CHAPTER ONE

A HOT August night is always good for an open window or two, and I’d spotted one on a deserted street. It looked like an easy climb. From the entrance stair it was a short hop onto the balustrade, an arm’s reach to the segmental pediment, and one last stretch across the brownstone wall. By the time I reached the second-story window, I figured out the climb wasn’t as easy as the construction-site scaffolds I was used to. Biker boots aren’t made for climbing. A tank top was great for showing off my brown-skinned muscles, but for climbing up a building it was stupid—I was all scratched up. If I’d planned this, I’d’ve worn a heavier shirt, with long sleeves.

My raw hands throbbed, but at least I made it. I peered inside. The room was dark, but the streetlight showed me enough. Just what I was looking for: a laptop on the dresser. I’d seen ’em at the pawnshop going for five or six hundred—that’s all the money I needed. Across from the dresser was a bed with some white guy—sleeping like a baby. His blanket was pushed down. The guy was half-naked because of the heat, and leaner than me. If I had to, I could take him.

I climbed in without a stir from the bed and headed straight for the computer. Shit! What was that? My own reflection in the dresser mirror made me jump. Suck it up, Carlos—you can do this. Still, my nerves were on edge. How did that gringo not hear my heart pounding? My sweaty hands were shaking as I struggled to unplug the laptop. Suddenly, something caught my eye. The reflection was big and looming up behind me—

Everything went dark. Sound was muffled. I was suffocating.

Gasping, I struggled against a fabric trap, clawing to free myself until I felt a full body blow take me down to the hard floor. The wind was knocked out of me, and the gringo was on top of me. Then I felt an excruciating whack across my forehead, and my world spun out of control.

OH, MAN. What happened?

My head was whirling. I wasn’t sure I could open my eyes.

I took a deep breath, then forced one eye open. Too bright. Blurry. I think I was still in the same room. I opened the other eye, tilted my head. Man, did it hurt. A table lamp was glowing and I must’ve been in the bed. Hey, where’s my shirt? I looked around and there’s that gringo, sitting in the chair next to the bed. How’d that guy manage to get the jump on me? He was still half-naked, wearing some boxers, and he was holding—a bat!

“What the… I’m gettin’ the hell outta here.” I started to get up, but my head was spinning and— “Where’re my pants, ya faggot?” I was naked in this guy’s bed. “What’d ya do to me?”

“Me? I didn’t do anything. I picked you up at the bar. On the way home you got gay-bashed. I brought you up here because I think you might have a concussion. You’ll need to get some sleep.”

“Hey, man, I’m no faggot,” I yelled, making my head hurt all the more.

“Really? Then why are you naked in my bed?” Man, he was right. This really didn’t look good. “Whacking you with a bat could get me into trouble. Climbing in my window could get you into trouble. Nobody will bother to investigate some random gay-bashing.”

“So what now?” I felt trapped, but I defiantly dared him to answer. “Ya wanna fuck me?”

“Don’t flatter yourself. I don’t waste my time with straight guys—too much drama. I took your clothes off because they reeked. But also because I knew you’d be sleeping off the concussion and you’d get hot. Plus, if you did try to get away in your half-crazed state, naked guys don’t get too far on the street.” The gringo went on, “Now hold on, man. Don’t try to sit up.” At least he’d put down the bat. “I just want to make sure you’re okay. You look like you got beat up pretty bad.” Yeah, I got beat up pretty bad… by you. “Just lie still and let me check you out.”

“Don’t you be telling me… ow.” Oh, my head. Man, it’s gonna explode. I couldn’t get up if I wanted to.

The white guy stood over me with one hand on my chest, easily holding me down. He showed me his other hand. “How many fingers am I holding up?”

Things were dark all around the edges, but his hand was dimly lit at the end of this dark tunnel. “Three. What’re you? A doctor?”

“No. Internet. Now, shut up and look at my finger. Follow it with your eyes.” He moved his finger left to right and then up and down, and I kept it in the glowing circle. “Well, that’s a good sign.” He picked up a flashlight and shined it in my eyes and then moved it away. His piercing green eyes were staring right into mine. I felt like he could see right through me. I guess he was satisfied when he said, “Okay.”

“Ow… no. I’m not okay.”

“No. But it looks like you only have a concussion.”

Only a concussion? Man, you coulda killed me.”

“Here, take these. It’s just aspirin. You’ll need to get some sleep. I’ll be waking you up every three hours to give you more aspirin and check on you.”

