Jennifer Sciuoto looked up from her book when she heard the sound of footsteps trotting down the stairs. She eyed the clock - close to six. With a sudden frown she marked her place, rose from the sofa and walked into the foyer in time to catch her son before he disappeared into the kitchen. She made an effort to sound if not exactly pleasant, at least non-confrontational.
"Where are you going?" she asked. "Your father should be home in a little while and I'd like us all to have dinner together for once. I don't want you disappearing."
David paused and looked at her with what had become a norm for him since mid-summer: a completely neutral expression. "I'm not going anywhere except to the kitchen to get a soda and flip through the paper," he answered, civilly. But then something clicked inside and the sarcasm kicked in. "Or do I need permission for that?"
He regretted it almost immediately. Oh, God. Why do I take a swipe at her every chance I get? He should have added something nicer to take the sting out, but he couldn't think of anything, so he turned and walked out of the hall.
His mother's eyes narrowed and she pressed her lips into a thin line, but she didn't pick up the challenge. She followed him and made at attempt at conversation while her son settled in at the table with an open can of Mountain Dew and copy of the Guardian-Post, ignoring her.
She leaned against the door jamb, this time trying for `pleasant'. "So," she said casually. "How do you like it at Merrimack College? You haven't said anything about it since registration last week."
David looked up, flashed a smile at her that his eyes said were a lie. "Just fine, Mum. Everything is just fine. College is just great." I didn't wear a T-shirt with a pink triangle on it. I didn't put a rainbow flag decal on my car and I'm not trying to organize a gay-straight alliance. None of your friends know about me, so leave me the hell alone. He scanned the front page of the paper.
"Oh, I almost forgot to tell you - Alan called," she began, trying not to make the name sound like a barb.
"Alan called Monday, Mum," David retorted, without looking up. "Today is Wednesday. Oh, and just so you know, I'm meeting him later." And if I were you I wouldn't ask what we're doing tonight, 'cuz I just might explain it... blow for blow and lick for lick. "But thanks for the message," he continued. "Late's better than never."
He couldn't hear the sound of grinding teeth but David knew `That Expression' and he fought back a quiet smile of victory. Jennifer Sciuoto turned and left the room.
The war wasn't over or even a major battle fought, but he'd won the latest in a long line of skirmishes. Guerilla tactics really were the most effective route to true victory.
David felt a pang of regret and shook his head. "Why do I do it?" he asked the air. "Jesus, she was trying to be nice for a change."
Because Chris is right, he realized, and not for the first time. The two of us are too much alike: we're both rock-stubborn, and neither wants to give the other a chance... except this time she was. And you were being a dick about it. David promised himself to make an effort at dinner - if for no other reason, his father's sake. Albert Sciuoto had been caught in the middle of the cold war since July, and now it was the second week of September. It wasn't fair to him - to either of his parents, he had to admit. He'd never realized before just how much he could not only hold a grudge, but actually enjoy nurturing it. And that'll make me just as bad as she is, he thought to himself, with a small shudder. That's not gonna happen.
David shifted his attention back to the newspaper, this time focusing on the words and not just staring at the page while he sharpened his tongue.
His eyes slipped past the international news and even the national, but he found what he wanted in the lower right corner of the front page: news about Griff's case.
David half dreaded to read about it... but couldn't stop. He'd been sure his parents would either recognize the name or a photo of his old piano teacher and pepper David with questions - his mother especially. He'd braced himself for the inquisition that had to follow, sorting through what he could or couldn't say.
But the questions never came.
The news always referred to `Prescott Robinson' of Boxford, with the same fuzzy photo of a dirty, disheveled and overweight middle-aged man who hadn't shaved for a few days being marched to a police cruiser with his head down. Later at his arraignment, he'd pulled a jacket over his head when the cameras showed up.
David pounced on the story, flagged through the paper to page ten where the article was continued, came to a particularly interesting paragraph, then stared at it, eyes wide. He drew a long swallow from his soda, made a face because it was too sweet, then tossed down the paper in anger. He rapped the paper with his fist and pushed back.
How can Dad do this?
David sat up, rigid. He heard a car in the driveway and his eyes shifted to the clock; it had to be his father, something confirmed when he heard the front door open and his mother's voice calling "Al?" He caught a glimpse of his father flash past the doorway on his way to the living room.
David got up and stood at the edge of the foyer, craning his neck to see, but it was no good. He heard muffled voices, and there was a touch of anger in his father's voice, although it didn't seem to be picked up by his mother. David strained his ears but he couldn't make out their words - his parents had a knack for arguing just loud enough for David to know there was trouble, but never quite enough to catch the details. He didn't hear his own name - they also had a knack for saying that just loud enough for him to catch if he was the source of an argument - so at least he wasn't part of the conversation. There was just enough of the child left in David to feel relief.
David heard footsteps again, so he scurried to the table and grabbed the paper and sat casually. Snooping was one thing, getting caught doing it was another.
Albert Sciuoto strode through the door, then saw David. He grunted but at least he smiled. He reached into the bottom of the refrigerator and pulled out a bottle of beer for himself, cracked the top and took a hefty slug.
Not a good sign, David thought. His father almost always used one of the mugs he kept in the freezer if he had a beer.
"Something wrong, Dad?"
Al Sciuoto wiped the sweat off the top of his head with his hand - even if fall came early in New England, September was still summer. The August humidity might be blessedly gone but the temperature was still in the low eighties. His father forced a travesty of a smile. "Just... office stuff, Davey. Something at work that's going on that I don't like."
David held up the paper and tried to keep the accusation out of his voice. "You mean, like you defending this Robinson guy?"
Al Sciuoto scowled. "Do me a favor," the man said evenly. "Talk about something else, okay? I'm getting enough crap about that."
David refused to take the hint any more than his mother had a few moment before and his father groaned, but his voice was more curious than angry when he spoke. "Why? I mean… why are you doing it? You don't even practice criminal law! Why take a case for someone like that?"
He grunted. "Your mother asked me the same thing, and I wish I had an easy answer. It's... complicated," he added slowly. The man sighed, looked away, then drained his bottle... something else David's mind knew wasn't normal. His father usually nursed a beer for twenty minutes or more.
Al studied his son for a moment, set the empty bottle on the counter and grabbed a second from the refrigerator, but this time he pulled one of his icy mugs out of the freezer. He pulled up a chair opposite his son, cracked the seal and poured the beer into his glass.
