The Bell Tolls
“NO. I can’t do it.” The man crossed his arms across his chest and shook his head gravely. His words had really left no doubt, but in case they had, his body language would have extinguished it with brutal alacrity.
It was hardly the demeanor one expected from a baker.
“I don’t understand,” said one of the two men sitting at the dainty pink-and-white cafe table. “Are you overbooked for that week, or…?”
“No, I just can’t do it.” The baker’s tone was even and businesslike, but his refusal was adamantine.
“But,” offered the other man sitting at the ridiculously precious table, its lace tablecloth woven with shiny strands of pink ribbon, “the piece in City magazine was so amazing—we just loved your designs. We were really hoping to have one of your cakes.”
“You’ll have to find someone else,” the baker replied, darting a glance through the front window of the shop as if concerned that someone might see him talking to the two well-heeled gentlemen.
“But why?” rejoined the first man, his tone mystified.
The baker sighed and shook his head wearily. “I don’t do weddings like… yours,” he said, almost under his breath.
The change in expression on the faces of the two men could not have been more sudden, or more drastic, had they been splashed with cold water. They sat back, shocked and offended, and then looked at each other in dismay.
“Excuse me?” said the second man, the excitement in his voice replaced with an icy crispness. His hands balled into fists atop the doily tablecloth.
“We’re just wasting each other’s time here,” the baker said, rising to his full five-and-a-half-foot height of imposing pudgy grandeur.
“I don’t think you know whom you’re dealing with,” the groom said, rising as well. As he was well over six feet of refined athleticism, he towered over the baker.
As stubborn as the baker had seemed while sitting, he became positively inflamed when having to look up at his foe. “I know perfectly well who I’m dealing with. I watch Channel 3 news—or at least I did until today. Now you should know who you’re dealing with. My family has run this bakery for three generations, and we are God-fearing, upstanding citizens. I will make a cake for any man and woman in this town who wants to get married, but the day two tuxedos go on the top of one of my cakes is the day I close this place down.”
“That, my good man, can be arranged.” The second groom, his voice even and calm, rose from his seat to face the baker. “You may have seen my fiancé on the nightly news, but unless you’ve found yourself on the losing end of a lawsuit, you’ve never seen me. Shortly you shall.”
The baker sneered. “You’re going to sue me into making you a cake?”
“No. But I am going to sue you for violation of Section 28 of the state constitution. In case you aren’t aware, that section has recently been found by the state supreme court to guarantee access to public accommodation to all citizens, including those who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender.”
“I’m not going to make wedding cakes for that parade of freaks—on my mother’s grave I’m not.”
“Then we will see you in court.” The attorney turned to his fiancé. “Now, my love, we have a florist to see, don’t we?” The men turned to leave.
“Good luck with that,” the baker growled to their backs as they walked to the door. “Most people in this business agree with me.”
The second groom turned back as they stepped out of the bakery. “Then we will be busy in court, won’t we?”
The baker shook his head and stomped back to his kitchen as the grooms walked past the shop’s front window.
“CAN YOU believe that guy?” The news anchor’s voice was livid, but his face gave no sign that he was in any way upset—he often referred to this as his Botox face, devoid of emotion in case the camera was still on him during a commercial break. “Apparently not everyone has gotten the memo that the Dark Ages are over.”
“Calm down, love,” soothed the attorney as the two men walked down the block and around the corner. “We’ll get him sorted out quickly with a saber-rattling letter. I’ll spell out just how much trouble he’s heading for, and he’ll come around.”
“But the court ruling on Section 28 was supposed to guarantee we would be treated like anyone else. Now we have to sue someone for the privilege of having him make a cake for us?”
“But just a few years ago, we never imagined that we’d be able to get married at all. Things move slowly until they don’t; that’s how the law works sometimes.”
“I know, I know—you’re right, as always. I just wish I were as calm as you are about it. I so wanted to reach across that lace-drenched table and strangle the homophobia right out of his fat head.”
“This is why people get married, love—to complement each other. I keep you from strangling bigoted bakers, and you remind me that not everything can be solved with a subpoena.”
“But I love your subpoenas! Mainly because it sounds like penis.”
“My God you are a big child. But I love you.”
