Passing in the Night by Tinnean

Passing in the Night - Tinnean

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Notes: This is an alternate reality in which Jim has become a hustler, Blair is the detective, and they've both had other partners. There's a touch of underage and bestiality in spirit guide form. It is based on the 1968 movie, No Way to Treat a Lady. Therefore, some of the action will reflect that time period. There will also be minor character deaths.

The authors mentioned wrote Tarzan of the Apes and John Carter of Mars, Doc Savage, John Kenton who sailed the Ship of Ishtar, and Alan Quartermain who searched for King Solomon's Mines. The first line of the story Blair reads is taken from The Moon Maid by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Monday, Monday was written by John Phillips and performed by The Mamas and The Papas. The Greta Garbo Home for Wayward Boys and Girls is courtesy of Manfred Mann. "There's a holdup in the Bronx, Brooklyn's broken out in fights, etc." is the theme from Car 54, Where are You? The Dr. Seuss book Mrs. St. Paul is reading is Horton Hatches the Egg.

~~~~~

Being a hustler sucked. I learned that the hard way.

Limping out of apartments on the upper West Side, my ass sore because even though I'd prepared myself before my 'date', the john would like to fuck rough...

My eyes burning and my nostrils clogged from the smell of my last client, marijuana smoke and alcohol, and Canoe trying to conceal the body odor...

Coming home at three or four or five in the morning. The smells overwhelming, the garbage trucks starting their runs, the bums on the street stinking of vomit and urine...

But it didn't start out that way.

William Ellison had been overjoyed when I was born. He had an heir, he boasted to anyone who would listen, a son who would be a credit to him, who, after graduating college with every honor that was awarded, would join the family business, get married and raise a bunch of little Ellisons, and who one day, after Ellison, Sr. was gone of course, would take over the family business.

William Ellison barely paid any attention to my brother Steven, who was born some years later.

That was until William Ellison realized that his oldest son was 'like that.' He refused to accept that I was gay; he refused to look at me.

I was sent to William Tecumseh Sherman Military Academy to get the gay drilled out of me, and my brother became his favorite.

I used to wonder if my father knew how I was treated. I used to wonder if it would have mattered. I stuck it out - I was an Ellison, after all - and once I'd graduated, I took off for the big city.

The bus was the cheapest way to go, and along the way I met some men who were nice to me, nicer than my father had ever been. That made the trip longer, but it did wonders for my ego.

New York was an expensive town, and once I arrived there, I knew I'd need money. A high school diploma didn't put me in line for a job that paid big bucks, so I found something that did.

I became a hustler.

It wasn't bad. I enjoyed it, and I was lucky the men I 'dated' treated me well.

After almost a year in the city, though, I ran into someone I knew, someone who had been at WTS the first month or so that I was there. He'd been nice to me, not in the way the men on my cross country journey had been, but like a... a relative who cared what happened to me, and I knew that he would make living in the military academy more bearable.

But by that Thanksgiving he was gone.

There had been wild rumors. He was a long distance sniper, he was black ops called back to duty, he was all things deadly.

The only thing I knew for sure was that he was gone.

And then there he was on the streets of Manhattan, over six feet tall, ruggedly built, and so handsome I nearly swallowed my tongue.

"James."

I was surprised that he recognized me. "Major Pendergrast." But so flattered that he did. I wasn't sure whether to salute or shake his hand. Or throw myself at him and kiss him.

"Call me Jack." He smiled and offered his hand. "I'm not in the military any more."

"I'm sorry, sir. You were a very good instructor."

"I liked teaching you boys." His smile became sad, but then he shook his head. "That's in the past. What are you doing in New York?"

I shrugged and looked away. The clothes I was wearing had to tell him what I was doing in the Big Apple. Black mesh shirt that allowed a peek of the nipple ring I wore. Black boots. Snug black jeans. Fringe that draped my right calf and swung with each step.

"Aren't you a little cold in that?" He looked me over, and it felt physical. My cock twitched, and I wondered if he wanted me.

"It's warm for April." I licked my lips and shivered, but I wasn't cold. "I'm fine."

He raised an eyebrow and removed his jacket, putting it around my shoulders. "Come on, James. I'll buy you dinner, and you can tell me all about it."

I opened my mouth to tell him he had to have better things, more important things, to do than listen to me, but he waited patiently, holding the jacket closed. I shut my mouth and nodded.

Jack took me to the restaurant in his hotel. The host who seated us was an occasional client. He watched me with lust in his eyes. Normally I would have flirted and come on to him, but I was with someone. Someone I wanted to spend time with.

He held the seat for me, and I removed the jacket, draped it over the back of the chair and sat down, and he eased it forward. He leaned down. "I hope you enjoy your meal." His breath was hot in my ear.

I said something noncommittal, accepted the menu, and was relieved when he left.

Jack had been watching. I gave him a weak smile.

Our waiter approached. "May I take your order?"

"I'll have the Porterhouse, medium rare. Baked potato, dry, and mixed vegetables." He closed the menu and handed it to the waiter. "What would you like, James?"

"Oh." I'd been watching him. I quickly scanned the menu, then bit my lip.

"You look disappointed."

"No. It's okay. I'll have the same, except I'd like butter on my potato." I gave the menu to the waiter with a smile.

The waiter dropped both menus. He flushed. "Sorry," he whispered. He bent to retrieve them and hurried to the kitchen.

"You do seem to have an effect on the male population." Jack took a sip from his water glass.

"It's my job." I felt my cheeks turn red. "But you knew that, didn't you? Do you want me to go?"

"No." He laid his hand on mine, and his thumb ran over my knuckles. "You have that effect on me. Stay."

I shivered again, unable to drag my eyes away from his.

"Will you stay?"

"Yes."

That was the beginning of our time together.

I wouldn't have objected to staying in the hotel, but Jack wanted us to have a place of our own. He rented an apartment in Washington Heights and taught me how to cook. And other things.

On occasion he would leave for a few days or a few weeks. He never told me where he'd been, and I never asked. I never had to. The only thing I was concerned with was whether he'd spent that time with a man. Or a woman.

I'd hug him, burying my nose in the side of his neck. A couple of discreet sniffs assured me that if he'd been with anyone, he hadn't been in bed with them.

Sometimes he'd give me an odd look, but when I questioned him about it, he'd smile, get his shoulder into my gut and hoist me up over his shoulder, and stride into the bedroom with me, fondling my ass before he tossed me onto the bed and followed me down.

Living with Jack was like having a dream come true. He treated me very well, and though I didn't love him, I thought maybe if I tried hard enough, I could.

One day Jack came back from one of those out-of-town trips carrying a large, camouflage duffle. As he walked past me, he grabbed my wrist and dragged me along with him.

"Jack?"

"We're going to Peru, Jimmy."

"We?"

"You're coming with me." He dropped the duffle onto the bed and unzipped it. "Start packing." He crossed to the closet and hauled out another duffle that could have been the twin of mine.

"Why Peru?"

"I carried out an operation there once."

"But you've never taken me on one of your... "

"This isn't an operation. Start packing, okay?"

"What do we need?"

"Jeans, shirts, those boots I bought for you."

The whole year we'd been together he'd never taken me anywhere out of the city. I went to the dresser and took out the clothes we would need.

"Shorts?"

"Your call." He grinned at me.

****

Lima had a fantastic gay scene, and we danced the evenings away and then fucked through the night.

"I love you, Jimmy," he whispered in my ear one night while he was still buried deep inside me. I sighed happily, and we fell asleep like that.

The next day he began to stock supplies. "I'm going into the Peruvian Amazon, Jimmy. There's an old friend I want to visit."

"Should I be jealous?" I made my voice teasing. I didn't want him to think I was serious.

"No." He ran his hand over my hair. "You're very special, Jimmy. You never have to be jealous."

The next morning, when I woke up, he was gone. Something told me I had to go after him, so I did, but I got lost in the rainforest, and when they finally found me, I had the tattoo of a black jaguar behind my left shoulder. I could never remember how it got there or what had happened. All I knew was that I had to return to the States.

And that Jack was okay.

****

A few years passed. I thought of Jack. Not often, and never with sorrow, but with mild regret that I would never see him again.

I fell back into the routine I'd had before Jack.

I'd call Steven every so often, to let him know I was still alive, hoping he'd pass the information on to the family. Grace, our mother, was long gone, living the high life somewhere, but our father was still in Washington State.

No birthday or Christmas cards ever came in the mail. I did get an invitation to Steven's graduation from Rainier University. For a minute I toyed with the idea of going, but I tore it up and threw it away instead, and I sent him a check.

Steven called to thank me, but he never once asked how a junior ad executive could have afforded a gift like that.

It took me two weeks on my knees to cover that check.

I sucked it up.... er... pushed it out of my mind.

And time rolled on.

After five years, I realized - I couldn't do this any more; I wanted the tenderness I'd had when Jack had been in my life. I wanted one man in my bed.

So when Randy Beautiful asked me to give up the business and move in with him, I jumped at the opportunity.

Randy - who had a penthouse that overlooked Central Park. Randy - blond, blue-eyed, and so freaking gorgeous both men and women couldn't catch their breath.

"I don't care that you were a pro," he told me. "All your experience, everything you've learned, that's all going to be directed at me, only me."

He loved me in leather, black, buff, devil red, trousers that hugged my ass and thighs and calves, vests that exposed my pecs, biceps, and abdomen. He loved to show me off.

Stupid me. I thought that meant he loved me.

He wasn't happy when I insisted he wear a condom.

"Aw, pumpkin. You're mine now. Please?"

I liked him saying I was his, but I'd been in the business too long to be comfortable discarding the barrier right away.

"Just until there's no doubt... I'm clean?" I was afraid if I told him I wanted to be sure he was clean, he'd leave me.

I held my breath, but with a forced smile he agreed.

****

Randy came into the penthouse just as I was hanging up the phone.

"Great news, Randy! Brandon said we could use his cabin in Vermont."

"Vermont? I don't think... "

"It's a great place. Vermont is gorgeous this time of year, the view is gorgeous, and best of all, there'll be no one to bother us."

"Yeah, but you know I don't like roughing it." His lip was thrust out. Jesus, had I really thought that was attractive?

"It'll be fun, Randy." We hadn't spent any time together in a while. He'd been busy with his job on Wall Street, and I'd mostly hung around the apartment, munching on M&Ms and watching Mike Douglas until it was time to start dinner.

"There won't be any electricity."

"It's powered by propane."

"Yeah, but no radio, no television, no telephone."

"We can take the radio and television that are battery operated. As for telephones, there's a general store in town."

"And what would we do?" His face darkened in an unattractive scowl. "I don't like the mountains. I'm a city boy."

"But... Randy, don't you want to be with me?" I cringed. I hated how pathetic I sounded.

He turned on his heel and walked into the kitchen.

"Randy, you didn't answer me. Don't you care about me?"

"Jesus, Ellison. We're guys." He took a beer out of the fridge and popped the cap. "And you were a whore. Get on the clue bus!"

"So... so you never... you were never interested in my mind."

"What mind? If you ever had a thought, it would die of loneliness." He never let me forget that I only had a high school diploma.

"You... All this time you just wanted my body."

"Ah hah! The light goes on."

I felt as if I were encased in ice. I left the kitchen, walked down the long hall to our bedroom, and opened the closet door. All the leather clothing that Randy had bought for me hung there.

"Going somewhere, pumpkin?"

"I'm out of here." I pulled down the camouflage duffle that Jack had given me before that trip to Peru.

"No, you're not." His fingers closed over my forearm and squeezed. "You're mine. I bought you as much as I bought those clothes."

"Lincoln freed the slaves."

"If you take a single shirt or pair of pants out of here, I'll fucking have you charged with burglary." His grip tightened.

I used a tactic Jack had taught me, and Randy was flat on his back, looking up at me from the floor, his eyes wide with shock.

"You really are a bastard." In the bottom drawer of the dresser I used was the jacket Jack had put around my shoulders that first day. "This jacket is mine. You can keep the rest."

"I'm gonna spread the word about you, Ellison! I'll tell everyone you gave me a sexually transmitted disease! You'll..."

"I'll never work in this town again? That's a really hackneyed cliche, Randy. Here's one just for you. Go fuck yourself." I dug into my pocket and pulled out the apartment key. He flinched when I tossed it at him.

I walked out and closed the door softly behind me.

****

"Well, that was smart, Ellison." It was after 3. The banks were closed. I'd have to wait until the next morning to get into my safety deposit box.

Randy had no idea how much money I actually had made over the years. It wasn't a fortune, but it was enough to tide me over until I could get a job, and maybe even a little further.

One thing I did know - leaving him was the smartest move I'd made since I'd run into Jack Pendergrast.

I straightened my shoulders. I'd find a place to stay, and I'd find a job. I was never going back to selling my ass.

I spent the next few days checking out the classifieds in The Daily News and The New York Post for jobs. It wasn't looking too good.

I did find an ad for an apartment, though, in a brownstone in the East Village. I called to make sure it was still available, then took the subway down to East 14th Street.

A chunky little man opened the door.

"I'm Jim Ellison," I told him. "I called you a little while ago?"

"Yeah. Hi. I'm Richie Delvecchio. C'mon, I'll show you the apartment." He turned and led me to the staircase. "It's a studio on the third floor. Ain't got no elevator."

"Okay." I followed him up the stairs. He was balding and had a perpetual 5 o'clock shadow, but I could see he wasn't as old as I'd originally thought, in spite of the ribbed, A-style undershirt and tan work pants he wore, maybe in his late thirties. "You're the landlord?"

"My brother-in-law owns this buildin', but I run it. Don't make no trouble, an' we'll get along just fine."

"What kind of trouble?"

"I don't like loud parties or sleepovers with members of the opposite sex."

"That won't be a problem." Lately, loud parties had fried my nerves. The bright lights, the loud, raucous music, the alcohol - they were no longer the fun they had been.

As for the opposite sex , I'd never gone for girls.

"Good. I had a feelin' you was a good guy. I got a talent that way. All my tenants are good people."

"Uh... Good."

We reached the third floor. A long, fairly narrow corridor bisected the brownstone and separated the six apartments. There were windows at either end. In front of each one was a stand that held a flowering plant.

Mr. Delvecchio saw me looking at them. "I like plants. I got 'em on every floor, an' I come up a couple of times a week an' water 'em."

He walked toward the back of the building, to the door with 3E on the panel. He unlocked it and threw it open with a flourish.

"This is a nice apartment. I cleaned it after the last tenant moved out. You got a kitchenette, a dinin' area, an' over there's the bed.

I walked in and looked around. There were a lot of windows, making it very bright.

The floor in the kitchenette was worn black and white linoleum squares. It had a two-burner stove and a stained porcelain sink. In the cabinet beside the sink were plates and bowls on one shelf, and pots and skillets on another. In a drawer were forks, spoons, and knives.

The thought of using those things made me nauseous. They looked clean, but I could smell the residue of meals past. I'd need new ones.

Tucked in an alcove was a small refrigerator with a single door. I opened it. The fridge was empty except for a box of baking soda, and as Mr. Delvecchio had said, was clean. The freezer compartment at the top was large enough for the two ice cube trays, and maybe a box of french fries, a frozen pizza, and a couple of TV dinners.

Just off the kitchenette was the 'dining area'. It contained a card table and two folding chairs.

"The other chairs are over here." He walked to a wall and pulled aside what looked like a sheet to reveal two more chairs. "In case you have company."

"I thought..."

"You can have company over. They just can't sleep over."

"Okay." I couldn't see any of my former colleagues coming to dinner; they'd cut all ties to me when I left the business. As for sex... I pushed it out of my mind.

"This cubby is good for storin' brooms an' mops."

"What's that?" Above it was a large, square cabinet.

"Pantry." He opened it. There were four shelves, the top one so high I'd need to stretch to reach it. "The bathroom is through that door."

The cubicle could barely hold the toilet, sink, and tub. There were rust stains in all of them, and even though Mr. Delvecchio said he'd cleaned it, I saw myself stocking up on plenty of Ajax to scrub that tub. I was not getting in it otherwise.

I went back into the main living area. A faded area rug covered most of the floor. The bed looked like a twin. It was going to be a tight fit, and I hoped my feet wouldn't hang off the end of it.

I sighed. I'd never lived in a place as tacky-looking as this, not even when I'd first come to Manhattan.

On the other hand, until I got a job, I really had no choice. Apartments were scarce.

But I couldn't resist asking, "Does it come with a mouse trap?"

He gave a broad grin. "Ain't no mice in this buildin', somethin' I pride myself on." I heard scrabbling on the rug, and suddenly an orange tabby was in his arms. "This is Tigger. He an' the other cats handle that."

"Well, hello, Tigger." I rubbed my knuckles under his chin. "You're a fine fellow."

The cat slitted his eyes and purred, the sound like a rusty saw.

I was surprised Mr. Delvecchio had named the tom after a character in "Winnie the Pooh;" I didn't want to ask because that was none of my business.

However, he offered the information on his own. "I've always liked cats, and Tig was given to me by Christopher, my sister's boy, when his father gave me this job. He named him, too."

The cat jumped out of his arms and sauntered around the apartment, his tail whipping restlessly. Two more cats came in to join him, one chocolate brown and the other solid black.

"This is Archy an' Mehitabel. They're from Alonzo an' Grizabella's first litter."

"Unusual names."

"I like Don Marquis an' T.S. Eliot."

Yet he spoke as if he were uneducated. Interesting.

"So, whaddya think?"

As well as pots and dishes, I'd also need towels, a couple of new pillows, sheets. Definitely sheets. For some time before I'd left him, the ones on Randy's bed had started to feel scratchy against my skin, and it had been hard for me to get comfortable and sleep. Or do other things.

But the rent was affordable. And no one I knew from my years as a hustler ventured down to this part of Manhattan.

"What's included?"

"Utilities - gas, water, electric. You'll have to pay your own phone bill, though."

"I'll take it." I'd have taken it even if I'd had to pay my own utility bills.

"Good. I'm glad you will. I like your face. Now, the rent is due on the 1st of every month, sharp."

"Okay, Mr. Delvecchio."

"Call me Richie. I need first an' last month up front. I ain't askin' for a month's security, on accounta you got a honest face."

"Uh huh." I took out my money clip and peeled off the bills.

"Welcome to the buildin'." Richie folded the bills and tucked them into his back pocket. He hitched up his pants. His belly still hung over the waistband, and he frowned. "I gotta lose some weight," he muttered as he held out his hand, and we shook on it.

****

I decided the first thing I needed to buy were those sheets and pillows. And towels. I wasn't going to use the scratchy ones that were stacked under the bathroom sink. A brown bag filled with cleaning products completed my purchases at that time.

As for kitchen supplies - for the time being, I'd eat out.

It took a couple of days to get the place in shape. It shouldn't have taken that long, but the smell of ammonia and bleach really got to me, and I had to take a lot of breaks.

When the apartment was up to my standards, I bought a set of Farberware pots and flatware and Melamine dishes, and put together one of those dressers that required assembly.

Then I went shopping for clothes. I'd need some casual clothes to put in the dresser, and at least one business suit, tailored shirt, and tie. Behind my front door was a rod that would have to serve as my closet.

It took a while to find clothes that didn't irritate my skin, but once that was done, I turned my attention to finding a job.

Jack Pendergrast had told me, those last days in Peru, that if I decided to get out of the business, I should see a friend of his, Simon Banks.

I didn't want to use Jack's name, but I couldn't find anything, so I walked down 1st Avenue to East Houston Street, and I found Banks, a small, store-front security firm. There was a Help Wanted sign in the window.

The chimes over the door announced my entrance, and a woman at the lone desk looked up from her typewriter. She was a handsome redhead in her early thirties. "Yeah?"

"You've got a sign that says you're looking for help."

She studied me intently, then relaxed. "Well, you're over 21, mate." A hint of an Aussie accent. "And you look like you can take care of yourself. Hey, Simon! Haul ass outta there."

A man came from the rear of the store. His skin was the color of mahogany, and he was tall and lean, and I found myself thinking of Shakespeare's Cassius.

He rolled a cigar between his teeth and studied me as well.

"I'm Banks."

"I'm Ellison. I'm looking for a job."

"If you don't have at least a high school diploma, you're wasting my time."

"I've got one." The diploma from WTS might finally prove to be useful.

"I'll need to see it."

"I'll need to get it. It's in my safe deposit box."

"I like a man who knows how to take care of important papers." He chewed on his cigar. "All right, then. You also have to have some familiarity with security."

"No problem." Jack had taught me a lot of stuff.

"Megan, make an appointment for Mr. Ellison for... Is 2 this afternoon available?"

"I'll free it up, Boss." She made a notation in a book on her desk in green ink. "2 it is."

There were other names in the book, in other colors. I wondered if the colors stood for anything. I wondered if I'd have the chance to find out.

"Thank you, Mr. Banks. I'll be here."

We shook hands, I turned and headed for the door, and I heard him say, "He looks promising, Megan."

"I think you're right this time, Simon."

"Well, we'll see."

