SOME men can wear red, some can’t. Being a redhead, I avoid it like the plague. The color suits my buddy, Jason. With his tanned olive skin and dark hair—thanks to his Spanish mom—when he wears red, you start looking for the charging bull. His ass looks great in tight black matador pants too. Pity he seldom finds an excuse to wear them. Mind you, in his dark pinstripes, he can double as a GQ model any day. He has that mandatory slim-hipped sexiness and the pout to match.
I, on the other hand, always look exactly like what I am—a country bumpkin. As for tans, I gave up trying after overdosing on UV as a kid, hoping my freckles would join up. All I got for my trouble was sunstroke, a face as red as a lobster, and a walloping from my dad.
Jason hails from Long Island but never talks about his folks much, always more interested in tales of my family. When we first met, he kept bugging me to do some Minn-speak. “Say, ‘Ya, sure, ya betcha’, Ben.”
I told him to suck my cock for supper instead. Geez, one of the reasons I came to San Francisco in the first place was to get away from Minnesota. Why would I want to advertise where I came from once I got here? Yessiree, Bob. My older brothers might be happy staying there, but I wanted out. That’s why I jumped at the offer of a summer internship when a rep for Sydney Sutherland Family Insurance came scouting around college back in February. My talent for number crunching gave me the chance to follow my dreams to Gay Central.
I met Jason in a bar in the Castro not long after I arrived. There I was, talking to my friend, Mick—well, I’d known him for ten minutes and he was still speaking to me, so that made him a friend in my book—anyway, Mick had asked me to ride on a tandem with him in the upcoming Pride Parade when this good-looking dude in a silky red shirt and black leather pants elbowed him aside and pulled me onto the dance floor. He acted like he knew me, but it wasn’t until I was fucking him into the mattress two hours later that I finally figured out he was one of the firm’s top-gun salesmen.
You see, my traineeship role as an actuary keeps me apart from the snake-oil peddlers and their expense accounts. I assumed they were all conservative breeders with a wife and 2.5 kids, struggling to stay afloat with too much gearing on their five-bedroom McMansions and Porsches. It was real good to find I wasn’t the only gay guy working for the firm.
I hadn’t recognized Jason, but my hair makes me stand out in a crowd. Being six-two in bare feet also helps. Jason claims he’s six foot, but hey, that’s only if he’s wearing his high-heeled Cubans.
We don’t broadcast our relationship at work, although he always pinches my ass on the way to his weekly meeting with Adrian Sydney Sutherland, the head honcho of the western division. For some reason, my daily visit to the water cooler coincides with the time Jason walks past. No, wait, I remember—we planned it that way. Heh. Lucky no one has ever caught on. I think the boss saw him grope me a couple of times. The clichéd narrowed lips and hard eyes when he glanced our way indicated that something upset him, but maybe it was just acid reflux.
THE rain had stopped, but a cold December wind whistled down the street between the tall buildings. I stamped my boots on the ground and shoved my hands as best I could into the pockets of my jeans. When choosing what to wear that Sunday morning, the last thing I expected was to be standing outside the office, waiting for my boss to arrive.
Two men in suits approached. Same walk. Similar build. Both about five-ten. Scratch that, waiting for the boss and his father to arrive.
Adrian Sutherland, the younger of the two men gave me a quick nod, and his greeting of, “Hi, Ben,” echoed strangely in the empty foyer as we walked inside. On weekdays, there were always people coming and going. Not that there had been as many lately. A number of the offices were now vacant because of the financial crisis. Inside, my two companions spoke briefly to the out-of-hours security guard. The big, black dude had been eyeing me through the glass. Probably wondering what I was doing there. I was too.
“Thanks for coming in on your day off.” The boss’s quick smile transformed his face. Lately, the girls in the office had been arguing about whether his glum looks were due to the state of the economy or because he was still single after breaking up with his long-time girlfriend.
“No problem,” I assured him. “My team was losing anyway.”
As we waited for the elevator, the boss turned to his father. “Dad, this is Ben Dutoit, the trainee actuary I mentioned.”
Strictly speaking, as Adrian Senior was the major shareholder in the company, he should be “the boss”, but he spent most of his time in the East Coast office. I shook the older man’s hand. The death grip matched his glare.
I straightened my purple throwback jersey as best I could. “Sorry about the gear,” I pointed to my casual clothing. “I was at the Royal, watching the NFL when you called. You did say to come as soon as possible.”
“Who are the Vikings playing today?”
“The Falcons.” I swallowed nervously. When Adrian Senior asked his question, there hadn’t been any trace of friendliness in his face. Now he was checking me out like one of those dogs who spend half an hour sizing you up before they decide whether they’ll bite you or not.
“The Giants will walk all over you next week.” The older man turned and stared at the floor indicator. No wonder he didn’t like me. As soon as the elevator doors closed, I brought up the subject that had been worrying me ever since receiving the boss’s unexpected phone call. “I couldn’t hear properly because of the noise, but did you say Carl had a heart attack?” Carl Hausfeldt, the firm’s chief actuary, while also technically my boss, had been more like a mentor to me.
