Chapter One

 

FOR ARTHUR Bailey, aka Artie, the evening started in heaven and ended in hell.

The evening was heaven because he’d gotten to see Electric i in concert. He’d scored incredible tickets on KUTE and spent a couple of hours in the third row with his best friend and a bunch of screaming teenaged girls. He even managed to get to the edge of the stage and get his hand touched by Connie “Jax” Jacques, his favorite member of the band.

“I’ll never wash my hand again,” he joked with Ross, his “date,” who laughed and asked him if he needed a rubber glove. He was a CNA—a Certified Nursing Assistant—at St. Luke’s and would have no trouble providing Artie with a lifetime’s supply.

Artie sometimes wished that Ross was more than a friend, but Ross didn’t feel the same way about him. That happened a lot to Artie, or at least it felt that way. He’d go out on a date and quickly realize that the potential boyfriend really wanted nothing more than to screw him. He was twenty-four but looked no more than eighteen at most, and apparently, a lot of men liked that. But then, when pressed about why a roll in the hay was all they seemed to want, they told him that they wanted someone more “manly” for a husband.

“Who wants a boyfriend that’s going to get carded every time we go out and ask for wine with our dinner” was how one succinct and not so subtle ex-potential boyfriend had put it.

The evening was heaven because despite his love life—namely, that he didn’t have one—he had come to see that in Ross’s case, a true friend was better than a boyfriend. Ross was funny, sweet, fun, loyal, thoughtful, and there when needed. Who else would go to an Electric i concert with him?

Electric i was what had become, over the last couple of years, the new and rising boy band, biting at the heels of Justin Bieber. Because of that they were both loved and reviled. There were those who scoffed at their songs, voices, hair, and dance numbers, but the pop group had six hits already—two number ones—and sold albums in the millions.

Ross even helped him pay for a T-shirt, although Artie wasn’t sure when he’d actually wear it. He’d be teased unmercifully by friends and workmates if he did, and who knew what Willie, his stoner roommate, would say.

And finally, there was the heaven of singing Electric i songs with Ross on the way home, even if it was silly. Who else would do that?

 

In the club (all right)

On a Saturday night

Can I dance with you?

Or walkin’ down the street

Let me chase that beat

That you step, step, step to

 

Hey girl, with your eyes so blue

With your hair let down, can I git wich-u?

Can I hold your hand and be your man?

Can I be your boy

Friend?

 

Pure, delightful, soaring, fun heaven.

Heaven ended, though, as soon as Ross parked his second-hand Honda in front of Artie’s apartment building. When he switched off the car, they could both hear the hard rock music—decidedly different music from Electric i’s—blasting down on them from the second floor.

Artie’s shoulders slumped. “Crap,” he said and let out a long sigh.

“I can’t go up there,” Ross said quietly, stating what Artie already knew. Ross and Willie got along like a honey badger and a cobra. It wasn’t even the gay thing, although Willie had stated when Artie moved in with him that “I better not catch you sniffin’ my fucking jockstrap or any weird shit like that.” Artie assured him that wouldn’t happen. He wasn’t attracted to Willie in the least.

Comments like that made Ross dislike Willie. Artie wasn’t sure why Willie disliked Ross so much, though.

“I still can’t figure out why you ever moved in with him,” Ross said, looking up through his windshield at the purple-lit window above them. “You didn’t have the hots for him, did you?”

Artie grimaced. “Good grief, no.” Willie looked like a further-burned-out version of Eminem or Mac Miller. And he was just as slim—aka skinny—as Artie. Artie liked bigger, manlier, sophisticated-looking men. And maybe about four or five years older. Not too much older, not the same age, not younger—i.e., Ross. Just a taste he’d developed as a freshman in high school getting crushes on seniors.

“When are you getting out of there?” Ross said with a groan. “I thought you were saving money so you could move!”

“I am saving,” Artie said. “I’ve got close to three thousand dollars.”

Ross let out a whistle. “Well, Artie! That’s more than enough, even with first and last months’ deposits. Get out of there!”

“I signed a lease,” Artie replied.

“So the hell what? Get out. What’s Willie gonna to do?”

