WYETH BECKER peeled his nose off the computer screen and faced a lady of indeterminate age and questionable fashion skills. She wore flowered pajamas under a pink overcoat and had bright red galoshes on her feet. It was ninety degrees and sunny outside. Her blue-and-pink hair lay severely bobby-pinned in tight little pin curls beneath a clear plastic shower cap. The top of her head looked like a bowl of Froot Loops covered with Saran wrap.
Wyeth blinked. “May I help you, ma’am?”
“François Rabelais. Where is he?”
“Entombed in Paris, I’m afraid.”
“Oh, he’s dead, then.”
“Well, he preferred to call death the Great Perhaps.”
“But his books. Where can I find his books? I hear he tells a bawdy tale.”
Wyeth finally smiled. He loved readers. Even the weird ones. “He does indeed. You’ll find him in the Renaissance section, second floor, east end of aisle three just past the water fountain.”
“Thank you.” The woman hesitated for a moment while scratching her head, which made the plastic shower cap crinkle loudly, drawing everyone’s attention within a thirty-foot radius. “I say, are you sure he’s dead?”
“He’s been encased in marble for five hundred years. If he wasn’t dead when he went in, he most certainly is now.”
“Poor man. I suppose you’re right.”
“Well, thank you, honey.”
“You’re quite welcome, ma’am.”
Wyeth was still smiling when the old lady shuffled off across the library floor, her oversized galoshes flapping, the little metal buckles tinkling merrily, craning her neck left and right looking for the stairs. He noticed one of her pin curls had sprung loose at the back of her head and leaked out of the shower cap. It spiraled down across her back, bouncing around like one of those trick snakes that fly out of a can when you open it.
Wyeth gave his head a teeny shake of wonder and reapplied his nose to the computer screen.
He was in the process of inventorying self-helps and how-tos. The San Diego Public Library had recently moved into new quarters—a gorgeous rotunda with a courtyard cafe, a vast auditorium, a gymnasium-sized reading room, a charter high school tucked safely on the premises, and over one million books available for public consumption. At least 999,000 of those books were how-tos, or so it seemed. Wyeth had never been so bored in his life. For a librarian, that’s saying a lot.
He checked his wristwatch for the hundredth time that morning and finally breathed a sigh of relief when he saw that both the hour and minute hands had finally crawled their way up to twelve and bumped heads. Thank God. Wyeth logged off the computer, saving his data first, and then struck out across the library floor toward the employees’ lounge in the back. There he opened his locker, removed his tie and dress shirt, and hung them neatly inside. After donning a dry-wiking T-shirt and spreading a layer of sun block over his freckled arms, neck, and face, he toed his way out of his dress shoes and slipped his feet into a pair of Asics walking shoes, taking extra precautions to lace them neatly and securely. He pulled a copy of the latest Dan Brown thriller off the little shelf above his head, stuffed an energy bar in his back pocket, reclosed the locker door, and carefully twirled the combination lock that secured his belongings inside. Waving shyly to the handful of coworkers sipping coffee and gossiping in the employees’ lounge, he headed out the back door and into the scorching San Diego heat. By the time he stood outside, he was already engrossed in the book.
Not really watching where he was going—he did, after all, walk these streets every single day of his life—he took a left at the next corner and, still reading, strode a few blocks farther on. Ducking into the air-conditioned lobby of a four-story apartment building at the corner of Ninth and Island, he finally closed the book while waiting for the elevator to take him up to his third-floor apartment.
From the other side of the door marked 3C came a scratching and clamoring, and when Wyeth unlocked the door, out sprang Chaucer, his black-and-white, wiry-haired mutt. Wyeth called him his mutt because that’s what he was. A mutt, rescued from the Humane Society two years prior. It was without a doubt the best thing Wyeth had ever done for himself—or the dog. It had been love at first sight when they spotted each other through the chain-link fence in the Society’s display room, and their love had only grown during the time they had spent together since. While Wyeth had been unable to teach Chaucer a single trick—not one—neither dog nor man minded much. Everybody can’t be a genius. And to prove it, right now Chaucer was dancing around Wyeth’s feet with his leash in his mouth, tangling the leash around all six of their ankles, hobbling them both. Neither dog nor man minded that much either, since Chaucer did the same thing almost every single day.