I looked over my shoulder at them, but Simon Banks was heading back to his office.

"Yes?" Megan raised her eyebrow.

"Uh... " I gave her a smile that felt strained. "See you later." Was I hearing things?

She nodded and returned to her typewriter, and I left.

I must have been hearing things. I'd noticed lately... I shook my head. No, that was bullshit.

A bus was idling at the corner, waiting for the light to change. I caught it just before the light turned green, and rode it up to 23rd Street. A branch of my bank was there, and I'd opened a safe deposit box there. It contained my diploma, the fake passport Jack had rigged for me, other papers, and the cash I didn't want to carry or keep in my apartment.

I retrieved my diploma and walked home, weighing the options of walking to Simon Banks' security firm or taking a cab.

If I walked, I'd arrive all sweaty - it was August in New York, and the humidity was sky-high.

One the other hand, if I took a cab, I'd arrive fresh.

That settled it. I'd take the cab.

It was about noon when I arrived at 852 East 14th. Outside the building was a hotdog vendor. I bought two dogs, no onions or chili though - I didn't want to knock my possible future boss on his ass from my breath - and a coke, and went up to my apartment to eat.

As I ate, I studied the diploma. It brought to mind too many unpleasant experiences at the military academy. I pushed it away and opened The Daily News that I'd bought earlier. Nothing seemed to be going on beyond the usual political hanky-panky, so I turned to the funnies to see what Dick Tracy and Brenda Starr were up to.

Once I finished my lunch, I washed my hands, laid out suit, shirt, black socks and tie on the bed, and called for a cab to pick me up at 1:45. Then I stripped off my short-sleeved shirt, trousers, and briefs.

I'd sweated through everything. These weren't called the dog-days of summer for nothing. I needed a shower.

As the water poured down my back, I soaped carefully, rubbing the lather over my chest, watching my nipples peek through. For the first time since months before I'd left Randy Beautiful, tingles of desire curved over my ass, through my groin, and into my cock, causing it to swell and thicken. I used teasing touches to heighten my passion.

My hand felt good on my cock. I began to work it with harder strokes while I pressed on the slit with my thumb and rubbed in lazy circles.

I liked what I was doing. I closed my eyes. In my mind I pictured the lover I was waiting for. He'd be my height, fair-haired, and have eyes that were a warmer blue than mine.

I leaned back against the cool tiles and braced a foot on the edge of the tub, and ran a fingertip over my hole, dipped in, fantasizing it was my lover's cock breaching my opening.

I curled my finger and rubbed it harder over my prostate, and groaned and bit my lip, and the spray of my semen joined the spray of the showerhead.

I eased my finger out of my hole and stayed slumped against the tiled wall, struggling to catch my breath and not drown myself at the same time. I relished the residual tingles until the water finally cooled.

I stepped out of the tub and dried off, and when I saw the time, I rushed to get dressed and ran down the stairs to my waiting cab.

The cab got me there in good time. I paid the driver and tipped him, and faced Banks.

I had my hand on the doorknob, about to pull it open, when someone pushed it open from the inside.

"Keep an eye out for me, Simon!" he yelled over his shoulder, and he walked right into me. "Oops, sorry." He patted my arm.

There was something about him that caught my attention.

Four or five inches shorter, his hair a mass of brown curls, streaked with red and gold. I couldn't see his eyes, though; he wasn't looking into my face. His attention was on something else, and he headed down the street at a brisk jog.

He was wearing a dark blue suit, and I stared after him until he disappeared down a subway entrance. I wished I could have seen his eyes. For some reason, I thought they might be blue, although considering the color of his hair, they were probably a similar shade of brown.

I wondered if he was as uncomfortable in his suit as I was in mine.

Oh, well. The odds were I'd never see him again. I rolled my shoulders, ran a hand over my hair to make sure it was in place, and drew in a deep, relaxing breath. I had to make sure there was no hint of how much I needed this job.

Megan looked up from her typewriter and gave a wolf whistle. "Oh, I do hope you get the job, mate." She grinned and jerked her thumb over her shoulder. "The boss is in his office. Back and to your left."

I nodded at her and followed her directions.

"Ah. Mr. Ellison." Simon Banks stood in the doorway. "Right on time. I like that in my people."

"Thank you, sir."

He grinned around the fat cigar between his teeth. "Come into my office."

It was a spacious office. Against one wall were filing cabinets and against another bookcases that contained books about security matters and police procedures.

"I used to be a cop," Mr. Banks told me when he saw what I was looking at.

"Yes, sir." I hoped he hadn't been Vice. I'd never been picked up by them, but a couple of my johns had been Vice.

"Take a seat."

I did. He went around his desk and sat in a large, comfortable-looking chair.

His desk was huge. The surface was covered by a pristine blotter. On the left was a multiple line telephone, and next to it was a thick address book and a large coffee cup with Banks' Boys printed around the diameter. It was filled with pens and pencils. Facing away from me were two picture frames. I assumed they held photos of his family.

"You wanted to see my diploma, I believe?" I took it out of its envelope and handed it to him across the desk.

He examined the embossed lettering at the top, decorative and ostentatious.

"William Tecumseh Sherman Military Academy? I knew someone who taught there." He ran his eyes over the information that had been written in calligraphy. "James Ellison? By any chance were you a... friend... of Jack Pendergrast?"

"Yes." I noticed the hesitation, and I worried my lip. He knew Jack?

Of course he knew Jack. Jack had told me as much. But what had Jack told him about me?

"Well, it's about time!"

"Excuse me?"

"Jack asked me to keep an eye out for you." He turned around one of the frames on his desk, and my breath caught in my throat.

Jack, a young Jack, in his Army fatigues, laughing into the camera. His arm was around the shoulders of a black soldier, and I recognized a youthful Simon Banks. There was a cigar in his mouth, and his dark eyes were crinkled with laughter.

"I didn't think you were going to turn up. It's been a lot of years since he contacted me about you."

I shrugged, relieved when he didn't press me for more about my relationship with Jack.

"I guess you wanted to try to make it on your own."

"Yes." If he wasn't aware of how I'd spent those years, I wasn't going to tell him.

"You should have come sooner. Jack vouched for you, and I think you'll do very well. You'll need a license so you'll be able to carry a gun. A class starts up next week. In the meantime, I need someone to keep this office in shape while my boys are out on the job. Megan answers the phones, sets up assignments. Until the class starts, you'll vacuum the carpets, see the coffee is always fresh, dust, do whatever needs to be done. Do you have a problem with that?"

"No problem, sir."

"Call me Simon. We're one happy family here."

"No problem, Simon.

"Then I guess you've got the job."

"Thank you. Do you want me to get to work now?"

"No, you're dressed too fine. Besides, there's a shit-load of paperwork you need to fill out." He took out a sheaf of papers and plucked a pen from the coffee cup. "I'll show you the break room. You'll be more comfortable doing this in there."

The door to the break room was across the hall and a little further toward the front of the building. I'd passed it on my way to Simon's office, giving it just a cursory glace.

It was a good-sized room. There was a small couch and a few easy chairs at one end, with magazines scattered across them. At the other end was a sink with a couple of coffee cups in it, a refrigerator that was slightly larger than the one I had at home, and a table with more cups on it and chairs around it. On the counter beside the sink was a hot plate with a single element, and a percolator. I wrinkled my nose at the smell of the slightly scorched coffee.

"Have a seat." Simon didn't seem to notice the smell. "Bring these back to me when you're done, and I'll show you around."

"Yes, sir. Simon," I corrected myself. "Thank you. You won't be sorry you hired me, I promise you."

"I have no doubt." He patted my arm and left me there. Was this 'Pat Jim Ellison's arm day' today? Did I look like I needed reassurance?

I turned off the hot plate, dumped the grounds into a waste basket and the remains of the coffee into the sink, washed out the pot, then found the can of Chock Full o' Nuts and spooned enough into the basket to make a full pot.

When I had the pot back on the hot plate, I sat down at the table and began to read over the papers. I'd need to do a little tap-dancing to explain the years between the time I'd spent with Jack and now, but I had no doubt I would be successful.

Simon had told me how much I'd be making once I starting working in the field. It wasn't a patch on what I could have made in a night on my hands and knees, but I wasn't doing that any more.

I clicked the pen and started to fill out the papers.

****

A few weeks after I'd moved in, I ran into another tenant. He was in the lobby, hovering by the mailboxes when I went to check my mail.

"Hello." His voice was tentative. He had to be in his early twenties, slim, and with soft blond hair. "I'm new here."

"Hello, New Here. I'm Jim Ellison."

His grays eyes lit up, and he laughed. "I'm Albert Malloy. I'm in apartment 2E."

"I'm in 3E."

"Oh! You're right over me!"

"Yeah, I guess I am." I shut the box and turned the key.

"You didn't get any mail?"

"No." I'd called Steven to let him have my new address, but there was nothing from him - from home.

"Me neither," he sighed. "I'm... I just moved from Boston. I was hoping... " He sighed more deeply. "I guess it was stupid to think they'd write me this soon."

"Your family?"

Albert nodded, looking unhappy, then brightened. "Maybe the mail went to the Y. I was there before I found this apartment, you know. I'll bet it got hung up there!"

I doubted it. He was a babe in the woods, but I wasn't going to tell him and burst his bubble.

"Sure," I said. A scent tickled my nose, and it twitched. Where had I smelled that before? I sniffed discreetly. No aftershave or cologne, but there was definitely the scent of another man on him. "Come on." We walked into the hallway and toward the staircase that led to the upper floors. "Would you like to keep me company over dinner?"

A door at the end of the hallway opened, and the superintendent poked his head out.

"Albie! Hi!"

The kid's face lit up. "Hi, Mr. D."

"What did I tell you?" the super growled playfully.

"Richie," he acknowledged with a shy smile.

"That's right. Hey, I made a pot of spaghetti sauce. You're too skinny. How 'bout I feed you?"

"Oh! I'd really like to, but... " Albie looked at me uncertainly.

"You too, Jim." But I could see I was just an afterthought.

"Nah, that's okay." I shrugged. "I've got to study."

"You really don't mind, Mr. Ellison?"

Jesus, he made me feel old. "Call me Jim. And no, I really don't mind."

"Okay, then. I'd love to join you, Mr... Richie."

"Good, good. You sure, Jim?"

"Yeah. Thanks." I felt something brush against my legs and looked down. "Hi, Tigger." I stooped to rub the spot under his chin.

"See ya, Jim."

"Bye, Jim."

"Bye."

They disappeared into his apartment, and I could hear behind the closed door, "You really gotta eat more, Albie. Not that you wanna wind up fat like me."

"I don't think you're fat, Richie. I like the way you look."

I straightened, shook my head, and trotted up the stairs.

Jack's teachings came in handy. I shot better than the instructor, and I held my own against the small man who taught martial arts. When I completed the course, Simon found a place for me to work in a bank.

"Once you have some experience under your belt, I'll let you play in the big leagues."

"Okay, Simon." I took a dark gray uniform from the rack in the corner of the locker room, changed, and put my street clothes into a locker. I stashed my gun in a briefcase that would hold it until I got to the bank.

Usually I stood just outside the gate that divided the vault with its cash and safety deposit boxes from the rest of the bank, or sometimes to the side of the revolving door at the front of the building, depending on where they wanted me.

Once I even got to stand guard with my hand on the butt of my gun while an armored truck delivered sacks of cash for the payroll of a business that rented four floors of the Empire State Building.

It wasn't a bad job. The pay was okay, and my life was on track.

But jesus, I missed having someone in my bed.

The more so as I realized the scent I'd picked up on Albie had been Richie's, and they were becoming a pair.

****

It was Friday evening. Instead of going clubbing, as I'd done when I'd lived the wild life, I was going out to get my grocery shopping done for the following week. Thursdays and Fridays were the only days grocery stores were open late.

I locked my door and turned to see Richie tacking up some plastic sheets over the front window.

"What are you doing, Richie?"

"Winter's gonna be a bitch this year. Gotta protect the plants."

"That makes sense." I blinked. "You look good, Richie. Have you lost some weight?"

"Yeah." He preened. "I can't expect to keep a cutie like Albie interested if I look like a schlub."

It hadn't been difficult for me to learn that most of the time, when Albie wasn't at work, he was with Richie, cooking, learning to deal with the brute of a furnace in the cellar, or even just sitting around on the sofa watching movies on Picture for a Sunday Afternoon.

"He's an assistant curator at the Museum of Modern Art, y'know."

I did know. Richie had told me a number of times. I grinned at him. "Where is he now?"

"He went down to Rossetti's deli to see if Mrs. Rossetti has some homemade pasta. I made a nice marinara sauce. It's Friday, y' know."

"Uh... "

"No meat," he explained.

"Yeah. That's right. Well, I've gotta go. I'll see you later, Richie."

"You bet."

It was about 8 that evening when I got home.

Albie was sitting on the stairs leading to the upper floors. His elbows were balanced on his knees, and his chin was in his hands.

"Hi, Kid. How was dinner?" I was stunned when he looked up at me, and I saw the tears in his eyes. "What's wrong? Did something happen to Richie?" I pictured pots tipping over and hot sauce or boiling water and pasta spilling all over him and leaving him with third degree burns.

"No." He pulled a handkerchief out of his pocket and blew his nose. "Richie's fine."

I set down the grocery bags and sat beside him. "What's bothering you, then?"

"Richie's at confession."

"Oh. Well, y'know, Catholics are funny about things like that."

He looked at me as if I were nuts. "I'm Catholic."

"I'm sorry, Albie, I'm not following you."

"I can't go to confession. I can't go to Mass, and I can't receive communion."

"Now I'm really not following you."

"I'm a fag!" He gave me a scared look. "I shouldn't have said that. Are you going to punch me?"

"Why would I?"

"Because I'm queer."

"Albie, I've got eyes in my head. I could see you and Richie were together. So you're homosexual. So what?"

"My family doesn't approve. The ... the Church doesn't approve... " He jammed the heel of his hand into his mouth, but I could hear the sob anyway.

"It means that much to you?"

"Of course it does! I was raised Catholic. I was baptized, made my first holy communion, and was confirmed at St. Therese of the Little Flower. That was where I went to school. And when I graduated there, I went to St. Joseph the Carpenter High School."

"And then you went to Notre Dame?" I was hoping he'd laugh.

Instead, he buried his head in his hands. "I'm going to hell."

"I thought Jesus was a loving god."

His head shot up, and he glared at me. "He is!"

"Then why would he have any objection to who you loved?" I could never understand why god would care one way or another about who his followers loved.

"It's an ecumenical thing." Albie scowled at me.

"Okay. But... Richie is Catholic too, isn't he?"

He nodded glumly. "Yes. He's Italian, you know."

"I really don't get it, Albie."

"Richie loving me and ignoring the Church's rulings? He was in the Korean War. He said, 'If god ain't got no beef with me shootin' gooks, then he shouldn't a oughta gotta problem with me lovin' another guy.' But I wasn't in the army, and... " Tears trickled down his cheeks again. "I want to go to mass. I want to receive communion. I don't want to go to hell."

Just then I heard the outer door open, and I recognized Richie's footsteps. I took the handkerchief from Albie's hand and dried his face. "Richie's home."

"How do you know... I don't want him to see me like this, like a crybaby. Please don't tell him!"

He took his handkerchief back and bolted up the stairs. I picked up my bags of groceries.

The lobby door opened, and Richie walked in, blowing on his fingers.

"Hey! Hi, Jim! Boy, I wanna tell you, the father was brutal. He gave me twelve Hail Mary's, twelve Our Father's, and twelve Glory Be's."

I didn't say anything.

"I went to confession."

"Yeah. The kid said something about that."

He saw my expression and scowled at me. "You think my feelin's for Albie are somethin' I have to confess? I tell the father what he wants to hear - I drink, I swear, I chase tail. I just don't tell him whose tail I chase. I wish I could talk Albie into playin' the game."

So did I. "Well, I've got to put this stuff away. It's cold outside, but it's warm enough in here to melt my ice cream."

"Yeah, okay. I'll see ya."

I climbed up the stairs. On the second floor landing I paused and looked down the corridor to Albie's apartment. The door was closed, but I could have sworn I heard crying.

One of Richie's cats, a calico with a stub of a tail, sauntered to the stairs and went down.

Of course. The sound must have been Rumpleteazer.

I went up to my apartment to put my groceries away.

****

I didn't expect anything from my family for Christmas, which was just as well, because I didn't get anything, not even a freaking card.

But Albie was still living with the hope that his family would get in touch with him, especially at this time of the year.

They didn't.

****

"Ellison."

"Yes, sir?" I'd come in to pick up a clean uniform and my paycheck.

"I need you to take Rafe's evening shifts at Macy's, starting tonight."

"Sure thing, Simon."

Brian Rafe, one of Simon's senior men, had asked to take some time off when a complication in his wife's pregnancy had threatened her life.

Mrs. Rafe and the baby were doing well now. We'd all been up to the hospital to visit them, and had chipped in to buy a crib for the new addition to the Rafe family.

"Renee and the baby should be discharged a couple of days after Christmas if all continues to go well. Her mother will fly out to help them out, and Rafe should be back at work then."

"All right."

"I'm sorry if this interferes with any plans you have, and I'm even more sorry you'll have to work the day-after-Christmas shift." His teeth clamped down on his cigar. "The store will be a madhouse."

"I can handle it, Simon." I'd been in stores the day after Christmas, when everyone was desperate to return gifts they hadn't really wanted, and that could be downright scary, but I didn't want my boss to think I couldn't do it.

"I knew I could count on you. Someone Jack vouched for... " He nodded and handed me my pay envelope.

So I pulled two shifts a day during the week and an additional one at Macy's on Saturday, and I tucked away the extra money in my paycheck in my safe deposit box.

Well, I had no one to spend it on.

Macy's stayed open late on Christmas Eve, taking advantage of the people who seemed to be comfortable waiting for the last minute to get their shopping done.

I caught a bus and looked through the windows as snow began falling. We were going to have a white Christmas.

The bus stop was a couple of blocks away from the brownstone where I lived, but the bus driver was feeling the joy of the season, and he let me off right in front of 852.

"Thanks," I said. "Merry Christmas."

The entire bus called back, "Merry Christmas!" New York could be a tough city, but it was a marshmallow during the holidays.

The warmth of the season, the warmth in the lobby, it felt good. I decided I'd stop by Richie's apartment and wish him a Merry Christmas. And Albie too. I had a strong feeling he would be there.

I was right.

"Merry Christmas, Jim." Albie offered me a smile, but I could see the tiny tremors that ran through him.

"Merry Christmas."

"We were just going to have a cup of coffee. Would you like a cup?"

"Sure, Albie. Thanks."

He went into the kitchen. His stride was less than jaunty, and his shoulders were slumped.

Richie was looking after him.

"How is Albie handling it?"

"Handlin' which? No word from his family on Christmas or not bein' welcome in his own church?" He sighed and shook his head. "I dunno, Jim. He says he's okay. I don't think so. Bastard family. How could they do that to him? Well, fuck 'em, that's their loss. Tomorrow Albie an' me're spendin' Christmas with my sister an' her family, out on Long Island."

"Do they know about you?"

"They know that Albie's my friend. I told my sister that his family was gonna be in Switzerland skiin', an' he couldn't go. Florie and Pat and Christopher have already met Albie, an' they like him. An' y'know something, Jim? My brother-in-law may be a pain-in-the-ass, but he treats that boy of his like he was made outta gold. That's how Albie shoulda been treated."

"That's the truth." I looked at my watch. "You're going to be late for Midnight Mass."

"I ain't goin'. Poor kid. He needs to know that he means more to me than the church." He was quiet for a few minutes, then, "I'm gonna take him to Times Square on New Year's Eve. We'll ring in the New Year there, then go to the Cafe Carlyle for a champagne toast. Bobby Short's gonna be playin' there." He touched my arm. "Jim, you wanna come with us?"

"I don't want to be a crowd, Richie."

"You won't be, Jim." He looked over his shoulder. Albie was still fussing in the kitchen, taking a tin of cookies from the cabinet, putting milk in the creamer, getting the sugar bowl, pouring the coffee. "You know what this town can be like."

"Yeah." The Stonewall Inn had been raided again just the week before. At least the raid had been early enough in the evening so the Inn could re-open again in time for the midnight-and-later crowd, when things started hopping. "All right, Richie. I don't have anything planned, and I'd like to see the ball drop with you two," I didn't tell him that I'd usually spent New Year's Eve in a hotel suite, being paid for my time, "but I'll leave you and Albie to have that drink by yourselves."

"Jim, I wanna thank you. Ain't many straight guys in this town who'd accept me an' Albie an' not get ugly about it."

Richie thought I was straight? Before I could correct his notion, Albie came out of the kitchen carrying a tray with three cups, sugar and milk, and a plate with pinnoli cookies.

"Albie made 'em."

The kid blushed. "From your sister's recipe."

"Florie gave that to you?" Richie raised an eyebrow. "That was Mama's recipe, an' it ain't never left the family." He grinned and turned on the TV to channel 11.

