Jump to content

Mark Arbour

Author: Signature Author
  • Content count

  • Joined

  • Last visited

  • Days Won


Mark Arbour last won the day on August 4 2014

Mark Arbour had the most liked content!

Community Reputation

31,440 There Can Be Only One!

About Mark Arbour

  • Rank
    Elite Member

Profile Information

  • Gender
  • Sexuality
    Bisexual, leaning male
  • Location

Recent Profile Visitors

154,226 profile views
  1. Chapter 11

    August 1800 HMS Valiant The North Sea It had been three days since they’d left London, and their progress had been maddeningly slow. Granger walked out onto the quarterdeck a quarter of an hour before dawn, even as the men were roused and sent to quarters. As was required in all Royal Navy ships, that is how they met each dawn, with the crew at the guns, waiting to go into action if necessary. “We are all but becalmed, my lord,” Weston said, and was so annoyed it pierced through his normally cheerful demeanor. “I will remind you of this moment when we are facing a true gale,” Granger teased, making both of the chuckle. “I take your point, my lord,” Weston said. They stood on the quarterdeck waiting for dawn, while their passengers stayed in their cabins, presumably still sleeping. Granger winced at the thought of them, and how he hadn’t had a meaningful conversation with Cavendish since their talk after they sailed. Granger decided that this wouldn’t be nearly as bad if it weren’t for his relationship with Francis Calvert. Calvert had sworn that he’d loved Granger, and then jilted Granger for Gatling. Despite their efforts to heal the wound that had caused, Granger still felt some residual resentment at Calvert for so blithely discarding him. Yet here was Cavendish, doing the same thing. He’d professed his love for Granger, he’d written Granger a letter pleading for help, and then he’d ignored Granger when Granger had returned home. Instead, he’d been tearing off after John Ward like a dog in heat, leaving Granger once again feeling like a consolation prize, a poor reward in the game of love. Granger realized that this train of thought had considerably soured his mood, and that realization just made things even worse. He was about to look for something to distract himself when the lookout obliged him. “Sail ho! Close in off the starboard bow!” the lookout in the maintop shouted. Granger strode over to the starboard side and gazed off in the darkness with Weston close by his side. “What is she?” Granger called. “Too dark to tell, my lord,” the man responded. “Deck there, brig off the starboard bow,” came the cry from the foretopmast. “Shall we clear for action, my lord?” Weston asked. He was clearly anxious to get Valiant into fighting condition, but he was ignoring the considerable inconvenience that would cause them and their passengers. “Let us wait until we know who this brig is,” Granger said with a confidence that wasn’t faked. A brig could cause them no real problems in seas like this, where they were all but becalmed. Even if she were loaded with men, they’d have plenty of time to manage the threat. “I think I see her, sir,” Kingsdale said, pointing out at the blackness. Granger squinted his eyes and began to see the shape of the ship emerging. “Looks to be a merchie,” Weston commented, mostly to himself. “Looks to be French, my lord.” That was said with more animation, showing excitement at maybe taking a prize. Granger was about to begin detailing a boarding party when the sky seemed to get exponentially brighter, light enough for him to clearly see this brig. She was indeed French, and she was quite close to them, about a cable’s length away. Granger smiled as he studied her rigging, and smiled even bigger when he saw her captain panicking as he managed to emerge from darkness next to a British man-of-war. “Mr. Weston, please raise our colors under a white flag.” “My lord?” Weston asked curiously. Granger glared at him, demanding that his orders be immediately obeyed. “Aye aye, my lord,” he said briskly. “Please have my gig lowered,” Granger ordered. “That ship is the Corneille, the vessel that conveyed me back to England on parole.” “An interesting coincidence,” Daventry said. He had managed to come on the deck without Granger even noticing him. “It is indeed,” Granger said, responding to Daventry. “Mr. Kingsdale, I would be obliged if you would take my gig over to Corneille and ask Captain Guebertin to return with you and join me for breakfast,” Granger ordered. “Aye aye, sir,” Kingsdale said. “Couldn’t you have captured her just as easily?” Daventry asked Granger. The two of them moved away so no one could overhear their conversation. “We could indeed, but if Corneille is this far north, she may have information about the Baltic. I would submit that would be more valuable than taking her as a prize,” Granger said. “Besides, it seems a bit dastardly to capture the ship and the captain who conveyed you home,” Daventry said with a smile, getting that there was a certain level of honor on the line for Granger. “It does,” Granger agreed. Cavendish walked up and joined them. “I try to be a good friend, even when others do not return my bonafides,” Granger said to Daventry, but it was as much an arrow at Cavendish. Granger regretted his words immediately, but they had been spoken, so there wasn’t much to be done about it. “I’m sure that’s quite noble of you,” Daventry said. Cavendish gave him an unpleasant look and walked over to converse with Weston. Granger was trying not to be vexed with Cavendish, but it was difficult. They had conversed politely at dinner and supper, and occasionally on deck, but their words were shallow. His presence aboard in this new state, where he was pouting and it seemed as if their friendship was destroyed, was irking Granger, who bore him no small amount of resentment for ruining what could be a truly wonderful time for both of them. Granger was distracted as Guebertin hauled himself through the entry port. “My lord!” he exclaimed in a friendly and exuberant way. “What a pleasure to see you!” He embraced the Frenchman in the continental fashion, kissing both of his cheeks. “I am so glad our paths meet again, Capitan,” Granger said affably. “Won’t you join me for breakfast?” “I would be delighted, my lord,” he said. There were some kegs being hauled aboard. “I have brought you a gift, some wine I had brought with me from France.” “I must thank you,” Granger said, bowing in a courtly way. “French wine is truly something we have missed during these war years.” He led Guebertin back to his cabin. “It is the least I could do, my lord, to thank you for not capturing me,” he said. “It seemed to be the height of rudeness to seize you and your vessel after you conveyed me home,” Granger joked. “Please allow me to introduce you to my travelling companions.” Granger introduced Guebertin to Daventry, Whitworth, and Cavendish. Guebertin took his seat and seemed a bit intimidated by all of this esteemed company. “I am not sure if you have heard of our new government in France, my lord,” Guebertin said. “I had occasion to hear of the Consulate when I was last in the Mediterranean,” Granger said. “Have there been more recent changes?” “They say that during the plebiscite, 99.9% of voters approved the new government and the installation of Bonaparte as First Consul,” Guebertin noted wryly. “I am wondering who the few were who did not vote for it, and I am wondering if they are still alive.” They all laughed at that. “That would take a brave soul,” Daventry opined. “General Bonaparte won a great victory over the Austrians in June, at a place called Marengo,” he said. Granger could almost sense the exasperation of his colleagues, a frustration that matched his own. Could Bonaparte not be beaten? Why were Austrian armies seemingly so ineffective? “I am sure that Paris is much happier about that than Vienna,” Granger joked. “Undoubtedly,” Whitworth echoed. “I am no politician, but I hear things,” Guebertin said in a sly way. “General Bonaparte has returned to Paris, and he is consolidating his power. I am under the impression that your friend, Monsieur de Talleyrand, is assisting him quite ably.” “I suspect that Monsieur de Talleyrand has as one of his objectives the sidelining of Monsieur Sieyes,” Granger said. Talleyrand’s distaste for Sieyes was no secret. “Of that, there is no question,” Guebertin agreed. “I must say that I am surprised to find you so far north,” Granger said. “I would not expect this to be a normal trade route.” Guebertin shrugged his shoulders. “I was tasked to take dispatches and an emissary to Copenhagen.” “I hope it was lucrative,” Granger said. “The government paid me a pittance, and while I was supposed to be able to trade as well, I was unable to do that profitably,” Guebertin groused. “But if I did not do as they commanded, I would face a fate similar to those who voted against Bonaparte.” They laughed. “So how were things in Copenhagen?” Whitworth asked. “They are very angry at you British,” Guebertin said with a grin. “That is something we already knew,” Whitworth said sadly. “They expect you to attack them, so they are clearly getting ready to defend themselves,” Guebertin said. “Unfortunately for the Danes, that is not saying much.” “No?” Granger asked. “Their fortresses are dilapidated, their ships are rotting and unmanned, and their army is but a shadow of what it should be,” he said, shaking his head. “They are like an opera singer with no voice.” “I suspect that they will ultimately remedy that problem,” Whitworth speculated. “They have a large fleet,” Granger said, trying to prompt Guebertin. “Yet their plan is not to use it,” Guebertin responded. “At least that is what I heard.” “They aren’t going to use their fleet?” Granger asked, stunned. “If Copenhagen is attacked by your naval forces, the fleet will be locked away in the inner harbor, and they will use the forts and floating batteries to defend themselves,” Guebertin informed them. “That way, the fleet is preserved, while presumably we will blunt and bloody our own forces with an attack on worthless barges,” Granger concluded. “It would seem that if our fleet is too bloodied, that Danish fleet in being could represent a significant hazard,” Cavendish noted. That was a real fear, that after British forces attacked the Danes and won a victory over floating batteries, the Danish fleet would sortie and attack the damaged British ships. “Based on what I saw, I cannot believe that even then they would be much of a problem,” Guebertin said, but Granger wasn’t convinced. “We have an institutional memory of Danish warriors, so we are prone to be cautious,” Whitworth said, referring to the days of the Vikings. “In any event, we would much rather be ending our wars than starting new ones,” Granger said with a smile. “Hopefully that will find a welcome reception in Paris, my lord,” Guebertin said. They finished their breakfast, even as they plied details from Guebertin about Paris and Copenhagen. Granger excused himself briefly to dash off a brief letter to Talleyrand, then gave that to Guebertin and ushered him over the side into the boat that would return him to Corneille. Luckily enough, the wind picked up enough to separate the two ships after that. Granger spent time on deck, making sure Valiant was on her correct course, then went aft to his cabin to join Whitworth, Cavendish, and Daventry for dinner. “Your French captain was interesting,” Daventry noted. “I would hardly classify him as my captain, but his news was enlightening,” Granger agreed with a smile. “I think it would be wise to discount the observations of a mere merchant captain,” Whitworth said with disdain. Granger saw Cavendish barely avoid rolling his eyes at this snobbish old peer, and gave him a slight smile, one Cavendish returned. Whitworth had a tendency to poke at people, as if to find a weakness and exploit it. For some reason, Cavendish seemed to have the most limited patience with him, and it was a rare meal where they weren’t sparring with each other over some small point or another. “Perhaps,” Granger said. “While Monsieur Guebertin is merely a merchant captain, my experience suggests that he is much more closely tied to the government than that would suggest.” “What do you mean?” Whitworth demanded. He did not like to have his conclusions challenged, especially by his younger traveling companions. That was probably another reason Cavendish did not seem to like him. “Guebertin was the man Monsieur Talleyrand personally selected to take me back to London on parole, and while his motives were certainly fueled by greed at the surreptitious trading he could do, the fact that he was close enough to Talleyrand to be entrusted with that mission speaks to his importance,” Granger noted. “He seemed remarkably well informed,” Cavendish said, as if to validate what Granger said. “I would further point out that he was dispatched on a mission to Copenhagen for the government, and that someone who was untrustworthy would hardly be given such a task,” Granger said. “Well, Granger, if he is as clever as you think he is, then maybe the things he shared with us were fabrications designed to mislead us,” Whitworth said. “It was obvious that Monsieur Guebertin thinks of you as a friend,” Cavendish said to Granger wryly. “I am also confident that he was very grateful for the fact that you did not capture him. I think that for him to then plant lies as you are suggesting, Whitworth, would make him dishonorable scum, and that seems to be an unfair characterization of a man who appears to be acting quite above board.” Whitworth fumed at Cavendish’s statement, but Daventry entered the conversation to forestall that from breaking into a full-scale argument. “I think it is also important to note that Monsieur Guebertin gave us much information about the Danes and their strategy, but he did not reveal what France is planning to do.” “You gentlemen may accept his statement as true, but I will retain my doubts,” Whitworth said petulantly. “And I doubt that Admiral Dickson will be happy about you neglecting to seize that ship as a prize.” That was clearly aimed at Granger, in that Whitworth was threatening to cause problems between Granger and his admiral. “I am unconcerned whether Admiral Dickson is unhappy that I did not seize Corneille,” Granger said flatly. “Neither am I,” Daventry augmented. “I think that the information we gleaned, along with this excellent wine, was worth more than Corneille would yield as a prize.” “Having been somewhat privy to the inner secrets of the Admiralty, I think both of you gentlemen are correct,” Cavendish said, gesturing at Granger and Daventry. That did much to blunt any fears they may have of Dickson, since Cavendish would know if he was an admiral of considerable influence along the same vein as St. Vincent. He clearly was not. They finished dinner, and then Granger went onto the quarterdeck to check on their progress. It was a gorgeous afternoon: warm and muggy but with a nice breeze to make it comfortable. Cavendish emerged from the cabin and walked over to Granger. “It is a beautiful day,” he said. “Indeed it is,” Granger agreed. “Would you care to smoke a cigar with me on the poop deck?” “That sounds marvelous,” Cavendish said, smiling broadly. Granger summoned Winkler and had him direct the staff to set up two chairs on the poop deck far enough away from the skylights so nosy ears, like those of Lord Whitworth, would not be able to eavesdrop. Winkler brought them cigars, while Jacobs helped them light the tobacco with a slow match. When both cigars were drawing well, Winkler brought them a drink, and then left them alone. “This feels much like a yachting expedition.” “I think you may be right,” Granger said, even as he sat back and enjoyed the tobacco smoke. “I fear that when we reach Denmark, that will change.” “Perhaps,” Cavendish said. “I think it would be good if you could find a way to relax like this at least once in a while.” “There are other ways to relax,” Granger said, flirting with him. “I should imagine that if you wanted a different type of distraction on board, there are people willing to accommodate you,” Cavendish replied playfully. “I am not that fickle,” Granger replied. “I have focused on one target, and am determined to ultimately achieve my goal.” “If you are that determined to chase him,” Cavendish said, “let us hope he is not faster than you.” “He is not faster than me, but he has been running from me for some time now,” Granger said, and let his voice become serious with that statement. “You mistake his confusion for disdain, and that has made you petulant as a result,” Cavendish teased, and even though both were pretending to joke, they were not. Only Granger had bantered enough, and had finally decided to broach the issue that bothered him. “You and I have so little time to enjoy each other, I really did think that you would relish this time we would have together,” he said. “Yet to accomplish that, you all but abducted me,” Cavendish said, the annoyance quite clear. “You seem upset about that, when I thought I was being quite gallant and romantic,” Granger said, returning to his playful mood. “I thought you would appreciate the way I all but saved your life and then whisked you off on an intimate sea cruise.” “An intimate sea cruise where we are living in a crowded space with two other peers, one of whom is old and crusty, and surrounded by 300 other men,” Cavendish observed wryly. “I would say being forced into such tight quarters is quite intimate,” Granger joked, making both of them chuckle. “Indeed,” Cavendish agreed. They paused while they smoked their cigars, giving both of them time to think. Cavendish was telling him that he was seriously annoyed at being kidnapped, and at losing control of his life. Granger recalled how he felt when he was a prisoner in France, and even when people had been quite polite, he had still been compelled to be there against his will. This must have grated on Cavendish in the same manner. “In retrospect, I can see how being dragged off to sea would have vexed you,” Granger admitted. “And I am sorry that I have been so moody about the whole situation,” Cavendish replied. And then they both smiled, having wiped away the cause of their immediate divide with some simple words of atonement. “Do you love him?” Granger asked abruptly, then immediately regretted his words, both because they were so indelicate, and because Cavendish’s reaction was to almost physically close up on him. With an exchange of glances, Cavendish seemed to understand Granger and his base insecurity about this, and managed to respond in a positive vein. “I do not think so, but I do care about him deeply,” he replied. “He is very attractive,” Granger observed, raising an eyebrow playfully. “He is,” Cavendish said, “but not as attractive as you.” “I would have thought that was self-evident,” Granger teased, getting a chuckle from Cavendish. “I once told you that you were singularly able to spark a jealous demon inside of me. Sadly, that has not abated over the years.” “You are not the only one who fights that emotion,” Cavendish said, letting some of his own pain show, the pain he’d had to deal with when Granger had found others to love. “I am not, but I am most concerned with my own emotions, so they seem more important,” Granger joked, making Cavendish actually laugh. “If you were truly that narcissistic, that would not have been funny,” Cavendish responded in between his laughter. “What will you do?” Granger asked. “When I last heard of your travails, you were running around trying to avoid being chained to a shrew for eternity, yet now you have a new boyfriend.” “I do not have a new boyfriend,” Cavendish objected. “I’m focused right now on trying to get along with my old one.” Granger chuckled at that. “You seem to be achieving that goal,” he noted. “I tried to speak to the King, but he was not able to help me,” Cavendish said sadly. “He is so agitated about Catholic Emancipation it has seemingly brought on a relapse of his illness.” “I witnessed that, and it was most distressing,” Granger agreed. “I was led to believe that his spells were sporadic, but we have suspected that they are worse than that.” “Your suspicions are correct,” Cavendish said. “His Royal Highness was full of supportive words, and pledged to support me, but he has done nothing, nor do I think he will.” “You don’t?” Granger asked. “I don’t,” Cavendish confirmed. “He is self-absorbed and vain, which are bad enough characteristics to have, but worse than that, he shirks from tackling tough tasks.” Granger found that very disturbing, since Cavendish was all but calling the Prince of Wales a coward. “So what will you do?” Granger asked. “I will have to be happy with my position as Comptroller and hope that enables me to ultimately support myself in society on my own,” Cavendish said, even though they both knew that was virtually impossible. “I will help you,” Granger pledged. “I cannot live off your generosity like some concubine,” Cavendish said bitterly. “Why not? I think you underestimate the benefits of being my concubine,” Granger joked. “You may be right,” Cavendish said. “I want to be independent. I do not want to have someone else to whom I’m accountable. If I were to surrender that to anyone, it would be you, but even for you, I cannot do that.” “Freddy, you could stay with us at Portland Place and save money on the cost of renting rooms; you could eat there and that would save you the expense of sating your considerable appetite; and I would willingly cover your tailor’s bill to keep you looking so splendid,” Granger said. “That should cover the bulk of your costs.” “With what happened, with that encounter in the baths with Caroline, I could not move in with you without risking fanning the flames of a largely discarded rumor, potentially making it an issue again,” Cavendish noted. “I think that has largely blown over, and if I am there, it largely dispels the allegation that you are fucking my wife,” Granger said with a bit of levity, then swallowed hard before continuing. “If you are worried that I will interfere with your other relationships, I will pledge that I will not. And if it became uncomfortable, I can certainly provide you with a few thousand pounds to set up your own establishment.” “You know me so well, you must surely sense the confusion in me over all this, and the uncertainty,” Cavendish said. “It is so difficult to be so linked to you, then to have you gone when I need you the most. I am not sure that linking myself to you that tightly will be a good thing.” “There is not much I can do about that,” Granger said, barely hiding his annoyance. “And when you do come home, there are so many demands on your time,” Cavendish noted. “You will need to nurture your relationship with Caroline, your family, and your children. If I am underfoot, I feel like I’d be in the way.” “In my mind, if you were living with us, then that makes you a de facto part of our family, and the commitments you talk of that would take me away from you would not do that, they would include you,” Granger said. This topic was taxing his patience to the extreme, as Cavendish was questioning his friendship and, in effect, his word. “I am not sure Caroline would appreciate that,” he said, which made Granger question whether they had healed their own wounded friendship. “Caroline has been very concerned about you, and has listened to me rant about not being able to communicate with you with similar consternation,” Granger said. “While I have not conversed with her on this topic, I am confident that she would welcome you warmly into our household.” “Really?” Cavendish asked, surprised. “We have largely resolved our issues, something we achieved when I returned from the Mediterranean,” Granger said. “I have been so removed from things I wasn’t aware of that,” Cavendish said sadly. “She explained to me why she had the liaison with you and Treadway,” Granger said. “I assumed it was because we were all but irresistible,” Cavendish joked. “Then I assumed it was because she wanted to all but enslave me to support her politically.” “She was frustrated because when I come home, I breeze in and usurp her position at the helm of our empire, such as it is,” Granger said. “She equated it to how I would feel if someone came in and took command of Valiant, while I was still required to be aboard.” They said nothing for a bit, they just smoked their cigars, while Cavendish pondered Granger’s words. “I can see where that would have rankled her,” Cavendish acknowledged. “Now that I have gotten clarity on that topic, we get along quite well,” Granger said. “Does that mean you are her puppet?” Cavendish asked, a question that would have infuriated Granger if he hadn’t seen the apology in Cavendish’s eyes to atone for his unguarded question. “It means that when I am home, we must act as one, and that we must come to a basic agreement about key issues prior to that, something we have done,” Granger said icily. “I can see how that would work,” Cavendish acknowledged. “I am sorry for my words. After this issue with Miss Barnett, I see chains and enslavement at every turn.” “I am more than willing to indulge you with those, but only in private,” Granger said, letting his voice get sultry. “That has a certain allure,” Cavendish said, even as he swallowed, hiding his lust. Granger began to wonder if that was perhaps something Cavendish would enjoy, being bound up and all but forced to do things he wanted to do, and adopted a different strategy with their conversation. “You are floundering around in front of me, trying to figure out what to do, so I am going to give you some guidance, and tell you what to do,” Granger said authoritatively. “You are giving me orders?” Cavendish challenged, clearly annoyed. “I am,” Granger said. “You are on this voyage with me, so you will make the best of it, and use this time to clear your mind so when you return to England you will be able to meet your challenges resolutely.” “That is why you spirited me away,” Cavendish said in an accusatory way. “Perhaps,” Granger noted. “When you get back to England, you will move in with us at Portland Place. If that does not work for you, I will pay for rooms and provide you with an allowance so you can resume your place in society.” “I cannot accept such charity, even from you,” Cavendish objected. “I find your response offensive,” Granger snapped. “When I left the meeting with Lords Whitworth, Spencer, and Daventry to go stop your idiotic duel, I told Lord Whitworth that I did so because you were my best friend. You have saved my life, and you have supported me and advocated for me in my darkest hours, when I had virtually no one else in my corner. So now when you are in dire straits, it is my turn to help you out.” “You are accusing me of being an ungrateful friend,” Cavendish said, mellowing. “I am,” Granger said, yielding not an inch. “Your attitude about this makes me worry that there is some ledger in your mind of things I have done for you and things you have done for me, and I am concerned about what will happen if that ledger gets out of balance.” “That is not fair,” Cavendish objected. “No?” Granger challenged. “Perhaps I have been in the political snake pit that is London for much too long,” Cavendish said. “You are being treated as a pawn, by your father and by others, and that is why you so desperately grasp for your independence,” Granger stated. “You can have that independence, but only if you abandon the life you have built. If you were to accept a lower place in society, you could probably do that.” Cavendish pondered his words, even as they enjoyed the tobacco and the beautiful weather, while a pleasant silence enveloped them. “You are telling me that I am not in a position to be my own man, such as it is, unless I want to dramatically change my life.” “I am saying that you are not in that position right now,” Granger asserted. “And what I am telling you is that you need a benefactor to help you land on your feet, at least for right now. I have offered to do that, as your friend. That is the choice you face.” “You are offering me a lifeline,” Cavendish acknowledged. “And even as you held out that with your open hands, I have rudely slapped them away. I am sorry.” “I did not say that I would not extract something in return,” Granger said. “And what must I do?” Cavendish asked nervously. “You will leave this deck and go back to your cabin and await me there,” Granger growled. “I will meet you there shortly, and we will seal our arrangement by sating my desires.” Cavendish smiled warmly. “I think I have indeed underestimated the benefits of being your concubine.” “Allow me to show you how wrong you were,” Granger said, as they flicked their cigars over the side of the ship, into the sea, then headed to Granger’s cabin.
  2. Chapter 58

