Money can’t buy happiness. Jacob Nussbaum knows this better than anyone. He's a corporate lawyer deep inside a huge New York firm, where he works overtime, sacrifices any chance at a personal life, and has been selling his soul for years. With a secretary as his only friend, he trudges on, until his whole world is blown apart by a manila envelope of photos—evidence that one of the firm’s partners is the dirtiest lawyer in one hell of a filthy business.
In search of the truth, Jacob travels to a small northern Wisconsin fishing resort. There he meets Ben Anderson, a brutally lonely man, who knocks him off his feet. Ben prompts Jacob to reevaluate his life. He’s a dozen years older than Jacob, still recovering from the death of his long time love, and doesn’t want to leave anyone a widower. But a jaded New Yorker on a soul-searching mission might be just the man to convince the grieving Ben that it's never too late to begin again.
THE SUBWAY station stank of piss and echoed with the cacophonous clatter of hundreds of pairs of shoes pounding down the stairs and across the concrete platform. The train pulled in with a screech of brakes and a blast of hot air, and Jacob braced himself for the sweaty press of bodies that colored his morning commute. The subway was too hot in the summer and cold in the winter, not to mention smelly and uncomfortable all year around, but it ferried him efficiently from his apartment to work. And he enjoyed the walk to the station from his apartment and from the station to his office. It helped him think.
Clutching his briefcase like a football, he pushed onto the train along with the other Long Island City residents on their way to jobs in Manhattan or beyond. The commute was an opportunity to escape the rarefied atmosphere of corporate law and mix with real people who were just worried about getting from one day to the next. From down the car, another man caught his eye and held it—an assessment, a question, an invitation. There’d been a time—through his twenties and into his early thirties—when the mahogany perfection of the man’s skin or the flex of his biceps or arch of an eyebrow would have been enough. But at thirty-six, Jacob was too old for the hollow joys of casual sex and knew better than to imagine a real relationship could survive the rigors of his eighty-plus-hour-per-week job. He broke eye contact. Some men were meant to be alone. Much as he wished it weren’t true, he’d become one of them.
Fifteen minutes later the train stopped, and within minutes Jacob was trotting up the steps and emerging into the full-on, oven-like heat of the city in July. In the street, cars inched by bumper to bumper. He inhaled gas fumes, food truck grease, coffee, and sweat. Eau de Manhattan morning. As usual Jacob had stayed up too late working and was exhausted, but he took a deep breath and joined the throng of well-dressed men and women on their way to work.
Walking into the building lobby was like moving from the frying pan to the freezer. New York might drown when the polar ice caps melted, but temperature control in the buildings would still be extreme. Maybe they’d all boat to work. Jacob smiled to himself. Years before, he’d let a friend talk him into taking a rowing class up on the Harlem River. He’d joked at the time that he didn’t need the class. As an associate at the firm, he already knew how to be a galley slave. But it had been great exercise. That wouldn’t be a bad way to get to work after all.
He wedged himself into a crowded elevator and pushed the button for the twenty-fifth floor. Tired and lonely, not exactly the life he’d envisioned back in law school, when he’d been working his ass off to graduate near the top of his class and land a job at a prestigious firm. It didn’t get a lot more prestigious than Jacob’s firm. Representing some of the most powerful corporations in the world, they took up two of the building’s thirty-five stories. Expensive real estate, and they billed accordingly. Jacob was a partner. A real success story, even though he sometimes had to tune out the little voice in his head whispering that more often than not his clients didn’t deserve to win.
He stopped by the executive bathroom to wash the subway dust off his hands and give his suit a quick brush. For what they were paying, clients expected to see him beautifully groomed, right down to his manicured fingernails. Relatively tall and powerfully built, Jacob nicely filled out his tailor-made Italian suit. With his sharp nose and dark deep-set eyes, he was too ethnic looking to be considered handsome by their WASPish clientele. Instead he’d cultivated a look that was a little haughty, a little brooding, a lot overworked.
Seong, Jacob’s personal assistant, was already at her desk. She looked up as soon as Jacob rounded the hallway corner. Round faced and just over five feet tall, she looked too young to be working in a high-powered office. That was an illusion. Over thirty and the mother of four, she was smart, organized, and funny. And about as close to a friend as Jacob had. She held out a steaming mug of coffee.