We settled on the sofa and watched the Yule log burn. Albie fell asleep with his head on Richie's shoulder, Richie looked down at the fair head with an expression that caused my heart to clutch. A look like that had never been directed at me, not by Randy Beautiful, not even by Jack.

Richie took the empty coffee cup from lax fingers, eased the kid's head onto the sofa back, and rose. "I'll just get this cleaned up. No need for Albie to have to do it when he wakes up."

"I'd better be going, Richie." I followed him into the kitchen and put my cup into the sink. "Thanks for the cookies and coffee."

"Thanks for coming by, Jim." He put his hand on my shoulder, then walked with me to his front door. "Merry Christmas."

"Merry Christmas, Richie. Tell Albie I said, 'Merry Christmas.'"

"I will. Goodnight, Jim." He closed the door.

As I walked down the corridor to the stairs, I could hear the snick of the lock, and I shook my head. Richie really needed to see about oiling that lock.

****

By the time New Year's Eve rolled around, Rafe was back working his shift at Macy's, and I was back to the single shift at the bank. The snow had melted, which was a good thing, because the temperature was dropping into the single digits. We dressed warm and went up to Times Square, and we watched the ball come down, just three guys celebrating the holiday stag.

Even after the ball had gone down, Times Square was mobbed. There were so many people.

I caught the hint of a scent, and my nose twitched, and my cock got hard. I had no trouble recognizing it - the man leaving Banks the day I'd been hired by Simon. Megan had looked interested when I'd asked her about him, but she wouldn't tell me his name. 'Simon does some work for him from time to time. All I can tell you is that he's a Jewish cop in a city where every other cop is Irish.'

"Jim." Richie's hand was on my arm. "I'm takin' Albie for that drink. You really don't mind?"

"No - no, that's fine." I had a feeling if I went east, I'd find my mystery man. "Have a good time. Happy New Year."

"Happy New Year, Jim." They walked toward an uptown subway entrance.

I looked around, hoping I would see the possessor of that tantalizing scent, but with no luck. He was gone.

There was no reason for me to stay. I headed for the downtown subway and lucked out. A #6 was just pulling up to the platform. The car I entered was crowded. These people were probably going on to another party or maybe to a lover's pad. They'd be out until the early morning hours.

I stepped to the center of the car and grasped an overhead strap. The doors slid shut, and as the train rolled into motion, I lost myself in the sound of the car clattering over the rails and rocking from side to side.

A jab in the ribs brought me back to the present with a jolt.

"Well, well. If it isn't Jim Ellison." Randy Beautiful, and he'd had more than a bit too much to drink.

"Hello, Randy. Happy New Year." Treating a client politely was force of habit.

"I never thought I'd see you riding a subway."

"I could say the same."

"Hi, Jim!"

"Jeff! Happy New Year!" We embraced, pounding each other on the back.

"The same to you, you old horse!" Jeff was my height and weight. His hair was a little darker than mine and about the length mine used to be when I was in the business. His eyes were the same cool blue. We'd worked together a few times, passing ourselves off as brothers. Some clients liked that.

"Shut up, Jeff! I paid for you!" Randy was almost foaming at the mouth. "Don't you fucking say a word to this... this..."

"Problem, gentlemen?" A Transit cop, his winter jacket opened, and his gun visible, approached us.

Randy ignored him and curled his lip at me. "So who're you screwing now, whore?"

Jeff's eyes widened, but he kept his mouth shut. I understood. As Randy had said, he'd paid for him.

"Listen, sir. This is the first day of the new year. There's no need to be unpleasant about it."

"Piss off, pig." Randy made the mistake of trying to shove the cop. He lost his balance and hit the floor of the subway car.

Jeff gazed at Randy pensively. He looked at the floor of the subway car, looked at his designer trousers, and his expression seemed to say, 'Not in this lifetime am I kneeling on that.'

The cop shook his head. "He giving you a hard time, sir?" He reached down and helped Randy get back to his feet, brushing the back of his psychedelic jacket.

"Why are you asking him that? He's trash!" Randy sneered at me drunkenly.

The cop looked at me, at the black wool coat I was wearing and the white silk scarf around my neck.

He looked at Randy, dressed in tie-died bell-bottoms in scarlet, chartreuse, and magenta, with the matching jacket and a hat that slanted across his forehead at an odd angle.

"Yeah, I can see that." His words were dry.

Randy turned his sneer on the cop. "You're trash!"

"No need to get nasty, sir." The train pulled into a station, and the doors slid open. "You'd better go home and sleep it off."

Randy sneered some more, straightened his shoulders, and strode out of the subway car, only to stumble as he took his first step onto the platform. Jeff tried to loop his arm in Randy's and steady him, but he was brushed away.

"Idiot!" Randy stalked off, his gait as controlled as a drunk's could be. Jeff met my eyes, shrugged, and followed him. A hustler's life could be rough.

"Thanks, Officer."

"You're welcome. There are a lot of tourists in New York for the New Year. We can't let people like him go around giving this city a bad name. Happy New Year."

"Uh... Happy New Year."

****

I went down to Banks to pick up my bonus check.

Because of the very favorable report he had received from Macy's, and because New Year's Eve fell early in the week, Simon had given me that whole week off.

"You're almost ready for the big leagues, Jim!" There was pleasure in his voice, and he handed me an envelope that contained my bonus check. "Good work."

"Thanks, Simon." I hadn't had much free time - hadn't really wanted it - since I'd started working for him in August; I wasn't sure what I was going to do with myself.

As if I'd spoken the words aloud, he suggested, "You can go for a carriage ride around Central Park, Jim. Take your best gal. Or your best pal." He grinned around his fat cigar.

"Thanks for the advice, Simon." I shook his hand and left.

There was no point in telling him that neither was likely to happen. Aside from cruising the Baths once when I'd been desperate to hold a warm body, there had only been me and my hand.

For a minute, as I waited to board the bus that would take me to my bank on 23rd Street, I thought wistfully of Simon's detective.

Then I sighed and got on the bus. I'd cash the check, stash the bills in my safety box, and maybe go to the movies.

The movie house in SoHo was showing a couple of Sidney Poitier films: In the Heat of the Night and Guess Who's Coming to Dinner.

It might not be a carriage ride with my best pal, but it would be something to do.

It was the first week in March. As I left my apartment to go to work, I was surprised to see Albie by the front window, watering the flowers. His face lit up when he saw me.

"Jim! Hello! I'm so glad to see you!" He put down his watering can and came toward me, almost bouncing.

"Shouldn't you be at work?"

"I'm taking the day off. Richie isn't feeling well. He caught a cold."

"So you're taking care of him?"

"Yes. He's a wonderful man, Jim."

"You both are." I smiled at him and started down the stairs. I was glad they were happy together.

"Just one second, Jim?"

I paused. "Yeah?"

"Richie told me you work for a security firm."

"Yes, Banks."

"The Museum is having a Salvador Dali exhibition."

"That's... uh... that's nice."

"The thing is, we need additional guards for the afternoon, evening, and weekend shifts. Would you be interested?"

"You'll have to clear it with my boss, Simon Banks." I gave him a business card with the phone number on it.

"Thanks, Jim."

"Tell Richie I hope he feels better."

He gave me a vivid smile and went back to watering the plants, and I went to work.

That evening, Simon called me. "Thanks for the referral, Jim. I've taken on the job. There's a spot on the weekend shift open, Sunday from 10:30 to 5:30. It's only until the beginning of April. Do you want it?"

"Sure." It would keep me busy. I took whatever Simon could give me.

"Good. I'll fill you in when I see you on payday."

****

My uniform was gray, my gun was discreetly tucked away, and I would walk through the exhibit, trying to blend in with the surroundings.

No good deed goes unpunished. Who should come in about an hour before the Museum was scheduled to close my first Sunday there, but Randy Beautiful.

"Well, well, well. Isn't it a small world?"

"Hello, Randy." The odor of alcohol on his breath was so strong I couldn't prevent myself from flinching.

"Wassa... " He cleared his throat. "What's the matter?"

"Isn't it a little early to have started drinking?"

"It has to be 8 o'clock somewhere in the world. 'Sides, I only had one little one."

"Randy!" Tugging his sleeve was a young man who had to be his latest lover. His looks were enough to make a thinking man catch his breath.

I guessed I wasn't a thinking man.

"Shut up, Chris. You're just supposed to stand beside me and look pretty." Randy slanted a glance at me. "And be good in bed."

Chris stiffened, then turned to me. "Can you tell me where the men's room is?"

"Of course. Go to the end of this corridor," I pointed, "and turn left."

"Thank you." He walked away, brisk, and... angry?

"Always thought you were god's gift, didn't you?" Randy sniped. "Who'd've thought you of all people would wind up with an honest job?"

"What I did was honest, Randy. I gave you your money's worth."

"Until you walked out on me."

"I couldn't be what you wanted, Randy. I'm sorry about that."

For a brief moment I saw regret in his eyes, then he turned and leered at the retreating form. "He's better than you ever were!"

"How fortunate for you."

"The only good thing you ever did was hire Maria Hernandez."

"Maria is still with you?" When I'd first moved in with him, he had just fired the last in a very long line of cleaning women. I'd offered to find someone. She told me she was from Puerto Rico, and I accepted that, even though I recognized her accent as Mexican.

"She won't leave. She knows if she ever tried to, I'd turn her in to INS. She's a wetback."

How had he found out about that? I though I'd covered Maria's tracks. My expression must have given me away.

"I have friends in the right places, Jimbo." Randy smirked. "I think I'll just go and make sure Chris doesn't get lost." He swaggered away.

I stared after him, wondering if I should be concerned. I could see him getting a little tight during the holidays, but on a March Sunday... that didn't make any sense.

The head of the Museum's own security came over. "Trouble, Jim?"

Randy wasn't my concern any longer, but we had been lovers once. Maybe I owed him at least something for that time.

"Would you mind if I checked up on them? The gentleman seems a little under the weather."

"Is that what they call being bombed these days? Go ahead, Jim. The museum will be closing soon, and it's starting to empty out. I think we can handle the crowd," he looked around at the almost empty space, "until you get back."

"Thanks, Mike."

When I got to the men's room, I found the door locked. I could hear low grunts and moans, and I rattled the knob and knocked on the door.

"It's in use."

"There's more than one stall, Randy."

"Jim! Fuck, I'm not done! Just a second!" There were more grunts, a satisfied moan, and then rustling sounds. Finally the door swung open, and Randy stood there, his dick tucked away, but his trousers undone.

"I'm sorry. Fire rules." I walked toward him, forcing him to step back. "This door must be kept unlocked at all times. Zip your pants, Randy. I could haul you in for indecent exposure. Are you all right?" I asked his companion.

"Yes. I'm fine." He didn't look fine. His mouth was swollen, and white liquid - I knew it was semen - spotted his tie and jacket. His eyes had a strange look in them, almost... He blinked, and it was gone. He went to a sink, washed his hands, then patted his mouth with the dampened paper towel. "Randy?"

"Yes, sweetheart. Let's go. Goodbye, Jim."

They walked out, and I was relieved to see the back of my former lover. I had no idea that would be the last time I would ever see him.

****

According to the calendar, spring was only a matter of days away, but that was hard to believe. Sleet was spitting on the streets in sheets.

I was getting dressed for work when someone started pounding on my door so hard I thought it was going to rattle off its hinges. I hadn't put my shoes on yet, and I skidded across the floor as I ran to open it.

Richie was standing there, dancing from foot to foot, looking frazzled and at his wits' end.

"Jesus, Richie. What's wrong?"

"It's Albie!"

"What's the matter with him?"

"He caught a cold!"

"Uh... Richie? There's been a lot of that going around. We've had nothing but crummy weather since the day after New Year's. Everyone's had a cold or the flu."

"Albie caught my cold. He's miserable! He came home early from the Museum yesterday an' didn't even tell me!"

"Didn't you think it was strange that he didn't come down to your place?"

"I didn't wanna crowd him. Sometimes he likes to be by himself."

"So how did you find out he was sick?"

"We usually have breakfast together, y'know? an' this mornin' when he don't show up, I go up to his apartment. I had to let myself in with my master key. I ain't seen him since yesterday mornin'. 'Hey. Albie,' I yell. 'Are you mad at me or somethin'?' 'No. I'm fine. Go 'way,' he says from the bedroom. And then I hear him start coughin' like he's gonna puke up a lung. So in I go, an' there he is, layin' in bed. Sick as a dog, I tell ya!"

"Are you okay, Richie?" It hadn't been that long since he'd been sick.

"Yeah, I'm fine. But I can't leave him. Jim, would you mind goin' grocery shoppin' for us? Aw fuck, you got work! Never mind, I can call... I'll call... "

There really wasn't anyone else in the building he could call. Except for Albie and me, the rest of the tenants were on the shady side of 60, and the cold made their bones ache miserably. And if they sat with Albie while Richie did the shopping, most likely they'd get sick.

"It's okay, Richie. I'll call the bank and tell them I'll be late. Give me your list."

"You're a good man, Jim. Gimme a couple a minutes to write it up, okay?"

"Go ahead. I'll make that call and be right down."

"Thanks, Jim." He went down the stairs, muttering, "Chicken soup. I need a nice, plump chicken. Tea. Honey. Vapo-Rub." His voice faded.

I dialed the bank's number. "It's Jim Ellison. I have to help out a friend, so I'll be a little late."

"Sure thing, Jim. Pat can hold the fort until you get here."

"Thanks. I'll be in as soon as I can." I hung up and got myself together. Shoes on and laced up. Gun in its holster at my hip. Coat over my arm.

All set. I trotted down to the first floor and paused at the lobby door. Richie probably hadn't had time to check if the newspaper had been delivered.

I opened the door.

The Daily News was lying on the radiator in the lobby. Richie always gave the paperboy a good tip, and the kid always saw to it that in bad weather, like today, the paper was inside and dry.

I picked it up and carried it to Richie's apartment.

Albie was lying on the sofa, his head propped on a bunch of pillows and an afghan Richie's sister had crocheted tucked around his legs. A TV tray holding a box of tissues and a glass of orange juice was next to him.

"How are you feeling, Albie?"

"Awful!" he moaned, his voice hoarse. "I'm dying!"

"I ain't gonna let you!" Richie yelled from the kitchen. "I'm gonna make you some of my gramma's chicken soup, and you're gonna be tiptop before you know it."

"No, I won't." Albie blew his nose noisily. He saw the newspaper I held. "What's happening in the world outside, Jim? Richie won't let me watch television. He's getting even with me. I wouldn't let him watch As the World Turns."

"I heard that!" Richie yelled "An' I ain't tryin' to get even!"

I laughed softly. "It's the same old thing, Albie. You know - murder, mayhem. And I'm not just talking about the city."

As I'd hoped, that made him laugh. I tossed my coat over the back of the sofa and thumbed through the pages, reading the items I thought he'd find interesting.

A small article on page 7 caught my eye.

"Oh, fuck!" I stared at it in shock.

"Jim? Richie, get in here!"

"What's wrong?" Richie came running in.

"Jim swore!" Albie sneezed and fumbled for a tissue.

"What happened?"

"Someone I knew was killed, strangled."

"Oh, my god!"

"Yeah. I ran into him at the Museum on Sunday!" I bunched up the paper and tossed it to the end of the couch. "The article said he was found in his penthouse apartment by Marc, who... uh... lives on that floor."

Albie had reached down for the paper and was scanning the article. "Jim, it just says 'another tenant on that floor.' You know his neighbor's name?"

"It's a small world." I didn't want to tell him I'd lived with Randy and I'd gotten to know Marc at a party I had thrown for Randy's birthday. "Anyway, Marc called the police. The detective on the case said it was well-planned, well-executed. Jesus, whoever did this is going to think he's being complimented!"

"I'm sure it wasn't meant that way, Jim."

"So am I, Albie. But will someone nutty enough to strangle a stranger believe that?" I went still. Randy was paranoid about letting strangers into his place. He'd had a fit when he'd come home and found Marc in the kitchen swapping recipes with me.

"It's a crazy world." Richie shook his head. "Listen, Jim, forget about the grocery shoppin'. I'll call Mrs. Rossetti, an' her boy can run some groceries up here when he gets home from school. You go see about your friend."

Randy wasn't a friend. He was just someone I'd slept with for a time. "The article in the newspaper says he... his body hasn't been released yet. Let me have the list. Albie should have that chicken soup. I'll get the shopping done and find out where he'll be laid out when I get back."

"I understand, Jim. You need to keep busy." Albie looked tired but intent. "Richie?"

"Okay, my little cannoli." Richie caressed Albie's hair and received a smile that was a little soggy but otherwise incandescent. He returned it in spades, went into the kitchen, and came back with the list.

"Thanks, Richie." I grabbed it and my coat, and headed out the door. I'd call Simon later and see if I could have the day off. If I couldn't... I shrugged. Then I couldn't.

****

The wake was being held the next evening, and only that evening. The soft-voiced man on the other end of the line told me Randy's parents were having his body flown home to Maryland on Thursday morning. They'd probably have the viewing there for a couple of days, and on Saturday, he'd be buried in the family plot.

I didn't want to go to the wake, but I felt I had to. After all, I'd had Randy's dick in my ass and my mouth. The least I could do was go to pay my last respects.

It was raining. Again. Anyone would have thought it was April instead of March.

The front door of Canis and Sons Funeral Home was protected by a canopy. Once I was under it, I shook off my umbrella and closed it, entered the building, and put it into a stand.

A sad-faced man in a somber black suit sat at the desk just inside the door, and he rose to greet me.

"Good evening, sir. I'm August Canis, Jr. Who are you here to see?"

I told him.

"Ah, yes. So sad. The guest book is right here." I picked up the pen and signed it. "If you will come this way?" He led me down a long corridor to a room on the left and opened the door. "Such a popular young man. We had to elongate the room to accommodate all his friends. My condolences."

"Thank you."

He nodded and returned to his desk.

The room set aside for Randy was crowded with men. I recognized most of them. Some had been clients, some had been colleagues. They came to shake my hand, touch my arm, say a few words.

Two black men, one very tall and the other shorter and a little stocky, didn't stroll so much as stalk around the room, while they tried to appear inconspicuous. They were definitely not gay.

There were a few women too. They stayed close to men who were conservatively dressed. I assumed they represented the brokerage firm Randy worked for.

I turned my attention to the front of the room where the mahogany coffin with its champagne velvet interior held pride of place.

A blanket of white roses covered the closed end of the casket and draped over the bier. I could see the broad swath of ribbon that read: Beloved Son.

Banked around the casket and lining the walls were baskets, sprays, wreaths, and hearts - roses, orchids, other exotic blooms.

My contribution was a bronze vase filled with early spring flowers.

I started to walk toward the casket.

"Jim!"

"Jeff!" We hugged.

"It's been a while."

"Yeah. How are you?"

"I'm good, thanks. And you?"

"I'm good."

"I can't believe that Randy... He called me a couple of times after you left. New Year's Eve was the last time." His mouth twisted. "He called me 'Jim'. Not that I minded. You're not an easy act to follow."

"Thanks. I'm surprised, though. He was acting cool to me toward the end."

"You think Richard was behind that?"

Richard Lee was a close friend of Randy's. He had wanted to share me, and Randy would have let him, but I'd put my foot down. Richard had a reputation among my colleagues, and it wasn't a good one.

"Yeah. Richard always was a dick."

Jeff bit back a laugh. "Yeah." He glanced toward the mahogany casket. "We weren't sure if you'd be here tonight."

"I'd be here. Professional courtesy."

"Who are they?" He gestured discreetly toward the women and men glancing from Randy to the other men scattered around the room.

"His colleagues from work, I would think. From the looks of it, we're a surprise to them."

"I think you're right. I wonder how this will go over on Wall Street tomorrow?"

"Not our worry." A very good-looking man walked into the room and looked around. His face lit up when he saw Jeff. "A... friend?"

"A good friend. I've got to go. I'll just say a final prayer."

I walked with him to the casket. He bowed his head, and I assumed he was praying. I just stared at the body of the man who had once been my lover.

He was dressed in his favorite tuxedo, and he looked serene, an expression I'd never seen on him before. An excellent job had been done on his face, although I could see layers of cover-up the mortician had probably needed to conceal the bruising from the fingers that had dug into Randy's throat.

Abruptly I was overwhelmed by the odor of the room - cologne, deodorant, fresh flowers, and the furnace in the basement that warmed the air. Underlying it all was the smell of formaldehyde, and I couldn't stand it. I couldn't...

A hand on my arm brought me back to the present.

"Are you okay, Jim?" Jeff asked.

I was mortified. "I'm fine," I said gruffly, brushing the hand away. I thought I heard a sigh.

"Are you sure you're okay?"

"Yes."

"If you're sure." He touched my shoulder, and I realized it hadn't been his hand on my arm. "I have to go, Jim. It was good seeing you again."

"You, too." I took a quick glance around, but there was no one close to me. "Take care of yourself, Jeff."

We shook hands, and he joined his friend. They went around the room, speaking with other men and shaking hands, and then left.