"It's one of those things I don't have a choice about, David," he began. "We sort of got sandbagged into it. Prescott Robinson is actually Hugh Milkowski's client, he did some conveyance work for him about five years ago when he bought a house, and later he set up a consulting business and we took care of his legal work - you know, just the usual sort of thing to limit liability, make sure no one could touch his house if he got sued. Things like that. And pretty much, that was the end of it. Hugh talks to him maybe once a year."
"Then why…"
His father held up his hand and took a sip of his drink. "I'm getting to it - hang on a second. Well, Robinson didn't even contact us and Hugh found out about the case the same way I did: watching the news. Then I get a call from Judge Cantrell and she tells me that since Sciuoto, Milkowski and Kennelly are his attorneys of record, we have to take up his defense." He held up his hand again when he saw David's mouth start working. "This guy's finances are all screwed up, and everything he's got is tied up somehow, so he was having trouble finding a defense lawyer. But he's still got assets, so he doesn't qualify for a public defender, either," he said grimly. "So... we have to provide counsel for him. And even though we don't normally practice in the criminal courts, Evelyn Cantrell knows we have an associate with trial experience." He paused. "Peter Kinsella," he added with distaste.
David rolled his eyes. "Don't you usually just refer to him as `that idiot?'"
Al shrugged and cracked a real smile even if it was a small one. "At home, yeah, but that's just so I don't catch flack from your mother. Down at the office, the staff call him `that asshole,' but Hugh and I call him `that stupid asshole.' The only reason he has a job with us is because his father's a friend of Ben Kennelly. Usually we hand Kinsella the simple-minded stuff because he screws up everything else. We're hoping maybe he'll catch a clue on of these days, but I don't think he ever will." He laughed, but the humor didn't last long. "Anyway... we're under an obligation to provide the best defense we can for Robinson, whether we like it or not."
David held up the paper, sounding angrier than he knew he should. "Like trying to get the evidence suppressed?" he asked bitterly.
"It's a valid issue," his father sighed. Al Sciuoto closed his eyes for a moment, pinched the bridge of his nose before he opened them again and continued. "Any decent defense lawyer would at least try it. Hell, even Kinsella picked up on it right away. Our position is that it was an illegal search, that the police had no right to go through his house the way they did. I can't fault them though. They're not really trained for something like this and Boxford's a small town, no detectives on the force. Probably no one ever warned them - hell, even the Essex assistant DA didn't realize it right away."
"I still don't get it," David said, shaking his head. "I mean, they were responding to a call that said there was an emergency there. Don't they have a right to enter the house and search? I mean, they even found the door wide open when they got there!"
"The cops did everything they thought was right," the tired man explained. "And yes, there's the tape of an anonymous 9-1-1 call telling them there'd been a house invasion. The door was open, they announced their presence and started searching - all of it permissible because of what they call `exigent circumstances.' The police had every reason to believe someone's life was in danger."
Al Sciuoto took another sip of his beer, rubbed his chin, but stared down at the table. Legal obligation or not didn't matter; he wished to God someone else had to take the case. It was one of the reasons he'd always kept clear of criminal law - he hated the idea that he could be compelled to not only defend someone who was guilty, but had to do it successfully if he could.
"The problem was when they split up," he continued, "and one of the officer's not only found Robinson, but he called out the fact to his partner - who heard him. That's when they were supposed to stop: the circumstances that allowed entry without a warrant were removed. But the other cop kept poking around, and that's when he found the evidence stacked up neatly in the kitchen." He wrinkled his nose. "Those were the photos of that pervert having sex with a kid, right on top of a pile of kiddie porn, which is illegal under any circumstances. Now, if they'd found the photo before they found him, it would have been okay. Even if the second cop found it after his partner located Robinson but didn't know it, things would have been okay... but that's not how it was. In his report and later in his deposition, the second cop said he entered the kitchen after his partner called out to him. Peter's made a motion to suppress."
Sciuoto shifted around in his chair, trying to get a little more comfortable before he continued. "You've watched Law and Order on TV, right? They like to call something like that `the poisoned tree,' and the evidence is `the tainted fruit.' Cute metaphor, but it's accurate. What that means is, the search that lead to the evidence was illegally continued and seized without a warrant - and that could make none of it admissible," he concluded.
"I'm not supposed to say something like this," the man continued miserably after a few moments, "but everyone would've better off if the cops fudged the paperwork a little, and got fuzzy on some details, because Robinson sure as hell wouldn't have known anything. Personally, I'm just surprised Kinsella figured it out on his own." He grimaced, sipped his beer and followed it all up with a shrug. "Then again, once the guy got his hands on some cash again, Robinson could probably hire a real defense lawyer who'd pick up on it right away and he'd file an appeal. All Petey-boy did was save the Commonwealth some time. Believe me, the media was closing in on this one fast. All three Boston stations were down at the courthouse this morning, and New England News sent out a crew, too. And there were a lot more print reporters down there than just the local and the two Boston papers."
"How come?"
"Because it's dirt, and people love to hear about that for starters. To make it worse, you've got the loonies on the side lines - some right-wing fool from one of the Carolinas flew into Boston and tried calling a press conference in Boston. He wants to use this case as proof of an `evil Homosexual Agenda that threatens all of America,' as he put it." He snorted. "Didn't get far, though. No one showed up, and even the Fox affiliate refused to cover this guy, so his publicity scheme fizzled. There's no mileage in this clown. I heard one of Governor Romney's staff was there - he's been sucking up to every right-wing cause he can find to get ready for a Presidential run in four years - but he kept his mouth shut and drifted away. But it's just the beginning. Once the trial starts, all the crazies will be at the courthouse every day, looking for air time." Al Sciuoto leaned back in the chair and flexed his shoulders. "As for me, I need a shower, and I want to change into some comfortable clothes." He started to rise.
"Wait a minute," David cut in sharply. "Are you telling me this jerk is gonna walk?"
His father paused, a glum expression on his face. "Maybe. It depends on the judge's ruling, and she's taking her time on this one. But if she suppresses the photos... well, that's the only thing they had for evidence. They know someone else was living in the house - they found kids' clothes and things in a bedroom on the second floor. There's all kinds of forensics stuff, including semen stains. The trouble is, no one knows who else was there or where they are now, and there's no law against owning kids' clothes or toys. There are signs of a fight in that bedroom - they found a computer bashed around - but there was no blood and the only thing noticeably missing was the hard drive from the computer. Plenty of different fingerprints all over the place, but none of 'em are on record. Unless someone can find this kid that was with him and get him to talk, there's not much anyone can do."