“Thank you.” He took the mug gratefully. “I could use this.”
“You’re welcome.” She followed him into his office carrying a manila folder. “This came by messenger.” Her words carried the slightest of accents from her early years in Yangyang, South Korea.
He took the package. “How’s your mother? Still in the hospital?”
She shrugged. “She’s the same.”
“You know, you can always get someone to cover for you here if you want to take some time off.”
“Who else would put up with you?” She shook her head. “Actually, they’d fight me for it. There’s a rumor you’re one of the good ones.”
“Just goes to show how wrong people can be.”
“A good chunk of the clerical pool would love to—” She paused, a little smile playing at the edges of her mouth. “—date you.”
Jacob smiled up at her. “What a disappointment they’d be in for when they find out that I’m gay.”
“That wouldn’t be a surprise to them if you ever brought someone to a company function.” She was almost to the door when she turned back. “And they wouldn’t all find that disappointing. This isn’t the 1950s. We have male clerical workers now. Just like we have—” She paused, a big wide-eyed, innocent expression on her face. “—female lawyers. Imagine that.”
Jacob was still laughing as the door closed behind her. He picked up the manila envelope. No return address, just his name and the address of the law firm hand printed on the front. The package was thick, heavy. He opened the envelope and let the contents slide onto his desk.
Photographs. It took a moment for him to identify what he was seeing, but the green, brown, black, and white of the images slowly resolved into animal carcasses lying in grass and mud. Cows. Hundreds of them, strewn across a field like so many fallen trees. Jacob stared at the gruesome image on his desk.
He turned the photo over. Lowndes County, Alabama 2010 was penciled on the back. At the words, Jacob’s stomach twisted. He knew exactly what he was seeing—the alleged spill at the chemical plant. He’d been the senior associate on that case. It was the last thing he’d worked on before making partner. The whole thing had left a bad taste in his mouth. Their client, a multinational corporation, had settled with local residents for less than half what the corporation had spent on the publicists who helped them spin and bury the news. Or on the lawyers.
Jacob carefully placed the photo aside. Beneath it were photos of worn-down old farmhouses, shuttered businesses, an area in decline. Jacob knew all about local unemployment and the desolate economy. The chemical company had banked on that with the low-ball offers they’d authorized Jacob to use to start the negotiations. But even they’d been surprised when the farmers agreed to that first bid. That they hadn’t come back with another proposal should have been grounds for a malpractice suit against their lawyer.
The next photo stopped him cold. A child lay in a hospital bed. Her face was obscured by a mass of tubes, but Jacob immediately recognized who she must be—Lillian Warren, twelve years old. The firm had found experts who gave affidavits assuring the court that her liver failure could not be definitively connected with the spill. Lillian Warren—just a name in an affidavit. He’d never seen a picture, hadn’t connected the name with an actual child. Now, looking at her little body swamped by medical equipment, Jacob was surprised by a wave of shame. The settlement probably hadn’t even covered her medical expenses. Where was she now?
Lillian’s image hung in front of his face even after he laid the stack of photos down on his desk and swiveled to stare out the window. Manhattan gleamed in the sunlight, but the million-dollar view only made his stomach churn. He felt nauseous. The beauty of being a negotiator was that he never encountered the victims. He’d always told himself that allowed him to stay objective. Or live in denial.
He took a deep breath and spun back to face the rest of the photos. Like lancing a boil, he needed to get through this as quickly as he could. He could think about what it all meant later. He turned over the photo of Lillian and focused on the next picture. To his relief, the scene was completely different, the garage under this very building. The image was grainy and dark, as if it had been shot from a distance and blown up. To one side of the picture was a black car. On the other side, a figure with his back to the camera was just coming into view. Jacob glanced at the next photo in the stack. The figure had moved a few feet. And in the next, a few more. It was like a flip-book, where each image pushed the story forward another frame. But what story? And how did it relate to the Lowndes spill? He doubted he wanted to know the answer to that, but he flipped to the next photo anyway.
The figure climbed into the backseat of the black car. The camera zoomed in on the car’s license plate, then back out on the stationary car. Then in the next picture, the man climbed back out of the car and frame by frame, came into focus as he moved closer to the camera. With a jolt, Jacob recognized the Chicago attorney, Carl Halverson, who had represented the Alabama farmers.