They kissed and then looked up to realize they had arrived at the florist who, they hoped, would provide the flowers for their wedding. They opened the door with a tinkle of the ancient brass bell mounted on the jamb and approached the counter.
“We have an appointment with Monty. For a wedding?”
The diminutive woman behind the counter smiled up at the men. “And who’s the bride who would trust her flowers to the groom and his best man?”
The anchorman took a deep breath. “It’s our wedding,” he said with the winning smile he used to introduce cloying human-interest stories on the newscast—something involving a baby squirrel water-skiing or a kindergarten chess champion raising money for the blind.
The woman’s smile vanished. She turned without a word and walked into the back of the shop.
“Oh, shit,” exhaled the news anchor. “That didn’t look so good for us, did it?”
“Let’s not leap to conclusions,” the attorney replied. “Give folks the benefit of the doubt, right?”
The first man took a deep breath and nodded.
“Gentlemen, I’m Monty.” A whippet-thin man with salt-and-pepper hair cropped close to his head bustled out from the rear of the shop. Stray bits of greenery clung to his clothing, as if he had been standing too close to some kind of floral explosion. “How can I help you today?”
The news anchor dialed the human-interest smile back up to full wattage. “Pleased to meet you, Monty. We’re here to talk about flowers for our wedding.”
“Okay, so, that’s the part I don’t think I understand. When you say ‘our wedding,’ you mean….”
“The two of us,” the attorney announced in a tone that had no doubt struck fear into many a defendant. “We are getting married in June and would like to retain your services for the floral arrangements. We are planning to spend at least forty thousand dollars on centerpieces and decorative elements. Are you available?” This last was less a question than a challenge.
Monty turned and looked into the workroom, visible through the swinging doors behind the counter. The small woman who had been at the counter stared back at him through narrowed eyes.
“I’m so sorry, gentlemen,” Monty said to the men. “We’re simply not available to provide flowers for your… wedding.”
“Booked up for the entire month, are you?” the attorney replied. “Do you get many forty-thousand-dollar wedding orders? That’s not worth a little overtime?”
“It’s not that,” Monty said in a low voice. He glanced toward the back of the shop again, just for a second. “We don’t… uh… support that kind of… um….”
The news anchor took a breath as if to finish the florist’s sentence for him, but the attorney put a hand on his arm and gave one slight shake of his head.
The florist took another breath and forged ahead. “We don’t provide services for nontraditional weddings,” he said finally.
“Two people, friends and family, vows,” the attorney replied. “I don’t see that we’re after anything at all nontraditional, Monty.”
Monty closed his eyes and took a deep breath that seemed to help his agitation not a bit. “I’m afraid I can’t help you,” he said, a note of genuine apology in his voice.
“Are you aware of Section 28 of the state constitution?” began the attorney in what had suddenly become a rote lecture.
“WELL, AS wedding planning goes, this day was about the worst imaginable,” the news anchor lamented before tipping back his wine glass. “I worried about you turning me down, but I never dreamed that we would be rejected by both a baker and a florist on the same day.”
The men had sought refuge in a more Adam-and-Steve-friendly locale: their favorite wine bar on Alta Avenue. They had done some serious damage to an astringent chardonnay and were contemplating an assault on a cheeky gewürztraminer.
“Worry not, my love,” the attorney soothed. “We’ll get them sorted. I just have two letters to fire off first thing in the morning, and you’ll see how quickly they cave. This time next week they’ll be begging us to come in for a consultation.”
“Not sure I want them to do it now. Maybe we should just find someone on the Avenue to do it instead?”
“They’re who you wanted, and all you’ve talked about for weeks is how anyone who’s anyone has flowers by Monty and a cake by Capella’s. I want you to have everything you want, love, because you’re only getting married once.”
His fiancé smiled.
“Because if you try to divorce me I will take you apart in court, piece by gorgeous piece,” the attorney added with a wink.
“It’s amazing no one’s marched you down the aisle already, what with your gift for sweet talk.”
“NOW, DARLINGS, I love a good mystery as much as anyone—oh, the hours I’ve spent trying to figure out which member of One Direction is the straight one—but this is too, too much! I’m simply going to expire if you don’t tell me your big news right this very second, which as I’m sure you would agree would make quite a scene in this lovely and expensive boîte that my beloved Nestor and I could never afford to enter were we not invited.”