David listened, white-faced. It wouldn't really do them much good unless Danny talked, and he wasn't likely to offer up evidence against himself. All that work for nothin', he thought bitterly. Then he caught himself. No, not for nothing. You helped Randy and Martin's safe, remember? But how long before Griff gets hooks into some other kid?
Al Sciuoto stood up and picked his jacket up from the back of his chair. Something white caught his eye and he frowned for a second and pulled out an envelope and stared at it. "Damn, I forgot all about this." He flipped the envelope onto the table. "This came to my office weeks ago, and I guess that was the last time I wore this suit. It's for you, but I don't know why it got sent to my office instead of here. I hope it isn't anything important."
David eyed the envelope without much interest. His father patted him on the shoulder as he passed by and left the room.
You're going to have to speak up.
There was a problem, though: the same problem there had always been. He'd made a promise to Randy, and he couldn't go back on that. The kid had been almost a basket case, and was just now starting to be a little less afraid of his own shadow. Subjecting him to the scrutiny and embarrassment of a trial would be unthinkable.
And you owe Danny. No matter what else he did, he helped you when you needed it.
David picked up the envelope without much interest, saw his name written in a childish scrawl and his father's business address. Who would send him a letter instead of call or send him an email? Why no return address? And why not mail it to the house? He saw the post mark and his heart skipped: Los Angeles.
He tore the envelope open, almost shredding the contents.
David saw the signature first, then read the message written in the same careless handwriting. He crumpled it in his hand and jumped out of his chair, tipping it over and ran into the foyer shouting for his father, who paused on the second step.
"Listen to me," a white-faced David told him. "I got to tell you something. Both of you, and you're not going to like it, but… where's Mum? She needs to hear this, too."
"Behind you," Jennifer Sciuoto said from the doorway of the living room, holding her book. "What's so important?"
"There's something - well, it's the Robinson thing in the paper," David began slowly. "You guys don't realize who he is. Dad, you're going to have to bow out of that case because... well, I'm gonna have to become a part of it, because if I don't speak up, he'll… he'll get off. You knew him. Both of you did. You just knew him by a different name."
It came out garbled and David had to backtrack a few times... but his parents listened, frozen in place while their son explained what happened over five years before. The oven timer began chiming from the kitchen mid-way through the story, but they ignored it. When David stuttered to a close, Jennifer Sciuoto started to cry.

* * * * *

Danny Doucette - now known by most of his acquaintances as `Dan Perry' - pushed open the back door of the Cabaña del Sol with his foot, hip-checked the screen door and made a quick hop-skip into the kitchen before it swung shut. He was sweating - even if it was the second week of September, Miami was still a sweat box. He'd walked the six blocks to the market to pick up odds and ends for the guest house, but the stupid clerk had packed too much into the plastic sacks and the handles on three of them snapped on the way back. Instead of just being looped on his wrists, Danny had to hug the plastic sacks to his chest. It wasn't long until the plastic was damp with his sweat, and the weight of the bags on his other arm started to be awkward. He cursed the clerk, and his boss for refusing to let Dan borrow his little Acura RSX, but Jonathan had been adamant.
"I kissed a lot of ass and sucked a lot of something else to buy that thing," the man had explained to him. "And no houseboy is walking off with the keys - no matter how nice his ass is. Especially when I don't get the use of it."
The boy tossed the bundles onto the counter and leaned back, exhausted. The heat wasn't much better in the kitchen. The central air worked well enough but with the dryers going half the day, the room seldom cooled much. Danny eyed the flashing lights on the machines - they'd finished their cycles, but no one had bothered to take the loads of sheets out. Dan swore quietly to himself; they'd been sitting there for over an hour, and would be a wrinkled mess. I shoulda known better, he grumbled. If I don't do stuff around here, no one else will. Lazy bastards.
Dan ignored what spilled out of the bags and walked over to a bin of folded towels and grabbed two. He drenched them first, then wrung them out enough so they didn't drip before tossing one into each dryer and set the timers for another ten minutes to get out the wrinkles.
"Thirsty," he mumbled and reached into the refrigerator and grabbed the first soft drink he could find. He spat it out, swore, and looked at the label. Something called Moxie… only Jonathan drank it, even had to order it special from somewhere in Maine, or so he claimed. Everyone else thought the stuff was as miserable as Jonathan and didn't have to be told not to touch it.
Danny put the open can back on the first shelf and found himself a coke, took a deep slurp and swished the sugary soda around his mouth to get rid of the taste of the Moxie. He caught his reflection in the mirror next to the sink, adjusted his glasses and played with his hair - he'd almost grown all the dye out, and even though it had been a good match to what turned out to be his natural color, he still wanted to get rid of the last of the colorant. He'd stop and get a short cut sometime in the next few days; nothing too severe, just something easy to keep and easier to live with in the South Florida heat.
Somebody had suggested streaking it, but the last thing Dan wanted back was his old blond look. Florida was far from Massachusetts, but people traveled everywhere… and South Beach in Miami was a favorite stop for gay men on vacation. There was always the chance he might run into someone he used to know. Each time a new guest arrived, Dan checked to see if it was a familiar face.
He needn't have bothered. Cabaña del Sol was a dump with its cracked plaster and worn-out carpeting, and just to drive that fact home at night there was the rustle of wildlife in the walls. Jonathan Teal had gotten lucky ten years before and laid his hands on enough cash to buy it as an investment. It should have carried him for years - it boasted a strong repeat clientele, one of its main selling points. But Jonathan was luckier than he was smart. He'd never quite grasped the fact that to keep making money, you had to reinvest. Things broke and never got replaced, maintenance and servicing stopped getting done... especially in the ongoing battle with things that creep or crawl, and not only at night. It wasn't long before the repeat business stopped getting booked. The only reason anyone stayed there these days was because unsuspecting vacationers on a budget saw nicely produced brochures and booked rooms for a week or two in advance, paying out hefty (and non-refu ndable) deposits. Few made the same mistake twice. The few who did came because they found the staff to be accommodating in other ways. Since he got a cut, Jonathan never bothered to be coy about the `extra services' available as long as the customer understood that `tipping' the boys was expected.
