling like prey. He gave me a leer that said I had passed muster and was now on the menu. I studiously refused to make eye contact until he drifted away in search of greener pastures.

“Man, you have been cruised,” Will laughed. Is that what it was?

“Yeah? And I thought you were going to protect me from all this. All you’re doing is enjoying the show.” I was a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you’re doing fine. Can I help it if the guys think you’re hot? Would you rather they

think you’re ugly?”
            “Yes, I mean no, I mean… I don’t know.” I hate hard questions like that. No one wants to

be considered ugly, but I did not come here to find me a man.

            And then I made a connection. Is that the way women feel at bars when we leer at them? We don’t call it leering, just ‘checking them out’, but it’s basically the same thing. I felt so violated while it was happening. Is that what women experience? I whispered a quiet apology to women everywhere.

I had decided I definitely did not want to go the bathroom while at the bar. I would just feel too vulnerable and exposed. What did I expect, an orgy? But a couple of beers settled that. I had to go, no question. So I told Will I’d be right back, and to come rescue me if I wasn’t. I pressed through the crowd toward the men’s room on the other side of the bar. The crowd was fairly thick but there was no excuse for the number of hands I felt on my butt as I made my way through. When did men get so free with their hands? There was also a ladies’ room that did not seem to be used. I hadn’t seen any women. Lesbians are gay. Don’t they go to gay bars, or does it have to be a dyke bar? Or maybe it was for drag queens. I just don’t know any of the politics of being gay.

I steeled myself and went in expecting the worst. What, I don’t know. It was just a fairly ordinary bathroom like in any restaurant or bar. A difference was there were no urinals, only stalls. And no doors on the stalls. I decided not to overanalyze the thought process behind this. I waited in a short line. Most of the patrons seemed to know each other. There was a group of very young guys, probably with fake id’s, clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with a scene of the mean girls in the school bathroom, this was it. I took care of my business and quickly exited. I endured another grope session making my way back to where I started. No stool and no Will. Oh, crap.

Almost immediately a very handsome young man sidled up to me.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” Was that his best line? I looked over at him. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, black leather jacket and had his hair combed back like Fonzie in the old Happy Days tv show.

“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” I answered.

“Oh, just come out of the closet?”

What?! I assume the dim light covered the bright red of my face at this point. Without sputtering too much I explained I was NOT gay and was here with a friend. Even as I said it I realized how lame it sounded. The guy accepted it, but instead of walking away, he stayed and we talked. I guess I blushed even more when he told me it was too bad I wasn’t gay because he thought I was very hot. We were far enough from the dance floor to talk without shouting. His name was John and he was a waiter at a local fancy restaurant. He told me excitedly that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money so he could have his own place. He was currently living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped children. He gave me the standard line that I must be “so special”. I get that a lot.

After a while he moved on in search of prey. I mean, 99.9% of the men were here for one thing only. Then I ashamedly admitted to myself that when I went out to bars, I was one of that 99.9%. Just looking for a different landscape. I had actually enjoyed talking to John. I like meeting people and this is what I enjoy about social situations. Just talking and getting to know people. It was nice. He was nice.

Will came hustling up.

“Sorry, I had to catch up with someone. I didn’t mean to desert you. I see you were talking to John. What do you think? He’s like the hottest guy here. By the way, my friends think you’re cute. They were disappointed to hear you’re straight.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then I realized my mood wasn’t Will’s fault, it was mine. I’m unfairly putting my straight values on what he enjoys. These are his stomping grounds, where he’s most at home. We all need a place like that. I’m glad he has it. 

  “Thanks for showing me around. It was nice. But it’s time I headed home.” He didn’t object. I think he was ready to go on the prowl also. So I left.

***

It wasn’t far home. A few blocks from the club I noticed a car following me closely. I mean it was city driving, but he stayed right on my bumper. It’s usually annoying, but late at night with the streets deserted and you’re all alone, it’s kinda creepy.

A couple blocks from my last turn, he pulled out of the lane and came up on my right. As I stopped at the red light, he oozed up to a stop beside me on the right in a low, sleek and oh so sexy Corvette. And did I mention it was black? Without the shine, it would be hard to see as it faded into the black of night like it had some science fiction cloaking device on board. I couldn’t help but admire it. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. Probably a guy, though. Maybe making up for deficits in other areas I thought enviously. When the light turned green he jackrabbited away. Hey, if my car could do that I probably would, too. I just signaled and moved my old blue Civic into the right lane to make my turn at the next block. As I made my turn I was peripherally aware of the Corvette making a quick right turn a block down the street. My house was the next to last on the block on the right. I blessed my luck that I found curb parking just a few feet from the walkway.

As I was walking toward the steps that led up from the sidewalk, I saw a black Corvette slowly nose up to the next intersection coming from the left. Since I’m the next to last house on the block it was pretty close. How many black Corvettes are running around my neighborhood at nearly 1 am? It had to be the same one. Why had it followed me? My mind raced through about a dozen scenarios, none ending well. There was about a 1% chance it was a gorgeous blonde girl who wanted my body. About a 39% chance it was a perverted serial murderer who also wanted my body, for entirely different reasons. And a 60% chance it was a couple of redneck college students out to roll a queer. Yeah, my money was on that explanation. Had they followed me from the club? It’s not something I generally worry about. I guess you could call it straight boy privilege.

He revved the engine as I reached the steps. The deep throaty sound vibrated in my stomach. He knew I was aware of him. My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I felt exposed. The car was sitting there like a black spider emitting an aura of evil. I don’t know why I got so spooked. It’s just a car. As I stood there on the sidewalk at the base of our walkway the car turned onto my street and quietly, with just a hint of a Barton thrum, glided to a stop in front of me. I wasn’t sure what to expect. I nervously glanced over my shoulder at the house. Up three steps to the walk, another fifteen feet to the stairs, up ten steps to the porch, then through the front door and then unlock and get in my apartment. Could I do all that if this went sideways? I expected the window to roll down. Nothing. Just waiting. I was about to shrug and turn away when the doors flew open and two guys surged out. The driver was stocky. Not fat, just meaty, like a wrestler. He had short brown hair and a white polo shirt over jeans. His companion had to come around the front of the car, but he was fast. He was taller and more slender, still athletic looking. Longer blond hair. He had on khakis and a blue polo. One of them, I’m not sure which, said, not loudly but at least audible to me, “Get him!”

I turned and flew up the three steps, fear rising in my throat like my gorge. Halfway to the porch someone’s arms flung around me stopping my progress. It was Mr. Stocky.

“Whassa matter, gayboy? We just want to play,” he cooed in my ear. He swung me around to face Blondie. He open handed slapped me twice, very hard with his right hand. I noticed a chain wrapped his left. Oh shit!

“Filthy faggot! Out cruising around like you own the place. We’re going to teach you your place.” Then I got a right fist to my jaw followed by a punch with his chain wrapped fist in my stomach. Through the pain I realized this was going bad fast. And I wanted to keep that chain away from my face. As Blondie wound up for another blow I threw all my weight on Stocky, lifted my feet and kicked Blondie. I was aiming for his balls but he deflected it.

“You fucking queer. You’re gonna pay for that,” he sneered. Two quick punches to the belly winded me, but I straightened up and threw my head back as hard as I could. I heard a crunch as I made contact with Stocky’s face. His arms released me immediately.

“Oh, shit!” he exclaimed, grabbing his face. “You broke my freaking nose.”

I meant to make a run for it in the momentary diversion but my body had other ideas. I dropped to the ground. As I was on all fours, trying to stand, Blondie got a strong kick to my ribs. I think I heard the cracking. I yelled in pain. Blondie grabbed me by the hair and yanked me up on my knees. He had a crazed look in his eyes. He pressed my face in his groin and rubbed it around.

“You want some of this, fagboy? You wanna suck my dick? You wanna eat my meat? I bet you do, you fucking sicko. Well, you don’t deserve it, asswipe.” He pulled my head away and still holding me by my hair punched me twice in the face, breaking my nose. He unwrapped the chain from his fist and looped it around my neck. He pulled it tight. As I desperately tried to loosen it to catch my breath he walked me on my knees a few steps to his partner. Stocky grabbed my head with his bloody hands and rubbed my face in his groin also. It was gross that both of them had erections. They were really getting off on the violence. I guess I took a little satisfaction that I left blood stains all over Stocky’s jeans. Blondie loosened the chain, twirled it around his head and lashed it across my chest like a whip. The pain was intense and I screamed. As I fell, Blondie got another kick in my kidney. I was on my side and saw Stocky aiming a kick at my face. I twisted my head and he caught me in the chin rather than mouth, but my head snapped back so hard I heard cartilage crunch. They both started kicking me. Luckily for me, they were wearing sneakers rather than boots. All I could do was curl up in a ball and hope it would soon be over.

“Yeah, lay there like a pussyboy. Gonna fuck your ass after this. Bet you’ll love that.” Blondie again. He seemed to be the spokesman for Haters R Us.

“Stop it! Get away!” I heard shouting coming from my house. Jack, one of my housemates, was running down the front steps in nothing but boxers with a baseball bat in his hands.

“Shit,” Stocky exclaimed and the two took off for the car. They were in before Jack could get them, but as they tried to get away his bat took off the driver’s side mirror and bashed a taillight.

Then Jack was kneeling beside me.

“Oh man, Curt. Are you all right? Oh, stupid question. Crap, I don’t have my phone.” He looked up where Ken, his roommate, had come out on the porch.

“Ken, call 911. We need an ambulance for Chris. Some assholes just jumped him.”

I blessedly don’t remember much about how bad everything hurt. I was just one mass of pain. Julie threw a blanket over me, even though it was July. I guess shock is an all-season thing. She also had a wet cloth and was softly dabbing my face. I was still lying on my side in a tight ball. My muscles were frozen. I couldn’t let go. Then the tears started. I felt a sharp tearing in my side with every heave, but I couldn’t stop.

“It’s okay, babe. We gotcha,” Julie soothed. She dug in my pants pocket and found my phone. The screen was shattered but it still worked. She was getting ready to tell Ken to make some calls when sirens split the night in our quiet neighborhood. Two police cars and an ambulance came screeching to a halt in front of our yard. The two EMTs swarmed me and began doing their thing. I tried to relax into their care but couldn’t release my muscles. They gently pried my fingers from around my knees and straightened me out. I howled in pain. They put a cervical collar on me and transferred me to the stretcher and strapped me down. I’m sure every family in the neighborhood was on their front porches watching the show. I wanted to flip them all off. At that moment, I hated everybody.

***

            Everything was warm and fuzzy. My bed was warm and fuzzy. My brain was warm and fuzzy. My mouth was warm a fuzzy. Yeah, I could really go for a sip of water. The warm fuzziness was shattered as I opened my eyes. Harsh light pierced my eyes making me clamp them back shut. Did I leave the curtains open again? But that wasn’t sunlight. There was no heat to it. I slowly made slits of my lids and gradually let in more and more light. Where the heck am I? Looks like a hospital room. Maybe I dropped off while waiting to see a friend. Who do I know in the hospital? As I shifted I realized two things. One was searing pain down the right side of my body, leading to the second realization. I’m the one I know who’s in the hospital. What the hell?

            I appeared to have bandages over what seemed like 90% of my body. Or at least everything above the waist. My arm was wrapped and in a sling. I could feel bandages wrapped around my face. Some thick collar was around my neck. What? Did I fall down the front stairs? I noticed that each breath in was an agony and only slightly less as I exhaled. I moaned, mostly in sympathy for myself.

            “Chris, you’re awake! Oh, thank goodness.” Marcie loomed up beside me. I smiled as she always makes me do, and it turned into a cry of pain as my lips split.

            “Take it easy, baby. Don’t try to do anything. You’re going to be okay. The doctors said so, and they know better than to mess with me when it come to your care.” She narrowed her eyes showing me the evil eye she had given the doctors. I did my best not to smile.

            “Here,” she said, placing a small pad of paper under my left hand, apparently the only part of my body that was currently working properly. She gently placed a pencil in my hand. I’m right handed so it was awkward feeling.

            “Don’t try to talk just yet. Your mouth is banged up pretty good. At least all your beautiful teeth are intact and your jaw wasn’t broken. Mostly superficial damage. Can I get you anything?”

            I painfully scrawled a barely recognizable W.

            “Oh, of course.” She gently slipped a straw through my lips, which felt like hamburger, by the way. The water was heavenly. She pulled it away before I was finished. I whimpered.

            “Not too much at once.” She gave me another long sip. “Do you remember what happened?” I scrawled a large N.

            “You were attacked outside your house late last night. Do you remember any of it?”

            I tapped the N. Then scrawled another W.

            “Well, that could be who, what or why. We’ve established where. Who, just a couple of random assholes. The police have them. What, they apparently tried to kill you. The Why is the big question.”

            I thought for a few moments.

            ‘DAY’ I scratched on the pad.

            “It’s Sunday, babe. You went to The Barn with Will last night, before all this happened.” I considered this. Okay, I went to The Barn. I remembered music and the press of bodies. Especially on my ass. I told Will I was leaving. Did I make it home? The CAR! That black Corvette was following me. My eyes flew wide and my whole body tensed. I started hyperventilating. Which hurts like a sunovabitch with broken ribs. Marcie grabbed my hand.

            “It’s okay. You’re safe. It’s me, Marcie. We’re safe. Breathe deep. Oh, well, you can’t really do that with broken ribs. Hold on to my hand, baby.” I was whining and whimpering, from the pain and from the memories that came flooding in.

            The door opened and Dad and Mom came in.

            “Is he awake yet, oh good, he is. What’s wrong, Marcie? Why’s he crying? Chris? What’s wrong, buddy?” He rushed up, nudging Marcie aside and grasped my hand. He looked so worried. Actually, Mom did, too. Imagine that. Dad started pushing the call button. He did it repeatedly like an elevator button, as if expecting repeated pushing will make it come sooner.

            “Nurse, something’s wrong,” Dad said when she entered.

            “I think he’s remembering what happened. Maybe a flashback,” Marcie added. The nurse, all snow-white efficiency, jabbed a hyperdermic needle into my IV line.  In a moment I felt coolness flowing into my arm. The pain faded. Dad faded. Marcie faded. And I faded.

***

            I guess you’re wondering about my injuries. Here’s the roll call. Three cracked ribs, broken ulna, hairline fracture in one of my neck vertebrae, fractured orbital socket, shredded lips, bruised kidney, concussion, broken nose, black eyes, both of ‘em, ligature marks by the chain around my neck, a chain shaped bruise on my chest and a host of welts, contusions and bruises about my chest, shoulders, back, arms and upper thighs. Seems nothing was injured below my waist other than my thighs. Thank goodness for small miracles.

            The next time I awoke a gentle looking old man was peering at me.

            “Oh, hello. I’m Dr. Goodson. How are you feeling this afternoon?” I was so glad he didn’t say “we”. I tried to speak but nothing came out but a croak. The doctor gave me a sip of water. That felt wonderful.

            “Awful.”

            “Well, that’s to be expected. You took quite a beating. As a doctor, I shouldn’t say this, but I hope you gave as good as you got.”

            “Not hardly. It was two of them.”

            “Well, that’s not sporting. Not sporting at all. There are some gentlemen from the police department who want to talk to you about all this if you’re up to it. I’m perfectly willing to tell them to go away if you’d rather not. You’re in fairly serious condition. I consider it a minor miracle there was no internal bleeding, especially to that kidney. I don’t want to alarm you, but if they had kept up a little longer, they could have killed you. Whatever did you do to make them so angry, if you don’t mind my asking?”

            “I think they thought I was gay.”

            “And?”

            “And I think they thought I was gay.”

            “Oh.” He was quiet for a long moment, looking down at the blanket, seemingly lost in thought. “I see a lot of man’s inhumanity to man here in the hospital. I have to try to put back together what men so callously destroy. Our mean-spirited hatred of our homosexual brothers saddens me the most.”

            “And I’m not even gay.”

            “Such sadness today. Now, about the police?”

            “Let them in. I’ll have to talk to them sometime. Is my Dad here? I’d like him to be here, too.”

            “I’ll send them all in.”

            After he closed the door, it was opened by Dad.

            “Hey, sport. You’re looking better already.”

            “You’re an awful liar, Dad,” I had to grin, which caused me then to cry out in pain.

            A short, matronly woman in a burgundy dress suit and a tall, younger man, snazzy dresser came in.

            “Hello, Mr. Barton. Can I call you Chris? I’m Detective Karen Garza and this is my partner, Detective Blaine Williams.”

            “I’d shake, but, well, you know,” I said.

            “We’d like to talk to you about what went on outside your house yesterday, if you don’t mind. Get the sequence straight, that sort of thing. Do you mind if the gentleman steps out to give us some privacy?” She was all business.

            “He’s my dad. He stays.”

            “You’re over 18, you don’t need a parent present anymore. It’s usual to talk alone.”

            “Dad stays. I’m not steady yet.” Something about Garza rubbed me the wrong way. I’m sure she’s a great detective. I’d just like my dad standing by.

            “OK. If that’s what you want. I understand from Ms. Marcia Grant that you were at a local gay bar on Saturday night. Is that correct?”

            “Yes.”

            “Are you gay?”

            “I hardly think that’s relevant,” my dad interrupted.

            “Please let us handle this, Mr. Barton.”

            “No, I’m not gay. Marcie’s my fiancée. I went because a friend wanted me to go with him.”

            “Did you talk to anyone or make any contacts while there?
            “Of course I talked to people. I’m not a jerk. But no I didn’t make any contacts. I didn’t make any agreements to go home and fuck anybody, if that’s what you’re getting at.”

            “No need to get defensive, Chris. I’m just trying to get all the facts.”

            “Then why am I suddenly feeling on trial? Dad, I don’t feel well. Get the doc.” There was then general confusion as the doctor and his nurse had to literally push the detectives out of my room.

            “Are you going to be okay now, son?” Dad asked.

            “Yeah. She was just making my head hurt.”

            “I could tell you didn’t care for her. I don’t think she’s had a lot of experience with teenage boys.” Dad, being catty?

            “Meow,” I said. He grinned.

            “Maybe Williams can try later.”

            Later that evening they came back and Williams led the questioning. I hit it off with him and we were talking like friends in no time. Garza was silent, shooting daggers at me with her eyes. He got all the particulars of the fight. Once the police had shown up Saturday night, Jack had told them about the Corvette, now minus a side mirror and rear taillight. They put out an apb and had the guys in no time.

            “Now, Chris. I’m going to show you some pictures. The men who attacked you may or may not be in these photos. I have several sets. Take all the time you want. If you need to go back just say so.”

            “Okay.” He laid a 12 inch by 18 inch sheet of cardboard on the tray on my bed. There were two rows of four pictures each. All were well groomed young men in their late teens and twenties. As soon as I glanced down I zeroed on Stocky in the second row.

            “That’s the guy who was driving the car.” Williams put an orange dot on the picture. He had me initial it. Still difficult with my left hand.

            The second set of pictures took longer. They were all blond. At first I was thinking my Blondie wasn’t there. Then I noticed number two on the top row. He was very handsome. Then when I remembered the sneer on my attacker’s face and transferred it to this guy, I realized it was him.

            “That’s him.”

            “You’re sure.”

            “Yeah, he’s the one with the chain. Seemed like the ringleader.” We did the orange dot thing again.

            “Thanks, Chris. That’s all for now. A rep from the DA’s office will want to see you in a few days about charges.” Oh, joy.

***

            The next day they let Will in. He had been frantic to see me but it was family only. The nurse had told him “like a brother” didn’t count.

            “Oh, shit, man. It’s all my fault. I’ll never forgive myself. I know you can’t. But I’m so, so sorry. You know I’d never in the world do something to hurt you. I’d rather they’d beat me up. Supposed they killed you? I’d never get over that. Not losing Scott and then you in one year.”

I had trouble breaking through Will’s apologies to tell him it was okay.

            “It’s not your fault. It’s the guys that jumped me. They were gonna do somebody that night. If not me, then somebody else.”

            “I still feel totally responsible. If I hadn’t asked, you would’ve never been on their radar. I put you in harm’s way.”

            “Will, if you don’t stop it then I WILL get mad. The only ones to blame are those two assholes who wanted to beat up a gay person.”

            “And that’s the injustice of it. You aren’t even gay.”

            “So if I was gay, then it would be okay?”

            “That’s not what I’m saying.”