    September 13, 2003 The Bowery, NY JJ I laughed as Carullo poked the oxtail tortellini on his plate in a suspicious manner, as if it may come to life. I’d chosen the restaurant this time, which was why were at Capitale. It was a restaurant, but also an event venue, a truly impressive place built out of what was once a similarly impressive bank. “What’s this sauce?” he asked suspiciously. “Try it,” I said. He stabbed a tortellini and shook off most of the sauce then popped it in his mouth. “Kinda spicy, but not bad,” he said. “What did you get?” “Salad,” I said simply, even though it was pretty exotic for a salad. “I’m gonna have to eat after I eat,” he grumbled. I wasn’t sure if that’s because the portions were relatively small, or because he didn’t think he’d be able to eat all of the tortellini because he didn’t like them. “We can swing by a Wendy’s or Burger King on our way home,” I teased. “Yeah, I’ll bet they have Maybachs going through the drive through every day,” he said, making me laugh. “This place is amazing.” The prompted us to gaze up at the tall ceilings, and note the ornate décor. “It said it was the Bowery Bank on the outside,” I said. “Yeah, this is one of those old building that they force them not to tear down, so they make them into places like this,” he said simplistically. “You’re evidently not big on historical architecture,” I joked. “Sometimes if shit is old, you need to tear it down and start over,” he said. “And sometimes, it’s worth fixing,” I said. “You ever been to Europe?” “No,” he said, and frowned. “You should go there with me sometime,” I said. “I think you’d appreciate old shit a lot more after that.” “Maybe,” he said dubiously. I’d waited for him to raise the issue of his inability to be in a relationship, but he hadn’t, and I was starting to lose patience with the entire situation. It had finally gotten to the point where I was irritated enough to call him on it. “So what’s the deal?” I asked. “The deal?” he asked, pretending to be clueless. “Yeah,” I said abruptly. “The deal with us, the deal with you and Luka, and the deal with you not being able to be in a relationship.” “Is that what you want? You want a relationship?” he asked, trying to throw this whole thing back on me. I glared at him. “You’re forcing me to put myself out there, and if I do and I’m wrong, you’ll cut me off at the knees. I don’t handle rejection well.” “You don’t like it when you don’t get your way,” he said, smiling at me, trying to cajole me out of my bitchiness. “I don’t,” I said with a smile, then got serious again. “I need you to help me out here,” I said, almost pleaded, which just made me even angrier. I’d been completely candid with him, or as candid as I could be. I needed him to toss me a lifeline. He said nothing, which just about set me free. Before I went totally psycho-bitch on him, I managed to ask him one more question. “Is it me?” That question seemed to give him clarity. “It is not you,” he said firmly. “I’m sorry. I didn’t get where you were coming from.” “I talked to Will about this, and he told me that if you didn’t like me or find me attractive, then there really wasn’t anything I could do about it,” I explained. “He told you I wasn’t attracted to you?” he demanded, all pissed off. “No, dumbass, he said if you weren’t attracted to me, there wasn’t anything I can do, with a big emphasis on ‘if’. He didn’t think that was the case. And of course, I couldn’t imagine how that could even be possible,” I joked, trying to get my psyche back on an even keel. “So that’s why you were so pissed off at me for going away this weekend? Because you thought I didn’t like you?” “Do you?” I asked. “Yes.” He said that one word so firmly and definitively that it was clear he meant it. “I’m glad,” I said, and smiled at him. “What else?” he demanded, knowing there was more. “I was jealous,” I admitted. “When you said you couldn’t be in a relationship, I didn’t know that meant there were other guys you were into. It caught me off guard, before I had a chance to think it through.” “And to calm down,” he said with a grin. “Right,” I said skeptically, like I didn’t agree with him, even though we both knew he was right. “It’s hard for me to be with just one person,” he said. “Why?” I asked. “Because the one time I did it, it left me ripped up and shredded,” he said, and got so emotional that a tear fell down his cheek. I reached over and gently wiped it away. “So that’s it?” I asked. “You’re one and done?” He frowned at me. “I can’t handle that kind of pain again.” “That’s a bunch of crap,” I said. “You pretend like loneliness isn’t pain. It is.” “I’m not lonely,” he objected. “Bullshit. Fucking someone doesn’t make you less lonely,” I said. This was surreal. I was having this conversation and talking about things I didn’t know anything about. I was going on pure instinct. If he listened to me, I hoped that I was right. “Maybe not, but it’s a lot of fun,” he said with a leer. “I’m just different than you,” I said. “Better than me?” he demanded, getting all offended. “No dipshit, different,” I snapped. “I can’t do that. I can’t sleep with people I’m not into. So it makes it hard for me to understand how that makes you feel better.” The waiter, with absolutely horrible timing, chose that moment to bring the check. We had to talk to him, and that broke the intimate mood. “You ready to go?” Carullo asked, as soon as I’d signed off on the credit card receipt. “Let’s go,” I said grumpily, leaving my conversation with him only halfway completed. We got into the car and I put up the privacy screen. “You want to drive through Wendy’s?” I asked. He chuckled. “Nah, I’m good.” “What’s the deal with you and Luka?” I asked him. He gave me a foul look for prying, but seemed to realize that in this situation, it was a relevant question. “I’ve been going out with him for a couple of months now,” he said. “That sounds like a relationship,” I said. “At this point, we’re friends.” “Friends?” I challenged. “Friends,” he repeated. “Not saying we don’t fuck, I’m just saying that we’re friends.” “I don’t understand,” I said, totally confused. That sounded like a relationship to me. “We go out and do something once or twice a week,” he said. “It’s pretty relaxed.” I frowned at him. “How do you feel about him?” “I like him,” he said simply. I didn’t know if I was too naïve to understand what he was saying, or he was being purposely obtuse, but I had no idea what the fuck he was talking about. “I’m still not following you,” I said, and not all that nicely. “It means that things are casual between us. It means that we’re not going to move in and be a couple like I was with Joey,” he said. Those last words had slipped out, but hearing himself say that out loud fucked him up. I reached over and grabbed his hand in a supportive way, knowing that anything else I did would probably just upset him more. “Sorry.” “I get it,” I said. “I’m not trying to be a pain in the ass, I’m just trying to figure things out.” “Things with Luka are going along slow, and I think we both like that,” he said. “Right now, the whole situation is pretty confusing.” “No shit,” I said, since I still didn’t have a clue what he was talking about. “You know, up until about a week ago, you hadn’t shown any interest in me at all,” he said, and sounded a little bitter about it. “I didn’t think you were into me,” I said. “I told you I don’t handle rejection well. I couldn’t put myself out there only to have you shoot me down.” “You think I’m that big of an asshole?” he demanded. “I think you’re probably not used to dealing with someone who’s as neurotic and high-strung as I am,” I said. “Sometimes I don’t get you,” he said, shaking his head in frustration. “What’s that supposed to mean?” I demanded, and not all that nicely. “You are really smart, really talented, amazingly attractive, and a total class act,” he said, words that totally fed my ego and made me smile. “I can’t believe you’re that insecure.” That comment, in turn, made me frown. “Believe it,” I said grumpily. “Things could have gone farther with Luka, but then you rocked my world,” he said. “I did?” I asked happily. “You did,” he confirmed. “So that’s why I’m confused, and that’s why I came back early.” “Because you don’t know which one of us you like better?” I asked, dreading his response. “It’s not like that,” he said, then sighed. “Maybe it is a little bit.” “Dude, you have no idea how competitive I can be,” I said it as a warning, but playfully at the same time. “I don’t want that, a big fight over me,” he said. “You want to know what I want?” “Duh,” I said, getting an eye roll in response. “I want to keep things easy, where we don’t have any commitments, so I can see how things work out,” he said. “What does Luka think about that?” I asked. “He’s not real happy about it,” he said. “Neither am I,” I said candidly. “It’s like you want to string us both along so you can finally decide which one of us you like best.” “I’m not stringing anyone along,” he objected. “I’m not demanding commitments from either one of you.” This was one of those times when I wished I were sluttier. If that was the case, I could go out and fuck around like crazy, making him jealous as shit. “Then I guess that’s how things are,” I said crisply. The car pulled up to our building and we both got out and walked up the stairs, saying nothing, then when we got to the condo we both vanished into our own rooms. September 13, 2003 Goodwell, VA Will This had been one freaky as fuck day, but at least this time, most of the drama wasn’t about me. I felt really sorry for Alex, since it seemed like he’d had about a ton of bricks dropped on him. He was always so calm and composed, just like Grand and Wade, so to see him lose his cool and start to come unglued was pretty upsetting. The end result of the whole thing was that I’d ended up feeling dirty, so I’d taken a shower, but it didn’t really help all that much. I dried off, put on a pair of white boxer briefs, and lay face down on the comfortable queen-size bed, even as I pulled out my laptop and started fiddling around with it. I chuckled to myself, thinking I looked like a tech junkie, with my laptop and mouse out, and next to that was my cell phone. I looked at the phone to see if anyone had called me, but I was disappointed as usual. Even Dally had stopped calling me, or at least he didn’t call all that often. He’d finally put his issues behind him and started dating this girl at his school, so now he was all into her, and all in love. He reminded me of how Ryan had been when he’d started dating Shiloh. I was happy for him, but it was just one more person pulled out of my support network. I frowned when I looked at the clock and saw that it was 11:30pm. My birthday started in half an hour, and the way things look, I probably wasn’t going to get laid. The one thing that would make me feel better at this point probably wasn’t going to happen. I looked at my “travel pack” of lube and condoms that I brought with me in case I got lucky and got irritated enough to put it in the drawer of my nightstand. A knock at my door pulled me out of my pity party. “Come in,” I said casually. “Mr. Schluter?” a deep masculine voice said. I looked behind me and saw Ramon, one of the mercenaries Jake had hired, peeking in. “Call me Will,” I demanded forcefully, but smiled. He looked nervous. “Come on in.” He smiled back at me, came in, and shut the door behind him. “I just came by to give you something.” I briefly fantasized about this stud ripping off his pants and fucking me senseless, and that created a pretty big reaction in my shorts, otherwise I would have sat up to talk to him. “What?” I asked, raising an eyebrow in a flirtatious way. He walked over to the bed, and it was flattering to see that he was having a hard time not staring at my ass. I squeezed my ass cheeks a little bit, just to mess with him, and almost giggled when his pants bulged a bit. “This.” He handed me what looked like a walkie-talkie. “What is it?” “It’s a communication device for this evening,” he said. “Sit down and explain it to me,” I said, patting the bed next to me, on my right side. His bulk caused the bed to sag toward him, moving me so my waist rubbed up against his left hand. Neither one of us moved, which gave me a raging erection. “We’re supposed to be watching out for intruders,” he said. “If we have one, we’ll broadcast it on this device.” “Cool,” I said, even as I fiddled with it. “Did you already deliver all the others?” “We did,” he said, and grinned, getting some game. “I saved the best for last.” “Thanks,” I said. “I was pretty bored until you came by.” “I should probably get back,” he said, and made to get up. “You’re in amazing shape,” I said, stopping him with my words. “It’s just part of who I am,” he said. “You’re not doing too bad yourself.” “You think?” I asked suggestively. He ran his hand over my shoulders. “Good muscle tone,” he commented. “What about my lower back?” I asked. He moved his hand sensuously down my spine, stopping at the waist band to my underwear. He had turned slightly, so when I looked to my right I was staring at his crotch, and there was no mistaking that it was bulging pretty big. “Good muscles there too,” he said, even as his fingers gently traced my back just above my waistband. “What about lower?” I asked. “Those look good too,” he said shyly. “You sure?” I asked. He smiled and then I felt his hands moving across my glutes, squeezing my ass as he did, and making me moan. “Nice,” he said. “I think you need an even comparison,” I said. I lifted my waist up and pulled my underwear down one leg, then the other, then kicked them off. His hands were back now, with his fingers tracing down my crack. “Much better,” he said. I reached over and grabbed his crotch, making him jump in alarm at first, then he relaxed. I gauged his size and guessed that he was normal, so I reached into my nightstand drawer and grabbed a condom and some lube. “Fuck me,” I ordered as I handed them to him. I thought for a minute he was going to argue with me, but he didn’t. He stood up, lowered his pants down just enough to expose his thick, five inch cock, then put the condom on, lots of lube, and lay down on my back. The feeling of him on top of me, with his massive bulk and all of his equipment still attached, even as he thrust his dick slowly into me, was erotic as hell. He hadn’t prepped me, so it hurt a bit, but I adapted quickly enough, and then I was with him, bucking my hips back into him in time to his thrusts. He groaned and grunted into my ear, even as he picked up his pace. He didn’t last long, but I expected that, since he had work to do. He froze up and moaned loudly, then blasted his load, making these little thrusts that banged against my prostate in the sexiest way. If he’d have lasted another minute, I’d have blown a major load, but he didn’t. When he was done, he pulled out, pulled the condom off, then took it into the bathroom and flushed it down the toilet. “Thanks,” he said, even as he headed for the door. “Thank you,” I said. “Stop by anytime.” He chuckled, then he