“YOU want me to what, now?” he asked, convinced he had heard incorrectly.
“You are to infiltrate, gather information, and convey the results to the attorney general’s office. I don’t see what’s so difficult to grasp. We do this all the time.”
“I didn’t expect when I joined the state police that I would be asked to—”
“To what? Do your job? We serve as the investigative force for the AG’s office. Sometimes that involves going undercover. That’s all I’m asking you to do.”
The trooper was silent for a moment.
“This isn’t like pretending to be a drag racer to stop sideshows or something. What you’re asking me to do is—”
“I’m asking you to take on this assignment, which was handed to me by the AG himself. You are the only one who can do this.”
Officer Brandt looked up, met the Chief’s eyes.
“Why? Why am I the only one?”
The Chief sighed and sat on the front edge of his desk.
“I would think that’s pretty obvious,” he said, in a more conciliatory tone than he had used before.
“No, it’s not obvious to me. I wish you would explain.”
The Chief looked at the ceiling, clearly wishing that something would fall from the heavens and smite him so he could avoid having this conversation.
“Look. You’re the youngest guy on the force. You sped through college and the academy, and you’re on the force at twenty-four. That means you are the closest in age to the targets of the investigation.”
“But, sir, you said the men who work there aren’t the target. You said the AG is going after the person who owns the place, and whoever is funding him.”
The Chief’s eyes rolled—again—as he drew a deep breath.
“What I meant was that you are the closest in age and appearance to the ones who work in the house. If we’re going to get good intel on what’s going on in there, we need someone working there. And the only way we get that is to send someone who looks like he could work there. And that’s you.”
Officer Brandt was stunned.
“Wait, this is about how I look?”
“Undercover work requires a physically appropriate operative. This is basic, Brandt! I wouldn’t send Ramirez to infiltrate an Asian gang, would I? You look like the men who work there, that’s all. You remember when they nailed that senator, the one from, what, Iowa?”
“Do you mean Larry Craig, from Idaho?”
“Right, that one. Now, when they wanted to stop men’s rooms from turning into pickup joints, they didn’t send some fat slob in there, right? They sent someone who could get the right kind of attention.”
Brandt was silent. His role in this investigation had not been clear to him when he entered the Chief’s office; unfortunately, clarity made things worse. He had drawn this assignment because the Chief thought he looked the part. He shuddered at the thought.
The Chief forged ahead, clearly hoping to bring this conversation to a close before more awkward words were spoken.
“One of the AG’s close friends and campaign donors is a contractor who works in the area where the house is located. His guys got a call to help with a renovation at the house, and they told him some of the stuff going on there. What we want you to do is pose as a carpenter and see if you can’t get them interested in hiring you.”
“And how do I do that?”
“You look the part, you act interested, and you say yes to whatever they propose you do. It’s that simple.”
Brandt sighed. It was anything but simple.
“You’ll keep working with Donnelly on this—report progress to him, and he’ll get you whatever you need to make it work on the inside.”
Brandt closed his eyes, sighed. Donnelly was his partner, and having him involved in this investigation would normally have been a good thing. But what he was being asked to do—he would rather Donnelly not know about it at all.
“You’re the finest we have, Brandt. Now go make us proud.”
“Yes, sir,” Brandt managed to utter as he stood and backed out of the Chief’s office.
“SO, WHAT does that involve, exactly?” Donnelly asked, lifting his second beer to his lips.
“How the fuck should I know? It’s not like I’ve ever looked at one of these things.” Brandt drained his second beer, started looking for the third. The tavern was quiet, as one would expect on a Tuesday evening. Brandt and Donnelly had their entire half of the bar to themselves.
“Well, all they told me was that I’d be coordinating your support while you’re on the inside, and I get the concept of that, but I don’t really know what it’s going to involve. I was kinda hoping you had more info.”
