Chapter ONE

Debut

 

 

THE VIDEO was grainy; there was no sound, but the subject of the video was clear. A row of lockers occupied the frame and seemed to extend beyond it both left and right; in front of the middle locker stood a young man with a towel around his waist. The locker door was open, and he was busily engaged in taking out and replacing various articles that could not be made out clearly. Several times other men walked through the frame, and each exchanged a greeting with the central subject of the film. With several he conversed for a moment or two while continuing to tend to his locker. Finally, he picked up a bottle of some kind, closed his locker, and walked out of the frame to the right, where each of his interlocutors had also gone.

There was a sudden cut in the video, and the man walked back into the frame from the right. His dark, short hair was wet, standing in crazy spikes all over his head—a condition he intensified by rapidly shaking his head several times. He faced away from the camera, opened his locker, and replaced the bottle he had taken with him. Again, several others walked through the frame, from right to left this time, and he exchanged words with them as they passed and had more extended conversation with a couple.

Finally, he turned his back to the camera and brought his hands to his waist; he loosened the towel that was tucked tightly there. It opened, and it began to drop from his body.

The frame froze, the towel a blur of motion. The young man’s modesty was preserved, but only just.

“Oh no you didn’t!” shrieked Bryce. “You get that finger off the pause button or I will twist it so badly, when you hail a cab it’ll stop on the other side of the street!”

“But, my love,” soothed Nestor, his voice a humid breeze of old Havana, “we are out of the popped corn. You love the popped corn on the movie night. Please, let me make you more.” He slid the popcorn bowl from Bryce’s grip, kissing him on the cheek as he did so. “I will return, to fill your mouth with my salty goodness.” Nestor slid out from the sheets and strode out of the bedroom.

Bryce turned to watch Nestor go, and his fit of pique over the pause button seemed to evaporate under the influence of nudity. He watched the door for Nestor’s return, for the front of him was as fine as the rear.

A few minutes later, Nestor came back into the room with a full bowl of popcorn. He settled in next to Bryce and fed him the first few fluffy kernels.

“Thank you, doll. All is forgiven,” Bryce murmured between mouthfuls. “Now, can we get back to our feature presentation?”

Nestor nodded and pressed the pause button once again. Down at the foot of the bed, the screen jolted to life, and the towel succumbed to gravity. Down it fell, out of the frame.

Bryce gasped, his hand at his throat. “Oh my heavens—what a work of art is man!” His wide eyes were focused on the screen like an eagle’s when it spies plump, slow-moving prey. “Pause it! Pause it!”

Nestor rolled his eyes and hit the pause button. “Before you no like pause…,” he muttered.

“Hush! Now, look at that. Is it not a wonder? All that bunched muscle, that flawless skin, not a mark on it. Oh, what I wouldn’t give to have an ass like that.”

“But my love, your culo is just as pretty as that one on the film.”

“I don’t want to have an ass like that—what would I use all that muscle for? But if I had an ass like that right here in bed with me—oh, the things I would do to it….” His eyes grew unfocused and dreamy. Then he snapped back to the moment. “I would share it with you, of course,” he said to Nestor. “Like when we split that pizza delivery man last week.”

“Mmm,” Nestor purred at the recollection. “Spicy, with extra sausage.”

“You know, we should order from them again. I think next time I’ll go for an additional topping.”

Nestor nodded his agreement.

“Now, though, let’s see what develops with our athlete here. If I know my locker-spy porn—and you know I do—I suspect he’s about to turn around and reveal the extent of his musculature. My guess is”—he cocked his head at the screen—“a soft five, or a semi six.”

Nestor pushed the pause button.

On the screen, the athlete reached up into his locker and pulled out a pair of underwear. They were boxers, in a faded plaid material, and even with the low quality of the video, signs of wear on the waistband were apparent. He stepped into them one leg at a time, not bending over enough to afford Bryce a view of the other sight he was looking forward to. The boxers bunched up under his rounded buttocks, and he slid his thumbs into the waistband and pulled them up, obscuring the view. The rest of the film consisted of the same athlete applying deodorant, pulling on his shirt, jeans, and shoes, and then finally donning a sweatshirt before slinging a backpack over his shoulder and slamming his locker shut.

