I OPENED one bleary eye.
The world, or what I could see of it, consisted of a round-backed wooden chair upon which most of my clothing was placed, a dresser that had several drawers open, and a nightstand. On the nightstand sat a small clock on which the big hand was on the five and the little hand was on the nine. This seemed to me to be a silly time to rise, so I rolled over, intending to snooze until the clock had the decency to indicate a more reasonable hour, such as noon or one o’clock.
When I rolled over, my nose collided with something hard. A hand. I wiggled the fingers on both my hands. The hand by my nose remained still. Not mine, then. I shifted some bedsheets and uncovered a face. The face was pretty. A young man with long, curly brown hair.
I couldn’t remember a thing about him.
I thought. I vaguely recalled attending a party thrown by my friend, Caps. Caps, or Jake Winston, if you wanted to believe his birth certificate, was known as Caps because one year, in a rare fit of generosity, his father had bought him a cabin cruiser. The cruiser didn’t last long, as we took it out on spring break and sank the damned thing by running it into a coral reef lurking in a rather ridiculous spot, but we had called him Caps, short for Captain, and the name stuck.
Okay, so, party thrown by Caps. I seemed to remember dancing quite a lot and doing tequila shots with someone. That must have been the brown-haired beauty. I may also have done a sort of striptease on Caps’s kitchen table, but no other clues were coming to me.
I closed my eyes. Maybe after a few more hours of rest, my memory would return. I at least wanted to remember if the sex I presumably had with the curly-haired stranger was fun.
No sooner had I snuggled against my pillow, though, than a cacophony of thumps sounded at the door, making my head jerk up. I immediately regretted the action that made the room spin and made my brain feel like an unhappy giant was squeezing my skull.
“Weasel, are you in there?” came a voice from beyond the door. I knew it must be Caps, but in my state the voice seemed to reverberate and boom like a devil in a bad horror movie.
“No,” I replied, letting my head drop back to the pillow. “Go away.”
Caps, never one of nature’s better listeners, opened the door and popped his head inside the room. He had straight black hair and a rather odd face, all cheekbones and no chin to speak of. Somehow the visage came together in a way that didn’t scare children and small dogs, but we never exactly figured out how. “Weasel,” he said, “your stepmonster’s on the phone.”
I groaned. That didn’t bode well. “Tell him I died.” It wasn’t far from the truth.
Caps brought the rest of his body—or what there was of it—into the room. I’m on the thin side myself, but Caps was so thin that he could double as one of the skeletons they always have hanging around in science classes. “He was pretty insistent.”
“He always is.” I rose slowly, hoping my head wouldn’t roll off my neck onto the floor. It throbbed a bit but stayed attached. I looked over at the beauty lying next to me. He hadn’t stirred. “I think this one’s dead.”
“That’s McCaffrey. He’s a heavy sleeper, especially when he’s had a few.”
McCaffrey. Nope, meant nothing to me. Hoping he’d been fun, I tossed the covers aside and slid out of the bed. Things spun around a bit but eventually came to a stop, and I took in my surroundings. I realized I was still in Caps’s house, a big place off-campus that he shared with a couple of his buddies. I was in the spare bedroom. I was also naked. I looked down. My erection looked back at me. I looked at Caps. “Oops,” I said.
“I’ve seen you naked before, Weasel. Many times. In fact, sometimes when you enter a room and you’ve got clothes on, I ask people to introduce me to the stranger who’s just come in.”
“Funny.” I located my underwear on the chair and put it on. One sock was on the chair. The other was under McCaffrey’s back. We must have disrobed in a hurry. I yanked the sock out from under him and sat on the bed to put them on. “Why didn’t the stepmonster just call my cell phone?”
“He did. You dropped your cell phone into the toilet last night, if you’ll remember. It probably isn’t working at its best right now.”
I had a hazy recollection of fishing my phone out of the bowl and then putting it up to my ear and saying “Can you hear me now?” like that guy in the commercials. It had seemed funny at the time.
I put on my jeans and figured I was clothed enough to face the outside world. I followed Caps downstairs to the kitchen. The phone was on the wall. I picked up the receiver. “Hello?” I said.
“About time you answered, you worthless bag of bones.”
For my stepmonster, that was fairly complimentary.
Let me rewind a few years. My father had been dead for several years, having died in a motorcycle wreck. It wasn’t actually the wreck that killed him, to be precise. He’d been eating a banana while cruising down the road and went into a slide. The slide itself wasn’t of the fatal variety, but he choked on the banana. It was tragic, but in a way fitting. The man really did enjoy his bananas.