Brandt smiled at Donnelly, and they shared a laugh. Bryce’s performance was, as expected, a typhoon of aggrieved delight. “Bryce, it’s been all of an hour since I asked you to meet us here.”
“An hour that I spent feverishly imagining every possible eventuality. Why, my mind was so occupied I don’t think I was able to do a second of actual work after reading your text. Thank goodness it was slow in the shop.”
“Not many people wiling away a late Monday afternoon browsing the racks at Grindstone?” Donnelly asked.
“The only people in the store were a few college boys doing some kind of scavenger hunt thing. They weren’t interested in the clothes at all. They just piled into a dressing room together and mooned the mirror while one of them reached around with a camera.”
“They mooned the two-way mirror that you use for… loss prevention?” Brandt queried with a smirk.
“One cannot be too careful these days—we must be vigilant,” Bryce stated with an almost manly vigor. “Thanks to our professional observational techniques, in case we are ever called upon to identify them in a lineup, we are ready to serve.”
“Committed their buttocks to memory, did you?” teased Donnelly.
“And to the Instagram,” offered Nestor, brandishing his phone.
Brandt laughed and left aside the potential privacy issues brought up by Bryce and Nestor’s itchy shutter fingers. The men had proven themselves invaluable in several investigations over the past year, and despite their flamboyance, their discretion could be relied upon in a pinch.
“Now, at the risk of being tiresome, I must ask again,” Bryce resumed. “For what momentous disclosure have you summoned us? Keep a lady waiting long enough and your chivalry may be subject to question in the streets.”
“First, let’s get something to drink.” Brandt waved, and a waiter sped across the room to appear, somewhat breathlessly, at his side. His ability to instantly command attention from any man on Alta Avenue had been somewhat disconcerting when Brandt first noticed it last year, but as he had become more comfortable in the gay world of the Avenue, he came to see this as a benign superpower that he was careful not to abuse. He turned and smiled sunnily at the waiter.
“What can I get for you gentlemen today?” the waiter asked, generously including all four seated at the table though never taking his eyes from Brandt.
“We’d like a bottle of champagne, please,” Brandt replied with a playful hint of ceremony in his voice.
“Celebrating a special occasion?” the waiter queried, an eyebrow raised in playful interest.
“Yes, we are,” Donnelly replied. His intonation told that he was perfectly reconciled to Brandt getting the raised-eyebrow treatment from Messrs. All & Sundry.
“Excellent,” the waiter said with a knowing nod. “What’s our budget, then? School teachers on holiday, or rappers celebrating a tax refund?”
Brandt burst out laughing. “Something along the school-teacher line, I think.”
“Very good. I’ll be back in a jiff.”
“Champagne?” hooted Bryce. “The plot thickens. Though I am relieved to discover that the news must be good indeed, I’m still burning with curiosity. You are so cruel to drag this out, plying us with bottle after bottle of bubbly.”
“I ordered one bottle!” Brandt replied.
“The night is young,” Bryce pronounced, his head swiveling around the room, perhaps looking for anyone he knew who might witness him drinking champagne with the two strapping officers.
Brandt was relieved when the waiter returned to the table with the champagne almost immediately. He laid a flute in front of each man and then presented the bottle to Brandt for approval. It was a label rather nicer than he was expecting, but as this was a special occasion, he decided to indulge. He nodded, and the waiter popped the cork and poured all around the table.
Bryce was practically vibrating with excitement, quivering in his chair. Brandt wasted no time in putting him out of his misery.
“You two have become part of our lives over the last year, and we wanted you to be among the first to know that”—he turned and looked at Donnelly with what he knew was a sappy smile—“the love of my life has asked me to marry him, and I’ve said yes.”
It surely violated a law of physics that Bryce could both suck in a huge, dramatic breath and emit a high-pitched squeal of excitement at the same time. But Bryce had probably passed physics by dint of various extra-credit projects he’d performed for his teacher after school hours. Brandt simply waited for him to breathe again.
It was a long moment.
Meanwhile, Nestor turned his beaming face to the fiancés. “Long have I been dreaming,” he began solemnly, “of this very moment. I shall be honored to witness your souls unite as I have long imagined your bodies to do.” His eyes grew unfocused, as if he were imagining it as he spoke.
Finally, Bryce seemed to have found the composure to speak, if only a single word. “Among?”