I looked around once more, hoping I'd be able to spot the man who'd brought me out of the daze, but with no luck.

You've stayed long enough, Ellison. I started toward the door.

"Going somewhere, leather boy?" It was Richard Lee.

"I'm going home."

"You've got some nerve. You walk out on him, then show up at his funeral?"

"What was between Randy and me was between Randy and me." I hadn't had much choice. Randy had left me long before I'd walked out that door.

On occasion I'd seen the way he'd looked at Randy, as if he wanted to possess him. I wondered if Richard had been the reason for Randy becoming so distant.

"This is your fault, do you realize that, Ellison?" Richard ignored what I had said. "If you had been with him, this wouldn't have happened."

"What? What the fuck are you talking about?"

"He would not have opened his door to whoever it was who killed him! If you had stayed with him..."

"Why the fuck didn't you stay with him? Listen, the last time I saw him was Sunday, when he came to the Museum of Modern Art. He was with someone named... " It took me a second to dredge up the name. "... Chris."

"Chris was with Randy? That means that Chris was probably the last person to see him alive! Except for his killer."

"Why didn't you tell me this, Mr. Lee?"

I recognized that voice, and with him standing close enough that the odors in the room didn't overwhelm it, I recognized his scent.

Standing there with his hands in his trouser pockets was Simon's detective.

He grinned at me, and I fell into his eyes, those blue eyes, and was lost looking at him.

We were running hand-in-hand along a beach with sand as white as sugar. We were diving into an ocean as blue as his eyes. We were rolling over silk sheets, and that gorgeous hair of his was stroking over my naked body...

"Hey! What's wrong?" Once again a hand on my arm brought me out of my daze, and I realized that it had been this detective who had done it. "Are you all right, big guy?"

I could sense his interest. More than that, I could smell it, smell the pheromones rolling off him.

"I've never been better, Chief." I smiled and shifted to ease the tightness of my trousers.

He let me go and faced Richard, and I felt bereft. "Are you going to tell me?"

"Tell you what? Detective Sandburg." Richard's acknowledgment was sour.

Sandburg? So that was what Megan meant when she called him a Jewish cop in a city full of Irish cops.

"I asked you about his friends." He gestured toward Randy. "You didn't mention this 'Chris'."

"Chris was not a friend."

"Oh? Then what would he be considered?"

"He was just a fling, a good time boy, a fun time on a Saturday night."

"But as I understand it, he spent more than one Saturday night with this man."

"What are you insinuating?"

"I'm not insinuating anything. What I'm saying is if I see someone a lot, that makes him more than a fling or a fun time on a Saturday night. At least to me."

"You? You're just a cop. You wouldn't know how we do things."

"Wouldn't I?" Detective Sandburg rocked back and forth, grinning as if he knew something Richard didn't. I had to swallow. I was starting to drool. "So. What's the info on this Chris character?"

Richard shrugged. "I have no idea. Randy did not see fit to reveal his secrets to all and sundry."

"Bullshit. He may not have spilled his guts to all and sundry, but he certainly told you everything, Richard." I was glad to get a shot at him.

"That is bull... " He cleared his throat. "That is to say, that is a complete and utter lie!"

"Listen to me, sunshine." Detective Sandburg appeared to be losing patience. "I've got a dead man, and no one who wants to cooperate. So either you tell me what you know, or I'll arrest you for obstructing an investigation."

Richard backed down so fast I was surprised he didn't fall on his ass. "Well, er... none of us had met this Chris person."

"That doesn't sound like Randy. He loved showing me off."

Detective Sandburg looked interested, and I wondered - if we were together, would he love to show me off? Would he like me in leather? His hand on my arm brought me to the present once again, and I smiled at him. He smiled back.

"Yes, well, you aren't Chris." Trust Richard to state the obvious. "Randy talked - had talked - about him. Vivacious and fun-loving, and a body to die for. Not like you."

No, not like me. When Randy realized I was having a problem with my senses, with all my senses, my looks didn't matter for squat. The bloom wore off quickly after that.

"From what I can see, you've got a damned nice body," Detective Sandburg said softly.

My jaw dropped, and I stared at him. "You think so?"

"I think so what?"

"That I've... " He looked confused. "Never mind." I turned back to Richard. "So why didn't he introduce Chris to all of you?"

"I'm sure it was just a matter of time, leather boy. Randy had no doubt finally found someone who loved him."

"Maybe he did, but it doesn't seem like a smart choice." I pointed to Randy lying in his coffin. "And you can't have it both ways, Dick. Either Chris meant nothing to Randy, or he was Randy's own true love."

Richard clenched his fingers and pulled back his arm, about to punch me. I swung around and brought my fists up, ready to face him, and Detective Sandburg stepped between us. Richard had about six inches over him, but the detective was unfazed. He easily caught Richard's fist.

"Uh uh uh. Play nice, kiddies." He released Richard. "So tell me, Mr. Lee. What is Chris's last name?"

Richard shrugged. "That is something Randy never told us."

"He isn't here, is he? I mean, no one's come running over to point him out. Where does he live?"

"That is something else Randy never told us. Now if you'll excuse me, I want to pay my respects."

"Asshole," Detective Sandburg muttered. I tried to bite back a laugh, but I wasn't successful, and I got a number of disapproving looks from the people Randy had worked with.

"Sorry, I'd better go. I'm wearing out my welcome." I held out my hand. "It was nice meeting you, Detective."

He smiled and took my hand. The feel of his palm against mine was like an electrical shock, and I shivered.

"I'd like to talk to you, Mr. Ellison."

Yes! My heart started Boogaloo'ing. "Call me Jim, Chief. Please."

"Jim," he smiled again, and my knees wobbled, "and I'm Blair. Have I seen you before?"

"Maybe at Banks? I work for Simon."

"You're his newest security guard? I'm impressed. He's had nothing but good things to say about you!"

"Thank you. He's a good man to work for."

"He is a good man. I've known him since the Academy." He drew me toward an empty corner at the back of the room.

"So, what did you want to talk to me about?"

"You said you'd seen the man who was with," he gestured to the coffin. "Can you describe him?"

"Usually I'm pretty good with descriptions, but this time... All I can tell you about Chris is that he was maybe the most gorgeous man I've ever seen."

"The most gorgeous man you've ever seen?" Blair repeated. "I see." Was it my imagination, or did he sound disappointed?

"Yeah. But he didn't do anything for me."

"He didn't?"

"No. There was something off about his looks."

"How do you mean 'off'?"

"I don't know. He was using... not makeup. Greasepaint? I think it smelled like greasepaint. I dated a guy once who was on Broadway."

"You were that close to him?"

"The guy on Broadway? It was just a fling. Oh, you mean Chris, who was with Randy." I widened my eyes innocently, and he cuffed my arm and laughed. "Actually I wasn't too close, but he must have layered it on with a trowel. I had no trouble smelling it. It may have just been me, though. It didn't seem to bother Randy, and he was all over him."

"Oh?"

"Chris went down on him in the men's room."

"Hmmm. What about distinguishing features?"

"You mean if he had a scar or bushy eyebrows or a really huge nose?"

"Yeah."

"No. Gorgeous, remember?" I took a chance and flirted, "Now you - you've got a sweet nose. I could never forget it."

"You think I've got a sweet nose?" He brought his fingers up to his nose, and I could tell the gesture was involuntary, but pleased.

I relaxed and grinned. "Yeah, I do." I glanced at my watch. "It's getting late, and I've got work in the morning. I'd better go."

"Can I call you? I mean, if I have any more questions?"

"Sure. If you have any more questions. I'll give you my phone number." I remembered I hadn't thought to being a pen. "Do you have a pen?"

"Yeah." He patted himself down. "Damn, I must have left it on my desk. Hey, Taggart! Over here."

Whoever was in the path of the big black detective got out of it quickly. "Yeah, Blair?"

"Pen?"

He laughed and shook his head. "You lost another one?"

"It isn't lost. It's simply... not on my person."

"Right." He reached into the inner pocket of his jacket. "Here you go. Make sure you don't lose this one."

"Yeah, yeah." He gave it to me.

"Thanks." I didn't ask for a piece of paper. I clicked the Bic, opened his palm, and wrote down my phone number. He trembled and flushed, and as much as I wanted to tease him, draw my tongue over the numbers I had written, I didn't.

"I'll be in touch in the morning. No, wait. You'll be at work..."

"Yes. And I've already had a day off."

"I'll call you in the evening, then."

"I'll look forward to hearing from you. Bye, Blair."

"Bye, Jim."

I handed the pen back to the man beside him. "Detective Taggart."

"Yeah, bye, Jim." Taggart chuckled when Blair hit his arm. "What? I was just being sociable." I was almost out the door when Taggart said, "So, Blair. Learn anything?"

"Yeah." Blair's voice was dreamy. "He thinks I have a sweet nose." He cleared his throat. "I mean no. He couldn't give me a description of the man who was with the deceased."

"But you're going to question him again tomorrow."

"Why not? A good night's sleep might shake up the little gray cells."

"Keep telling yourself that. You just want to see him again." But there was no hostility in his words, and I was relieved.

"Did you learn anything, Joel?"

"Just that some of these men didn't like the deceased. I've got names."

"Good work. Get H. We may as well..."

I didn't learn what they may as well were going to do. Mr. Canis approached with my umbrella.

"Shall I call you a cab, sir?"

I could hear the rain beating on the pavement outside.

"Yes, please. This is no night to wait for a bus."

While I waited, I hoped Blair would come out into the corridor, but he didn't.

"Your cab is here, sir."

"Thank you." I ran out into the rain, got into the cab, and told the driver, "852 East 14th Street."

"Got it."

****

The phone was ringing as I let myself into my apartment. I crossed to the kitchen and took the receiver off the wall.

"Ellison."

"Hi." A warm voice.

"Blair?"

"Yeah. I wanted to make sure you got home okay."

"You did?"

"Yeah. I couldn't wait until tomorrow to talk to you again."

"Oh." My stomach started doing somersaults.

"I hope you don't mind?"

"I don't mind." I caught the phone between my shoulder and my ear, and shrugged out of my overcoat. "Are you still at the funeral home?"

"Yes. Everyone's left. I'm about to leave."

"So... uh... would you like to come by... " Now and make wild, sweaty love with me? I cleared my throat. "... tomorrow night for dinner?"

"I'd like that."

I let out a breath. "Great. About 7?"

"That will be fine."

"OK. I'll see you tomorrow night at 7. Goodnight, Blair."

"Wait a second! Don't hang up! I need your address!"

"Of course. Sorry. Do you have a pen?"

"Shit. Okay, listen, I have a good memory. Reel it off."

"I'm in the East Village. 852 East 14th, 3E. Got it?"

"Yeah. I've got it. I'll see you tomorrow. Oh, and Jim?" His voice was like a velvet caress.

"Yes?"

There was a long pause, and then he blew out a breath. "Sleep well, big guy."

"You too, Chief." I had a feeling that wasn't what he was going to say. "Goodnight."

"'Night, Jim."

I didn't think I'd be able to fall asleep right away, but I did. And when I dreamed, I dreamed of him.

Entr'acte

Mother was beautiful. Her eyes were the blue of a summer sky, and her hair was the color of gold, as cliched as that might sound. She had a boyish figure, and yet in spite of her slenderness, men would turn and praise her with their eyes.

Father - he was of no consequence. He owned the theater where Mother appeared. He wooed and won her - but did not deserve her - and they married. Eventually I made my appearance. That was the first time - the only time - that Mother missed an opening night.

I do not believe she ever forgave me that.

What was I thinking? We were famously close. After Father - was gone, it was Mother and I, the two of us.

When Mother passed on, I was lost. I could not allow myself to fall to pieces, however. Mother would have disapproved most strongly.

Why I chose to do this... That was my concern alone.

It had taken me a good deal of time to create the plan that would see my triumph. It had been like writing an award-winning play. Every action, every word, was polished, a work of art, and the actor had to be carefully chosen.

It was not my first, but I intended it to be my most notable.

Joseph Bishop was slightly older than I, and he saw what I wanted him to see, a young man selling encyclopedias.

What a fool the man was! As if anyone sold encyclopedias door-to-door any more.

I succeeded, and the feel of the flesh of his throat under my fingers was almost - not sexual, of course not sexual. It was... intoxicating, for I had outwitted him.

Once he ceased breathing, I dragged him into the bathroom. I stood over him as he lay sprawled on the commode. I was tempted to stroke a hand over the hardness hidden within my trousers, but I overcame the temptation. "Goodbye, my precious."

It was perfect, but it was ignored!

IT. WAS. IGNORED!

There had been nothing about it, not a single word, in any of the city's newspapers. Not The Daily News, not The New York Post, and most hurtfully, not The New York Times.

I was furious, but I could not call the newspapers to take them to task. How could I, when no one seemed to know about it except that incompetent detective in the 15th Precinct?

I pondered the debacle carefully, and it came to me. The error was not in my plan, but in the actor. He had been the wrong man. It would be a simple matter to correct that.

I would select another man to play the part, and this time they would pay attention to me.

It took some time, but when I found him, he was exactly right. Blond hair, blue eyes. Oh, yes. He was just the one for the part.

I sat before Mother's make-up mirror in the dressing room that had been hers, which I had forbidden any of the other actors to use.

My hair was a nondescript brown, my eyes the same. Father had not even let me have that of Mother. I was glad I had...

I pushed that thought away and proceeded to become the character I had selected. I put in blue contact lenses and a hair piece the color my quarry seemed to prefer, a lighter shade than my brown.

As I rose, I glanced at the portrait Lancaster had done of Mother as Medea. It had been her most famous role, and his most famous work.

I had cared for neither that painting nor the man, although Mother had appeared fond enough of him, and Father - he did not seem to care one way or the other.

I left the dressing room, making sure I was unseen.

It took longer than I had anticipated to gain this man's trust. I had to let him - touch me, whisper abominable things in my ear, but once again I succeeded. This time I drew a lipstick kiss on his forehead.

Mother had often kissed my forehead before she left for a performance. "Goodnight, my precious," she would say, and I would go to bed and fall asleep with the impression of her kiss there.

She would become angry - with the maid, I knew - when the maid brought her the lipstick-smeared pillow cases.

I would not think of that. Mother loved me, she would always hug and kiss me. I would make her proud of me.

The next day, notice of my achievement was in The Daily News.

It was there, granted, but it was only a small item. I called the city desk to complain.

"I'm sorry, sir. I imagine they were rushing the deadline. More will be printed when we know more. May I ask who's calling?"

I hung up and said quietly to myself, "No, you may not."

I smoothed open the paper. The next time, the article would be larger, I vowed, much larger. I began to read the article, what there was of it, in depth.

And then a sentence caught my eye. "Asked for a statement by this reporter, Detective Blair Sandburg of the 15th Precinct responded, 'It was well-planned, well-executed.'"

I was appreciated!

It wasn't payday for any of the local businesses. The head teller hadn't ordered a delivery of cash and coins, so the armored truck wasn't making an appearance. And no robbers came in with the intention of relieving the bank of its cash.

All in all a quiet day at work, which was a good thing, because I found myself thinking about Blair Sandburg in ways I hadn't thought about Jack, or Randy, or any of the men I'd known for more than a night.

Did he have a middle name?

He'd looked good in that suit he wore, even though I could tell it was off the rack. Sears probably, although maybe Gimbels.

He was short; all the men I'd dated were about my height or a little taller. If we went dancing, his hair would tickle my jaw, and his head would fit neatly under my chin, unless he tipped it back, in which case his lips would nuzzle my throat.

Of course, when we made love, it wouldn't matter. Lying down, we'd be the same height.

When we made love? "Oh, boy, you have got it bad, Ellison."

Pat, the other security guard, glanced over at me, an eyebrow raised. "Girl trouble, Jim?"

Jesus, I was starting to talk out loud in a populated building. I gave Pat a weak smile. He grinned back at me, then went to help a woman who was having trouble finding the right slip to fill out.

I'd only met Blair Sandburg the night before. He smelled great, his hand on mine felt fantastic, and I liked his voice, but we hadn't even kissed.

Maybe he didn't like to kiss. Some guys didn't.

But if he did, would it be hot and wet, devouring?

Would his eyes burn with blue fire, then slowly close as his lips met mine?

Would his mouth be shut tight or be open, gasping for air as he slid into me?

Would he lick the sweat that dripped from my chin to my neck as he plunged into me again and again?

Would his hoarse, needy sounds be the echo of mine?

What would his cock taste like?

"Uh, Pat?" I cleared my throat. "Can you handle this for a few minutes?"

He winked at me. "Not too long, boyo." He touched a fingertip to his forehead.

I copied the motion, headed for the stairway, and went to the employees' lounge on the lower level.

It was a very good thing it was a quiet day at work.

****

This was the first date I'd had since I'd left Randy, and on the way home I dithered. What should I cook?

Jack had taught me French, Italian, German, even Chinese cuisine. He'd told me he'd learned in the countries themselves, and I'd wondered what he'd been doing in China.

But I wanted to make something special for the detective. Something ethnic, that would - impress him.

There was a used bookstore on 2nd Avenue, and after work, I visited it, hoping there might be something there.

I was lucky. I found a book of Jewish recipes, large, hardcovered, and with beautiful pictures. I thumbed through it, looking for something that I thought would tempt Blair's palate.

"Hmmm." I studied a picture. "This looks interesting."

I paid for the book and went to a Jewish deli where I would get hot pastrami sandwiches for dinner on occasion. On Jewish rye with caraway seeds, slathered with deli mustard...

Just the thought made my mouth water, but I had a dinner I had to make.

Mrs. Friedman, who ran the deli with her husband, looked up as the bell over the door rang sweetly, announcing my entrance.

"Jimmy! You caught me just in time. I'm about to close the store."

"I won't keep you too long. I'm making a Jewish dish for dinner tonight."

"How wonderful! Tell me, boychik. What do you need?"

I opened the book. "Stuffed olives, crushed peanuts, garlic, spring onions, extra virgin olive oil, brown rice... Um... that's it."

"Ah. You're gonna make Kusneyeya Rice. I got it all. Except for the olive oil. You need to go to Rossetti's for that." She went around the deli gathering what I'd need. "And the peanuts - you gotta crush them yourself."

"Okay."

"So. You found yourself a nice Jewish girl, bubbala?" She gave an arch smile as she rang up the items and put them in a paper bag.

"A gentleman does not kiss and tell, Mrs. F." I winked and paid for them.

"You're gonna need a nice wine, Jimmy."

"That's right. Any suggestions?"

"Manischevitz. That was what Mr. Friedman poured for me the evening he got down on one knee and asked me marry him. A sweet wine for a sweet moment."

"Thanks. I'll definitely get some." I hated to interrupt her reverie; she was gazing into space, a soft smile on her lips. "Bye, Mrs. F."

"Bye, bubby." She followed me to the door, and I heard it lock behind me.

Hoping that I'd have a love like that one day, maybe even with Blair Sandburg, I headed for the Italian deli.

Once I had the extra virgin olive oil, I stopped at the liquor store and bought a couple of bottles of the wine Mrs. Friedman had recommended.

When I got home, I put the wine into the small refrigerator and placed everything else neatly on the card table.

That table. I stared at it. It would need to be replaced. Come to think of it, if I was going to be cooking for two, I'd need room to prepare food, and more than two burners.

How big was his kitchen? I lost myself in a fantasy of the two of us working together companionably to prepare a meal, gray-haired and with creaky joints, but so happy...

Snap out of it! You haven't even been on a date with the man, and you're planning on spending the rest of your life with him? And what is he going to think when you tell him you used to be a hustler?

I turned on the radio and started cleaning my apartment, steadfastly ignoring that last question.

Randy had gloated about my former profession. He'd brag about my technique and parade me in front of his friends. He loved seeing them salivate, but if any of them made a move toward me, he'd blow a gasket and give me the silent treatment for a week, even though I'd done nothing.

The suggestion we go to Vermont had been a last-ditch effort on my part to salvage what there was of our relationship, and it hadn't worked.

I dusted and dry mopped and changed the sheets on my bed - just in case - but I came no closer to a decision of what I should tell Blair.

After I showered, shaved, and brushed my teeth, I wrapped a towel around my hips and stepped out of my matchbox bathroom and into my matchbox kitchen to get the water for the rice boiling.

Then I went to my 'clothes closet' and dithered some more as I tried to decide what to wear. A tux for an at-home dinner would be overkill, and besides, I'd left mine at Randy's.

A three-piece suit wouldn't be quite as over-the-top, and I'd caused almost as many heads to turn wearing that, but still - this was just dinner on a weeknight.

I had a pair of Levis that fit snugly. Matched with a chambray shirt and cowboy boots - I'd always gotten lots of come-ons when I'd worn them.

Just as I reached for the jeans, the phone rang. Two steps and I was in the kitchen. "Ellison."

"Hi, Jim."

"Chief!" My heart started Boogaloo'ing again. "Wait until you get a taste of what I'm cooking. It's gonna knock your socks off." I hoped.