The house was an anomaly for South Florida: a stick structure that somehow managed to keep from rotting away in the humidity, or blowing away in the frequent tropical storms. Back in the 1930s, it'd likely been the vacation home for some well-to-do northern family beating the cold of northern winters. It wasn't exactly an estate house, but the place had fourteen good-sized rooms, although seldom more than half of them were ever rented out. All but two had been converted into comfortable guest rooms, furnished nicely if cheaply twenty years before, although now everything was long past its prime. The original large kitchen served as the work center where linens were laundered and everything else was stored. Another large single room - the only one with a decent lock - served as Jonathan's personal quarters.
Separate from these were the cramped, one-time servants' quarters; attic rooms tucked under the eaves, steamy little cells barely large enough for a single bed, a closet that wasn't much more than a nook in the wall and a small dresser. These were for the staff.
Danny remembered the shudder that ran through him when he saw Jonathan for the first time. The man didn't so much walk as slither. Jonathan smiled a lot and spoke smoothly, but Danny recognized the hard, cold, calculating eyes. For his part, Jonathan recognized a peer when he met one and didn't waste time on charm. He laid out the job - menial work around the house. The pay was room and board, with minimal under-the-table cash. Exactly what Danny expected: he took the bare-subsistence job for a reason, but that reason didn't include what Jonathan had hoped.
Jonathan dropped hints about how to make extra cash around the house, and Danny stopped the man cold - he'd do the standard housework and cleaning expected, but `customer service' was limited to checking in guests and handing them fresh towels when they asked. Jonathan needed someone to keep the place neatened up, so he'd agreed.
He heard the nasal, whiney voice behind him. "Danny?"
Dan turned and saw Jonathan. His bleach-blond hair was sculpted into the latest style and his clothes were molded to his slight body. Jonathan was in some vague twilight zone between forty and fifty, maybe a little more, but no one knew for sure. Jonathan believed in the magic of cosmetics and plastic surgery. One of the houseboys said Jonathan had so many lifts, his mouth used to be his asshole… not that there was much difference, considering what came out of either. But in spite of the nips and tucks, the sun and life in the fast lane had taken its toll on Jonathan. Instead of the bloom of pretended youth for his money, the best he could do was a haggard, indeterminate middle age.
Dan scowled. "Don't call me that, Jon. It makes me sound like a little kid and I hate the sound of it. Call me Dan."
Jonathan rolled his eyes. "Yeah, yeah, I know." He opened the refrigerator and began complaining about his private stash of Moxie.
Dan started unpacking the items he'd picked up at the store and didn't bother looking back. "I opened it by mistake, so quit bitching. If I wanted to be a jerk, I'd have poured it down the sink." He felt angry eyes on him but ignored them. "I got your paper," he said, stacking cans of tuna.
Jonathan dug into a bag and found his treasure, a weekly tabloid. He smiled. "Ah yes… my favorite rag, the National Disgracer." He chuckled over his own lame joke. "All the news that's shit to print."
Danny shook his head. "I never could figure out why people buy those things. I mean, most of their stuff is crap."
Jonathan pulled up a chair and flagged through the paper. "Why do they buy it? That's easy," he said calmly, looking over a photo spread of a rising young actor who'd been caught off-guard entering a West Hollywood bar well-known for its active backroom. "There's idiots who say love makes the world go 'round, but they're wrong. Dirt is what makes the planet spin, kid. Papers like this move on people who live the fabola lives most people only fantasize about - people with money, fame and power. Then they show those guys for what they are. When your own life pretty much sucks, there's satisfaction in finding out that people who have everything they could ever imagine are just as sleazy, low-life and stupid as the rest of us. Nothing flattens the playing field like finding out the guy who plays all those hot love scenes in movies likes to suck a stranger's peepee in a public restroom." He studied the second page and an eyebrow went up. "Wow. Bi g story from up your way."
Jonathan snorted. "Bridgeport, my ass. Give it a rest, will you sweetheart? I was born and raised in Lowell, Mass. I started doing a strip act when I was seventeen and played half the clubs in New England for the next three years, and I know what Connecticut sounds like. You do pretty good hiding it, but you ain't Connecticut." He narrowed his eyes and studied Dan's back, then nodded in recognition. "North of Boston, I can tell that much - Lawrence maybe, or Haverhill. And not the better ends of town, either."
Danny ignored the taunt, even if it did cut too close to home. "What's the big deal, Jon? You tell everyone you're from New York. Who cares?"
"I don't," Jon answered, skimming the article. "But if you lie about your background, you should learn how to act a little. I can do New York if I have to - I lived there long enough, from the Bronx to Park Avenue. But you should at least learn the accent, kid. And if you can't, polish up your own so you don't sound like the street."
Jon studied the young man. "You've got the right assets and you know how to work 'em," he added dryly. "You're not like those other two dumb sluts, putting out for the guests for a quick fifty and then investing in pharmaceuticals. You've got a pretty face, the bod a lot of guys like, and you've even got some sense. With a little training, you could have the style."
Dan snorted. "Which you'd give me, for a little personal consideration, right? No thanks. Now, what's the big story?"
"Well it wouldn't hurt. And don't tell me that ass is virgin, because the queens down here like to talk." he added slyly. Jonathan squinted at the print, wished he had his reading glasses. "New development in that big pedophile case in Massachusetts, it says here," he replied, scanning the story. Danny felt a clutch in his chest when he heard that but forced himself to act naturally. "The Essex DA may be having a problem making an actual case - his lawyer's trying to get it thrown out of court on some technical stuff. Until a witness came forward…" his voice trailed as he read.
Witness? Danny tried not to look anxious. He finished unpacking the grocery bags and tossed them into the trash. Then he checked one of the dryers and started folding sheets. He wanted to grab the paper out of Jonathan's hand, but…
Jonathan let out a low whistle. "Oh, this gets even better," he chuckled. "First, there's a `mystery witness' - the judge refused to release the guy's name. The next thing you know, the lawyer has to recuse himself from the case."
"How come?" Danny asked coolly, folding the last pillow case neatly and moving onto the second dryer.