“Pardon me?” Brandt said, leaning toward Bryce.
“We are among the first to know?” Bryce’s eyes glinted fiercely.
Brandt shook his head and smiled. He knew that Bryce’s dudgeon would only hold out so long before being overwhelmed by his excitement. “We told our families, of course, but you are the first friends we’ve given the news to.”
Bryce’s expression instantly changed from Dour Countess to Tipsy Cheerleader. “Oh! Oh! Oh! This is so exciting!” He laid a hand at his throat and made a great show of catching his breath. Then, with the practiced elegant motion of a hand accustomed to wearing opera gloves trimmed with marabou, he raised his flute. “It has been my great honor and pleasure to encourage the two of you as you made your way from the dark recesses of heterosexuality into the glorious daylight of your love for one another. I cannot think of two people I would be happier to watch walk down the aisle. Blessings and congratulations, my dears. May every happiness be yours.” Bryce raised his glass high, and then all four took a sip of the champagne, Brandt and Donnelly blushing at Bryce’s effusion.
Then Nestor raised his glass. “The first day I see you, I know. You fight against it, but I know. Now you stand up together and the whole world know.”
Brandt felt Donnelly’s hand grip his, and when Brandt turned to him, he saw tears welling in his fiancé’s eyes.
“You two are just the best,” Donnelly said, his voice a little thick. “I’m so touched.”
“You gonna get a lot more touched on the wedding night,” replied Nestor in a light, singsongy voice.
“Now, to the important business at hand,” Bryce interrupted the giggles occasioned by Nestor’s ribaldry. “First we need to know the date so that we can back schedule and sort everything by priority. We’ll need to convene a group of the city’s finest purveyors of matrimonial necessities, plus that really hot DJ—you know the one I mean, Nestor?”
Nestor nodded. “But, my love, they have not asked for our help.”
Bryce froze, his face pale with shock. His lips moved, but no sound emerged.
“Of course we would be so grateful for your help in planning the wedding,” Brandt blurted, eager to head off a meltdown.
Bryce closed his eyes and took a deep breath. “A very sensible decision,” he said once he had exhaled and opened his eyes again. “And we would be delighted to provide any assistance we can, of course. You are the very first of our select social circle to tie the knot.”
“Not surprising, given how recently it became legal,” said Donnelly, an edge to his voice. “It’s so nice that our state has finally seen fit to extend human rights to everyone.”
“I prefer to think that they simply weren’t prepared for weddings as fabulous as yours will be, darlings,” replied Bryce briskly, shaking off the political bitterness of Donnelly’s remark. “And fabulous it shall be. Now, what’s our date?”
“We haven’t really picked one,” Brandt said, looking at Donnelly with eyebrows raised. Donnelly shrugged in response.
“Well, since it’s April, and given the logistics we’re facing, I’d say the absolute soonest would be November. Next year.”
Brandt and Donnelly both startled back in their chairs.
“A year and a half?” Brandt asked.
“Bryce, you know we love you, but we aren’t looking for a Disney-princess-level event here,” Donnelly said gently. “We’d be happy with something small and simple.”
Bryce’s visage clouded.
“With your trademark elegance and style, of course,” added Brandt.
“Well, perhaps if we get started immediately and call in a few favors, we might be able to do next June,” groused Bryce with an unconvincing pout.
“We really need more than a year?” Brandt asked.
“All of the best people are booked a year in advance at the very latest. We’ll be scrambling just to find anyone at all who will meet my—sorry, your—standards. And we will be hard-pressed indeed to find the right wedding planner, which we must absolutely get started on right now.”
“Wait, I thought you were going to plan—”
“Oh honey, no! Think of us as your personal assistants, guiding you to the most fashionable and fabulous choices. Nestor and I are well acquainted with which caterers have the most muscular waiters, but for the heavy lifting, you need to engage a professional. I will start arranging audiences with the finest consultants tout de suite.”
Bryce and Nestor beamed at the engaged couple, fidgeting with excitement.
“We’re really doing this, aren’t we?” Brandt asked Donnelly.
“We are. God help us, we are.”
“YOU KNOW anything about this task force?” Donnelly asked Brandt as they drove to work the next morning.
“Just what the chief said in that e-mail yesterday. Not a lot to go on.”