"What are you cooking?"

"It's a Jewish dish - Kusneyeya Rice."

"Aw, Jim. For me?" He inhaled deeply. "I can smell it from here."

"Sure you can. So why are you calling me when you should be here in about forty-five minutes?"

"That's just it, Jim." His voice was sober. "I won't be able to have dinner with you. Something's come up on the case."

"You found whoever it was who killed Randy?"

"No." I could hear him run his hand through his hair. "No, there's been another murder."

"Another? And it's connected to Randy's?"

"Yeah. This young man was strangled also. But what disturbs me is that he was gay, and..."

"Randy was gay."

"Yeah. I was hoping we didn't have a serial killer on our hands, but... The fucking bastard called me at the station! He asked to speak to me! Told me his name was Hans Schultz, but that just after Valentine's Day he had been Aaron Fielding. He said he liked how I'd described the last murder: well-planned and well-executed. Jesus, Jim! I tossed that off to get Sam off my back."

"Sam?"

"Sam. The reporter. He kept pressing for a statement, and... " He blew out a breath. "Apparently Hans or Aaron or whatever his name is, thought I appreciated his work. He gave me an address and told me I 'should get zhere right avay,'" Blair's voice took on a thick German accent, "'and you von't be disappointed, I am vell up to my previous standard.' Of course he was long gone by the time we got here."

"'Here'? You're at the crime scene?" What he'd said suddenly hit me. "Chief, 'just after Valentine's Day'?"

"Yeah. I don't think your friend was the first man this son-of-a-bitch killed. This poor guy... I'm sorry, Jim. You went to the trouble of making me dinner..."

"Blair." He stopped talking. "We can do this another time."

"Thanks, Jim."

"Hey, Blair!" Detective Taggart's voice from somewhere in the dead man's home.

"Hold on a sec, okay?" His hand muffled the receiver, but I still made out the conversation. "What's up?"

"The M.E. wants to take the body!"

"Be right there, Joel." Then he removed his hand. "Jim... "

"Did Detective Taggart really have to shout, Chief? I'd have thought you'd be close enough to hear him."

"What?"

"Blair! Tell your boyfriend goodbye. We have to move it!" Taggart shouting again. "Dan's getting antsy!"

He covered the receiver again. "I'm coming!" It was a growled whisper, but in spite of it all, I still heard him. "I have to go, Jim. Can I... can I call you when I get this done here?"

"I'd like that. You'll be careful?"

"I'll be careful. Bye, Jim."

"Bye, Chief." The phone clicked in my ear. I hung up and looked at the pot with the rice. "Oh, well. I'll use this as a dry run."

I checked the recipe and measured out the olive oil into a frying pan. The liquid from the jar of olives went in next, and while that was heating, I crushed the peanuts. When the oil was hot enough, I added first the peanuts, and then the garlic, onions, and olives.

After five minutes, I started stirring in the rice. The combined odors didn't bother my sense of smell, which was a relief. Sometimes the smell of things affected my stomach; I'd had to cut a lot of things from my diet.

When it was done, I sat down at the card table with a plate of Kusneyeya and the book of recipes, and ate my dinner.

My lovely, lonely dinner.

****

It was about 1 AM when the phone rang. I was across the room, grabbing it up, in seconds.

"Chief?"

"Yeah, Jim. How'd you know it was me?"

"Lucky guess." Except for Simon, he was the only one who had my number.

"I didn't wake you, did I?"

"No. I was up." I'd been waiting for his call. I was about to ask if he wanted to come over - there was plenty of dinner left.

Before I could, he said, "Jim, would you do me a favor?"

"Yes."

"Come down to the station tomorrow and talk to our sketch artist? If we can find Chris, maybe we'll have some idea of who killed your friend and who killed Himmel."

"Himmel?"

"Our latest victim."

"Uh huh. Well, sure, Chief. But if he was using greasepaint, I don't think it will be much use."

"I'd still like you to give it a try."

"Okay. What time do you want me there?"

He let out a breath. Had he doubted that I'd do it? "About 11?"

"I can't, Chief, I'm sorry. I have work."

"Damn. I forgot. Well, how about after work? You get off at 4, right? Okay, then, how does 4:30 sound? 15th Precinct. I appreciate it, Jim."

"Whatever I can do for ... " you "... our fair city."

"And maybe when you're done... maybe we could go for dinner? I know this place... "

"I'd like that." I'd see if Pat would cover for me so I could leave work early, get home, and change into something sexier than my uniform. "Chief, can you talk about what happened tonight?"

"Sure. Why not? You'll read about it in the papers tomorrow anyway - no, it will be this morning, won't it?" He sounded tired. "Norbert Himmel. Age 25. Blond, hazel eyes. Homosexual. The body was half-on, half-off the john. There was a set of lips drawn on his forehead in bright red lipstick. And those bruises around his throat."

Just like Randy? I didn't ask. "How are you, Chief?"

"I'm okay. Just really tired." He yawned. "Sorry. I'd better go. I wanted to hear your voice before I called it a night, though."

He did? "I'm glad. I like hearing your voice too. It's... it's soothing."

He gave a spurt of laughter. "Thanks. I think. I'll see you tomorrow, then."

"'Night, Chief."

"G'night, Jim."

I waited until I heard the dial tone, then hung up and went to bed. I hoped he'd be able to sleep. There had been times when I was with Jack, when he'd come back from out of town, and he wouldn't be able to fall asleep until he'd had me three different ways, and then found a fourth one.

I was thinking of the ways I could have pleasured Blair until he fell asleep when I fell asleep myself.

****

We exited the precinct and walked through the evening crowd in Midtown. It was the rush hour. People were heading for the subways and buses, thinking of little else but home and dinner.

The month had decided that it was March after all. The cold evening wind made me glad I'd worn my overcoat instead of the jacket that, while it would have shown off my shoulders and waist, would have had my teeth rattling like castanets.

I sighed. I really would have liked Blair to have seen me in that jacket though. Still, I'd been able to take off my coat, and he'd seen the jeans and turtleneck I wore under it.

He'd given a soft wolf whistle and said, 'Nice jeans, Jim.'

'Thanks.' I liked his reaction. We were going to dinner afterwards, so I'd taken the time to make sure I looked good. "I'm sorry that I couldn't help your sketch artist, Chief. Not to say 'I told you so,' but..."

"I know. You did say something along those lines. Well, George was able to sketch in some details. We've got a rough idea of the shape of his face, the distance between his eyes, where his ears are placed on his head... "

"Do you think finding Chris will give you some idea of who the murderer is?"

He shrugged. "I hope. Maybe Chris saw our killer in the hallway. In the elevator. Coming into the building as he left."

"Have you checked with Dave?"

"The night doorman? Yeah. Seems your friend had a habit of bringing men up to his apartment. Other than that, Dave didn't notice anything out of the ordinary."

"Damn."

"That's what I said."

"Okay, what about Gene? He works the day shift."

"I sent one of my men to talk to him. Brown's good with getting people to tell more than they realize. Gene said he only saw the usual stuff - your friend leaving for work, the cleaning lady coming and going, the boy delivering groceries."

"Randy always came home after Gene left for the day."

"That would explain why he couldn't describe any of your friend's... boyfriends."

"I guess." I stopped abruptly. The hairs on the back of my neck were on end, and I had the feeling that I was being watched. I rubbed the back of my neck and looked around. A Midtown bus was pulling away from the curb, and the lights inside showed a man sitting in the rear seat, looking back in my direction. He turned and stared toward the front.

"Jim?"

I frowned. Were my senses going wacky again? I shook my head and hurried to catch up with Blair.

"Is something wrong?"

"No. Uh... no. So what does this tell us, Chief?"

"Maybe Chris looks like you?"

"I didn't think so, and I saw him, remember."

"Hmmm. Oh, we're here. This is the place, Jim. I think you'll like it. I hope you do." He led the way into a small diner.

We took a booth at the back and hung our overcoats from the hooks on either side. A waitress brought two glasses of water and the menus.

"Hi, Nance!"

"Hi, Blair. It's good to see you again."

"You too. Jim, this is Nancy, the best waitress on 48th Street."

"Thank you." She blushed. "Uh oh. Boss is looking." She rattled off the specials. "I'll give you a few minutes to look over the menu. Your usual beer, Blair?"

"Yes."

"I'll have a Rheingold."

"That's what I have, Jim."

"Got it." She winked at him. "I'll be right back."

Blair took a sip of water, then picked up the conversation where we had left off. "There could have been a resemblance that wasn't apparent to you, Jim. From the back? The side? At a distance?"

I was going to tell him there was no chance of that, when I realized, "You might have a valid point, Chief. Jeff said Randy had hired him a few times."

"Jeff?"

"I was talking to him at the wake before I got cornered by the Dick Man. Richard Lee. Anyway, Jeff and I look a little alike."

"I noticed. He's good-looking. Just not as good-looking as you."

"Oh." My looks had been my stock-in-trade - and I'd been complimented on them by numerous clients - but it was different when someone I was coming to care about told me he liked the way I looked. "Thank you."

"You're welcome." His grin was saucy, and I grabbed the tail of the conversation before I lost it.

"So... um... what do you do now?"

"We need to fill in the time between when the doorman saw them enter the building and when his neighbor... " He raised an eyebrow.

"Marc."

"Right. We need to find out how much time passed until Marc called us." He hesitated, then continued, "The thing is, the bastard who did this took his time, Jim. Your friend was killed in the living room, then dragged into the bathroom and posed. Norbert Himmel was posed the same way. I want to talk to this Chris. The odds are he wasn't there when the murderer came knocking on the door, but I want to talk to him anyway."

Nancy brought us two frosted glasses filled with beer, and we fell silent. "Would you like to order?"

"Oh... " I hadn't even looked at the menu.

"Jim? If you trust me, I'll order."

"I trust you, Chief." I could feel the heat of his blush.

He turned to our waitress. "We'll have two turkey dinners. Baked potato, Jim?" I nodded. "And house salad with French dressing."

"I'll have a Caesar salad."

Nancy wrote it down and left.

"Caesar salad, Jim?" He raised his glass to his lips.

"Just because I let you order everything else - I don't want you thinking I'm easy." Beer spewed out of his mouth. "Sorry, Chief."

He gasped and choked, and waved his hand. "Never mind."

I waited until he caught his breath. "Y'know, there's something that's been bothering me. If Chris had left, if Randy was alone, he wouldn't have let anyone he didn't know into the penthouse."

"What? That's... "

"Cautious?" I shrugged. "That was just the way he was."

He was quiet for a minute. "You knew him pretty well, didn't you?"

"Well enough."

His eyes were a calm blue. He waited for me to continue.

"We lived together for about six months. I left him last August."

"I guess it wasn't love then."

"No. I thought... No."

He raised his hand as if to rest it against my cheek, then realized we were in a public place and let it fall.

Which was a good thing, I assured myself. Nancy arrived with our salads, placed a basket of rolls in the center of the table, and went to check her other tables.

"So, the man who killed him could have been someone he knew?"

"Maybe." I picked up a crouton and popped it into my mouth. "I know a lot of people weren't fond of Randy, but that doesn't mean they'd kill him."

"Why not?"

"His crowd wasn't likely to get physical. Not like that. Well, you saw Richard Lee."

"He looked like he was all set to knock you down."

"Nah. As soon as he saw I was ready to face him, he'd have backed down. And the people Randy hung with... they'd throw a glass of red wine over his favorite suit, they'd say something derogatory about the art he collected, but they wouldn't resort to physical violence. And none of them would strangle him."

"You don't think?"

"No. Sorry."

Nancy approached us and gave a cursory glance at our plates. "Are you finished?" We nodded, and she took them. "Your dinners will be right out."

"Thank you." Blair waited until she left, then continued. "Anyway, we'll keep looking for Chris." He took a roll and buttered it. "I did a little back-tracking, and I found that another man, a Joseph Bishop who lived in Gramercy Park, was killed and posed in the same way, minus the kiss. The detective on that case didn't care if a fag was killed; he's going to retire next month. He would have been assigned your friend's case, but he was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery to get his hernia repaired."

"You think this man may have been one of the killer's victims?"

"Yeah. Even without the lipstick kiss on his forehead, the murders are too similar. And he was killed on Valentine's Day."

"Maybe the killer was practicing?"

"That would be just peachy," he muttered under his breath and smiled at Nancy as she placed our dinners before us.

"Enjoy, gentlemen."

****

We finished our meal with two cups of coffee and a shared slice of blueberry pie a la mode.

There was a bit of vanilla ice cream at the corner of his mouth. I wanted to lick it off, but I didn't. Instead, I told him, "You've got ice cream at the corner of your mouth, Chief," and stared as he licked it off himself.

"What did you think of the meal, Jim?"

"You're right, this is a good place."

"I'm glad you liked the food."

Nancy hurried to our table.

"Got the check, Nance?"

"Blair, you're wanted on the phone. It's Lieutenant Dawson."

"I'll be right back, Jim."

"No rush, Chief." I watched as he strode to the phone by the cashier.

"Would you like another cup of coffee, sir?"

"No, I think we're finished." I hoped the phone call wasn't important.

"I'll get the check for you."

"Thank you."

Blair and the waitress arrived at the booth at the same time. He took the check from her and reached for his wallet.

"I'm sorry, Jim. I have to go." He peeled off some singles and gave them to Nancy.

"Thanks, Blair."

"You're welcome. I'll get this, Jim." He went to the front of the diner.

I took my overcoat from the hook and Blair's as well.

"Chief?"

"Thanks, Jim." He slid his arms into the sleeves.

"Was there another murder?"

"Yeah. Another strangulation." He told me the address. It was on Central Park West, the building where I'd lived with Randy.

"Can I go with you?"

"Just don't touch anything."

"I won't."

Outside the diner, the temperature had dropped further. We buttoned up our overcoats and jogged toward a subway station that was across the street and on the far corner.

I dropped a token in the turnstile, but Blair just flashed his badge. We got to the platform just as the train was pulling in.

Within ten minutes, we were there.

"Detective Sandburg! Detective!"

I was startled to see all the reporters outside this exclusive building. The tenants weren't going to be happy about this.

"What can you tell us about this newest murder?"

And they'd be even less happy to have another murder committed in their building.

"Is it The Strangler?"

"Dunno, Sam. I haven't been to the crime scene yet."

"But you have some idea, don't you? You're gonna let me know, right?"

Blair grinned at him and opened the door.

"The Press has a right to know! The people of New York City have a right to know!" When Sam realized he wasn't going to get a response to this from Blair, he turned his attention to me. "Hey, who's he? What does he have to do with this?"

The door closed behind us, shutting the reporter out. There was a thud. He'd kicked the door.

There were four uniformed cops in the lobby. They looked uncomfortable, as if they couldn't figure out what they were doing in a place that had live trees in huge wooden containers, a fountain that burbled rainbow trails of water, elegant, antique sofas, and paintings by Degas, Monet, and even Picasso - all authentic - on the walls.

There was even a statue by Henry Moore, the last of his reclining figures. I'd always thought it had a big ass.

"The elevator to the penthouse is this way, Detective." One of the officers led the way.

I looked around, but I didn't see Dave, the night doorman, anywhere.

"Is the key in it?" If it wasn't, we were going to have a long climb to the top floor. Fifty flights worth of long.

The cop gave Blair a questioning look.

"Mr. Ellison used to live here, Officer Krupky. He's assisting me in a civilian capacity."

"Yes, sir. The key was left in it."

"Thank you. Come on, Jim." We stepped into the elevator. A twist of the key, the doors slid shut, and it began to ascend.

Blair smelled good. I inhaled deeply; I hadn't smelled anything like it before. His scent seemed to wrap around my cock, and I was wondering if I could persuade him to back me into a corner and kiss me, when suddenly another scent clogged my nostrils.

"Shit!"

"What's wrong, Jim?" Blair was beside me.

Normally I would have laughed it off, kept it to myself, but this time, with his hand on my arm, I couldn't.

"There's a smell in this elevator..."

"What is it?"

"It's a man's cologne." I blinked. "Men's cologne. I've smelled them both recently." It frustrated me that I couldn't recognize them. "One under the other. I just can't... "

"Don't concentrate on trying to identify them, Jim. Relax. Maybe that will help it come to you."

Before I could, the elevator came to a smooth stop - this was a high-class building and no jerking was allowed - and the doors opened.

"Chief..."

"We'll talk about it later, Jim. Will you be okay going in?"

"Why wouldn't I be?"

"This was a former... boyfriend's... apartment, he was killed in it, and you haven't been here since last August."

"Ah, Chief." I raised my hand to touch his cheek, then dropped it. "I'll be fine."

"Let me know if it's a problem."

"I will."

The elevator opened into the semi-circular foyer, and the scent of fresh flowers replaced the odor from the elevator.

There were three penthouses on this side of the building. It would have been easy to tell which one was Randy's even if I hadn't known - a uniformed officer was at the door.

Blair walked toward the door. "Officer Dolan."

"Detective Sandburg. It's good to see you again."

"Same here. How's the family?"

"Good, sir. They wanted me to thank you again for getting them curbside spots for the Parade on Sunday."

"It's my pleasure. St. Patrick's Day. How can they cheer their dad when he marches past if they can't see him?"

"Well, they haven't talked about anything else all week."

"I guess your wife must be getting pretty tired of hearing about it."

"Nah. Susie's as excited as they are."

"I'm glad to hear that."

I enjoyed listening to Blair banter with a fellow cop.

"By the way, how's Mrs. Sandburg?"

Mrs. Sandburg? I swallowed, and swallowed again, shocked by the hurt. Was he stringing me along?

"She's doing better, thanks. The new medication seems to be helping. She's gone out to San Francisco to visit my cousin Franklin."

"The lung surgeon who earns a few grand in just one morning?"

"That's the one. He and his wife just had a new baby."

He laughed. "Give her my best the next time you talk to her."

Mrs. Sandburg?

"Thanks, I will. Any problems here?"

"No, sir. This is so high up we don't have the usual ghouls who want to see the dead bodies. Detective Brown spoke to the two gentlemen who live in the other penthouses. They seemed shaken. Well, two murders in less than a week."

"Yeah. I'll need you here until we have this scene squared away."

"Yes, sir." He opened the door for us.

We walked into the entrance hall, and I closed the door behind us with a snap.

"Are you married, Chief?" I blurted.

"Married? Me?" He grinned until he saw I was not grinning in return. "No! How could you think that?"

"Officer Dolan, who wants to know how Mrs. Sandburg is?"

"Mrs. Sandburg is my mother."

"She is?"

"Yes. I'm all she has. She became really sick when I was in my sophomore year of college, and I had to drop out of NYU. New York's Finest may not have the best pay scale, but it has great health benefits. All the guys know about Naomi and kid me about Mrs. Sandburg, because I'm 28 and not married. Listen, Jim. I've done some things... well, we can talk about that another time. But I'd never marry a woman, knowing I prefer men."

"I'm sorry, Chief." I was as surprised by the relief I felt as I'd been by the hurt. "I've been involved with men who swore they were single but turned out to be married." I hadn't cared then - it hadn't been personal.

"I wouldn't do that to anyone I wanted to date. Most especially, I wouldn't do that to someone I want a relationship with, Jim."

He wanted a relationship with me?

"Okay. I'm sorry."

"Stop saying that. I can understand if you've been burned before. Now, come on. Joel and H are going to think I stopped to have my wicked way with you."

"'H'?"

"Henri Brown. He's the other detective who's working with me on this case."

The entrance hall led to the formal living room. It hadn't changed in the time I'd been gone. The color of the walls was the same, a silver blue that blended well with the upholstery of the large couch and the armchairs strategically placed around the fireplace. In the center of the room was an area rug. There was artwork on the walls, and accessories that I knew had cost more than I'd made in the seven months I'd been a security guard.

And the potted plants. Maria Hernandez, Randy's cleaning lady, would have come in to keep the plants watered. I wondered if she would be able to find another job.

Three steps into the living room, and I doubled over. The smell was like that in the elevator, but more powerful and with something underlying it that made my stomach roil. I bit down on my back teeth.

"Jim?" Blair realized I wasn't beside him and turned around. "Jim! What's wrong?" He caught me before I collapsed to the floor and eased me down.

"The smell, Chief!"

"Try to relax, Jim. Let it wash over you."

I groaned and clapped my hand over my nose and mouth.

"Okay, that's not working. Try this." He touched my cheek and forced me to look into his blue eyes, and that touch seemed to ground me. "Picture the dial on a television. You're on Channel 13. Gradually change the channels, 11, 9, keep going down toward 2."

I did as he suggested, and after a minute or so I began to get myself under control. I sagged in relief.

We were kneeling on the floor. Blair was still holding me, murmuring soothing sounds, his hands stroking the long muscles of my back through my overcoat. He made me feel better.

"How are you doing?" he whispered in my ear, and his warm breath made me shiver. My cock started to harden.

"Better. Thanks, Chief." I closed my eyes and let him bear my weight. "That helped; you have no idea how that helped."