Jonathan paused. "Not sure… but they do have new information that this Robinson guy wasn't acting alone. Looks like he had somebody helping him, maybe even a kid, but the court won't release anything on that either - there's questions about his age.." Jonathan sat up straighter. "There's a side story about how some trial lawyer is offering his services pro-bono. You know - for nothin'." Jonathan barked a laugh. "You got to hand it to those guys: lawyers know how to get free advertising. This case is gonna be in the news for months! Win or lose, the shark with this case is gonna be doin' sound bites on the court steps every night for weeks, months even. He'll be making buckets of money after this… Maybe even get a book deal. Greedy bastard." He sighed and shook his head. "Wished I'd gone into law."
Danny did his best to fight down a panic attack and remained cool. "How come the lawyer's workin' for nothing? I thought this guy had a lotta bucks."
Jonathan tossed the paper down and sipped his soda. "There's something here about his assets being all tied up." He sniggered. "Oh, Jesus! Says here the IRS is in the act, and they won't let him touch anything! Doesn't that beat everything? The Tax Man's doing what the justice system can't!"
He laid down the paper and fished a packet of Merits out of his shirt pocket. "By the way, I've been meaning to congratulate you. You've been working some pretty slick moves since you got here."
Dan folded the last frayed white towel and tossed it into the laundry basket. Someone else could put the things away. He went back to the refrigerator and pulled out small carton of orange juice. "What do you mean? What slick move?"
Jonathan chuckled. "Look, don't play innocent with me, okay? We've both got each other's number. You're working a scam, kid - I'm just not sure what it is yet," he said taking a deep drag. "The guys you shack up with - always the older guys. Not accepting the money I know some of them offer is a good move; not sniffing around for favors is even better. Take those other two idiots working here: Justin and Erik have blown half the old queens in this town tryin' to work an angle, and all they ever get is fifty bucks for their trouble. They even did a three-way with Murray, trying to get jobs as bar backs at Empire, for Christ's sake. But you?" He raised an eyebrow and nodded respectfully. "You go with all the right guys, including the ones people know are big payers, who'll tell everyone what a great lay a kid is - or isn't. They all say you're the best and you could be makin' a fortune! But refusing the cash is a stroke of genius. You not only made the `A' list, but the word is out: you don't charge. Pretty shrewd."
"What's so shrewd?" Danny asked defensively. "I like older guys, Jon. That's all there is to it." He eyed his boss. "And don't ask. You ain't my type."
Jonathan snorted but didn't say anything else as he smoked his cigarette and began going through his paper again. He wasn't sure what his employee was after, but he knew he had to be after something.
Dan shrugged. He'd only done it with a few men since he'd arrived in South Beach… all picked for a purpose. `Easy' wasn't a description he wanted applied to him, and hustling wasn't something he wanted to be known for. When someone waved cash under his nose the morning after a night together, Danny always played the wounded innocent and politely refused. Some of the more cynical ones - like Murray Schleicher, who was forty pounds overweight, bald and almost sixty years old - waited for the inevitable pitch for a job, but it never came. Then Danny made it clear he'd be interested in another session, and that appealed to Murray's vanity. To cinch it, he accepted one dinner invitation out of four, ordered cheap and tried to pay his part of the check. "I don't want people thinkin' I'm a golddigger," he insisted, forcing a twenty on the older man.
Murray was impressed, but waited for the strings to get dangled, but they never came. Danny would go home with him, give him the best sex he'd had in years and never asked for more than to spend the night and a ride home in the morning.
Word got out. Murray told everyone he was just a nice, good-looking kid who genuinely seemed to prefer older men. He worked hard, didn't hustle, and wasn't looking for a free ride. That Danny could likely suck the engine block out of a '58 Caddy through the tailpipe was a nice extra.
Murray introduced the young man around, even dangled the prize Erik and Justin would have killed for: he offered Danny a job. A waiter or bartender at Empire made top money in mostly unreported income. Danny politely refused… and asked if Murray were free the next night. The old man was impressed.
Dan wasn't about to fall into the trap so many did in South Beach. His plan didn't call for fast cash-turning tricks. He'd make beds at the Cabaña for awhile, because it let him lay low and live cheap while he set things up. The other men he'd gone with were always in their late forties or more. Some were obviously wealthy, like Murray. Others just as clearly weren't, but they were well-known and widely-liked. And they loved the gray-eyed little beauty that made them feel young again.
"Are Justin and Erik in the house?" he asked Jonathan, nodding towards the stairs.
"Justin's up in his room, probably smoking his brains out again. Erik still hasn't turned up after his date last night. Probably a couple of dates." Jonathan looked up from his paper. "I might need you cover the house tonight."
"No," Dan answered firmly. Jonathan looked up sharply, a flash of anger in his eyes, but Dan wasn't about to be cowed. "I do most of the crap work around here as it is, and I'm sick of covering for those two assholes, Jon. All they do is get high or go down on the so-called guests in this place."
"Don't cop an attitude, kid," Jonathan snarled. "I own this place and I can fire you." He snapped his fingers. "Just like that."
"Yeah, you could," Dan threw back. "But that'd mean you'd have to actually do some work around this pit yourself, because you know those two losers won't," he snapped back. "Firing me ain't gonna happen. And even if it did, I've been down here long enough to make contacts, and there's other places I could go."
Jonathan sneered. "With your paperwork? Not likely. That phony license of yours might get you into a club, but it won't get you a real job. At least not for long."
"Maybe," Dan answered coolly. "But there's other guest houses down here, legitimate ones that aren't just a front for a whorehouse. Resort towns make their living off runaways and illegals - jobs under the table for cheap money and a room to sleep in, no questions asked. Not only that, but I got an advantage: I got no reason to run if someone yells `Immigration.'"
He paused at the door. "So, either get Justin cleaned up, go find Erik, or take care of the fuckin' place yourself, because I got things to do."
Dan didn't bother waiting for an answer. He pushed the spring-loaded door of the kitchen open and strode into the main part of the house, thankful that if nothing else in the place worked right - including the help - at least the air conditioning did. He trotted up the stairs to the third floor and paused on the small, narrow landing. Three doors opened off it and were shut tight.
Dan caught the sharp aroma of marijuana drifting out of Justin's room and he shook his head. Grass was the least of Justin's indulgences; Dan had seen enough crack-heads and junkies growing up to know when someone was a burnt-out case. At twenty-five, he already looked ten years older. Justin was about Danny's height but weighed less... where Danny only looked thin and boyish, Justin looked frail and gaunt.