“But… but…!” was all Bryce could manage to get out. He turned his crestfallen face to Nestor. “But… that’s it? That’s all we get?”

Nestor picked up the keyboard and searched the site for additional videos from the same user, but he found nothing. He shook his head, and shrugged at Bryce.

“Well, that’s certainly not up to the standards I have come to expect from DudesCaughtNudeintheLockerRoom.com! Really—all that buildup and not even a glimpse of the goods. I may have to compose a strongly worded e-mail.”

“Please, let this not ruin movie night,” murmured Nestor. “We have popped corn, and I bring a bottle of your favorite.”

“The strawberry kind? That stays slippery for hours?” Bryce asked through pouting lips.

Nestor nodded.

“All right,” Bryce said with a small, dignified huff. “Let’s see if there’s anything new in the way of drunk college boys.” He took a large handful of popcorn as Nestor’s fingers flew over the keys. “How terribly boring spring break must have been before smartphones and two-dollar margaritas.”

They sat back against their pillows as a conga line of naked men—half of them wearing backward baseball caps—jostled past the camera to the appreciative hoots of an assembly of bikini-clad women.

Bryce turned to Nestor and kissed him on the nose. “I love movie night.”

 

 

THE PHONE on his desk blipped, jolting him from his concentration on the report he was writing. The phone so rarely rang anymore—most communication came through e-mail or messaging—that every time it did, he jumped in surprise. It usually meant someone outside of his usual contacts was trying to reach him as everyone in his division knew how to reach him electronically.

“Brandt,” he said into the receiver.

“Officer Brandt, good. This is Chief Powell up in Woodley. Got a little issue here I hoped I might get your help on. Your chief said it was okay to contact you directly.”

Ethan Brandt had gotten used to this kind of call over the past six months. He and his partner Gabriel Donnelly were the first officers in the state police to be fully out as gay men, and the publicity around their mission last year investigating a sex-cam website had attracted the attention of police departments across the state. The calls for help generally involved one of two things: violations of the state’s statutes protecting gays and lesbians or people being filmed in compromising sexual situations. Come to think of it, Brandt reflected, most calls involved both of these things.

“How can I help you, Chief Powell?”

“We got ourselves a situation involving one of those cell-phone videos. Shows one of our high school students in… ah… well, in an intimate setting.”

Brandt sat up in his chair. Woodley… yes, he’d heard of this case. “Is this the video of the girl at that party?”

There was a pause on the other end of the phone. “Ah, no. This is a new one.”

“I don’t mean to cut you off, chief, but I need to know—is the subject of this new one of age?” All he knew about the earlier case was that the girl whose image had been captured in the scandal was under eighteen. The state police had a unit for dealing with underage videos, and Brandt would involve them from the beginning if needed.

“Yes, yes….” There was a long pause. “He’s eighteen.”

“Wait, did you say he?” Brandt had definitely not heard of this case—in fact, he hadn’t heard of any such case in the state.

“Ah… yes. It’s also a matter of some delicacy in the community, Officer Brandt. Do you think you might be able to come up to Woodley for a meeting, help us figure out how to proceed?”

“Yes, of course,” Brandt replied immediately. He pulled up his calendar app. “My partner and I can be there tomorrow morning at… say, ten?”

“Oh, right, your ‘partner.’” The chief sighed. “I still can’t get used to…,” he muttered, then seemed to stop himself from going any further. “Anyway, tomorrow would be fine. I appreciate your help, Brandt.” He clicked off the line.

“Donnelly!” Brandt called two desks over to where his partner worked. “How do you feel about a field trip tomorrow?”

“Where we going? Someplace glamorous?”

“Yeah, not so much. Heading to Woodley.”

“Oh.”

Brandt got up and walked over to his partner’s desk. “I can tell from your tone you are less than thrilled with my choice of destination.”

“You’re a mind reader, you are.” Donnelly grinned, looking up at his partner with eyes that sparkled with mischief but clearly showed he was very much in love. “What’s the occasion?”