"Jim? What happened?"

"The smell was overpowering. It's British Sterling, Chief. That's the cologne Richard always wears - wore. He called it his signature scent."

"He's here? What's he doing here?"

"What was he doing here. He's dead, Chief."

"What? But how..." His eyes widened. "You could smell it!"

I nodded. "We'd better get to our feet."

"All right, but why? I like holding you like this."

"I like it too, but we're going to have company."

"Blair. I thought I heard voices." Detective Taggart came into the formal living room from direction of the master bedroom. "I'm glad you got here. Hi, Mr. Ellison."

"Detective Taggart."

"H is still talking to the doorman, Blair. He's seen the victim before, but he never got the name."

"Have you ID'd the victim?" Blair was all business.

"Yeah. Wallet in the inner pocket of his suit jacket. Richard Lee. Age 33."

Blair turned to look at me. "You knew." I nodded.

"The thing is," Taggart apparently hadn't heard, "we've got a victim with the wrong coloring." He handed Blair the identification.

"Fuck! Fuck, fuck, fuck!"

"Yeah. That's what we said when we saw him." Taggart's expression was not amused.

"What am I missing, Chief?"

"We thought our boy was going for light-eyed blonds."

"But Richard... oh, yes. I see. Richard has red hair and dark brown eyes."

Taggart scowled. "Yeah. Wait'll the Cap hears about this."

"So. Has our killer changed his MO? Do we have another killer, a copycat? And did anyone call the coroner?"

"H did, Blair. Dan Wolf is working tonight. He's on his way."

"He always seems to get these bodies. Okay. I've got to assess the scene, Jim. Stay here."

"No problem, Chief." I wasn't going to challenge his authority in front of the other detective. Besides, I'd seen someone who'd been strangled, years ago; I hadn't forgotten what the young hustler had looked like, and I didn't want to see it again.

Blair took off his overcoat and tossed it over a chair. They left the room, and I removed my coat.

Abruptly my head shot up. I could hear their conversation as they reached the master bath.

Blair, this is Mr. Barat. He's the night doorman. I didn't recognize the voice, so I assumed the speaker must have been Detective Brown.

I appreciate you staying. Detective Brown has your statement, but we may need to speak to you again.

Yes, sir. I'm here every night during the week, and the detective has my home address and phone number. Do you need me for anything else?

That phone log you told me about?

I'll have it ready for you when you come down, Detective Brown.

Thank you, Mr. Barat. You can go now.

What the fuck? I shook my head. Had I really heard that, or was it just my imagination running wild?

"Mr. Ellison!" The night doorman was coming from the direction of the master bedroom.

"Dave. How are you?" We shook hands.

"I could be better. I'm the one who found him."

"You did?"

"Yeah."

"So, what happened?"

"It was the weirdest thing, Mr. Ellison. I got a phone call about 7. The man had this English accent, and at first I thought it was Cary Grant on the line. Mr. Johnson's apartment is up for rent, and it would be a real feather in the cap for the management company if Cary Grant moved in here."

"I guess it would. Johnson is leaving?" Lloyd Johnson lived in the third penthouse apartment. He had bucks, and Randy was always trying to get his investment account.

"He's getting married, and they'll be living on East 77th. He wants a bigger place."

Bigger? Each of the apartments on this floor was at least ten thousand square feet. My place on East 14th Street could fit into the kitchen here with room to spare.

"Will it be hard to rent his apartment?"

"Because of the murders? Not likely. People want these penthouses. And the murders didn't happen in either Mr. Johnson's or Mr. Addams'."

"You have a point." It wasn't as if Randy and Richard had been shot and there was blood all over the place. I imagined the management would wait until Blair caught this maniac, and once he was in jail and the talk died down, they'd put out the word with all the realtors on Manhattan Island that Randy's place was available. "So, what about this man with the English accent?"

"I'm not sure I'm buying his story. 'I say, old chap, I do believe there's a dead chap in the flat of that bloke what was found dead in his loo. Beastly thing, what? Better go have a look-see.' Something like that. But when I asked how he knew, he said 'Cheery-bye,' and hung up. I figured he was probably some nut job, but I'd better check it out, just in case. People are coming next week to pack up the things in this penthouse, and it wouldn't look good if there was another dead body in the bathroom."

"Not to mention the smell."

"Oh, yeah." Dave rolled his eyes.

"Did you tell the detectives about this?"

He nodded. "I had to explain why I came up here."

"That makes sense." I looked toward the master bedroom.

Blair and Detective Taggart were approaching. Blair's mouth was tight, and the lines between his eyes were pronounced.

"I'd better get back to work," Dave said. "It was good seeing you again, Mr. Ellison."

"Same here, Dave. Take it easy."

"Detectives." He walked out, and I could hear him telling the cop at the door he wanted the elevator key back when they were done.

Blair worried his lower lip, and my stomach did a loop-de-loop. He was concentrating on this problem and had no idea what his action did to me. I wanted to lick the small indentations he'd put in it, take it between my teeth, suck it into my mouth... I licked my upper lip.

"This bastard likes to use accents." Blair saw my tongue on my lip, and his breath caught in an almost silent hitch. He seemed to lose his train of thought for a second. "That... uh... that German one - I almost expected him to say, 'I know nothing!' If no one knew that Richard Lee was dead, he would be in that bathroom, decomposing for more than a week, because according to the doorman, no one is coming here until next week. Our boy wouldn't get any acknowledgment, and that's what he wants."

"So he calls the doorman, and this time he imitates Cary Grant." Taggart blew out an exasperated breath. "Dave the doorman comes up and finds Mr. Lee propped on the john; we get the call, and his work is duly noted."

"I'd be surprised if he doesn't expect a front page headline and page 2 and 3 as well."

"What I don't get is why The Strangler came back here? And why was Mr. Lee here?"

"Jim, can you shed any light on that?"

"No. Sorry. I don't know what's happened since I left."

"What about before you left?"

"Someone's coming."

Taggart looked at me as if I had a screw loose.

The front door opened and closed, and there were footsteps in the entryway.

A tall, stocky man whose Indian heritage was obvious in his broad nose, skin tones, and black hair walked in.

Taggart's jaw dropped. "How'd you know that?"

I shrugged.

"Sorry to call you out, Dan." Blair seemed excited about something, which confused me. No one else noticed anything.

"The night shifts are murder. No pun intended. He's in the bathroom?" Dan Wolf sighed at their nods. "You don't have to show me; I know the way."

"He was the coroner for your friend. Joel, see if he needs any help? I'll be right with you."

"Henri's there. He can help."

"Yeah, well, you can help too."

Taggart left, muttering under his breath, "He's a pain in the ass when he's got no boyfriend; he's a pain in the ass when he's got one."

I blushed. "I'd better go, Chief. You're going to be busy."

"That's an understatement. But I want to talk to you for a second. Sit down, okay?"

I got a little nervous. What did Blair want to talk to me about?

"Chief, there really isn't anything I can tell you about Randy's life after I left him." I sat down on the couch. "And before... He got tired of hearing me complain about... about stuff."

"'Stuff'?" Blair sat beside me and studied me. "Jim, you were able to identify the odor of Richard Lee's cologne."

"Well, not until I got in here."

"Yeah, but you knew you'd smelled it before when we were in the elevator. Was that some of the stuff that was bothering you?"

I hunched a shoulder and avoided his eyes.

"There's something else I've been noticing, Jim - you respond to things that no one else seems to be aware of. You knew Joel was coming from the master bedroom, that Dan was here before he walked into the apartment. Have you found that any of your other senses are becoming overactive?"

"No." I got to my feet and walked toward the entryway. He already knew about my senses of smell and hearing. Wasn't that enough?

I wasn't going to tell him about my search for clothes that didn't feel like sandpaper against my skin.

I wasn't going to tell him that I'd seen a bank robber in a shadowed doorway load his gun and tuck it into his belt before crossing the street to enter the bank.

I wasn't going to tell him that at dinner I'd hesitated for a beat before putting a forkful of turkey into my mouth.

And yet I found myself doing just that. I came back to him, sat down, and spilled it all out. His eyes grew wider, and when I finished, I held my breath and waited to see how he would react.

"Jim!' He bounced to his feet and began pacing the room, hands waving in the air, literally vibrating with excitement. "This is boss! This could mean... " He took a breath and calmed down. He sat down again and took my hand. "Have you ever heard of Richard Burton?"

I gave him a look. "Who hasn't?" We were palm to palm, and surreptitiously, I tightened my grip. "I saw him last year in 'The Taming of the Shrew.' Liz was pretty good in it too. A little plump, but that might have been the costume."

"No, I'm talking about Richard Burton the explorer."

He was an explorer? I'd had no idea. "What about him?"

"I found a monograph of his in the library on 42nd Street. It was over seventy-five years old, and I practically had to promise my first born in order to get a look at it."

"Why were you looking at monographs in the public library?"

"Oh, see, I was an anthropology major when I as in college." Blair looked wistful, and I stroked his palm with my finger. "I still take classes on and off when I know I'll have a shift that will accommodate them. Anyway, that Richard Burton postulated that primitive tribes had what he called sentinels, watchmen who were chosen because of a genetic advantage - they had enhanced senses. They kept a look-out for game, listened for the approach of enemies, felt the change in the weather. The survival of the tribe depended on these people."

"So what are you saying?"

"Jim, I think you're a sentinel!"

"Why? Because I recognized the Dick Man's British Sterling?"

"Among other things."

"A lot of men wear that cologne. And as Dave told you, Randy brought a lot of men up to his apartment. It didn't have to be Richard."

"Don't bust my hump, Jim. You were positive it was him, and you knew he was dead. Face it. You hear things. Your skin is hyper-sensitive. Your taste buds are acting up. You see things ..."

"So what if I do?" I let go of his hand. "What good does this do me?"

"Nothing right now, but maybe - maybe, Jim - together we can find a way to explore this thing with your senses!"

"Blair!" Taggart shouted from the other end of the apartment, and I jumped. "Holy mother of god! Get your ass in here!"

"Promise me you'll think about it." Blair's hand curved around my neck. His palm was warm against it, and I was ready to purr.

"Sandburg!"

I flinched from the volume of Taggart's voice. "Fuck!"

"Lee isn't going anywhere."

"You'd better go see what has Taggart in a tizzy. He's muttering about coming in here and getting you."

"Dammit."

"I'll think about the sentinel thing. I promise."

He touched my cheek. "I'll call you if I don't get home too late."

"Call anyway, Chief. I'll be waiting. Are you tender, Blair?" He looked confused. "You can have me if you say 'yes.'"

"Yes." He seemed to hesitate for a second, then touched my hair.

"I cut it when I left Randy Beautiful."

"Would you grow it for me?"

"Yes. If you want."

"I want." He handed me my overcoat, turned me around and gave me a slight push, his hand lingering on my ass. "Go on home, Jim. I have cop stuff to do."

I gazed over my shoulder at him. "Be careful, Chief."

He nodded and went back to the murder scene.

You be careful too, Jim.

I smiled, for once not minding that I could hear something I shouldn't have been able to, and left the apartment.

"Goodnight, Officer Dolan."

"Goodnight, sir."

I took the elevator down to the lobby floor and went out a service entrance, avoiding the reporters who were still hovering around the main door.

####

Naomi, my mother, always told me, "You can be whatever you want to be, sweetheart."

When I said, "I want to be an anthropologist, Mama," she smoothed my curls and pinched my chin.

"All right." Although clearly she had no idea what an anthropologist did. I could have told her I wanted to be a doctor, soldier, or Indian chief, and she still would have said, 'All right.'

In the beginning, though, I was just a kid who had no father and whose mother was a dancer.

That was always said in a sneering tone. She wasn't a Rockette, and she didn't dance at clubs like the Copa. She danced in places that smelled of spilled beer and cigarette smoke and other things. It didn't pay too well, but it put food on the table, as she liked to say. She was working now at the Scarlett Slipper, and the tips were the best they had been.

I'd taught myself to read at a really young age, but Naomi was the only one who knew that. She left True Confessions and Hollywood Confidential magazines scattered around the crappy little apartments we had, and I learned from them.

Naomi was a good mother, even though she'd never married my father. When Old Man Mankowitz came to her, complaining that he'd found me in the back of his used book store, hiding from the cops he'd said, she'd snarled at him, "My boy has no reason to hide from the cops. Did he take anything, destroy any books?" Mankowitz reluctantly shook his head. "Then get out of my house."

After Old Man Mankowitz had left, she'd gotten a sad look on her face. "This neighborhood is no good for you, sweetheart. We'll have to move."

So we did. Again. She finally found a furnished apartment between Lexington and Third. It was larger than the furnished apartment we'd left, and I'd have my own room. The best thing about that was that I wouldn't have to sleep on a lumpy sofa in the parlor. There was also a bathroom. In our last place there had been a toilet at the end of the hall, and everyone on the floor had to share it.

The staircase was located at the front of the building. I'd finished the climb and was carrying a box with the last of our belongings down the hall to the apartment when I saw a short boy hovering by the doorway. He was about my age, with the biggest blue eyes, and blond hair that longer than mine and almost as curly.

"Hello." He smiled shyly.

"Hi."

"You're new here." He studied me. "You have the same color eyes as I do."

"Yeah?"

"Yes. They're blue."

I nodded. "This box is getting heavy. Wanna see my room?"

"I'd like that. Thank you." He was very polite.

"Come on, then. I'm Blair."

"I'm Butch," he said quickly.

We went down a short corridor. To the right was the kitchen, and further down on that side was the bathroom. My room was just across the hall, and Naomi's was at the end.

"Oh. Your room is... small."

I looked around in surprise. "You think so?" There was a bed and a chest of drawers. Only Naomi's room had a closet, but that was okay, I didn't have enough clothes to need one. I put the box beside the bed.

"I live in 202. It's at the front of the building. Would you care to see my room?"

"Sure. Ma? This is Butch."

Naomi was just coming in with bedding to make the bed.

Butch approached her with his hand outstretched. "How do you do, ma'am?"

"Hello, Butch. Call me Naomi." She smiled at him, shifted the sheets to her other arm, and shook his hand, and I could see him fall in love with her.

"Is it all right if I go see his apartment?"

"It's right down the hall, ma'am." He blushed.

"Okay. Not too long, though, Blair. It's almost dinner time, and then you'll need to unpack."

"Okay."

Butch and I left my new home and started down the hall.

"This is where I live." He opened the door, and we stepped into a room that appeared larger than our whole apartment. "This is the front room."

"My head! Keep your voice down, Reginald!"

I looked around to see who she was talking to, but it was just me and Butch.

"And close the door!"

"I'm sorry, Mother." All the shades were drawn, and the room was dim, but not so dim that I couldn't see the dull red in his cheeks. "I'm sorry. I didn't realize... "

The woman lying on a sofa had a white cloth over her head. She sat up, holding the cloth in place, and looked over at us, her expression clearly unhappy. "Who is this?"

"This is Blair," Butch said. "He and his mother just moved into 206."

"That matchbox." She frowned at her son. "Don't make any noise. I have a splitting headache."

"No, Mother."

"It was nice to meet you, Missus."

"Oh, my word, a greenhorn!" She shuddered and sank back on the sofa.

Naomi had taught me to be polite to women, even if they weren't ladies, so I didn't blow a raspberry at her.

"What is your last name, Butch?" I whispered.

"Dandridge."

"Mine's Sandburg."

"Reginald, please!" For someone with a splitting headache, she had sharp ears and a cutting voice.

He sighed and led me out of the room. His shoulders were slumped, and I patted them. "It's okay. Grownups can be like that." My nose twitched as we passed the kitchen. "Something smells good." It reminded me that it had been a long time since lunch.

"Thank you. That's the pressure cooker. I made beef stew." I wasn't surprised he knew how to cook. I'd had to learn how myself. "Mother doesn't care for beef stew - she says it's bourgeoisie - but that was all we had in the house. She'll go to General Delivery tomorrow if she's feeling well enough, and get the check, and then we'll have money for food she thinks is more appropriate for us." He opened a door at the end of the corridor. "Are you going to say something about my name?"

"Nope. You wanna be called Butch, that's okay by me."

"Thank you. I like it much better than Reginald." He smiled, a sweet smile. "This is my room."

It was larger than the room that Naomi had said was mine. There was a bed covered with a white bedspread - and I wondered how Butch kept it so clean - a dresser, a desk and a chair. The late afternoon sun splashed through the two high windows. Under them was a wide bookcase filled with books.

I let out a long, low whistle, keeping in mind his mother. "Can I look at your books?"

"Sure!" Butch brought the chair over, but I sat cross-legged on the pale, oval rug that covered most of the floor. He hesitated, then sat beside me. "Er... I'd ask you to join us for dinner, but Mother doesn't allow guests. I'm sorry."

"That's okay."

"What are you having for dinner?"

"Dunno. Depends on what Naomi can find at the corner store."

"You call your mother by her name?"

"Sure."

"Oh."

"How come your mama is going to General Delivery? That's for mail. It isn't a bank."

It was a few seconds before he responded. "She's sent a check every month." His lower lip quivered, and he looked away. "My... my father doesn't want me. He sends Mother money to keep me away from him."

"The bastard!" His head whipped around, and his eyes were enormous. I'd picked up some choice words from the boys who ran the streets in my old neighborhood. "You look like a good kid, Butch. I don't understand why your father wouldn't want you for his son."

He pulled a handkerchief from a pocket and blew his nose. "Thank you. Mother won't talk about it, so all I know is that he lives in Virginia, I think."

"You don't have an accent."

"I was born in Richmond, but we never lived there. We've lived in Washington, DC, Philadelphia, and Boston before we moved here. What about your father?"

"Naomi says he was a soldier." He'd been out of the picture since before I was born.

"Did you ever meet him?"

"No. He was killed on Iwo Jima." If anyone asked, that's what she told them.

"Doesn't it bother you? That you'll never get to meet him, talk to him?"

"I've met a lot of people. Not meeting one more won't make much of a difference. Besides, what good does it do anyone if I let it bother me?"

"But he was your father!"

"But he's not here. It's just me and Naomi. I'm not going to cry over it."

"You're not?" He seemed surprised, as if it had never occurred to him that while there were some things a kid had no control over, he could control his reaction to them.

I was getting uncomfortable. "Uh... The Bobbsey Twins, Butch? Not to be rude, but these are kind of sissy books."

"Those are Mother's choice. She thinks they're suitable reading for impressionable minds." His blue eyes danced, and it was as if we hadn't just been having a serious discussion. "These are my books! Mother doesn't know about them." He moved the other books aside, and behind them were authors I hadn't seen in the little storefront libraries I'd visited in the various neighborhoods we'd lived in.

Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lester Dent, A. Merritt, H. Rider Haggard.

I took a book out. On the dust cover was a scantily clad, very well-endowed young lady. She rode what appeared to be a centaur who brandished a wicked-looking spear. Intrigued, I opened it and read the first sentence of the prologue.

I met him in the Blue Room of the Transoceanic Liner Harding the night of Mars Day - June 10, 1967.

The date caught my eye. This took place in the future!

I took out another book, and another. Tarzan and the Jewels of Opar. Man of Bronze. Seven Footprints to Satan.

"These are wonderful!"

"Would you like to borrow them?"

"You wouldn't mind?"

"No. That's what... what friends do, isn't it?"

I smiled at him. "Yeah, that's what friends do."

We sat there for a while, and he talked in fits and starts, as if he wasn't used to having someone he could talk to. His mother was disappointed in him. She'd wanted a daughter. If his school hadn't objected, she'd have kept his hair in long ringlets.

Abruptly I realized I was having a hard time distinguishing his features. I glanced up at the windows, to see they were darkening. "Oh, no! I'd better get home."

Butch got up and turned on a lamp.

"Thanks for letting me borrow this, Butch."

"You're welcome, Blair. I keep a journal," he told me, "like they do in Dracula. The book, not the movie. This was such a great day! I'm going to write about meeting you. I always write about the things that make me happy." I wondered how many entries there were in his journal. "Will I see you tomorrow?"

"I don't know. Naomi and I are going to get me enrolled in the school a few blocks over."

"My school is uptown." We tiptoed past the supine figure on the sofa.

"That stinks. It would have been nice to have a friend there. Listen. Would you like to come to my apartment for dinner? Whatever Naomi is making, I'm sure there's enough for you."

His face lit up, but then he deflated. "I can't. Mother doesn't like waking up to an empty apartment."

"Well, maybe you can come over after dinner tomorrow night? We can do our homework together. Thanks again for the book. I'll get it back to you as soon as I finish it."

"There's no rush. I'll see you, Blair." He closed the door, and I walked down the corridor, thinking about what to tell Naomi.

I entered our apartment and locked the door behind me. "Ma?"

"I'm in the kitchen, sweetheart." A pot of water was boiling on the stove, and Naomi was opening a can of tomato paste.

"Spaghetti? Great."

She smiled at me. "So. Did you have a nice time with Butch?"

