Why the hell did I ever let myself get talked into this?
Looking into the warm spring morning sunlight, Ian Burke sucked in a deep breath and pushed the flatbed cart down the narrow asphalt path toward his mark, a small square of silver duct tape.
“Are you kiddin’ me? Whattaya mean, cut? I was just startin’ out.” Frustrated, he looked over to Andy, his director, for an explanation. “I mean, come on, give me a break.”
“You have to be aware of your body language at all times, Ian.” Andy took his directing responsibility seriously. “You look like you’re just going through the motions. Smile, look enthused, and don’t be afraid to shake your booty as you head toward your mark. Remember, women and gay dudes are your audience. They garden.”
Andy, his best friend dating back to grade school, owned the South Minneapolis garden center Jungle Gems providing the backdrop for the commercial they were shooting. Ian was, for all practical purposes, Andy’s business partner. While Andy concentrated on the day-to-day operations, Ian focused on the landscaping end of the business. Over the last few years, Ian’s workload had steadily grown, to the point where it was now possible for him to branch out and form his own company, Burke Landscaping.
“You want to generate business, right?” Andy paused, forcing Ian to cough up his “you’re right” look. “Trust me, the perfect arborvitae ain’t gonna do it. You have a hot ass, so use it. Doesn’t he have a hot ass, Spencer?”
“Your ass is so hot it makes me want to be gay, dude. I mean, if I could go there, your ass would be the reason. Totally, I wouldn’t just say it if it wasn’t the truth. Allison commented on your ass the other day when she was helping me pick out jeans. ‘I think these make your butt look hot like Ian’s.’ That’s exactly what she said to me.”
Ian rolled his eyes and shook his head. Spencer, a friend he and Andy had both known for years playing baseball together, was their official, highly enthusiastic straight ambassador for all things related to, as Spencer loved to refer to gays, “your people.” An ex-film school student, Spencer eagerly offered his retired camera skills.
What a couple of tools.
Joking aside, he felt blessed. Andy and Spencer wanted nothing more than for his newly launched landscaping business to succeed.
“Action!” Andy shouted after he had returned to his mark. “Lookin’ good. Good… good… don’t rush. Remember you’re looking for the perfect one,” he instructed. “Hey, I caught that little butt wiggle. Sweet. Did you catch that, Spencer?”
“Took my breath away, dude. Seriously.”
Ian glanced to the right as he inched forward, shaking his head, careful to show what he hoped would be the right amount of disappointment on his face.
Oh no, that one won’t do at all. Nope.
“That’s perfect, Ian. Yes! Look forward now, you’re almost there. There it is! You see it, the perfect one. Show us you see the perfect one.”
Well looky there, it’s the perfect one.
This was a good take. He felt confident and in control. An element of frustration along with a strong desire to get this whole thing over with fueled his need to nail this. As he approached his mark, he looked to the left, pushed the cart slightly past the mark, and stopped.
“Perfect. Remember, hands on hips and then flash that smile,” Andy encouraged.
As instructed, he planted his hands on his hips, smiled, reached down, and hauled up a flawless three-foot spiral arborvitae, placing it on the center of the cart. Displaying the required look of satisfaction he’d struggled with in earlier takes, he pushed his prize shrub past the mark to the end of the row.
“Cut! That’s a keeper,” Andy chimed.
SEATED in a plush embroidered club chair, Harper Callahan, fresh from his workout at the Y, looked over the low cocktail table and listened. Careful not to display any sign of distaste, he reached for his wineglass and sipped. Confident his face displayed both interest and approval and certain it would be some time before he’d be required to respond, he allowed himself to step out of the conversation.
He was being set up. Before he’d ever sat down in the bar of this ridiculously expensive steakhouse, he had seen the writing on the wall. Along with named partners Duncan Price and Arthur Wabash of McPherson, Price & Wabash, he had worked diligently over the last year to defend Jasper Flynn, the mastermind of one of the most extensive and ugly Ponzi schemes to ever rock the state. Despite their efforts, Jasper had been convicted, and due to the severity of his crime, he was refused bail and jailed on the spot. We did what we could for you, Jasper.
With plenty of loose ends to clean up on the case, including an appeal likely to go nowhere, he surveyed the room while he waited for Arthur and Duncan to get around to the point of today’s impromptu meeting.