“The chief there says they have a video of a high school kid, and they aren’t sure how to handle it.”

“Well, they could hardly do worse than they did with that one a few months back.”

Brandt squinted at his partner. “I didn’t know you kept up on the goings-on in Woodley, of all places.”

Donnelly rolled his eyes. “Ugh—that place. I grew up near there. Remember those great stories I’ve told you about my hometown? Well, Woodley’s even worse. Batshit conservative top to bottom. In high school we used to wrestle against them. You’ve never seen a town so fixated on sports, and on wrestling in particular. They always had some pastor come out and say a prayer before meets, but their true religion is wrestling.”

“Their public high school has prayers before wrestling meets?”

Donnelly nodded. “Yep. It’s that kind of place. So, thanks for the chance to go back and visit—it’ll be awesome.”

“Your job satisfaction, as always, is my primary concern,” cracked Brandt as he walked back to his desk.

 

 

THAT NIGHT, as Brandt pulled back the covers and slipped into bed next to Donnelly, he was already running scenarios on their trip to Woodley. “Today, when you said Woodley had fucked up the video case six months ago, what did you mean?”

Donnelly set down his e-book. “It was a classic case,” he replied. “Girl goes to a party at a friend’s house after the winter formal, ends up getting frisky in one of the bedrooms.”

“May be a parent’s worst nightmare, but I imagine it happens all the time.”

“Except this time, someone got video of it on their smartphone camera.”

“Again, probably happens all the time. Jeesh, kids today.” Brandt sighed at the decadence of youth—a neat trick, given that he was only twenty-five years old himself.

“Here’s where it gets more interesting. The video was taken—and posted online—by one of the people in the room with her.”

“Wait, one of the people with her? How many were in there?”

“Two besides her, apparently. You know, best buds doing some male bonding.”

“Oh. That’s a bit more… unusual. How did they handle it once the video got around?”

“Badly. Everyone ganged up on the girl. It was about the most intense slut-shaming you can imagine. Even some of her own family blamed her for embarrassing everyone.”

“But she wasn’t the only one there, and she certainly didn’t film it and forward it to her friends, right?” Brandt felt himself getting angry. “Didn’t the guys get some of the blame?”

“Yeah, not so much. The guy with the camera was pretty careful not to get their faces in the shot, so there’s no hard evidence on who it was. But that really doesn’t matter.”

“It should. It damn well should!”

“I mean, it doesn’t matter in Woodley. She was in the video having sex, so she’s the slut. They didn’t even work very hard on finding out who the guys were. She claimed that it was two stars of the wrestling team, but no one believed her.”

“Why not? She’s the one who would know.”

“Yes. But you missed the part about their being stars—on the wrestling team. Wrestling is like a religion in Woodley, remember? They would do anything to avoid those guys getting in trouble.”

“Well, that sucks.”

“Indeed it does. But it sucks the most for the real victim. She and her mom basically had to leave town. Went out west somewhere, I think, to live with relatives.”

“Hmm.” Brandt was reconsidering the nature of their meeting in Woodley tomorrow. “This Powell guy said he wanted to talk to us because this new video is a sensitive matter in the community. And it’s a video of a guy. I wonder if the two situations are related.”

“Look at you, already on the case,” Donnelly said, shaking his head. “Can you take a few minutes away from your work to do something for me?”

“Sure. What do you need me to do?”

“Me, if it’s not too much trouble.” Donnelly set his e-book on the nightstand and threw off the covers, revealing the porcelain skin and powerful musculature that Brandt loved so much.

“I think I can work you in,” growled Brandt.

“Hey, it’s my turn,” Donnelly replied. His delighted expression clearly conveyed he was up for anything Brandt might want to do.

“We’ll just have to see about that,” Brandt said with a sly grin as he launched himself atop his willing partner, and all thoughts of the scandal in Woodley left his mind.

 

 

WOODLEY LAY two hours to the north of the city. Brandt prided himself on never being late, so he had dragged Donnelly out of bed and gotten on the road by seven thirty.

“Can we stop for coffee?” groaned Donnelly.