“What the fuck? You’re crazy, man. I’m gettin’ outta here… ow.” Man, every time I raised my head, it throbbed and everything spun. The darkness was sort of going away, but little white spots were dancing around now. I couldn’t help but drop back onto the pillow. This gringo didn’t look like a faggot, but he was talking like he was; at least he called me a straight guy. But that gay-bashing story really bugged me. What if someone heard it and believed it? Hell, too many people that know me might believe it.

The gringo’s voice stayed calm. “Hey, man, I’m not making you stay. Your clothes are hanging in the closet. Get up and get dressed whenever you want. I won’t stop you. It’s your concussion.”

Everything was so blurry I couldn’t even see the closet. I tried to get up again, but it was no use and I fell back down. I could feel him put his hand behind my head. “Ow, don’t you be touchin’ me, man.” I couldn’t get up, but my voice growled, defiant.

“Look, I’m just trying to get these aspirin down you. Then you can get back to sleep.” He pushed the aspirin against my lips and I opened my mouth. My eyes had closed again, so I ended up licking the palm of his hand in the process. Yuck. Then he slid his hand from my head to my back to prop me up and pressed a glass of water to my lips. Most of the water went down my throat, but some ran out the corners of my mouth and down my neck to my chest. The room was so hot, the unexpected bath felt cool and nice.

“Now, go back to sleep.”

I didn’t have any choice. My head fell back onto the pillow and my eyes stayed closed tight. I lay there for a moment, praying the throbbing would go away.

“Damn!”

He’d pushed something against my head. It was hot—no, cold—and painful. I felt sharp pins against my left temple. It had to be an ice pack. I could feel the frosty, wet plastic. I tried to squirm away, but my every movement hurt. He held the pack tight until I became numb to the pain. Then he turned my head, so the ice pack would stay propped in place. Finally, I relaxed and gave in to sleep.

I don’t think it was a minute before somebody was shaking me awake again. I couldn’t focus at first. It was just a blurry ghost—or an angel—with a white face and sandy brown hair. I blinked and the image got a little clearer. The angel had the most compelling, sparkling green eyes—Damn, the gringo is back.

“Sorry, man. It’s been three hours. Time for more aspirin.”

He shook me awake a few more times and gave me more aspirin with water every time. He kept wanting to look in my eyes and ask me questions before he’d let me go back to sleep. He changed the ice pack on my head too. Mostly I just slept.

FINALLY, I opened my eyes and it was daylight, but I didn’t know what time it was. At least the dark tunnel had gone, along with most of the blurriness. The white dude was sitting at a desk next to the bed, typing on his laptop. He looked over almost as soon as I woke up. He had some clothes on this time—a T-shirt and cargo shorts. I peeked under the sheet. I could focus a little better—still no clothes. When I moved my head, something wet fell. It was just the blue ice pack.

“Are you feeling any better?”

I was wiped out. All of the fight was out of me; my head was still spinning. But I had to admit in a quiet voice, “Yeah, a little better.”

“Do you think you can get up?”

I was sure I could. I put my arms behind me and tried. It was a struggle, but I managed to sit up and pull my feet over the side of the bed. I also managed to keep the sheet over my lap.

“Whoa.” He ran around to where I was sitting and grabbed me. It was a good thing too, because I was going down. I was so dizzy, I didn’t know if I was falling toward the bed or the floor. He sat down on the bed next to me and put his arm around my shoulder to hold me up so I couldn’t fall. I didn’t have the energy to shrug off his arm. His strong hand had a secure hold on my right deltoid, while my left was pressed solidly into his chest.

“Okay, man. You’re okay. You’ll still need some more rest.” That’s sure right. “Now, I’m not trying anything freaky here, so just relax. I’m going to get you in the shower. Sorry, dude, but you reek. And a shower will make you feel better. I’ll make you something to eat, and then you’ll be able to get back to sleep.”

“No, I gotta get outta here.” This guy was freaking me out. I tried to steal his laptop, he hit me with a bat and gave me a concussion. Next he tried to nurse me back to health while sitting way too close and holding me up. “You’re crazy, man.”

“Me crazy? I’m just trying to help you out, Paco.”

“I’m Carlos. Don’t call me Paco, youuu… gringo.” Shit, he’d tricked me into telling him my real name and he knew it. Now he just grinned.

“Sorry, Carlos. Thanks for not lying. I’ve already checked out your wallet. All that was in there was your ID, a picture of your sister, or your girlfriend—I’m guessing it’s your girlfriend—and a condom. Hoping to get lucky?”

“I had two hundred bucks in there.”

“Oh, and I had such faith in you, Paco. You had eight dollars in there, a five and three ones, and you still do. If you had two hundred dollars in there, you wouldn’t be climbing in windows trying to steal my laptop, now would you? Do you know what that laptop is worth?”