“Yes, on Friday at the industry luncheon. We’ve just come from the hospital.”
“Is he alright?”
“He is now, but it was touch and go there for a while.”
Ever since the financial meltdown, Carl had been putting in stacks of overtime. I’d tried to help him, but there was only so much I could do. “Is he well enough to receive visitors?”
His father grew restless as Adrian gave me details about which hospital Carl had been admitted to and the visiting hours. “I’ll be in your office,” he barked and stalked off.
His son stared after him, tugged at his collar, then turned and smiled at me. Pure magic. I read a survey once where people rated photos of eyes in order of sexiness. Pale ones without any rims scored the highest. The boss’s were a perfect example: the barest whisper of gray around a jet black pupil. Real come-to-bed eyes.
“Carl said you were helping him with the statement of actuarial opinion.” Adrian handed over a sheet of paper. “Here’s a list of instructions. When you’re finished, my father will take everything back to the appointed actuary in the East Coast office. Carl says you know the password.”
The handwritten note was brief and to the point, ending with a thanks for coming in on the weekend. My worry eased. Even from his hospital bed, Carl was on top of his game. “Okay, shouldn’t be a problem.” Adrian Junior gave another of those mouth-watering smiles before going to join his father.
I fired up Carl’s computer and typed in “Chester”—the name of Adrian Senior’s dog. Carl once commented that he chose the password as the animal reminded him of his master. If it barked as loudly as the man talked, no wonder he made the connection. Usually, with the normal background clatter, I wouldn’t be able to hear a thing, but because the office was quiet, and the two men were arguing, every word of their discussion came through crystal clear.
“I thought from what you said that he was already qualified.” The older man’s voice still reflected his earlier irritation.
“Ben’s done two of his exams, and if he passes the rest on schedule, he should be an associate by the time Carl wants to retire. That way we’ll have less disruption.” His son’s more measured tones were easy to pick.
“Might happen earlier than he planned.”
“The doctor said Carl should make a full recovery.”
I sincerely hoped so. I liked working with Carl, and he’d already taught me a lot about the business.
“We should be downsizing, not employing new….”
The younger man’s voice broke in over the top, “Ben joined the firm before Lehman Brothers went under.”
“It doesn’t matter. Now we need to shed staff to remain competitive, and you know my rule, last in—first out.”
“If it comes to that, the new receptionist, Millie Carruthers, joined after Ben. At any rate, Carl’s had no complaints about his performance, quite the opposite.”
Their words faded to a blur as the impact of what they were saying took hold. The insurance industry hadn’t been hit as hard as some, but because of all our high-risk policies, Fitch recently downgraded the company’s rating from A- to BBB+. From the sounds of things, my future with the company was on the line. Damn. I enjoyed working here. Most of the people I came into contact with were really friendly, and Carl and I made a great team.
I downloaded all the data onto a memory stick and collected the supporting documentation as instructed. Luckily, most of the work had already been done, in readiness for the end-of-year deadline. I knocked on the door and handed over the material. The boss thanked me, but this time his smile was strained.
As the security guard—whose name, I discovered, was Tyrone—let me out of the building, my thoughts returned to the cause of the problem. According to Carl, the global financial crisis was brought on by politicians who lobbied for interest rates to be set too low, making it easy for everyone with a pulse to buy whatever they liked, assuming the boom would go on forever.
They forgot that taking risks has consequences.
THE firm’s Christmas party was held the following weekend.
“Want a drink, sweetie?”
For a second, I thought I’d strayed into one of the Castro bars by mistake, but the husky, cigarette-coated voice belonged to our underwriting manager, Mrs. Christie. I took the tray laden with glasses of wine, bottles of beer, and cans of pop out of her hands.
She poked me in the ribs. “Not all of them.”
“Ouch. That hurt.” Mrs. C. was old enough to be my grandma and barely reached five foot. She couldn’t harm a fly, let alone a big lump like me. She tried to take the tray back, but I lifted it out of her reach. “Nah, it’s heavy. I’ll do the honors. You go flirt with Mr. Simmons—he’s got the hots for you.”
Mrs. C. flicked me with her dishtowel. Years of mucking around with my brothers in the kitchen helped me dodge instinctively. I grinned and swiveled my hips to avoid the sting.
“Off you go then,” she said and disappeared back into the kitchen.
After off-loading all except one of each drink, I headed over to the corner of the room where a floor-to-ceiling window overlooked the parking lot. Millie was talking non-stop, waving her hands around. It must have been a pretty good story. Pity Jason wasn’t listening; his attention was fixed on something outside. Knowing him, he was making sure nobody touched his Corvette.
Call that a car? If I can’t crawl underneath to scrape off the rust, forget it. Give me my Ford Ranger pickup any day, even if Andy did clock up a hundred thousand miles before off-loading it to his little bro.
As I approached, Jason ran his tongue over his top lip: his “gimme some action” signal. I ignored him and bowed to Millie. “Would you care for a drink, ma’am?”