Brandt scoffed. “Nope, they haven’t given me much except a passcode to use so we can get on the site and take a look—see what it’s all about. I’d rather have a root canal than punch up that website, I can tell you.” His third beer arrived, much to his relief.
“Well, ya gotta look sometime. It’s Tuesday, and Thursday is your… insertion.” Donnelly failed to control his giggling at this word, and Brandt landed a boot squarely on his shin to let him know he should have tried harder.
“Okay, funny guy, finish your beer and we’ll go look. You and me. And no hiding your eyes at the gory parts, like you always do with those stupid Saw movies.”
Donnelly wasn’t laughing anymore.
Back at his apartment, Brandt poured two large shots of Ja¨ger from the freezer and handed one to Donnelly, who was seated in front of the computer. Brandt sat next to him and took a big draw off the Ja¨ger, then began typing the web address into his browser. The screen filled with a banner announcing “Str8 Frat Dudes!”
Brandt took a deep breath as a photo collage of muscular young men in various states of undress filled in behind the banner. Donnelly looked at Brandt, his expression betraying the queasiness he was clearly trying to hold at bay. They tipped their glasses up and swallowed the last of the burning liquid.
“Well, you gonna click Enter?” Donnelly finally asked.
“You do it,” Brandt replied. “I don’t think I can handle what I’ve seen already.”
Donnelly took control of the mouse and clicked the button.
“Okay, it says to enter your ID and passcode.”
Brandt handed over the slip of paper the Chief had handed him earlier in the day. Donnelly typed.
“Okay, we’re in.” He looked at Brandt. “So to speak.”
Both men stared at the screen, gaping. Where the photography on the opening screen had left something to the imagination—if you were inclined to imagine what a football player might look like should his tight pants come unlaced, for example, or what would happen if an impossibly beautiful young man should pull the shorts off of another impossibly beautiful young man during horseplay on the beach—now there was no imagination required. The goods were on display in all their glory.
“Holy fucking shit, man,” whispered Donnelly, his eyes darting to the safety of the wall behind the computer screen.
“My life is over,” mumbled Brandt. “How am I supposed to do this? Going undercover there means doing, well… that.” He pointed at the screen, at all of the naked flesh displayed there, at all of the smiling faces of men who clearly enjoyed displaying it.
“At least you can see now why the Chief chose you for the job,” Donnelly offered, as if this were good news.
Brandt turned on his friend and partner. “What the fuck does that mean?” he spat.
“Hey, chill! I just meant that of all the guys we work with, you”—he pointed at Brandt—“are the closest thing to that”—he pointed at the screen.
“If you are telling me that I look like some male whore who sells himself on a fucking website, I’m going to offer you some free dental work, courtesy of the curb out front.”
“That’s not what I meant. It’s just that you are pretty much their age—”
“I’m twenty-four. That’s two years younger than you, old man.”
“Yeah, but you look younger. And look at these guys—you are in as good shape as they are. Whoa! Except that one. Holy shit, look at those abs.”
“Should I leave you alone so that you can beat it looking at all of the pretty boys?”
“Shut up. I’m just saying that you are a good fit for this cover. That’s all. So, is this a standard prostitution sting? Go after the johns?”
“No. That’s what’s weird. They want me to get accounting records, of all things. They’re going to try to shut them down on Revenue Code 164.32.”
“Sorry, my Revenue is a bit rusty. Let’s see, 164, that’s consumer taxation, and the 30s are all about retail goods….”
“And services. Apparently the AG is going to charge them with not paying taxes on personal services rendered.”
Donnelly frowned, considering. “Why not just go for prostitution?” he mused. “Seems like that’s an easier one to make stick.”
“Because they aren’t prostitutes—they perform in videos. The closest thing to prostitution is the live shows they do. But there’s no touching or anything. The clients who pay to see the shows can be in other states or countries. It would be hard to make prostitution stick.”
“So, if they hire you on, you’re going to be doing… what? What do they do on video that people will pay money to see?”
“Well, let’s hit the Videos button and find out.”