left. I sighed, and was about to roll over onto my back and jack off when my phone rang. I looked at it and saw that it was Zach, and saw that the time was 12:01. “Hey,” I answered cheerfully. “Hey,” he said. “I am so sorry I didn’t call you on the eleventh.” “That’s fine,” I lied. “I figured if I called you now, I’d be able to be the first one to wish you a happy birthday.” “You are,” I said cheerfully. “How are you doing?” He went through this lengthy description of his game today, telling me how well he did. I listened patiently, saying the appropriate things so he thought I was into what he was saying. He’d just finished rambling on about that, when I heard voices in the background. “I gotta run,” he said. “Where are you going?” “Big party to celebrate,” he said enthusiastically. “Have fun,” I said, and managed to sound sincere. “Have a great birthday!” he said, then ended our call. It was sweet that he’d called me, but that was about it. The rest of the conversation was pretty depressing. It was all about him. He didn’t really give a shit about me, and he really didn’t want to hear what was going on in my life. A tear fell out of my eye, and rather than wipe it off, I just buried my head in the pillow and cried yet again over losing yet another piece of Zach Hayes. Another knock on my door pulled me out of my pity party. I wondered briefly if it was Ramon coming back for another round. “Who is it?” I asked. “Alex,” I heard him say. “Just a minute,” I said. I threw on a pair of sweat pants, going commando, and sprayed some cologne on me and the bedspread just to mask any residual sex smells. I went over and opened the door. “Come on in.” “I hope I am not disturbing you,” he said. “Not at all,” I said. We went over and sat on the bed. I could almost feel the turmoil within him. “How are you doing?” “Not well,” he said. “Not well at all.” “Dude, you had some pretty heavy shit dropped on you,” I said sympathetically. “It is your birthday, yet I have come here to ask you for a favor.” “What do you need?” I asked, more than willing to help him out, or at least I was until he planted a major liplock on me. Alex was a really good kisser, and I found myself floating away with him, until I thought of JJ and froze. “I can’t do this.” “I am certainly not trying to force you, but I think that the only thing that will help me stabilize myself at this point is having someone fuck me. You are the only candidate,” he said. That made sense. Darius was straight, and there’s no way Matt or Wade would jeopardize their relationship to help him out. Probably the only other person who could fuck him would be my father, and that was pretty much out of the question. “So you came here because I’m your only choice?” I teased, pretending to be all offended. “I assumed you would worry about Jays, and that would make you reluctant, but I needed you enough to risk it,” he said. “I am willing to pledge that I will say nothing to him.” “I don’t know,” I said, confused. “I was hoping you would not make me beg,” he said, a comment that was part desperation, part irritation. He clearly wasn’t used to groveling to get someone to have sex with him. I could say no, but that seemed incredibly cruel. I decided that JJ would probably understand, and if not, at least it would give him something to hold over my head. “You sure you want me to fuck you?” I asked in my sultry bedroom voice, even as I stood up and lowered my pants. I was still really horny from my fuck with Ramon, so my dick hardened in no time. “Tonight, I need that kind of challenge,” he said, then I felt his lips on my cock, and that overwhelmed any residual arguments I may have had. Unfortunately, I was still pretty worked up from Ramon, and I felt the warning signs too late. “Gonna cum,” I said, and then blasted my load into his mouth. “I’m sorry,” I said, when I was done. “I enjoyed that,” he said. “I recharge fast, and the good news is that when I do, I’ll last even longer,” I said. “And that is even better news.” We stripped off our clothes and got into the bed in a 69 position, then while he blew me and brought my dick back to life, I tongued and probed his ass to get him ready for my big dick. When he seemed loose enough, I reached into my drawer, pulled out a magnum, and using lots of lube, I slowly pushed into him. I was surprised that he took it as well as he did, and even more surprised at how, once he got used to me, how into it he was. He was one really good fuck. I was able to last long enough to get him off, and only after he’d blown did I give myself permission to cum. We lay there on the bed, side by side, panting and smiling. “That was one hell of a birthday present.” He chuckled. “Thank you for helping me out. I feel as if my head is clear now.” He hung out for a few minutes, then left. I thought about our fuck, and decided that he’d cleared my brain out too. My two sexual encounters for the night had helped me erase the sadness over my conversation with Zach from my mind, and that enabled me to actually sleep. September 14, 2003 Goodwell, VA Brad “You should go to bed,” Jake said. “We’ve got things covered.” I looked at him dubiously. There was absolutely no way I could sleep. If they were going to come after us here, they were going to do it tonight. I was much too big of a control freak to not be here. “I’m fine,” I said crisply. “As am I,” Wade said, to preclude Jake from trying to get him to leave as well. We were situated in a small room off the kitchen, one that had a lot of books and records in it. We’d picked this spot as our ‘headquarters’ because it had no windows and that meant it could remain dark, and because it was conveniently located close to the door that went out to the stables. In the back were three rifles from Wade’s armory here at Goodwell, just in case we needed weapons. I hadn’t really known much about modern defense systems, which was surprising considering I was the chairman of a defense electronics firm, so this was quite the educational experience. These guys had first studied the topography carefully, assessing where any threat would have to come from, and where it wouldn’t. They’d deployed a whole bunch of electronic monitoring devices, including sensors and cameras, all of them linked into this room. It was an amazing setup, especially considering how little time they’d had to set it up. I looked at the large screen in front of Ramon, and noticed there were stationary lights marking the monitors, and they completely surrounded Goodwell at varying distances away from the house, forming what looked like multiple rings of defense. “Why is there a gap there?” I asked, pointing to a spot where there were no lights. “That’s a lake,” Jake said, and tapped Ramon, who hit a button, causing a picture of the lake to appear on one of the other monitors. “How will we know if we have visitors?” I asked. “A couple of ways,” Jake said. “Joe and Kenny are out on the grounds, so they may physically spot someone.” He gestured at the main screen, where in addition to the stationary lights on the screen, there were two other lights that were moving around. Those indicated where Joe and Kenny were. “More likely, we’ll pick them up on sensors.” Jake tapped Ramon on the shoulder. “Nothing yet,” Ramon said, briefly taking off his headphones, then he was back at his task. He seemed remarkably calm, composed, and focused. The only way I’d probably be close to as relaxed as he was is if I’d just fucked someone. “We’ll either hear something on his headphones, or he’ll see an infrared or signal,” Jake said, pointing at the master screen showing that those things were deployed. “Otherwise, we’ll pick them up on camera.” “Impressive,” Wade said. “What kind of force do you think they’d send?” I asked. Jake shrugged. “Could be one guy, a sniper type person, could be a large group. If it’s a large group, they’ll be easier to track. They’ll be like thugs.” “They won’t know we have these kinds of systems deployed,” Wade said. “Most likely,” Jake cautioned, since we had no way of knowing what they did or didn’t know. “To be honest, your security was pretty shitty. They would have expected more than what you have.” “Unless they had someone who could clue them in,” I said. Wade got really annoyed at that, since it implied that a member of his staff was disloyal, but he got over it. In this situation, you couldn’t really take anything for granted. We sat there for a long time, just staring at the screens. Periodically, Jake would take over from Ramon, but not for long. I was starting to relax and get complacent when one of the icons representing a monitor began to flash, indicating that it had a signal. “That’s an audio monitor,” Jake said. Ramon patched the audio through, and I heard someone speaking Spanish. “Fuck, they have monitors,” he said. “We’ll have to take them out.” I interpreted that to Wade, since he didn’t speak Spanish. “He said that into his radio, most likely,” Jake said. “Monitor 7 is out,” Ramon said. That was a camera monitor. “Malfunction?” Jake asked. Ramon punched some buttons, and the video came up. There was a shadowy figure in front of it, then something must have taken it out from behind. “Alert Joe and Kenny,” Jake said. Ramon was on the radio immediately. “We’re dealing with some people who know their shit,” Jake said. “Have Kenny observe Monitor 9.” Ramon relayed that. “Why Monitor 9?” I asked. It wasn’t in the direct path to Goodwell. “If they’re pros, they’ll try to work around and develop an erratic approach pattern,” Jake informed us. He got on his cell phone, presumably calling in reinforcements. “Who did you call?” Wade asked. “The FBI,” he said. “I already told them we were worried about a narcotics related assault, and cited the deal with those properties as a reason. They told me to call it in if it happened, so I called it in.” “Another monitor out,” Ramon said. “Monitor 3.” “They went the other way,” Jake said morosely. “Let Kenny and Joe know.” “Got a gunshot,” Ramon said. “Monitor 2.” He was already passing that info on to Kenny and Joe. I’d felt really comfortable just a few minutes ago with this string of lights around Goodwell, indicating that we were securely entrenched behind our electronic wall, only these guys were taking out monitors and dancing around them remarkably fast. “Who did it?” Jake asked, referring to the gun shot. He was listening with one headphone. “Wasn’t us,” he said to me. “No one is hurt.” “Another gunshot,” Ramon said. “They’re targeting Joe.” “We need to give them some backup,” he said. Ramon stood up. “I’m on it.” He hurried stealthily out the door. Jake took over, and began coordinating things himself. I could see the beauty of having Ramon here, because it gave Jake the ability to focus more on the big picture, but that was a luxury we no longer had. We watched the screen and saw Ramon now, a third blinking light, as he moved toward Monitor 8. “Monitor 8 is out,” Jake said into the microphone. Our monitors were going dark, one by one, as they closed in on Goodwell. “Should we get ready to defend ourselves?” Wade asked. “Let’s wait a few minutes,” Jake said. “They still have a few obstacles to get through.” A different alert signal blinked. “What’s that?” I asked. “That’s a shed, of some sort,” Jake said. “It was rigged with a door alert.” He flashed a picture of it on the screen. “That’s a maintenance shed,” Wade said. “It’s got mostly lawn and garden equipment in it.” “So nothing vital?” Jake asked. “Nothing vital,” Wade replied. “That monitor is awfully close to us,” I said, watching as Monitor 4 blinked, then went out. “Shit,” Jake said, then spoke into the microphone. “Fall back,” he told his guys. “What’s happening?” I asked, confused by his urgent command. “They’re trying to flank our guys, to get around them and cut them off from the main house,” Jake explained, pointing to how that last Monitor was at the edge of the woods before you got to Goodwell. “How many do you think are out there?” Wade asked. “Hard to say, but the way they’re taking out monitors and pinning Kenny, Joe, and Ramon back, I’d say at least 5, possibly 6. And these guys know what they’re doing,” he said. “How long until we get some help from the authorities?” I asked. “I’m guessing within thirty minutes,” he said. “You don’t want to call the locals, like the Charlottesville cops or county guys.” “Why not?” Wade asked, confused. “Because they’d roll right into an ambush,” he said, gesturing at the screen, where yet another monitor went out. “These guys would eat their lunch.” “What should we do?” I asked. “We’re going to have to fall back to the house, and fight them off here,” Jake said. “Which gun do you want?” I asked Wade, even as we both looked at the rifles that we’d thought were merely symbolic. “Another gunshot,” Jake said, interrupting my question. “We got one of their guys. Kenny did. He’s falling back fast.” He paused for a second, then flipped a button, turning on Monitor 14, a camera monitor. We saw a wounded man, completely dressed in black, with his hand grabbing the side of his body, where presumably he’d been shot. Then we watched in real horror as another one of the goons came up to his wounded colleague and shot him in the head. “Holy shit,” I said. I looked at Wade in terror at the thought of what these guys could do to the people in this house. Jake’s phone rang and he answered it, then spoke into the radio urgently. “Get back! Get back! Back to the house! We have incoming!” The guys had been falling back slowly, just as Jake had first ordered, but now we saw the indicators, showing where Kenny, Ramon, and Joe were, moving rapidly back to Goodwell. We heard the helicopters before we saw them, but it didn’t take long before there were a number of them, military models, hovering around Goodwell, illuminating the woods and grounds around it. “We’re clear,” Jake said into his phone. “There’s a guy in the shed.” Our broad cameras caught the action as an attack helicopter searched the grounds, while two others landed and disgorged the agents they’d brought here. We heard the unmistakable sound of machine gun fire as the attack chopper took shots at the bad guys. There was a streak of light, then a loud explosion, as a rocket obliterated the shed, and presumably the guy hiding in there. “Guess I’ll need a new shed,” Wade said ruefully, with a hint of humor. “And some lawn equipment,” I added. We heard a loud commotion from outside our room, as the residents, guests, and staff of Goodwell were awakened by the blast. “That was close,” I noted, referring to the overall assault. “Too close,” Wade said, shaking his head. “If Jake wouldn’t have brought those guys in, we’d probably all be dead.” I nodded in agreement, even as we heard more machine gun fire off in the distance. The FBI ground commander came into our headquarters, and I hung out with them while Wade went to try and calm everyone down. Only after I saw the hordes of agents blanketing the property was I willing to leave the room and go back to talk to my family, leaving Jake to coordinate the clean-up with the Feds.
  3. Chapter 57

