Prologue

 

THE MANSION is situated on a lonely mountaintop in the high desert outside San Diego, California, just a handful of miles from the US/Mexican border. Piercing a stuccoed exterior, the delving eye of our camera pans inward through burled walnut paneling, up a long winding staircase, past sconces and portraits and diplomas long yellowed with age, until we come to a damask-wallpapered bedroom on the second floor where Roger David Stanhope sits at his desk, staring down at his wizened old hands.

They are arthritic and unsteady, those hands, weak now and speckled with age spots. They had not always been so. He could remember those same hands in his youth. They had been lithe and strong once, firmly fleshed and sprinkled with golden hairs. He had taken them for granted back then as they chopped wood, deftly spanned chords on a piano, stroked a lover’s skin.

In his youth, he had enjoyed a passion for carpentry. He remembered the feel of wood on his hands, be it the bark of a living chestnut tree or the smoothly sanded plank of cherrywood he had incorporated into a china cabinet to be proudly displayed in the dining room downstairs.

He had absorbed an entire lifetime through those very fingertips. His hands had not been palsied and hesitant in his youth. They had been skilled and exact, either gentle or strong, depending on the moment. They had not ached in the night or lost their grip holding the lightest of objects or grown numb for hours on end in cooler weather. They had served him well for decades, those hands. He had grown to trust they would be there for him to the end.

Which made their betrayal now all the more annoying.

Even the simple task of unpeeling a stamp and applying it to an envelope was a major undertaking. If it hadn’t been so pathetic, he might have laughed at himself. For even at the ripe old age of ninety-three, he still had a few laughs on tap. They were dispersed rarely these days, but they were still there, stored away, ready to toss into the air like confetti at a moment’s notice.

Before stuffing the letter inside the envelope, Roger David Stanhope perused it one last time. As he did, one of those hidden laughs, a mere chuckle really, sputtered up from his throat and bounced off the burgundy walls of the suite of rooms he rarely left these days.

His bedroom boasted an antique four-poster bed and other heavy, ornate pieces that had been fixtures in this house for more than a century; more than two centuries actually, having been delivered here by Roger’s great-great-grandfather following a long sea voyage packed in the hold of a brigantine out of Liverpool. The same seaport would later launch the first and final voyage of the ill-fated Titanic. Happily, the brigantine had not suffered the same fate as the doomed ocean liner. The furniture it carried had been antique already when it safely crossed the Atlantic, rounded Cape Horn, and threaded its way through the Straits of Magellan before heading due north to San Diego Bay.

Today, while the brigantine was long gone from the face of the planet, the furniture was still here, and undoubtedly priceless.

But that did not impress the man holding the letter. He had wielded wealth far too long for anything with a high dollar value to hold sway over him now.

Remembering the Titanic, however, brought forth his second chuckle of the morning. He was the Titanic now, he suddenly realized, still a-sea upon his own maiden voyage. His own first and final adventure. He was about to meet his own fucking iceberg, whatever it might turn out to be. But he had a chore to accomplish before he let those metaphorical waves flood over him, inundating his holds, dragging him down into the cold dark depths where he would never be seen again by living eyes.

Well, not a chore, really. It was more of a larkish good deed. Thinking of it now, his old face crinkled into a merry smile that, had he a mirror handy with which to study it, might have brought forth the third chuckle of the morning. In that merry smile could be seen glimpses of the handsome young man he had once been. The business tycoon, the explorer, the lover of one man and one man only, who had shared Roger’s life for seven decades, but who had slipped beneath his own waves two years earlier.

That parting had not been a sad one. Not really. Jeremy had been ill for several years before the cancer finally took him. He had suffered enough. And as Jeremy himself had said on the very morning that would be his last, eighty-nine years on this incredible planet, most of it spent in the arms of one wonderful man, was more than anyone deserved.

By the time that fateful morning rolled around, Jeremy had become a mere shell of the beautiful, swashbuckling rascal he once was. On that day, he had lain in the same four-poster bed where Roger now slept and taken Roger’s hand for the very last time. His final speech came in fits and starts—it was such a torture for him to speak—but he finally wrested the words into existence.

They were words Roger would never forget. Nor would he forget the anguish Jeremy bore to utter them.

“We were lovely together in our time, Rog. Both of us handsome and strong and madly in love. Looking at us now, no one would ever believe how dashing we once were. I can still close my eyes and taste your beautiful young cock. I can still feel the heat of your juices spilling across my tongue. Your strong, sculpted body thrumming beneath my hands. And oh, how you relished me. Do you remember, Rog? Do you remember how well we fit together? How unconditionally we craved and savored each other?”

On that fateful morning, which was to be their last, Roger had squeezed the old hand he cradled. He was lying beside Jeremy in the bed, his head on Jeremy’s chest. He lifted his head and pressed his bloodless lips to the throat of the man beneath him.

“I remember, Jeremy. I remember it all. Every day. Every moment. You made my life worth living.”