Since Chaucer knew the lunchtime drill as well as his master did, he occupied his time licking Wyeth’s face while Wyeth knelt down to free the tangled leash from around their ankles. Eventually Wyeth managed to clip the leash to Chaucer’s collar, where it belonged. Without further ado, he relocked his apartment door and hustled back to the still-open elevator, this time with Chaucer romping happily at his side. A moment later, they threw themselves through the apartment building’s front door and flung themselves onto the street outside. When the air hit them, it was so hot it was like opening the oven door to check on a Thanksgiving turkey.
Trying to ignore the heat, both man and dog, knowing they were free, at least for an hour, took off with eager strides, heading for the bayfront less than half a mile away. As they strolled side by side, Wyeth kept his nose in his book while Chaucer sniffed excitedly at every human leg, dog’s ass, parking meter, and mysterious pile of disgusting crap he could find along the way.
At intervals, Wyeth took his nose out of the book long enough to dodge a speeding city bus or avoid being flattened by a marauding garbage truck. He also caught occasional glimpses of himself in passing storefront windows. What he saw neither pleased or displeased him. He was who he was. A somber, twenty-nine-year-old, red-haired librarian, slight of frame, pale-skinned, lightly freckled, with good teeth and blue eyes. Those eyes were only partially hidden by the black-framed glasses he had been wearing since his freshman year in high school. His ears were small and nicely tucked in, and his arms and the back of his hands were brushed with blond hair. His red locks were, at the moment, in dire need of a cut and waving all over his head in the breeze coming in off the bay. Wyeth’s waist was a twenty-nine-incher and he wore size nine shoes.
He was also gay. Not that it made much of a difference in his life, for Wyeth was also a loner. He enjoyed his books, his dog, the library where he worked, and silence. In truth, what librarian doesn’t like silence?
While it was true that Wyeth was a little shy, or perhaps reserved is a better word, it should never be assumed he hadn’t partaken of a few affairs of the heart in his day. Well, not affairs of the heart, perhaps, but most certainly affairs of the flesh. He did, after all, enjoy sex as much as the next man. It’s just that he probably didn’t partake of it as often as the next man, in which his shy, quiet, reserved lifestyle most certainly played a part. After all, it’s not like he was ugly or anything. Just quiet. He wasn’t born without a slut gene exactly, and it certainly wasn’t recessive. He just didn’t drag it out and put it to work as often as some.
At the time of our story, Wyeth had been without a love—or even a sex—interest for three or four months, thanks to the last man he had grown close to having turned out to be a real dick—and not in the good sense of the word. The truth was, the man had broken Wyeth’s heart, or if not broken it, at least bent it into new and painful shapes. The last thing Wyeth wanted was to go through that again. Not for a while anyway. No, his heart and libido were on hiatus, and he intended to keep them that way for a while.
This was not the first hiatus Wyeth had inflicted upon himself. It was, however, the first time he had noticed a crusty shell growing around himself while he was on one. He was not as kind as he used to be, he noticed now and then, and that troubled him a bit. But still, one has to protect oneself. If withdrawing into oneself like a turtle was the only way to accomplish that, then so be it. He would worry about turning into a cranky old man later. For the moment, he just didn’t want to be hurt anymore, and not letting anyone in was the easiest way to make that happen.
So he focused on his work, his dog, his little apartment. He stayed detached from the world around him. And one day he would maybe rejoin the human race. But to paraphrase Viggo Mortensen, the hunky Aragorn in Lord of the Rings, “it would not be this day.”
Or so Wyeth thought.