            “Yeah, it is. You’ve bought in on what the world has been saying, that gay people are lesser people. That they deserve to be mistreated. If it had been a gay guy beat up it would just be business as usual. That’s so fucked up, dude. Check deep in your heart, bro. How do you value gay people? Show me some of that gay pride.”

            “With you laying there all wrapped up in bandages, I can’t even hate you. Damn it.”

***

            I was only in the hospital for a week when insurance wrongly determined I could take care of myself and I was discharged. Dad had decided I would come home so he and Mom could take care of me. I shuddered at the thought of being left in Mom’s care all day long. I told Dad I was staying in my own place.

            “But you need assistance with just about everything. Who’s going to do that? Your housemates have their own lives to tend to.

            “I’ll be there, Mr, Barton,” Marcie spoke up. “Chris’s going to be my husband, and I consider him that already. I’ll stay with him as long as necessary. I’ve already put in notice at the card shop.”

            “You’re sure, babe?” I asked. “You know how your parents feel.”

            “I’ve told them they don’t get a say in this. You’re my life. In sickness and health. What kind of fiancée would I be to just leave you hanging? Do you even think I could do that?”

            “No, I don’t think you could. I know if it were the other way around I’d move heaven and earth to be at your side. You are my all.”

            “Oh brother. Has anybody told you guys that you’re way too mushy?” Dad said, standing up. “I’ll be out in the hall when the lovefest is over. The least I can do is get you settled back in your apartment.”

***

            Once I was in my apartment, Marcie moved in as she said. I had a single bed which was too small for two people. I told Marcie I didn’t mind cuddling, but she said I needed room to move until my ribs and arm were healed. She took the sofa. She daily checked and changed the bandages on my ribs and arm, helped me bathe and cook. What helped most was when the night terrors came. I started having nightmares about being stalked. Even she had difficulty settling me down after an episode.

The bandages were eventually removed from my face and all the bruises progressed through their color palette of black, purple, green and yellow. Within a month I was doing most of my care and the nightmares had receded. School was back in session but seeing as I was only a teacher’s aide I could come in a little later an get off a little earlier for the short term.

            “I think it’s time for me to move back to my dorm,” she told me about a month after school began.

            “In a few more days. First I want a little more practice cuddling all night in a single bed.” I looked at her hopefully.

            “You drive a hard bargain mister. All right. One more week,” she smiled.

***

            I asked the assistant DA what would happen to my assailants, Brendan Langdon and Kevin Adams. It was coming up on elections so the DA wanted to go full blast on them. The assistant DA said they had a slew of lesser battery charges but there were a few biggies.

“Since they followed you it’s stalking and bringing a weapon, the chain, implies intent which leads to premeditation. The doctor says that if it hadn’t been broken up, you might have died. That makes it attempted murder, first degree. That’s a life sentence. And on top of that, it was a hate crime resulting in serious injury. Another twenty years. These two boys will probably never see daylight again. When they and their families were told this the boys turned as white as sheets and then became red faced as they bawled. Their lawyers immediately began asking for a deal. The DA’s not interested. He’s got this one in the bag,” he told me. I actually felt bad for them. They were just boys, younger than me. Nineteen is so young to be ruined. Too young.

***

            In the end both boys agreed to plead guilty if the DA didn’t push for the maximum sentences. Even then, they could each expect fifteen to twenty years in prison. I couldn’t shake the absolute waste of it all.

            “They deserve that and everything they get,” exclaimed Will, in my room. He was excitedly bouncing while sitting on the edge of my bed. “Those fucking assholes tried to kill you. They should be strung up by their nuts. Or horsewhipped. The funniest irony is that they beat you up thinking you were gay, and in a few weeks they’ll be taking dick down the throat and up the ass all day and night. Those two pretty boys will be real popular on their cell block.”

            “Will, shut up! Just stop it, okay? I don’t want to hear any more of that crap. This is my trial, not yours, dammit.” I think I’ve hardly ever been mad at Will before. “This is not the time for you to try to settle old scores, to get revenge for every gay bashing crime you’ve ever experienced. This is about me and two poor sons of bitches who got carried away and now are paying an awful price. It’s tearing me up, so just stop it.” By then there were tears in my voice and my eyes.

            “Hey, bro,” he said, putting an arm around me and making me sit on the bed. He gently pulled my head into his shoulder. “I’m sorry. I don’t want to upset you. It’ll be okay. We’ll get past this. Just lean on me. You’ll be okay.”

            “But will they?”

***

Since there was no trial the court went directly to sentencing. Before the boys were sentenced they were allowed to have character witnesses speak before the judge. It was the usual group of mother, sister, girlfriend. A lot of talk about what a good boy he was. Trying to personalize them before the judge. I have to admit I didn’t hear a lot of it. I was stuck in my head.

Once they had all said their pieces, mixed with lots of tears, the attorney said they were done. The DA stood and said, “Your Honor, my client, the victim of this crime would also like to address the Court.”

“Proceed,” the judge said.

I stood up and tried to read the paper I had written. It was difficult because I was shaking so hard. I wasn’t exactly nervous, but upset. This whole ordeal had been awful for me. I couldn’t imagine how it had been for Brendan and Kevin and their families. I hated it.

“Your Honor, I am the victim of the crime of assault. Brendan and Kevin attacked me outside my home in July. Through this process called the justice system, I have seen the devastating effect it has had on them and their families. I am appalled. I am appalled that in the twenty-first century we still treat people like animals. Like some disposable thing that can just be tossed aside if it can’t be easily fixed. Brendan and Kevin aren’t men, they’re just boys. Like me. As part of these hearings they have stood and apologized to me. I know they were required to by the court but I sensed true remorse. Not like the thief who isn’t sorry he stole but very sorry he got caught, I’ve seen it in their faces and voices. They have realized how awful they screwed up and would do anything for a do over. Well, I want to give them one.

“If you send these two to prison for any amount of time, their lives are ruined, their lives are over. As young as they are they will be sexually assaulted and come out jaded, hardened, hate-filled criminals. They’ll have nothing to live for and blame the world for it. Can’t we think about fixing them rather than throwing them away? In a sociology course I took the professor said that a society that did not apply mercy to justice was headed toward tyranny.

“Brendan and Kevin. I accept your apology. I forgive you fully for what you did. I wish you no ill. I’ve had too many years of carrying around a load of hate. I’m done with that. Judge, please temper your justice with a little mercy. Thank you.” There was stunned silence for a moment and then many people broke out in applause. The judge angrily banged her gavel demanding silence. As order was restored, I could still hear Brendan’s mom sobbing loudly.

“I must say I’m astonished,” the judge finally said. “In all my years on the bench I’ve never had the victim of such a violent crime ask for mercy for his assailants. That is a true sign of grace. You are a remarkable young man and these two miscreants awaiting sentencing should take a page from your book. All right. The convicted will stand to receive their sentences.” Both Brendan, Kevin and their attorneys stood at the table to my right. Dressed in nice suits they looked as innocent as choirboys. The kind of boy any man would want his daughter to bring home. I didn’t have any illusions about them, however. What they did was disgusting and evil. But I feel they were too young to fully understand the repercussions of their actions. Brendan is just a follower and happened to follow the wrong person. Kevin is mean, but he can change if he wants to; if he accepts that he either has to change or spend his life in prison. If it will save these two boys’ lives then I’m willing to chance it.

“Mr. Langdon and Mr. Adams. The nature of this crime disgusts and disturbs me,” began the judge. “Beating someone nearly to death because they might be gay is beyond the pale for any civilized society or person. However, two of our children, you two, have learned somewhere, whether at home, school or elsewhere, that it is acceptable. That it is a reasonable Saturday night pastime. My first impulse it to apply the maximum sentence just for the sheer meanness of what you did. The plea for mercy from the victim may be misplaced. He apparently sees something in you that I don’t. But he is correct that justice must be tempered with mercy.

“Mr. Langdon and Mr. Adams. To save time I am giving you both the same sentence because you jointly entered this evil deed. On the conviction of attempted murder, first degree I sentence you each to fifteen years in a maximum security penitentiary of this states choosing. On the conviction of committing a hate crime resulting in grievous injury I sentence you each to ten years in said penitentiary. On the conviction of stalking with intent to cause harm, I sentence you to one year. I have combined all the other convictions into one and sentence you to one year for those.” Both Brendan and Kevin had their heads bowed during sentencing and Brendan was quietly sobbing. “Consecutively that is thirty-two years, but I also rule that they be served concurrently. As the hate crime was sexually based you will be labelled as sex offenders. That is the sentence I had walking into the Court today. Now, hearing Mr. Barton, I would like to amend that sentence slightly.

“Brendan and Kevin, I am suspending that sentence and converting it to ten year’s probation. Instead you will serve one year,” there were audible gasps around the courtroom, “a full 365 days, no time off for good behavior or time already served. Instead of going to a maximum sentence prison where you would no doubt be gang raped before the day is out, I am remanding you to the county jail system, to reside there for the length of your incarceration. The most dangerous criminal your will meet there is a drunk or pickpocket. You will be housed separately and are to have no interaction with each other for the length of your probations. And Brendan, in your own interest, you should make it a permanent separation. You will be required to successfully complete a number of diversity and anger management trainings. Once completed your records will be sealed. Hopefully this will serve as a wake-up call and allow you two young men to redeem yourselves and rejoin society. Don’t thank me, thank Mr. Barton. He sees something worth saving in you that I must say I fail to recognize.

“Mr. Barton. Is that enough mercy for you?” she asked looking down at me.

“Yes, your Honor.”

“All right then. Bailiff, remove them.” The bailiff walked over to the defense table and put handcuffs on both Brendan and Kevin. As they were being led out, Brendan looked back and called, “Chris. Thank you.”

            “Court adjourned,” she said and banged her gavel. There was an immediate uproar in the room. Dad leaned over the railing and hugged me.

            “Well done son. I’m so proud of you.” As he was disentangling himself the assistant DA put his hand on my shoulder.

            “The attorneys for the accused said the families wanted to speak with you. Your choice.”

            “Me? Why?”

            “Well, my guess is to thank you. You just saved those boys’ asses. Literally.”

            “Well, sure, I guess.” I didn’t know what I’d say to them. I had kinda hoped I was done. I’d seen the families all through the few days of proceedings and felt terribly sad for them. I hoped this outcome would give them some relief. Mr. and Mrs. Langdon came up first. They both still had tears running down their faces.

            “Chris Barton. I cannot find the words to thank you enough for what you have done. You have saved our son’s life,” he said. Mrs. Langdon just threw her arms around my neck and wept on my shoulder. I patted her a few times until Mr. Langdon pulled her away.

            Mr. Adams was a bit more stoic.

            “Son, that was a brave thing you did. I know Kevin’s got problems. Since his mom died I’ve spoiled him. I knew he was getting into meanness but I never knew that it was this bad. I’m a wealthy man, but all my money couldn’t buy him what you freely gave him. We have a chance to get him back on track. You can’t put a price tag on that. But if there is anything I can do for you, anything you need, just name it. Maybe your tuition?”

            “No sir.” I wasn’t sure if I should be offended that he wanted to pay me for what I did. But I decided some good could come from this. “However, I would ask that you make a contribution to the Boston LGBTQI Alliance. Give whatever your heart tells you to. It may help another kid avoid Kevin’s mistake.”

            “Consider it done. Mr. Barton,” he said turning to my dad. He reached out and shook his hand. “You have a mighty fine son here. You must be so proud.”

            “Yes, he’s tops in my book,” Dad said.

            “Hopefully one day I can say that about Kevin,” he answered. Then he shook my hand and walked away.

            As Dad turned to gather up his notes, Mom laid her hand on my shoulder. “That was a very good think you did, son. I hope you know I’m proud of you, too.”

***

Over time, the terror, and it was terror, I had experienced faded. I still think Corvettes are the sexiest car around, but no matter how long I live, the sight of a black Corvette will send a little frisson of fear up my spine.

On the whole I think I learned some pretty valuable lessons from this. First, I felt totally violated by Joe when he checked me out at the bar. I felt like a piece of meat being evaluated. Never mind that I apparently passed inspection, no one should be made to feel that way. I’m sure I’ve put any number of women in that position in my time (well, not since I reconnected with Marcie) and am resolved to do better. Second I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with every day. That any moment violence may overtake you for no reason. That society has determined that it is open season on you, go out at your own risk. That is no way for people to have to live. I need to do better there, also.

            And my third lesson? All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.

The Undertaker

You may recognize the beginning of this story. It is a take off on Little Red Corvette from last year. I almost named it Little Black Corvette, but that doesn’t have the same flow. Little Red Corvette was absolutely true. At one point I pondered on what had happened and what might have happened. In this story, I’m imagining one possible scenario. I’m just glad it didn’t work out this way.

The Undertaker

When I was a kid, my best friend was Will. Our dads had been best friends growing up, and since we lived about 200 yards apart it was logical we would be thrown together. I was a year older and we were quite different, but it somehow worked and we were very close throughout our childhood and adolescence. Will dated Tina during most of high school. She dumped him when he was sixteen. I then broke the Number One Bro Rule. I dated her – twice. It was wrong but she was kinda hot and I was kinda 17. If it’s any consolation, she ditched me on our second date and went home with another guy.

Will and I eventually worked around it and stayed friends. After high school he met a nice girl and they got engaged. Early in the engagement she was killed in a car accident. Will was particularly wrecked because his sister had died in an auto accident when we were young. By this time I was off at college. I found out later he had moved in with a woman in a nearby town. I was just hoping he would find himself, or at least a little happiness after all the crap life had handed him.

***

Will apparently found himself. On his 21st birthday he came to visit me in the small city not far away where I had settled. He said his birthday present to himself was to come out of the closet. Then he said, “I’m gay.” I just looked at him as if waiting for the other shoe to drop. My expression probably said, “And…?” This wasn’t exactly a newsflash. I knew he had broken off with his live-in lady friend and he had spoken a number of times about going to ‘the club’ in my city. ‘The club’ was a gay bar. I guess what he was getting at was that although he was living as if he was not in the closet, he was now announcing it to the world. It apparently didn’t go over well. You have to remember this was about 1980.

When I didn’t say anything right away he sarcastically said, “So, aren’t you going to turn against me like everyone else has?”

I wasn’t surprised by the response he was getting. We grew up, and he still lived, in a very rural, very conservative, very Baptist, very southern community. They are kind of like, hate the sin, crucify the sinner types. I had long ago shed many of the bigoted views I was brought up with. I told him, “Will, you’re my friend. I love you. Nothing would make me turn against you. You’re still you.” He looked like he needed it so I hugged him. I detected a couple of sniffles. He said, “It’s a sucky way to find out who your real friends are.”

But Will was one for living out loud, so he proudly carried on in his community, visiting the club in the city on a regular basis. He sometimes stopped by to see me on the way in or out of town.

***

One particular Saturday afternoon about a year after coming out he showed up at my door

and said, “Come to the club with me.” My immediate response was, “Not gonna happen.”

“It’ll be fine. I want you to see this part of my life. I won’t let anybody touch you.”

“Really not gonna happen.”

We went around for awhile until he said, “For years I went with you to straight bars. You can do this for me.” I prepared to argue that this was different, but somehow…it wasn’t.

I grudgingly agreed to go.

He said, “I’ll be with you. Nobody’s going to rape you.”

“Really not helping.”

***

Why was I so unwilling to go? Maybe somewhere down in our lizard brainstem is a primeval fear of ‘other’? At this point in my life I knew a few gay people. I guess I was hypocritically okay they were gay as long as I didn’t have to see it or think about it. Not so much removed from the bigotry I was trying to overcome.

So, I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 as it was just starting to fill. As we walked past some tables a nice-looking gentleman said, “Hey, can I buy you a drink?” He was dressed in a blazer and button-down shirt. A bit old, 35-40, which was ancient to me at 23. I politely declined and quickly caught up with Will.

“You should have accepted the drink,” he said.

“Hell no,” I responded. “He would have thought I was available for negotiations.”

“It’s just a drink.”

“No way. It’s never ‘just a drink’. I’m not selling what he’s looking for.”

“You’re such a prude,” Will laughed.

***

We found a bar with some stools available. I had only sat for a minute when a lumberjack came up beside me. I call him a lumberjack because he looked like the guy on Brawny paper towels, decked out in tight jeans and a flannel shirt. He was nice looking and all muscle, with that little mustache that all gay men seemed to have. He leaned on the bar and smiled at me. I looked to Will in a panic.

“Just ignore him. He’s harmless.” At 6 foot plus and 200 pounds of muscle at the peak of his power he decidedly didn’t look harmless. He decidedly looked like a predator and I decidedly was feeling like prey. He gave me a leer that said I had passed muster and was now on the menu. I studiously refused to make eye contact until he drifted away in search of greener pastures.

“Man, you have been cruised,” Will laughed. Is that what it was?

“Yeah? And I thought you were going to protect me from all this. All you’re doing is enjoying the show.” I was a bit annoyed.

“Hey, you’re doing fine. Can I help it if the guys think you’re hot? Would you rather they

think you’re ugly?”
            “Yes, I mean no, I mean… I don’t know.” I hate hard questions like that. No one wants to

be considered ugly, but I did not come here to find me a man.

            And then I made a connection. Is that the way women feel at bars when we leer at them? We don’t call it leering, just ‘checking them out’, but it’s basically the same thing. I felt so violated while it was happening. Is that what women experience? I whispered a quiet apology to women everywhere.

I had decided I definitely did not want to go the bathroom while at the bar. I would just feel too vulnerable and exposed. What did I expect, an orgy? But a couple of beers settled that. I had to go, no question. So I told Will I’d be right back, and to come rescue me if I wasn’t. I pressed through the crowd toward the men’s room on the other side of the bar. The crowd was fairly thick but there was no excuse for the number of hands I felt on my butt as I made my way through. When did men get so free with their hands? There was also a ladies’ room that did not seem to be used. I hadn’t seen any women. Lesbians are gay. Don’t they go to gay bars, or does it have to be a dyke bar? Or maybe it was for drag queens. I just don’t know any of the politics of being gay.

I steeled myself and went in expecting the worst. What, I don’t know. It was just a fairly ordinary bathroom like in any restaurant or bar. A difference was there were no urinals, only stalls. And no doors on the stalls. I decided not to overanalyze the thought process behind this. I waited in a short line. Most of the patrons seemed to know each other. There was a group of very young guys, probably with fake id’s, clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with a scene of the mean girls in the school bathroom, this was it. I took care of my business and quickly exited. I endured another grope session making my way back to where I started. No stool and no Will. Oh, crap.

Almost immediately a very handsome young man sidled up to me.

“I don’t think I’ve seen you around here before.” Was that his best line? I looked over at him. He was dressed in jeans, a white T-shirt, black leather jacket and had his hair combed back like Fonzie in the old Happy Days tv show.

“That’s because I’ve never been here before,” I answered.

“Oh, just come out of the closet?”

What?! I assume the dim light covered the bright red of my face at this point. Without sputtering too much I explained I was NOT gay and was here with a friend. Even as I said it I realized how lame it sounded. The guy accepted it, but instead of walking away, he stayed and we talked. I guess I blushed even more when he told me it was too bad I wasn’t gay because he thought I was very hot. We were far enough from the dance floor to talk without shouting. His name was John and he was a waiter at a local fancy restaurant. He told me excitedly that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money so he could have his own place. He was currently living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped children. He gave me the standard line that I must be “so special”. I get that a lot.

After a while he moved on in search of prey. I mean, 99.9% of the men were here for one thing only. Then I ashamedly admitted to myself that when I went out to bars, I was one of that 99.9%. Just looking for a different landscape. I had actually enjoyed talking to John. I like meeting people and this is what I enjoy about social situations. Just talking and getting to know people. It was nice. He was nice.

Will came hustling up.

“Sorry, I had to catch up with someone. I didn’t mean to desert you. I see you were talking to John. What do you think? He’s like the hottest guy here. By the way, my friends think you’re cute. They were disappointed to hear you’re straight.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then I realized my mood wasn’t Will’s fault, it was mine. I’m unfairly putting my straight values on what he enjoys. These are his stomping grounds, where he’s most at home. We all need a place like that. I’m glad he has it. 

  “Thanks for showing me around. It was nice. But it’s time I headed home.” He didn’t object. I think he was ready to go on the prowl also. So I left.