Artie clenched his jaw involuntarily. What would Willie do? Well, he didn’t like to think about it. Willie very well could do something. He knew his roommate had busted up at least one car from one of his buyers who owed him money, and Willie wasn’t even really a dealer. He might be considered one in the eyes of the law, but he only sold pot to maybe a dozen people, and they were never more than one-ounce customers.

Willie was more into it, as he explained it, for the free pot, which was his share of the profits.

“You know,” Ross said, “sometime the cops are going to show up because of his frigging music, and they’re going to smell that weed a block away and bust you all, even though you don’t smoke.”

“Two months,” Artie muttered. “Two months, and I’m out. I’m even starting to look at places.”

“Move in with me,” Ross said. “I could sure use help with the bills since Mitch moved out.” Mitch was Ross’s ex-boyfriend. The two of them fought all the time, so Artie hadn’t been surprised when they broke up. They fought over stupid crap, whereas he and Ross never fought about anything. It was wonderful how well they got along. He’d had one brief moment of hope that maybe Ross would change his mind and consider him as a boyfriend after all, but then he had to wonder if they would start fighting like Ross and Mitch had about stuff that just didn’t matter. He realized that he really would prefer to have Ross as a friend rather than an ex.

“I have a lease,” he told Ross again, “and I don’t want to waste a thousand dollars paying my half of the rent when I don’t even live there.”

Ross sighed and shrugged and said, “Well, there you go, then. I just hope nothing happens between now and then.”

Famous last words, Artie would think later.

“We could go to The Corner Bistro for a couple of drinks,” Artie offered.

Ross pursed his lips, paused, and then shook his head. “Nah. I gotta get some sleep. I have a twelve-hour shift tomorrow. I don’t want to give some poor sap an enema when I’m supposed to be checking his feeding tube.”

Artie laughed even though he wished Ross was willing to hang out a little longer. “Well, I guess this is it, then,” he said and reached for his door handle.

“Artie?”

He turned and, to his surprise, got a little kiss from Ross. He almost gasped and then realized it was nothing more than what gay guys did all the time. It was a “sister” kiss. Nothing more. And then he almost gasped again because, well, whoa! Ross had kissed him and… nothing. Artie felt nothing. He might as well have been kissing his real sister.

In some ways it was a huge relief.

He smiled.

“Good night, Ross.”

“Good night, Artie,” his friend said as Artie got out of the car. He walked to the foyer door, unlocked it, gave Ross a little wave, and went in.

 

 

ARTIE COULD smell pot halfway up the stairs.

He stopped and considered turning around and heading to The Corner Bistro by himself. He could literally hear the echo of Ross’s words in his head: “You know, sometime the cops are going to show up because of his frigging music and they’re going to smell that weed a block away and bust you all, even though you don’t smoke.” But Artie was tired. It had been a long evening, even though he’d had so much fun. One drink would probably be enough to make him drunk, let alone two. And he didn’t drive drunk.

With a sigh, he went up the stairs, the skunk-like marijuana smell getting stronger the closer he got to the door. Crap! And with the music playing that loud, one of these days the police really could show up. Then what would he do? There’s no way the cops would believe he wasn’t a part of it. Except maybe after a piss test—which would of course be clean—but it would still be an awful mess to go through.

He slipped his key in the lock and opened his mouth to say, “Can you please turn it down?” But when he stepped through the door, the words froze in his mouth. Not only was he almost knocked over by the smell and the volume, but he beheld something that at first his mind couldn’t even absorb. Sitting in the purple glow of a couple of black-light bulbs were Willie, his chubby pot-buddy, Jorge, and two girls Artie didn’t know—big surprise when it came to Willie—who were all passing a bong. But the thing that shocked Artie speechless was what was piled up on the coffee table.

Was that…?

Holy crap! Pot?

A whole lot of it!

He quickly closed the door, locked, and dead-bolted it before walking zombie-like to the center of the room.

“Hey, dude,” Willie all but shouted to be heard over the blasting music.

Artie looked down, and whoa, yes, there looked to be a small mountain of sandwich-bag-sized packages of marijuana on the coffee table. That or oregano, and somehow Artie didn’t think that was it.

“Shut the front door,” he said, although he doubted anyone heard him over the blasting lyrics that seemed to be composed almost entirely of the word “fuck” and a repeated phrase imploring someone to “burn it down.” Artie wasn’t sure. It was hard to understand.