A few tables down, he recognized a guy he’d gone to law school with. The man was surrounded by other men his age. They were laughing and enjoying themselves. He needed to start enjoying himself. How effortlessly he’d cast aside one of his grandfather’s most important lessons—there’s more to life than work. With his thirtieth birthday now history, it was time to reevaluate his priorities.
He had to admit, for the most part, he enjoyed his work. He found the Jasper case fascinating in its scope. The son of a soda distributer had parlayed a business degree from a small local college into arguably the region’s most prestigious brokerage. Caught in the make-it-up-as-you-go investment environment of the last couple of years that had almost brought the entire nation to its knees, fearless in his desire to both please his clients and pad his wealth, Jasper had falsified his investment prowess to a level that garnered national attention. He admitted that during a period of roughly two years, he’d schemed to defraud people by purportedly selling investments in a foreign currency trading program.
Harper glanced back to the table where his classmate sat. The guy’s name escaped him. He was handsome. The years had been kind. Harper looked over long enough to spot the wedding ring on his hand. You’ve found the balance, my friend, haven’t you? He probably worked at a vibrant, progressive firm where he felt appreciated and, at the end of the day, came home to a loving spouse and maybe a few adoring kids to keep life lively.
Love—the concept of loving and being loved—had inched up the ladder of priorities recently. He vowed then and there to start hunting for his own special someone.
“Let’s cut to the chase, Harp, my boy.”
He was brought back to the moment upon hearing his name. He hated that both Duncan and Arthur had gotten in the habit of calling him “Harp.” He took it as a sign of disrespect, which it probably was.
“Neither Arthur nor I are ones to beat around the bush.” Duncan leaned forward in his chair. “If you’ve learned one thing in the six years you’ve been with us, it has to be that.”
“What’s on your mind, Duncan?” He could see the bus a mile away.
“We put up a strong fight on Jasper’s behalf. Despite the outcome, we should be proud of our efforts. But unfortunately, we’re not done with this mess. I promised Jasper, and I’m a man of my word, that we would do everything in our power to make sure Phyllis stays on the good side of the law.”
We’d like you to stay focused on Phyllis. Come on, say it. I’m waiting.
“We’d like you to stay focused on Phyllis. Arthur and I will continue to work up the appeal. Harp, she’s going to be a handful no matter how she’s approached, but we think someone with your talent would stand the best chance of keeping her in check. She’s walking a fine line, and I have absolutely no confidence we’re going to be able to keep her out of prison. And that’s fine as long as we can demonstrate to Jasper that we tried. You tried,” Duncan corrected himself, shifting in his chair.
“It’s what we think is best.” Arthur had a habit of adding an unnecessary comment to, if nothing else, prove to the group he was paying attention.
Well, if it’s best for you, then as the rule goes, it’s gotta suck for me. It’s gotta suck for me because you creeps have me by the balls with my partnership so close. I’ll make partner, and when I do, I won’t be doing this dog and pony shit anymore.
Harper sipped his wine and smiled. “Gentlemen, don’t you think I already knew what you were going to tell me? Come on now, what kind of lawyer would I be if I was blindsided by my own teammates?”
Arthur and Duncan reached for their wine at the same time, nodding their heads and chuckling at his frankness.
“I get the situation you’re in. I got it from the start. I’m surprised it’s taken you this long to bring it up.” He held his gaze on the partners, forcing them to look away. “Of course I’ll do it. I’ll be the face of the firm, take a hit for the team.”
Arthur and Duncan laughed with relief, winking back and forth to acknowledge the fact that they’d hired on a winner. They’d signed on a star, a yes man, a dutiful slave to the partnership who would wipe their asses if called upon, or so they thought.
It took every ounce of concentration he had not to laugh. Keeping the ball in their court, he took another sip of the seventy-five-buck chuck they served up in this stuffy monument to corporate excess, and smiled.
“Harp, you make this so easy for us.” Arthur nodded with relief.
“Arthur, look. I can’t imagine the partners publically going to bat for this… bitch.” Jasper was bad enough, but his wife had a zero balance in the old sympathy bank. “I’m young, I have, knock on wood, a long career ahead of me. It only makes sense that I go in there and fight a losing battle. Did you honestly think I would have a problem with that? Arthur, I mean come on. Duncan, my God, you didn’t think that, did you?”
“Well….” Duncan visibly struggled to find the right response.
“Well…,” Arthur echoed, finding himself in a similar situation. “I… we… knew you were the best man for this job. We’ve always been able to rely on you.”