Millie giggled and selected the pop. “Thank you.”
Jason snorted and removed the wine. “You’d make a great Playboy bunny, Red.”
“Stop calling me Red.” I gave him the finger and propped the empty tray against the window.
“Red?” Millie’s mouth dropped open.
After a quick mutter to Jason to behave, I turned to Millie. “My brother, Chris, calls me that whenever he wants to annoy me.” I spared her the details about how Jason also screamed it when we fucked. Sometimes I wondered if he imagined we were in a bondage scene, and Red was his safe word. He had it back to front though, as his next words were usually: “Don’t stop.”
I drank my Heineken and scanned my fellow employees. Most of them were standing around, conversing politely; probably finding they had little in common outside work—assuming they had a life outside work.
“How long have you been with SSFI?” Millie’s big brown eyes stared at me as she took another sip.
“Ben’s a master of timing,” Jason drawled from his position in front of the window.
“Timing?” Millie’s eyebrows rose.
Judging by Jason’s smirk, he was also referring to the fact we usually managed to come at the same time. “More luck than timing. After my summer internship ended, they invited me to stay on, but Lehman Brothers went under a few days later. Now it’s hard to find good jobs.”
“Do you think ours are at risk?” Millie whispered, glancing around the room.
Yes, yours and mine, honey, but I didn’t have the heart to tell her.
Jason handed me the empty tray. “Time for a refill, Red.”
I murmured my apologies to Millie and accompanied Jason back to the kitchen. At the doorway, he grabbed my wrist. “Careful, Red, I’ll get jealous.” Before I could utter a response, he placed his other hand around my neck, pulled me down to his level, and stuck his tongue into my open mouth.
The tray fell from my nerveless fingers as my whole body began to react. A voice inside my head clamored, “What the fuck’s he doing?” We’d never outed our relationship to our workmates before. I broke away, stepped back, and eyed him warily. My heart was racing faster than a Minnesota wildfire.
Jason smiled, shrugged, and lifted his hands palm upwards. “Sorry, Ben, I couldn’t resist. You look so cute when you blush.”
As soon as my breathing returned to normal, I glanced around and noticed two more people had arrived—Adrian Sutherland and a petite blonde who clung to his arm as if she needed his strength to stay upright. Hey, maybe she needed his support because of her fuck-me trotters. Wouldn’t you know it? Red. They matched her skintight backless dress. I checked out the rest of his date. Her skinny arms showed she’d never lifted anything heavier than a Gucci bag in her entire life. Was this chick Adrian’s new girlfriend?
I glanced at the boss, and our gazes locked. Damn. He must have seen the kiss. Those come-to-bed eyes now resembled the business end of a double-barreled shotgun. He opened his mouth to speak. To avoid the imminent blast, I snatched up the tray and escaped to the protection of Mrs. Christie in the kitchen. Helping her clean glasses and collecting another round of drinks—mimosas this time—put me back into familiar territory. Mind you, I wasn’t sure whether it was the boss’s stare or Jason’s kiss that threw me out in the first place.
When I left the kitchen, I noticed that the noise level had ratcheted up a notch since the arrival of the boss and his date. It was almost as if the man’s presence added a degree of expectation to the air. Who would he talk to? What would he say? You see, Adrian Sutherland isn’t one of those employers who buries himself in his office all day; on the contrary, he always stops to say hi and check up on how you’re doing.
Double damn. He didn’t have a drink. I took a deep breath and walked toward him and his date. I had to admit, they made an attractive couple. The flecks of gray in Adrian’s hair gave him that George Clooney brand of middle-aged hotness. The suit, the haircut, the chiseled jaw, and the bimbo hanging off his arm all screamed “straight” though. Too bad. He looked like he needed a good fuck.
A warm smile spread across his face as I approached. Phew. At least he wasn’t still mad at me for lip-locking with Jason.
“Thanks, Ben,” he said when I reached him. The blonde selected one of the mimosas; he took a bottle of Heineken. “Laurel, this is our actuarial trainee, Ben Dutoit.”
I couldn’t shake her hand, as I was carrying the tray, so I said, “Pleased to meet you,” and smiled, or at least tried to. It wasn’t just the boss’s smile that affected me. The smooth whiskey-tones of his voice also made my stomach do a backflip.
“Pleased to meet you, Ben, thanks for the drink.” Laurel raised the glass to her lips. Her voice sounded sweet, but pale blue eyes raked me from tip to toe, assessing. Forget butter, even ice cream wouldn’t melt in her mouth. I shivered.
“Are you cold, darling?” Jason’s hand snuck around my waist.
Laurel’s eyes flickered for a moment, then she turned and stroked the boss’s shirtsleeve. “Adrian….” He looked down at her and smiled.
“Come on, Ben.” Jason pulled me away, and I offloaded the rest of my drinks in super-quick time. Something about that female really set my nerves on edge.
From that night on, everyone at work knew I was gay, but no one seemed to care.