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.

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.

Little Red Corvette

This is more a memory than a story. It is 100% true. It happened way, way back. About 1979 or 1980. It was a different world then; fortunately some things have changed. However, I feel that on this particular night I learned some valuable life lessons. Once I wrote this I was wondering what to call it. An old Prince song immediately came to mind. So there you have it. One other point, while the story is true, I have changed two names to protect people’s privacy. I’ve attached a picture below of where I was living when this took place. I’m the one in the fancy striped socks.

Little Red Corvette

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.

He 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 later 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 redneck bigot I was raised to be.

So I put on my big boy pants and went. We arrived about 10:30 and 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 22. 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. 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 back in the 80s 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 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.

“Giiirll, 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. And don’t call me girl.” 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? 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 overthink 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 clustered around the mirror fixing their hair and makeup and being bitchy. If you’ve ever seen a teen movie with 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 nice-looking 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. 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 was excited that he had also just picked up a job as a bartender here at the club. He hoped to make enough money for his own place. He was living with an elderly aunt and it was really cramping his social life. I talked some about my work with handicapped kids and got the usual “you must be so special.” Kinda tired of that.

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.

“I can’t believe you were talking to John! He’s like the hottest guy here! Everybody wants to be with him!” he gushed. Did I mention he could sometimes be a drama queen? “By the way, all my friends think you’re cute.”

“Yay, crown me Miss America,” I said sourly. Then, “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 turned out I lived only a few blocks from the club so it was a short drive home. At the time I was living in an old Victorian monstrosity that had been subdivided into apartments. I had the five rooms on the first floor, left side. My neighbor Ken had the five rooms on the right. There were another two apartments on the second floor laid out the same. Another apartment was in the attic and two in the basement with a rear entrance. It had a double-story front porch where we loved to sit and drink beer on a Friday afternoon and people watch. Our front walk was three steps up from the sidewalk, about a ten-foot stone walkway and then a grand entrance stairway onto the lower porch. Inside the front door you turned left to my apartment, right to Ken’s or up the stairs. And although a block from the main street, it was heavily wooded and had an “old residential” feel.

A couple blocks from my turn, as I was stopped at a red light, a bright red Corvette oozed up to a stop beside me on the right. It was long, low, sleek and oh so sexy. And did I mention it was red? The windows were tinted so I couldn’t see the driver. 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 brown Omni 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 red 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 red 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? I hadn’t noticed if anyone had been behind me. It’s not something I generally worry about.

My blood ran cold and I felt panic coming on. I pretended not to see the Corvette and 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 heart beat to slow down. What was happening here? 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 spooked.

I slept little that night and was edgy for several days. Had I dodged a bullet that night or was it something totally innocuous? I’ll probably never know. I still think Corvettes are sexy, but whenever I see a red one I still feel a small frisson of terror run down my spine.

And I think I learned two pretty valuable lessons that night. I felt totally violated by the man who 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 and am resolved to do better. Second, I think I may have experienced in a small way the fear all gay people live with. That any moment violence may overwhelm 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 be better there, also. I guess I learned a third lesson, too. All good boys should be home by eleven on Saturday night.