    A motor coach full of tourists would be better? Or the Hop on Hop Off double decker bus?
  4. Chapter 57

    Yes, but Sharon hates him, and keeps lobbying for him to meet an untimely death by being run over by a bus. :-)
  5. Chapter 57

    And if he was kidnapped, who would care? 😃
  6. Chapter 57

    September 13, 2003 Goodwell, VA Wade I had originally considered reconvening our meeting at dinner, but that seemed to be tempting fate just too much. Visions of the Thanksgiving nightmare dinner last year seared through my brain. Instead, we’d just enjoyed a relaxed meal and celebrated Maddy’s birthday. It was a really nice, calm event, and helped to soothe some of the frayed feelings that our first meeting had inevitably caused. We’d celebrate Riley’s birthday tomorrow, and Will’s as well if he was around long enough. The bond between Will and Maddy was really touching, but he seemed pretty attached to Riley too. Probably the biggest surprise was how much fun Darius had playing with them now that they weren’t just blobs, even though they wore him out. Just seeing how much energy it took to deal with a three-year-old was probably great birth control. We were due to start meeting again in the library in an hour, so I took that opportunity to wander down to the nursery to check on Riley and Maddy. My mother was outside their room in the hallway with her back to me, talking on her cell phone. She had a unique ability to speak into a phone or whisper into your ear such that people around her couldn’t hear what she said, an ability I’d inherited from her. Only in this situation, she hadn’t known anyone was there, so as I strolled up to her, I could hear her words quite clearly. “Take him out.” Her words were vicious and direct, uttered as an order, the kind of order someone would issue when they were planning to have someone killed. She saw me immediately after she said that, and look flustered. I stared at her until she ended her call. “Take whom out?” I asked icily. “You were eavesdropping on my conversation?” she challenged. “That is surely beneath you.” “I was,” I said firmly, disregarding the etiquette rules. “Who are you planning to take out?” “I will not be badgered,” she said, and headed down the hall, away from me. I followed her. “And I will not be put off in this situation, with so much on the line,” I demanded. My words were loud enough to stop her escape, as she certainly didn’t want a scene. “I was talking to my publicist, who was discussing my efforts with someone at the Washington Post,” she lied. “I told him to take the reporter out, as a good lunch or dinner may get me more favorable press.” “That was very good, Mother,” I said. “You managed to think up an excuse for that quite fast.” “You may think whatever you like, Wade,” she said curtly. “I will see you at the meeting.” She strode away from me confidently, leaving me wondering who would be on the receiving and of her wrath this time. The good news was that most of the people who were important to me were here, and I didn’t think there was any way she could accomplish an execution at Goodwell. “Wade,” I heard Brad say. I turned to find him standing there with Jake. “We’d like to introduce you to some people, and see if you can integrate them into your household for the next day or two.” “Certainly,” I said, and followed them to the stables. There were three men there, and they were all muscular, hulking guys. “These are three friends of mine,” Jake said, introducing them. What was hysterical, in a politically incorrect way, was that they were like a stereotypical team: Joe was African American, Kenny was Asian, and Ramon was Hispanic. I guess with Jake as the token white guy, they rounded out the human color wheel. I wanted to give them Ninja Turtle names. “They’re here to provide security. They’ll need to deploy some monitors, and spend some time getting the layout figured out.” “Of course,” I said. I took them to meet the head groundskeeper and told him that with all of our distinguished guests, we’d added some extra security. He agreed to help them out, but all of that took time. I glance anxiously at my watch, since it was almost time for our meeting, and I didn’t want to be late and miss something. “We’ll handle things,” Joe said. “Thanks,” Jake told him. Jake, Brad and I went back into the house and made it to the library just as everyone had gotten situated. Conveniently enough, everyone sat in the same place they’d been in before, which made it seem orderly, at least to my OCD mind. “I’m sorry I wasn’t here to greet you all,” I said formally. Matt snickered at me, since if I had been speaking casually, I would have used the term y’all instead. “Jake has jumped in and arranged security for us in no time at all. I hope that will help you sleep more comfortably.” “Thank you, Wade, and you as well, Jake,” Alex said. “I have phoned home, and ensured that Ricky has ample protection as well.” I tried not to be a control freak in these situations, but it made me a little nervous, since Alex didn’t always pick up on the level of the threat. I remembered how he’d thought he could easily handle Mary Ellen’s scheme to remove JJ from their lives, and how badly that had backfired on all of us. “I’ve had a bit of time to think about this situation, and I have a couple of questions,” Brad said. We all looked at him, non-verbally assuring him he had the floor. “How involved is Lady Preston’s family in the current opium trade?” “I am not aware of the extent of their involvement, but based on how long they have been doing it, I would expect them to be quite involved,” the Duke said. “They are involved, according to my sources, in a significant portion of the global trade,” Jake said. “You won’t be surprised to discover that the name they operate under is Blankford.” “This must be a long-term goal, to have named their consortium after that title,” Stef noted. “Does that mean that Blankford is the equivalent of a company name, or is it in direct reference to Ricky’s courtesy title?” I asked. “Or both?” JP asked. “I don’t know,” Jake said. “I talked to a friend in the DEA, and he said that their family has adopted pretty shrewd tactics to remain a key player in the narcotics industry. It is an industry that craves the power of consolidation, but its illegal structure makes that difficult.” “How have they gotten around that?” I asked. “They have gone in and created a consortium of sorts, where they align with a specific cartel or cartels in a market, and then they can ensure smooth supply of their products,” he said. “They’ve got good contacts in Afghanistan, which is one of the biggest suppliers in the world. Most of that product is shipped to Europe through the Balkans. They’ve also got ties in Myanmar, where the product ships to China, or Indonesia and Australia. And the key supplier in North America is Mexico.” “I would suspect that with the war in Afghanistan, that is interfering with their supply,” Mother said with a hopeful note, as if that may justify this foolish war her friends in the government had dragged us into. “It has hurt it a bit, but not enough to cause them major problems,” Jake said. I almost laughed at how that disappointed my mother. “That’s what they’re doing in Mexico!” Brad exclaimed, almost too loudly. “Lord Preston isn’t going there to broker an agreement with the Ortegas, they’re going to pull the Ortegas into their consortium.” We paused to digest what he said. “That is why those properties are so important to them,” Stef noted. He paused to explain the issue with Buzz Dalby’s estate and the lands bordering Mexico they were trying to acquire. “I would suspect with that kind of backing, and with a secure infrastructure on both sides of the border, they would be able to move lots of product into the US,” Jake said. “And I would suspect that when that is accomplished, the Ortegas will become the most powerful of the Mexican cartels.” “Is that their modus operandi?” JP asked. “It would seem illogical to go in and start a war of consolidation when you could easily unite the factions by affiliating them with your consortium.” “That would seem to make more sense,” Jake said. “Unless they felt that wasn’t possible. In that case, there has to be a war to annihilate the opposing cartels, or at the very minimum, to iron out who works in which markets.” “I wonder if there is some reason why the Rubios won’t work with this group?” Brad asked. “Surely there are rival consortiums.” “There are,” Jake said. “Probably the strongest is the Minh group in China.” Brad and Stef looked at each other a bit nervously. “Then I suspect you will see the Rubios align with the Minh group,” Stef said. “Do you know them?” Jake asked. “Mr. Minh had briefly dabbled in the world of Venture Capital, and through those ties I met a few of his deputies,” Stef said. “Met,” Brad said sarcastically, and chuckled. Stef gave him a dirty look, which made Matt, Will, Darius, and I snicker as well, since it was easy enough to deduce that Stef had fucked one of them, at least. “I would have thought these guys would do just fine, running their own operations, without all this interference from the outside,” Matt said. That made sense. Why would the Ortegas want to rock the boat by bringing in a consortium? “If one group brings in a powerful ally, then I suspect the other group would feel compelled to seek allies as well,” Stef noted. “And presumably the same competitive desire will influence the consortiums. If one moves into Mexico, others would reasonably feel a need to do that as well, probably for their own survival.” “So maybe the Minh group worked out a deal with the Rubios first?” JP mused. “I don’t think that’s the case,” Jake said. “I think I would have heard about that, and when it was raised, it was just a distant idea, not a done deal. I think the Rubios would only bring in the Minh group if they felt threatened by the Blankford deal with the Ortegas.” “Why wouldn’t the Rubios have the same drive to get bigger and more powerful as the Ortegas?” Will asked. Jake shrugged. “These groups already have to deal with a lot of issues, not the least of which is the attempts by law enforcement to ruin their business and by rival groups to assassinate them. Sparking a war is a whole new level of risk.” “The Ortegas must have run the analysis and decided that the risk was worth the reward,” Stef mused, making this all sound like a simple business deal. It was easy to forget that the people we were talking about were dregs who preyed on human weakness, and contributed in no small part to the destabilization of society as a whole. “Wait a minute,” Brad said. “When we were talking about this before, we were wondering if they were trying to weaken us, our family. Is that part of this deal?” “Are you involved with these groups?” the Duke asked with a condescending air, as if to imply that Stef was part of the Rubio cartel. “We have had peripheral dealings with them that are not drug related,” Stef said, his irritation showing quite clearly at being snubbed by this self-important aristocrat. “I would submit those dealings are less intimate than the ties to your family.” “In any event, I cannot see why they would see us as a resource for the Rubios or the Minh group,” Brad said hastily, to keep Stef and the Duke from going for each other’s throats. “You must put all the pieces together,” Mother said, her voice sounding elegant and smooth, but also a bit condescending, as if she were addressing people who were hopelessly naive. “Something I have been accused of doing all too well.” I smiled at her to acknowledge that she at least heard me when I talked of her Byzantine schemes. “Explain that,” Mary Ellen said. “This does not all have to revolve around just one objective,” Mother said. “In fact, I suspect there are multiple goals.” “I’m not following you,” Matt said. “If Lord Preston meets with the Ortegas to arrange for them to join his consortium, that does not mean that he isn’t also plotting to install his children from his second marriage as the heirs to the Dukedom,” she said. “I can see that,” Brad said, getting her point. “In that case, Lord Preston’s dealings in Mexico may have nothing to do with us at all, while his attempts to cause us problems may be linked to his second goal.” “That would explain why we have all felt the impact of their wrath,” JP said. “They have spread it around so it hits all of us, and not just our business interests.” “Why?” Will asked. “If there was a plan in place to weaken us as a group, that gives us a logical reason as to why Lord Preston was willing to aid in the destruction of JJ’s career, and why he paid Alexandra Carmichael to plan out and execute Mrs. Danfield’s rape.” JP looked at my mother meaningfully when he said that. “I hope you will forgive me for raising this issue, and that unpleasant memory.” “It is something I would indeed like to forget, but it was relevant,” Mother said. “But thank you for your concern.” “You’re welcome,” JP said. It was funny how he had managed to look much more like a gentleman during this whole discussion than the Duke. “I can see why Lord Preston wouldn’t want to hurt you, since he had planned to inherit your holdings,” Mother said to the Duke. “I don’t understand why he would go after me, and the rest of the people here.” “Because he probably understands the kind of family loyalty that bonds us together,” I explained. “I would assume that in his mind, he would have grafted the Duke’s honorable intentions and values onto us, and onto JP and Stefan. In that case, if one of us were under attack, the rest would come to our rescue.” “Our three families are now intertwined by marriage or other important relationships,” JP added. “It is inconceivable to think that I would stand aside and watch someone try to destroy Wade without stepping in to help. I would have to believe Wade would do the same thing for his nephew.” “But maybe not for his sister,” Matt teased, taking a swipe at Mary Ellen. Only we had grown closer over these past two years, and I had come to genuinely enjoy spending time with her. “No, I would fight for my sister,” I said definitively. It was one of the more meaningful moments I’d had with Mary Ellen. She smiled at me and nodded. “And I would fight for you too, Wade, but probably not as hard,” she joked, making all of us laugh. “Here is what concerns me,” I said, getting serious again. “It seems that to achieve their goal, Lord and Lady Preston must eliminate Your Grace, Alex, and Ricky. There really is no other way for them to accomplish that.” “They would surely not resort to murder,” the Duke said. “These people are drug lords,” Mother said, and actually let her irritation show. “They would have no problem killing to achieve a major objective.” “And that means that none of you is safe from their reach, nor will you ever be,” I said. “I’m actually rather surprised you’ve survived this long.” “I can’t imagine my father, as bad as our relationship has been, would arrange to have me killed,” Alex said, and looked visibly shaken. “Your father may not be willing to do that, but his wife is probably not as sentimental where you are concerned,” Mother pointed out. “If something happens to Lord Preston, that is when this will come to a head.” “What could happen to him?” I asked her suspiciously. “Wade, he is in Mexico meeting with members of cartels,” she said to me dismissively. “That is a high risk venture.” “That’s what your phone call was about,” I accused, putting it all together. She glared at me with her most vicious look, the one that would cause most people to shrink away into the shadows, but had no impact on me at all. “Now you are seeing phantoms where there are none,” she said, but there was a note of warning in her voice. That’s exactly who she’d been referring to when she’d given the order to take him out, I was almost certain. But there was nothing to be gained by discussing that in this group. If whoever she talked to actually did succeed in taking out Lord Preston, knowledge that she was involved in that would only complicate things. “I don’t understand,” Brad said, having picked up on our underlying tension. “It seems to me that this threat will remain over our heads forever,” Mother said, ignoring Brad’s query, and adopting an angry pose to cover our prior exchange in a smokescreen. “And it seems that my grandson is now directly in harm’s way.” “That is surely just supposition at this point,” the Duke said. “I am not willing to be as blithe about it as you are,” Mother said to him. “As Wade noted, it is only you, then Alex, then Ricky who are preventing Lady Preston’s children from assuming the peerage. I would have to believe, based on what we’re learning, that she is ambitious, determined, and ruthless enough to make that happen.” “I don’t think she’d shed a tear if I vanished,” Alex said sadly. “Is there a way to somehow prevent that from happening?” I asked the Duke. “Is there some way to ensure that their children will not inherit the Dukedom?” “I am not aware of anything, other than treason, which is grounds to remove a title they would have been born into,” the Duke said. “I have explored this area before, and have sadly come up empty handed.” “Yet there is one way,” Mother said, smiling her most evil smile. It was as if I could see the light bulbs going off in her mind. “I must say, I have to admire Sabrina Granger’s handiwork in this.” “You know her?” I asked, since her comment seemed to indicate a level of familiarity I hadn’t noticed before. “I have only met her once, but I know of her,” Mother said, stunning me with the long reach of her network. “What do you mean, you admire her handiwork?” Mary Ellen asked. “The only way to deny the Dukedom to Lady Preston’s children is to have them declared to be illegitimate,” Mother said. “It is much the same discussion we had when we first talked about your pregnancy. If you and Alex weren’t married, then Ricky would not be in the line of succession.” “That is correct,” the Duke said, as if ruling definitively on that point. “But Lord and Lady Preston are married,” Mary Ellen asserted. “Are they?” Mother challenged. “What do you know that you’re not telling us?” I demanded, wondering what kind of scheme she’d cooked up. “I know how to prove that those children are bastards,” she asserted. We all stared at her, amazed at that statement. “You would have to prove that Lord and Lady Preston never married,” I said. “Or more to the point, prove that they were never legally married,” she said, emphasizing the term, ‘legally’. “I’m quite sure they have adequate documentation to certify that they are legally husband and wife,” the Duke said, frustrated with what he must think is mindless banter. “Not if Lord Preston was still married at the time they wed,” she said. “My son only had two wives,” the Duke asserted. “Alex’s mother, and Sabrina Granger.” “I did not argue otherwise,” Mother said obliquely. “How can you prove that he was married at the time?” I asked her. “I know where Alex’s mother is,” she said, with a self-satisfied smile. There was a collective gasp when she made that announcement, one that silenced the room for a few seconds. “My mother?” Alex asked, truly shocked. “My mother has been dead for years.” “What kind of farce is this?” the Duke demanded, and seemed genuinely offended. That didn’t bother Mother at all. “It is no farce,” she said to the Duke. “Margaret Granger, formerly known as Lady Bridgemont, is alive as we speak.” “That isn’t possible,” Alex said. “She died when I was eight years old. I went to her funeral.” “How was she killed?” Mother asked him. “Margaret, or Maggie as we knew her, was killed in an automobile accident in Maryland, not terribly far from here,” the Duke said. “She was here visiting a friend.” “She was indeed,” Mother said, implying there was more to this ‘friend’ than we were being told. “But she was not killed in that accident.” “I stared at her casket, and watched them bury her,” Alex said sadly. Mary Ellen reached over and put her hand on his shoulder in a very loving way. I had always thought Mary Ellen would be a relatively callous wife, one with lots of lovers and treated Alex with disregard, but she genuinely seemed to care about him. “Was it an open casket?” Mother challenged. “It was not,” the Duke said, and was so flustered his somewhat pompous attitude had completely vanished. “So you are saying that Alex’s mother was injured, presumably severely, in this accident, but not killed?” I asked Mother. “Yes,” she said. “And then her death was faked, for whatever reason, and that would have seemingly been legitimated by having a huge funeral for her in Britain, attended by her young son,” I said. “Yes,” she said again. “And I suppose you’re going to produce her?” I asked, wondering if she’d actually do that. “I cannot teleport someone Wade,” she said. “That is beyond my powers.” “I wonder about that,” Matt said, with a bit of awe and admiration in his voice. We’d seen my mother’s plans and schemes for years, but it truly was impressive the way she could almost reach in and pull out a trump card to save a bad hand. “Alright, if my mother is alive, where is she?” Alex asked. I had rarely seen him lose his cool, but he was losing it now. He seemed to be a spark away from going on a ranting tirade. I’d only experienced that once, when we were a couple and had argued in San Francisco. It wasn’t a pretty sight. “Virginia,” Mother said. “She has been hospitalized here for several years.” “My mother is alive and in this very state,” Alex said, floundering. “Now I understand why I was supposed to be out of the picture,” Mother said, ignoring Alex’s meltdown. “That’s why they needed to get me out of the way.” “Because you know where Alex’s mother is?” I asked for clarity. “Yes,” she said. “And because you are good at figuring out these crazy schemes,” Matt added. “Evidently,” I said. “But if you had gone to rehab, you would only be gone for two to three months.” “I would suggest, then, that three months is their timeline to try and implement their plan,” Mother said. “You are suggesting that by the time you came out of rehab, Lady Preston would have eliminated Alex, Ricky, and the Duke, and securely enshrined her children as the heirs?” JP asked. “That is what I am suggesting,” Mother said. “I am just torn apart, worrying about what will happen to Ricky,” Mary Ellen said to Alex. “Can we go back and get him?” She had shown little in the way of maternal instincts, at least as far as I could tell, so her concern was either faked for a reason, or it reflected genuine feelings she’d buried deep within her. Worrying about his son seemed to pull Alex out of his emotional slide. “That may be part of the plan,” Jake said. “You just don’t know. The best strategy is to stay here, at least until tomorrow. You don’t want to go anywhere at night. Our plan should be to hunker down and make sure we’re well-defended.” His decision to bring in his three friends suddenly looked to be incredibly valuable and important. “If you will excuse me, I need to make a phone call,” the Duke said. “I will ensure Ricky’s safety.” “How will you do that?” Mary Ellen asked. “While I am not popular with the current government in Britain, I am on very good terms with Her Majesty the Queen, and on even better terms with His Royal Highness, The Duke of Edinburgh,” The Duke said. “In this situation, I am confident they will oblige me and watch out for my great-grandson.” My mind wandered off to a vision of Ricky in his crib, surrounded by several red-coated guards who stood there stoically, even as he threw toys or other things like that at them. I almost giggled, and that would never do in this situation, so I wrangled my mind back under control and focused on the conversation in front of me. “Just a moment,” Alex said, stopping the Duke even before he could start to hoist himself up out of his chair. “Did you know my mother is alive?” The Duke got agitated and angry, but then seemed to realize what a huge deal this was to Alex, and that mellowed him out considerably. “I did not,” he said. “This must have been my father’s doing, assuming that Mrs. Danfield is correct in her assertion.” “I think she’s being honest,” Nana said, referring to her daughter. “I did not mean to imply she wasn’t honest, I meant to imply that she was wrong,” the Duke said. “Now if you will excuse me.” He got up ponderously and went back to his room. “I would assume there is no record of their divorce,” I said, referring to Lord Preston and his first wife. “Why would there be, when she was supposedly dead?” Alex asked cynically. “I can’t believe my mother is alive, and I didn’t know. How is that possible?” “It seems as if your great grandfather solved the problem in his own way, whatever that problem was,” I said. I couldn’t help but think of how my mother had managed to have Nana committed to a nursing home for years just to get her out of the way, and evidently Nana had the same train of thought. “I’m going to go check on Albert,” she said, referring to the Duke, but there was no missing the evil glance she gave my mother. “Can you tell me where she’s at?” Alex asked my mother. “She is at a hospital in the country. I will give you all the information I have on her,” Mother said with a warm smile. She was being nice because she was proud of herself, and perhaps to build a better bond with her son in law. “I would be most grateful,” he said. “Why would they fake her death?” I asked. “She was comatose when admitted to the hospital she is at now, and there was no real hope then that she would recover,” Mother said. “They kept her alive with machines?” Matt asked. “They did,” Mother said. “It is very difficult to end the life of someone without prior directives, and to do so would have created an international firestorm. Virginia has a strong right to life organization, one that would have militantly fought any efforts to pull the plug.” “So why didn’t they just let her live? Why did they have to fake her death?” Alex asked. “I don’t know the answer to that question,” Mother said. “I can only assume that doing so would limit your father considerably. He could not have remarried without divorcing your mother.” Alex pondered that. “That would not have been pretty, a British Earl divorcing his wife, who was lying comatose in an American hospital.” “It would not,” Mother agreed. “And how did you find out about Margaret Granger?” I asked her. “I do not think that collective decision making requires that I disclose all of my sources,” she said. “If Sabrina Granger knows you have proof that Alex’s mother is alive, surely she would have made some allowance for that, and have some plan to counter it,” Stef noted. “Possibly,” Mother said. “I think it is likely that’s why she was getting me out of the picture, but I suppose there are other methods she could use.” “Like what?” Matt asked. “Like making sure that Alex’s mother really was dead, and erasing any record that she lived on or beyond the date they were married,” Brad said. “And making sure Elizabeth was also silenced, one way or another.” “So now, in addition to worrying about all of us here, and worrying about my son, I must now be concerned for my mother, who is possibly a few hundred kilometers away, and who I thought was dead until just minutes ago?” Alex demanded. The stress was clearly wearing away at his stoic veneer. “You must,” Mary Ellen said. “That is how things will be until we can get this resolved, one way or the other.” “One way or the other,” I repeated, even as I gave my mother a disapproving look.
  7. Chapter 46