Dear old Dad left my mom a pretty sizable hunk of money, and I guess she had trouble spending it all by herself, so she went husband hunting. The crop of husbands must have been thin that season, because she ended up with Jasper K. Dollings, aka Stepmonster.
Dollings not only had money of his own, but he was one of those holier-than-thou types as well. The church he belonged to wasn’t that of Fred Phelps, the notorious minister who went around arranging protests at gay funerals, but it was close. Dollings believed that all gays were on the fast track to Hell and should be either sent to brainwashing centers to be cured or put in camps to separate them from “normal” people. My mother begged me, in order to keep some kind of peace in the family, not to let Dollings know that I practiced the “love that dare not speak its name.” Not easy for a good-looking, marvelously sexy young thing like me, but for Mother’s sake, I keep mum when at home.
I swallowed several pithy and pointed replies and merely said, “And hello to you, too.”
Daddy Dollings ignored my comment. “I need you to come by the office this afternoon. There’s something I have to go over with you.”
I didn’t like the sound of that. The last time he asked me to join him for a confab at his office, he wanted me to work part time for him while still attending college. College itself was taking up too much of my free time. I didn’t want anything resembling work encroaching on my leisure activities and adventures. I consider myself an amateur adventurer. Not an easy thing to be in Rockford, Illinois, but I manage.
“Not sure I can make it,” I told Dollings. “You know, classes and all that.”
“Since when have you ever gone to your classes? Be here at two. And don’t be late. You’ve already put me behind this morning by having to track you down. Why the devil don’t you answer your blasted cell phone? I had to call three or four of your disreputable friends before finding out where you were.”
“My phone sort of took a dive, and water not being on good terms with electronics, it isn’t working so hot right now.”
I heard the stepmonster sigh heavily. “You’re a waste of space. I sincerely hope you grow up soon and stop pretending that you’re still in high school. I blame your father for not raising you with more of an iron hand.”
I bristled at that. My father may have been fatally fond of bananas, but he was a good sort of guy. I said as much.
Dollings scoffed. “He was a wastrel, and you’re a son of a wastrel. All that changes at two, though. See you then.” He rang off without so much as a good-bye or even to ask if the scrape I had on my knee was healing properly. The man had an odd sense of Christian values.
While I’d been chatting with Dollings, Caps had been preparing coffee. Now that it was ready, he poured us each a cup. “What was all that about?” he inquired.
I shrugged. “I’m not sure. I’m supposed to meet the spider in his lair at two o’clock. I’ll find out then, I suppose.”
“He probably wants you to go with him this weekend.”
“Doubtful. The stepmonster likes to spend as little time with me as I do with him. Why? Whatever is going on this weekend?”
“I told you last night.”
“I can’t even remember the guy I woke up with. Anything you said last night can be put into the category of the forgotten.” I sipped my coffee. It was strong and helped me wake up but wasn’t sweet enough for me. I wandered over to the sugar bowl and began heaping in spoonfuls.
Caps shrugged and began to recap. “My great-aunt Charlotte died.”
“Thank you. Anyway, her will is being read this weekend at her monstrosity of a house out near Shannon.”
Understanding began to dawn. Caps’s family and my stepmonster were pretty matey, being in the same business, which was publishing books that no one wanted to read. You know the type. Volumes with titles such as An Exhaustive Treatise on Carpal Tunnel Syndrome and Post-pragmatism in Business. I’d rather read some of my college textbooks than skim over anything published by Dollings Press. Not that I’ve read any of my textbooks, but you get the idea. Now, if they assigned mysteries in class, I’d be aces. I love reading mysteries.
Knowing that many of the Winston clan worked at Dollings Press or were stockholders, I nodded. “The stepmonster thinks that your great-aunt has left him a bundle, and despite the fact that he’s already got plenty of green himself, he wants me to be there when they announce that he’s even richer.”
Caps made a sour face. I’m not sure if it was the coffee or the conversation. “I’ve got to be there myself. It won’t be a fun weekend. The house is out in the middle of nowhere, and there’s nothing to do. I’m glad you’ll be there, though. You can help me out.”
“You need the Weasel moral support as well? Don’t worry, old friend. You’ll have it in spades.”
Shaking his head, Caps said, “Keep your moral support. I couldn’t care less if Charlotte left me a dime. I want you there to build me up in Keith Sutton’s eyes.”
“This, as Sherlock Holmes used to say, is a new development in the case. Who is this Keith Sutton and why the buildup?”
Caps sighed dreamily. “He’s the nurse that stayed with Aunt Charlotte—”
“Great-aunt, you said.”