“You haven’t finished the one I made you before we left the house!”

“Yeah, but by the time you find a place to get more I’ll have finished it.” He turned his sleepy eyes to Brandt. “I’m just trying to be efficient. You know, planning ahead.”

“If we make good time, we can stop on the outskirts of town.”

“We’re going to Woodley. There are no outskirts. Once you’re there, you’re there.”

“Then we’ll hit the Starbucks in town. Happy now?”

“Not so much. The Starbucks in Woodley closed last year. They were driven out of town by a group pissed off about the company giving domestic partner benefits.”

Brandt turned a disbelieving look on Donnelly. “Are you serious? Who does that?”

“The good people of Woodley, that’s who. When are you going to stop being surprised by that?”

“I guess I’ve just been sheltered. We live in a pretty great city, and almost all our friends and family have been completely supportive of us. I kind of thought the world was getting better all over.”

“I recommend you dial back your expectations, buddy. Woodley’s like a little chunk of 1958 that got lodged in the throat of time.”

“That’s one of your less appetizing similes, I have to say.”

“Sorry. It’s the caffeine deprivation. It’s all starting to get fuzzy….”

“Hold out for three minutes, drama queen. There’s a truck stop next exit that promises ‘top-quality expresso.’ Sounds yummy, right?”

“Spelling it with an x means it’s automatically going to be horrible. But as long as it has caffeine, I’m not going to quibble. Wake me when we’re there.”

“I told you it’s only three minutes,” Brandt began, but was stopped by Donnelly’s histrionic snoring. “Fine. I’ll wake you,” he grumbled.

 

 

THE POLICE department was, like the rest of Woodley, severe and old-fashioned. It inhabited a low-slung building in the middle of downtown, which it shared with the other municipal offices. Brandt drove slowly by but kept going so as to take in the whole town—and find a place to get decent coffee. The truck-stop “expresso” tasted like the by-product of a motor-oil recycling program, and they were both eager for a drinkable cup. They found a tiny storefront on the edge of downtown with a cheery sign out front and a wheezing monster of an espresso maker inside. Fortified, they decided to walk the four or five blocks back to the station.

“Did that barista wink at you?” Brandt asked as they walked.

“Are you asking me as a police officer, or as your boyfriend?” Donnelly asked. “I need to know whether I’m obligated to give evidence or to spare your feelings.”

“I thought so.” Brandt smiled. “Did you think he was cute?”

“Couldn’t really tell. There was so much steam from that pre-Mussolini espresso maker that I could hardly see his muscles and charm.”

“Nice. I take it we’ll be stopping back in to grab a little something to take home?” Brandt asked with a chuckle.

Donnelly stopped suddenly. “Do you think he’d come with us? We haven’t really talked about this—it’s all so sudden!” Brandt gaped at him, and he burst out laughing.

“Keep it moving, Officer Donnelly,” Brandt scolded. “We’ve got a job to do.”

They walked into the police department and presented their badges at the front desk. They were shown into a conference room and left with an assurance that the chief would be in shortly. They admired the photos of pastoral landscapes that decorated one wall of the conference room and the photos of various sporting events that decorated the other three.

“I see what you mean about this place and sports,” Brandt muttered.

“There’s no pride like Woodchuck pride,” Donnelly replied with a roll of his eyes.

“Woodchucks? Really?”

“Yep. I remember when I was in high school there was talk about updating the mascot. But in the end the forces of tradition won out. They always do around here.”

With a heavy foot, Chief Powell lumbered into the room. “Officer Brandt?” He was an energetic man of about sixty with a prodigious belly and a booming voice. He set the laptop he was carrying down on the table and shook Brandt’s hand vigorously. “Thank you for coming.”

“Chief Powell, this is my partner, Officer Gabriel Donnelly.”

Powell held out his hand with perhaps less vigor than he had shown Brandt. “Officer,” he said with an almost grudging undertone.

Donnelly simply nodded.

“Please, sit,” Powell said, taking the chair at the head of the table.

Brandt and Donnelly sat down on either side of him.

“Now, you’re aware of the incident we had back in the fall.” The officers nodded. “Damn shame that was—almost derailed our wrestling season before it even began.”