    I do live in St. Louis and the Hill is my favorite place for Italian food
  8. Chapter 10

    August 1800 HMS Valiant The Thames Granger boarded his ship, greeted by the standard honors he had become used to. “Welcome back, my lord,” Weston said cheerfully. Granger found his sadness at leaving home and his frustration with the mob vanish as he returned to this familiar milieu, and he was hit with Weston’s ever-present cheerfulness. “Thank you, Mr. Weston,” Granger responded. He looked beyond Weston and noticed another officer standing there, looking quite nervous. As he was wearing a lieutenant’s uniform, Granger gathered that this was his new second lieutenant, Edward Grenfell. It was impossible not to appreciate how handsome he was. He was about the same height as Granger, and as slim as Daventry, with a uniform cut in a very stylish way. His hair was a darker brown, almost as dark as Calvert’s, but without the reddish tints, and he had a long face with very engaging blue eyes. Without withering under Granger’s eye, the man stepped forward. “My lord, I’m Edward Grenfell. I’ve been appointed to Valiant.” “I was aware of your appointment, Mr. Grenfell, but I had expected you to arrive sooner,” Granger said severely. “I must beg your pardon for that, my lord. I arrived yesterday. I was up north, in Northumberland, and when my new orders caught up to me I made as much haste as possible,” the man said. He seemed truly contrite, so Granger relented. “As we are to sail shortly, your tales of your travels to Northumberland will have to wait for another time,” Granger said jovially, getting a smile from Grenfell. “I will be happy to entertain Your Lordship with tales of my journeys,” Grenfell said. Another man moved forward to introduce himself, but this man wasn’t nearly as attractive as Grenfell, and in fact he wasn’t attractive at all. He looked to be at least 50 years old, and was carrying about twice as much weight on his body as it had been designed to accommodate. His skin was leathery, and his face grizzled, giving him the look of an experienced mariner. “My lord, I’m Erasmus Schein,” he said, in an accent that seemed Germanic. “Welcome aboard Mr. Schein,” Granger said. “I am told that you know the Baltic like the back of your hand.” “I am not sure who told you that, my lord, but in that case, I don’t know the back of my hand all that well,” he said modestly, a characteristic Granger appreciated. “Well, in any event, you know it better than I do,” Granger said. “Welcome aboard.” “Thank you, my lord,” Schein said. “My lord, I’ve familiarized Mr. Grenfell and Mr. Schein with the ship, and they’ve both settled into the Wardroom,” Weston said. “I am glad to hear your good manners have not deserted you, Mr. Weston,” Granger said pleasantly. “As the tide will change in an hour, we will be sailing when that happens, provided our passengers manage to make it on board by then.” “You have but to give the order, my lord,” Weston said, which was as it should be. “Then I will leave you to make final preparations, while I go and see how well Winkler has organized my cabin,” Granger said. He walked directly aft, through the door that sealed off his world from the quarterdeck, and found his quarters set up much as they’d been when he’d originally sailed with Lord and Lady Elgin. On either side of the deck, two compartments had been created, while at the rear, the entire cabin was open, containing his huge dining table and hutch. “We’ve got things set up, my lord,” Winkler said, looking mildly exasperated. “I’ve set your cabin up here on the same side as Lord Frederick Cavendish, while I’ve put Lords Daventry and Whitworth on the opposite side.” “That’s excellent, Winkler,” Granger said. He walked into his sleeping cabin and noticed that there was a door there, the same one that was normally there when this other compartment served as his office. That made him smile, and fueled his libido, as he thought of Cavendish on just the other side of that door. He knocked, and when he heard Cavendish say “enter”, he did. “From the commotion, I figured you’d come aboard,” Cavendish said in a decidedly unfriendly way. “I have,” Granger said, somewhat surprised by his attitude. “Have you gotten orders to release me yet?” Cavendish asked. “I have not, and as we are to sail shortly, it seems you are to be stuck with us,” Granger said. “Quite frankly, I would have thought you would be happy to be sailing with us.” “This is no longer my life,” Cavendish said, referring to the world of the Navy. “You were not happy with your life ashore, yet when you were aboard one of His Majesty’s ships, I remember that your moods were much better. Perhaps you are exactly where you belong, you are just too short-sighted to see it,” Granger said, his tone progressing from factual to almost nasty. “I will leave you to mull it over.” He left Cavendish’s cabin, pausing briefly in his own to get his visage back to its previously cheerful demeanor. He really thought Cavendish would be happier about leaving London for a bit, and he really thought Cavendish would be happy to spend time with him at sea. As Granger saw it, he had saved Cavendish’s life and whisked him off to safety, risking some relatively nasty political repercussions for his efforts, and he’d done this even though Cavendish had avoided him as if he had the plague. He shook off his annoyance and puzzlement over Cavendish and went back on deck to see to their departure. No sooner had he arrived on the quarterdeck than Lord Whitworth pulled himself through the entry port. “Welcome aboard,” Granger said cheerfully, even as he went forward to greet him. “Thank you, Granger,” Whitworth said. “This is a damned convenient set up,” he said, referring to the gangway. “Indeed it is, and we have His Majesty to thank for it,” Granger said, remembering the party they’d thrown to host their sovereign. “Then once again, I am grateful for the favors he has done for me,” Whitworth said. He looked at the trunks that were being hauled aboard. “I fear I have brought a good deal of baggage with me Granger.” “We will find a place for it,” Granger said with a smile. “This ship’s design and modifications make storing things much easier.” “Indeed?” Whitworth asked curiously. “We have fitted iron water tanks into the ship, tanks that are designed to match her curved hull. Not only do they allow us to store our water in a much more efficient and compact way, they create a flat floor on which to stack things,” Granger said. “That has allowed us to dispense with iron shingles for ballast and stowage, and those two things have given Valiant much more space for stores.” “It appears I have indeed picked the right ship to take me to Copenhagen,” he said with a smile. “I hope that is true,” Granger said pleasantly. He looked at his watch and noticed that it was almost time for their departure, then looked up to see Daventry climbing through the entry port, followed by his two aides. “Welcome aboard,” Granger said. “I am glad to be here,” Daventry said then paused to greet Whitworth. “It is good to see you gentlemen again,” Granger said to Boles and McGillivray, Daventry’s assistants. “As it is to see you, my lord,” Boles replied for both of them. “While they are stowing your baggage, allow me to show you to your quarters,” Granger said to Daventry and Whitworth. He led them into Valiant’s great cabin, which was all-too-familiar to Daventry, and explained their sleeping and dining arrangements. “It was my intention for us to dine together this afternoon, and then we can sup with my officers and explain our mission.” “That would seem to be a reasonable plan,” Whitworth agreed. “Then while you gentlemen settle in, I will see to getting us underway,” Granger noted. “I will retire to my spacious cabin and luxuriate in the room you have provided me,” Daventry said with a grin. Granger strolled out onto the deck to find that Weston had things well in hand, and that he’d brought all the gear aboard. Stowing it would take a bit longer. Granger was impressed yet again by Weston, and what a competent officer he was. “We will sail immediately,” Granger announced. “I will give you the honor of conning us out of port,” he said to Weston. “Thank you, my lord,” Weston said, and was slightly stunned. Granger was placing quite a bit of confidence in his first lieutenant, and it was nice that Weston understood that. “Do try to keep us from running aground,” Granger teased. “Major Treadway, some music for our lads to work to!” “Aye aye, my lord,” Treadway said. He’d anticipated Granger’s order, and had his band assembled on the poop deck, so he had but to give the order for them to begin serenading Valiant’s crew and those ashore who paused to listen. Granger strode over to the side of the ship and gazed off at the city and the Tower of London, even as Valiant cast off her lines and was warped out into the channel. He acted disinterested as Weston conned the large ship slowly down the Thames, even though he was mentally noting every maneuver. Whitworth and Daventry kept him company, chatting about nothing of substance, as Valiant made her way down the Thames. Cavendish still hadn’t made an appearance; he’d remained sequestered in his cabin all by himself. It wasn’t until they reached the Nore that Granger was able to tear himself away to go dine with his esteemed guests. “That was well done, Mr. Weston,” Granger said, his voice emphasizing the praise in his words. “Thank you, my lord,” Weston said, grinning. “After we are off Margate, set a course east north-east,” Granger ordered. “Aye aye, my lord,” Weston responded. “Now that we are on our way, gentlemen, perhaps you would care to join me for dinner,” Granger said to Whitworth and Daventry. “With pleasure,” Whitworth answered for all of them. They went into the great cabin and found the dining room table set, and found Cavendish already waiting for them. “Cavendish!” Daventry said enthusiastically. “The last I heard, you were tempting bullets in duels.” “I seem to be a hard man to kill,” Cavendish said, trying to be upbeat. “A foolish man tempts fate too often,” Whitworth said in a scolding way. “As I recall, your duel precluded a very important meeting, one that we must now revisit.” “I did not ask for the intervention that interrupted your meeting, so I surely cannot be held accountable for that,” Cavendish said boldly, unwilling to be browbeaten by this distinguished diplomat. “Sometimes there is a silver lining to an evil event, and I think that in this case, we are fortunate that this whole affair has ended up with Cavendish on board, joining us for this mission,” Granger said, sticking up for Cavendish, even though he was annoyed with him. “That is your silver lining?” Whitworth challenged. “It is,” Granger said firmly. “I remember a few years back, after we had all but destroyed the Leopard off Imperia, I was so full of our success I hadn’t seen the obvious, that the French were trying to keep us engaged so they could bring superior forces to bear. Cavendish was the only one to keep a clear head, and but for him, I would probably still be languishing in a French jail somewhere.” “And His Most Catholic Majesty would be significantly richer,” Daventry joked, thinking that if Granger had been locked in a French jail he wouldn’t have captured the Galleon, or intercepted the Spanish Treasure Fleet. “Possibly,” Granger said, chuckling with him. “So I am happy to have such a cool and clear head to assist us, lest we let our own self-importance cloud our judgment.” His obvious jab at Whitworth infuriated the man, but Granger was following Cavendish’s lead, and standing up to him, suspecting that if he did not do so now, he would have a much more difficult time of things later on in their mission. “Thank you for your kind words,” Cavendish said to Granger in a friendly way, the first such interaction they’d had in months. “I am even more thankful that you have retained the services of Lefavre.” “Hear hear,” Daventry said. “Your chef is truly exceptional.” “I must agree,” Whitworth said, and in the way that often happened, Lefavre’s excellent cooking helped these four men work themselves into good cheer. After dinner Granger went back on deck to see to their progress, and stayed there until it was time for supper. It was strange to Granger that Cavendish was still sequestered below in his cabin, especially since the weather was so pleasant. He began to pace, even as he thought about the situation with Cavendish. He tried to figure the man out, and tried to decipher why he was so unhappy to be here. He had seemed miserable in England, and his letters had been all but despondent, yet now that he was gone, he was evidently more unhappy. He would trade potential death in a duel to be there? What would make him so determined to remain at home? Granger thought about Caroline’s revelation to him, about how politics was like a drug for her, but he didn’t think Cavendish was as engaged in that world as she was. It was also possible that he was worried about the King and his moods, and wanted to stay and support him. That motive had some merit, but Cavendish would be significantly wounded in the eyes of the King over this duel, so that alone would indicate that he wasn’t acting only to help his sovereign. “My lord, supper is ready,” Winkler said, interrupting Granger in the midst of his walk. Granger blinked once in surprise at being jarred out of his thoughts, then put his façade back on. “Quite so,” he said crisply. He returned to his cabin to await the arrival of his officers. They filed in at the prescribed time, and sat at the table, where Granger had put place cards to avoid the standard process where everyone sat in order of seniority and rank. He’d put his Sicilian midshipman, Prince Genarro, next to Whitworth, which had the effect of taming the arrogance of that sometimes haughty diplomat. “I fear that if we eat this well on the entire voyage, I will grow too fat for my breeches,” Whitworth said. “I will convey your compliments to my chef,” Granger said graciously. “Yet having a good chef is only part of the equation, Granger,” Daventry said with a smile. “The other part of that is having a charming host. In that regard, you would make the King’s fare seem pleasant.” “Hear hear!” said several of the men. “I fear you give me too much credit,” Granger said uncomfortably, “and I would worry that by taking away from his results, you would irritate my chef.” That got predictable laughs from most of them, since they were very aware of Lefavre’s temperament. “I usually host these events after sailing to inform you of our orders, and this occasion is no exception.” “I have deduced, based on our course, my lord, that we are not destined for India,” Weston said. His cheerful manner was such a tonic. “We are not,” Granger said, “and I applaud your ability to read maps.” That got a predictable laugh. “Thank you, my lord,” Weston said. “We are destined for the Baltic,” Granger said. “We are first tasked to deposit Lord Whitworth at Copenhagen.” “You make me sound like so much unwanted cargo,” Whitworth grumbled, pretending to be annoyed. “Your lordship is certainly not unwanted, but you have a bit of cargo with you,” Granger said, joking about Whitworth’s baggage. “As I am not sure how long I will be there, it seemed wise to arrive well equipped,” Whitworth said. “A prudent precaution and one we would expect from your lordship,” Granger said to Whitworth, making the man smile slightly. “After that, we are to convey Lord Daventry to St. Petersburg.” “Russia, sir?” Kingsdale asked, somewhat surprised. “Unless the Swedes or Germans have captured it, St. Petersburg is still part of Russia,” Granger said with a smile. “So we are to be nothing more than a glorified transport, my lord?” Weston asked. “And now I am feeling like cargo,” Daventry joked. Granger waited until the laughter died down. “Perhaps that is a more appropriate term to describe you than Lord Whitworth,” Granger joked, getting more laughter. “In fact, our mission may be quite hazardous.” “Sir?” Genarro asked, and then looked nervous for saying anything at this gathering. Granger gave him a supportive smile to let him know he was doing fine. “The Swedes, Danes, Russians, and many of the Northern German states have reconstituted their League of Armed Neutrality,” Granger informed them. “That means that we must consider any ship we encounter as probably hostile.” “How will we know which ships are hostile and which are not, my lord?” Weston asked. “You will have to approach them under a flag of truce,” Whitworth said, answering the question for Granger. “If they agree to parley, they will parley. If they do not, you will have to fight them.” “The fleets of those countries are quite significant, are they not, my lord?” Grenfell asked. “Indeed they are, so we must hope we can accomplish our goals without getting blown out of the water,” Granger joked. “When you are in Russia, especially if you have been admitted to a port, you will be safe,” Whitworth said. “At sea, it will be largely up to the admiral in charge as to how he handles you. Individual captains will be reluctant to risk a battle that could result in their being sanctioned.” “I can see why your lordship said this may be hazardous, my lord,” Treadway said. “Mr. Schein is here to help guide us through the navigational perils we face, and I suspect those will be more dangerous than enemy ships,” Granger said. “Sadly, my lord, you are correct,” Schein said. “The Baltic is a sea full of shoals, shallows, and sandbars, and it is made even more challenging by the fact that the sandbars shift around a bit.” “So a sandbar that was in one position last year, may now have moved into a different position this year?” Granger asked, unable to hide how much that worried him. “I think the shifts are not that dramatic, but over a period of years they most definitely change, my lord,” Schein said. “That makes charts that are more than a few years old somewhat unreliable.” “Then I am even more glad you are with us,” Granger said, then turned to Grenfell. “I am wondering, since all of your relatives and connections were mercilessly assaulting the Admiralty begging them to appoint you to a ship, why you were gallivanting about in Northumberland?” “Despite their efforts, I had feared my reputation with the Admiralty was so low that there was no hope for an immediate appointment, my lord,” Grenfells said. “You are woefully uninformed as to the Admiralty’s true opinion of you, Lieutenant,” Cavendish said, the first contribution he’d made to the conversation. “Indeed, my lord?” Grenfell asked. “I feared after my problems aboard Sceptre, my stock with Their Lordships had sunk to new lows.” “The Admiralty thinks that you are a talented and innovative officer,” Granger said. “You were posted to this ship because I am more tolerant of such progressive ideas.” That got a laugh from the table, since it was only too true. “His Lordship’s observation is quite accurate,” Cavendish said. Granger found that annoying, as if he required support in his arguments. As the captain of Valiant, he was the de facto autocratic ruler of this ship and her men. His word should be the definitive statement on a topic. “I would further note that your report on carronades, and how their aim is off, was taken quite seriously by Their Lordships.” “What did you discover about carronades?” Granger asked. “My lord, I did some testing, and found that the way carronades are aimed, they invariably fire low,” Grenfell said. “Indeed?” Granger asked curiously. “Now that you mention it, I remember when we last fired the smasher, our shot seemed to veer down,” Treadway mused. “So what is the solution to this problem?” Granger asked. “I developed a gun sight for the carronades aboard Sceptre, my lord,” Grenfell said. “The captain would not allow me to deploy them, but he did allow a limited test.” “Did they work?” Granger asked curiously. “They did. Since I’ve been ashore, I’ve done some more testing, my lord,” Grenfell said. “In fact, that’s why I was in Northumberland. There was a facility I could use. The sights worked well, but I was able to modify them to make them more accurate.” “Could you fit sights to our carronades?” “I could, my lord, if you would allow me to work with the gunner,” Grenfell said, smiling happily. “Then I would like you to do that, and then we can test them ourselves,” Granger said. “Experimenting with new-fangled technology is surely best left to those ashore or safely in port?” Whitworth asked. “On the contrary, at sea, when we are in action, that is when we need to have an edge the most,” Granger said. “And those are the times when we are best able to evaluate the performance of such a device.” “What happens if such an idea is dangerous and causes the loss of one of His Majesty’s ships and crews?” Whitworth challenged. “That is why the Admiralty gives some captains and admirals more discretion on this issue than others,” Cavendish said. “And that is one of the reasons why Lieutenant Grenfell serves on this ship and not a ship captained by an unimaginative man who will not open his mind to new ideas.” “Thank you, my lord,” Grenfell said, mostly to keep Whitworth from really lashing out at Cavendish. “As it is, we have been fortunate in that our experiments have been universally positive,” Granger said soothingly. “In this situation, we really do not have much to lose. If the sights do not work as planned, we can easily disregard them or remove them.” “How long will it take us to get to Copenhagen?” Whitworth asked, as if he were so annoyed he could not wait to land. “That will largely depend on the wind,” Granger said. Conversation became general and pleasant after that, but Granger was quite happy to see them go back to their cabins or their duties. He avoided further conversation with Whitworth by going on deck to inspect Valiant’s progress. He had been on deck for less than a minute when his mood began to change. It was a beautiful night, with balmy weather the likes of which one would expect to find in the Caribbean. The sky was clear, and the moon and stars were so bright it was almost like Granger could reach up and touch them. The calm seas lapped against Valiant’s sides as she made steady progress through the water, progress that was slow because the winds were so light. Yet it was those same light winds that made it so pleasant. “I had forgotten how pleasant a night at sea could be,” Cavendish said, as he came up and stood next to Granger. “Such beauty is deceptive, as a storm could be brewing just over the horizon,” Granger said with a smile. “I remember that weather as well,” Cavendish said with a grimace. “I sometimes long for this, for a ship of my own, to be able to be free of London and its entanglements.” “I find myself the most conflicted when I am getting ready for sea and when I am returning home,” Granger said. “Those are the times when the choices I make by leading this life come fully into play.” “I found coming home from a voyage to be the most disconcerting,” Cavendish admitted. “Why?” “It is as if you went to see a play with four acts, and you saw the first act, but missed the second act, and then you return while the third act is in progress,” he said. “And then, when the fourth act starts, you are expected to be a full participant, when you are still trying to decipher what you missed.” “I feel the same way, but I have never heard it put into such a comprehensible way,” Granger said. They walked over to the rail and gazed off toward the coast. “If I am not mistaken, that is Suffolk.” “It is ironic that your father owns so much land in Derbyshire, yet his dukedom is in Suffolk, where to my knowledge, he has limited holdings,” Cavendish joked. “And your father draws his title from a rock in the South Seas, and I would daresay he spends little time there,” Granger joked, getting a chuckle from Cavendish, one that ended abruptly. “He refuses to so much as talk to me,” Cavendish said sadly. “He is incensed that I have defied him by refusing to marry Miss Barnett.” “I was quite stunned by that news, that His Grace would wish to tie his family to a member of the Guild,” Granger said, letting his irritation show through. “It would appear that he places little value on my skills, and my person,” Cavendish said bitterly. “He is usually a very shrewd man, so it is strange to see him make such a huge error in judgment,” Granger said, smiling at Cavendish slightly to try to nudge him out of his bad mood. “If only he would see that he has made such an error,” Cavendish said morosely. “If His Majesty were his normal self, he could probably have helped smooth things over.” “He is not well?” Granger asked nervously. “The government and the gentlemen who surround the King would have everyone believe he is just fine, but he is showing signs of his sickness,” Cavendish said. “When I approached him on this topic, he suggested I confer with Lord Hertford.” “Lord Hertford?” Granger asked, surprised. The current Marquess of Hertford was a politician and a nice enough man, but Granger did not see why Cavendish should seek him out for advice. “He was referring to Lord Hertford’s father, who died in 1794, and was at one time the Lord Chamberlain,” Cavendish said. “That was under Lord North’s government, wasn’t it?” Granger asked. “It was.” “When I last saw him, he became agitated and asked me to send for Lord North,” Granger said. “It would seem that his mind has warped back some twenty years or so.” “Yet we are not back in the 1780s, so that makes things just a bit difficult,” Cavendish said cynically. “His Royal Highness the Prince of Wales was less helpful.” “He did not step in and try to improve things with you and your father?” Granger asked, truly surprised. The Prince was known to be lazy and self-absorbed, but Granger had always thought, or perhaps hoped, that he’d step up and do better when it was his turn to wear the Crown. “He did not,” Cavendish said. “He told me he would, told me not to worry, and promised that he would speak to my father, but then he did nothing.” “Where does that leave you?” Granger asked. “I have been scrambling to try and figure out what I am to do, and where I am to live,” Cavendish said. “I got a letter from my father’s agent, informing me that I will no longer be receiving my allowance. That was substantially larger than my income from the Crown, so that has meant I must relinquish my rooms in the City and it means I will have to endeavor to still look spruce, even with worn clothes.” “You are always welcome in my home,” Granger asserted. “Why didn’t you go there?” “With all the drama we had, and the scandalous rumors that were flying around, I could not risk my reputation, or yours, or Caroline’s,” he said. He was referring to the nightmare where Caroline had seduced him and Treadway in the baths. “I would suspect that rumor has largely died off,” Granger said. He had encountered no evidence of it when he was home. “That is true, but if I move into your townhouse, and when you are gone I am there alone with Caroline, the wags will begin talking again. It will not require any facts, merely innuendo,” he said. Granger could readily see how that would happen. “Then I will help you lease suitable rooms,” Granger promised. “George, I cannot rely on your charity,” he said. “John Ward has allowed me to stay with him.” Those words flew through Granger’s psyche with the same force as if he’d been hit by lightning. So that’s why Cavendish didn’t want to leave England. He didn’t want to leave Ward. “That was very nice of him, to take you in when you had nowhere to go,” Granger said stoically. Before Cavendish could respond, Granger called to Grenfell, the officer of the watch. “Mr. Grenfell, can you explain why the foretopsail is so slack?” He used that comment to walk over to where Grenfell was standing. “I’ll attend to it immediately, my lord,” Grenfell said, horrified at being found wanting in his duties, even though the foretopsail hadn’t been so slack as to warrant a public censure. Granger waited until the sail was drawing as it should be, then went to his cabin, ignoring Cavendish who was still standing on the deck, where he could torture himself in solitude.
  9. Chapter 56