"It was interesting. His name is really Reginald. Reginald Dandridge. His mother seems to have these horrible headaches... "

"Poor woman. Nana suffered from those. I remember the rags soaked in vinegar that she'd have on her forehead..."

"I guess. He let me borrow a book." I held it up.

"No wonder why you were late. The table is all set. Go wash your hands."

I put the book on top of the icebox, went to the sink and washed my hands, then sat at the small table.

"Ma?"

"What is it, sweetheart?"

"Butch and his mother are alone, just like we are, but she doesn't have to work. He told me that she goes to General Delivery every month and picks up a check."

"That's interesting." She put a plate of spaghetti in front of me.

"Yeah. I think it's a swell idea. If you go to General Delivery and get a check, you won't have to work any more either."

"Blair... "

"I'm kidding, Naomi." I gave her a big grin. She smiled and reached across the table to pat my hand. "Butch's mama is getting that money from his father." I didn't ask if she would have accepted money from my father.

"I guess some people just don't get along together."

"Butch says it's to keep him away from his father, that his father doesn't want to see him."

"Who told him that?"

"He said his mama did."

"That witch!"

"I think that stinks, Ma. Butch misses him, even though he's never seen him. I mean, my papa is dead, so I don't expect to see him walk up the front steps. But Butch's... "

"Blair, do you want me to give you a new papa? I can get married and do that if you want it very much."

"No, Mama."

She looked relieved. "Now, why don't you get unpacked? Once that's done, you can take a bath and then read a bit before bedtime. I'll have to leave for work in about an hour."

"Okay." Her boss had told her she could take the night off because of the move. Of course, she wouldn't be paid for the time she wasn't dancing. I really wished she didn't have to work so hard. I took the plates to the sink, washed and dried them, and put them away in a cupboard.

"Hi, BaaBaa." On top of the dresser was the stuffed lamb Naomi had given me when I'd been born. I had slept with it when I was little, but now I was too big for something like that.

I put my clothes away in the dresser and went into the bathroom. Naomi had run the tub for me. I was a little hesitant to step into it. I'd never had a bath before.

The water rose to a little above my waist, and I liked the warmth that surrounded me.

I looked down and saw the shape of my body wavering in the water.

"Don't dawdle, sweetheart. I want you out before I have to leave."

"Okay, Ma." I washed my hair first and ducked it under the water, then soaped up the washcloth she had draped over the faucet and started scrubbing.

Once I was clean and dry, I pulled on my pajamas and went into my room. I was just hopping into bed when Naomi came in with The Moon Maid.

"You left this in the kitchen."

"Thanks, Ma."

"You're welcome, sweetheart. I'm leaving now. You'll be okay?"

"Yes, Ma."

"Pleasant dreams." She hugged me and kissed me goodnight, turned on my bedside lamp and snapped off the overhead light. "Not too late, now. I have my alarm set early so I can go with you to school."

"Okay. Have a good night, Ma."

She smiled and left my door open.

I listened to the sound of her footsteps as she crossed the apartment, shut the door behind her, and locked it. Then I opened the book and began to read.

It wasn't long before I began to feel sleepy, so I used a piece of paper to mark my page, got up to make a last check of the apartment, then went back to bed. I switched off my lamp, pulled the covers over my shoulders and turned on my side, and thought about the boy who lived at the front of the building. I fell asleep in the middle of wondering what it must be like to have a mother like his, and being thankful that I didn't.

The next day Naomi walked me to the public school I'd told Butch about. She handed my records to the secretary, then smiled and kissed my cheek. "I have to go now, Blair."

"I'll see you later, Ma." I watched until she opened the door to the stairwell and I couldn't see her any more.

"Wait here. I'll give your records to Mrs. Short. She's the vice principal." Within minutes she returned to her desk, smoothing a grimace off her face.

A large woman in a dowdy dress with flowers all over it came out of the office. Her salt and pepper hair was in tight pin curls, and twin circles of rouge stood out on her cheekbones. She was holding my records and frowning at them.

"This is obviously incorrect. You're seven and a half. You belong in the second grade." She led me down a flight of stairs to the second floor, to a classroom at the end of the corridor. She tapped on the door, then motioned the teacher out.

"You have a new student. Blair Sandburg."

"Hello, Blair. I'm Mrs. Edgerly. I'm so happy you'll be in my class." She was young and pretty and enthusiastic, unlike other teachers I'd seen who'd been worn down by overcrowded classrooms and lack of supplies.

"Hmmph." Mrs. Short turned on her heel and walked back to the stairwell, her stride almost militant.

My new teacher touched my shoulder. "If you'll come in? Everyone, this is Blair Sandburg. He's new here, so let's welcome him."

There were some muffled 'hi's'. I wished Butch were here. At least then I wouldn't have been so alone.

"Hang up your jacket, then take that desk there." Mrs. Edgerly pointed to a desk in the back of the room and returned to the blackboard where she listed synonyms, homonyms, and antonyms. I'd taught myself about them, but I pretended to be interested to be polite.

The bell rang for lunch. "All right, children, put your work away and line up at the side of the room. Blair, would you mind waiting, please?" After the room emptied, she returned to her desk, and I joined her. "Did you understand what I was teaching?"

"Yes," I remembered Mrs. Dandridge's reaction, "ma'am."

"Explain it to me, please?"

I did. She began to question me about arithmetic, and then had me read from first a 2B reader, then 3A, and finally 4A. When I'd finished, she was clearly puzzled.

"Why were you assigned to my classroom, Blair? You're obviously on fourth grade level."

I shrugged. "I'm not old enough."

She looked startled. "Hmmm. All right, go have your lunch."

I found the cafeteria and ate the lettuce and tomato sandwich I had made for myself. Just as I was finishing, an older kid who had to be an eighth grader approached me. "Are you Blair Sandburg? Come with me. Mrs. Weston wants to see you."

"Who's Mrs. Weston?"

"She's the principal."

I threw away my trash and followed him through the corridor and up the stairs to the third floor. The vice principal frowned at me as I walked past her and into the principal's office.

Mrs. Weston was somewhere between her vice principal and the second grade teacher. She was dressed in a gray suit and wore shoes that matched. There were crow's feet at the corners of her eyes, but I had the feeling they were from smiling and not frowning.

"Thank you, David." She waited until we were alone before she spoke to me. "I understand you're quite bright."

I kept my mouth shut. I'd heard that before, or variations of it, and it always prefaced flying fists.

"Sit there."

So I sat 'there', a student's desk probably used for detention, and I took tests and answered questions, and by the end of the day I'd been promoted to the third grade.

"I can't, in good conscience, put you in the fourth grade, Blair. However, you'll see me after class every day for additional instructions."

"Mrs. Weston, my mama works nights. After school is the only time I really get to see her."

"Very well, then. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, and during your lunch hour. Now, go back to Mrs. Edgerly's room and get your coat. Class is over for the day."

When I got home, I told Naomi all about it.

"How do you feel about being in school so much, Blair?"

"It's only a couple of hours three days a week, Ma."

"All right. But if it gets too much, I want you to tell me. You can stop whenever you want."

But the thought of not learning bothered me more than staying after class.

****

Naomi and I fell into a routine. I made my own breakfast and lunch, and left a pot of coffee on the stove for when she woke up. I'd walk home after school, and she'd have dinner ready.

While I did my homework, she'd get dressed for work. "Don't stay up too late, sweetheart." She'd kiss my cheek and leave.

Often Butch would come over, and we would do our homework together. I studied hard and got the highest grades in my class, and at the end of that school year, I was skipped another grade. And then another.

I'd read all of Butch's books, over and over, and I started going to the library on 42nd Street. It had books the little store front libraries I'd used didn't have space or patrons for.

As I got older, I got a job selling newspapers on the corner.

Naomi wouldn't take the coins I'd earned when I tried to give them to her. "Save them, sweetheart. I want you to go to college, just like your cousin Franklin."

Franklin was her sister Rebecca's son. Uncle Asher had been 4-F, had worked in the Brooklyn Navy Yard through the whole war, according to Naomi, and was still working there, insulating the big ships. She didn't like him too much, and Aunt Rebecca always found something to criticize. Franklin, the few times I'd seen him, had been nice, but he was wrapped up in his studies. He wanted to be a surgeon.

Going to college would be nifty, but I knew it would be hard for Naomi to pay my tuition, so I put everything into a tin box I kept in the top drawer in my dresser.

It was different with Butch. His mother didn't want him doing anything menial.

He stood with me on the street corners a couple of times, but I could see he was uncomfortable doing that, so I stopped asking him.

"After I graduate high school," he told me one evening when we'd put away our books and were talking about the future, "Mother will probably make my father pay for college."

That was the only time I ever envied him a father.

****

It was a rainy Saturday in the late fall. Butch and I had spent the afternoon at the movies, and now we were home. I'd walked him to his apartment. The shades were drawn and the lights were off. His mother was lying on the sofa, the white cloth over her forehead.

"I'll see you later?" I whispered.

"Yes. After dinner? We can go up to the roof?" His lips were puffy, and I couldn't take my eyes off them.

"Okay."

The hallway was empty, and I leaned in and kissed him quickly. His eyes were bright with happiness and just a touch of anxiety at what his mother might do if she ever found out - and I was familiar enough with her to understand it. He shut the door, and I went to my apartment.

"Blair?" Naomi called from her bedroom. "I'm in here, getting ready."

I went down the hall and hung on the frame of her bedroom door. She did her makeup at home. The lighting was better, she said.

"Hi, sweetheart." Naomi met my eyes in the mirror above her vanity and smiled at me. "You're home late, aren't you?"

"We watched the movies twice."

"I kept a plate for you in the oven."

"Thanks. Uh... Mama?"

"What is it?" She stopped in the careful application of her makeup. I hadn't called her 'Mama' since I was seven years old.

"I think I may have a problem."

"Do you want to tell me about it?"

"No. But I think maybe I'd better."

She put down her eyebrow pencil and turned to face me. "Then talk to me, sweetheart."

"Something happened this afternoon." I swallowed and licked my lips. "You know today is Saturday."

"Yes." She didn't get impatient at the obviousness of my statement.

"And Butch and I go to the matinees every Saturday." We'd sneaked up to the balcony. It had been closed, as it usually was on a Saturday afternoon.

"Yes."

"They were showing three movies today. And Then There Were None, The Most Dangerous Game, and The Island of Doctor Moreau."

"Oh, my. Not exactly my choice of movies. I begged your Aunt Rebecca to take me to see The Island of Doctor Moreau when she went with her friends, and I had nightmares for weeks. 'What is the law? Not to spill blood. That is the law. Are we not men?'"

I gave an uncomfortable laugh. "I know what you mean. When they dragged Doctor Moreau into the House of Pain... " I shuddered. "Butch was practically... um... sitting in the same seat with me."

Butch had actually been in my lap, his head buried in my neck. My arms had come around to hold him, and I'd stroked his back and whispered, "It's okay, Butch. I'm here."

And it was a good thing the balcony was empty, because he'd turned his head, and his lips had brushed over my neck. His breath had been hot on my skin, and I'd found myself not only with a lapful of friend, but with a hard dick as well.

I tried to shift so my dick wasn't digging into his ass.

"Blair?" Butch couldn't help but feel it.

I opened my mouth to say I was sorry, and then his mouth was on mine.

The movie finished, and a Tom and Jerry cartoon came on, and we necked through it. And after that, And Then There Were None started again, and then The Most Dangerous Game as well, and we spent the rest of the movie exploring each other's mouths.

"Uh... Mama, I kissed Butch. In the balcony. And... and... " When it was over, while they were showing the coming attractions and the matron shooed us out, scolding us because we shouldn't have been in the balcony - usually we didn't get caught - we went to the boys' room. We'd washed our hands, taking our time, and when the last few boys had left, when it was empty, we'd kissed again.

I licked my lips again, wondering if they were as puffy as Butch's had been, wishing I could still taste his kiss.

I watched Naomi through my lashes, but she didn't say anything right away.

"Mama?"

"You know people say nasty things about me."

I nodded. "Because you're not married but you have me."

"Yes. And also because I take my clothes off in front of strange men. I don't want people talking about you like that."

"They won't!"

"If they find out that you kissed another boy, they'll say even worse things."

I hadn't thought of that. "Why should they care, Mama? We're not hurting anyone."

"What do you want me to tell you?"

"That it's... That I'm not... That Butch won't... " I sighed. "I don't know, Mama."

"Do you intend to do it again?"

"Are you going to tell me I can't? I shouldn't?"

"I just want you to be careful."

I worried my lip. "After dinner I'm meeting him up on the roof."

"Blair. Butch is your friend. He's the same age as you, but... He can be so easily hurt. Don't hurt him. Don't hurt yourself."

"I won't, Mama. I promise."

She stood up and came to me, held me. "I don't think Mrs. Dandridge will be as easy-going about this as I am. Is Butch going to tell her?"

"Jeepers, no! And if she finds out... " I shuddered. I didn't want to think how my best friend's straight-laced mother would react to us keeping company.

Keeping company. I liked that phrase. It was grown-up.

"Well, Butch can stay here if he needs a place to stay."

"Thanks, Mama."

"Go eat your dinner. And Blair. A gentleman, a real gentleman, doesn't kiss and tell. I expect you to be a gentleman. Don't tell anyone about what you and Butch do, and don't push Butch to go faster than he wants."

"No, Mama." And I went to hurry though dinner so I could meet my friend on the roof.

****

Butch never wanted to go as far as I did, but that was okay. He was my best friend. I remembered what Naomi had said. I was willing to settle for kisses and the occasional handjob or blowjob.

I came home from high school one day to find Naomi staring at a piece of note paper. She held it out to me. "This was under the door. It wasn't in an envelope."

"What?"

"I don't want you thinking I'd opened your mail."

"I'd never... " I scanned the pale blue paper. I'll be in touch as soon as I can, Curly. R

Curly. That was his pet name for me, because my hair was a riot of curls, even curlier than his, especially when it was cut short.

"What does he mean, Mama? He'll be in touch? Where did he go? Why did he sign it with an R?" I felt as if I'd been hit by a steamroller.

"They're gone, sweetheart. Butch and his mother have just... just gone. Mrs. Pelligrino said she went to collect the rent, and Mrs. Dandridge told her they were moving out."

"He didn't even say goodbye. He didn't leave an address. How can I find him?"

"I don't know, sweetheart." She put her arms around me and hugged me. "I'm sorry. I'm so sorry. I thought Butch was the one who needed to be looked out for, taken care of, but it was you."

I never knew what happened - if someone had seen us and spilled the beans, if his mother had gotten suspicious of Butch always doing his homework in my apartment - even though we never did anything there - or if she'd just got tired of lying on that fucking sofa.

I found a Virginia telephone book in the library and dialed every Dandridge in it, but it was useless.

For six months I fucked anyone who looked interested - who looked like Butch - and then I got tired of giving blue-eyed blonds what he hadn't wanted. I buried myself in schoolwork. By the time I graduated, I had an additional year's worth of college credits under my belt.

And the hurt had lost its intensity.

****

I applied for every scholarship I qualified for, and some that maybe I didn't. There was one for Children of Iwo Jima Combatants. It wasn't much, but it covered my books. I lived and ate at home, and the part time job I had evenings and weekends at The Starlight Lounge, the exclusive club on 33rd Street where Naomi danced, paid for the clothes I needed.

While I cleaned off the tables and emptied the ashtrays, I'd move to the music, copying the moves the girls made.

They didn't interest me in a sexual way, which was good. I didn't think I could have coped - watching my mother dance on that stage and knowing I had a hard-on.

Sometimes, when we were hosting a bachelor party, or if a fraternity came into town to blow off some steam, I'd get my ass pinched or fondled. I'd raise an eyebrow to see if they were serious about their offer, and if they were, sometimes I'd take them up on it. I'd either let them go down on me in the john, or if the joint was really jumping, take them out to the back alley and fuck them up against a wall.

In my sophomore year at NYU, I was offered the opportunity to accompany Professor Eli Stoddard on a field trip to Peru.

Professor Stoddard was visiting from Rainier University, which had one of the most comprehensive anthropology departments in the country.

Only three others out of that class had been selected to go with him to study the indigenous tribes of the Amazon where it flowed into the Peruvian rainforest.

"If you can do this, Sandburg, I'll mentor you at Rainier."

"Professor, I can't afford Rainier."

"I'll see you get a scholarship and a job as a teaching assistant to cover incidentals."

That was an interesting way to describe food, clothing, and housing.

I found Naomi at the Lounge and told her about the trip and the professor's offer.

"I'm sorry, Blair. I can't even supply half the cost." There was no way her paycheck, even with tips, would cover our living expenses as well as this field trip. And even though I'd been able to add to them on occasion, the sad little mound of coins in the tin box wouldn't do much either. "I'm afraid you'll have to forget the trip this time."

It wasn't easy for a seventeen-year-old to earn two thousand dollars in six months, but this seventeen-year-old intended to do just that.

I'd heard through the grapevine that a friend of a friend's brother ran an escort service, and he was looking for young men. I tracked him down.

"I need a job that will earn me enough money to go to Peru in six months," I explained to Neil.

"Well, this is one that'll do it. Peru?"

"It's a field trip for my anthropology studies."

"That's a college course, isn't it?"

"Yeah."

"I like smart boys who are willing to work." He looked me up and down, fingered my brown hair that was a curly cap on my head, tipped my chin up and studied my blue eyes. "Y'know what an escort does, kid?"

I opened my mouth, but he interrupted me.

"Let me clarify that. Do you know what an escort who works for me does? He doesn't take girls to the prom or ladies out to dinner. He accompanies gentlemen who prefer the company of young men. And that means into the gentleman's bed. That's what you'd have to do. Think you can?"

"Neil, I'm butch." I could see my chances of going to Peru fading fast.

"I've got some clients who prefer that, and right now, I don't have a boy for them." He studied me carefully. "Show me what you can do."

"Excuse me?"

"You heard me. I'm your date." He led me to his back room and pulled a Murphy bed down from the wall. "We've had a lovely dinner, gone dancing, and now we're back at my place. Seduce me. Make love to me."

By the time we were done, I lay sprawled on the bed, panting, amazed by the things he'd taught me.

It took him a few minutes to catch his breath. "You're a firecracker, kid. I can definitely use you."

"Then yeah, I can do this."

"Okay, Firecracker." He kissed the corner of my jaw. "You've got the job. I think you'll do good in this business. Now, the calls come through me. I set up your dates, and you give me a quarter of your take for that. If your client wants to tip you, you keep all of that. No need for me to get greedy."

I told Naomi what I'd done, and she sighed and shook her head. "Be careful, Blair."

"I will, Mama. I promise."

She kissed my cheek and left for work, a garment bag over her arm that contained the costume she'd put together and was going to try out that evening, feathers and sequins and fringe that shimmied and danced.

I was lucky. Neil ran a straight business, so-to-speak. His clients got what they wanted, his boys got to keep most of what they earned, and he made us see a doctor every week, which made sure we stayed healthy.

I earned the money I needed and more with a couple of weeks to spare. I was going to Peru.

****

What Professor Stoddard called our base camp was going to be set up in the town of Iquitos, on the Amazon River, near the Peruvian border with Brazil, so we could study the Aguaruna, Shipibo, and Mayaruna tribes.

"What about the Chopec, Professor?" I asked him as we all piled into the donkey cart that would take us from Lima to Iquitos. There was no airport, and the roads didn't treat automobiles kindly.

"Unfortunately, we're too far north."

The first night in Iquitos, he assigned us roommates. Toby Morgan, one of the three other students, shared a room with me at the youth hostel, and once we were in the field, we shared a tent also. He had short brown hair and green eyes, and was two years my senior.

"This is the first time I've ever been away from home," he told me as he carefully examined the drawers that were his.

"Looking for something?"

"Insects. Tarantulas, scorpions, stuff like that." He seemed satisfied the drawers were uninhabited, and emptied his suitcase.

I glanced at a hole in the corner. I could just see whiskers poking out and twitching, and I grinned and shook my head.

"I... uh... I really like girls." He'd been stealing peeks at me when he thought I wasn't looking.

"That's okay by me, Morgan. I hope you get laid."

"Have you?"

"Have I what? Gotten laid? Yeah."

"But you're younger than I am." He sounded so aggrieved.

"Go to sleep, Morgan." Wearing just boxers and an undershirt, I got into bed. I had no problem falling asleep - because of that lumpy sofa in the parlor, I could sleep anywhere and on any surface.

I was having an unusual wet dream. It wasn't unusual that I dreamt of my cock being sucked, but in this dream it was by someone who didn't really know what he was doing. I winced as his teeth scraped the underside of my cock. "Ouch!" And I woke up to realize it wasn't a dream.

My roommate had his mouth on my body. Between sucking kisses to my ribs and navel and hips, he muttered, "Gorgeous eyes, gorgeous hair, gorgeous body... Let me... please, let me... " His words became inarticulate and incoherent, and he tried to take my cock in his mouth again.

"Toby." I touched his cheek.

"You're awake!" He pulled back, his eyes enormous in the early dawn light that was filtering through the wooden blinds.