He looked at his roommate, who was taking an insanely protracted hit on the foot-long bong, and wondered, What are they thinking? If the police came now, they’d all be in for it.

“Willie,” he cried. “What the heck?” He pointed at the not-oregano.

Willie waved away Artie’s comment as if it were nothing and passed the bong to the girl next to him. “Relax, dude.”

“Relax?” Artie almost shouted, then got ahold of himself. “Relax? Willie! Look how much you’ve got here. If the cops come….”

Relax. Ain’t no cops showin’ up tonight.”

“But….”

“No, dude, take it easy.” Willie stood up, walked around the coffee table, and put a hand on Artie’s shoulder. “Come here,” he said and guided Artie to their little kitchen. “Have a beer, man. And a brownie.”

Brownie?

Artie lit up. He loved brownies more than anything on earth, and these even had icing. Imagine. Willie taking time to put icing on anything instead of just suggesting people use it like dip.

“I put the icing on” came a slurred voice.

Artie glanced up to see one of the girls standing behind Willie, head on his shoulder. She was so stoned she looked like she might melt, but she’d solved the icing mystery.

“Thanks,” he said and took one of the bigger brownies and gobbled it down so fast it took him a moment to realize they tasted like… “This tastes like alfalfa.”

“No,” Willie replied. “Like weed.”

“Weed?” The shock sent his eyelids up. “Pot?”

“Sure, dude, what’d you think?”

“I didn’t think marijuana!”

Gosh!

“How much did you put in these?” he exclaimed.

Willie shrugged and gave him a grin. “I threw in most of a bag.”

“I told him he didn’t need near that much,” said the girl with her head on Willie’s shoulder.

Gosh gosh gosh! He hadn’t smoked pot but once in his entire life, when he was eighteen and at a graduation party he’d been astonished he’d been invited to. He wasn’t one of the more popular kids, outside of drama club. He hadn’t liked getting high. Didn’t like the cotton-headed floatiness, the feeling of not being in control. It had been five or six years, and now it was going to happen again.

The only reason he didn’t panic was that at least he was at home. None of the confusion of being at a stranger’s packed-to-the-rafters house. No worries about driving. If only I had gone to The Corner Bistro, maybe I could have avoided this. He looked at Willie and shook his head.

“What, dude?” Willie asked.

Dude. Geez, he hated that word.

“I’m going to bed, Willie….”

“And waste your high?” Eyes wide and unbelieving.

“Yes. And can you do me an effin’ favor?” It was all he could do not to scream.

The girl turned around and swayed back into the purple haze of the living room.

“What?” Willie asked.

“Can you turn the music down some? Please. And for Pete’s sake, put a rolled-up towel against the bottom of the door. You can smell the pot halfway downstairs.”

“Okay!” Willie raised his hands. “No problema! Geez.”

It was then that Artie felt his head detach and try to float away.

Whoa. Oh, wow. Already?

Somehow, he got to his room and closed the door. He half undressed, turned off the light, and climbed into bed. Thankfully, he fell almost instantly asleep.

Which made it all the more shocking and wonky unsettling when some unknown time later, his bedroom lights blazed on, and he looked up through shielded hands at a female police officer.

“Excuse me, sir. I need you to get up and get dressed. You’re under arrest.”

 

 

FOR ARTIE, the evening had started in heaven. A good meal at a favorite restaurant with a good friend followed by his guilty-pleasure favorite band in concert. But then it turned to hell when he came home to blasting music and a pot-filled apartment, accidentally got stoned, and was arrested and taken to jail.

Jail?

Him. Artie Bailey. Arrested!

He who wouldn’t normally so much as jaywalk.

It had all been so confusing, especially since he was so stoned he kept seeing—out of the corners of his eyes—little critters that looked an awful lot like Animal from The Muppet Show running around the floor.

Yes. Arrested.

And since it was late, he had to spend the night in a cell. There was no way to get set for bail. Not when the judges were all home in bed asleep. Which is where—if he had 25 percent of their brains—he would be.

So he was taken to a big scary-looking cell occupied by about five or six other men. Had to be helped there because he could barely walk. Apparently, there had been an unusual number of arrests that night.

He’d never been so scared in his life.

The only thing keeping him from losing it completely was the brownie. Whoa, he was stoned.