    September 13, 2003 Goodwell, VA Wade I’d set up the library much as it had been for that horrible conference some two years ago after 9-11. I figured that would be the best place for everyone to meet, since there were chairs around the edge of the room, while the center was empty. The other option was the dining room table, but then the problem would be figuring out where everyone would eat, so in the end, this seemed to work best. At one end of the room I’d set up an easel with a paper pad on it, and I’d made a schematic of what we knew and what we were dealing with, such as I could piece together, to give us someplace to start. “What time does everyone get here?” Matt asked me. “This afternoon,” I said. “I planned to start our meeting at 3:00.” “Should be interesting,” he said. “That’s probably an understatement,” I said ruefully. I was pretty uptight about this meeting, but Matt was probably the only one who knew that. “Where’s your mother?” “She went for a ride this morning, and from what I can tell, after that she went to hide in her room,” I said. “Probably a good idea,” he said. “Takes some guts for her to even be here.” “She’s trying to reinvent herself,” I said with a shrug. “That means she has to clean up her act, and she’ll need all of the people here to be on her side.” “She’ll owe them,” he said, shaking his head. “That’s going to bug the shit out of her.” “I’m more worried about what kind of trouble Lord Preston is trying to cause,” I said. I decided it was important to focus on one evil maniac at a time. “I still haven’t figured out what his deal is.” “Neither have I,” Matt said. I’d shared what Brad had told me with Matt, Mary Ellen, Tiffany, and my mother, but none of us had been able to figure out what he was up to. “JP will be here. Maybe he’ll put it all together.” “Maybe,” I said, although I was more inclined to put my money on either Brad or my mother. This whole business was a little too unsavory and complicated for conventional thinking. “I just spoke to Alex,” Mary Ellen said, as she breezed into the room. “They should be here within the hour.” “Everyone else should get here soon as well,” I said. I’d already sent the car to the airport to pick up JP, Stef, and the rest of their group. “Then the fun begins,” Mary Ellen said with a chuckle. “I’m looking forward to seeing Mother explain herself.” “She’s not the only one who has pissed people off,” I said, reminding her that she’d acted pretty heinously. “The only person I’ve been unpleasant to is JJ, and he won’t be here,” she said. “Besides, they’ll all be busy with Lord Preston and Mother.” “Probably right,” Matt agreed. One of the maids walked into the room, halting our conversation. “Mr. Danfield, the car is about to pull up.” “Thank you,” I responded politely, and went to the foyer to welcome my guests to my ancestral home. Mary Ellen chose to vanish to her own room, which told me she was a little more stressed about seeing these people than she let on. Stef was first through the door, of course. “Welcome!” “Thank you so much for hosting us,” Stef said. “It’s the least I can do, considering I lived with you for over three years,” I said with a smile. “Just your presence alone was compensation enough, which is saying something, considering the size of your appetite,” JP said, cracking me up. Darius and Will were next, followed by Brad. “We can show you to your rooms,” I said, and had the staff there to assist me. “The Duke, Alex, and Nana should be arriving shortly. I plan to meet at 3:00 in the library.” “We will see you then,” JP said. They all went off to their rooms except Brad. “Jake Pike is supposed to be here soon. We missed him at the airport. Will you make sure he can get past the gates?” he said. “Of course,” I said, and went to handle that. As soon as I’d done that, I heard the sound of a helicopter. That sound drew Mary Ellen out of her room, and she, Matt and I went out front to greet our English contingent. We watched as the helicopter banked then lowered itself gently onto the front lawn, and then waited until the rotors stopped, before walking near the craft. There was no reason to get decapitated due to an overzealous greeting. Nana was the first out of the helicopter, followed by the Duke. We were engrossed in greeting them while Alex was all but whisked off by Mary Ellen. “Wade, how wonderful to see you,” Nana said, giving me a genuine hug and a kiss. “It’s good to see you too,” I said. “Welcome home.” “The weather’s a bit warmer than the last time I was here,” the Duke said. “Perhaps there will be time for riding?” “We are scheduled to meet with everyone at 3:00 in the library,” I said, cluing them into the schedule. “I’m not sure if we’ll have time after that, but you are certainly welcome to ride tomorrow.” “Then we shall play it by ear,” he pronounced. We led them up to the house, but Nana didn’t need an escort to her room, and she led the Duke off with her. Matt raised an eyebrow. “That’s certainly not proper, her sharing a room with him,” Matt joked, cracking me up. “Dude, that’s the first time I’ve heard you say ‘proper’,” I teased. At 2:55, Brad and Will appeared, followed shortly after that by the arrival of Jake Pike. “Sorry I was almost late,” he said, and looked a little breathless. “You made it on time,” Brad said, smiling at him. I was trying to decide if they’d fucked yet, but I couldn’t get a read on it. “I was delayed in DC,” he said softly, so only the four of us could hear him. “Talked to a guy at the South African Embassy. He told me that the real power in the Preston household is Lady Preston. She calls the shots, and he goes with the flow.” “So he brought the title, and respectability to the marriage, and now he is reduced to being nothing more than a doormat?” Brad asked. “We were struggling to figure out how he can at one moment be an idiot, and another be brilliant,” Jake said. “Maybe he’s only brilliant when he’s doing what his wife tells him to do.” “Maybe,” I agreed, but we all chuckled at that. Everyone else arrived, greeting each other in a relatively pleasant way, only it was restrained because there were still a lot of bad feelings. The tension levels were high, but they soared off the scale when my mother walked in. She looked incredibly chic in a gray tailored suit, and I actually felt sorry for her until I remembered all that she’d done to deserve this animosity. Still, I was impressed with her courage. “Welcome,” I said to the crowd. “We have a mystery on our hands, one that I am convinced involves all of us. The purpose of this assembly is to see if we can put our collective knowledge together and work out what is going on.” “So this is just an information session, not a strategy session?” JP asked. “I think we have to take things one step at a time,” I said. “It is important that we are open and candid, and that means that as far as these issues go, we must trust each other.” Will was sitting on the couch next to Darius, but he stood and walked up to my mother, who sat there in one of the leather side chairs like she was a statue. I knew that someone had to take the bull by the horns and address my mother’s issues; otherwise this conference would go nowhere. I’d expected that it would be Brad, who would be more on a level with her, or perhaps JP, as the head of his family. I was a little nervous that Will opted to confront her, and even more apprehensive when I saw the fire in his eyes, revealing the rage that burned behind them. “You worked pretty hard this summer to mess up my life, and to mess up the lives of Zach and JJ,” he said to her in an assertive way. “You all but destroyed JJ’s skating career, and he was the winner of the US National Championship, the best skater in the country. You attempted to destroy one of the most important relationships in my life, and you plotted to ruin Zach’s career as well. He’s one of the best running backs in the NCAA, yet you had him drugged with narcotics and threatened to blackmail him. What you did was despicable.” She swallowed hard, and then looked him in the eye. “In retrospect, my motives were positive, in that I wanted to preserve my daughter’s marriage, but my methods in doing so were not. I apologize for any harm you, Jeremy, or Zach Hayes suffered.” That blew us all away, but it didn’t take the wind out of Will’s sails. “Thank you for your apology, and I accept it on behalf of me, Zach, and my brother,” Will said. “But I want you to know that the reason this ended so calmly is because Wade all but begged us to back off and let it roll off our backs.” “That would seem to be a wise course of action in this situation,” the Duke said, in a vain attempt to save my mother. “I may only be seventeen, but I’ve been raised by some pretty smart guys, and I’m not an idiot,” Will said. “I’ve got my family behind me, and my friends behind me, at least most of the time.” As he said that last phrase, he glared at Nana, who almost recoiled from his intense look. “So we’re good, and all is well, but if you fuck with me again, I will hunt you down and make sure you can never harm me or the people I care about again.” Mary Ellen leaned over and whispered in my ear. “Holy shit, I see what you mean.” I’d told her earlier that Will was hell on wheels, and she’d finally gotten to see him in action. It was all I could do to refrain from laughing. “Then let us both hope our interests remain aligned,” Mother said coldly. This had to grate on her to the extreme, to be lectured and threatened by some young punk, but amazingly enough, it seemed to get through to her. I decided that having Will do this, confront her, would probably work out well. She wouldn’t take his threats seriously, at least not visibly, but she would know he was dangerous. If Brad, JP, or Stef had said that, she may have seen it as a challenge. “Cool,” Will said, and smiled at her. He held out his hand, and Mother stood up and shook it, returning his smile half-heartedly. “One moment young man,” Nana said, as Will went to walk back to his seat. “And what did I do to make you think I wasn’t your friend?” She expected Will to melt under her assault, but he was still pretty fired up. “Uh oh,” Matt said to me sotto voce. “When Trevor was beaten up, you jumped on the bandwagon, accusing me of being behind it,” he said to her boldly. “Were you aware that I had pledged not to do anything to him?” She said nothing. “Were you?” Will demanded. “I was,” she responded through clenched teeth. “Then I would have expected that you, as a friend, would believe me, and would have faith in me, and that you’d have my back,” he spat at her. “Instead, the first thing you do is sell me down the river.” He turned to address the Duke. “Your Grace, I would think you would be a good arbiter of honor in this situation. Is that the way one is supposed to treat one’s friends?” This whole scene was so hysterical, I felt my controls starting to fail me, especially when Matt and Mary Ellen were visibly snickering. “I would be most interested to know if that’s appropriate behavior as well,” Mary Ellen chimed in, just to perpetuate the situation. “It is not,” the Duke pronounced, getting a very foul look from Nana. “You know, you have been such a rock in my life,” Will said to Nana. “When we went to Buzz Dalby’s funeral, one of his nephews took me to see his rodeo horse. This guy was a complete asshole, and the first thing he did was shock the hell out of the horse with a prod.” It was funny to see all of us get upset at that, at the thought of a horse suffering from abuse. “After a rather unpleasant conversation, I bet him that I could saddle the horse and ride her around the ring. If I could do it, I got the horse, but if he won, I had to give him $5,000. I made the bet because I knew I could do it, because you were the person who trained me how to deal with horses. The stable hands were stunned that in the hour I had to prepare, I didn’t try to mount her at all, I just put ointment on her wounds, and eyeballed her, and talked to her. You taught me to build that trust. So when it came time to ride her, she tried to buck me off, but not all that hard, and I was able to do it. Now she lives at Escorial. That’s all you.” Nana smiled. “Good job.” Then she got up and gave Will a big hug. “I won’t doubt you again.” “Thanks,” he said, and then sat down. Sometimes Will’s theatrics created really explosive situations, but in this case, he’d actually managed to eliminate most of the tension in the room. My mother had to deal with him, but when she’d apologized to Will, it was as if she was apologizing to all of us. And by calling Nana out, he’d dropped her and the Duke off of their high horses, as they both tended to look down their noses at the rest of us, JP excluded, as being junior to them. “Now that we have gotten those things out of the way, I would like to discuss the situation we’re currently facing,” Brad said. “So far, the death toll in this deal is at least three people, and I’m not willing to see anyone else lose their life.” “Three people?” Nana asked. “Buzz Dalby, my pilot, and my copilot,” Brad said. “It seems that whatever is going on is tied to Lord Preston, and none of us have been able to figure out what exactly his deal is.” “He is a real estate developer in South Africa,” Alex said. “He is not,” Brad said to him. “He is linked to the drug cartels in South Africa, and he is currently in Mexico trying to stir up trouble with those cartels.” Alex looked questioningly at his grandfather, who seemed to be gathering his thoughts. “My son has been married twice. His first marriage was to Alex’s mother. He then remarried. It is his second wife that is the source of these problems.” “Please enlighten us,” I said, to prod him on. “It will require a bit of family history, so I would impose on you to be patient until I have finished laying it out,” the Duke said. “You have the floor,” JP said in a friendly way. “The first Duke of Suffolk had three sons, and these three sons pursued very different paths. The oldest, my ancestor, was a politician and a courtier, as was expected of someone of his rank, especially in those days,” he said. We all ignored his incredibly snobby tone. “The youngest son went into the Royal Navy and became one of Britain’s most successful naval officers of the Napoleonic Wars.” “Are you on speaking terms with that branch of the family?” Mary Ellen asked. “There have been various family tussles that have made them less than intimate with us,” the Duke said. “They are friendly acquaintances at this point, nothing more.” “If for no other reason than they usually support the Labour Party,” Alex joked. “That is a good reason,” the Duke said, being the dedicated Tory that he was. “It was the middle son who caused the most problems, and the great schism in our family. His name was Albert, and he was forced to leave England when the first Duke all but disowned him for his gambling and whoring.” “He was a party animal,” Will said to Darius. “He was purportedly one of the most charming men in the realm, but completely unscrupulous, and devoid of morals. He went to India to make his fortune, and he succeeded beyond his wildest dreams.” “Isn’t that a good thing?” I asked, trying to follow his reasoning. “You are probably familiar with the Opium Wars between Britain and China,” the Duke said. “Albert Granger was responsible for setting up and administering the opium trade.” I wasn’t completely up on that side of history, but JP was. “As I recall, the justification for that was that the Chinese would only legally accept silver in trade for tea, but there was illegal demand for opium. In that way, by exporting opium to pay for tea, the East India Company was able to avoid a massive silver drain,” JP said. “That was the challenge,” the Duke said. “So Albert Granger was, to all appearances, a nineteenth century drug lord,” Brad concluded. The Duke looked intensely irritated by that, and then relented. “That is a reasonable way to analogize it,” he said in his lofty way. “When Charles, my son, found himself single, he opted to date and marry Sabrina Granger.” “Why is that significant?” I asked. She would have become Sabrina Granger when she married Lord Preston anyway. “Because that was her maiden name,” the Duke said. “Sabrina Granger is a descendant of Albert Granger. Charles would have had me believe that their marriage was the reunion of two branches of the family after all these years.” “But you did not,” JP said, stating the question as a fact. “Why?” “Because they had not given up on their primary business venture, narcotics, and there was no place in our family tree for such miscreants,” he said, the disdain dripping off his words. “My father was still alive then, and he was quite well-connected politically. It was due to his influence that I was able to retain Alex in Britain after their marriage, even when Charles left for South Africa.” My mind was reeling from this. My mother had thought Lady Preston was a DeBeers heiress, but that would seem to be wrong, unless she was linked to that family as well. I looked at her and could see her smirking, which was almost as scary as the Duke’s comments. What did she know about this, and what new scheme was she plotting? “Why didn’t you tell us this before?” Mary Ellen demanded. The Duke gave her a patronizing look, as if to challenge her right to grill him like a prosecutor, but he answered her anyway. “It was a tawdry affair, and as we have all but disowned Charles, there seemed no reason to bring up skeletons in family closets. In the same way, we did not dig too deeply into some of your past relationships or family matters.” I found his attitude infuriating, enough that it sparked me to say something. “I hardly think that failing to disclose to us that Mary Ellen’s future father-in-law is a drug lord is a tawdry skeleton best left hidden.” “Wade, we do our best to pretend it isn’t so, and perhaps that has led us to believe that to be the case. I am sorry if our self-delusion led us to deceive you,” the Duke said. I nodded, because no good would come of fighting over this. “I talked to some guys in the South African embassy,” Jake said. “They said that Lady Preston pretty much runs the show, and that Lord Preston does what she tells him to do.” “Sounds like they know him pretty well,” Alex said disdainfully. “I certainly hope people don’t say that about us,” Mary Ellen said playfully. “Not at this point, anyway,” he said, smiling at her. “What happens when Your Grace sadly passes on, and Lord Preston becomes the Duke of Suffolk?” Stef asked. “That will not happen,” the Duke said firmly. “How can you preclude him from claiming his inheritance, his title?” JP asked. “Property no longer passes with the title, so I have structured our estate such that it will go directly to Alex and his heirs,” the Duke said. “Yes, but that does not affect the dukedom, the title,” JP countered. “That may be a tougher battle,” the Duke said. He was clearly dodging the issue, but it seemed impolite to press him further. I wondered what big scheme he had dreamed up. Yet another thing to worry about. “I learned one other thing,” Jake said, taking the pressure off the Duke. “Indeed?” JP asked. “I learned the code word for their plans,” he said. “When you say ‘their’ plans, you are referring to Lord and Lady Preston?” JP asked, for clarity. “Yes,” Jake confirmed. “I didn’t learn what it meant though. It’s Blankford.” If he had set off a bomb in the room, it would have gotten a less volatile reaction. “That’s Ricky’s title,” Mary Ellen said, showing some maternal concern. “Are they planning to do something to Ricky?” “Do Lord and Lady Preston have children?” I asked. I already knew exactly where this was going; I was just trying to guide the others to the same conclusion. “They do,” the Duke said. He looked truly flustered, something that would have shocked Alex if he weren’t doing even worse. In fact, Alex looked more freaked out now than he did at Thanksgiving dinner when Mary Ellen told him she was carrying his baby. “They have a son, who is ten, and a daughter, who is eight.” “And the only thing standing between them and inheriting the Dukedom of Suffolk is Alex and Ricky,” I said, laying it out there. “That’s why they called it Operation Blankford,” Mary Ellen exclaimed, making the whole thing sound like it was casted as a script for Mission Impossible. “Alex, we have to protect our son.” “He’s quite safe at home, dear,” Alex said, “but I will make some phone calls to make sure of it.” “Let’s take a break so you can do that,” I said, recognizing that everyone was much too upset to go on without dealing with the basic security issues. “Before you go, I’d like to know if you’ve told anyone you were going to be here,” Jake asked Alex and the Duke. “Only our staff,” Alex said. “I need to talk to you,” Jake said to me urgently. “We’ll meet back here after dinner,” I announced. I led Jake, Brad, Matt, and Will off to the Conservatory where we could speak privately. “What kind of security do you have here?” Jake asked. “We have a staff of about fifteen people,” I explained. “Four of them are employed in the house, five are employed in the stables, and the others manage the grounds. The household staff generally is responsible for admitting people to the estate.” “Do you have any weapons here?” he asked. He was starting to freak me out just a bit. “You think they’re going to attack us here?” Matt asked. “It would give them an ideal opportunity,” Jake said. “Everyone who stands in their way is here except for an infant left back in England.” “And if they were all killed, who would fight to keep that infant out of Lord Preston’s hands,” I mused. Presumably Ricky’s paternal grandfather, who would then be the Duke of Suffolk, would be seen as an ideal guardian. “We have some hunting rifles, but that’s it.” “I think we need to hire security, and have them brought in now,” Jake said urgently. “I see no reason why such a precaution is unwise,” JP said. “If you give the word, I can set it up, but you’ll have to coordinate with your grounds people,” Jake said. I looked at all of them, and even got a slight nod from Matt. “Do it,” I said. September 13, 2003 Tribeca, NY JJ I was lounging on the couch, watching the taped results of the Nebelhorn competition. It had taken place last week, and had been won by a Canadian, Nicholas Young, but I’d been too busy to actually view it until now. Even as I watched Young skate, I grudgingly gave him kudos for doing really well, especially since he’d been competing in the juniors last year and had just made the jump to the seniors. I knew from personal experience how tough that could be. I knew the guy who won silver pretty well. Scott Smith skated in Boston, and was a nice enough guy. The guy who won third place, Nick LaRoche, always seemed like he was a mobster, but maybe that was because he came from a totally fucked up family. I watched them skate, and then watched the others who didn’t even make the podium. Watching them skate for the cheering crowds was kind of a bummer, since there was no denying the rush of the competition. If I’d have ramped up my rehab and pushed it, I could have been there. I tried to objectively compare my routine to Nick Young’s, and I was pretty sure I could have beaten him. Then again, remembering the World’s “disaster in Dallas”, it was a good idea not to take anything for granted. I sat up and instinctively straightened my hair, then thought about what my life would have been like if I were still skating. I’d be in that pressure cooker environment, with all kinds of stress, but I’d also have a staff taking care of everything and fawning all over me. I remembered the victories, and that made me smile, then I remembered the defeats, and that was less positive. Then I remembered the stifling moral code that was inflicted on me, demanding that I be pure and chaste, and that I do nothing to ruin my public image. That had been truly awful. In the end, I decided that I’d made the right call. I was here in New York, doing well with my social life, doing well in school, and enjoying my freedom. There was no reason for me to miss the highs of winning a competition when the price to pay was so great. The door flew open, both annoying and scaring me at the same time. I jumped up, wondering who was bursting into the condo on Saturday afternoon, and was surprised to see that it was Carullo. “Sorry,” he said, since he knew how much I hated loud entries like the one he’d just made. “Hands were full.” He was carrying all kinds of stuff, so it was no wonder he’d all but busted down the door. “No problem,” I said pleasantly, shocking the shit out of him. He probably thought my message was just so much bullshit. But my brothers had done a good job of coaching me on how to handle him, and being bitchy wasn’t going to lure him out of Luka’s grasp and into mine. “Here, let me help you.” “Thanks,” he said, and let me pick up some of the lighter things. I followed him with his stuff to his room, and set it on his floor. I’d carry it back, but he could sort through it. He must have thought that was a good idea, since he did the same thing with the crap he was carrying. “Who are you, and what have you done with JJ?” I laughed. “I’m not always a dick.” “No, you’re not,” he said. He walked up to me and wrapped his arms around me gently, then gave me a nice kiss, one that I returned, making sure not to be more enthusiastic than he was. It wasn’t too hard, since he smelled pretty nasty, like a combination of sweat and ashes. He led me over to his bed, where we both sat down. “You weren’t supposed to be back until tomorrow,” I said. “Came back early,” he said simply. “Did you have fun?” I asked, even as I secretly hoped their weekend had been miserable, and that Luka had been bitten by a snake. “It got old. You can only handle so much beautiful nature,” he said. I agreed with him, but I meant it, and he didn’t. “Well it’s nice to have you back,” I said. “You want to go get something to eat?” “I just had lunch,” he said. Something was bugging him, but rather than prod him, I figured I’d let him tell me what it was. “Maybe we can do dinner later.” “That’s fine,” I said. “I’ll leave you alone so you can unpack.” “Jay,” he said to stop me. “I’m sorry.” “What for?” I mean, I thought he should be sorry, but I wanted to know why. “For leading you on, and then for being a total dick about it when I went away,” he said, then sighed loudly. “I came back because I felt guilty.” That was irritating, that he only came back because he felt guilty. “You were honest when we started hooking up. You told me you couldn’t be in a relationship. I should have asked you why, and you should have told me.” “I should have,” he said. “Let me clean up and then we’ll go out, and I’ll tell you what’s been going on in my fucked up mind.” “Dude, I don’t know if we have that much time,” I joked, making him smile, and then I left him alone to wash the nasty camping smell off his body.
  10. Chapter 55