"It's okay, I don't mind. Just watch your teeth, okay?"

"You really don't mind?" He looked like he was ready to cry.

"Hey, what's wrong?"

"I don't know what I'm doing. I hurt you."

I grinned at him. "I'll show you, and then you can try again." I pushed him gently onto his back and showed him how to do it, how I liked it done.

It hadn't been my intention, but after that, he followed me like a puppy, more than willing to be my slave. I had to admonish him to be careful. He could have wound up with a roommate who was homophobic.

"That wouldn't have mattered. I wouldn't have done anything in that case. It's you I wanted to try this with."

Which was flattering, but... "We're away from home, and things are different. Once we get back, this will be all over."

"I know. I understand. But until then... " And he struck a pose on his bed, fluttered his lashes, and laughed when I threw myself on top of him.

Picking up new languages had always been easy for me. Naomi and I had moved from one neighborhood to another, and I'd learned to speak Italian like a wop, German like a kraut, Spanish, French, Polish, Russian, even a smattering of Chinese. It didn't take me long to pick up Quechua, one of the languages of Peru.

Time passed quickly, and we were starting to think of ourselves as bona fide anthropologists.

There was one last expedition before we would leave for home. This would take us deep into the jungle. There were rumors of a people who worshiped the jaguar as their god.

Our knapsacks were packed and at our feet, and Toby and I waited for the other students to turn up.

"Sandburg! Morgan! Jensen! Has anyone seen Henderson?" They came pounding out of the hostel. "All right, gentlemen. This is the trail we'll follow." Professor Stoddard opened a map that looked as if it were a million years old, and pointed to a winding pathway that headed north and east.

****

I'd always thought I had a good sense of direction, but maybe that was just because I knew my way around Manhattan.

Somehow, in the Peruvian rainforest, I became separated from Toby, Professor Stoddard, and the others.

Somehow, I could never remember how, I lost my knapsack, my knife, and my way.

There was rustling in the underbrush, and I grabbed up a broken branch to use as a weapon and backed away slowly. There were jaguars and other predators in this jungle.

A band of men seemed to appear from nowhere.

"I am Incacha, shaman of the Chopec," the one in the lead said in Quechua. "We will help you. Here. You must be thirsty."

I accepted the water gourd he offered, wondering what Chopec were doing so far north.

"Thank you, Incacha. I am very thirsty." I answered in the same language, and he nodded in approval. "I am Blair Sandburg." I introduced myself belatedly. The gourd didn't contain water, as I'd expected, but a sweet liquid, almost like nectar. "I must get back to my friends. They'll be worried."

That was the last thing I remembered saying.

I came to in a hut with the world's worst headache and a sore shoulder, and with the sense that time had passed. I just couldn't tell how much.

A white man walked into the hut. Although his skin was tanned enough to make him look like a Chopec, he was taller than the natives, and his eyes were blue. "I thought you'd wake up about now."

"Who are you? Where am I? Why was I brought here?" There was an awful taste in my mouth. "How long have I been here?"

"You're just the other side of the Chopec Pass. You were brought here because you needed to be taught."

"Taught what?"

"Here. This will make you feel better, Blair." He handed me a gourd with some milky liquid.

"How do you know my name?"

"Drink this."

I hesitated, remembering that the last time I'd drunk an unfamiliar liquid I'd been rendered unconscious.

"It's all right. It's safe to drink."

"Why should I believe you?"

"No reason, but if you want to get back to your friends, you'll do as I say."

I sniffed the liquid, then stuck my finger in it and licked it. It tasted like coconut milk. Reluctantly, I raised the gourd to my lips and drank. Something must have been added, because in a matter of seconds my mouth no longer tasted as if something had died in it, and I was feeling almost well enough to wrestle a jaguar, although my shoulder was still sore.

"Come." He exited the hut, apparently having no doubt that I would be right behind him. Which I was. "When you meet Enqueri, tell him Jack Pendergrast is well and thinks fondly of him."

"Who's Enqueri?"

But he was gone.

"Shaman."

Automatically I turned to face the Chopec who spoke. It was Incacha. There was an aura of power around him that I hadn't seen - or hadn't been able to see - the first time I'd met him. His smile was satisfied, and he nodded.

"You will remember little of this, Shaman," he told me, "but one day you will recall it all." Little of what? What would I recall? "And you will be good for Enqueri."

Again with 'Enqueri'. "Who is Enqueri?"

He just rested his hand on my shoulder, the one that wasn't sore, and smiled at me. "Go now. These men will see you safely back to your friends, but the journey is not a short one."

They launched canoes into a river and began paddling.

"Where are we?" I asked in Quechua.

"This is the Ucayali."

"But where was your village?"

They waved behind them, and when I pressed for more information, clearer information, they suddenly couldn't understand the way I spoke their language.

Finally I gave it up.

Traveling mostly by river, but then on foot, it took some days to get back to the department of Loreto, the part of Peru where Iquitos was.

The men smiled at me. "Your path lies there, Shaman. Farewell." And they faded into the brush, backtracking to the river.

I started walking north and east. There was a knife in my belt, and a gourd of water around my neck. In less time than I'd expected, I was walking into Iquitos.

"Blair! Blair!" Toby ran toward me. "Jesus, I thought you were dead!"

"Stories of my demise have been exaggerated."

He laughed and grabbed me and pounded me on my back. I flinched.

"What's wrong? What's the matter?"

"Dunno. My shoulder is sore, is all."

"Ah, Sandburg. You're back." Professor Stoddard sauntered across the road. I expected him to be having a conniption fit with one of his students missing for however long I'd been gone, but he was taking it quite calmly. "I knew you would be. A friend sent me word, you see. What's this on the back of your shirt?"

I twisted my head, but all I could see was a vague outline in red. I tried to ease the material off my shoulder, but it was stuck. When I freed it, Toby gasped and Professor Stoddard's eyes grew wide.

"My, my, my. You've got yourself tattooed. It's Chopec, by the look of it. Very ... interesting."

I blinked at the wolf on my shoulder. So that was why it had been sore.

"Well, I suggest a meal, a shower, and a day's rest, and then it's back to work."

"Yes, sir. That sounds like a good idea."

"I'll get you something to eat, Blair."

"Thanks, Tobe. Maybe later?" Food could wait. "I want to get cleaned up." I felt as if I hadn't had a bath in forever.

I hated being cold - Naomi and I had spent too many years in cold-water flats - but the heat and humidity of the rainforest and the trip upriver had me desperate for a cool shower.

The bathroom in the hostel was at the end of the hall. There were a number of shower heads to accommodate the residents.

I stripped off the clothes I'd worn and left them in a heap on the tiled floor.

A look into the fly-specked mirror above the sink had me shying back. I'd never seen myself look so scruffy and haggard. Five o'clock shadow that seemed closer to midnight, cheekbones that stood out in relief from the hollows beneath them, and bags under my eyes that could have contained all the clothes I'd brought with me to Peru.

I forced myself to take the time to shave, using soap and the razor that was lying on the sink. There were still streaks of lather on my cheekbones, on the point of my chin, on my adam's apple. I rinsed off the razor and turned on the shower, then stepped under the spray.

The water was tepid, and I groaned in relief as it poured over me. I washed my hair and let the spray rinse out the suds. Then I scrubbed my arms, chest, legs, ass, but I couldn't reach my back.

"Blair," the voice was tentative, "do you need some help?"

"Toby." I'd been so intent on getting clean that I hadn't realized I wasn't alone.

"Your back... Let me help you. You're almost dead on your feet."

"That's one way to put it." I gave a short laugh. "I could use a hand."

I wondered if he'd strip off his clothes and join me under the spray. He didn't. Instead, he pushed up his sleeves. "Step back a bit, okay?"

That made sense, I thought muzzily. He'd get all wet otherwise.

I did as he asked, and he stroked the soapy washcloth carefully over my shoulders, then my back and waist.

"All done. Rinse off."

I shuffled forward and braced my palms against the slick tiles of the wall. The water drizzled down on me, and I stared at the suds that whirlpooled down the drain.

The washcloth was wrung out and hung up, the faucet twisted off. "Come on. Let's get you dried off and in bed."

"Toby... "

The soft kiss I was half-expecting was pressed to the shoulder that wasn't marked, followed by a rueful laugh.

"I think you need sleep more than you need anything else." He dried my body while I dried my hair. I felt as if I were about to fall asleep standing up. "I'm so glad you're back safe. Lie down."

We were in the room we shared. I had to be more tired than I had realized for him to get me there without me being aware.

I sprawled out on the small bed, and I thought I heard him whisper something, but I was asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow. I dreamed of the jungle, of a wolf and a jaguar running side by side. They came to a halt in a cool clearing, and the jaguar licked the wolf's shoulder, earning himself a lick across his muzzle.

When I awoke the next morning, I felt much better, my shoulder no longer sore. On the dresser were two tiny figurines, a wolf and a jaguar, crafted of wood native to the southeastern portion of Peru.

"I found them in your pants pocket, Blair." Toby was lounging against the doorframe.

"Thanks, Tobe."

"Are you feeling better?"

"Yeah." I opened the dresser and pulled out clean clothes.

"What are you going to do with the clothes you had on when... "

"Burn 'em."

He gave a bark of laughter, until he realized I was serious. "Oh. Okay. Well, I've gotta get to work."

"Yeah. Thanks." I picked up the wolf and stroked it. Then I did the same with the jaguar. Beside my bed was my knapsack. Someone must have found it. I put them in an inside pocket, dressed, and went down to have breakfast.

Professor Stoddard was the only one around. He was sitting at the table, digging into a huge plate of scrambled eggs.

"Blair. You're awake. Sit. Eat."

"Where's everyone?"

"Oh, busy."

A plump mestizo woman came bustling out of the kitchen. Her long skirts swirled around her ankles. "Senor Blair." She placed a large mug of coffee before me and a platter of warm tortillas to the side.

"Gracias, Juanita."

"Da nada. I bring you huevos revueltos now."

I waited until she left. "Professor, what happened to me?"

"Why I... I was hoping you could tell me."

"I don't remember anything." I raised the mug and took an incautious gulp, almost scalding my mouth from the heat.

"Don't you? Now, I find that very intriguing."

"You weren't worried about my absence?"

"No. As I told you, I was informed... "

"Who informed you, Professor?"

"Beg pardon? Oh," he waved his fork, scattering bits of egg onto the table, "just an acquaintance."

"An acquaintance?" There was a name at the edge of my mind. I couldn't remember much leading up to the time I'd just spent on the Ucayali, but I remembered the name. "Jack Pendergrast?"

"Why, yes. How did you... Did you meet him? Oh, that is excellent! You must tell me all about your experiences... Oh, no, that's right, you can't remember."

"So you just took someone's word that I'd be returning?"

"I don't like your tone of voice, Sandburg." His fingers tightened on his napkin. "As I was saying, Mr. Pendergrast informed me you would be returned to us shortly, and the authorities need not be notified."

"How shortly is 'shortly', Professor?"

"It's been just a tad over three weeks."

"Three weeks?" That meant this was sometime in late September. We'd be leaving Peru soon.

Just then, Juanita brought my eggs, and again conversation came to a halt. She made sure salt and pepper and other condiments were at hand, then returned to the kitchen.

"I must say, Sandburg - I'm quite intrigued by that tattoo on your shoulder." It was obvious he wasn't going to tell me anything else on that score.

"I didn't realize it was there until you mentioned the mess my shirt was."

"How is it feeling now?"

"Better."

"I'd like to see it."

For some reason, I didn't want him looking at my wolf. I decided to change the subject. "What did you find regarding that tribe that worshipped el tigre?"

"Now, you know, it's the most amazing thing... " And he was off and away.

After we finished breakfast, he took me to the shed in which we'd stored our finds, quite excited about what they'd discovered in the time I'd been... elsewhere.

The other students were there. "Hi, Sandburg."

"You're back."

"Lucky devil to be chosen to spend time with that tribe. Tough shit you can't remember it, though."

"Yeah, that was a waste. Shoulda picked me, Professor. I wouldn't have forgotten!"

"Now, now, gentlemen. These things happen. Henderson, why don't you bring Sandburg up-to-date on our findings."

In a matter of minutes, it was as if I hadn't been gone at all.

****

The area around Iquitos had two seasons, wet and wetter. The end of the wet season, the Peruvian Amazon's version of the highlands' dry season, was only a week away, and we hurried to get everything wrapped up.

It was time to go home.

"Quickly, quickly, gentlemen. Time and tide, you know."

Toby and I were in the room we shared, packing our suitcases. "We won't be able to do this any more when we get home, Blair."

I was aware of that. We actually hadn't done anything in the time since I'd returned to Iquitos. He seemed to have lost the desire to sleep with a man, and I had lost interest.

"Are you going to avoid me if... when we meet back in NYU?"

"That's up to you, I'd say." The gift I'd chosen for Naomi, a beautiful dress in a starburst of vibrant colors and decorated with beads and feathers, was wrapped in a soft linen cloth to protect it, and I placed it in my small suitcase.

"If my parents ever found out... Or my friends... "

I snapped shut the suitcase, set it on the floor, and swung my knapsack onto the bed. The books I'd brought as sources of reference and the notes I'd taken would go into that, as well as a linen pouch that contained semi-precious stones - serpentine, red jasper, rose quartz, tiger's eye.

"Blair, I do like girls."

I shrugged and slipped the knife that had been with me since my return upriver into the knapsack, along with the figures of the wolf and jaguar.

I looked around the room. "I guess this is everything."

"I guess it is. Let me help you with that." He reached for the knapsack.

"It's okay." I swung it up onto my shoulder. "I'm fine now."

Professor Stoddard and the other students were waiting for us in the puddled street in front of the hostel.

We rode in the cart from Iquitos back to Lima, and from there took the flight to Idlewild. The others were excited, crowding around Professor Stoddard's seat and discussing the various things they'd learned.

I put my seat back and wondered about the weeks that were missing from my time in Peru. I felt Stoddard's eyes on me, but when I glanced across the aisle, he quickly looked away.

It was a smooth flight, but all-in-all, I was relieved to set foot on US soil once more.

I caught a cab from the airport and returned home.

There was a close, musty smell to the apartment.

"Mama?" I put my suitcase and knapsack on my bed and searched the apartment. It was empty. On the table in the kitchen I found a note weighted down by the salt shaker.

Blair -

I'm here to pick up some things for Aunt Naomi. She got sick suddenly and was rushed to Bellevue. I called the consulate in Lima, but they didn't seem in too much of a hurry to track you down. I sent a telegram too, but I don't know when you'll get it. Mama's been staying with her -

Black spots began to dance at the edge of my field of vision. My birth was the cause of the breach between the sisters. If Aunt Rebecca was at Naomi's bedside, my mother had to be dying. I dropped into a chair and got my head between my knees in time to prevent myself from passing out.

After some minutes I was able to continue reading the note.

Mama's been staying with her, and Papa has been coming down on the weekends. I've been looking in on her when I can. He was doing his residency in Bellevue. Her doctors have told me the crisis still hasn't passed. Get here as soon as you read this.

Frank

There was no date, and I had no idea how long it had been lying on the table.

I crumpled it in my hand and threw is aside, then ran down to the street. My cab was long gone, but it didn't matter. It would be quicker to get to the hospital on First Avenue by taking the subway anyway.

The guard at the door gave me a sharp look as I barreled in, but he must have recognized my desperation. Working at Bellevue, he must have seen a lot of that.

I rushed to the front desk. "Please! Can you tell me where my mother is?" I asked the receptionist. "Naomi Sandburg."

She thumbed through what looked like a ledger. "Ah. She's in 742. They'll direct you at the nurse's station on that floor. She already has two visitors. One of them will have to leave the room. Please don't run."

"No, ma'am." But I took off for the elevator running and got in just as the doors were sliding shut. I repeatedly jabbed the button for 7 as if that would make the doors close and the elevator rise faster.

On the 7th floor, I was told to go to the end of the corridor. 742 was on the left.

Ever after I would associate the odor of disinfectant and illness and bedpans that hadn't been emptied with that time.

It was a four bed ward. The beds to the right were empty, but the ones on the left ...

Naomi was lying on the bed nearest the door. Her eyes were closed, and she looked so small, so frail. I went toward her.

"Don't wake her, Blair. She's sleeping." It was Aunt Rebecca. She glared at the occupant in the other bed, whose back was to us. "Finally."

"What happened?"

"We don't know."

"How bad is it?"

"We don't know. Franklin can probably tell you. He's somewhere in the hospital. Where have you been? He tried to reach you."

"I just got home. I got down here as soon as I read Frank's message."

"Jesus, can't a woman get any sleep around here?" The woman in the bed next to Naomi's glared at us, then started hacking. She swung her legs over the side and fumbled for her slippers. "I gotta have a smoke."

"You can't smoke in here!" Aunt Rebecca's voice was almost strident. There was an oxygen tank at the head of the bed.

"I know it. Old bat," she muttered as she shuffled out of the room.

"Witch." Naomi was awake. "You'd think someone with lung cancer would know better than to keep smoking."

"Mama!" I wanted to throw myself at her, but instead I bent over her and held her carefully.

"I'm sorry, sweetheart." Her hand rested my hair, but the gesture was so weak.

"Why, Mama? It wasn't your fault you got sick."

"I... I can't work. There won't be any money to pay the rent or... or to help with the post-graduate semesters... Rainier is so expensive... "

"It's all right. I... I changed my mind about going there anyway."

"You have?"

"Yeah. As a matter of fact, I've changed my mind about college completely. As soon as you're better, I'm gonna look for a job."

"No, no. You've always wanted to be an anthropologist."

"I found out I don't like sleeping in a tent."

"Oh, sweetheart... " she whispered.

"After all this time you change your mind?" Aunt Rebecca demanded. "Do you know how your mother worried about getting the money for tuition? She even came to us to..."

"Rebecca, this is between my boy and me. Stay out of it."

"Not when you come back to the family after all those years, like a beggar of mercy, and for this ungrateful ..."

"Mama, you didn't ask them for money, did you?"

"Yes. They're family."

"But the scholarships!"

"It was before we knew about them - you wanted it so badly, sweetheart, I didn't see any choice."

"Mama, you didn't have to..."

"The least you could do is show a little gratitude, you... "

"Rebecca. Enough." Uncle Asher? I was surprised he could take a stand against his strong-willed wife.

Aunt Rebecca grumbled but subsided.

"Throat's so dry," Naomi rasped. I poured her a glass of water, propped her up, and held the glass while she took a sip through the straw.

"Mama, it will work out all right." I decided I'd drop the subject of her going to her sister for money for now. "I'll think of some way to support us both."

Mom waved the glass away and leaned against me wearily. "Why don't you and Asher get something in the cafeteria."

"That sounds like a good idea, Rebecca. Come on."

"Asher, I'm trying to talk to my sister."

"Naomi hasn't seen her son in four months. Let's see if we can find Franklin. I'm sure he can tell us more about Naomi's condition." He hustled her out of the room.

"Thank goodness," Naomi murmured.

"Yeah." I could see she was uncomfortable, so I plumped her pillow and turned it over so the cooler side would be up, then eased her down. "I can't understand how you and Aunt Rebecca come from the same mother."

"Behave, Blair."

"I really wish you hadn't gone to them for money, Mama." Well, so much for that resolve.

Naomi opened her eyes, the same blue as mine. "I'm your mama. I should be taking care of you."

"You always have. Don't worry about it. I just want you to get better."

"Blair." Her voice was surprisingly firm. "I don't want you working for Neil. Promise me."

"Mama, you saw how much I made in six months, and that was only goofing off. If I was serious about it... "

"No."

And I knew the conversation was over. I could have gone behind Naomi's back, but - I couldn't have gone behind her back.

"Okay, Mama. I promise."

"Hey, cuz!" My cousin Franklin strolled in.

"Hi, Frank. Your mother and father are looking for you."

"That's why I'm in here."

"You're a rascal, Franklin." But there was a small smile on Naomi's face.

"Seriously," he grinned at her, "I did see them. Good news, Aunt Naomi. You've turned the corner. Your doctor said you're doing much better."

But she was exhausted. And pale. And...

The look Franklin sent my way told me he was aware of what I was going to say, and I should just keep my mouth shut. "Once you're discharged, you'll have to take it very easy. No more dancing in smoky bars." He turned to me. "Papa says you're dropping out of college, Blair."

I swallowed hard. "Yeah."

"So you need a job?"

"Yeah. I'll have to start looking as soon as Naomi is better." He handed me something. "What's this?"

"A friend of mine is a cop. He told me NYPD is hiring."

"Me? A cop?" My haircut was short enough, but, "What about my height?"

"No problem. The ACLU is pitching a fit about the height requirements, and the NYPD is allowing even pipsqueaks like you to apply." Franklin winked at me. "It's got great health benefits."

I looked at Naomi. She was lying back, her breathing rapid and her face almost as white as the pillow.

"Where do I sign up?"

****

On to Part 2