TEN

 

LES “RED” Parks spotted his client almost immediately, even in the crowded bar. Partly because the gentleman—Kirk Toliver—had e-mailed him a picture that actually (miracle of miracles) looked like him. Thirty-five (a real thirty-five and not an online thirty-five, which were often two entirely different things), blue-gray eyes behind thick-rimmed, rectangular glasses, and a thickish but well-trimmed beard. The type of man who blended in with a crowd, rarely noticed.

But Red would have known the man was his new client even without a picture. It was in his posture, in the look on Mr. Toliver’s face. The man was nervous. It radiated, pulsed outward from him in waves. As Red approached, he saw an empty cocktail glass on the small round table in front of Toliver, and he was all but gulping down the contents of another. As he did so, their eyes locked over the rim of the glass, and Toliver’s dark brows shot up almost comically.

It was hard not to laugh—but Red managed. First meetings were always tricky, and as nervous as his new client obviously was, how might he take laughter?

Red did smile, though. Gave the man a friendly nod.

Mr. Toliver lowered his glass and smiled back.

Cute, Red thought. In a geeky sort of way. The smile transformed him, actually. You need to send out pictures where you’re smiling.

“Mr. Toliver?” Red asked.

“Kirk,” the man said, standing quickly and almost overturning the little table. He blushed, grabbed at it to keep it upright, the empty glass rolling and nearly falling off its edge. He rescued it and said, “Call me Kirk. That’s my first name.”

Red knew that, of course. He would never have agreed to meet the man without that information and a hell of a lot more. Plus, Jeremy Carlington had vouched for him, and that was good enough for Red.

Kirk held out his hand, and Red took it. “I can’t believe you’re here,” Kirk said.

Red nodded. “Of course I am,” he replied, gracious—the way he’d been taught. Yet even now, after a year, it was hard to believe someone was looking at him the way this man was looking at him. Like he was famous or something. And he wasn’t. He was a kid from small-town, USA—that’s all. Very small town.

Could he have ever imagined this life back in high school?

The answer, of course, was no.

Red moved to sit down and was charmed when Kirk zipped around to his side of the table and pulled the chair out for him. He was used to men twice Kirk’s age making such a gesture, but not a man in his midthirties.

This close, he could see Kirk really was a nice-looking man. Not People magazine’s sexiest man of the year, but not plain after all.

So why me? Red wondered. It couldn’t be that the man was hard up. Kirk didn’t exactly stand out in a crowd, but he was hardly an eyesore. Yes, he was wearing some pretty dorky looking glasses, his suit had to be at least ten years old, and the slight strain of the buttons over his belly said there would be no washboard abs or gym body revealed when Red got him undressed. But he was cute in his own way. Bears would fight each other for the chance to take him home.

Of course being a bear, or bearish, didn’t mean one was attracted to bears.

“Can I get you something? To drink?” Kirk smiled again, a slight tremor in his voice.

Red almost said Lagavulin. Asking for the expensive Scotch seemed to please most of his clients—let them know he wasn’t some down-on-his-luck street hustler looking for enough money for his next fix. But he wasn’t so sure it would have the same effect on Kirk. As a matter of fact, the man’s clothes didn’t speak of wealth. Not even an upper-middle-class lifestyle.

Jeremy…. Did you steer me wrong?

Could Kirk afford what he’d told Red on the phone he wanted?

“Rum and Coke,” Red said instead.

Kirk nodded quickly and practically ran to the bartender.

Red wiped hands already starting to sweat along the legs of his slacks. Meeting new clients always made him nervous—So don’t worry about being nervous, Mr. Toliver. You’re not the only one!—even though he’d established a pretty safe routine (learned from his mistakes as well as advice from others) and figured out his method of operation. He didn’t pretend it was the way professionals in New York or Singapore or Paris did things. But using Matthew as a role model and taking guidance from Jeremy, he’d found a way that worked well.

“Some of us like to use agencies,” Matthew had told him. “And agencies have their pluses. But then again, you work for them—and a lot of the time that can mean getting mixed up with the wrong kind of people, if you know what I mean.”

Red had been too naïve to get what he meant.

Crime people, silly. Bad guys. And bad guys you can owe. I say, work for yourself. And whatever you do, pay your taxes!”

Red hoped Kirk Toliver wasn’t a mistake. But no, Jeremy had brought him to Red’s attention. Told him he knew someone who was anxious to meet him.

Now, should he be anxious instead?

Kirk was back with their drinks. “I hope Bacardi’s okay,” he said, sitting down.

Bacardi. A premium. Not the standard, low-end well liquor. Maybe he’d misjudged the gentleman.

“Bacardi is wonderful,” Red replied.

Kirk held up a lime. “I didn’t know if you liked yours with, and I didn’t want him to ruin your drink if you didn’t like—”

Red smiled broadly, and Kirk went silent as if someone had clicked a mute button on the man. Red shook his head. “No lime. Thank you.”

Kirk’s mouth did the fish-out-of-water thing, and then he cleared his throat. “God,” he said in a voice so low that had they been at The Male Box—a bar that turned its speakers up to the blasting point—instead of The Corner Bistro—a piano bar—there would have been no way Red could have heard him. “I can’t believe it….”