    September 12, 2003 Tribeca, NY Brad It was a beautiful afternoon, about 75 degrees and sunny, so I’d taken my laptop up to the rooftop deck. I found JP and Stef there, drinking tea and reading. “Good morning,” I said. JP, as was typical for him, greeted me then re-immersed himself in whatever he was reading. “You seem to be in a good mood,” Stef said, which almost ruined the mood he was talking about, since it almost implied that I shouldn’t be. “I am,” I affirmed. “Have you heard from Jake?” he asked. “I have not,” I said, then sighed, knowing that I’d have to open up to at least Stef on this issue. “I’m wondering if he’s running away from me.” JP looked up from his article. “You certainly do know how to pique JP’s interest,” Stef said. “My conversation was evidently not as stimulating.” “Everything about you is stimulating,” JP said to Stef, then focused on me. “And how did you scare Jake away.” “I made out with him,” I said. “He is one amazing kisser.” “If you had said you showed him your erection, that would have made more sense,” Stef joked, referring to how hung I was. “He told me what his deal is, at least as regards being kinky,” I said, and almost laughed at how they both looked at me with full attention. “You are going to enlighten us?” JP asked, which was hilarious, because he had to be dying to know to actually ask me about it. I smirked at him to annoy him, and almost laughed when it worked. “He only barebacks, and he only bottoms,” I said. “That is very dangerous,” Stef said, and seemed as horrified as I’d been. “Just because HIV is not a death sentence anymore is no reason to actively seek it out.” “It is still a death sentence for some,” I said sadly, thinking of Kevin, who was doing pretty badly. “I talked to Cody yesterday, and even though he’d tried to be upbeat for me, he got pretty sad when he told me that Kevin isn’t doing any better.” “That is unfortunate,” Stef said sadly. I quickly switched the topic back to Jake, before we let Kevin’s situation completely depress us. “Jake claims that he is immune to HIV,” I explained. They both paused and looked at me blankly as they thought about that. “That sounds like nothing more than a convenient excuse,” Stef pronounced. “I think it is possible,” JP said. “I have read about that. There are supposedly some people who seem to be lucky in that regard.” “I talked to Jack yesterday, and he said the same thing,” I said nervously. “Are you planning to bareback Jake?” Stef asked. “I’m thinking about it,” I told him, then grimaced. “Jack sure wasn’t in favor of it.” “That is quite a risk,” JP noted. “It is, and it kind of puts me into a Catch-22,” I said. They stared at me, waiting for me to explain. “If I fuck him, I take the risk that he’s lying to me and that he is positive, and that he makes me positive. If I don’t, I’m basically telling him I don’t believe him, and that I don’t trust him.” “I would hope you remember that trusting someone in a business or professional capacity does not necessarily mean you should trust them regarding personal issues,” Stef said. “Yet in this situation, when things are so intertwined, I can understand your dilemma,” JP said. I gave him an appreciative look, since that was my read on it as well. “Jack scared the shit out of me by regaling me with all the other nasty diseases I could possibly contract,” I grumbled. “He covered everything from gonorrhea and syphilis to anal warts.” “That is probably not a bad thing for all of us to consider,” JP said, even as we cringed at the thought of all the various STDs that were out there. “He used to be a top, but he was shot in the back, and that caused nerve damage,” I told them. “So he can’t fully get an erection.” “Then sadly, we are kindred spirits,” JP said. “We have a new pill to try,” Stef said to JP hopefully, even as he patted his knee in a loving way. “We are going to try Cialis.” “Good luck,” I said. “Jake says those drugs won’t help him.” “That is unfortunate,” Stef said sympathetically. “That was the one thing that was positive about my call with Jack,” I said. “He told me that they’ve made a lot of progress on treating spinal injuries, and that maybe they could help him out.” “I suspect he would appreciate that,” Stef said, which was an understatement. “But I am assuming that, being a top yourself, you would not be overly upset by his disability?” “I’m not,” I told them, then grinned. “He has an amazingly cute ass.” “That would be an added incentive,” JP said. “It sounds, based on what he told me, that he’s only a bottom because that’s pretty much all he can do, but I could be wrong about that,” I told them. “Regardless, I like the guy, and I find him really attractive.” “It sounds like you had a nice interlude,” JP said. “Interlude?” I asked, teasing him. “Yes,” he snapped slightly, making me chuckle. “What makes you think you scared him away?” “Our conversation ended on a positive note, and was actually pretty positive throughout,” I said. “But he was suddenly intent on going to Washington, and it seems that he could have put that off until today.” Jake had made it seem like he’d been totally focused on working on solving the land problem, but I thought there was more to it than that. “Maybe he felt vulnerable after he revealed so much of himself,” Stef suggested. “That is possible,” JP said, but he sounded skeptical. “It is also possible that, in addition to that, he was leaving to give you some space to contemplate things.” I blinked a few times as my mind processed that. “If he’d have been here, especially last night, I would have felt pretty pressured to sleep with him or not.” “I would think those would be your only two decisions,” Stef said, giving me shit for explaining that badly. I gave him a faux dirty look. “It would have forced me to make a decision before I had a chance to work my way through it,” I said, getting what JP was saying. “That was a really nice thing for him to do.” “It was, if that is indeed why he did it,” JP said, reminding me in his typical way that we were merely speculating. He took that opportunity to change the subject. “I had a chance to update Wade on our conversations about Lord Preston.” “What did he think?” I asked. “He did not express an immediate opinion,” JP said, then looked at me curiously. “What do you think?” “I’m skeptical,” I said. “This whole thing isn’t adding up.” “You do not think Jake was being honest with us?” Stef asked. “That would certainly make your decision to sleep with him easier if he was not.” It would be frustrating and annoying if he decided that Jake wasn’t reliable and trustworthy before I’d found out the truth about him. I didn’t need Stef questioning Jake’s every move and statement. “I don’t think that’s it,” I said, struggling with how to explain my intuitive feeling on this. “Based on what he told me, I have to believe that Lord Preston is either a blithering idiot or a virtual genius and sociopath.” They began to mull that problem over. “Those would appear to be incompatible traits.” “They would,” I confirmed. “I don’t know much about South African society, but I’m supposed to believe that he’s quite the A-list person. I find it hard to believe he’d be so readily accepted by polite society if he was a drug lord.” “I would think that his title and his breeding give him an instant entre into their elite social class, but I tend to agree with you. Organized crime bosses are not generally welcome in such circles,” JP said. “If he’s a blithering idiot, then he’s walking into a trap in Mexico, and they’ll make short work of him,” I said, thinking through my two options on Preston. “What if he’s not?” JP asked, just to get my thoughts. “What if he is quite shrewd?” “Then there is a lot more going on here than we know about,” I said. “Let us hypothesize that is the case,” Stef said. “What else could there be?” “I don’t know,” I said, frustrated. “But you think Jake is being honest?” JP asked me. “I don’t know that either, but I think he is,” I said. “Look, I’m betting he’s getting intel from grunts on the ground. They’ll know what’s going on tactically, but they won’t see the big picture.” “If he were being thorough, would he not have vetted that information and put it into the proper context?” Stef asked, and seemed glad to have something to snipe at Jake about. “I don’t think that’s all him,” I told him. “He found out what’s happening in Mexico, and that’s all we could really expect from him at this point.” “One would hope that when the playing field is expanded, the rest of us would be able to offer some insights,” JP said. “I suspect that’s what our meeting on Saturday is about,” I said. “I wonder if Elizabeth Danfield or Alexandra Carmichael have the big picture?” Stef mused. “I doubt Elizabeth does,” I opined. “I think if she knew, she’d have been more active in this situation. Wade’s been at Goodwell with her for a while now, and he told me he sensed confusion from her.” “He shared that with me as well,” JP confirmed. “I have no idea what Alexandra knows, and I’m not sure it matters. I’m not likely going to be able to get much information out of her, at least not without a price,” I said with dread. “If this situation continues, where we do not know what is going on, it may be worth the price,” Stef said. “Another missing link in this whole thing is Lord Preston’s wife,” I said. “Mike told me Alexandra said he would not like her, because she was devoid of honor.” It bugged me that I’d all but forgotten that fact, and wondered if it would end up being important. “Perhaps the Marchioness has a role in this,” JP mused. “Yet another person we will have to try to investigate,” Stef said in a grumpy way. I decided we’d talked about this enough, so I changed the subject. “I talked to Will. He and Darius are at the hotel. I told them they could come back whenever they wanted.” “Our schedule is flexible enough to accommodate that,” Stef joked, since we had nothing to do today. Today was the day we were supposed to go to New Jersey, but I had dealt with enough over the past few days, and I’d ultimately bailed on that plan. I’d had a very unpleasant conversation with Jeanine’s mother when I’d called her and told her, but I decided that it was worth it. “How did it feel to have both of your sons running off with significantly older partners?” “You don’t think older men are sexy?” I asked, pushing Stef into a corner. “I am also most interested to know your thoughts on this,” JP said, piling on to give him a bad time as well. “I think they can be very sexy,” Stef said. “I just wondered how you felt about the age difference?” He got a nasty look from JP, inasmuch as one could get that kind of overt facial expression from him, since Stef was poking at me as if trying to start an argument. It was a wasted effort on his part, because I wasn’t going to fall into that trap. “I don’t think it makes much difference what I think,” I said honestly. I was quite aware that my sons would not welcome or tolerate my involvement with their decisions on whom to fuck. “But it really didn’t bother me.” “That is a bit surprising,” Stef said, probing. “Will and Darius are responsible, and mostly make good decisions. In this case, they’re walking into the situations with Patrick and Bellona with their eyes wide open,” I explained. “I also don’t think either one of those liaisons is more than a fleeting hook-up.” “Patrick is very handsome,” Stef said. “I was kind of surprised that I liked him,” I said. “After he snaked Ella away from Darius, it would have been more likely that I’d keep him pretty far away from me.” “I am not sure that ‘snaked Ella away’ is an accurate way to explain what happened,” JP said, with his fussy sense of justice. “Well, if snake is a metaphor for his dick, I’d say he did,” I joked. “For a fashionista, he’s pretty down-to-earth, and seems just like your typical bro.” “You like him because he is not bitchy and flamboyant?” Stef challenged. He could be both or either of those things, so it was no wonder he was asking me this question. “No, I like him because he’s not a huge drama queen, and because he’s nice to Will,” I said. Our conversation was truncated when JJ came out the door, pausing briefly to put on his stylish sunglasses. “It’s nice up here,” he said pleasantly. “It is,” Stef agreed. “How are you this morning?” I looked at my watch. “I think calling this morning is a stretch,” I joked, since it was already 11:30. “I took my time getting ready,” JJ joked back. He was in such a good mood it was almost disturbing, and a bit surreal. “You look good,” I said, and he did. Even when he had been skating, his muscle tone had always been subtle, and now it was even more hidden since he wasn’t constantly on the ice. I grimaced to myself when I thought that he’d turned into a twink. “What are your plans for the day?” Stef asked him. “There’s a new store on Fifth Avenue I wanted to check out,” JJ said. “That sounds interesting,” Stef said, smiling, even as he got up to leave. “I called for the car already,” JJ said, smirking since he’d known Stef would want to go. “I figured we could get lunch while we’re out.” “Then we will see you gentlemen later, for dinner,” Stef said to us. JP and I stared at them in surprise as they left, since this whole departure was unexpected, and since Stef and JJ were neither one of them speedy when they went somewhere. “It would seem we are on our own for lunch,” I said. “Perhaps we should go back to that pub around the corner?” “That sounds like an excellent plan,” he said, and so we walked back to the same pub we’d gone to when I’d arrived from China, and drank almost as much as we did that time. September 13, 2003 New York, NY Will “We are ready to leave,” Stef said to me. “Give me a minute,” I snapped, then apologized with my eyes. It wasn’t his fault Zach hadn’t called me on September 11, and it wasn’t his fault that Zach hadn’t called me on September 12. “I just need to make a phone call.” “That is fine,” he said soothingly, which was almost more annoying, but I managed to control my emotions and just smile at him. I waited until he left the room, and then called Zach. I didn’t think he’d answer, I didn’t think there was any way he’d actually man up and talk to me after blowing me off, so it didn’t surprise me when my call went to voice mail. I listened to his standard, phone-company derived greeting, then left a message: “Hey Zach, it’s Will. I just wanted to wish you good luck on your game today. Get a touchdown for me!” I smiled when I thought about how he’d react when he got it, how he’d feel guilty and like total shit. Darius had coached me on this; on how much smarter and better it was to take the high road. It may be the smart thing to do, but it certainly wasn’t the easy path to take. I’d been pretty messed up after September 11 came and went with no call from Zach. If it weren’t for Patrick’s amazing sexual healing, I’d have probably been a basket case. I smiled when I thought about him, and what a total animal he turned out to be in bed. He wasn’t aggressive and dominant like Carullo, but he was definitely in charge, he certainly had some stamina, and he was surprisingly resilient. It was almost tough to keep up with him. Almost. I was sitting on the bed, staring at my phone, when Stef walked back into the room. I stood up abruptly, feeling bad that I was dicking around when everyone was ready to leave. “Am I interrupting you?” “No, I just finished my phone call, and I was thinking about it,” I said, then sighed. “I called Zach and left him a message to wish him luck today, even though I’m pissed off at him for not calling me since I got to New York.” “He did not call you?” he asked, shocked. I just shook my head. “I am sorry. There is only one reason I can think of for that to happen.” “What?” I asked curiously, even though I was dreading the answer, that he’d tell me Zach had found someone else. Then again, I already knew Zach had found someone else; he’d found Joe. “He must have become completely absorbed into the world of college sports. I saw this happen to Jeff Hayes, and we all saw it impact Matt. It is almost like a supernatural being that has captured him and hauled him off to its lair.” “I get that, but it just shows how I’m so off his radar, and completely not part of his life anymore,” I said sadly. Stef reached over and wiped away the tear that fell out of my eye. His touch was gentle and caring. Stef decided to change the subject, evidently having decided that there was nothing more we could do to solve my problem with Zach. “I have not had a chance to thank you for what you said at the dinner.” “I meant it,” I told him honestly, “and Darius agreed with me.” “I assumed since you said it, you meant it,” he teased. I smiled. “It was a good opportunity to tell the world how much we appreciate you.” “And since you are honoring JP at the talent show, this was an opportunity to do the same thing for me, so I did not get jealous,” he concluded, raising his eyebrow in an accusatory way. “I didn’t think I had to worry about you being jealous of Grand,” I said, tossing it back at him directly. “You do not,” he said firmly. “I always think of you guys as a team, so when we do something for Grand, in my mind, it’s for you too,” I told him. “At the same time, it’s important to single you out once in a while.” “I appreciate that you did that,” he said. “Your approach is exactly as it should be. JP and I are partners, not competitors.” “Good,” I said. We smashed our fingers together, a sign stronger than saying ‘I love you’, then followed that up with a meaningful hug. He patted my cheek then walked out, giving me a minute to pull myself together. I sighed and walked out the door, bracing myself for a round of chaos. “You are sure you do not want to join us?” Stef asked JJ. “I really don’t want to deal with Mary Ellen, especially since Alex and I are at a good place,” he said. “If I see them there together, I may just really fuck things up.” “I would have thought you may enjoy that,” Stef teased. JJ chuckled. “It has some appeal, but I’m good.” It was obvious to me, at least, that JJ was staying here to wait for Carullo to get back. I wasn’t sure if Stef got that or not. Dad gave JJ a big hug, but avoided a long conversation, probably because he was so hungover. We’d picked him and Grand up at that neighborhood pub last night, and it had taken Darius, JJ, and me together to lug their drunk asses back to the condo. They’d both been hilarious. “Be good,” Darius said, and gave JJ a perfunctory hug. They’d kind of worked things out, but JJ still had some ground to cover with Darius. In actuality, probably the next time they saw each other, they’d be fine, but as of right now, Darius was keeping a distance between them, and it was obvious in the way he said goodbye to JJ. “They say ‘save the best for last’,” I joked, as I took my turn. He swallowed hard, which meant he was going to apologize or do something similarly demeaning. “I really am sorry for being such a dick.” “It’s over, remember?” I said. I didn’t want him carrying a bunch of guilt around. “Take care of yourself, and let me know how things work out with Carullo.” “If they work out,” he said skeptically. “I think he’s one of those guys where if you chase after him, he’ll run away from you,” I said. “All you can do is be pleasant and fun so he wants to be around you.” “I don’t know if I can do that,” JJ said, cracking me up. “Then just focus on the part where you don’t chase him,” I said, laughing. “Chasing him will probably work just as well as chasing Zach,” JJ said, which was true, but the comment seared into me, since he was a touchy subject. “Zach doesn’t need to worry about me chasing after him,” I said coldly. I gave him a warm but not overpowering hug, then followed the others out to the elevator. “We probably should have flown down there last night,” Stef said. “A few of us were in no condition to fly,” I said, smirking at Dad and Grand. They ignored me, but a closer look at my dad made me think his skin was almost green. The elevator doors opened and he pushed past us, charged through the lobby and out the front door, and puked in the gutter. “Dude, you’re like a bum,” Darius said, shaking his head in disdain even as he walked past Dad. The rest of us did the same thing, and then waited in the limo for him to pull himself together. “Better let him sit next to the window,” I said. He gave me a dirty look, but it turned out to be a smart idea, since twenty minutes later he had to puke out of that very same window. “It is a good thing Jake is not with us,” Stef said. “That is most unattractive.” “Whatever,” Dad snapped softly, then gave Grand a really nasty look. “How come you never get sick after you drink so much?” “I think it is because alcohol kills bacteria, and since I am so pure and perfect, it has no battles to fight inside me,” Grand said in his pontificating way, which was both cute and hilarious. “You, who are saturated with evil, clearly have a much tougher battle.” Dad rolled down the window and puked again. “Clearly,” Stef said. We got to the airport and boarded the plane, headed for Charlottesville. As soon as it took off, Dad vanished to the back, to the guest bedroom, making all of us chuckle. “No keg stands for him,” Darius said, referring to Dad. “He could do them just fine, it’s keeping all that beer down that would challenge him,” I said. “So how was your time in New York?” Stef asked Darius. I had to hide my grin, since I knew where he was going. “Okay,” Darius said in his clipped way. “And how was Bellona?” Stef asked, raising an eyebrow. I repressed a chuckle and got a dirty look from Darius. “Good,” he said. “It seems appropriate that we are flying to Goodwell when this topic comes up, since it is at that location that you told us you wanted us to be more interested in your sex life,” Grand said loftily. “It is most appropriate,” I said, mimicking him. Darius sighed. “It was one of the best times I ever had.” That surprised even me. “Indeed?” Stef asked. “Most of the women I’ve been with are my age, and no matter what I do, they always hold back a little bit. It’s like there’s some guilt thing that tells them they’re not supposed to have that much fun. The girls my age that do, they seem to come with other issues.” “Makes sense,” I said, since I could see how my female friends were all worried about being too slutty. “With Bellona, she doesn’t give a shit about that at all. She knows how much fun sex can be, and she wants to enjoy it,” Darius said. “It’s pretty obvious that she finds me to be hot, and that’s kind of awesome.” “It is very validating to be worshiped,” Stef joked with a smile. “No shit,” Darius said. “And she doesn’t say no.” “What does that mean?” Stef asked. “If I want to have sex, she’ll have sex with me,” he said. “She doesn’t say that she’s tired, she doesn’t suggest we do something else, she goes for it, and when she does, she puts herself into in completely. She’s not just doing it for me.” “I wonder how much of that is due to the fact that she appreciates how attractive you are?” Grand asked. “That’s part of it, but I think another part is that she’s a confident woman who knows what she wants,” Darius said. “Or maybe because she’s older,” I said, getting a dirty look from Stef. “Well don’t women peak at an older age than men?” “Research suggests that men hit their sexual peak when they are approximately 20 years old, while for women it tends to be in their mid to late 30’s,” Grand said, sounding like he was quoting an academic journal. “Cool,” I said. “The best is yet to come.” “Bellona is older than her mid-30s,” Stef noted. “Maybe she’s a late bloomer,” Darius joked. “So that means Patrick is past his sexual prime.” “Dude, if that’s the case, I would have been scared to be with him when he was 20,” I said. “He’s an animal.” “Ella didn’t think so,” Darius said, kind of blowing our minds. “She talked to you about sex with Patrick?” I asked. “When we went to Goodwell after September 11,” Darius said, even as we all worked not to let that memory drown us in sadness. “She told me that no one ignited her body like I did. She said Patrick was nice, but not all that enthusiastic.” “Perhaps Patrick is more stimulated by a male partner than a female partner,” Stef mused. “Cool,” I said, even as I began to think about Patrick in a whole different way. “It’s still a dick thing to do, talking about the guy she’s with to someone else.” Yet another thing to put in my reasons-to-not-like-Ella file.
  11. Faces for Mark's Stories