“Arthur, you know I love you both. You took a babe here and turned him into a lawyer. Wait, not just any lawyer, but a pretty good lawyer, eh?”
The partners were giddy with relief.
“This is a temporary speed bump in your career, Harp.” Duncan raised his glass for emphasis. “A year from now or sooner, it will all be forgotten, and poor Phyllis…”
Arthur and Duncan both shook their heads in unison.
“…will be pushing the library cart down the prison cell block.” There was no soft spot in Duncan’s heart for Phyllis Flynn.
“Oh for Christ’s sake, Harp, I wish I’d had your intuition and drive when I was your age.” Arthur came to life now that he and Duncan had achieved their goal. “We were impressed with your work from day one. Listen, there’s something else we need to talk about here.”
Harper smiled, sipped his wine, and leaned back in his chair.
You’re smiling and happy because you’ve pulled the strings and made your puppet dance. Here comes that faux-father face you probably perfected on your own kids.
“Harp, to show our appreciation for… well, for being a team player, Duncan and I would like you to know that we’ve begun the process to make you a partner. Once Jasper is sentenced and we’re free and clear of Phyllis, the three of us will regroup and carry on. There’s plenty of profitable law out there for the taking.”
“ALLISON, you want another chardonnay, sugar?” Ian asked, racing around his tiny kitchen.
“How’s everyone else doin’ in there? The popcorn is almost ready.”
“We’re good. Get in here, Ian. Three minutes and counting,” Andy shouted.
He hustled, emptying the popcorn maker into a large purple plastic bowl. He grabbed the half-empty bottle of chardonnay from the fridge and snagged a bottle of beer for himself.
“Okay.” He plopped down on the couch between Andy and Allison. “This is so exciting. I can’t believe we get to see the commercial in prime time. I thought the only time slots I could afford on my budget would be in the middle of the night.”
“My friend Stewart at the station pulled a few strings. You probably won’t get too many of these, but I know he’s doing what he can.” Spencer, who elected to sit on the floor inches from the television, was obviously proud he could make something happen for Ian. Spencer and his wife, Allison, were the kind of friends that, over time, became family. Ian felt blessed to have such a caring and fun inner circle to call his own.
“Back to Mobile Home Makeovers after a word from our sponsors.”
“What?” Spencer asked defensively to a room full of giggles before scooping a mountain of popcorn into his hand. “I never said we had a spot on 60 Minutes.”
“It’s cool.” Ian leaned back, using Andy as a pillow.
“It’s show time!” Andy shoved him back to the center of the sofa.
“Shut up and listen!” Allison ordered.
The group gathered in his small living room sat glued to the thirty-six-inch flatscreen, barely able to breathe in anticipation. The television blinked, blinked again, and then the lofty strains of Copland’s “Appalachian Spring” filled the room.
“Spring is just around the corner. Now’s the time to make those plans to finally have the backyard paradise you’ve been dreaming about. Burke Landscaping can make all of your lawn and garden dreams come true.”
“Oh my God!” Ian squealed. “I love it. It’s me. It’s me. It’s—”
Andy silenced him with a slap on the head.
Ian, along with his posse, watched with silly grins as he pushed his cart toward that perfect shrub.
“Cute butt, hon.”
“Here’s my favorite part.” Andy struggled to suppress giggles. “Look at Ian’s face when he sets that frickin’ shrub down on the cart. The satisfaction, it kills me every time I see it.”
“You’re vile,” Ian said, unable to mask his delight at being ribbed for something that really was funny.
“Buddy, I’m sorry. It’s just so funny to see—”
“Shut up!” Spencer inched even closer to the screen.
“Here at Burke Landscaping, we treat each project, each yard as if it were our own. Burke Landscaping—Professionals who care.”
“Woohoo! That was awesome!” Spencer jumped to his feet and went right into his self-proclaimed happy dance, a strange mix of agitated body movements he did whenever he was feeling happy.
“Yeehaw!” Ian leaped to his feet, clapping wildly. “That was totally awesome! Wow! I can’t thank you guys enough for making this happen for me.”
High fives were exchanged all around.
“Allison, the voiceover text, it was perfect. Classy and professional.” He planted a kiss on her cheek.
“You’re welcome, honey.”
“Andy, and this is serious, that’s the first time I’ve heard your voice and didn’t think to myself, who’s the broad with the stuffy nose?”