“Yes, that would have been a hardship,” Donnelly said, his voice low and even.

“But once that girl finally came to her senses and left town, things settled down. That’s why this latest development… well, I just want to make it go away as quickly and quietly as possible.”

“Perhaps you can give us some details on what’s happened?” Brandt asked. Before leaving work yesterday, he had checked on whether any recent news had come from Woodley about a video scandal and had come up with nothing.

“About a week ago, one of the kids at the high school came to the school counselor about a video that was being passed around. Good kid, but she wouldn’t say who had passed it to her. Anyway, the counselor watched it and notified us right away.”

“And what does this video contain?” Brandt prompted.

“I’ll show it to you. As I mentioned, the person in the video is eighteen, but it’s still shocking. Of course, what shocks you city people may be different from what riles us country folks….” He cast a wary look at Donnelly, as if he suspected the officer from the city liked to watch videos of a depraved nature over his organic bulgur-flax granola in the morning. He opened his laptop and stabbed at the keyboard with fat, certain fingers; he spun it around to show them once the video window opened. “Here you go.”

The video showed a locker room and a young man in a towel.

 

 

WHEN THE video concluded, the chief shut the laptop and looked from Brandt to Donnelly. “Well, I think you can see why we’re so upset.”

Brandt looked across the table at Donnelly, who gave the smallest shrug, and then at the chief. “I assume you’ve interviewed him?”

“We brought him in right away, and his parents as well. They were beside themselves, naturally.”

“He had no idea the video had been made?”

“None at all,” the chief replied. “And if you’re going to ask next whether we found the camera, the answer is no. We searched the locker where it seems from the video that it was located, and all of the others on that row, and came up with nothing. No sign of anything having been there at all.”

Brandt took a deep breath, let it out. “Chief, I’m sure this has been embarrassing for the boy, and for his family, but I’m not sure how we can help.”

The chief leaned in, a deep scowl on his face. “Officer Brandt, I’m sure you appreciate that we cannot have a pervert on the loose taking video of innocent athletes. They have a reasonable expectation of privacy in the locker room, and that has been violated. And if this video is being passed around the high school, then it is only a matter of time before it finds its way onto the Internet and this young man’s future is over.”

Brandt had had enough. “Chief Powell, with all due respect, this video—while it certainly is a violation of this man’s privacy—would get a PG-13 rating if it were in a movie. If we’re going to have a manhunt every time a high school boy’s butt is displayed to the public, you’re going to have to make mooning a felony.”

Powell’s eyes narrowed to slits. “Perhaps I have not made myself clear, Officer Brandt. Someone has violated this young man, and they can destroy him with a click of a button. It is our duty to keep that from happening.” He turned to Donnelly as if giving up on Brandt altogether. “You see, Mr. Jonah Fischer is one of our top wrestlers, and as a senior he is currently being recruited by some of the top college programs in the country. This video could end all of that.”

“Pardon me, chief, but why would a recruiter pull an offer because Mr. Fischer was recorded without his permission?”

“You never wrestled, did you, son?” the chief replied, shaking his head at Brandt.

“No sir, I—”

“I did,” blurted Donnelly. “I understand the problem, chief.” He turned to Brandt. “Wrestling is different, Ethan. Most sports have their homophobic aspects, mainly as a defense against the idea that football players piling on top of each other or basketball players covering each other closely is in any way erotic.” The chief bristled at the word. “But in wrestling, all you have is contact. It’s two superfit guys in skintight singlets writhing around on a mat grabbing and holding, each trying to be the first one to climb on top of the other.”

The chief shook his head, clearly distressed at this characterization. But Donnelly was undaunted.

“That’s why wrestlers can sometimes be the most homophobic athletes—it’s kind of a natural response to the fact that everything they do to beat a competitor is exactly what they would do to make out with him. They need the deniability that homophobia provides.”

Brandt looked at the chief. “Does that about sum it up?”