“Yeah, a lot of money.”

“What’s your idea of a lot?”

I shrugged.

“It cost about twelve hundred dollars to buy new. At the pawnshop, you’ll be lucky to get two hundred. But, you’ll probably get less when the pawnbroker asks you to prove it works by turning it on and you don’t know the password.”

The math just made my head hurt and left me more confused. I knew, whatever this guy was saying, he couldn’t be right. “But I’ve seen ’em going for five or six hundred at the pawnshop.”

“Yeah, that’s where the pawnbroker makes his money. Now, Carlos Romero—twenty-three years old, five foot ten, one hundred and sixty pounds, brown eyes, and black hair—just so that you’ll know, I’ve already scanned your ID and e-mailed it back to myself. Even if you steal my computer, I can pick up my e-mail from another computer. The only thing of value in this room is that laptop—and it’s priceless to me. If it’s gone, it will be easy to track you down.”

“So why don’t you call the cops, man?”

“You can call me Michael. Michael Feiten.”

“Fightin’? Using a baseball bat is not fair fighting, man,” I sneered.

He ignored me. “I haven’t called the police because I felt sorry for you. I was really angry that some idiot would try to take my laptop. Then I was really worried you were hurt. But after I cooled off, I realized you really are an idiot, because you haven’t any idea what you’re doing. This is your first attempt at burglary, right?”

“Don’t you be calling me an idiot,” I protested, but I was too loud. It made my head hurt again. I closed my eyes tight and put my hands on my head to hold down the throbbing.

I knew the Michael gringo kept looking at me, and I tried not to give away that he was right about everything. Then he went on, “There were no drugs on you, no track marks on your body. It seems to me like you just need the money. I checked out the address on your ID. It’s a rental, and it’s available. So where have you been living—the street?”

I wasn’t saying anything else to this faggot. He knew too much already. He’d figured me out, so I wasn’t talking. I opened my eyes, but I kept my hands on my head, shielding myself from his gaze. I stared ahead at the bedspread, carefully folded on the ottoman. He kept looking at me. I kicked at the bedspread with my toe, hoping to annoy and distract this neat freak. His grip on me stayed steady. I wasn’t going to give in and tell him any more. This was one fight I was going to win.

After what seemed like forever of me avoiding his gaze, he sighed. “Fine… are you hungry?”

I had to nod, yes. Ow.

“Shower first. You’ll feel better.”

I didn’t like the sound of that, even though I couldn’t stand the way I smelled. I didn’t move. He shook his head.

“Come on,” he prodded. “You know I’m right.”

I don’t know why I gave in, but I tried to get up, barely moving on my own. Instead, I felt myself lifted as Michael pulled me up and threw my arm over his shoulder. He was a strong guy, taller than I expected, maybe six foot, but we probably both weighed the same. He moved me around like I didn’t weigh anything. I’d thought I could take him when I saw him lying down, but once he stood next to me I wasn’t so sure. He didn’t look much older than me—maybe midtwenties.

He helped me into the bathroom and turned on the shower. As soon as I heard the running water I realized “I gotta piss.”

He let out a heavy sigh, then lifted the lid on the toilet while still holding me up.

“You’d better sit down.”

“I ain’t no fucking chick.” I jerked away from him but came off balance.

“Whoa, man.”

He grabbed me before I went down. He leaned me forward and pulled at my left wrist, pushing my hand against the wall. Then he lifted the seat too, but he wouldn’t take his hand off my wrist. When he placed another firm hand on my shoulder, I finally let it flow and listened for the splash. It didn’t sound like I was missing the target—that was good. To my left was a wide mirror over the cultured marble sink counter. I noticed the gringo was carefully looking away toward the right and the fiberglass shower/tub. I guess he wasn’t a total perv. A couple of shakes and I was done.

Next he had to help me over the tub edge, and then he told me to lean against the wall with both hands. He stayed outside the tub, but with the curtain open some water still managed to splash his shirt and pants. He soaped me up until he got to my crotch. Then he put a hand on the side of my waist to hold me steady, handed me the soapy washcloth, and told me to take care of myself. The soap smelled good. It wasn’t some girly perfume stuff; it smelled like a man’s soap—kinda woodsy, like sandalwood—or maybe it was a spicy smell? And it was sorta rough too, with oatmeal or something mixed in. It felt rugged. He helped me rinse, but I was still unsteady. Finally, he made me sit down so I wouldn’t fall down, and he washed my hair. His hands were strong, and he just did the job, without any funny business. The shampoo smelled the same as the soap. When he was done, I sat under the raining shower spray while the shampoo ran down my face and rinsed out. After he turned off the water, the gringo helped me up and out of the tub. He mostly dried me off with a thick fluffy towel, until he got to my crotch. I had to admit, after the shower I did feel a little better. I knew I smelled better.