He stopped at the last traffic light before crossing the busy intersection into Seaport Village, a cobblestoned hive of touristy high-end shops and restaurants with a beautiful antique carousel twirling out front. Seaport Village was perched on the very brink of the San Diego Bay and being situated directly on the water, was Wyeth’s best shot at catching a cool breeze on this humid summer day.
While he waited for the light to change, Chaucer humped Wyeth’s leg. Chaucer’s slut gene wasn’t recessive either.
The light finally flipped from red to green, and man and dog set off in search of a shady spot by the water’s edge where they could watch the ships thrum in and out of the harbor. There, Wyeth could enjoy his power bar and maybe read a little more, and Chaucer could exercise his humping skills on any passing dog who might be similarly inclined. They found an empty bench beneath a flowing pepper tree in front of a tiny fake lagoon with ducks and koi swimming around.
Together Wyeth and Chaucer settled in to while away their lunch hour in peace and seclusion, just the way they liked it.
Neither man nor dog had the vaguest notion their lives were about to change. But then we never really do, do we?
DARRYL ZACHARY Long, or Deeze as he preferred to be called, raced past the top-hatted doorman in front of the US Grant Hotel on Broadway and Fourth. He smiled to himself when he saw the doorman stare at him as if he couldn’t believe anyone would be dumb enough to run in this heat unless he had snatched a purse or something. Clearly, for the doorman, even his own top hat was a trial to put up with on a day such as this, since beads of sweat were rolling down either side of the poor man’s face, and he had that bug-eyed look of numbed surprise a lobster gets when it’s tossed into a pan of boiling water.
Deeze pitied the poor doorman immensely, standing there with his pot belly and clearly sedentary lifestyle, a pack of cigarettes peeking out of his vest pocket and his arteries probably clogged up from a poor diet and little exercise. Deeze was tempted, in fact, to tell the unfortunate doorman to pull that silly hat off his head and run around the block a couple of times, but of course he didn’t. Even Deeze knew that nobody hates an exercise fanatic more than the guy who sits on his ass all day eating Cheetos.
What Deeze also knew, and so many others didn’t, was that running, even in ninety-degree heat, produced a refreshing breeze flowing over your body. Not only that, but running on a hot day also produced sweat, and sweat cooled the skin. The faster he ran, the harder the wind whipped past, the more he perspired, and the cooler he got. Elementary, really. Until, of course, one keeled over from a heat stroke. A good runner simply has to know when to pull the plug before the heat stroke kicks in.
The echoing clap of his running shoes smacking the sidewalk and ricocheting off the surrounding high-rises was a familiar sound to Deeze. He lived downtown, after all. This was where he did most of his running. He knew every curb, every loose sewer grate, every uneven sidewalk, and every pothole that could trip up a runner. He even knew which traffic lights to avoid, since some were so much longer than others. Nothing is worse than being really in the groove—every muscle finely tuned and perfectly calibrated for forward momentum, the synapses firing, the body exquisitely limber, the lungs and heart efficiently pumping and pounding like a bellows—and then finding oneself suddenly forced to dawdle at a street corner, waiting for a stupid traffic light to piddle around for three excruciating minutes before finally turning green. While one waited, of course, one’s muscles froze up, one lost his rhythm, a cramp started in a hamstring, one looked down to see that one’s shoe was untied, and one suddenly needed to pee.
Deeze Long was a month and a half into his thirty-first year on the planet. He taught preschool at a Catholic elementary school—St. Luke’s to be exact, a mile or so up Fifth Avenue from downtown. He also attended night school three evenings a week at City College, working toward an associate’s degree in exercise science, hoping one day to augment his day job by becoming either a part-time fitness specialist or a sports injury therapist. He wasn’t sure which.
At the moment, while he was clomping along Kettner Boulevard, headed for Seaport Village and trying to sip from his water bottle at the same time without knocking his front teeth out—it really was a hot day!—Deeze was quizzing himself on kinesiology. He had a quiz coming up in a couple of days that would account for 10 percent of his final grade.