“I kind of like what we’ve been doing lately, helping local law enforcement with sensitive investigations. I hope they’re not going to take us off that and put us on highway patrol or something.”
“If I know the chief, what he has in mind is going to be more challenging than aiming a radar gun at traffic on the interstate.”
“I hope so,” Donnelly replied. “But the last time he had a special project for us, you ended up doing naked videos. Not sure I’d be up for that again.”
“You saying you wouldn’t want me to make a sexy video? Are you getting tired of seeing me naked, Officer Donnelly?”
“If you were naked, I would gladly spend any number of shifts sitting by the side of the road doing speed enforcement.”
“I haven’t reviewed the uniform standards for a while, but I’m going to go out on a limb and guess that that would be a violation.”
“That would be the least of the violations, I promise you,” Donnelly replied with a growl. He slid his hand up his partner’s thigh and gave him a squeeze.
“I like the way this is going. But, seeing that we’re in the parking lot of headquarters, I think we should probably just stay fully clothed and get to our desks. Sound good?”
“As long as you’ll be naked before this day is over, I’m good to go.”
“Promise.” Brandt leaned over and kissed his partner. “Now, let’s see what the chief has in store for us.”
Fifteen minutes later Brandt and Donnelly were sitting across the desk from the chief of the state police, waiting for him to return from a meeting down the hall.
“Every time I sit here, I remember when he gave me that undercover assignment,” Brandt whispered to Donnelly. “My entire life changed when he told me I’d be infiltrating a porn operation.”
“Yeah, that changed a lot for both of us,” Donnelly whispered back. “But I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
Brandt winked and grinned but said no more as the chief strode in and took his seat behind the desk.
“Brandt, Donnelly, good to see you. And great work, by the way, on sorting out that mess in Woodley. Read your report, and I’m very impressed.”
“Thank you, sir,” replied Donnelly for both of them.
“What you did to help out the Woodley PD got me thinking about how we might take a more proactive stance on those issues, and I had a meeting last week with the new attorney general. I proposed a new task force, and she’s on board. I’d like the two of you to head it up.”
Brandt expected more information, but the chief seemed to be waiting for a response. “We’re honored, sir, and we’re ready to serve. But what, exactly, would we be doing?”
“I’m sure you’re aware that people across the state are starting to file lawsuits to compel businesses and organizations to comply with Section 28.”
“Yes, we’ve been following the news,” said Brandt.
“Good. Now, this is the first time in a long while that a provision of the state constitution is running contrary to the law in many municipalities. We haven’t seen state preemption like this since the Civil Rights era. And it’s causing friction in more traditional communities.”
“You don’t have to tell us,” Donnelly replied with a wry chuckle. “We spent enough time in Woodley to know what that ‘friction’ looks like.”
“What we need, and what the attorney general needs, is a state-level resource to go to these communities and be very clear with them on what the constitution requires in terms of equal treatment. And that’s what we’d like the two of you to do.”
“So, we’d be responsible for Section 28 enforcement?” asked Brandt.
“Yes, but more than that, you would serve as a resource to local law enforcement on their obligations with regard to equal treatment, helping them update policies and training. You would advise local businesses about the need to bring their workplace practices into line. You’d also meet with politicians and local governments to support them as they work to bring the legal code and regulations into compliance with the court ruling. What we want to avoid is a long and costly string of lawsuits clogging our court system, which a simple and forceful explanation of the law would serve to prevent.”
“It sounds like something that lawyers would be more suited to,” replied Donnelly. “Why send state troopers to do it?”
“Because the two of you have been on the front lines. You’ve already shown what you can accomplish in Woodley, and I think you’re the right men for this. And the attorney general agrees. Now, you will have access to the district attorneys across the state if you need help from a lawyer. But we’re operating under the assumption that it’s better to consult constructively than it is to go in with lawyers blazing and read them the riot act.” The chief sat back in his chair and smiled at the men. “Well, what do you think?”
Brandt and Donnelly exchanged a look.
“We’re definitely on board, Chief,” Brandt answered on behalf of both. “Looks like a great opportunity to do some important work.”
“Excellent. Now, let me show you the first situation that needs your attention.” The chief turned to his computer and brought up a browser window. “This press conference was held yesterday afternoon.” He clicked the video frame, and the picture came to life.