***

It wasn’t far home. A few blocks from the club I noticed a car following me closely. I mean it was city driving, but he stayed right on my bumper. It’s usually annoying, but late at night with the streets deserted, it’s kinda creepy.

A couple blocks from my last turn, he pulled out of the lane and came up on my right. As I stopped at the red light, he oozed up to a stop beside me on the right in a low, sleek and oh so sexy Corvette. And did I mention it was black? Without the shine, it would be hard to see as it faded into the black of night like it had some science fiction cloaking device on board. I couldn’t help but admire it. The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. Probably a guy, though. Maybe making up for deficits in other areas I thought enviously. When the light turned green he jackrabbited away. Hey, if my car could do that I probably would, too. I just signaled and moved my old blue Civic into the right lane to make my turn at the next block. As I made my turn I was peripherally aware of the Corvette making a quick right turn a block down the street. My house was the next to last on the block on the right. I blessed my luck that I found curb parking just a few feet from the walkway.

As I was walking toward the steps that led up from the sidewalk, I saw a black Corvette slowly nose up to the next intersection coming from the left. Since I’m the next to last house on the block it was pretty close. How many black Corvettes are running around my neighborhood at nearly 1 am? It had to be the same one. Why had it followed me? My mind raced through about a dozen scenarios, none ending well. There was about a 1% chance it was a gorgeous blonde girl who wanted my body. About a 39% chance it was a perverted serial murderer who also wanted my body, for entirely different reasons. And a 60% chance it was a couple of redneck college students out to roll a queer. Yeah, my money was on that explanation. Had they followed me from the club? It’s not something I generally worry about. I guess you could call it straight boy privilege.

He revved the engine as I reached the steps. The deep throaty sound vibrated in my stomach. He knew I was aware of him. My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I felt exposed. The car was sitting there like a black spider emitting an aura of evil. I don’t know why I got so spooked, but I instinctively knew that this was bad. I pretended not to see the Corvette as he gunned his engine again and I hustled up the walkway and into the house. I quickly got in my apartment, locked the door and leaned against it trying to regulate my breathing. I usually turn on the lights first thing, but a thought stabbed me, ‘Then he’ll know where I live’. So I stood there in the dark, heart racing, hyperventilating and sweating bullets. After a few moments I was able to move so I sidled up to the window and peeped out. Holy Mother of God! The Corvette was sitting directly in front of the house, idling. I’m sure the occupant(s?) was watching the house. To see which lights came on? I was frozen in terror.

            After a small eternity, the car moved on. I sank down on the couch and waited for my breathing and heartbeat to slow down. What was happening here? At the time I didn’t recognize it as a flashback. I didn’t turn on the lights in case he circled the block and came back around. I just waited until I was in my bedroom with the door closed before turning on any lights. Yeah, I was really freaked. I had heard stories from people who had been tailed before, but you don’t know how unnerving and downright terrifying it can be until it happens to you.

I slept little that night. Had I dodged a bullet or was it something totally innocuous? 

***

Will came by the next day to thank me for coming with him to the club before heading out of town. I opened the door to let him into my living room.

“You’re looking real chipper this morning,” I croaked rubbing my bleary eyes.

“Uh, it’s past noon.”

“I hadn’t noticed.”

“Yeah, you look like shit. You didn’t have that much beer. What happened?”

I told him about the black Corvette. He was silent for a long moment. I could fairly feel the unease radiating off his body.

“Oh, shit! You saw the Undertaker! Oh, crap. I had hoped it was just urban legend. I mean I heard about it but no one I know has seen him. Oh Christ, oh Christ, I’m so sorry. I never would have purposely put you in danger, you know that?”

“Okay, now I’m really spooked. What’s going on?”

“Over the past couple of years about five young guys have disappeared. I don’t really know but one from our club. The others are from other gay clubs locally. Most of them had no family to push the investigation and the police don’t give a damn. Just another fucking faggot to them. They talk about our ‘dangerous lifestyle’. They say there’s no evidence of the missing men being connected and no bodies to indicate foul play. They assume gays are all transients who drift about and these guys just moved on. But at least two of the guys were said to be last seen getting into a black Corvette. I thought it was just people making up stuff. The story is that he follows guys home from the clubs, entices them into his car and then somehow does away with them. No body has ever been found, so we don’t know what happens but the guys are never seen again. We call him the Undertaker because he drives a black car and he disposes of the bodies we figure he’s killing. And as I said, the police aren’t really interested. They say the black Corvette is just exaggeration. But you’ve seen it. Oh, shit man. He followed you home. Oh my god, I’m so, so sorry.”

I was fine with it. For a moment. Then I bolted to the bathroom and threw up in the toilet. A freaking serial killer was after me last night? And he knows where I live! Will followed me, rinsed a washcloth and put it on the back of my neck. I took it and wiped my face. Aw, crap.

“What am I gonna do?” I asked. “I can’t go to the police. What’ll I tell them? That I saw a spooky car?”

“It’s going to be okay. I doubt he’ll come back. Just keep your eyes open and don’t go out at night for a few days. That’s all you can do. That’s been my life. That’s all gayboys’ lives. Always trying to keep an eye on my back. You also got plenty of housemates to watch you.”

“I’ll be fine,” I mumbled.

***

I don’t think I slept more than a few minutes any night that week. I was a wreck at work. People asked about it. I just said some guys kept me up too late. As the next weekend approached I was nearly functioning normally. Then I got the call on Saturday.

“Curtis, it’s Will. You gotta help me. It’s the Undertaker. I think he got John.”

“John? From the club? Oh shit! Are you sure?”

“Not really. He left the bar Friday night and his aunt said he never came home. He wasn’t with anyone when he left the bar. We know the Undertaker’s been in this area. It’s all my fault. If I’d told him about what happened to you he never would have gotten in a stranger’s car.”

“Calm down, Will. It’s not your fault. John’s an adult. He should know better. And we don’t know that’s what happened.”

“But what if it is?”

“And you said the cops aren’t interested?”

“Even if they were, John hasn’t been missing long enough. By the time they come in, it may be too late. We got an ace in the hole, though, but we need your help.”

“If I can help John you know I will.”

“Remember the lumberjack as you called him that you saw at the bar last week? The one that cruised you?”

“How could I forget,” I deadpanned.

“Well, by day he is Officer Joseph Teem, one of Raleigh’s finest.”

“A cop?”

“Yep, one of our ‘brave boys in blue’. Anyway, he has a little group of officers, they call themselves the Gay Strike Force. Totally unofficial and off the record. They are mostly gay and take a special interest in fighting gay bashing and other crimes against minorities in general. A good bit of their investigating is under the radar. As I said, the brass really don’t give a damn about us. But the brass is willing to look the other way on some things. You are the only eyewitness we have of the Undertaker. I need you to talk to Joe.”

“But I didn’t see anything. Just a car. And I was so freaked I don’t hardly remember anything.”

“Please, Curtis. John’s life may depend on it. Joe says every little bit of information helps.”

“Well, okay, but like I said, I don’t think I know anything that will help.”

“Great. Joe says he has time after lunch. We can come by and he can ask you some questions.”

***

What did I just agree to, I wondered. I remembered Joe as very big and very intimidating. I was inviting him to come in and interrogate me. The word interrogate is intimidating enough. Will he want to shine a light in my eyes or break out the rubber baton? No, that’s just foolish. Isn’t it?

By the time Will knocked on my door I had come up with about ten reasons why John was late getting home, none of which involved the Undertaker. One look at Will’s face told me those scenarios didn’t matter. He was truly worried and hurting. I owed him whatever help I could give.

“Curtis, you remember Joe.”

The big man beside Will stuck out his hand. “Officer Joe Teem, Foxborough PD.”

I shook it. “Pleased to meet you,” I said with what I’m sure was a lot of uncertainty in my voice. He still looked like the Brawny paper towel guy, in a uniform. The man was still big and intimidating. And the dress blue uniform just made him more so – both big and intimidating. I bet crooks hated to see him coming.

“Sorry if I shook you up a little the other night, Mr. Bass. Will’s explained how you came to be in the club. I apologize if I made you feel uncomfortable,” the sincerity in his voice helped put me more at ease. I guessed he was good at playing ‘Good Cop’.

“Oh, it’s okay. And call me Curtis. I just wasn’t sure what to expect.”

“Culture shock. Yeah, I understand, Curtis. Anyway, can we sit and talk about what you know?”

He asked me to tell him what I remembered all the way through once without stopping. I couldn’t do it. Remembering made my gorge rise and my heart race several times. He just softly asked me to stop, breathe deeply and continue when I felt ready. I don’t know if that is what they taught him in the police academy but it sure beat the bright light and rubber baton. He was so much gentler than I had imagined he could be. A calming presence.

Then, he asked me to tell it again, but he stopped me after nearly every sentence for clarification.

“The key is the car. Can’t you tell me anything else about it?” he asked.

“It was a black ‘Vette. What else can I say?”

“No bumper stickers, scratches or dents? Nothing? How about the license plate? North Carolina or vanity tag?”

“Nothing. Can’t you just run the make of the car? I’m pretty sure it was new, like only a couple years old at most. It’s a pretty high-end car. How many could there be?”

“You’d be surprised. Several thousand. We’ve checked.”

“Yeah, but wouldn’t it be registered locally, like in Raleigh or at least Wake County?”

“Probably not. A good predator doesn’t take victims in his own back yard. He probably lives not far, because he needs to be familiar with the area, but he’s hit Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill, all in the Triangle. He could be anywhere in central North Carolina. Or Virginia for that matter. If he’s from outside North Carolina we may never catch him. Did you see the license plate at all?”

“No. He was behind me on the way home from the club. Then he was idling in front of my house. Again, I couldn’t see anything.”

“You said you saw him come up to the intersection ahead when you got to your house. Maybe you saw his front plate then?” Officer Teem was really reaching.

Suddenly something clicked. I had a memory that I had totally forgotten in the frantic craziness of that night.

“Hold on. It did have a front plate. When it stopped at the intersection it was directly under a streetlight.” Officer Teem was immediately at attention. Will sat up, too. “I barely noticed the plate. Yeah, it was a North Carolina plate. And I remember it started with JPL. I noticed it without thinking because I used to be a NASA and sy-fy geek. To us JPL is the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. It’s just one of those things that register in your brain without you even thinking about it. I didn’t remember until you just said that about the intersection.”

“That’s wonderful, Curtis,” Officer Teem said. “Any help with the numbers?”

I closed my eyes and tried to remember. I got nothing. “I think the first number had curves. It wasn’t a 1 or 7. That’s all I can give you.”

“This is incredible evidence. The number of black Corvettes with a license plate starting JPL has to be a very small number. I’ll make sure our guys run this at once.”

Officer Teem excused himself to go out to his cop car. Will immediately grabbed me in a bear hug.

“I knew you would come up with something, Curtis. You’re the best.”

***

What happened next was like something out of a Patterson thriller. Joe told Will and he shared the details with me later. There turned out to be three black Corvettes registered in North Carolina with a plate starting with JPL. The owner of one had been out of the country for several weeks. Surveillance revealed his car was locked up in a garage, unused.

Of the other two, one had a Durham address. The other was in Clayton. Joe favored the Clayton one because Durham was part of his hunting ground, while Clayton was safely removed yet close enough for easy access. However, since the Durham vehicle had an open parking violation, they used that as an excuse for a friendly visit from the police. He and Detective George Rizzo, also on the strike force, took a trip up to Durham to see a Homer Jensen, 43, occupation not listed. It turned out Jensen was home. He answered the door after several attempts at knocking by the detective. Jensen was on the short side at about 5’4” and a little pudgy. His arms showed some muscle development so Joe figured he must lift weights. He had thin hair across the top of his slightly too large head. Joe said he immediately got a very weird vibe from the guy. He said he’d been a policeman long enough to know not to discount his take on people’s vibes. It seemed to be a special gift he had. Detective Rizzo glibly worked them into the front room of the house. Jensen seemed unhappy with this, but apparently didn’t want to arouse suspicion. Too late for that. While Rizzo talked with Jensen, Joe used his special cop senses to survey the place from where he stood. First off, Jensen was as squirrelly as they come. Joe could tell the man was definitely hiding something. As Jensen was doing his best to escort them back out the door Joe thought he heard a soft thud and what may have been a moan. He really wasn’t sure if he heard it, or just wanted to hear something. He decided to go with it.

“Did you hear that?” he asked Detective Rizzo. Rizzo’s eyes said no but he answered in the affirmative.

“Mind if we take a look around, Mr. Jensen?” Rizzo asked moving past the man deeper into the house.

“Hey, I mind very much. You can’t come in here without a warrant.”

“I heard someone moaning,” Joe told him, stretching the truth.

“That’s probable cause, Mr. Jensen. We have to investigate,” said Rizzo. As Rizzo reached to open the door to another part of the house, Jensen lunged at him with a dagger-shaped letter opener he had grabbed from a desk. He plunged it into Rizzo’s back just under his right shoulder blade. As Rizzo cried out, Jensen yanked the blade out and turned to attack Joe. Joe had already pulled out his taser and gave Jensen a good jolt. As Jensen lay on the floor quivering yet paralyzed, Joe flipped him over on his stomach and cuffed him. He turned to Rizzo who was struggling to get his jacket off.

“I just bought this freaking blazer. Dammit!” Joe ripped Rizzo’s shirt open in the back to get a better look at the wound.

“It’s bleeding pretty badly,” he said. Looking around he noticed a dish towel.

“God only knows what germs are on this, but I guess it’s better than bleeding to death,” he told Rizzo as he pressed it against the wound.

“I’m good,” Rizzo groaned, holding on to a table to maintain an upright stance. “We need to search this house.” He took a step and crumpled to the floor.

“Aw, shit,” said Joe. He sat Rizzo up and began unbuckling the man’s belt.

“I always thought you were hot for me Joe, but is now a good time?” Rizzo managed to chuckle.

“Shut up while I save your life,” Joe groused. Once the belt was free, he looped it around Rizzo’s chest and used it to hold the towel in place over the wound. “You should probably lie on your stomach while I call for backup.” He got very little assistance from Rizzo as he lifted him up and laid him stomach down on the sofa he had been leaning against.

“This is Officer Joe Teem. I need assistance at 4306 Rosewood. Officer down. I repeat, officer down. Suspect in custody,” he spoke into his communication unit.

“I’ll be okay, Joe,” Rizzo gasped. “Go take a look around. Someone may need help.”

“I’m on it.”

Joe drew his weapon, not knowing what to expect. He pushed open the door Rizzo had tried to open earlier. It revealed an ordinary dining room, table and chairs, a hutch with china. He slowly prowled around the rest of the house. It seemed ordinary in every way. A middle-aged bachelor’s pad. Why was Jensen so dodgy, then? Standing in the kitchen he stopped and listened. Nothing.

“John!” he shouted. “It’s the police. Are you here?” He listened again. Then he heard it. A small thump. It seemed to be coming from the pantry. The pantry was a large walk in affair. He’d glanced in it already. This time he turned on the light and went all the way into the pantry. At the back, easily overlooked was a small door. He tried it but it was locked. He could hear more irregular thumps from the other side. He looked around and saw a key hanging on a hook beside the door. It slid into the hole easily. Teem pushed the door open. The room on the other side was dark but the thumping and moaning increased. He felt along the wall to his right and flipped the light switch. An uncovered overhead bulb flashed on. He was so unprepared for the sight that he gasped as soon as it registered. The room was small with some kind of metal table in the center. A person was strapped down on the table, apparently nude with a sheet thrown across his lower body. He was gagged and apparently trying to yell through it. By violently wrenching his body he was able to make the table jump and cause the thumps. Joe rushed to the table. The man shied away, a look of pure terror in his eyes.

“Oh my god, John,” Joe murmured. Though the body was covered with bruises and welts, the face was untouched. He immediately recognized John Clark, a man he knew from the club. The man who was reported missing. The man continued to struggle, and only intensified as Joe went to touch him. He was so terrified he didn’t recognize Joe.

“Shh, shh John. It’s me, Joe. You’re going to be alright. We’ve found you. You’re safe. You’re safe.” Some part of that seemed to get through and John’s thrashing about ceased. Joe unhooked the buckle that held the gag in place and pulled the wadded cloth from John’s mouth, tossing it aside. John began breathing quickly through his mouth. Joe could see that he was beginning to hyperventilate.

“Slow, John. Breathe slowly.” He caressed John’s face to calm him. Once John’s breath seemed less ragged he quickly released all the other buckles of the straps holding him on the table.

“Can you sit up? Here, let me help you.” He put his arm under John’s shoulders and heaved him up into a sitting position. He pulled the man’s legs toward him so they could dangle off the side to provide a more comfortable position. He kept his arm around John’s shoulders to give him support. John held on to the edge of the sheet, clutching it against his chest as if cold.

“You’re here? You’re really here. Oh, thank god. I’ve been so afraid. Oh god, oh god. Thank you, Joe.” He started crying, so Joe moved in front of him and took him into an embrace. John released the sheet and grabbed Joe like a lifeline and began sobbing into his shoulder. By the time he could release John, they heard sirens in the distance. John looked around the room and focused on an upright freezer in the corner.

“What?” asked Joe following his gaze. “What’s in the freezer?”

“Don’t open it. You don’t want to know.” That was definitely not the thing to say to a policeman. Joe walked over to the freezer. He pulled the door open and a cloud of freezing mist rolled out. As the mist dissipated he got a better look at what was in the freezer.

“Oh my god!” he cried as he saw over a dozen heads of men, each neatly bagged, staring at him. He suddenly recognized one as Brian, a guy he’d once picked up at the club. He raced over to the sink in the corner and threw up. Immediately there was the noise of people around them as the room quickly filled with police officers. Joe straightened and staggered back to the living room and collapsed in an overstuffed chair. Rizzo had already been taken out to an ambulance. Try as he may he couldn’t stop the tears. All he wanted to do was rip Jensen into little pieces. And then curl up into a ball and die.

No one knows why Jensen did it. He refuses to tell where the bodies ended up. The DA is not too concerned. They’ve identified all nineteen of the victims and Jensen will be locked up for life. Case closed. John says Jensen made comments about “filthy faggots” but also sexually abused him as well as the torture. One of the shrinks said something about “repression” and “homo-erotic denial”. I think he’s just a garden variety nutcase.

***

“There’s still part of this I don’t understand,” Will began.

            “There’s a lot I don’t understand. Like how does anyone get this crazy and nobody notices?”

            “Well, there is that. But I’m talking about another aspect. Look. A girl will not get in a car with a stranger at night, no matter what the circumstances, unless she’s a hooker. A straight guy probably wouldn’t either. He’d figure any guy offering him a ride must be gay and straight men seem to be terrified that someone may think they’re gay. Y’all are wound up so tight.”

            “Thanks.”

            “But gay guys obviously would. I’m embarrassed to say that if I had been in your situation, I probably would have sat down on that stone wall and waited to see what he wanted. I guess that’s what he was counting on. Guys that didn’t get any hoping they still might have a chance to get off. But he was a toad. Who would get in a car with someone who looked like him?”

            “Maybe he offered them money,” I said.

            “I may sound shallow, but it would take a whole lotta money for me to get naked with someone as butt ugly as our Mr. Jensen.”

            “Well, ask Joe. I’m sure that was one of the questions they asked John.”

            “I guess I will, because it really has been bothering me. As successful as he was he must have had some powerful bait.”

***

Over time, the terror, and it was terror, I had experienced faded. I still think Corvettes are the sexiest car around, but no matter how long I live, the sight of a black Corvette will send a little frisson of fear up my spine.

On the whole I think I learned some pretty valuable lessons from this. First, and most obvious, don’t get in a car with a stranger. Duh. Second, I felt totally violated by Joe when he checked me out at the bar. I felt like a piece of meat being evaluated. Never mind that I apparently passed inspection, no one should be made to feel that way. I told him it was okay, but it’s not. I’m sure I’ve put any number of women in that position in my time and am resolved to do better. Third, I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with every day. That any moment violence may overtake you for no reason. That society has determined that it is open season on you, go out at your own risk. That is no way for people to have to live. I need to do better there, also.

            And my fourth lesson? All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.

Changing of the Guard

            As I said, I sometimes like to go back and revisit a character from a former story for various reasons. This story does just that. If you haven’t read La Duchessa, stop and read it now. If you don’t have the background from that story, this one will not make much sense. So stop. Go read it now. I’ll wait.