Deeze wore his dark hair in an explosion of curls, which managed to look both trendy and unkempt, and incidentally showed off his high cheekbones and the clean, crisp lines of a Dick Tracy jawline. He stood six feet tall, had large expressive hands, size twelve feet, and biceps that rolled around at the top of his arms like croquet balls. His eyes were brown, his eyelashes curly, his skin tone olive, his well-muscled legs hairy and long in his little mauve running shorts, and at the top of his running shirt, a sprinkling of dark chest hair could be spotted at the base of his throat, peeking out into the noontime sun. To say Deeze was handsome would have been understating the facts considerably. Deeze Long was not only handsome, he was damn near perfect. The only one who didn’t know it was Deeze. Which, of course, made him more handsome.
As any frustrated woman in the world would be apt to tell you, a specimen as perfect as Deeze would almost have to be gay. And she would be right. He was indeed gay. Just her luck.
Deeze had been seeing someone for a couple of months, but it wasn’t working out. Not for Deeze at any rate. The guy was so clearly enamored of Deeze’s body that Deeze was pretty sure he didn’t care about Deeze’s mind at all. For a one-nighter, that wouldn’t be a problem. For an extended dating experience, it was not to Deeze’s liking at all. Plus the guy wasn’t a runner. It was shallow, he knew, but Deeze didn’t completely trust anyone, man or woman, who wasn’t a runner or at least didn’t hit the gym on a regular basis. Barring old age or quadriplegia, he simply could not understand how anyone could spend their days sitting on their ass. The final nail in the coffin of Deeze’s latest relationship was that the guy clearly wasn’t fond of kids, while Deeze thought kids were the greatest thing since peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.
But back to running.
To Deeze, movement was life. As long as he could run, he was happy. He didn’t mind going home to an empty apartment. He didn’t mind sleeping in a queen-size bed that was cool and empty on one side while he lolled around all alone on the other. He didn’t miss romance at all. He had his job, his night school, his running. That was all he needed. All he cared about.
Or so he continually told himself. Even today. Even as he jogged past the harbor tour boats packed with laughing sunburned tourists, even while he breathed in the oceany scent of the fishy waters of San Diego Bay and listened to the mellow sound of gentle waves lapping at his feet as he ran past. This was what made him happy. The freedom to run. If it was such an ordeal for love to find its way to him, then he would simply be content doing without.
Deeze Long was about to run that thought through his head one more time, maybe to see if he could wring a little truth out of it, when a black-and-white mutt that clearly saw him coming and didn’t give a shit stepped purposely into his path.
Deeze had just enough time to yell something nonsensical as his feet left the cobblestones and he flew through the air, somersaulting in midflight, ass over teakettle. The dog yelped beneath him. (Oh, like now it saw him coming!) A young redheaded guy with a horrified expression on his face reached out from a park bench to block Deeze’s fall, but it was clearly too late for intervention, and both parties knew it.
Deeze had a moment to take in a few details while he was airborne: 1. The guy had freckles and glasses; 2. When the guy tried to catch him in midfall, his book went flying and landed in the lagoon with a splash, startling a duck, which was actually pretty funny; and 3. The guy was tethered to the stupid black-and-white dog that had caused the whole mess to begin with. Consequently, that made the redheaded guy Public Enemy #1 as far as Deeze was concerned.
He was about to say so when he completed his somersault and the back of his head hit the cobblestones with a brain-rattling thud. Right at the redhead’s feet.
“Ouch,” he wheezed with what breath was left in his lungs, which wasn’t much. He squinted straight up into the noonday sun and waited for his eyeballs to stop twirling from the impact. As soon as they ceased spinning like cherries in a slot machine, he tilted his head a little to the left to take in the redhead staring down at him with a worried expression.
“Freckles,” Deeze muttered, and his eyes rolled up into his head one last time. His brain took that opportunity to shut down completely, and Deeze’s thought processes went black.
Suddenly, Wyeth wasn’t the only one out to lunch.