“I usually just call her Aunt Charlotte. Great-aunt is a mouthful. Besides, as a great-aunt, she wasn’t that great. Anyway, Sutton stayed with Aunt Charlotte during her illness. He’s fantastic. Beautiful. Intelligent. Caring. And gay. But he won’t consider going out with me. He thinks I’m rather dim and frivolous.”
“You are rather dim and frivolous.”
“That’s where you come in,” Caps said, taking no offense at my honest statement. “I need you to point out my good characteristics to him.”
“That’s not going to be easy. I wasn’t aware you had any.”
“Be serious for a moment, Weasel. I’m counting on you. This is the man of my dreams. We were meant to be together. He’s perfect for me. I just need to get him to see that. And whatever you do, don’t steal him.”
I thought this was a low blow, especially since we’d agreed never to bring up the John Adair incident again. Recently, Caps had burst into my room to find me and this Adair guy engaged in some sexual acrobatics. I hadn’t known at the time that Adair was supposed to be dating Caps. It had caused a rift in our friendship that had lasted weeks and we had only recently mended things. I still felt that I hadn’t been at fault, as nowhere on John Adair’s body were found the words “Property of Jake Winston.” And believe me, I looked everywhere.
Not wanting to dwell on the past, I patted my old friend’s shoulder. “Say no more. By the time I’m done with this Sutton, he’ll think you’re a mixture of Mother Theresa, Gandhi, and Lady Gaga. Maybe a bit more Gaga than Gandhi. He’ll be begging you for a date.”
Caps set his coffee mug aside and patted my shoulder too. “I knew I could count on you, Weasel.”
I think, for those of you who may not be in the know, I ought to point out here that my name isn’t actually Weasel. On the birth certificate, the actual reading goes Patrick Carrington Weasley. Yes, Weasley, just like the redheaded brats in the Harry Potter books. My friends tend to go for nicknames, so Weasel was an obvious one for me. My hair, it should be noted, is not red. It’s blond as you can get without actually being white, and pretty thick. If I let it get too long, it curls at the ends, especially around the ears, giving me that Princess Leia side-buns look. Luckily that doesn’t happen too often.
I returned to the spare bedroom to fetch my shoes. McCaffrey was still snoozing away. I made a fair bit of noise putting my shoes on, hoping he’d rouse himself enough that I could thank him for whatever may have happened during the night, but his snores continued undisturbed. I returned to the kitchen, where Caps was pouring himself another cup of coffee.
“You said you’re supposed to meet your stepfather at two?” he asked. “What are you going to do until then? Got any classes today?”
I nodded. “Several.” I looked at the clock on the wall. “Right now I’m supposed to be in History, or ‘Dead People and Dates’, as I like to call it. Then at eleven I’ve got my Folklore class. I might actually go to that. We’re on ghost stories and legends right now. Pretty interesting stuff.”
“You can do some research this weekend, then. My aunt’s place is supposed to be haunted.”
“Really? Some old Winstons hanging around?”
“At least two. There’s supposed to be a Gray Lady who haunts the upstairs bedrooms. Those who have seen her say she looks sickly. All pale and thin.”
“Being a ghost will do that to you.”
“And then there’s Great-granddad Winston. He died in World War Two. Supposedly he’s seen wandering around the place with half his face blown off.”
“Sounds ghastly. Don’t you have any sweet, little-kid ghosts or something like that? I’m not sure I want to bump into spectral sick ladies in gray or soldiers minus half a face.”
“There may be. It’s that type of place. My cousins and I would go there for the Christmas holidays and scare the crap out of each other.” Having finished his second cup, Caps tossed the mug into the sink. “Strange your stepmonster wanting you to come along to this Will Party. It’s a big house, but he’s bound to run into you a lot, and you’re always saying how he hates your guts.”
“What you say is true. However, my mother has been trying to get him to make an effort to get to know me better. This is probably his idea of spending quality time with me.” An idea hit my brain with a jolt, a sign that my foggy head was beginning to clear. “Um… your aunt isn’t going to be there, is she? I mean, like, laid out in a coffin in the living room so we can all have a peep? Corpses kind of creep me out.”
“No, we chucked her in the ground Saturday. There’ll just be me, a bunch of older Winstons, and a few people from Dollings Press, all hoping to be mentioned in the will. And, of course, Keith. I think Charlotte promised him a little reward, so he’ll be there. You won’t forget, will you? About talking me up to him?”
“He’ll grow sick of hearing your good points.”
“Good. Because if you fuck this up, you’ll be joining the Gray Lady and Granddad Winston.”
The threat was delivered in a jocular tone, but I still bristled slightly. “If I’m to be a ghost,” I told Caps, “I’m not haunting your aunt’s gloomy old place. I’d choose someplace livelier, more fun.”
“A gay bar, of course.”