            I home that La Duchessa left you wondering. If so, Changing of the Guard should answer some of your questions.

Changing of the Guard

            “Come,” the Grand Prince called in response to the urgent knocking on his bedroom door. It was not yet seven o’clock in the morning, when he usually arose. His personal assistant, Andre entered looking concerned.

            “Your Serene Highness, I apologize for awakening you at this hour but we have a ‘situation’. It seems her grace La Duchessa has passed away. Her maids say they have been unable to rouse her.”

            Grand Prince Giovanni sighed. La Duchessa, who in reality was Prince Sergei of Romania, had said he did not know how long he would live but expected it to be very long. He said he had been subjected to Soviet experiments before the last World War. Experiments on prolonging life. The Grand Prince was unsure how a royal had managed to run afoul of the Soviets but Sergei in person was proof enough. His documents showed he was born before the turn of the century. The twentieth century. Now in 2010 he was at least 110 years old. Not that he didn’t look it. Even in his makeup and disguise as La Duchessa you could see he was at a very advanced age.

            “Send for the palace doctor. I’ll meet him at La Duchessa’s rooms.”

            “He’s already on his way, your Serene Highness.” Andre was always one for efficiency and calm action. I need to give him a raise, Giovanni thought.

            The palace doctor, Dr. Longini, was examining La Duchessa’s body, in his bed, when the Grand Prince arrived. His two maids stood cowering in the anteroom, weeping.

            “Well, he’s dead alright,” was his greeting. “Looks as if he died in his sleep. All in all, not the worst way to go. Must have been early in the evening judging by the low body temperature. Unusual there’s no lividity but that sometimes happens in the very old. No rigor yet, either.”

            “Sergei thought he might live forever,” the Grand Prince mused. “Sorry he missed it. He was a great friend to me and to San Giorgio. I know Carlo will be upset. The two of them have been quite the odd pair of late.” Someone would need to tell his son. Well, I guess I’m the logical choice for that, Giovanni thought. Currently he, the Grand Princessa, his four children, the doctor, Andre and the two maids were the only ones who knew that La Duchessa was actually a man. Even the maids did not know the man was over 110 years old.

            “I’ll have the body transported to the palace morgue. I know it was Sergei’s wish to be buried in your family vault, without embalming. A bit old fashioned, but when you’re over 100, I guess you can have whatever you want.,” Dr. Longini said.

            “Yes, see to it. I’ll have Andre make the announcements and set up arrangements. Dress him up as best you can, as a man. The funeral will be closed coffin, per his request, but he said he wanted to meet his maker in his original state. Well, not totally original state. He does want to be clothed. But as a man. He has a suit selected. I’ll have Andre deliver it to you. I need to go talk with Carlo.”

            “So he’s really dead. I can hardly believe it.” Carlo, with his morning stubble and still only dressed in the t-shirt and gym pants he slept in looked sadly at his father. “I don’t think I really believed he was near immortal, but on the other hand, I guess I always hoped it was true. Old as he was, he always seemed so full of life.”

            “Yes, it will be strange without him, always available for consultation. And so valuable. He seemed to be a veritable encyclopedia of knowledge of how a monarch should be,” Giovanni agreed. He eyed his son, now 28. He had grown into a fine man. Well-built, intelligent and compassionate. He decided his son will be good as the next ruler of San Giorgio. He had already assumed a number of tasks for his father in preparation.

            “Thanks for throwing him at me, Father,” Carlo said somberly.

            Giovanni grinned. “You were not so sure about working with him at first, I’ll admit. But it’s done wonders. He’s molded you into the man I always hoped you’d be.”

            “I was scared as hell of him at first. So severe. And that scowl! Once we got used to each other I realized he was just an old softie, though.” Carlo smiled at the memories.

            “Don’t mistake love and loyalty for softness, son. He taught you better than that. He could be a formidable adversary. I would not call him cruel, but I’ve seen him do some things people might call vicious. He was not one to be crossed. He was a man of strong emotions. He loved you like a son. It’s a love you earned. You should be proud of that.”

            “I am so proud to have known him and had the opportunity to learn from him. I’m going to miss working with him. He was so keen; had such sharp insight. Paolo and Kat thought I was nuts when I told them how much I respected him. They just knew him as ‘the Spook’, the crazy old Duchessa.”

            “He played the part well. None would guess the machinations he was involved in. The stories I could tell. Ah, well. He told me he has a will, I guess it’s in his papers. I’ll have to put that into motion. He has or had I should say quite a considerable fortune.”

            “Yes, he told me he’s left most of it to someone named Orloff,” Carlo said.

            “Orloff? I knew a Count Leopold Orloff once. But he was killed along with the Ceausescus back in what was it, 1989? Poor Nicolae and Elena never deserved what happened to them. They were just victims of the Communists. I never heard Orloff had relatives. I assumed the line ended with him.”

            “Well, I guess we’ll know soon enough.”

            “Yes, we will. Dr. Longini is preparing Sergei for burial. It will be a closed coffin funeral at his request. Will you join the doctor and me for a private farewell tonight? Also at his request, he will be dressed as a man. I don’t believe you have seen him as such, have you?”

            “No, I haven’t. I guess I’ll always remember him as a sharp-eyed old lady. But I would like to say good bye. And see him as he really was. Thank you, Father.”

            Three men, Grand Prince Giovanni, Crown Prince Carlo and Dr. Longini stood in the palace morgue gazing at the man in the coffin.

            “It’s just the three of us Antonio,” Giovanni said, addressing Dr. Longini. “You didn’t need to go overboard with the makeup.”

            “I used very little makeup. Just a little rouge to relieve the pallor of death.”

            “But you must have done more. He hardly has a wrinkle. If it weren’t for the gray hair, I’d swear I was looking at a younger man. Much younger than 100 years.”

            “That sometimes happens. You remember how he always held his face in a scowl? The famous Duchessa Scowl? Now that the muscles have relaxed, perhaps the skin has fallen back into more normal lines. I’ve seen many corpses with very few wrinkles. It is sometimes a bit unnerving. And perhaps it is due to the anti-aging experiments. Who knows?”

            “He looks as if he could get up and speak to us,” said Carlo wistfully.

            “Anyway, farewell old friend. Till we meet again,” Giovanni said as Dr. Longini closed the coffin.

            The royal family gathered outside the small chapel where the Duchessa’s funeral was to be held. She was a little-known figure among the nobility so there would be no star-studded cast of mourners, probably very few people would turn out at all. But Giovanni demanded that the entire royal family attend to show their respect for such a remarkable person and good friend. He got no dissention from anyone. Even Kat flew in from Sweden, her new home.

            Giovanni nodded for Andre to precede them into the chapel and make the announcement.

            “Their Serene Royal Highnesses the Grand Prince Giovanni and the Grand Princessa Diana of San Giorgio.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Crown Prince Carlo and Crown Princessa Carolyn.

            “His Royal Highness Colonel Prince Paolo.

            “Her Royal Highness Princessa Victoria.

            “Their Royal Highnesses Prince Carl Gustav and Princessa Katarina of Sweden.”

            They marched in, headed for the royal box. Giovanni visibly started and Carlo was heard to softly gasp. The chapel was filled with people, taking all but the royal seats and standing several deep along the back and sides. It seemed La Duchessa had a loyal following. By their dress you could tell none were noble. To the nobility, La Duchessa was simply a forgotten old woman who served no purpose. Someone best forgotten. But to the hundreds of workers, staff, dependents and others surrounding the crown, she was revered.

            As was expected the royals formed a receiving line for the mourners exiting the chapel. Giovanni was touched by the sincerity of the grief he saw. One elderly lady said that in all her time at the palace La Duchessa never forgot to ask after her sickly husband and sent flowers when he died. Another recalled that when her child was ill, La Duchessa came in person with a tonic that worked like magic. An old gardener said when his wife was ill and he couldn’t afford the medicine, the pharmacy sent it, saying it had been paid by a friend. He found that La Duchessa had paid the bill. Again and again, Giovanni was told the simple kindnesses Sergei had visited upon these common people that had endeared La Duchessa to them forever.

            “I knew he had an extensive network but never expected that kind of turn out,” Carlo said later, after the funeral reception. “Sergei told me that he secretly employed scores of servants to keep him in the loop on everything going on. He told me knowledge was the currency of a monarch. But he also drove home that one couldn’t just collect information and sit on it. Intelligence should be acted upon. The simple kindnesses he was able to give these people cost him very little, took little effort but reaped immense benefits. He had a very loyal following. And it was true. Nothing happened in the palace that he did not know. He taught me all of this. I only hope I can be half as incredible as he was.”

            Finally, La Duchessa was interred and her apartments were sealed pending the dispositions of the will. Life in the palace went on.

            There were few surprises when the will was opened. Sergei left all his considerable collection of jewelry to the San Giorgio crown. Diana and Carolyn were delighted. His library and personal papers were left to Prince Carlo along with a hefty endowment. As crown prince, Carlo had a palace allowance, but the endowment made him wealthy indeed. The rest of the estate was left to Count Franz Orloff. No one knew who he was. Andre said the attorneys were searching for him.

            About a month later Grand Prince Giovanni was meeting in the throne room with his cabinet. They were all gathered around a long table spread with papers. San Giorgio was a well-run principality, but there were always little snags that needed attending to. Prince Giovanni prided himself on keeping tabs on as much as possible in his little domain. He was much loved by his subjects for his personal touch.

            The chamber door opened and Andre waited to be addressed.

            “Yes, Andre, what is it?” asked the prince.

            “Your Serene Highness. May I present his grace, Count Franz Orloff.”

            A thin but strong looking man strode into the chamber.  His dress was formal, and faintly military. He had several medals, perhaps insignia of his noble rank on his lapel. He walked directly to the chair where the Grand Prince sat and sketched a short bow.

            “Your Serene Highness, I am Orloff.” Giovanni was shocked. The smiling man, with the slightly bulging eyes, sharp cheeks, luxurious raven hair and brief mustache was nearly identical to the man he had buried not two months ago. He finally found his voice.

            “Yes, Count. We have been expecting you.”

            “My apologies. Matters in my estates have detained me. However, now I am at your disposal. I bring you belated greetings from my late mother Contessa Andrea. She spoke well of you. She and I barely escaped the madness in Yugoslavia many years ago, that claimed my father. I was just a child at the time.” He stared at the Grand Prince steadily. Giovanni felt as if a daze swept over him. No, Orloff didn’t look all that familiar after all. Just a trick of the light.

            “Yes. I met Count Leopold and the contessa a few times. It was so long ago.”

            “Perhaps when there is time, you could tell me more of my father. All I have are the memories of a child.”

            “I’d be delighted. And let me introduce you to my son and heir, Crown Prince Carlo.”

            Count Orloff turned in the direction of Carlo, gave him a large smile and bowed.

            “I am honored to meet you, your Royal Highness.” Carlo just stared as if entranced by a snake.

            “Uh, likewise.”

            “You seem preoccupied, Highness?” Orloff noticed.

            “What? No, it’s just that you remind me of someone,” Carlo said. That was an understatement. If he had not seen Sergei’s coffin interred he would swear that this was him brought back to life, albeit not much older than himself.

            “I have been told I have a passing resemblance to the royal Romanian line. The Orloffs descend from a second son. That must be it.” With this he caught Carlo’s eyes. They stared at each other momentarily. Carlo broke the stare and put his hand to his head as if trying to clear a dizzy spell.

            “Yes, that must be it,” he said.

            “Yes, of course,” smiled Orloff.

            The following week Grand Prince Giovanni vested even more of his ceremonial powers in his son, saying that he wanted to enjoy a little peace in his ‘twilight years’.  In light of his new duties, the Crown Prince needed to appoint a chief of staff. Everyone in the palace was surprised when he named newcomer Count Orloff to the important position. The Count quickly began reorganizing the Crown Prince’s offices. In reviewing present personnel he brought one in particular to the attention of Carlo.

            “Highness. This man, Khanis Zaytoun. He is Turkish, yes?”

            “Yes. He’s been my press secretary since I was invested at 21.”

            “He will need to be dismissed.”

            “What? Khanis has proven to be an asset to us.”

            “Nevertheless. He will need to go. I do not care to work with Turks.”

            “Franz. Remember, I’m the Prince, I make the decisions,” Carlo did not like the tone the Count had been taking with him.

            “My apologies, Highness. No disrespect was intended. However, I believe I can be of great benefit to your household. I see the makings of a great monarch in you and see many ways I can help you get there. But you must trust me in the decisions I make. I have found time and again that Turks are untrustworthy. I cannot and will not work with them. If Khanis must remain, I ask that I be re-assigned.” Count Orloff stared at the crown prince as he made this statement.

            Carlo felt a momentary dizziness, but shook his head to clear it. Orloff was right. He needed to trust his chief of staff. And it was the chief of staff’s duty to fill the positions in the Crown Prince’s office.

            “Well, if you think we should rearrange my staff, go ahead and do it. That’s what we hired you to do,” Carlo said.

            “Of course, your Royal Highness. I will take care of everything.”

Good Shot

I’ve been away for awhile so I got behind on the blog. So, the last story I posted was Escape to Paradise where Jenna was trying to get away from the evil boyfriend. Sometimes when I create a character I get a little attached to them. I liked my Jenna. While beaten down by her culture and her boyfriend, she had a little spark of spunk. While I want all my characters (at least the good ones) to have a happy outcome, that doesn’t always happen. I was hoping it would for Jenna. I left her sitting in a courtroom with a fire storm about to erupt all around her. I wanted to revisit her and find out what happened next. So I do what I always do. I sat down and thought about her and then let my mind wander. The story Good Shot just fell into place.

If you haven’t read Escape to Paradise, please go read it before Good Shot. This story will make more sense if you know the background. So refresh that mai tai and enjoy.

Good Shot

At 7 pm on a Thursday in April, there was a knock at Jenna’s door. She looked through her peephole and began smiling. It was Ryan. Ryan Bronski, her boyfriend. The man who had literally saved her life. The thought gave her a flashback to over a year ago when a similar knock was from a man intent on killing her. What a difference a year makes. That man, Dustin Randall, was in prison now, where he belonged. He would be there another thirty years paying for the pain and anguish he had put her through, including hiring his cousin to kill her. Without his malevolent presence in her life she had found she was able to flourish. She took yoga classes to find inner serenity. She returned to the ballroom and fell in love with dancing again. On a more practical note, she enrolled in a personal weapons safety class to learn to use her revolver reliably in case she had another emergency situation. Joyce said she had already disaster proofed her life.

            “You’ve already had Dustin Randall in your life. What are the odds you could do any worse?” She kinda has a point, Jenna thought.

            Still, Jenna didn’t want to take any chances. Her freedom was hard won. It had taken many weeks of meetings with a counselor to find and root out the reasons for her near non-existent self-esteem. Now she worked every day to prove to herself and to the world that she was indeed a worthwhile person. She was pretty and fun and smart and engaging and a generally nice human being. All the things that Dusty had convinced her she wasn’t.

            The trial had been horrific. The Randalls hired a high-priced New York attorney to destroy her. He tried to make the trial about her through character assassination. Fortunately, the Randalls were guilty of so many crimes that even if she were the cheap harlot the attorney painted, there was still plenty of guilt to go around. Her attorney helped her through it all, even holding her hand and passing Kleenexes after each round of testimony. The Randall’s tacky ploy had backfired however. People knew the kind of person Jenna was and the kind of person Dusty was. The Randalls had pulled every string they could to get a new venue for the trial but the judge wouldn’t allow it. And everybody in a five county radius knew and hated the Randalls. It was payback time. Old Man Randall got life without parole. Dusty and Drew each got thirty years. The verdicts came down in December, solid guilty on every count, and Dusty spent the first of thirty Christmases at Odom Maximum Security Correctional Institute in rural eastern North Carolina.

            Ryan Bronski had shown what a masterful attorney he was, besting the Randall’s hired gun at every turn. It was a coup for his small firm to work with the DA’s office to successfully bring down a local kingpin like Randall. She was so proud for him. And she was emotionally exhausted.

            After the excitement of the holidays had passed, Ryan had asked her to meet him at Starbucks. He said he wanted to discuss something with her. She hoped it wasn’t some wrinkle in the law that would let Dusty get out of paying for his crimes. When she arrived at the coffee shop she thought she was early because Ryan didn’t appear to be there. Then she did a double take when he waved from a nearby table. Without his lawyer costume, as she thought of it, he looked so different. He was dressed comfortably in a polo shirt and faded jeans. The casual dress only accentuated his youthful appearance, reminding her that he was only thirty years old. She always told him that his brown suits make him look like an old man. When he smiled as she approached it lit up his entire face. She realized how attractive he was. She was surprised some high-powered lady attorney or legal secretary hadn’t already snapped him up.

            He stood as she reached his table. Yes, his mama did teach him some manners, she mused.

            “I took the liberty of ordering you a mocha latte, extra hazelnut. I hope you don’t mind,” he said.

            Jenna was touched that he remembered what she liked, but then, they had shared much coffee over the course of the trial.

            “Thanks.” Considering his casual dress, she began thinking maybe this wasn’t about the Randall case. But what else could it be, she wondered. We don’t exactly run in the same crowds.

            After brief small talk about their health and the weather, Ryan got to the point.

            “Jenna, I have to say that despite the unpleasantness of the trial, you have been a bright spot in my day for the past few months. I’ll miss that. It’s as if you’ve blossomed as you got out from under Dustin’s thumb. You’ve evolved into this wonderful, caring woman. You’ve become more independent, more sure of yourself and assertive. I like to think you’ve become the woman you were always meant to be. And watching that unfold has had a profound effect on me. I couldn’t say anything before because I was your attorney and it would have been unethical, but I can’t hide it any longer. I’ve grown fond of you and wondered if you would have dinner with me on Sunday?”

            Jenna did not see this coming and hoped the shock didn’t show on her face. His face was open and vulnerable. She had never seen him look like this before. He was being totally guileless, putting his happiness in her hands.

            “You mean, like a date?” she asked.

            “Yes, like a date.”

            She wasn’t sure how she wanted to respond. On the one hand he was someone she respected and looked up to. A man good and true. And he was a friend. He was also handsome and successful. What woman wouldn’t want to date a man like that? But would she have trouble seeing him as anything but her lawyer? And they came from such different worlds. She wasn’t as smart as his attorney friends and was afraid she might embarrass him. There would be complications.

            She suddenly realized she had taken too long to answer. She could see his face falling and his confidence erode as he assumed she was trying to find a way out.

            “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’ve put you on the spot. I shouldn’t have done that. Please forgive me.”

            “No, it’s okay. I’d love to go out with you. I’m just concerned that we are from such different backgrounds.”

            “Yes, we are. Maybe that’s part of the allure. But I want to explore this.”

            “Well, that’s not only the nicest, but the only offer I’ve had all year, so I’ll take it.”

            Ryan picked her up Sunday night and drove to a nice restaurant in Greensboro. Not just a Red Lobster or Chili’s or, god forbid, IHOP, which was the best she could hope for from Dusty. He was totally charming, steering clear of any lawyer talk, just exploring common interests and a little bit of gossip. He made her feel so very special. She couldn’t remember the last time she had such a fuss made over her. It was nice. He ordered wine with dinner. She didn’t know anything about wine, but the one glass she had was delicious. She realized she was a lightweight drinker when the one glass made her feel tingly. A cheap date, as Joyce would say.

            She feared the good night kiss might be awkward, considering their relationship, but when he bent his head to hers at her door-step she was all in. Perhaps the wine had put her in a happy place, but his kiss set off the fireworks. She was definitely under his spell. She just drifted inside in a daze.

            Ryan called her at work midmorning on Monday just to check in. He asked if it was okay to call her at work like this.

            “Yeah, but if you do it more than once people might start talking. They know the trial is over. You know how people are.”

            “Let them talk. I’m not ashamed. I hope you aren’t.”

            “Of you? Of course not. You’re totally presentable.”

            “I’m glad you feel that way, because I’m aiming to make people talk. I’d like to see you again. Friday night?”

            “I have a dance lesson and then a studio function. You could come with me. Do you know any ballroom?”

            “Let’s see, I can identify my left foot and my right foot. That’s about as far as I get.”

            “Well, if we’re going to be a thing, you’re going to need to dance.” She immediately regretted saying it, fearing she had jumped the gun. Two dates did not constitute a ‘thing’.