Danny had his suspicions about why. He knew junkies would feed their habit more than their stomach, but there were other factors to be considered. Justin was known to go down on someone for a fix, and there were rumors he let johns bareback him in the `privacy booths' in the hustler bars if he were hard-up enough. One way or another, Justin's fate was sealed - not that it made any difference to Danny. If Justin wanted to kill himself and didn't care how, that was his business.
The last houseboy, Erik, steered clear of drugs, but he was a heavy drinker and just plain stupid. Dan tried to stay on the good side of both, but avoided them outside work as much as he could.
Danny kicked open his door, set the slide bolt but before he dropped down on his bed he fished two plastic freezer bags out of his dresser drawer and pulled a half-sleeve of saltines out of one and his old sip cup from the other. He looked them over, suspicious. If the grueling summer heat of South Florida wasn't bad enough, he'd learned the hard way how `critters' magically appeared when they caught a whiff of something edible. He'd even taken to sleeping with the lights on - after his first night at the Cabaña, he'd woken screaming when something large and fuzzy crawled across his face. After that it was a ritual: every morning and an hour before bed every night, Danny doused the room with bug spray. What little food he took upstairs with him was always kept sealed.
He'd be moving on soon enough. The Cabaña del Sol was a stopping place, nothing more.
As was South Beach and Miami, Dan was pretty certain. If the damned bugs and the constant humidity weren't reason enough to move, there were other problems he hadn't foreseen. The town was already crawling with pretty boys, all looking for the same thing. Danny was just another fish in a very big, well-stocked pond where the customers got to pick over the catch of the day at the market, and toss back what they didn't like. What Dan needed was a place with a lot less competition, or at least less obvious competition.
All the big places were out: New York, San Francisco, Palm Springs… all the so-called Gay Meccas would be the same; they were a buyers' market with too much competition for too few takers, so Danny intended to move on.
New Orleans was out - too big a party town. A southern city sounded best at first - it was cheaper to live in the south and there was enough anti-gay resentment to insure the local scene would be cliquish and compact. Dan would get a legitimate job in the heart of it, make the right kind of contacts, and build out. As long as he wasn't stupid, he'd be able to work it. He'd originally thought Atlanta or Houston might work, but he'd been rethinking that since he found that he hated the heat and the bugs. All Danny really had to find was a city large enough to generate its own gay scene, just not big enough where he'd get swallowed up by the crowd.
But to make it happen, Danny Doucette needed to disappear forever. What Jon read to him from the paper was proof of that - Danny had no doubts that with the right pressure, Griff would crack and it was just a matter of time before he told the cops where to start looking up the files of Daniel Doucette. If his social security number showed up, he'd be red-flagged - and caught. At the same time, he absolutely needed a social security number that didn't kick out of the system because it was fake.
Danny needed to buy himself a new life, because Jonathan was right: it would take a lot more than a fake driver license made out to `Daniel Perry.' That was only good enough to get him into the clubs so he could meet people. Danny needed legitimate paper work and enough on-the-record history to let him set up a life, and that took cash and contacts. He'd spent his time in South Beach doing what he did best - he screwed the right people the right way and listened to what they had to say. The information would always filter through given enough time, he'd learned that long ago. And had the money to buy what he needed.
Money, he thought.
He set the cup down carefully next to the orange juice and started digging into his pockets, bringing out neatly folded bills: two thousand dollars in twenties, fresh from the ATM. He counted it carefully, kept a hundred out for himself and neatly stacked the rest. Then the boy began rummaging through his closet, moving things out of the way until he could work up a board in the rear he'd pried loose. Danny was certain Jonathan had already been through his stuff, relatively sure that Erik, Justin or both had taken a quick look-see his room. He'd considered installing a dead-bolt on his door... and dismissed it. Things like that attracted too much attention and made people more determined to find something.
In the gap between the joists he came up with a pair of white plastic bags, plucked them out and got comfortable on the bed again, legs tucked under him with sacks in his lap. He munched on a cracker and took a sip of juice from his cup before fondling the contents.
The sacks were filled with cash: the twenty thousand he'd stolen out of Griff's safe in neat stacks of hundreds, with the two thousand David had given him… and now, almost forty thousand dollars more in twenty dollar bills that he'd slowly drained out of Griff's secret bank accounts.
Two years ago, Danny had been cleaning out Griff's closet and noticed the molding angled away from the wall. Curiosity made him give the baseboard enough of a tug so it came away… and the four bank cards fell out. Danny checked out each account on-line. Griff was nothing if not predictable: he used the same passwords he used for everything else - his safe, the lock to his special room. Danny didn't touch anything, of course, but filed away the information and checked the balances every now and then to make sure they were active. After David left that final Friday in Boxford, the cards were the first thing Danny grabbed after he cleaned out Griff's safe. His first hour in Miami was spent in a cyber café, verifying that the funds were still available.
The nerve-wracking part was getting the money.
The banks Griff used were all small, so Danny couldn't go to a branch and simply close the accounts out. Even if they'd had branches, it would've been trouble: most likely they would've asked for identification that Danny didn't have.
That left him with only one option: ATMs. Even then, he had to be careful. The limit was five hundred dollars a day, and he wasn't sure if it were possible to hit the maximum every day without raising attention and setting off an alarm on someone's computer. Worse, what if someone up north found out about the accounts and put a freeze on them? Griff might even try accessing them himself, if got out of jail. Danny still wasn't sure why Griff was being held - he had plenty in the bank, Danny knew, and should've been able to make bail already. But a Griff in jail wasn't a bad thing; that meant Danny had a shot at getting all the cash, since it wasn't likely the man would tip anyone off about accounts set up in someone else's name. Besides, with the IRS breathing down his neck, Griff wasn't likely to bring up the subject if he didn't have to... but if he did and found them cleaned out, the ATM trail would lead right to Miami; more reason for him to move on, the sooner the bett er.
Each time Danny went to a machine, he wore a cap pulled low, put on sunglasses and kept his head down. He'd watched enough TV to know most machines had video surveillance. Every time he punched in the password, he held his breath, waiting for the message screen to tell him the account was suspended and the card was being held, but it never happened. Danny tried never to use the same machine more than once; then he'd wait a few days before repeating the process.