Halverson disappeared out of the frame, and the camera once more zoomed in on the car’s license plate. Jacob paused before turning over that photo. If a crime had been committed, not knowing was his best defense. He should sweep it all back into the envelope and shred the lot. Whatever had happened, the damage was done. Nothing could rescue Lillian or bring those animals back to life. He glanced at the stack of photos. Lillian’s liver failure made her a canary in the coalmine of environmental degradation left by the chemical spill. Dead animals probably meant contaminated groundwater. Cancers would be showing up soon enough. And the farmers had signed away their rights to sue if it did.
Jacob pushed the license plate photo aside and saw Marvin Voss—the lead counsel on that case, his boss at the time, a senior partner—climb out of the back of his goddamn town car and saunter, picture by picture, toward the camera and presumably back to work.
Jacob swept up the stacks of photographs and slid them back into the manila envelope. The photo of Lillian had hit him hard. Somehow it made real people out of the names of all the victims he’d helped his corporate clients screw. The tiny bit of pro bono work he did suddenly seemed like a pathetic and inadequate way to balance the scales. And the scene with Marvin Voss? It was surreal. Sure, the firm had a reputation for playing hardball. But bribery? That was hard to believe.
Jacob walked the envelope over to the wall safe. Forget the security checks downstairs. This was the most incendiary material in the building. Even a whisper that someone in the firm had engaged in the taking or making of bribes would do serious damage to the firm’s reputation. Of course, the photos weren’t absolute proof. Maybe the two had been pursuing a delicate negotiation or even having an affair, but Jacob doubted it. The whole thing stunk. And he had absolutely no idea what he was going to do about it.
AUGUST THIRD. Again. Ben poured himself a large shot of scotch.
He stared out the cabin window at the rain pounding the lake. Manny had loved summer up here. He’d even liked the rain. Ben pictured him running down to the dock, naked that first year and after that, when they’d had paying company, in ridiculously gaudy swim trunks, running straight across the dock and leaping in, laughing the whole time as rain pelted his shoulders and drenched his hair.
Ben wiped at his eyes. Shit, he hated this. Their last year had sucked bear balls, but at least he’d still had Manny. Now two years after his world ended, it was just Ben in this old cabin that smelled like the Northwoods and happier days. He turned to the urn on the mantle and toasted. “Happy birthday, baby.”
Jesus. Could he be more pathetic? Ben downed the whiskey and poured another. What he should be doing right now was heading to the lodge to help Miriam with the lunch service. But he didn’t want to face all those cheerful vacationing faces. Couldn’t even face Miriam, although if anyone would understand how the day made him feel, it’d be her. She’d be going through her own form of hell right about now.
What he wanted to do was crawl into bed and sleep the day away. No, what he really wanted to do was to crawl into Manny’s closet, like he had so many times those first few weeks, and bury his nose in the clothes, inhaling the still-alive scent of Manny. But he wouldn’t. Not today. The clothes were still there, but the scent had faded, overtaken by pine and woodsmoke and cedar. Trying to capture the fleeting scent of Manny would only depress him more. Miriam was right. He should get rid of the clothes, give away the shoes, and scatter Manny’s damned ashes.
But not today. Today he wanted to drink himself to sleep in the privacy of their living room and hope he’d somehow die in his sleep. Or at least forget.
He stared at the urn on the mantle. Biodegradable. It was supposed to take days to dissolve in water and a few months to disintegrate in the earth. How long would it last on a shelf? Manny had wanted his ashes to merge into the ecosystem of Wildcat Lake. He’d hate how maudlin Ben was making the day. Well, fuck him. It was his own fault for dying and leaving Ben alone. Happy fucking sixty-seventh, Manny. He was supposed to live forever, not die the year he should have been retiring and living the dream.
The cabin was a refuge—always had been. Two small bedrooms, a kitchen/living room, it was half the size of their Chicago apartment but had been their safe place. Even in the end, when Manny wasn’t strong enough to leave the city, the lake was all he could talk about. Looking back, Ben wished he’d yanked Manny out of that hospital bed and dragged his ass up here to die. But back then he’d been clinging to an insane hope that doctors were magicians.