            “Oh my god, what have I gotten myself into?” he deadpanned. “Do you have time for a quick dinner between your lesson and function?”

            They made plans and Friday night Jenna discovered that while Ryan’s dancing skills were dreadful, he was a quick study. By the end of the night had had the hang of a couple of dances.

            “Looks like I’m getting my dance legs,” he said. “I can see why you love this so. The people who have been doing this awhile are amazing. Then there are the people like me.”

            “Don’t be so hard on yourself. You did great.”

            “You think so? Maybe I’ll have to call up and ask for the ‘Miss Mitzi Special’,” referring to the studio’s beginner program.

            Of course, this led to more dates. Over the next few weeks she and Ryan saw more of each other than they did during the trial. He was smitten and it didn’t take Jenna long to find that she was well on her way, also. They did dinners, picnics with the symphony, street fairs, and dance functions, of course. She even took him to the firing range to practice shooting with her. He was impressed with her marksmanship.

            And people did talk. She realized they were officially a couple when people at the office would begin a sentence with “You and Ryan…” as if they were a single person.

            Perhaps the sweetest thing he did for her was when he invited her to the local American Bar Association dinner. He was receiving an award for his part in the Randall case. There was a band and general dancing after dinner. The band was good and played contemporary music but few people actually danced. Some people jumped around in what they called ‘free style’ dancing. After a few songs Ryan went up and spoke with the band. The band leader announced the next dance as a special request. Jenna was amazed when the band began a lovely waltz. She was even more amazed when Ryan held his hand to her and said, “May I?” The few people who had taken the floor quickly moved away as Ryan and Jenna showed off their waltz abilities. Ryan’s lessons had paid off and he was nearly as good as Jenna. Together they were perfect. At the end of the dance they got a standing ovation. Jenna blushed but was so pleased. All she could think was that she had found the perfect man.

            All this went through her mind in a flash as she saw Ryan through the peephole. She opened the door saying, “Hey, babe.”

            “Hey, sweetheart,” he answered, giving her a quick kiss. He usually didn’t come over without calling first and especially on a weeknight, so Jenna figured something was up.

            “You need to sit down.” Now she knew it was bad. No good news ever began with those words.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but you need to know. Dustin has escaped from prison.”

            “He what?” Jenna felt as if a rug had been pulled from under her and she was plummeting down. She was glad she was sitting.

            “He was being transferred for something, I’m not clear on that yet, but a guard got too close without paying attention. He managed to grab the guard’s gun. He held the gun right against the guard’s head while he made the other guard unlock the cuffs on him and two other prisoners in the van. They split up. One of the prisoners was picked up pretty quickly. He told the police that Randall shot both guards point blank and was laughing while he did. One died. The other is in serious condition.”

            “He’s just gone and lost his mind. I know he’s reckless and mean as a snake, but to kill someone like that, it’s just crazy.”

            “He was planning to kill you Jenna. He’s been crazy for a long time.”

            “Yeah, but at least he thought he had a reason to kill me. These poor guards were just doing their job.”

            “Well, he’ll be caught, no question. And killing the guard will get him the needle. I hate it had to come at this price, but I’m not sorry he’s going down. He’s just a mad dog.”

            “So they haven’t caught him yet?”

            “No. And they think he’s heading this way. There’s only one reason he would come here. You.”

            Once again, Jenna’s stomach dropped. Oh, no. Not again. She thought she was done with Dusty and the whole Randall clan. Ryan had urged her to file a civil suit against them. She stood to win a lot of money that way. But she would have none of it. She wanted nothing from the Randalls, especially their blood money. It came from their criminal schemes and she wouldn’t touch it. She wanted to be done with them permanently. And now Dusty was coming for her.

            “They should have told both of us immediately after it happened but someone goofed. He escaped two days ago. He could have easily broken in your house and killed you by now. I want you to pack a bag and come with me. You can stay at my house until they catch him. I won’t be able to sleep a wink if I don’t know you’re safe.”

            Jenna finally found her balance and decided to lighten the atmosphere.

            “Why Mr. Bronski, are you asking me for a sleep over? Whatever will the neighbors think?”

            “I don’t give a damn what anybody thinks. I just have to know that you’re safe. I’ve got a security system and the police have agreed to post a uniform outside my house. Please say you’ll come.”

            “Alright. Let me get some things.” Her thoughts were interrupted when her cell phone began playing a tinny version of “Mama Mia”. It was the ringtone she had assigned to her mother.

            “Looks like Mama’s heard,” she said. “Let me get that. She’s going to worry.”

            “Hey, Mama,” she said after clicking the accept button.

            “Hey baby,” said a deep rasping voice. “I’ve missed you.” She had been standing but suddenly collapsed onto the sofa. It was Dusty. And he had Mama’s phone.

            “Dusty!” was all she could say. Ryan was immediately by her side.  “What are you doing calling me on Mama’s phone? Where’s Mama? If you’ve hurt her I swear I’ll get you.”

            “Now don’t go making promises you can’t keep, sweetheart. Don’t worry about your mama. She’s a tough old broad. I had to knock her around a bit to get her to cooperate. You Davenports are a stubborn set of bitches.”

            “I’m calling the police right now,” she yelled into the phone.

            “Now you don’t want to do that, baby. Right now your mama’s doing fine. A few bruises, some blood. Maybe some broken bones, I don’t know. I got excited and got into it. It’s been so long since I had the chance to really work over a woman. But if the police show up I’ll be long gone and all they’ll find is your mama with a butcher knife in her heart. Or maybe I’ll cut it out and take it with me.”

            “Dusty, don’t you hurt my mama,” she couldn’t help crying as she said it. “Please.”

            “Yeah, baby, I love it when you beg. Makes me hard. Oooh yeah.”

            “What do you want?” she asked. “Mama ain’t done nothing to you. You want something from me. What?”

            “Are you forgetting that you’re my girl? I heard you been whoring around with that lawyer that put me in prison. That ain’t something I can let my girl get by with. People might think I’m soft. No real man lets his woman whore around without teaching her a lesson. I think it’s time you and me had a talk.”

            She couldn’t respond, only hyperventilate into the phone.

            “You come on out to your mama’s house. When you get here, I’ll let her go and you and me can talk about your transgressions.” By ‘talk’ she knew he meant beat. He came close to putting her in the hospital after several of their discussions of her failings.

            “Just you. Nobody else. I see anybody else but you and that butcher knife goes right into Mama’s heart.”

            “How do I know you ain’t already killed her? Let me talk to Mama,” she demanded.

            “So bossy. I see I’ll need to remind you how to address your lord and master. But I’m feeling kind. Hey, Mama. Say hi to your girl.” She could hear him move the phone away from himself. Then she heard Mama’s voice.”

            “Don’t, baby. It’s a trap!”

            “Shut up, bitch!” She heard a noise that sounded as if he had slapped Mama and a brief cry of pain. Jenna was a total wreck.

            “It seems your mama’s feeling poorly. You better get on over here and take care of her. I’d say about ten minutes.” Then the phone went dead.

            Ryan had his ear next to Jenna’s and heard the entire exchange.

            “You need to call the police now,” he said.

            “You heard what he said. He’ll kill Mama!”

            “And if you go there, he’ll kill both of you.”

            “You think I don’t know that! But I can’t turn my back on Mama. How will I live with myself if something happens to her and I didn’t even try to help her.?”

            “The only way you can help her is to get the police involved. They can get her out alive. If you go in there, neither of you are coming out except in a body bag. He’s just as liable to kill himself, too.”

            “I’ve got to go.”

            “No. I won’t let you. It’s suicide.”

            “Ryan Bronski, get the hell out of my way. You got no say over my life.”

            “The hell I don’t. I’m in love with you. Don’t you realize that? What happens to you happens to me. I’ve got to have a say.”

            “Well, I love you, too, but your timing sucks.”

            Jenna pulled into the rutted path that led up to Mama’s house. It sat back across a bean field, about a hundred yards from the state road. As the car bounced along she noticed a blue Toyota sitting in front of the house. Probably the car Dusty stole when he escaped, she figured. She pulled up and mentally prepared herself for a moment before exiting the car. When she decided to come over, she knew Dusty planned to kill her and that he won’t let Mama go, either. He would probably kill her also. The only thing she was uncertain about was whether he would then light out for Mexico or just kill himself. He’d always been a bit of a drama queen. The murder-suicide is so his style, she thought.

Mama’s house was a turn of the century basic farm house. It had a wide front porch with a couple of rocking chairs, a rusted glider and swing. She had so many fond memories of family on this porch. Just one more thing Dusty is trying to spoil. He ruins everything he touches, she thought. She knocked on the door.

            “It’s open,” came from inside.

            She pushed the door open and walked into a sizeable living area. At the far side Mama was sitting in a dining room chair, tied and gagged. There were black bruises forming on her face and a trickle of blood from her nose and mouth. But all in all, she seemed to be in good condition. She had a murderous look in her eyes. Yep, Mama’s alright, she thought. For now.

            Dusty was standing beside her mama. He had the prison guard’s handgun pointed at Mama’s head. She knew he wouldn’t use it yet. He wanted to make her suffer longer than a quick shooting would. He was sweating profusely even though it wasn’t hot inside. It just made him look all the crazier.

            “Come on in, sweetheart. Join the party. We’ve been waiting for you.”

            “Let Mama go, Dusty. You said if I came, you’d let her go. Here I am.”

            “Yeah, funny thing about that. I can’t believe you actually fell for it. I don’t remember you being that stupid.” He laughed as if it were quite funny.

            “You bastard.”

            “Hey, you don’t talk about your fiancé like that,” he said in a warning tone.

            “You’re not my fiancé Dustin Randall. You’re just a low life punk, a bully, a redneck son of a bitch.” It felt so good to get it out. The words she’d been longing to say to him. His face reddened. Yeah, the truth hurts, don’t it, she thought.

            “Raise your hands. I want to make sure you ain’t got anything.” She did as she was told.

            “Now pull out your pockets. You might have a knife or something in there.” Again, she complied.

            “Good. Now get over here,” he indicated a chair near Mama’s. There was rope and duct tape on the floor beside it. “I’m gonna get you good and secured and then we can work on your manners.” His evil grin had returned. She realized the set up was the best she could hope for to use her plan. Mama was on her left and Dusty was clear of her. Acting scared she gave him a wide berth approaching the chair. This required her to keep her left side to him. He could not see her right hand. He didn’t see it creep to the back of her waist. He didn’t notice her pulling the revolver out of her waistband.

            She stopped a good distance from the chair. Time to get the gun off Mama and work on Dusty.

            “Go on. Get in the chair,” Dusty said.

            “No.”

            “What? You heard me, bitch. Do as I say.”

            “And I said no. I’m not playing your sick game. You’re just a yellow-bellied coward who gets off on hurting people who are smaller than you. You don’t have the balls to take on a real man. You’re just a pansy loser. I bet you’re somebody’s bitch in prison.” She laid it on thick. She wanted to get him really mad.

            “You don’t want to test me, girl. Now move!” Dusty was getting red in the face.

            “Nope. Ain’t doing it.”

            “I said git!” Dusty swiveled the gun from Mama’s head to point at Jenna. Ok, good, Jenna thought. He’s not pointing it at Mama. Now to get him to lower the gun.

            “Fuck you. Make me,” she taunted. Dusty’s eyes flew wide as he became enraged. He charged Jenna. He lowered the gun as he moved. Jenna had time to pull her revolver from behind her, take a quick aim at his groin and fire. The deafening blast made Mama squeak. Dusty went down fast. He quickly rolled into a fetal position grabbing his crotch and screaming. Ryan burst through the door, handgun in one hand and cell phone in the other. He had been waiting in the backseat of her car. He had already contacted the 911 operator. Help was on the way. He ran up and embraced Jenna and then they untied Mama. Thankfully, her wounds were only superficial.

            When the first EMTs came in she directed them away from Dusty and toward Mama. Luckily for him there were two technicians so they split up. Poor Dusty was still screaming and bleeding profusely. The EMT had a devil of a time getting him out of the fetal position to strap him on a gurney. By the time they had him packed up the place was swarming with police. They didn’t bother to threaten Jenna. She was within her rights to use all force necessary when facing an armed convicted felon. And the Randalls no longer owned the county. Suddenly, all her steel shattered and she became a basket case. But Ryan was there to take care of her. Her precious Ryan.

            A few days later Ryan gave her the official word on Dusty.

            “He’s going to be tried for the murder of a prison police officer, among other things. The state is asking for the death penalty.

            “Good.  I hope they get it. Then he can sit alone in his cell for the next fifteen years, no one to visit him but his mama, and I hear she may be under indictment. They say that many death row inmates eventually go crazy from the boredom with no human contact and nothing to do but jerk off.”

            “Well, ah, he won’t be doing that anymore either. Your shot actually severed his penis and shattered his balls. Ouch. He’s going to need a catheter to piss and there’s no chance of him diluting the quality of the gene pool ever again.”

            Jenna thought again of her choice of where to shoot Dusty. Maybe what she did was over the top, but she wanted to hurt him. And she wanted to hurt him bad. He lived on his machismo so taking that away seemed her best option. But it was time to forget Dustin Randall and look to her own life again.

            “So, Ryan. About that sleepover you mentioned. Is that offer still on the table?”           
             

It Happened Like This

Okay, three things.

One, sorry this is so late going up. Our furnace went out a day or so before I planned to post it. I didn’t get any computer work done for two days while we waited to get the new furnace installed. I know I’m supposed to suffer for my art, but it was like 60 degrees in my office. I can’t think when I’m that cold. And my fingers get numb. So of course, everything else got backed up. I’m just now digging out.

Two, thanks for all the likes I’m getting on my stories. It’s nice to know that people actually enjoy them and I’m not just spitting into the abyss. You are also encouraged to click the follow button. That will give you a quick email notification every time I upload a story. That keeps you from forgetting about me. And don’t forget there is a comment button. I’d love to get feedback on what you liked and didn’t like. Questions of how a story came about or why I had a character act a certain way. Suggestions on how the story could be improved. I have to mediate all comments so none of them are public until I clear them. So, if you want to say something private just note it and I’ll keep the comment private. Can’t be much easier than that. I guess that was actually three things instead of one, but hey, it’s my blog; I can do what I want.

Finally, today’s offering. This requires a bit of background. It Happened Like This is actually the first story I wrote. It has a history. A number of years ago I took a creative writing class. My project for the class was to write a short story. The teacher went against conventional wisdom. Instead of telling us to write what we know, she wanted us to stretch. She asked us to go as far from what we knew as possible and imagine a totally alien setting. There were definitely some interesting stories in that class. I came up with one about a two-bit street hustler in New York, getting by on his wits. Eventually his dangerous life style and hubris caught up with him and he ended up dead. The teacher loved the story. For some reason I was never happy with the story. Something seemed wrong. Fast forward some years. I had a dream about the story. In the dream Joey, the main character, told me that I had it all wrong. He said “It happened like this” and proceeded to show me a very different version of what I had written. When I woke up I realized that the dream wasn’t full of non sequiturs like dreams often are, but was a coherent story. I immediately wrote it all down before I could forget. It just flowed out, almost as if I were taking dictation. For that reason, the story is told in the first person, just as Joey narrated it to me.

So, get ready for an unusual story. It involves gangsters, prostitutes, stolen cash, Elton John and even a fairy godmother. Joey seems happy with how it turned out and hasn’t bothered my dreams anymore. Maybe I should ask him for some more ideas. Anyway, as they say in Monty Python, and now for something completely different.

It Happened Like This

New York City, 2010

Ok, so it happened like this. It was last Wednesday and I was at the apartment alone. Yeah, let me tell you about the apartment. It’s in an old rambling monstrosity that should have been condemned years ago. Most of the buildings around it are newer businesses or boarded up hulks. But Mrs. Berger keeps hanging on. She lives on the first floor, the second is given over to a couple of shady businesses and Tip’s office. We live in one of the apartments on the third floor. A small living room, eat-in kitchen, two small bedrooms and a bath. Some hookers live in the other third floor apartments. I think they are Tip’s also. They’re loud and brassy. They call us ‘Cupcake’. Brandy says he’s afraid of them. Truth be told, so am I. Tip says the building has charm and personality. I say it’s a rat infested firetrap. But Tip pays the rent.

 As I said, I was alone. Brandy had gone out for an audition. He is an “aspiring actor” as he puts it. He’s my best friend in the world and I love him dearly but he can’t act. Let me clarify that. He. Can. Not. Act. Not even a little bit. But he gets hired every now and then. Partly it’s because he is gorgeous. Not just good looking but genetics gone crazy gorgeous. Producers will put him on the stage as part of the scenery or walk on/walk off just because of his beauty. And also because he’s not too particular about who he’ll sleep with to get on stage.

He said he’d be back by noon and would stop by Tip’s office to pick up our salary. Tip is our manager. He sets up appointments for us. In other words, he’s our pimp. We are male escorts. And, yes, that kind of escort. Don’t get all holier than thou on me. We provide a quality service to men and some women who require discretion for various reasons. Not that there’s anything wrong with getting a five dollar blow job from Moleface Mary down on 6th if that’s what you want. But we are a cut above. Tip calls us a little “boutique service”. It’s not a bad way to make a living. I have nice clothes and impeccable manners. Sometimes I get taken to nice places. And not to sound vain, but I’m every bit as beautiful as Brandy. While he’s blond and sky blue, I’m chestnut and green. We rarely go out together because people stare. We turn heads, both female and male. The first few times it was cool, but after a while it got to be a drag. Who wants to be stared at all the time? We usually entertain “regulars”. Bran’s are mostly men, a few women. Mine are all male except one. And yes, they are all dried up and wrinkly. Sometimes it’s not even about the sex. They just want someone to go to dinner with or just to talk to. But it’s mainly about the sex. That’s not too bad. None of them are kinky. But sometimes I’m just not in the mood to suck an 80 year-old cock. Ya know what I mean? But what can you do?

I’d been lazy that morning and not cleaned up from our breakfast so, a little past noon I cleaned all the dishes and was thinking about a salad for lunch. I heard a key in the lock and as the door opened I yelled from the kitchen “Hey Bran, how’d it go?”

“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, fuckfuckfuck” was what I heard. I guess it didn’t go that well. But there was real distress in his voice. I came in from the kitchen with a dish towel, drying my hands. Brandy had curled up on the love seat in a fetal position, face red, tears and snot everywhere, rocking and clutching a garbage bag in his lap. He was hyperventilating like crazy.

“Oh fuck fuck fuck. Oh shit, I’m gonna be sick. He killed him. Oh shit.”

Brandy is not usually given to drama, remember he can’t act. But something was definitely wrong. I knelt in front of him and wiped his face with the dishtowel.

“Bran, Bran look at me. What’s wrong? Tell me.”

“Oh shit, he killed him and I saw it and he didn’t see me I don’t think and he’s dead and I took it and shit, oh shit. We’re so fucked.”

“Who killed who? Tell me slowly.”

“Tip. He killed Tip.”

“Tip? Who did?”

“Hammer.”

Oh shit is right. We are so fucked.

“Calm down, Bran. Tell me what happened.” Brandy had calmed somewhat and his breathing was slower. I took that as a good sign.

“I stopped in Tip’s office to get our pay. He said he had a headache and told me to get him some water from the halfbath. He had some aspirin in his desk. Just as I got in the bath I heard the door open and Tip said ‘What the fuck are you doing here?’ ‘Just delivering a message’ and I heard a silenced gunshot. It sounded just like it does on tv. I was looking right at Tip and he sank back in his chair with a bullet in his chest. I moved behind the door. I was so scared. Oh shit, I was so freaking scared.” He started hyperventilating again. I grabbed his hands and soothed him as best I could.  

“That’s when I saw him. Hammer. He came right up to the desk and shot Tip point blank between the eyes. Then he looked over at the bath so see if anybody was there. Oh fuck I was so scared, Jo. I stood so very still praying he wouldn’t see me. I guess he couldn’t see me behind the door. But I could see him through the crack. Then he just left.”