Jail was just like on TV. Bars. Little benches. Tough-looking men staring at him. He could only wonder when the trouble would start. Would he be their “bitch” before long? There was already a big Mexican-looking guy with a black eye watching him, clutching his ample crotch, and mouthing something Artie couldn’t understand. Either because of the pot or because the words were in Spanish. It was all Artie could do not to cry. But somehow, even through the haze, he figured it might be just what they were waiting for.

A big, muscle-bound black man sat next to him on the tiny bench. Artie stiffened, all but terrified. What do you want?

“Don’t worry about him,” the man said.

“Huh?” Artie replied, voice cracking.

The man nodded toward the Mexican. “Him. He ain’t gonna bother you none. Not with me sittin’ here next to you.”

Artie looked up into the man’s face. He was huge. A mountain. Rough-looking. But…. But there was something in his eyes. Something that made Artie’s pounding heart settle down a little bit.

“Who… who are you?” Artie found the voice to ask.

“I’m the motherfucker that blacked Wetback’s eye.”

Arties almost laughed. Luckily, he somehow managed not to. Who knew what would happen if he did that?

“I’m Demaine,” his benchmate said and held out his hand.

Artie held out his own and watched as it vanished inside the bigger man’s.

“I’ll take care of you.”

But what am I going to have to do for you?

Demaine tilted his head, shook it, sighed. “I don’t want nothin’. I’m just watchin’ out for a brother.”

“Brother?” Artie squeaked. “Me?”

Demaine nodded. Leaned in and quietly said, “I’m gay too.”

Artie’s mouth fell open.

Demaine nodded.

“You?”

Another nod. “Yeah. But don’t worry none. You ain’t my type. Too little. And I like a black man.”

“Oh,” Artie said and hoped it didn’t sound like a question.

Artie glanced around and saw that the Mexican wasn’t even glancing in his direction anymore. He breathed a sigh of relief.

“What you in for, little man?” Demaine asked.

Artie looked up again and tried to decide how to answer. After a long pause, he told Demaine everything.

“That sucks,” Demaine said.

“Tell me about it.”

“Your roommate in here? Make sure he tells ’em you weren’t no part of it.”

Artie shook his head. “I don’t know where he is.”

“Too bad,” Demaine said.

Then, after arguing with himself while trying to decide what to do—the pot wasn’t helping—he asked, “What are you in here for?”

Without blinking, Demaine said, “Armed robbery. I shot two people.”

Artie’s eyes flew wide. Oh gosh. Gosh gosh gosh!

Demaine shook his head. “Just fuckin’ with you, man. Jesus.”

Artie blushed. I’m an asshole.

“What do you think will happen to me?”

The big guy shrugged. “Hard to tell. You said you ain’t been in no trouble before?”

Artie shook his head.

“That’s good. And you don’t smoke no weed?”

Artie shook his head again.

“But you did eat that brownie, which sucks for you. They won’t know no different in a piss test.”

Artie jerked upright and got dizzy for his trouble. Felt like crying again. “Crap,” he whispered. “Not fair.”

“Not a lot in life is fair,” Demaine said. “I’ll tell you what, though. Tomorrow—”

Tomorrow he was spending the night in jail!

“—I’ll give you the phone number for a couple of guys I know. Bail guys. They’ll get you out. Won’t be cheap, but they’re pretty cool guys.”

“Won’t be cheap?” Artie managed.

Demaine shook his head. “Nope. That shit you talked about—that much herb? You’re lookin’ at two to three grand.”

Artie felt his face drain of color and was hit with another wave of dizziness. Grand. Thousand. Two or three thousand.

“Can you get your hands on that much bank?”

Artie remembered the three thousand he had saved. The money he’d saved to move away from the roommate who got him into this trouble in the first place. But he had to get out of here. He sighed. Nodded. “I have right around that much.”

“Good. You call those guys. They’re down by law. They’ll even help you find a lawyer.”

Artie gulped. Nodded. And thanked Whoever for Demaine being here to help him.

“Thanks,” he said.

“No prob, man.”

Artie slumped and stared and then, unbelievably, began to nod off. His head drifted over to Demaine’s deltoid, and then he jerked upright. “Sorry.”

Demaine chuckled. “No worries. You go ahead and sleep if you can. My shoulders are big enough.”

And then, he had no idea when, it happened. He did just that.