“Shut up, you bitch!” Andy pulled him down on the couch and smothered him with tickles and sloppy smooches. When he was able to free himself, he scurried over to Spencer, giving him a hug. “If this ends up making me serious money, I’m sending you back to film school. Thank you!”
“Ian, have you mentioned to Spencer what we were talking about?” Andy raised an eyebrow for emphasis.
“Ummm… not yet.”
“What? What are you two homos up to?” Spencer displayed genuine concern. “It’s never good. I can’t believe you’re both so mean to me, and after all the good I do for your people.”
“It’s nothing bad, Straight Cat,” Ian said, patting Spencer on the shoulder to reassure him they were on the level. “Andy and I think you should be the team captain this season. I know you’ll have the support if you throw your hat into the ring. Dude, before you say no, consider another entire season of having to listen to Snotty Scotty.”
“Oh man, I don’t know. Allison, what do you think?”
Ian held his breath. Spencer wouldn’t dream of making this decision without consulting his wife.
“I’m Switzerland, honey. I’m not getting involved in this one. Besides, captain or not, I’ll still lose you two nights a week.”
“Dude, I had no idea your wife was so bitter about baseball,” Andy whispered, with no intention of keeping his comment a secret.
“Careful, you never want to come between a bitch and her man.” Allison showed her claws.
“I know that’s the truth.” Andy batted away a French-manicured claw.
“Come on, dude,” Ian pleaded. “Andy and I will help you with the paperwork and the organizing. We can’t go another season of ball with Snotty Scotty bitching at us. Free blow jobs for a year… huh… huh? Whattaya say?”
“Hey, I like that offer,” Allison said with an exaggerated sigh of relief. “My jaw gets really tired, and if push comes to shove, I’d have to admit it’s not my favorite thing in the world.”
“Thanks for sharing that little tidbit, honey.” The forlorn look on Spencer’s face sent everyone into hysterics. “Listen up, you two… I’ll do it.”
“Yes!” Andy shouted.
“I’ll do it because I can’t listen to Snotty Scotty for another season either. But the blow job offer—thanks but no thanks. Neither of your lips are getting anywhere close to Elvis, got it?” Spencer took a step behind Allison for protection.
“Got it!” Ian and Andy cheered, bumping knuckles.
“My jaw gets tired too.” Andy looked over to Allison.
“Not mine,” Ian said proudly. “I could go all night.”
“On that note—” Spencer chugged down the last of his beer. “—time to hit the road, my dear. We have twenty minutes to get home before blow job time. You can limber up in the car.”
HARPER stared down at his notes. He’d spent the better part of the evening reviewing the law surrounding the court order freezing all of Jasper’s assets. Specifically, he needed to become very familiar with the role of the court-appointed receiver in order to head off any potential violations Phyllis might be entertaining.
Maybe I should just cut off my dick. It would be so much easier than baby-sitting Phyllis.
Phyllis was a nutjob. And because he’d agreed to it, she was his nutjob. Lately she’d been showing up at the firm unannounced, demanding either Arthur or Duncan—or both—detail for her how she was going to maintain the lavish lifestyle that obviously meant more to her than her husband, Jasper. Phyllis had good reason to be concerned. No matter what he did to try and prevent it, she would likely lose every penny she’d ever set an eye on and millions of dollars’ worth of possessions, including homes, jewelry, and most damaging, her exalted position as one of the grand dames in the city’s cutthroat society game. From champagne to the food pantry. He was unable to muster up even the smallest amount of compassion for Phyllis.
You’re a bitch, and you deserve what you have coming. Oh God, what time is it?
Looking down at his watch, he was surprised to see it was already past one in the morning. He’d been at this long enough. Hungry, he walked into the kitchen and poured out a bowl of cereal. After sprinkling it with sugar and adding milk, he headed into the living room, snapped on the television, and sat on the sofa. As he was about to enjoy his first bite, his cell phone rang.
Who could be calling me at this hour?
Setting his bowl down, he sprinted into the dining room.
“This is Phyllis Flynn.”
You’ve got to be kidding me. How scary is this?
He leaned on the dining room table, more than a little freaked out at Phyllis’s timing.
This woman has to be whacked. How did she get my cell phone number? Oh, that’s an easy one. Arthur. Of course, you prick.
“Phyllis, it’s very late. Is everything okay?”
“Of course it’s not okay. Do you honestly think I’d go around calling people at one in the morning if life was okay?”
The bitch has a point.