    I visualize Lord Preston as balding
  12. Chapter 54

    September 11, 2003 Tribeca, NY Brad We all convened in the great room. I’d already eaten breakfast, as had JP and Stef, but Will and Darius hadn’t had a chance, so they sat on the couch eating cereal. They weren’t early risers, and Darius had probably had to hustle to make it back here by 9 in the morning. JJ sat next to Will, but he wasn’t eating anything. Jake came walking out, looking great in casual clothes, carrying an energy bar and a cup of coffee. “Thanks for the energy bar,” he said to JJ. “No problem,” JJ said in a friendly way. “Help yourself to anything you want.” “I thought you had a cook?” Darius asked, as if just figuring out why there was no real breakfast. From his tone, it seemed as if he didn’t have a meeting of the minds with JJ like Will did. “It’s her day off,” JJ said. “She asked for Thursdays and Sundays off.” “Let’s hope we have something scheduled for lunch,” Darius said. “Having Jacinta absent serves our plans,” JP said in his imperious way, but he was right. If she were here, we’d have to watch what we said. “What’s our plan for today?” Will asked, getting us on track. “We are going to meet with Jake and hopefully he will enlighten us as to what he discovered in Mexico. After that, our afternoon is free. We have a gala to go to this evening,” Stef said. “A gala?” Will asked dubiously. “Yes,” Stef said. “It will probably be similar to the one you attended last weekend.” “Does that mean you get to blow someone in the bathroom?” JJ asked, joking. We were all a little stunned that he was being jovial, and not bitchy. “If I’m lucky,” Will said. “Uh, I told a few people you’d be there,” JJ said to the group. “When you say ‘you’, who are you referring to?” Darius asked coldly. “You, Will, Stef, and Dad,” JJ said. The four of us looked at each other with dread. “What does that mean?” Darius demanded. It was rare that he was the bitchy and difficult person in the group, but I attributed it to his anger at JJ and the fact that he was probably tired after his night with Bellona. I tried not to cringe at the thought that he was sleeping with a woman who was older than me. “I wouldn’t be surprised if there were some recognition of your escape from the towers two years ago,” JP said. “That’s bullshit,” Darius said. “I don’t want that. I don’t want to deal with that.” Then he turned on JJ. “This is what happens when you open your mouth. It’s as toxic as your tattle-tale routine. Just shut the fuck up.” “They just asked me who was going to attend,” JJ said defensively. “Darius,” I said firmly, getting him to look at me. “This isn’t a day to enjoy, it’s a day to endure. Let’s go with the flow, and we’ll get through whatever they throw at us, just like we always do.” “Just like we always do,” Will parroted sadly. “This isn’t JJ’s fault, he was simply asked a question, and there’s no reason for us to argue with each other,” I said, mostly to Darius. “Fine,” Darius said grumpily. “Besides, maybe your girlfriend will be there,” Will said to Darius, giving him shit. “Patrick call you back?” Darius asked Will, who said nothing. “Jealous much?” “Now that we have established our schedule, I would like to know what you found out while you were in Mexico,” JP said to Jake, bringing us back to the topic at hand. “We’re on the brink of a massive war between the Mexican cartels,” Jake said simply. “Why is that a problem?” I asked. I didn’t see how Mexican drug lords killing each other would cause us any heartburn. It seemed like the smart thing to do was to let them fight each other. “If there is a war, it will engulf much of Mexico and will seriously harm many innocent civilians,” Jake predicted. “There was a CIA report done on this a few years ago that suggested such a war could possibly destabilize the Mexican government.” “I cannot imagine that a conflagration on that level would not spill over into the United States,” JP noted. “That was also part of the report,” Jake said. The concept of Mexico as a failed and lawless state was terrifying. “That seems like a good enough reason to be concerned,” I said, letting go of my original attitude of avoiding involvement. “Lord Preston flew in yesterday to see if he could stop things before they get out of hand,” Jake said, dropping that on us. There was a lot to digest in that statement, but it mostly just raised more questions. “Why would Lord Preston be in Mexico trying to stop things before they get out of hand?” JP asked. It was disturbing to see that this had even confused him. “He is apparently well known in the Capetown underworld as the man who unified the gangs there, and brought peace to those organizations,” Jake said. “Our English peer is one of the South African cartel kingpins, if not the kingpin.” “We suspected he was involved in some sort of disreputable business, but controlling drug cartels was a bit beyond my radar,” Stef said. “His extracurricular activities have been well concealed, evidently,” I observed drily. “His nickname is ‘The Shadow’ because of how stealthy he is,” Jake said. “He lives as an expatriate British peer, mingling with the upper crust in Johannesburg, but when he goes to Capetown, he’s like a Mafia Don.” “That is an impressive balancing act,” Stef noted. My initial impression of Lord Preston as bumbling British peer, much as he’d seemed at Alex and Mary Ellen’s wedding, was fast falling apart. For him to live a dual life like that, he had to be pretty clever and he probably also had to be a pretty accomplished actor. “I agree,” I said, putting my thoughts to words. “What is he supposed to accomplish in Mexico?” “The Ortegas are bringing him in to meet with all of the heads of the various cartels down there,” Jake said. “His job is to negotiate some sort of deal where they divide up the turf. The alternative is to fight a battle over who has what regions or lines of business. That’s expensive and dangerous.” “This is reminiscent of the battles with the Mafia here in the US,” JP noted. “It works pretty much the same way,” Jake agreed, “I don’t think the Ortegas want to work out a genuine peace.” “Why not?” I asked, not following him. “The biggest opposing cartel is the Rubio family, run by Stef’s friend,” Jake said. “They’ve been watching the Ortegas expand, and they think this is a power grab.” “I am not quite sure I would classify Joaquin as a friend,” Stef said, even though he probably was. Stef was obviously annoyed at being lumped into this thing. “Regardless, I am wondering how this could be a power grab?” “The man you heard me with the other night was able to enlighten me,” Jake said with a wry grin. It was funny how after our conversation last night, and our make-out session, now I was jealous when I thought about it. “According to him, the Ortega’s plan is to negotiate an arrangement that is especially generous to the weaker cartels, which will win their loyalty and support. Then, after the deal is worked out, they plan to absorb those other cartels, either through friendly or unfriendly means.” “So that means that after they do that, they’ll be much more powerful than they are now,” I noted. “That’s correct,” Jake agreed. “Only at that point, they’ll be so strong, they’ll simply crush anyone, including the Rubios, who stand in their way.” “How will the Rubios react to this?” JP asked. “They’ll figure out the game soon enough,” Jake said with a shrug. “If not, they’ll find themselves pretty embattled.” “I wonder if we should warn them,” Stef mused. “No,” I insisted, a bit too strongly. “We have to keep our distance, as much as possible, from this conflict.” “I do not know if that is possible,” Stef said. “I think it would be a huge mistake for us to be seen as taking sides in whatever happens with these drug cartels,” JP said, backing me up. “Until I can get rid of those border properties, we are in a situation where we are involved,” Stef said. We all seemed to realize what a smoking time bomb Buzz had left us. “I have a potential solution, but I may need your assistance,” Stef said to Jake. “What is your solution?” I asked. “Buzz’s estate will owe a significant amount of estate taxes to the Federal government, and those are payable in cash,” Stef said. “I am working to convince the government to accept those properties as partial payment.” “That is quite clever,” JP said, smiling at Stef. The rest of the crowd looked confused by this discussion, so I decided to clarify things. “If we sell the properties, we could cause more problems with either the new buyers or with the Ortegas, who will be mad that we didn’t give them to Maria,” I explained. “But if the Federal government demands them as part of the estate taxes due, there is little anyone can complain about.” Everyone nodded, and I had to agree with JP; it was a very clever solution. “So how can I help?” Jake asked. “The primary problem is convincing the Feds to agree to the deal,” Stef said. “I have enlisted the help of Buck Dalby, but anyone else you know who can help influence that decision would be useful.” “I’ll make some calls,” Jake promised. “So I don’t get why Lord Preston would be involved in this deal,” Will said. “It doesn’t sound like it’s going anywhere. Why’s he wasting his time?” “I don’t know,” Jake admitted. “At first, it seemed obvious, that he’d benefit by being involved in this whole consolidated cartel.” “Maybe he is planning to run it,” I suggested. “I’d have to believe the Mexican drug trade is considerably more lucrative than those in South Africa.” “Maybe he is,” Jake said, “but I think that’s unlikely. He’s largely being billed as a mediator, not a new CEO. They’re billing him as this superman who can develop the ultimate deal and make everyone happy.” “He’s already in Mexico?” I asked, since I’d forgotten that important fact. “He is,” Jake said, confirming what he’d already told us. He got really nervous when he said that. “What?” I prompted. “Lord Preston is playing with fire,” Jake said. “I can’t see how he can set up this meeting and survive it if things don’t go well.” “So he could be walking into a death trap?” JP asked. “That was my read on it, as well as that of my friends I talked to,” Jake said. I wasn’t willing to buy into that theory, but I kept my mouth shut to hear their points. If Lord Preston had indeed managed to pull of his amazing dual life in South Africa, he wasn’t likely to be oblivious to the threats these cartels presented. “Should we try and warn him off?” JP asked. “No,” Will said emphatically. “That man is not our friend.” “Yet he is Alex’s father, and the son of the Duke of Suffolk,” JP responded. “And they are our friends.” “Alright, if that’s the case, then they should also be partially on the hook for the crap things Lord Preston did this summer,” Will said. “That’s the deal. Lord Preston and Elizabeth Danfield worked pretty hard to fuck up my life, JJ’s life, and Zach’s life, and they walked away totally unharmed. We didn’t blame the Duke of Suffolk or Alex for that.” JP didn’t like that, but he didn’t want to argue about it. “I will ponder your words.” “Thank you,” Will said. “And then what will you do?” “That depends on where my pondering leads me,” JP said in particularly haughty way. I wanted to laugh at how he was stumbling right into a battle with Will, something that I usually ended up doing in these situations. “I want you to remember that we all agreed that this whole deal was based on collective decision making,” Will insisted. “There is nothing wrong with my memory,” JP snapped. Stef and I exchanged knowing looks, even as we tried not to laugh. “So based on what we know now, who thinks we should directly or indirectly warn Lord Preston he may be walking into an ambush?” Will asked the group. “I vote no.” “No,” JJ said insistently. “Nope,” Darius said, chiming in to support his brothers. “I do not see any reason to extend any assistance to Lord Preston,” Stef said. “Neither do I,” I said. “And I would further note that we were unwilling to get involved to warn the Rubios, and those same reasons should preclude us from helping Lord Preston,” Stef added. “That means you’re not allowed to be a snob, just because Lord Preston is a marquess,” Darius joked, only what he said was only too true. JP looked at all of us in annoyance, but there was no way I was going to sanction some bizarre notion of aristocratic kindness only to have Lord Preston rise up and cause us problems in the future. “I will still ponder the situation, but I will do nothing without coming up with a reason good enough to change your minds,” he said, gallantly retreating. “Thank you,” Will said. “I wonder if Alex and the Duke know that Lord Preston is a drug lord?” I asked the group. “We will have to ask them that when we see them on Saturday,” JP said. “Indeed we will,” Stef said. That was sure to be an interesting conversation. After that, we all went out to lunch at the pub near the condo, and then we had the afternoon to do our own things, which for most of us meant taking a nap. September 11, 2003 The Ritz Carlton, Battery Park New York, NY Will This event was being held in a big hotel ballroom just like last time, only tonight we were at the Ritz Carlton in Battery Park. It was a cool hotel, mostly because it was new, and because it was so close to the condo. And just like last time, we were all hanging out in the pre-assembly area, drinking and talking. The crowd here was significantly different than last weekend, though. Then it had largely been the mavens of the fashion industry, but tonight it was a much broader group. I noticed Mayor Bloomberg talking to some people, and wasn’t surprised to see Andrew Cuomo here as well. Darius had been flirting with one of his daughters earlier. Of course, Bellona Carter was also in attendance, only she was lording it over the fashion subset of this group instead of being the Queen of the whole thing. I watched as Grand and Stef effortlessly worked their way through the crowd, talking to people as if they lived here. I looked at my phone, noticing that I had a message, so I moved away from the bar to a quieter place to listen to it. I found a corner that was pretty convenient, one that gave me a view of the whole area. I played the message and smiled when I heard Patrick’s voice. “Hey Will, sorry I didn’t call you earlier. I’m planning to be at that event tonight, so I’ll see you there. Maybe we can hang out after that.” I smiled at my phone, and then frowned when I noticed that there was another number that was conspicuously absent. I hadn’t talked to Zach since Sunday. I’d put off calling him because I took Matt and Stef’s advice to heart and decided not to chase after him, but in reality, I’d decided that was a pretty low risk strategy. I’d figured there was no way he wouldn’t at least call me on 9-11. As the guy who had helped me through that nightmare, he’d know what a tough day this was for me. I was totally confident that he still loved me and cared about me enough to worry about how I was doing, and I was absolutely sure he’d reach out to me. Only he hadn’t. I sighed and put my phone away, deciding that it was still early in California, and using that as an excuse to pretend he’d call me later to check up on me. I saw my father at the bar, and stared at him long enough that he must have felt my eyes on him. He got his drink and strolled over to my corner. “You found a nice place to hide.” “I’m not hiding, I’m observing,” I joked. “You seen Darius lately?” he asked. “He was hanging around with JJ and Bellona, but I haven’t seen him for a little bit,” I said, wondering where he was. “Where’s Jake?” “He went ahead and flew down to DC, to see if he could help Stef dump that land on the border,” Dad said. “You were gone for a while last night,” I teased. “I just went to welcome Jake to New York. We talked, then made out for a while,” he said. “How was it?” I asked, totally excited for him. “Hot,” he answered, cracking me up. “No doubt,” I said. “But you didn’t fuck him?” “No,” he said, and seemed confused. “I’ll fill you in on why when we fly down to Goodwell.” Whatever happened with Jake freaked him out a bit, and he obviously didn’t want to talk about it. I resolved not to be an asshole and hound him about it, especially here, and especially on 9-11. “Cool,” I said, then used my own issues to distract him. “Zach didn’t call me yet.” “It’s still early in California,” he said, using my same reasoning. I was distracted from arguing about that when I saw Darius at the bar. He was looking around in a way that I knew for him was almost frantic, but would look normal to anyone else. As soon as he spotted Dad and me, he all but charged over to our corner. “I found out what the plan is for tonight,” he said. He was really pissed off, so much that his eyes were almost shooting fire, and his nose was flaring not unlike Matt’s did when he was mad, only Darius had to be a lot more pissed off for his nose to flare out than Matt did. “What?” I asked calmly, trying to get him to settle down a bit. “Did you know about this?” he asked Dad. “About what?” Dad asked, and seemed genuinely confused. “They’re going to recognize us for escaping from the tower,” Darius snapped. “They’re going to give us keys to the city.” “What?” I asked, totally stunned. “That’s quite an honor,” Dad said, then withered under truly evil looks from Darius and me. “I don’t want to relive that fucking day, and I sure as fuck don’t want to relive it in front of cameras, reporters, and politicians,” Darius said, much too loudly. “Shut the fuck up,” I snapped. He just glared at me. “Do not make a scene.” “You’re saying this?” he demanded, like I was constantly making an ass of myself at fancy balls. “I’m saying this,” I said, even as my mind whirled with what he said. “I’m so out of here,” Darius said, and made to leave. I grabbed his arm to stop him, and when he turned around to face me, he instinctively cocked his fist. “You can’t do that without causing big problems,” Dad snapped, using his full power posture, one that probably saved me from taking a fist in my stomach. “You still planning to go into the Navy?” “Yeah,” Darius said, as if Dad were stating the obvious. “Then you can’t go running out of here and embarrassing a bunch of powerful politicians,” Dad said logically. “You really think Mayor Bloomberg is gonna track me down and cause me problems for bailing on this party?” Darius demanded. “He’ll know that you were here, and then when they announce the award, and only Will goes up to get it, he’ll know you left,” Dad said. “That’s the kind of thing that can bite you in the ass later on.” “Fuck,” Darius said, with resignation. I wasn’t convinced it would really be that big of a problem, but running away wasn’t the right thing to do, so I didn’t argue about it. “So you’re OK with this?” he demanded of me. “It’s not my first choice, but if that’s what they have planned, I’ll go with the flow,” I said. It was almost surreal that Darius was freaking out, kind of like I had been known to do a few times, while I was pretty relaxed about things. “Remember my 40th birthday,” Dad said to us. “I got to the airport, all pissed off, and was determined to just go back to work. If I’d have done that, I’d have completely fucked up your plans.” “You’re the only guy I know who gets pissed off by a good blow job,” I teased him, reminding him about his ride to the airport. He ignored me. “And then that night, when it was time for me to go downstairs, I thought briefly about stalling, but I knew that you guys had gone to a lot of trouble to set that up for me, and I didn’t want to be a dick and ruin it, or embarrass you,” he said, ignoring my taunt. “So?” Darius said. “If you do that, if you bail on the Mayor and these people, that’s what you’re doing. They want to honor you for your bravery, and if you just skip out on them, you make them look like asses,” Dad explained. “Besides, no way you can’t get laid after they give you the key to the city,” I joked. “I already got that covered,” Darius said, then got more thoughtful as he thought of his date. “I don’t think Bellona would appreciate me doing that either.” “Probably not,” Dad said. It was annoying that only when he factored in Bellona’s reaction did Darius seem to fully realize how stuck we were. “Fine, I’ll do it, but only if you do the talking,” he said to me. He usually pawned that off on me, because he hated talking to crowds like this. “I can do that,” I said, even as my mind began to whirl with a new idea. “I better get back to the party,” he said, and walked off at a much more deliberate pace than that which he’d used to get here. “Did he work things out with JJ?” Dad asked. I laughed. “Yeah. They did it in about seven words.” “I’m glad,” he said. “So what are you planning?” “What do you mean?” He rolled his eyes at me. “You’re working on something. What are you planning to say?” It was irritating that he could read me so well these days. It was so much easier to hide things from him when he was fucked up. “We’re having the talent show next weekend, and that’s going to end up being a big tribute to Grand,” I said, confiding in him. “That’s a nice thing to do,” he said approvingly. “Thanks, but I’ve been worried that it would upset Stef. It may make him think we’re neglecting him when we pay total attention to Grand,” I told him. It was cool that he didn’t give me a bunch of bullshit arguments, but recognized the situation and how sensitive Stef could be about these things. “That could happen,” he agreed nervously. “I wanted to include him in the talent show celebration, to make it a joint deal for him and Grand, but I got vetoed. It won’t really work,” I said. “Instead, I’ve tried to get him all involved in our plans, so it’s his deal too.” “That’s a good idea,” Dad said, smiling at me. “Thanks, but we still haven’t done anything for Stef,” I said. “So tonight, when I get to talk, I’ll make sure I do that.” “I’m sure he’d appreciate that,” Dad said, even as he thought about it. “This is more his crowd,” I added. “He’s almost as popular here as he is in LA,” Dad noted. It was amazing what billions of dollars would do for your image. I saw Patrick walk up to the bar, and noted that he was alone. “I’ll see you later,” I said, and strode purposely away from Dad toward Patrick. He saw me when I was about ten feet away from him, and it was awesome that at huge smile seemed to erupt on his face. “Hey Will!” he said, and gave me a big man-hug to make us look like bros. “It is so good to see you!” I told him honestly. “You here solo?” “I am, but I’m not real popular at home right now,” he grimaced. “You’re popular here,” I flirted. “I was staying at our condo, but it’s a little crowded. I was thinking about getting a room here.” “Oh yeah?” he asked, raising his eyebrow suggestively. “I’d hate to be here alone, though,” I said. “Maybe you could keep me company?” “I can do that,” he said. “I understand I’m sitting at your table tonight.” “Don’t get into a fight with Darius,” I teased. “I’ll be back.” I left him and went to the front desk and splurged for the biggest suite they had available. The dude working at the front desk was stunningly slow, so by the time I got a couple of keys and went back to the gala, I discovered that pretty much everyone had gone into the ballroom and taken their seats. I managed to find my table, and found myself sandwiched in between Dad and Patrick, while Stef was on Patrick’s other side. Those two were deep in conversation, so I talked to Dad. “I decided to stay here tonight, so you have your own room.” “I wonder why,” he said sarcastically, even as he looked beyond me at Patrick. “Damn, you have good taste in men.” “So do you,” I reminded him. Dinner conversation was pretty fun and lively, and there was the added dimension of all of us trying not to laugh our asses off at Darius working his moves on Bellona. After dinner was pretty much over, the mayor walked up to the stage and smiled out at the audience for a few seconds, then got somber and started speaking. “We are here tonight to remember one of the darkest days in the history of our city, an event that tore at our fabric, but at the same time brought us closer together.” He rambled on with that theme for a while, and paused to recognize some of the other dignitaries who were there. “I’ve been fortunate enough to honor many of our citizens who were true heroes on that day, but tonight I have an opportunity to recognize two young men, one who wasn’t quite 15 at the time, who braved the fires and heat of the South Tower to fight their way out of that burning pyre, and they did it while carrying their baby sister with them.” He read off our names, and there was an aide there to shepherd Darius and me up onto the stage even as the mayor expanded on what we’d been through, reading one of the more flowery descriptions that had been published. His words pierced through my shields as he made me relive that horrible day, and while both Darius and I may have seemed calm and stoic as we stood there listening to our tale, the tears running out of our eyes gave away how awful this was. I looked at him and we connected with our eyes, drawing strength from each other, and blocking out the mayor’s voice. In fact, we’d zoned out enough that I was almost surprised when he handed us these nice velvet boxes with a gold key in each one. The key was pretty cool. It was about five inches long, and was engraved with the words “Facsimile of key made in 1812 for the door of City Hall, New York.” The keys featured the New York City seal and the mayor’s name on their shafts. I’d been so absorbed in my ordeal that I’d almost forgotten what I was planning to say. There was a pregnant pause, but a look from Darius spurred me into action. “Thank you, Your Honor, for the kind words you said, and for these keys to the city. That day was the worst day of our lives,” I said, nodding to Darius. “The bravery you give us credit for, though, was really just us following the example of a man who has been a guiding force in our lives, our grandfather, Stefan Schluter.” I paused and stretched my arm out, pointing at Stef, until he finally stood up, even as he pretended to be reluctant to do so. The crowd gave him a huge ovation. “Stef taught us to look for opportunities, and when we find them, to seize them,” I said. “That was the thing that propelled us to make the initial decision to start going down those stairs. He also instilled in us the importance of trusting our instincts, and that’s the thing that kept us going down even when others were going up, and that’s the thing that gave us the power to fight through the heat and the smoke around the 80th floor. So we thank you for this honor, but we in turn have to thank our grandfather, Stefan Schluter, for teaching us to take advantages of opportunities and to trust our instincts. His training, his example, is the reason we’re standing here today. With your permission, we’d like it if he could join us on this stage.” “With pleasure,” the mayor said. Stef walked up onto the stage to a standing ovation, while the mayor smiled at him and shook his hand. “Stefan Schluter, the man who is currently four slots ahead of me on the Forbes 400 list,” he joked, getting a laugh from everyone. “When this year’s rankings come out, we will have to see if you have widened or narrowed the gap this year,” Stef responded. He didn’t say anything else, he just turned and gave Darius and me each a huge hug. After that, we walked back to our table, even as the crowd clapped for us. “Thank you both for that wonderful tribute,” Stef said, and was so emotional he was crying. “It was true,” Darius said, and even though I’d exaggerated quite a bit, I nodded in agreement. I was hoping that beyond this venue, our tribute to Stef would help him decide not to hate me.
  13. California Culture: Circa 2000

    The running back was Marshal Faulk. You’ll find references to him in The Streak.
  14. Chapter 53

    Seems Jake got lucky. At least with that.
  15. Chapter 46

    No shit! And by the way, where have you been?!?! So good to see you around again!

Important Information

By using this site, you agree to our cookie and Privacy Policy.