“That I don’t want a lime in my drink?”

“That you’re here. That I’m here. Sitting with you. I can’t believe I’m doing this.” He reached for the knot of his simple navy blue tie, adjusted it so that it was actually slightly askew, ran a finger under his collar as if it might be just a bit too tight.

“Well, you’re here,” Red assured him. “I’m here.”

Kirk smiled again, but the corners of his mouth seemed to war slightly, and he got a strange look on his face. It reminded Red of his mother’s dog—one she had rescued, one that had been abused, always worried that it was about to be smacked instead of petted.

What’s your story, Mr. Toliver?

“An escort,” Matthew had carefully explained, “is more shrink than anything else. Yeah. They want sex. Sometimes weird sex. I had a client who wanted me to babysit him. I was a little wary at first, but it turned out not to be quite as kinky as I thought. No changing diapers or feeding him bottles. He just wanted to cuddle on the couch in his pajamas and have me make popcorn and insist he go to bed by nine.”

“No sex?”

Matthew laughed. “Of course there was sex. He’d blow me or have me fuck him—hard. But only an hour or so after I’d sent him to bed.”

An hour later. Which meant said client was paying a lot more than the one-hour rate. A client paying for an entire evening meant money. Considerable money.

“He’d come walking out of his bedroom in his underwear, rubbing his eyes, and tell me he’d had a nightmare and would I come and lay down with him ‘until he fell asleep.’ Turned out he’d had a huge crush on his babysitter when he was in high school. His mother had insisted he have one until he was sixteen. And it was his babysitter who made him figure out he liked ‘dudes.’ He never got to have sex with the babysitter.”

“So you became his babysitter.”

“Right.”

“How’s that like being a shrink?” Red had asked.

“How long do you think it took me to get him to open up and tell me what he was really wanting? He’s a much happier man now.” Matthew cocked a thumb at himself. “That’s due to me.”

Kirk Toliver cleared this throat. “You don’t recognize me, do you?”

And Red had to think quickly (and not look like was thinking about it). He decided to take a guess.

“Sure. We met one night when I was with Mr. Carlington.”

Kirk’s wounded look vanished as his face took on a happy shine. “Yes! At the Kaufman Center!”

The Kaufman Center for the Performing Arts. Of course. The ballet. Quite suddenly, he remembered. It had been at the bar. “The ballet,” he said.

Kirk nodded in obvious relief. A child seeking approval. Acceptance. Recognition more than anything else. What so many men failed to realize was that it wasn’t easy to remember all the people he met. Red met a lot of people. Especially through clients like Jeremy Carlington, who took him everywhere. Expensive restaurants, openings, art galleries. And the ballet. He knew that most of them had to know what Red was, but Jeremy was never ashamed—showed him off in fact. With pride. Look what I can afford.

Why not? Red did his best to exemplify sophistication. Matthew had taught him. Jeremy had. Apart from taking advice from them and a few others, Red had also used some of his income to educate himself. He’d brushed up on his high-school Spanish, was even now learning French, and would tackle Italian next (Jeremy had promised a trip to Rome next year). He was a licensed massage therapist and had taken CPR classes.

“You might need them with the age of some of your clients,” Matthew had advised and laughed about it.

Red liked to think of himself as some modern-day, gay, Western version of a Geisha. An ear to listen. A comfort. A companion. He’d even been known to tinker a little on the piano and sing a song or two. Why, the only real difference he saw between him and those who practiced that ancient Japanese art was that his clients knew—if they wanted it (and they actually didn’t always want it)—that they’d be getting sex.

But what did Kirk Toliver want? Red was waiting for some lead. Some clue. It wasn’t dinner. They’d agreed to meet afterward. And….

“You’ve eaten, right?” Kirk asked.

“Yes. But if you haven’t, then—”

“No! I mean…. N-no. I have. I just wanted to make sure you weren’t hungry.” Kirk looked away, then back. “I’m sorry. I’m just so nervous.”

Red took a sip of his cocktail. Strong. Good. It would help with his own nerves.

“There’s no need for that.” Red smiled.

“That’s easy for you to say.” Kirk gave Red a funny smile in return and lapsed into silence. Then, suddenly: “Did you have a nice Christmas?”

“It was nice,” Red lied. Well. Not lied. But it had certainly been different. He’d spent most of the day alone, had an early dinner with a few friends—acquaintances, really, except for Matthew—and then they’d all run off for whatever reasons. Matthew had a client…

“He wants me to dress up as an elf,” Matthew had said with a wine-induced giggle.

…and Red went back to his loft apartment, all by his lonesome. Which had given him time for a stilted conversation on the phone with his mother and sister and her brood of kids. He’d hardly known what to say. None of them had for several years, ever since he’d come out to them.

Jeremy didn’t show up until eleven, bringing a smile, an apology, and the heavy gold bracelet (class!) Red was wearing right now.

“And yours?” Red asked.

“Oh? Fine. Fine? Yes. Fine. Had some friends over. A guy from work….”