“Oh, baby, I’m so sorry you had to see that.” I got up on the love seat and held him. He cried into my shoulder while I pondered what happened. Hammer was muscle and a hit man for Swann. TJ Swann was a nasty piece of work, a mob boss everybody knew wanted Tip’s territory. Suddenly I remembered my last run in with Swann. It was some kind of convention and Tip had brought Brandy, me and some of the girls along as decoration and advertising. I was at a bar when I felt someone come up behind me and press against me. I looked up in the mirror and saw it was Swann. He pressed hard against me so I could feel his erection against my ass. He grabbed my thighs and leaned in so his mouth was by my ear. “I don’t usually go for the boys, but I may have to make an exception for your pretty ass. Soon, baby. Sooner than you think.” He licked my ear and was gone. I was shaken and so totally disgusted I wanted a shower right then. Tip said he was just playing mind games with me. Whatever, but I didn’t like being on Swann’s radar. And if Tip is dead, then Swann is the new boss. My ass literally belongs to Swann. Shit.

“So, what’s with the bag?” I asked Brandy.

“Well, we don’t have any money and I could see the safe combination right there in Tip’s drawer.”

“Brandy, tell me you didn’t.”

“But he owed us the money. I figured he had a few thousand in the safe and we need it.”

I looked at the bag in his lap. It looked like more than a few thousand.

“I didn’t know what to do. I just pushed it all in a trash bag and got out of there.”

“Tell me you closed the safe.”

“No, but I used a Kleenex. I didn’t leave any prints.”

“Brandy, a dead body and empty safe. It looks like a robbery and you’re holding the evidence. They’ll say you killed Tip.”

“Why would I kill Tip?” I pointed to the bag in his lap. “Oh shit. Fuckfuckfuck!” he yelled.

“I’ll go put it back,” he said. Just at that moment we heard multiple sirens approaching the building.

“Shit, too late. What do I do?”

“Let me think a minute.”

Much as I hated it, my mind kept processing the information I was getting. The 13th precinct would respond. Swann owned them. They’d tell Swann there was money missing. He’d know that someone came in after Hammer and that person possibly saw Hammer. And he would know who the likely suspects were. This is very bad. I’m going to get fucked by Swann and then we’ll both be rubbed out.

“Baby, I think we need to get out of here,” I said. “Grab your coat, phone and wallet.” It took us only a minute to grab our stuff and shove the bag of money into a gym bag. As I got to our door I heard heavy footsteps coming down the hall. Shit. I looked out the peephole and suddenly a blue uniform loomed and began knocking on the door. That was fast. This wasn’t canvassing for info about a crime. We were being targeted. There were two officers and I heard one say, “Luis said at least one of them was here. Swann said to get them both. I’ll stay here and you go get the super.” Luis? Ah hell. Luis is, or was, Tip’s bodyguard. Hammer wouldn’t have gotten by him and his security team. Unless he had been turned or killed. Damn Swann. Damn him to hell and back.  We had to act fast.

“Brandy,” I whispered. “We need to get to the hidey hole.” We silently rushed to my bedroom. Inside my closet at the bottom left was a removable panel. It was hard to notice unless you knew what to look for. It opened to a space about two feet deep and several wide, between the walls of the apartments. Mrs. Berger said it was space where people could store luggage. I actually had a suitcase in there. I took out the piece of luggage and Brandy slipped in. I pulled the closet door closed, fluffed the shirts that hung in front of the panel. I crawled in and pulled the panel almost into place, but reached out to put the suitcase directly in front of the panel. Once I had the panel in place we were virtually undetectable. It was dark and dusty, full of spider webs, rat droppings, exposed nails and God knows what else. I just hoped I didn’t sneeze. Or freak out. Brandy was still a mess. I gave him the dishtowel and told him to bite it.

I quietly slipped as far to the right as possible. A faint amount of light came in from a crack in the wall. There was a tiny crack in the corner wall of our living room. Pressing my eye against it I could see a small sliver of the room. I saw the door open and two uniformed officers come in followed by Mrs. Berger and Detective Trask. I recognized him immediately. He was no friend of Tip and solidly in Swann’s pocket.

“Search the place,” he said.  We could hear the muffled sounds of the officers rooting around our apartment. I held my breath when I heard the closet door open, but then it closed.

“Place is clean,” said one officer. “Nothing seems to be missing except maybe wallets or cells. They may be in the wind or just down at Starbucks.”

“One of you keep an eye on the door and another on the building in case they come back,” said Trask. “Swann wants them and he wants them alive, if possible.” They left and the apartment was silent once more.

“Now what?” Brandy murmured.

“Shit, I don’t know. Let me think.” We couldn’t go out our front door. And three stories up is too high to jump. Then I thought ‘God bless this old rat trap’. I felt along the wall opposite our apartment. I knew there was an attic there. I finally found what I was looking for – rotted wood. I pushed it with my foot and eventually with more of a crunch than a crack it gave way. A few more and I had created a hole we could squeeze through.

The attic was dimly lit by a small paned window that had probably not been cleaned in over 50 years. We crept across to a door on the other side, leaving tracks in the inch deep dust, cobwebs fluttering in our wake. The door was locked. Of course. I thought maybe we could break it open with a crowbar. I looked around. Although there was a hundred years worth of junk in the attic, nothing resembled a crowbar.

“Hey, this looks like a trap door,” Brandy said from over in a corner. We slid it open and looked down into a large janitor’s closet. Once in the closet, I gently opened the door a crack. Seeing the coast was clear, we exited into a dim hallway I had never seen before. At the end I saw a door with a frosted window that said Lavatory. Lacking a better idea I headed that way. It was a large ancient bathroom that did not seem to be in use. It smelled mainly of mildew and shit. There was a window on the far wall. I crossed and looked down. Yes! There was a dumpster directly below the window.

“Help me get this window open,” I said. Brandy looked at me dubiously but came over and began pushing. It wouldn’t budge.

“Maybe we could break it,” Brandy offered.

“Yeah, and the sound would bring every cop running.”

“How about if you moved that latch,” he said pointing to the side of the window. Of course. The window was locked.

After unlocking it the two of us managed to get the window open a few feet with a mighty screech. Well if anyone was in the alley, they’d definitely be looking up now. I leaned out. No one in sight and not more than fifteen feet below was an open dumpster filled with lovely soft garbage bags.

“All we have to do is jump down.”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap,” Brandy said.

“It’s no more than fifteen feet.”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap.”

“It’s…”

“I’m not jumping into a garbage heap.”

“Swann is going to kill us.”
“I don’t want to jump into a garbage heap. Don’t make me jump into a garbage heap.”

“It’s the only way.”

“Of course you realize I’ll have to burn these clothes. God knows what’s in there.”

“Mostly garbage, I’d guess.”

“Don’t be cute. This isn’t going to work. We need to find another way.”

I managed to bully him up on the window ledge. I figured it would take another ten minutes of pleading and threats to convince him to jump so I just grabbed his hand and jumped. To his credit he didn’t scream. He scrambled out in record time, making all kinds of sounds of disgust, wiping at himself and shuddering.

“I don’t do garbage” was all he could muster. “Shit. Is anything in my hair?”

Apparently, the police were watching the front and rear entrance but weren’t bothering with the side since there were no official exits. We scurried across the narrow alley into a connecting alley. In ten minutes we had put enough space between us and the apartment that I took a breather.

“Give me a twenty from your stash,” I said.  Brandy rummaged in the gym bag and pulled out a twenty. I waived down a taxi and said “Fairfield Hotel.”

When the cabby let us out, I grabbed Brandy’s hand and quickly rushed into yet another alley. After a few minutes we ended up at the Essex.

“That flea trap? With the money we have why are we going to some no tell hotel?”

“Because if we pay with cash at a respectable place it will raise questions. The Essex is cash only. And definitely no questions asked. Now give me a hundred and you run around back. I’ll register and let you in the back door. The two of us together draw too much attention.”

Within another ten minutes we were ensconced in room 308. It may have been cleaned at least once in the last decade, but I wouldn’t put money on it. I was hesitant to even sit on the threadbare bedspread and definitely didn’t want to sleep there but we were in a fix. But at least we were safe for the moment and could catch our breath. And figure out our next move.

“Joey?” Brandy said. I looked over at him. “I’m scared,” was all he said, as a fat tear drop slid from his eye.

“Oh, baby, come here,” I gathered him in my arms and held him tightly. “It’ll be okay. We’ll think of something.”

Okay, let me address the question I know you’re wondering. No, Brandy and I aren’t lovers. He’s like my brother.  And not like those cheap porno flicks about brothers doing it. Face it, when your job is sex, it’s the last thing you want to think about in your off time. Tip put us together a couple of years ago and it just works. All right, we did go at it once in the early days. But, hell, we were two gorgeous boys, always horny, we had to try it. And it was great. And I’m not saying we’ve never done it again since then, but if we do, it’s as friends with benefits. I love Brandy more than any person in the world, but not in that way. I recognize that he’s not as strong emotionally as I am, so I’ll always take care of him. No matter what, I’ll be there. I’ve been on the streets before. He never has. I lost one friend like that and I don’t want to lose another. Poor Denny never stood a chance. Brandy does; he has me. And I know he loves me just the same. We are family.

“Why don’t we see how much money we have to work with?” I said to distract him. I dumped the sack of money on the bed. It was an impressive pile. I pushed about half of it toward him. “We’ll both count and add it up.”

Fifteen minutes later I looked up at Brandy and said, “Shit, Bran. We have $85,300. We hit the fucking jackpot. What the hell was Tip thinking keeping this much cash in his office?” In addition, was a little black book with numbers in it. I couldn’t tell what it was for so I just stuck it back in the bag.  

“We can take this and start over anywhere we want.”

“Somewhere warm, please. I hate New York winters,” Brandy said.

“Yeah, how about South Beach, or Malibu!”

“Malibuuuu, sounds so exotic. Hey, and Hollywood is there, right? Maybe I’ll be discovered and get my big break,” Brandy enthused, his eyes agleam.

“All we have to do is figure out how to get out of New York. You know Swann is watching the exits. He has eyes everywhere.”

I had stood and been pacing around the room, but stopped to gaze out the window, wondering how to escape the city. I heard a high-pitched squeal that usually comes from a brake needing adjustment. I looked down and noticed it was a Crown Vic, unmarked. I happened to glance up the street and ice gripped my heart. There was another unmarked police car.

“Brandy, we’ve got company. We need to leave. Now!”  Within fifteen seconds we were bounding down the back stairs and out the back door. Either I had overreacted or the police had not moved into position to cover the back yet. We didn’t stick around to find out. Zigzagging through alleys I was furiously wondering how they found us. When I checked in the fat guy at the desk gave me a lecherous ogle, but then turned back to his computer porn after giving me the key. I doubt he called the police. And why would he? It was too soon for Swann to have out an apb on us. Did I have a gps device up my ass or something? Then it hit me. Our cell phones. Swann was tracking our cell phones. Would just turning them off deactivate the tracking? Shit, I’m not a techie. I don’t know that kind of stuff. We just needed to ditch the phones.

“Bran, I think they’re tracking our phones. We need to get rid of them.”

“But I paid a shitload of money for this phone,” he whined.

“We HAVE a shitload of money. We can buy another. Right now our lives depend on Swann NOT finding us.”

As he handed over his phone I came up with one possible chance. I dialed a number and after it was picked up I said, “You said if I was ever in trouble you would help. Well, the shit has hit the fan.”

After hanging up I told Brandy I had a plan. He looked at me as if to say “of course you do”. I was momentarily touched by how implicitly he trusted me to take care of this situation. A city bus had stopped nearby. Just before the back door closed I stuck my hand in and tossed our phones under the seats. Then it was back alleys again until we came to a bank that looked like a Greek temple. Brandy and I skulked in the shadow of one of the gigantic cement urns filled with dead plants as I watched the street. In a few minutes a limo cruised to a stop. The back window slid down and I could see the face of an elegant woman with a floral turban look curiously up at the bank.

“That’s our ride,” I told Brandy. I grabbed his hand and rushed down the flight of stone steps to the curb. As we approached the door was pushed open. We tumbled in, pulling the door shut, the lady said “drive” and we were off.

“Joey, my darling,” the lady purred. “Whatever have you gotten yourself into?”

“Contessa, you’re not going to believe it.”

Now unless you’ve been living in a cave somewhere I’m sure you know who the Contessa is. She began her life as old Romanian royalty with a penniless title who parlayed it into a multimillion dollar cosmetic empire. Her Contessa line cosmetics apparently worked because no one knew if she was 55 or 75. She just seemed ageless. She had homes in Italy and New York and probably other places. She was seen everywhere. If there was a party or an event or anyplace the luminaries gathered, the Contessa was in the midst. She was also one of my regulars. Not for sex, though. She always said a woman was not properly accessorized unless she had a handsome man on her arm. I had been her accessory for many a New York soiree. She loved the hint of scandal of showing up with “a much younger man”. How she knew a two bit hoodlum like Tip I have no idea. She simply said, “the Contessa knows everyone.” And as far as I could tell it was true. She did seem to know everyone. And she took me to some fabulous parties. I actually met Madonna. Cher called me a “real hottie”. And Sir Elton John surreptitiously got a good feel of my ass. And I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I blew George Michael in a bathroom at a house party in the Hamptons. I mean, it was George fucking Michael. The Contessa was miffed that I was missing for so long but immediately said she’d forgive me if I gave her all the details. A blow by blow account, if you will.

So there she sat across from us, regal as ever. She turned slightly to regard Brandy. “My, my. I must have died and two angels have appeared to escort me to my final reward.”

“Contessa, this is my friend Brandon Carter. Brandy, I’m sure you recognize the Contessa.” For his part, Brandy was speechless. When she extended her hand he looked at it like it was a snake. Then he grasped it, shook it and said, “your majesty.” The Contessa laughed and said, “Just call me Contessa. Everyone does. Now what is this shitstorm you spoke of.” Such pungent language has always seemed odd to me when spoken in such a cultured voice. But the Contessa could curse like a sailor when the mood struck her.

“Well, first Tip has been murdered.”

“Oh, dear boy. You ARE in trouble.”

“And they’re going to frame us for the murder.” I related how Brandy had seen the hit on Tip and that Swann was now chasing us. I also told her about the money.

“So your employer is dead, his safe is sitting open and you have the money. It looks like what you Americans call an open and shut case. Are you sure you didn’t kill him?”

“No!” shouted Brandy.

She reached over and patted his knee.

“There, there my pet. The Contessa was only making a joke, in poor taste I admit,” she cooed.

While Brandy settled down she picked up her phone and called ahead. “Henri, we will have two guests. I’m sure they will be hungry so please have a late lunch set for us.”

Moments later we pulled into private underground parking and then an elevator that went straight to the penthouse. I had been here a number of times but was still impressed. I elbowed Brandy to stop him from gawking like a hayseed. The penthouse was expanses of space with elegant appointments and huge windows with panoramic views of Manhattan. We arrived just as her assistant, Henri, was setting the table.  

“Ah welcome, madame. And Monsieur Zhoey, so nice to see you again,” he smiled. Although Henri wore a tailored suit worth a good bit of what we had in our bag, it only accentuated the fact that he was powerfully built. About thirtysomething, black hair cut very short, and a two-day stubble that I had always found extremely sexy. In fact, I’d always thought Henri was a whole package of hotness, but as a professional, my focus was always on the Contessa. Excepting, of course, the George Michael incident. She introduced Brandy to him. I could tell from the appraising gleam in Henri’s eye that he found Brandy just as attractive as he found me. And vice versa.

He served Brandy and me steaks while the Contessa dined on salad.

“At least I can smell what you’re enjoying,” she lamented. “Although that aroma alone will probably add ten pounds.”

“Oh Contessa, you’ve never had an ounce of fat on you. Your figure is perfect,” I told her.

“Yes, so true,” she agreed. “But I have to work to maintain such perfection.”

Once Henri had cleared our places she said, “so show me the money you ‘found’.” I took the bag from beside Brandy’s chair and dumped it onto the table.

“Oh my,” she exclaimed.

“Over 85,000 dollars and this little book,” I showed her. She seemed very interested in the book.

“So what is your plan? What kind of help do you need?”

“Swann has the police looking for us. We just need to get out of town. Maybe to the West Coast where he wouldn’t find us. Get a new start.”

“This Swann character sounds like a piece of work. I believe I have heard of him before but never had the pleasure of meeting him. If the police are involved it could get sticky. I and my entourage have diplomatic immunity. But you two are American citizens. I may be able to smuggle you out. But if I do this, I want you to think hard about your future. With this kind of money you could get training and go into legitimate professions. You are both beautiful escorts, but much as it pains me to say, beauty is fleeting. I told you more than once that hanging around with dangerous people like Tip could get you killed. I don’t want you to fall back into the same old ways on the West Coast.”

“But, escorting is all I know.”

“Well you can learn new skills. You’re bright. I have contacts there and can make some introductions.”

“I think she’s right, Joey,” Brandy said. “I don’t really like our life anymore. I want more.”

“Good, then that’s settled. Now you boys must be exhausted. Henri will show you to your suite. You can shower and take a nap. Henri will find you some suitable clothes.  You two look like you’ve been rummaging through a garbage heap. The Contessa must get to work. There are a thousand details to work out. We’ll reconvene in a few hours. Off you go.”

The suite was sumptuous with two huge soft beds. We went into the bathroom and Brandy stripped and stepped into the shower. I sat on the toilet. We often talked in the bath while showering.

“Those clothes are toxic waste. I can never touch them again.” Then, “Do you think she can help us, Jo?” he asked.

“Well, she’s the Contessa. I haven’t found anything she can’t do if she sets her mind to it.”

“I’m going to so enjoy living out west,” he said. “Like a real cowboy.” I smiled at his whimsy.

After my shower I found Brandy had crawled into bed and was sound asleep. I wrapped myself in a thick, oh so soft robe and sat on the other bed. I was so keyed up I wouldn’t be able to sleep. This was such a huge mess. Is it possible even the Contessa couldn’t find a way out? I laid back with a worried frown on my face. Shit. This is the definition of a clusterfuck. That was my last coherent thought as I immediately drifted off to a dreamless sleep.

I awoke with a start. Okay, I’m in a strange bed. And I’m naked. So far nothing out of the ordinary. Then our desperate situation came crashing down on me again. I groaned and sat up. An outfit, undies, pants, shirt, socks, sneakers lay on each bed. Ah, Henri’s “suitable clothes”. I wasn’t sure how much time had passed but it was dark outside. Or at least as dark as Manhattan ever gets. I roused Brandy.

“Hey, babe. Let’s get dressed.”  He moaned and sat up. Then he looked at the clothes dubiously.

“Really? They want me to wear this?”

“There’s nothing wrong with the clothes.”

“It’s just not me. I have panache. This outfit says blah. It also says last decade.”

“We need to disappear, remember? ‘Panache’ stands out. Just wear it. Have you seen my wallet?”

“No, mine’s missing, too. I wonder why they wanted them?” Suddenly I got an uneasy feeling. Nothing I could put a finger on. Just a sense of unease. On top of the terror of probably being killed in the next few days.

We headed for the main suite. All the rooms were dark. The furniture had all been draped with sheets as if the owner was leaving. And we had given all our money to the Contessa and had no IDs. I trust her, I tried telling myself.

“Joey, this is spooky,” Brandy whispered, sidling up close to me.

Rounding a corner we came upon a small alcove with facing love seats and a small table. The Contessa sat on one side. She motioned for us to join her. I breathed the biggest sigh of relief of my life.

“This is my favorite spot in the apartment,” she began. To her left was a floor to ceiling window looking out on Manhattan from about 40 stories up. “The premium price of this place is based on the fact that the other side looks out over Central Park. People want the serenity of nature just outside their window. Hmph. If I want serenity, I’ll go to a spa. I prefer this. The hustle, bustle, garishness, vulgarity, vitality and LIFE that is New York.” Outside her window the city was living up to her description with neon advertisements, flashing lights and the general busy-ness of the city that never sleeps. But of course it was quiet due to noise dampening windows.  

“Here, join me for a toast.” She had three small glasses on the table each with about a half inch of dark red liquid. She pulled a champagne bottle from a cooler and filled the glasses.

“Kir Royale, one of my favorite aperitifs. Here’s to new beginnings.” She saluted us with her glass and we all drank.

“Now, down to business. The next time you need to throw away your cell phone, please remove the SIM card or smash the phone to bits. Swann recovered it and of course the last call you made was to me.”

“Um, sorry,” I said, totally ashamed at my blunder.