“No… no… of course not. What can I do for you?”
“You can make goddamn sure I stay in this house. That’s what you can do for me.”
He wasn’t sure how to respond. Hadn’t Arthur and Duncan set some expectations for her? Did she honestly believe there was a chance of that happening?
“Phyllis… of course… I’ll do the best job I can for you. Please believe that.”
“Don’t think I don’t know what Arthur and Duncan are doing. I’m not stupid, you know.”
“Excuse me? I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
It was true. He didn’t have a clue what she was talking about.
“How old are you?”
“Exactly. You’re a pup. My future is in the hands of a goddamned kid. You don’t think there’s anything about that upsetting to me?”
“Phyllis, please be assured—”
“It’s Mrs. Flynn to you, and don’t you ever forget it.”
Oh God. I don’t think I can do this. I don’t think I can—
“I’m here… Mrs. Flynn.”
“Know one thing, you… you little bastard. If I end up losing this house, you’re going to have to answer to me. Trust me, you don’t ever want to find yourself in that position.”
“Mrs. Flynn, are you threatening me?”
He had had enough. There was a difference between finessing a difficult client and dealing with a wing nut. Phyllis Flynn was out of control. If he got anything through to her tonight, it had to be that he was not, and never would be, frightened of or threatened by her.
She’ll be cleaning toilets this time next year, if she’s lucky.
“I keep my house and my bank account, Mr. Callahan. That’s the only option you’d better be entertaining. Sleep well. I’m sure you’re busy.”
“Good night, Phyllis.”
Well, that was two tons of fun.
He padded into the living room a wreck. His head was pounding. He gulped down a spoonful of cereal. It was mushy. He couldn’t eat mushy cereal. Returning the dish to the kitchen, he dumped it into the sink and ran the disposal. Phyllis Flynn had robbed him of his appetite. And despite her gracious blessing of sleep, he knew right now it would be impossible. Pouring a glass of milk, he headed back to the sofa. Why bother with the bed at this point?
He was ready to take one for the firm, but this Phyllis crap was inexcusable. Partnership or not, he was going to have some words with Arthur and Duncan when he got to the office. Glancing at his watch, he wiped the perspiration off his forehead and realized he was due at the firm for a meeting in six hours. Studying during law school had taught him not only the fundamentals of being a lawyer, but how to function on little to no sleep—a valuable component to being a successful lawyer curiously absent from the curriculum.
Are you looking for sexy single guys and girls like these? Pick up the phone and call the number on the screen. Real single women and men waiting to speak to you, so what are you waiting for?
Harper stared at the television in despair. This piece of crap ad was directed at losers like him. This isn’t working out so good, is it, Harp? Alone and tired, he couldn’t escape the hopelessness of it all. Watching this deplorable commercial made him sink into the depths of depression.
It's live, one on one, and discrrrrreeeeet! So what are ya waiting for? Pick up the phone and call—now!
Harper downed his milk and laid his head on the sofa pillow. There wasn’t much about his life right now he liked. Socially, he was dead. Friends he’d made in law school had long since given up on him. You can’t continually ignore invitations and expect people to keep including you. For the last several years, the firm had been his friend. What a fucking mistake I’ve made. A feeling of emptiness nagged him as he stretched his long legs over the arm of the sofa. Chancing a glance back to the television, he watched a handsome dude push a cart down a pathway lined with shrubs.
A landscaping commercial. Really? At this hour? Damn! There’s another thing that’s fallen through the cracks since I got chained to the Flynn case—my crappy yard. I can’t go through another summer with a crappy backyard.
He had lived in his house for three years. It had taken him two years for him to come up with an idea for the small inner-city yard that he liked. He knew he wanted a water feature. The bigger the better. He wanted a nice grilling area, and plants. Plants that looked great all the time with little to no effort.
You’ve just discovered your reward for having to deal with Phyllis. Do the backyard.
If he was going to start entertaining people—well, dating, if he was honest with himself, he wanted a nice yard to bring someone back to.
“… here at Burke Landscaping, we treat each project, each yard as if it were our own. Burke Landscaping—Professionals who care!”
Cute butt. Ah, don’t kid yourself, Harp. He’s probably some model who hasn’t seen a spade in his life.
Still, all it took was a phone call to get the ball in motion. Harper got up from the couch and went back to the dining room. Packing up for the office, he scribbled “Burke Landscaping” on his notepad and went back to the couch for a few hours of sleep.