Jeremy? Red wondered.

“I made a goose. Never done that before. Not sure I liked the way it turned out. Greasy, you know? A liver-y taste for some reason. Don’t know if I’ll do that again. Not much meat either….” His voice trailed off. Then: “It’s so different now that Mom is gone. I set up the tree and everything. For her, you know? But it wasn’t the same.” He went silent again.

Red was trying to decide whether to ask about Kirk’s mother when it was taken out of his hands.

“When she died—in October—well, it left a pretty big void. She’s always been there. I was taking care of her the last year. Moved her in with me.”

October. Jeez. Jeremy had said something about her passing, but Red hadn’t realized it was so recent. “It must be difficult,” he said.

Kirk shrugged. “I suppose.” He looked up. “Yes. It is. Not as bad as I imagined. But I guess I’m still numb. Maybe it hasn’t hit me yet.”

Red reached across the small table and laid his hand on Kirk’s, who in turn looked around them, quickly, almost furtively. Red glanced to see what Kirk was looking at. Nothing out of the ordinary.

“Kirk?” he asked. “Is something wrong?”

“I… I…. Was seeing if anyone was looking. Wondering….”

“Wondering?”

“Why someone like you is here with me.”

Red raised his brows. “Why would they wonder something like that?”

“Oh, come on.” Kirk stared down at the hand on his own. Then back up. His expression…. So… sad? “You’re so beautiful,” he whispered.

Beautiful? You wouldn’t have said that to me when I was in high school.

“And look at me.” Kirk shook his head.

“What about you, Kirk? You’re an attractive man.” And it was true. Yes. The big glasses and the out-of-fashion suit, the cheap haircut, all might make the average person look right past him. Especially in the gay world, which could be so damned superficial. But it was the smile that made Kirk stand out. The dimples, visible even with the thick, almost shaggy beard. The way his eyes lit up (when he wasn’t looking sad).

Red suspected if Kirk would trim his beard, wear some nicer clothes, and lose even a few pounds, he wouldn’t need Red’s services.

But of course, he still wasn’t sure just what services Kirk wanted. Babysitter? Doctor? Burglar? Slut? To be tied down? To tie Red down? Something kinkier?

Red took a swallow of his cocktail. Finished it, raised the glass again to capture an ice cube and crunch it. A habit he’d gotten into while losing weight so many years ago.

“Do you want another?” Kirk asked.

“Do you?”

“I don’t think I’d better. I want, ah—” He blushed. “—to be able to, ah….” He went from pink to crimson.

Red kept himself from smiling. What Kirk was too embarrassed to say was “Get it up,” and the shyness was touching for some reason. Red didn’t know why.

Then, surprising himself, Red said, “You want to get out of here?” Throwing caution to the wind was not something Matthew had taught him. No. Matthew had taught him to hone his instincts to know when to go home with a client—

“And don’t ever take them to your place. Never. Never ever!”

—and when to run.

“I got that feeling once,” Matthew told him. “Don’t know what it was, but I got the hell out of there. I was pissed at myself too. Drove an hour in the rain to Terra’s Gate—the college town? Lost two grand out of the deal. But then six months later, I saw the son-of-a-bitch on TV! He got caught trying to poison the kids of the town mayor.”

“Say what?”

“Yeah. She went to work and realized she forgot something and got home just in time. Her kids were about to eat these danishes, and she asked them where they got them, and they told her from the neighbor—the one I went to see that night. Well, she thought something was funny. She and the neighbor—my client—did not get along. I guess there had been a lot of trouble between them. So she checked the danishes out, and they were full of antifreeze. He was trying to kill her kids!”

Red’s mouth had fallen open at the story.

“So who knows what that guy might have done to me? He kept trying to get me to eat this nasty looking cobbler. He might have been trying to kill me!”

But Red wasn’t getting “that feeling” from Kirk. Not at all. As a matter of fact, to his surprise, he was getting the stirrings of an erection.

“I—I….” Kirk looked down again.

“Kirk?”

Kirk darted his eyes back up again. “I’d like to go for a walk.”

A walk?

“I thought maybe on the Plaza.” Kirk gave him a tentative smile. “Have you seen the lights this year? I love the Plaza lights. And I live there, you know.”

Red knew.

“We’re going to my place anyway.” He paused. “I mean. We are, right?”

Red nodded. “That’s where I was suggesting we go.”

“Can we go for a walk first? Park in my building’s garage and go for a little walk? What do you say?”

Was this a stall for time? A way to gear up his courage? Maybe. But there was a hopeful expression on his client’s face. He wanted to go for a walk. And why not? It was a bit nippy out, but it wasn’t that cold. There was a call for flurries, but that hadn’t happened yet. At least not the last time Red had checked.

Plus it was obvious by now that this wasn’t going to be an hour session. Kirk wanted the evening, and Jeremy had explained all that to the man so Red hadn’t had to. Red didn’t have any other appointments tonight.

A walk might be nice.

“Why not?” Red said aloud.

The grin he got in return made him smile as well. He couldn’t help it.

It’s your dime, Red thought.

But of course, it was a hell of a lot more than a dime.