“Actually, there was a bit of a to-do with it. A SWAT team surrounded a bus of terrified tourists, swarming on looking for you two.  All they found was the phones. The mayor had a fit. Called it a PR nightmare and dressed down a captain. And then I got a call from Mr. Swann. I acknowledged knowing you, that your call was social and I knew nothing of your whereabouts. Of course, he didn’t believe a word. You were right to call me, dear. I had Henri check his sources. He knows almost as many people as the Contessa. You two are classified as ‘persons of interest’ in the murder of Tip. Mr. Swann’s plan is to have you held overnight at Riker’s Island before booking. There is a welcoming committee waiting for you. They are specifically ordered to rape you with as many men as want to participate. With Brandon they can do as they please, as long as you both don’t survive the night. It will be an unforeseeable tragedy. The murder weapon they will recover from your apartment will settle the case.”

I audibly gulped and from the corner of my eye I saw a tear slide down Brandy’s face.

“But never fear. The Contessa is your guardian angel. The Swann character showed up at my building with a search warrant. My attorney assured me there was no probable cause and we denied him entry on diplomatic grounds. His gendarmes were ready to force the issue but a call to my friend the mayor who had to call the same police captain to have his men stand down settled that. I fear the captain may be looking for another job. Later Mr. Swann sent a group of his personal thugs. My security detail took care of them with little trouble and delivered the unconscious bodies to the 13th precinct. Mr. Swann then called me and used language that made even me blush. I did take exception to being called ‘a dried up old bitch’. I have decided that he needs a lesson in manners.” She looked over at Henri who had been standing by. “What is it we say, Henri?”  He smiled and putting on his best Bronx accent said, “Ya don’t fuck wid da Contessa.”

“Anyway, as to you young men. Here’s what the Contessa has come up with.” She reached into a satchel on the seat beside her and handed each of us a leather folder. “Here are your new passports. I had Henri take your IDs from your wallets to use the pictures, here.” And she handed us back our wallets. I opened my passport and found I was now Luke Jackson. Brandy was Roger Smith.

“Roger? You named me Roger? What kind of name is that?” I hushed him.

“Sorry darling. It is what was available. These passports are top quality. They are more official than what you’d get from the government. And extensive computer hacking has given you backgrounds so that if you are picked up for any reason, your credentials will check out. “

“Thank you,” I said, glaring at Brandy.

“And here is walking around cash.” She handed us each an envelope containing $5,000 in small bills. “I have laundered the rest of your ill-gotten gain and deposited it under your new names in a friendly bank in Geneva. There it can grow tax free and without prying eyes. I’m afraid it isn’t as much as you’d expected. The new identities were expensive, especially since it was a rush job. That took $20,000.”     

“So that leaves us $55,000?”

“Not exactly. That is my next point. This little black book. Your Tip was planning a nice retirement for himself. He had been sending cash to a bank in Belize. This is his passbook to that account. I’ve always heard that crime doesn’t pay, but Tip apparently didn’t buy into that maxim. Anyway, my associates have removed the money from his account, passed it through several no tell banks and shell companies so it is totally untraceable. It is also safely in the bank in Geneva equally divided between the two of you. I think of you as the closest things Tip had to a family, so it is fitting that you be his heirs.”

So apparently there was more than $25,000 in my account. Not much to start a new life on.

“How much did Tip leave?” I asked.

“Forty-six million dollars.”

“Forty-six million,” I squeaked.

“Dollars!” Brandy screeched.

“Yes, my darlings. You each have a little over twenty-three million dollars on deposit in Geneva. You are technically wealthy.”

Sweat broke out on my forehead and I began to feel faint.

“Oh dear, you are pale. Henri, a damp cloth please.” She scooted beside me on the love seat and tenderly wiped my face until I could focus again. I looked over at Brandy and tears were flowing down his face.  “Hey, babe,” I said, grasping his hand. “Looks like we’re going to make it after all.” He grinned through his tears and said, “Just like Mary Tyler Moore.”

“Now for the final piece of our plan. I am closing the apartment and leaving tonight. You are travelling with me as my secretary and my masseuse. You’re listed on the manifest and have cleared customs. The jet awaits.”

“You have a jet?” I asked.

“Heavens, no. The upkeep on them costs a fortune. It belongs to the Sultan of Brunei. He makes it available whenever I need it.”

“Sultan of Brunei? As in the richest man in the world?” I couldn’t seem to say anything original.

“Yes, he wants me to marry him. A perfectly lovely man. I keep telling him that he already has a hundred wives, why add an old broad like me. But he says he’s in love. I keep putting him off. At least it gets me the use of a beautiful jet.”

“And where are we going?”

“Well now that you’re wealthy I’ve thrown the West Coast plan out the window. We’re headed to my villa in Florence first. Then Milan for your wardrobes.  Oh, this will be such fun. I want to show you Europe, the museums, the palaces, the libraries, the ruins, the parties. Introduce you to all the right people. It will be such an adventure. Our own Grand Tour. Oh, listen to me, channeling Auntie Mame.”

I looked at her and said, “the world’s a smorgasbord and most poor bastards are starving to death,” remembering the line from the stage play. “But I’m not sure we’d fit in. Suppose a former client recognizes us. It could be embarrassing for you.”

“Oh posh, child. You think what you’ve done could shock the people I mix with? Hah. Princess Claire of Hohenzollern is the most notorious woman in Europe. Her peccadilloes alone make the two of you look like altarboys. And Grand Duke Friedrich and all his little girls AND little boys? And don’t get me started on the Windsors. My doves, you are my protégés and as such every door in the civilized world is open to you. No one dares incur my wrath.”

“Because ‘ya don’t fuck with the Contessa’,” I grinned.

“Precisely, so is it a deal?” She raised an eyebrow at me.

I looked at Brandy. He nodded eagerly.

“Deal.”

“Splendid.” The Contessa looked up at Henri who had appeared at her shoulder.

“Erik says they have taken the bait, madame,” he said. “Friedrik’s team says they have a visual on the tail car.”

“Ach, so predictable. Proceed with the plan. Let him know we are leaving now. He should give us another 30 minutes. Tell Friedrik to drop back. We don’t want to give ourselves away,” she said with a smile.

I arched my eyebrow in question. She explained that seeing as Swann wanted us so badly, she didn’t expect him to give up easily. She feared an ambush on the way to the airport so she sent a decoy limo to LaGuardia. Our jet was at JFK. Erik, her security team leader and the driver of the decoy reported that they were being followed. I was alarmed that Swann’s men might harm them, but the Contessa said her guards had already shown they could take care of themselves against two-bit thugs such as Swann hired. Also she had Friedrik’s team coming in behind Swann’s hired muscle.

As soon as we boarded our jet, I noticed that Henri had hooked up a headset, apparently to keep tabs on goings-on in New York. I turned to listen as he came forward to brief the Contessa.

“Erik says a dark sedan has pulled out in front of them and is moving slowly. He believes the ambush is imminent. Friedrik is moving up. Dieter’s team had already staked out Swann’s likely ambush point and are ready.”

“Tell Erik that we are boarded and in the clear. He is not to initiate hostility but may return fire as necessary. We have three crack teams to their poorly trained two. I hope they aren’t foolish enough to turn this into a war. Tell him to keep me posted.”

An hour later we were cruising over the Atlantic in the most luxuriant seating I’d ever experienced. It was better than my bed at home. I wanted to live here. Henri had just told the Contessa that Erik and his teams had taken Swann’s men without a shot being fired. They had seen they were outnumbered and thrown down their weapons. A fair number of them they had identified as officers from the 13th precinct. Her men had handcuffed them and delivered them to a police department not owned by Swann. Her lawyer had delivered a complaint of harassment to the mayor and police commissioner. If he wasn’t before, the captain of the 13th precinct was now definitely out of a job.

 Brandy was dozing beside me with his head on my shoulder. He suddenly stirred.

“Joey, I forgot,” he said.

“What?”

“I forgot to turn off the automatic lights in the apartment. They’ll just continue to go off and on if no one turns it off.”

I laughed at him and kissed him on the forehead. “I’m sure Mrs. Berger can handle it. Go back to sleep.”

A thousand miles behind in New York City the lights in the apartment went out on schedule. Down the block a pair of evil eyes was watching. “I’ve got you now, you little fuckers,” he muttered and made his way toward the building.

It’s been a few days since all that. I’m basking in the sun this morning on the piazza of the Contessa’s villa overlooking Florence. The Arno is gleaming in the distance. ‘Roger’ is still in bed. Today is for relaxing. Tomorrow we’re off to Milan for new wardrobes. The Contessa says she has reserved some of the better design houses for us for the entire afternoon. Then there is a financial adviser she wants us to consult with. He says he can double our fortune in a year’s time. The Contessa says his word is good and his methods are mostly legal.

It’s cool on the piazza but the morning sun is warm on my face. With a small blanket across my legs, life is good.  I want to hold this moment forever. I guess I’m still afraid I’ll wake up in a rat infested apartment with Swann leering down at me.

Now that I’ve had time to consider it I think I have some idea of what was happening back home. Tip was not an idiot. You don’t become a crime boss by being dumb. He knew that Swann’s star was on the rise and his was setting. His escape plan was the large “retirement fund” in the off-shore bank. He was probably shutting down businesses, collecting debts and such. That would explain the large amount of cash in his office. Swann would not have been ignorant of Tip’s sudden influx of cash and would assume that Tip was building up his war chest to fight back against Swann’s expansion. So Swann launched his attack a little before Tip expected it. Luis would have known Tip was leaving and may have decided to throw his loyalty behind the new boss. So Tip was planning to leave the rest of us high and dry. The bastard.

 The Contessa flutters out like a flock of blue butterflies and settles in a chair beside my chaise. A faint aroma of jasmine follows her. She looks at me, saying nothing. After a few moments the staring is making me uncomfortable.

“What?” I say, unable to stand the scrutiny any longer.

“I knew it,” she crows. “I just knew it. Henri has been inordinantly pleased with himself all morning and then I find you out here sated and purring like the cat who got the cream. I knew it. You two were together last night.”

It is pointless to deny it as I feel my ears turning pink. Henri and I were together last night and it was magnificent! He is such a vigorous lover. I’m still sore in a few places. But just the thought of last night is making my pajama bottoms uncomfortably tight.

“I must say I expected as much but I thought Henri would take a few more days before he made his move,” she continues. “Ordinarily I would say, ‘darling, we don’t do the help’, but Henri’s practically part of the family. He’s quite smitten with you and I must say I approve.”

“Thanks?” is all I can manage.

“But I have one proviso,” and she gives me the coldest look I can imagine. “Don’t you dare hurt him.”

“I have no intention of hurting him. I think he’s great. He may break me, though.”

“Oh yes, our Henri is a man of gusto. Speak of the devil.”  Henri has appeared on the piazza with a sheet of paper.

“Good morning again, madame. Good morning Monsieur Luke. I trust you slept well?” I nod and he stops beside the chaise, his attention on the Contessa. His slight French accent takes me back to last night and his moans of “Zhoey”. I have to readjust myself under the blanket.

“I pulled this off our American newsfeed this morning, madame. I thought it would interest you.”

I also take the opportunity to surreptitiously stroke the back of his calf. He cuts his eyes at me barely suppressing a grin. I wink at him. The grin strives to break through. I mouth “tonight” and he can hardly control his face. He quickly looks back at the Contessa. She is reading the news report. Suddenly her hand flies to her mouth, covering a smile. “Oh my,” she gasps. Then she begins to giggle like a school girl. “Oh this is too rich. I love it.” She passes the news item to me.

“Gunning Granny Gets Goon (NYC)

An elderly landlady shot and killed an intruder in her home early Thursday morning. Mrs Eulalia Berger who says her age is “none of yer damn business” (public records say 74) surprised an armed intruder in her building and shot him dead. “I keep a gun to shoot rats in the alley. These New York rats are big as tom cats. But it looks like I got the biggest rat of all,” she said.   

 The deceased has been identified as John “Hammer” Benson, 35, who is unemployed. He is allegedly involved with organized crime as an enforcer in the lower East Side. Mrs. Berger said she heard a noise about midnight and went to investigate. She and Mr. Benson apparently came upon each other at the same time and Mrs. Berger shot first. She hit Mr. Benson three times in the chest. “Shoot first, ask questions later. That’s what I say,” she said. No charges will be filed as it was a case of self-defense.

            In a related story, ballistics of the intruder’s weapon match it to the gun used to kill Tomas Czarnik aka Tip O’Shay in the same building on Wednesday. A detective working the case said “it appears Mr. Benson killed Mr. Czarnik. He must have felt there was some loose end and was planning to fix it. Mrs. Berger probably saved an innocent life tonight.” The detectives feel this solves the murder/robbery but the persons of interest, Joey Larsen and Brandon Carter, remain missing. “I fear they probably knew too much and are at the bottom of the East River,” a detective said. As to a motive, the detective said it was a gangland clash. Mr. Benson has been associated with Mr. T.J. Swann, an entrepreneur with what some consider a questionable past. Mr. Swann was unavailable for comment at press time as he was being taken into custody by FBI agents on a plethora of organized crime charges – murder, extortion, prostitution, drugs, bribery, racketeering. “We’re just getting started,” said a federal agent who asked not to be identified. “A concerned citizen turned in boxes of evidence tying Swann to most of the crimes committed in the East side in the past ten years. It’s a treasure trove for us. Swann’s going away for about 500 years plus.” In addition to the federal arrest of Mr. Swann, Police Internal Affairs have placed a number of police officers from the 13th precinct on unpaid leave pending charges. Those involved include Lieutenant A. J. Fielding, Captain T.R. Montgomery and Detective Alan Trask.”

“A concerned citizen?” I ask looking at the Contessa with renewed respect.

“I had to call in a lot of favors to get all that and so quickly, but that rascal needed to be taught a lesson.”

“And that lesson would be?” I begin.

Henri finishes it with his best Bronx accent, “Ya don’t fuck wid da Contessa.”

And you can believe I never will.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

This is perhaps my most controversial story. Religion seems to always go that way. As a child I was brought up in a Baptist church and have a good knowledge of the New Testament. Re-reading the gospels and Acts as an adult I feel there is a story between the lines that we have not recognized. That gave me the idea for this story. A gospel is defined as “good news”. I have given that name to the story because it is a letter from Mary of Magdala, known in the New Testament as Mary Magdalene, to her friend Martha of Bethany containing good news. There is a non-Canonical book named the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. That one contains trappings of gnostic knowledge and animated crosses hopping about. Don’t confuse the two.

As an avid student of history, I am well versed in the time period. Nothing in the story conflicts with known historical events. If any of the characters existed (there is no proof), we have no knowledge of their actions outside of admittedly conflicting Biblical texts. Was there even an historical Jesus of Nazareth? The verdict is still out. What happened to Mary Magdalene after her Biblical scenes is unknown. There is no record of a Simon Peter. Urban legend is that he died in Rome or Jerusalem, that he was beheaded or crucified (sometimes upside down), and it occurred somewhere within a twenty year span.

I’ve always felt that Simon Peter was a bit of a con man and went with it for the story. There were rifts among the Disciples. Philip complained of Jesus’ preference for Mary Magdalene. There was ongoing animosity for Judas. Non-Canonical books reference Judas being a boyhood friend of Jesus. James, the brother of Jesus expected to be the next leader of the Jerusalem church but was immediately shoved aside by Simon Peter. The Disciples also complained of Jesus’ preference for the company of his “Beloved” which some assume to be John.

The back story of John in this work of fiction comes from an unusual comment in Mark 14:51-52. It is open to several interpretations, some of them not so savory. The Gospel according to Mark purports to be an eye-witness account. However, it says that Jesus went alone into the garden and all the Disciples fell asleep. Since Jesus was never allowed to speak to his Disciples after his arrest, how do we have the story of what Jesus did while alone? And why were they in the park in the middle of the night, anyway?

For the ease of readers I have opted to use the modern translations of characters’ names, except Jesus. His name is so heavily imbued with traditions that I have opted to use the older version – Yeshua.  

Crucifixion plays a role in this story. I have read in-depth about the process and watched a number of long, frequently graphic, documentaries to make sure I understand the process. It is a particularly gruesome death.

For anyone not familiar with the Caesars, this is set during the reign of Claudius. He was the sane emperor between Caligula and Nero, two of the most infamous of Roman emperors.

The Gospel of Mary Magdalene

“In the VII year of Emperor Tiberius Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus (48 CE)

“Mary of Magdala, now in Rome unto Martha, wife of Eleazor, High Priest of Bethany in Judaea.

Peace be unto you from God our Father, my sister in the love of our Master.

Your son and I are well and have received your letter. We were saddened to hear of the loss of your brother Lazarus and sister Mary in the fever. John was nearly inconsolable, he so adored his uncle. I held him and stroked his brow as he wept like a babe. I was glad to be able to help him. He has grown into such a fine man and taken such care of all of us.”

Poor John. One more cruel blow in a life filled with such miseries. I may be impious to think this, but our Lord has burdened him more than is just. So many disappointments for one so young. We have all failed him.

“We are settled in apartments in the imperial city. I have made contacts with a local group of messianic Jews. I did not give them our true names, not knowing what Simon may have said of me. They know us as the widow Johanna and her son John. It was surprisingly easy to gain their trust once they recognized I was from Judaea. They all asked if I had met the Master and I felt it prudent to disillusion them of that. Then I began to put our plan into action.”

Yes, our Plan. Like a grain of sand in an oyster it has been burrowed in my soul for near ten years now. It was such a relief to finally get to the final act. My pearl. We are all so different from that awful time, now fifteen years gone. Confusion, terror, loss and so much misery. I’m not sure how we all pulled through.

            I look across the room at John poring over a scroll. Yes, he has grown into a fine man, but it is a façade. His smooth face hides a dark, tormented heart that may never find release. I still remember him that day standing with us in the open field watching our lives be torn apart. He had his arms around Mary whom we all called Mother, holding her as if she were the child, though not yet bearded himself. She was broken and bowed as she watched her eldest child die the cruelest death the Romans could devise. John held her steadfast but his face was a mask of grief. Tears ran down his face and hoarse sobs were wrenched from his throat. I wanted to soothe him, make it somehow better but I was grieving my own losses. My Master dying, our dreams shattered and my beloved missing. 

            Simon was the one who brought the news to us. Judas, my beloved, the man I had loved these past two years, whom I had agreed to marry, had betrayed us and sold our Master to be executed. He had then taken his own life. How could this happen? How could I have not seen this? How could I have shared his life and bed, whispers in the dark, stolen kisses and not known the serpent that lay coiled about his heart? To lose my love and then find he was untrue. I was doubly shattered. Mother was equally devastated. She said she had lost two sons, one to the Romans and one to his own hand. We struggled to comprehend it. Judas and our Master had grown up together, best of friends, as inseparable as brothers. With Lazarus, their triumvirate had run rampant through the streets of Nazareth, driving Lazarus’ older sister Martha to distraction and younger sister Mary to tears. And how they all cried when Simeon moved his family to Bethany.

“The Romans have much more civilized attitudes about women than our countrymen. As a woman of substance I can move freely about the city. As a Roman citizen through my dear late husband Festus, I can also conduct business and be received in the finer homes. But it still helps to have a man like John at my side. He is such a comfort.

I lost no time proceeding with our plan. A few words, a few names dropped and some well-placed bribes soon put me in front of the Praetor.”

The sweetness of our plan is that we had no hand in the final act. Our hands unsullied, the legal machinery would enact our revenge fully and with a savagery only Rome could conceive.

For nearly five years after our Master’s death we had trudged through our bleak meaningless lives. Yeshua had asked John to see to Mother if anything ever happened to him. John had hung on every word the Master uttered and his slightest whim was as a command to John. Beloved. That was what our Master had called him. The others frequently mocked him and used the name to make him blush. But when Yeshua called him that, he glowed.

            A beardless youth, John was in total thrall to this man who spoke so sweetly of love, so fiercely of divine vengeance and had us all striving to be as our Lord wanted us. John never returned to his mother in Bethany but quietly carried Mother back to her home in Nazareth where he oversaw her care the rest of her days. He was never quite the same since that awful time and needed someone to care for him also, especially when the night terrors came. So I also became part of the household. We three managed to support each other and muddle through.