He whispered the word, holding up a handful of bills. Money was freedom… money was power. As long as he had it, he'd never have to depend on anyone again. No one could forget about him, like the state did when they took him away from Kay. Or sell him, like his mother had. No more guys like Griff, using Dan's body for pleasure, then passing him around like a snack to his friends. He'd never be like Roger…
Roger. The name sent a shudder down Danny's spine and he grabbed his cup again and curled up in a ball around his cash. He hadn't thought of Roger in long time. Sweet, dumb Roger, the street kid Danny's mother found, who'd gently broken Danny in and told him how to handle sex with men when he was barely eleven. Roger, who'd been tossed back out onto the street when Danny knew what to do.
The last time he'd seen Roger he was standing on a corner, staring into the windows of passing cars with hopeless eyes. Cold, dirty and hungry, desperately hoping for a john who'd pay enough cash to buy a meal.
"Not me," Danny muttered desperately, breaking into a sweat in spite of the air conditioning. "That ain't ever gonna be me."
Danny clutched the bag to his chest. Inside it was the one thing that made him different from all the other Rogers. The young man smiled as he ran his hands over the bills. He could get a whole new start with sixty-thousand dollars in cash. Once he had a new identity, he could start living a real life. As long as he was smart about it, the money could take him a long way. Money was independence. This amount of money in hand was a one shot deal, meant to be grown.
He'd already begun fighting that battle when he priced out cars. Something sharp and flashy would take half or more of his nest-egg , and Danny had reluctantly put away the brochures for expensive toys and begun checking out the used car scene. The only other thing he'd made a careful investment in was nice clothing - not the high end designer stuff or anything too flashy that was `yesterday' in a week - but good quality items that wouldn't raise eyebrows or look out-of-place when he mixed with different crowds.
Jonathan was right about one thing, though. While Danny had a lot going for him physically, he'd have to polish up his rougher edges, starting with the way he spoke. He'd never given it much thought before. How he talked had never been an issue with Griff or any of his friends; they'd mostly been concerned with what they could get into Danny's mouth, not what came out of it.
At the same time, Danny didn't want to sound like another pretentious queen, the way Jonathan and a lot of other people he'd met down here did. If he could act well enough to fake great sex with wrinkled-up old men, he could teach himself to tone up his verbal skills. Danny would have to start paying more attention to how people spoke; maybe he'd practice with a recorder or something. He wasn't that worried about it, reasoned his best resource was listening to TV newscasters. The hard part would be to make it an automatic skill, something he wouldn't have to think about.
Danny's head jerked up when he heard voices in the hallway. An irate Erik was pounding on Justin's door, screaming something about his cut of the weed. The door opened and there was more yelling back and forth. Danny heard some slapping and Justin made some sounds, but he ignored the fight and stashed his bags away in the closet, drained his sip-cup and sealed it away carefully. He had to shower and get ready… he had a dinner date with Murray in a few hours, and he had to look his best.

* * * * *

Empire wasn't the largest club in South Beach, but it had a reputation aimed at an older market: established men who felt out-of-place at all the kid bars in town, but who still liked to socialize.
The first floor of Empire was made up of a long, horse-shoe bar and a Concert Grand piano set up on a riser, with a portrait of the Little Emperor hung behind. Seven days a week, various pianists worked in shifts through the evening hours, playing to enthusiastic crowds until closing. They ran through a repertoire of popular show tunes, often with the accompaniment of singers ranging from twenty-somethings to seventy-somethings who, between them, claimed they'd sung in the chorus of every musical that ever opened on Broadway… and likely, did. Overall, it gave the impression of a drawing room from the Napoleonic era; deep colored fabric on the walls set off by gilded woodwork. Of course, the fabric was really vinyl paper out of a Home Station order book and the gilded moldings were really pre-formed plastic, slicked over with paint. But the same dim lighting from the almost-crystal chandeliers that chiseled a few years off a wrinkled face also leant an illusion of grandeur to the room. It wasn't the sort of place where men stripped off clothing or danced on speakers.
For the younger crowd that either fancied the older clientele or worked them, there was a fully-fitted dance bar on the second floor where the DJ played everything from Donna Summers Disco to the latest WeHo club music. Empire had something for everyone - including hustlers who were singled out, taken aside, and had the rules explained to them. If they wanted to work the easy-money crowd that Empire attracted, working boys had to be clean, neatly dressed... and remember that loud-mouthed, drunken street whores with bad manners weren't welcome. They were encouraged to make deals on site - that brought in the older men with money they catered to - but business had to be conducted elsewhere. Murray kept four heavily-muscled men on staff to stand around and keep their ears and eyes open for trouble.
Danny pushed through the heavy oak door of Empire. The middle-aged man in the lobby looked up and smiled when he saw one of his favorite young people walked in.
"Hey, Dan," he said in his soft voice. "Murray said you'd be in tonight. He said to join him up in his apartment. You know where the elevator is, right?"
Danny grinned and looked around the nearly empty interior of Empire. It wasn't even eight o'clock and the place was a ghost land, but the music from the piano drifted through from the lounge. There were a few customers scattered around the bar, but mostly all he saw was the staff getting the place ready. Like the man in the foyer, the rest of the staff were dressed in black pants, black vests, starched white shirts and black bow ties.
"Ben or Trent ain't gonna stop me, are they Mickey?" the boy asked.
Mickey Wengert chuckled. "I think Murray's watch-dogs know you by now."
Danny winked. Mickey watched the young man move off and heaved a practiced sigh. Cute, hung and good in bed - a rare combination. He'd had two shots at it already and had no regrets.
Danny passed through the club, nodded to a few of the bartenders and some of the early patrons. One of the bouncers waved when he walked into the back room and opened the gate to Murray's `private' lift - an ancient freight elevator that dated back to the days when Empire was a small warehouse, and was mostly used to move liquor and supplies up from the basement. Danny pulled the steel door shut and re-closed the wood gate inside before pressing the button and the machinery grunted into action.
Murray lived on the heavily soundproofed third floor of Empire. There was a narrow staircase that lead to his apartment from the second floor, but Murray had blocked it off to discourage `accidental' visits from the party below. He figured if a fire ever broke out he'd be safer using the fire escape anyway. Any other time, the freight elevator was good enough.
Danny stepped into the apartment. It was bright, cheerful, well-lit and well-appointed.
"That you sweet cheeks?" he heard from the kitchen. Murray lumbered into the room behind his voice, wearing a white apron. His large mouth smiled when he saw Danny. "Damn, you look nice. That blue shirt is just the right shade for you."