The chief sighed and studied the tabletop for a moment before answering. “That isn’t it at all. Wrestling is one of the oldest sports, and one of the most pure. It’s the perversion of our modern world that makes it seem to some people—” He looked with obvious disgust at Donnelly, then resumed with a snarl. “—erotic. That’s why we have to stand strong against perversion in all of its forms. Whoever made this video wanted to turn the purity of athletics into something dirty, to expose this poor boy to the sick desires of deviants. No wrestling program is going to want to be associated with that.”

“Which is basically what I said,” Donnelly added. “That doesn’t mean it’s right, chief. There are gay wrestlers, just like there are gay football players and gay basketball players. And they compete and win just like the straight ones. Wrestling is a great sport, and it will get even better once it shakes off its homophobic baggage. There are surely some university wrestling recruiters who won’t care about the video, but until the entire sport comes around to that view,”—he looked to Brandt—“it could be a pretty big deal. If we can help this kid out by finding out who did this and stopping it from going any further, we should.”

Brandt nodded. “All right, we’ll see what we can do. Can we talk to this Jonah?”

The chief’s expression lightened. “I hoped you would want to do that. I’ve asked his parents to bring him in this afternoon when school is over. That’ll be at two thirty.”

“Good enough,” Brandt replied. “We’ll come back then. Do you mind if we head over to the high school and take a look at the locker room?”

“Like I said, we’ve gone over the place pretty thoroughly. But it wouldn’t hurt for you to take a look as well. I’ll let the wrestling coach know you’re coming by.”

“Thanks.” Brandt and Donnelly rose. “We’ll see you at two thirty.”

They shook hands, and the officers walked back to their car.

“Well, that was fun,” Brandt said as they strolled. “Thank goodness I had a native speaker of wrestling to translate for me. Otherwise I would have been completely lost.”

Donnelly shook his head and looked into the distance. “What amazed me is how he cannot see the similarities between these two video cases. Being filmed completely ruined that girl’s life, but he didn’t give a crap about her. This boy’s ass, though, gets him all worked up.”

“What do you think the odds are that this video is going to end up on a website?”

“Are you kidding me? Did you have your eyes closed when we watched it? Even setting aside those who watch hidden camera videos just because they’re hidden camera videos, there would still be a whole lot of people in the world who would watch that. He’s as well built as any of those guys Nick manages back at the frat house.”

“Dude, we’re supposed to be professionals here.”

“I’m giving you my professional opinion that our Mr. Fischer is definitely going to go viral, if he hasn’t already.”

Brandt shrugged. “Yeah, you’re probably right. I’ve learned to respect your taste in asses.”

“Speaking of which, how about another cup of coffee?”

Even Brandt slapping the back of his head couldn’t keep Donnelly from having a good laugh at his own juvenile humor.

 

 

BRANDT AND Donnelly were shown into the coaches’ offices while a noisy group of phys ed students shouted and jostled their way through the locker room. They sat at the wrestling coach’s desk and awaited his arrival.

The athletic complex was, predictably, out of all scale compared to the rest of the high school campus. The facilities rivaled those of the university Brandt had attended and looked to be no more than five years old. The locker rooms were built in an elliptical shape, with the offices for the coaching staff in the center. They were raised up a half flight of stairs from the floor level in the locker room, and windows all around the offices commanded a view into all of the areas of lockers below. Underneath the offices, a half flight lower than floor level, were showers.

Once the din of high schoolers bound for the fields had died away, a fit and wiry man in his thirties sprang up the stairs into the room full of desks and strode over to meet the officers. According to the embroidery on his slick polo shirt, his name was Coach Woody.

“Ah, you must be here to see me,” he said as he extended his hand to the men. “I’m Woodrow Gustafson, the wrestling coach. Please, call me Woody.”

Brandt nodded. “I’m Officer Brandt, and this is Officer Donnelly. Chief Powell asked us to gather some information about the video of Jonah Fischer.”

Coach Woody grew immediately serious. “I’m so glad you’re here to help. I just hate the idea of anything happening to Jonah’s chances of getting a ride to college. Kid’s parents work so hard, but they’ve had some setbacks, and the only way he’s going to get a shot in life is a wrestling scholarship. Otherwise, it’s comm