            It was Simeon and Eleazor who found out the truth. Simeon is John’s grandfather and a high priest in Jerusalem. His son in law, Eleazor, John’s father, is a priest in Bethany. When our Master was on trial for his life, Simeon was the near lone voice pleading for mercy if not justice. But his voice was as one in the wilderness, crying in vain. Although on the council, he was seen as a provincial by his peers because he came from a small town. He was usually kept on the periphery. He had tried to see the papers on Yeshua’s charges but they were missing from the records he was allowed to see. Nearly five years after the fact Simeon stumbled upon them in a secret cache in an office usually reserved for the high priest Ananias. He was devastated by what he found. He knew Yeshua’s family. Joseph had even approached him about a marriage between Yeshua and little Mary. Back before Yeshua made it clear he had no interest in women. But Mary, Martha and Lazarus were close to Yeshua so he knew that everything in the file was false. The charges were designed to push the Jews and the Romans to execution. Yeshua was set up. He also found the paper requesting release of thirty pieces of silver from the treasury for the witness. That was when his blood ran cold.

            Eleazor and his mother in law, Salome, called on us, saying they had distressing news. John sat between Mother and I, holding her hands, awaiting yet another blow. Eleazor quickly explained that Simeon had found the temple request identifying the traitor. It was Simon. Simon, who now calls himself Peter, the self-proclaimed leader of the remnant of Yeshua’s followers. We were stunned into momentary speechlessness. Then Mother cried out, “He killed my boy! God curse him, he killed my boy.”

“But this means Judas was innocent. He never killed himself. That monster killed him also,” I muttered. John and Salome calmed Mother while Eleazor quietly explained to me about the false charges. I wanted to publicize Simon’s perfidy and have him in prison. Eleazor told me the papers were secret, Simeon could not remove them and any attempt to act on his part would only end his career while the papers quietly disappeared.

“I may be an old woman, but I can still use a knife. I will find him and cut out his heart,” Mother swore. She made as if to go where the knives were kept. John quickly restrained her. She fought for a moment and then collapsed into him.

Salome sent Eleazor home while she stayed. She was an old friend of Mother and held her in her arms, rocking her as if a child. Mother wept as if she had lost her son anew. She said Judas was supposed to keep him safe. She had feared he would come to no good end associating with the lower class ruffians who hung out about the docks.

“Fisherman, he called himself,” she reviled Simon. “The only thing he fished for was his next mug of ale. My Yeshua was naïve about people. Judas was the smart one. He was supposed to be the protector.”

            Sadness was almost a physical presence in the room until suddenly hate bloomed bright in my heart. Simon must pay. I eventually said it out loud. Instead of denying it, they simply asked “how?”

Mother said, “The law says ‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’. He has taken two lives from me. He must pay with his life. I want him dead.”

Salome, Mother, John and I formed a cabal that night with the simple aim to bring Simon to justice. Simply murdering him wasn’t enough. He had to be exposed for what he was, a lying traitor who abandoned people who trusted him. He had to experience pain, fear, total misery. Salome brought Martha, Lazarus and their sister Mary into our group. Lazarus had to be physically restrained when he was told what Simon had done. We met many evenings and went around and around but gained no traction. And then King Herod Agrippa died.

            Pontius Pilate had been recalled to Rome about three years after our Master died. He had been replaced by another ineffectual governor. This governor was also recalled leaving King Herod as Rome’s only representative in Judaea. When he suddenly died, his heir was elsewhere in the empire and Rome seemed in no hurry to install him nor send another governor.  

Governance lurched onward, much like an insect who will keep moving forward even if you remove its head. If nothing else, Rome’s ways were efficient. Salome was the one who saw our opening. She was friendly with Princess Berenice. Although nominally Roman, Princess Berenice, King Herod’s niece was ethnically Jewish so Salome could call on her without being defiled. Salome noticed on her visits to the palace that while the administration still worked, there was little oversight and frequent confusion. On one particular visit to the palace Salome managed to secrete a copy of an edict by King Herod in her robes.

            Eleazor, being the best Latin scholar among us, procured some fine parchment and drafted a bill outlining various crimes against the state with which Simon could be accused. Sedition, treason, cursing the Emperor, inciting riots, murder. He ended with a proclamation that Simon was an enemy of the state and should be extradited to Rome for trial. It was important he be tried outside of Judaea. In Judaea he had friends. Outside we could more effectively control the flow of information. Eleazor carefully copied King Herod’s elegant Roman signature. Salome carried this document for some time on her visits to the palace until she found her opportunity. In an unguarded moment, she slipped into the royal office and actually got her hands on the royal cypher. She quickly sealed the document. Now it was official. We waited patiently for an opportunity. Then we heard Simon was planning a trip to Rome to visit a cell of messianic Jews there. This was our great chance.

“Arranging the meeting with the Praetor was not difficult. Actually meeting him was another matter. I was stood up time and again. I realized I was acting like a country bumpkin. I spent a good bit bribing more people. This finally got me a hearing. My story was that as a confidante of the Princess Berenice, I was entrusted with an official message for the emperor from King Herod, one of his last acts. As I expected, the Praetor said that he handled all the official correspondence of the emperor. No matter. The important thing was to get this entered into the official machinery. He looked over our letter and said the charges seemed serious. Then I showed him the package we had put together of all the witness statements and other faked documentation of Simon’s crimes. He surprised me by saying that Rome had been watching Simon with concern for some time. He said that Simon had recently slipped out of the city and they had lost his trail. I assured him that I knew people who could locate him.”

The meeting with the Praetor was easier than I expected. I could tell by the look on his face that he immediately spotted the clumsy forgery of the letter from Herod. I removed a bracelet from my purse made of gold with fine filigree work and set with semi-precious stones. It was beautifully worked and worth more than even I, as a woman of some means could afford to purchase. I had received it as part of my late husband’s estate. I said a silent prayer to my dear Festus and immediately knew that he would approve its use to help preserve Judaism. I offered it as a token of love from Princess Berenice to the Emperor. The Praetor smiled and said the letter would further their case against Simon’s seditious activities.

“John and I began attending the meetings of Simon’s group. They seem to believe that our Master was the actual prophesied Messiah, even though he fulfilled none of the prophecies. They have chosen the Greek form of Christos so call themselves Christians. And apparently Simon has told them that the Master named him Peter, the Rock. I listened agape as they recounted stories he had told of the Messiah feeding thousands, healing lepers and walking on water. The most astounding lie was that our Master rose from the dead. Dearest sister, we saw him die upon the cross. We saw the crows picking at his entrails as his corpse decomposed at Golgotha. We witnessed the Romans disposing of his bones in the common pit for executed criminals. How can Simon spread such lies? And why is he believed?”

We found that Simon was aware of Roman scrutiny and had headed to a safe house in Naples. I dressed in my most sumptuous robes and sought out the elder of the Christians. I confided in him that I had the ear of the lady Livilla, niece of the Emperor. She was expressing interest in the new religion and wished to hear more about it. I assured him that it would bring much more security to all of us if Simon could convert a member of the imperial family to the faith. I gave him an imitation ruby ring I had purchased at the bazaar saying it was a token of faith from the lady. I knew it was an opportunity Simon would not be able to resist.

“In short order Simon was back in Rome and the Praetor and his men were waiting. Now we had the rat in the cage. As a courtesy the Praetor informed me when Simon was captured.  He also graciously allowed me to visit him.  He inferred from my actions that what I wanted with Simon was not to ease his final days.  I saw his evil grin when he told me when I could return to ‘see the prisoner’.”

As the guard unlocked the cell door he shouted through the grill, “you have a visitor you old devil worshipper.” I stepped in and found Simon sitting on a bench in a dank stone room that smelled of a mixture of many vile things.

Simon had aged in the intervening years. I suppose we all have, but he looked far older that his years. I had not seen him since shortly after our Master’s death. He had shunned all but his inner circle and we drifted away from his group. John and I, Yeshua’s brother James and even his mother Mary were all pushed aside as if we did not exist. Those of us who knew Yeshua before Simon and knew his true teachings were inconvenient to Simon’s reconstructionist history. There had always been a sharp division among our Master’s disciples. There was much arguing over who was the best follower, who was the most favored or most important. Yeshua seemed oblivious to this and even stoked it by constantly asking young John to come sit at his right hand and petting on him as they rested in the evenings. John, Judas, James and I were from more prosperous families and were always suspect in the eyes of Simon and his thuggish companions from the lawless alleyways by the docks.

            I saw the surprise in Simon’s face as he recognized me. But his face smoothed and he greeted me.

“Welcome, sister. Come to succor me in my hour of need?”

“Simon,” I said. “You are no brother of mine and I have no sympathy in my heart for the likes of you.” He sighed and dropped his fake smile.

“Still the shrew, I see. I always told Judas you were more trouble than you were worth. Always putting on airs and acting better than everyone else. Strutting about hanging on Yeshua like a harlot.”

“The Lord should strike you for even uttering the Master’s name. How can you even live with yourself? Professing love and devotion to our Master’s face and in the back alley selling him like a slave for thirty pieces of silver.”

“I see my little ruse has been discovered.”

“But why, Simon? Why would you be so evil? You murdered our Master. The Lord will not forgive murder of a holy prophet. And neither will his people.”

“He was no holy man, sister. He was a man like any other. And a rather dull one at that. Andrew would have been content to remain in that hovel and eke out our lives as fishermen for the rest of his life, but not me. I have ambition. I want greater things. Yeshua was my way out. He had a golden tongue and could charm a crowd. In the beginning he directed their anger at the Romans. The fever was hot in the land. The people were ready for revolution. With Yeshua leading the way and Andrew and I as his generals we could have swept the Romans out of Judaea and into the sea. You and Yeshua were two of a kind. Always with your heads in the clouds, seeing nothing of what’s going on around you. But he went off message. When the Pharisees and other temple buggers began circling he lost his brass. That’s when he began all that blessing of the meek shit. I tried to steer him back but he had lost his stones.” I was aghast at Simon’s simple stupidity.

“You naïve fool! Yes, enough Jews working together could sweep the standing Roman army from our shores, but you cannot beat Rome. The entire world bows to Rome. Rome IS the world. They have legions upon legions. They would pour in and massacre every Jew in the East. You’re trying to throw our world into a blood bath.” Was this his master plan?

“You’re soft in the head. Just like Yeshua,” he replied. “By my estimation we needed something to bring the situation to a head. To make the people rise. If Yeshua would not make the call, I figured on helping him. What we needed was a martyr. A good bloody martyr would unite the people like nothing else. I resisted the idea at first. I really did. I rather liked Yeshua. He was a bit dimwitted but generally likeable. I even told the others to ignore that he always had his nose up that boy’s ass like a dog in heat. My old group, Andrew, the sons of Zebedee, were easily convinced. Thomas and Philip took more work. Matthew was easy. He never forgave Yeshua for allowing Judas to hold the purse. He wanted that honor. The others fell in line or disappeared.” I became uneasy as I saw that the look in Simon’s eye was not one of sanity.

“You utter, utter fool.” I could not restrain myself. “You have destroyed the lives of so many people for what? A dream that will never happen?”

“Oh, but it is working. I have cells in nearly every important city. When we are numerous enough I will give the call and we will throw down the Empire of Satan. We will reconsecrate the temple in Jerusalem and usher in the thousand year kingdom. With me at the right hand of God.”

  “And you keep your ‘cells’ loyal by feeding them a pack of lies? Miracles, resurrection?” I asked.

“I tell them what they want to hear; what they need to hear. It moves them toward the Lord. That is what is important.”

“Oh, Simon. You have lost all touch with reality. You have perverted everything Yeshua advocated.”

“I only refined it, gave it focus. Yeshua dead is a much better touchstone than Yeshua alive. People might not follow a sodomite.” He must have noticed my indignant start. “You weren’t there the night he was taken. We were in the gardens near Gethsemane. He slipped away from us. When the soldiers came he was caught practicing love thy neighbor with that lapdog boy of his. Check the Roman report. When they seized Yeshua that boy was bare assed naked as the day he was born. I had to laugh as I saw him sprint through the garden, his white ass bobbing in the moonlight. It’s better this way. With Yeshua out of the way, we can burnish his image the way we want.”

My thoughts went to John again. That poor boy. Did Yeshua assault him? Is that the turmoil that he wrestles with in the dark nights? Is that the source of his torment? I had no time to think of it at the moment.

“Well, it appears your days of burnishing are about to come to an end,” I said.

“Probably not. The Romans make a lot of noise, but I have been careful what I have said. I have kept my remarks just inside the law. They have nothing to hang me on.”

For the first time since seeing Simon I smiled. I related to him the packet of letters and affidavits I had given the Praetor attesting to his complicity in multiple felonies.

“What have you done? You bitch!” he exploded. Then more moderately. “It looks like I did Judas a favor in saving him from you.”

“I was sure you killed him,” I said.

“Actually, Andrew killed him. Broke his neck with his bare hands. Andrew has always been the strongest man I know, strongest Jew since Samson. Mathew and I strung Judas up to make it look like suicide. It worked for fifteen years. Now it’s so long ago, no one cares.”

“You’re wrong Simon. I care. Mary cares. The people who loved Yeshua care. In fact

Yeshua’s mother asked me to deliver her message to you personally.”

“Oh, and what is it?” he asked.  I spit forcefully in his face.

“Message delivered.”

As I gathered myself to leave I told him, “The verdict has already been handed down, Simon. You are to be executed. The Praetor is considering making you a part of one of the Emperor’s spectacles. He and I are hoping to be able to feed you to the lions. I find the image of that amusing and comforting. Farewell, Simon. May God have mercy on your soul. I surely would not.”

“Sister, it would be a lie to say that I did not taunt Simon that night in his cell. He admitted to his crimes of selling our Master to the authorities and to murdering Judas. He is totally unrepentant and appears to be insane. Master always said to minister to those of feeble minds but this time I say no. There is no other person I was so glad to see put underground.

As we predicted, Simon was convicted of crimes against the Empire and sentenced to death. Irony of ironies, the method chosen was crucifixion. Simon died a slow, painful death. And for that I am eternally thankful. I am sure the Master would urge mercy and forgiveness in our hearts. But I have neither.

Simon’s words about the night Yeshua was taken kept creeping back on my mind. Was he just toying with me or was there more than I knew? I finally went back to the Praetor’s office and found a helpful clerk. With a little gold he agreed to dig through the official records with me. I asked about capital cases in Judaea fifteen years ago. He found the box of reports. I asked if there was information about Yeshua son of Joseph being executed. He found several papers related to it. I was allowed to look over them, the arrest report making my throat tighten and tears burn my eyes. My reading of Latin is limited so I paid the clerk more to read it to me. It related that a centurion took ten men and using details provided by the informant found the group in the gardens near a wine press. The centurion said he recognized the informant in the group but did not wish to expose him.

“I asked ‘which of you is Yeshua son of Joseph?’ A man in their midst answered ‘I am Yeshua.’ Then from out of the darkness to the right we heard a call ‘Judas, no! You cannot do this.’ Then he said loudly, ‘I am Yeshua.’ I ordered the men to take both into custody. As my soldiers approached the man off to the right, a young man, nude, jumped up and ran away. A surreptitious aside from the informant revealed which man was actually Yeshua. The imposter was one Judas, son of Simon of Kerioth, a close associate of the prisoner.”

I dashed the tears from my eyes as I realized that my Judas had offered his own life in place of our Master’s. And yes, something did occur between Yeshua and John. Was this part of why John remained so moody, seeming to take no joy or satisfaction in finally bringing Simon to justice? My poor, poor boy. I don’t know how to help him.

            As it turned out, the next spectacle was weeks away and the Emperor wanted to go ahead and deal with the “Christian problem”. So on a chilly spring morning, Simon and five other criminals were led out to the place of execution with a small crowd of curious onlookers following. Where were all his Christian friends? Afraid of being identified and suffering a similar fate? John and I were already there with our ideal viewing place staked out when they approached. A small group of guards in gleaming helmets and scarlet capes surrounded and goaded when necessary the six men bowed under the heavy load of the crossbeam they each carried, their wrists already affixed to it by ropes. Their bleeding backs showed they had been scourged prior to their execution. Their faces held varying degrees of pain, resignation and terror.

            There were six poles planted at the place of execution, to serve as uprights for the crosses. The condemned were stopped in front of the poles. Most of them dropped to the ground, exhausted by their ordeal already. One, however made a mad dash for freedom. Some of the guards blocked his way with spears and laughing they dragged him back to the others.  

The six men had been stripped of their clothes before the scourging. Now as they rested I could see them begin to shiver in the cool morning air. A couple of guards unceremoniously grabbed a prisoner and rolled him onto his back. Although his arms were already lashed to the crossbeam, the Romans, being the masters of cruelty, also used large nails to increase the pain. As another guard approached him with the iron spikes he began shouting ‘No! No! Please, no!” He screamed piteously as the first spike was driven through his hand. He alternately screamed and sobbed as the other hand was affixed. A stream of piss arced up as he wet himself during his agony. The two largest guards took hold of the crossbeam and dragged it to the first upright. Groaning at the weight of the beam and the prisoner combined, they hoisted it up. A hole in the crossbeam fit into a notch at the top of the upright. The sudden jar when it fell into the socket caused another shriek. The writhing man’s toes could just touch the ground. A guard pressed one of the prisoner’s feet against the upright a few handspans above the ground and drove a spike through the ankle and into the wood. This elicited more shrieks from the agonized man. The other foot was similarly impaled. The guards stepped back inspecting that their workmanship was correct. The poor man hung writhing and twisting his body trying to find the position of least pain. Hanging limply caused tremendous pain in his hands and torqued his shoulders. With the arms expanded he could not exhale. The only way to breathe was to press down on his feet, exacerbating the incredible pain already present. The involuntary need to breathe would keep him struggling on the cross, possibly for days, without the comfort of sleep or fainting.

            Simon was second. As they grabbed him another criminal bent over and vomited on his feet. Some of the onlookers laughed. Simon struggled as hard as any of them as he was being nailed to the cross and he shrieked mightily as they raised him in place. My heart sang with glee with each ringing pound of the hammer upon the nails. His wails were music to my ears. Once he was upright I got a chance to see his face. It was a mask of agony. The eyes were haunted with a look of terror. I thought perhaps he could see the face of Satan rushing toward him to grab his soul and cast it into Sheol. I paid little attention to the process for the other four. It was similar. Some others vomited or pissed on themselves. One had greenish brown feces running down his leg as he was being nailed to his cross. But I had eyes only for Simon. The agony he would experience for the few days it took him to die paled in comparison to the fifteen years of misery that I had experienced. But it would have to do.

            We left at midmorning. We found a nearby bakery, purchased some food and went to sit in the shade of a pagan temple to eat. I pondered on the scene of barbarity I had just witnessed. I had to wonder if I had lost some of my humanity in being unmoved by the horror of it all.

            Once the morning mists had burned off it became a brilliant day. We returned to the place of execution in the afternoon. Some children had come and were taunting the condemned and throwing pebbles at them. The guards laughed and half heartedly shooed them away. The heat was beginning to rise and I noticed that with it came biting flies. The flies and other flying insects swarmed about the tormented men on the crosses. Most of them had stopped bleeding except when they jerked. Some continued to moan or sob. Some just stared straight ahead, slowly writhing, dully awaiting death. Simon was in the latter group. He did look toward me once. We held eye contact for a few moments. Then he looked away. After a bit I put my arm through John’s and said “take me home.”

            It was cold enough that night that we could see our breath the next morning. It must have seemed brutally cold for the unfortunate men exposed on the crosses. We returned to the place of execution on the third afternoon. Simon’s groin was dark with blood, piss and feces. His head hung to the side, his mouth and nostrils black with flies seeking a place to lay their eggs. A crow perched on his shoulder was making a meal of one eye. No movement, no breath. Simon was no more. I smiled. May the demons of Sheol torment him for all eternity.

            As is Roman custom, Simon’s remains were left on the cross until he was little more than a skeleton. What was left was eventually tossed in a common pit reserved for criminal remains.

“Now that Simon is dead my heart feels lighter than it has in many years. I only regret that our Master’s dear Mother did not live to see this day. I like to feel that wherever she is, her soul is no longer heavy with sadness.

John and I have decided to remain indefinitely in Rome. I have come to enjoy the conveniences of civilization. We have made some acquaintances and are trying to enjoy life for a change. An older Senator has shown an interest in me. It is time for a new page.

I had not seen any of Simon’s cell of Christians until last night. We received a furtive message that they were meeting in secret to hear the message from a new holy man, a Jew from Tarsus named Paul. I’ll not send the centurions after them, but neither will I participate. My Master’s message was clear, follow the law of our fathers and love God above all.

Peace be unto you, my sister in the Lord.

Mary of Magdala”