Once I was dry, he wrapped the towel around my waist and guided me out to sit at a little square table. He’d done most of the work, but I was exhausted. I felt cooler now, even in the oppressive heat. I was seeing things a little more clearly too. This was just one little room. It was like a hotel room, only it had a little kitchen too, right across from the bathroom. The place looked clean and new. Everything was updated. The room’s door was between the bathroom and the kitchen, and it had an emergency exit route sign and a hotel price notice on it. The table where I was sitting was next to the kitchen, with two modern rolling chairs. The only bed in the room was queen-sized. The computer sat on the desk now, since he’d been working on it. At the other side of the bed were a nightstand and one easy chair with an ottoman. The carpets, fabrics, and wall colors were tans, rusts, browns, and deep reds—guy colors. For businessmen, I guessed. There were two side-by-side windows, where I came in from, between the closet and the chair. The window casings were the only things that didn’t look modern; they matched the look of the brownstone building outside. I was so mixed up I wasn’t even sure which window I had used. I didn’t notice any personal items in the room at all. Except for the computer—and clothes that I presumed were in the closet—nothing said this place was “home.” I wondered how long he’d been staying here. Maybe just overnight?

The kitchen’s beige solid surface counter came out like an L, and the stainless-steel sink was in the inside corner, facing both the wall and me. That’s where he stood, busy with the food. The kitchen cabinets were bright white plastic laminate with shiny chrome pulls. Michael kept an eye on me while he prepared the food and brought it to where I sat, still wrapped in my bath towel. He sat in the other chair to watch me eat. The food was plain, just a grilled-cheese sandwich and tomato soup, but it was good. I hadn’t eaten for some time, maybe days, and I was really hungry. Still, I almost fell asleep while eating. He gave me more aspirin and helped me back to bed. Once I was covered, he pulled the damp towel off me in one quick jerk. Kinda like a magician, with the tablecloth trick. Back in the bed, under the sheet, I soon drifted off to sleep.

Michael woke me a few more times, with more aspirin, and maybe he had more food too—I don’t really remember. He always asked me a few questions, like my name and stuff he already knew. I remember one time it was dark when he woke me, and it was still really hot. The windows were wide open, and I noticed there was a fan on the floor. Had that always been there? Then he surprised me as he climbed into bed next to me.

“What?” I was too drowsy to say anything else.

“Relax, man. You’ve got nothing to worry about. And by the way, I’m a light sleeper, so I’ll know if you get up and decide to leave. If you want to go, and you can make it, go for it. Just don’t take anything that’s not yours.” Then he rolled over with his back to me. It was the only bed, and it was his room. It’s not like I had any other choice. It wasn’t so bad having him next to me, anyway. The sheets had a nice smell, and once he was in bed with me, I realized it was his cologne I could smell on the sheets, and now it was radiating out from his warm body. It had a musky, maybe peppery sort of smell. I don’t know exactly what it was, but I liked it. I breathed in deeply, and then I drifted back to sleep.

THE SKY was just starting to get a hint of pink light when I woke up. I was lying on my back, and my shoulder and arm were pressed against a warm, firm surface. I took a look around, and it all came back to me. Suddenly, I realized I was lying, naked, in bed with a faggot next to me, and my arm and leg were pressed tightly against his back and legs. I gotta get outta this place. The moment I stirred, Michael looked up. His eyes were alert.

“Where’s my stuff?” I demanded.

He climbed out of bed, bright and awake, wearing just his boxers. He stretched, smiled, and said, “Good morning. Feeling better, I see.” Then he went to the closet and started pulling out my clothes, tossing them onto the bed. They were clean, and when I pulled my tank top over my head, it smelled good too. “Do you want something to eat?”

“I just wanna get the hell outta here,” I said, climbing into my pants. I was sitting on the bed, and still I nearly fell over as I pulled up one leg and then the other. I stood to zip up, and tried to keep from swaying before I grabbed my socks. I had to sit back down on the bed to get them on. At least I was feeling a little more stable. Next I pulled on my boots.

“I hope you’ve got someplace to go. And I sure hope you’re not going to try to go back to your life of crime again. You’re not very good at it,” he kinda laughed. Then he got a little serious and said, “Look, if you really need help, come on back. Just use the front door.”

“I never wanna have to see your faggoty face again.” Then I stormed out, happy to be free.