Danny blushed, smiled and mumbled thanks, playing it like the bashful boy.
Murray gave him a quick kiss on the cheek and patted his backside. "I decided I'd cook you something special," Murray told him. "I hope you like Lobster Newberg. You do, don't you?"
This time the confusion was real. "Uh, I dunno, Mur. I, uh… I never had it before."
Murray clucked his tongue. "I had a feeling… oh, well. If you don't like it, I have a nice steak in the fridge."
Danny helped set up the table and found that he liked the lobster. They chatted through dinner, but by the time they reached desert, Murray noticed the boy looked worried and he had to ask.
Danny bit his lower lip, looked up and then away. "I have to ask a favor, Murray," he said, shifting around in his chair. "I - I really need some help with something."
Murray Schleicher wiped his mouth and sat back with a thin smile on his lips. It was disappointing, but he'd been waiting for something like this. Danny had been too good to be true. He let out a long sigh. "So… how much?"
"I ain't like that," Danny shot back with a flash of anger. "I don't want your money, Murray. I didn't want it to have sex with you and… and…" He sat and made a helpless gesture, trying to find the right words.
Murray looked confused. "Then what? I already told you if you needed a job, you could have one. Just go downstairs and fill out the forms. You'll do better here with tips in one night than you would in a month working for that scumbag at the Cabaña. And if Jonathan's giving you crap, I could…"
"It's got nothing to do with Jonathan," Danny said quickly. "And the job? Yeah, well that would be nice, but…" He hesitated again. "That's the problem, Murray. I can't get a real job."
Murray frowned. "Why? Are you underage or something? Hell, everyone downstairs knew that ID of yours was phony. How old are you, anyway?"
Danny shifted around and stared at the floor. "I think I'm sixteen, but - I'm not sure." He looked up with pleading eyes. "That's the whole problem, Murray. I don't have papers," he said simply. "No birth certificates, no school records. Nothing. And no social security number."
Murray shrugged. "You can get birth records! Tell me where you were born and we can…"
"I don't know where I was born," Danny told him with tears running down his cheeks. "Like I said, I'm not even sure when. I - I think I'm sixteen, but I could be a little older."
Danny spun a story that was almost true... he had pretty much been abandoned and taken in. It was close to the truth... just missing a lot of the details.
Danny waited for some obvious questions, but they didn't come.
Murray sat, his chin propped up on his left hand, tapping the table top with his right. His eyes were slits, and what lay behind the slits was cold and lifeless. He'd taken it all in. He knew there were elements of truth in the story, and knew there were lies - that went without saying. But it didn't really matter what he believed, because it all came down to the same thing.
"What makes you think I can help?" he asked in low, distant voice.
Danny felt an unrehearsed shudder run through him. He licked his lips, and this time the uncertainty was real. "I know this place is a front for laundering drug money," he said quietly. "That means you know people who can get me paperwork. Real paperwork."
Murray nodded, paused for a moment before speaking again. "And you know this, how?"
"I listen and I watch," Danny said slowly. "Nobody ever says much, but everybody says a little," he added. "I collected the pieces."
Murray drummed his fingers slowly, eyes drilled into the young man opposite him. Danny felt a real fear and he looked away.
"Won't be much," Murray continued a few moments later. "No Harvard degrees or anything. Strictly barebones."
"Doesn't have to be much," Danny jumped in. "I just need enough to live, work and not have to look over my shoulder anymore. It's got to be legit, Murray. I can pay," he added earnestly. "This ain't a hustle, man, I swear it. I ain't trying to get something for nothing. Think about it: did I ever ask anyone for anything? Or take it when it got offered?"
No, Murray thought to himself, still leaning and tapping his fingers. No, you were too slick for that. His face relaxed and he sat back, chuckled. "Florida's a clearinghouse for illegals, and there's all kinds of scams, so I guess it's a good thing you came to me," he said gently. "Not that I'm in any business like you think… but with some people I know, you can get a passport with what they can come up with. Plus the fact you're not Cuban makes this a lot easier. Bigger selection in the database."
"When?" Danny asked eagerly. "And… how much?"
Murray shrugged. "Tomorrow sometime. I know these guys, and they always have something ready for takeout," he chuckled. He wondered if Danny had a clue about the going price for what he was asking. "Probably run you about three thousand," he added, more than doubling the standard price.
Danny looked up, shocked. He'd thought maybe a thousand, or even two...
Murray looked hurt. "Hey, it's tough these days, you know? Twenty years ago, all you had to do was walk into a graveyard and find a kid's name on a stone and got the records from the courthouse. Today, everything's in a computer - a death certificate is right next to a birth certificate. There's still a few backwaters out there, but it ain't cheap because the supply is drying up. It's a sellers' market."
He's got me by the balls, Danny thought. It was a nasty bite into his cash, but...
A slow smile crossed the boy's face. He walked over and hugged Murray's head to his chest. "Thanks, man," he said sweetly, then leaned down and kissed him. He summoned up an image from the back of his mind, felt himself getting hard and slowly rubbed his crotch into the older man's arm. "Now c'mon," Danny said taking Murray by the hand. "Let's get naked and you can strip me down - I've been poppin' a chub all day thinking of tonight." And this'll be the last time I have to fuck your tired ass.
Murray got up and kissed the boy full on the mouth. When he fed him his tongue he lost his lower plate for a moment and Danny gagged on it, but the boy spat it out and laid it on the mantle before he put his arm around Murray, leaned his head against the man's arm and they walked into the bedroom together.
It was all Murray could do to keep from laughing - the paperwork Danny wanted ran about five hundred dollars, if you knew where to ask for it. His connection paid a clerk in Baton Rouge, where half the towns in the back-water parishes still used a ledger to record births and deaths. Infant mortality in rural parts of Louisiana were almost as high as any third-world country, and the supply was almost endless. The kind of background Danny wanted would hold up, all right - it was basic.
Murray didn't need the money, but he hated being hustled. If Danny had just come right out and told him what he wanted without the performance, he'd have been fine. It was a lousy feeling knowing you were being played, but there was satisfaction to be had in hustling the hustler and Murray enjoyed it, and a nice piece of boy dick on top of that made it all the more worthwhile.
The third time he flipped Danny's legs up, he wondered if maybe he shouldn't have taken two Viagra, just to make sure he got his trouble's worth.

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