Tucked into a cluster of trees at the end of the main path, this was one of two winterized cabins, the other being Miriam’s at the far end of camp. Most of their business occurred from Memorial to Labor Day, with a few hunters in the fall and a handful of skiers braving the winter months. Miriam went south every winter, so between her cabin and the two guest rooms in the lodge itself, they could accommodate the few cold-weather travelers who visited the island off-season. Back before Manny died, the winter travelers were on their own up here. A caretaker from Boulder Junction had helped them get to the island, given them the keys to the cabins and lodge, and left them to fend for themselves in the icy weather. Manny would take a week off work to open up the camp in the spring, and then Ben would take over for the summer once school was out, with Manny showing up every weekend with a huge grin on his face.
Then, during the dark time, Miriam had taken over, and they’d only made it up a few times, once in the dead of winter because Manny had always wanted to see the place covered in snow.
Now Ben lived here year round. He’d quit his job when Manny got sick, and after Manny died, he couldn’t face the thought of teaching chemical equations to bored high schoolers. He’d sold the place in Chicago and moved up permanently, like they’d always planned. Miriam accused him of hiding away, and she was probably right.
Ben gulped down the rest of his shot and filled up again. Happy fucking birthday. He downed the shot, shaking his head as the alcohol burned his throat. Then he set down the glass, capped the scotch, and squared his shoulders. What he wanted didn’t matter, not anymore. He reached for his rain slicker and slipped it on. Time to help Miriam with goddamn fucking lunch. He opened the cabin door and stepped out into the drenching rain.
Whistle Blower by Dev Bentham is a sweet and sultry novel of healing for widower Ben Anderson. Still grieving the death of his longtime partner of twenty-five years when he meets Jacob Nussbaum, Ben gradually comes to terms with his loss but is he ready to commit to another relationship?
In his mid-thirties, Jacob has sacrificed his personal life to achieve professional success and despite making partner, he still continues to work long hours. After receiving an envelope from an anonymous source containing damning evidence against senior partner Marvin Voss, Jacob suffers a crisis of conscience over his chosen profession. As a corporate lawyer who helps major corporations settle disputes to their advantage, he has always maintained a degree of separation from the victims in the law suits. However, after viewing the photos from the chemical spill case he worked on with Voss, Jacob decides that no matter the cost to his career, he has no choice but to find proof that Voss is guilty of ethical misconduct.
The first step in Jacob’s investigation is to track down opposing lawyer Carl Halverson at a remote Wildcat Island Resort in northern Wisconsin. Upon his arrival, he discovers that Carl has changed his arrival date but Jacob decides to take advantage of his time off. Although completely out of his element, he relaxes for the first time in years and he enjoys spending time in Ben’s company and learning to row a scull. At the same time, Jacob continues to re-evaluate his life but he remains uncertain about his plans for his future and the situation with Voss.
After Manny’s death, Ben moved to Wisconsin and began operating the lodge year round. Although he has been gone for two years, Ben cannot bring himself to clear out Manny’s clothes or spread his ashes. Despite indulging in a couple of meaningless one night stands in the intervening years, Ben is nowhere near ready for another relationship which is why his attraction to Jacob catches him completely off guard. He genuinely likes the younger man and while he is willing to agree to a no strings fling, Ben is unprepared for his growing feelings for Jacob.
Ben and Jacob’s relationship begins with friendship and gradually turns to sexual once they decide to act on their mutual attraction. Their encounters are deliciously steamy and both men are surprised by their emotional connection. When it is time for Jacob to return to New York, their parting is a little bittersweet and they begin corresponding by e-mail. Jacob returns to Wisconsin to meet face to face with Carl and while waiting for his arrival, he resumes his fling with Ben. Both men realize their feelings run deeper than desire, but Ben refuses to take their relationship to the next level in an effort to protect Jacob from future heartache. Another trip provides Jacob vital information about Voss and unexpectedly leads to disagreement with Ben that completely derails their burgeoning romance.
Whistle Blower is a beautifully written romance that is remarkably free from unnecessary drama or angst. Ben and Jacob are well-rounded protagonists who are flawed yet immensely appealing. The resort setting is quite unique and Dev Bentham brings the remote island and its surroundings vibrantly to life. With its distinctive storyline and charming cast of characters, Whistle Blower is a realistic and engaging love story that I thoroughly enjoyed and highly recommend to fans of the genre.
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