“And you mine,” Jeremy had answered, a gentle smile softening his mouth even as he tried to fight back the cough that rarely left him these days. It was in the very midst of that smile that his blue eyes dimmed and the breath slowly leaked from Jeremy’s cancer-riddled lungs, leaving him at long last still and lifeless in the bed. His old fingers slowly relaxed in Roger’s hair. The house grew silent around them but for the ticking of the Regulator clock in the hall. The bedroom, for the first time in decades, echoed with the beat of one heart instead of two.

Sensing that great silence settle around him, Roger had sadly smiled. It was the same gentle smile that Jeremy now wore in death. Pain free at last, his misery ended. Thank God.

“Good-bye,” Roger had whispered softly into the silent air, his words lying listless in the space between the damasked walls. “Until we meet again, my love.”

Later the tears would come, but at the moment of their parting, Roger felt only blessed relief to see Jeremy’s beloved face calm and untortured by the traitorous body that had held it ransom for so long.

And now, on this morning two long years later, with the house still silent about his head, Roger wrenched himself from the memories and stared back down at the letter in his hand, his heart once again jovial, eager to begin this final chapter of his life. This final escapade. Hand-printed on the paper was the suggested wording for a help wanted ad. That’s what the letter contained. Nothing more, nothing less. It would run in the San Diego Union-Tribune the following Sunday if all went as planned.

A simple ad. But not so simple either.

Roger’s sweet old smile returned, once again casting youthful shadows over his weathered face as he read the letter one last time before slipping it into the envelope and sealing it shut.

Later, Mrs. Price, the old woman—and friend—who did for him, at least for a few weeks longer, would carry it down to the door and deliver it into the hands of the mailman, who would cart it away, thus setting the wheels of Roger’s final adventure in motion.

And oh, what a splendid adventure it would be!

A flurry of hammering in a nearby room told him the technicians were still hard at work installing the cameras. Just a few finishing touches, they had told him, a few tweaks, and the system would be up and running. He had to give the tech guys credit. Not once had they asked the purpose behind installing hidden surveillance cameras in every room of the mansion, nor of the control panel with an array of monitors, which had been mounted in what had once been Roger’s massive walk-in closet. Behind the high-tech installation sprang a tangle of fiber-optic cables and cathode-ray tubes, glisteningly new and shooting off to various parts of the mansion, concealed in baseboards and crown moldings. By manipulating a computer mouse, each high-resolution camera could be swiveled left or right, panned out to display an entire room, or pulled in tight for a close-up that filled an entire screen. The room housing the monitors was just off the master bedroom, not six shuffling steps from where Roger now sat in his silk brocade dressing gown with his white shock of hair still ruffled from sleep, surrounded by countless photos of Jeremy and himself, which were hanging on every wall and perched on every shelf.

As he sat, he softly hummed a tuneless song and turned the envelope over and over in his hands. Waiting for Mrs. Price to come and fetch the outgoing mail. Waiting for his final adventure to start.

While he waited, the smile never left his face.

 

 


Chapter One

 

IT WAS an unassuming ad placed deep in the Help Wanted section of the Sunday issue of the San Diego Union-Tribune. Larry Walls spotted it while desultorily plodding his way through a breakfast of stale hamburger buns slathered with peanut butter, because he couldn’t afford bagels and cream cheese, which would have been his preference. Well, no, actually his preference would have been to drag his ass down to the Denny’s on the corner and scarf up a platter of waffles and sausage patties, but waffles and sausage patties cost money. And money was something Larry was a little short of at the moment.

Nothing new there, of course. Larry was always short of money.

Because of that, it was the first two words in the ad that had snagged his attention. Those two words really stood out, especially when glimpsed by someone like Larry Walls, who didn’t have fifty dollars in the bank and who still had a week to go before his next paycheck would come along.

The two words, in all caps, were EASY MONEY.

Larry liked the sound of that. Not only did he have less than fifty bucks in the bank, the actual newspaper he was browsing through was stolen from the coin-operated kiosk down the street. Well, not stolen actually. The kiosk was faulty. Every time someone legitimately purchased a paper from it and closed the flap of the kiosk behind them, the next person to come along could open the flap without inserting any coins at all. But it only worked once, at least until the next person came along to stuff money into the slot.

This morning Larry had stood on the street corner for less than five minutes before a gentleman strolled up, stuck his two dollars’ worth of quarters into the slot, and snagged a paper. Less than five seconds later, Larry moved in and snagged his own paper, free of charge.

So okay, if you wanted to get technical about it, Larry told himself, maybe the paper really was stolen. But hey, was it his fault the Union-Tribune people didn’t keep their equipment in proper working order? And really, how much of a loss would the newspaper suffer by doling out a free Sunday paper to Larry Walls once a week? It wasn’t like he stole a paper every day. Only Sunday. He liked the New York Times crossword puzzle, see. And the colored funnies. And sometimes the book reviews. Those things only came out on Sunday. The actual news in the newspaper was of very little interest to Larry. His own life was in too much turmoil for him to worry about what a mess the rest of the world was in.

Larry Walls slathered peanut butter over another stale hamburger bun and tore his eyes from the newspaper long enough to study the eviction notice propped against the saltshaker in front of him. He was behind on his rent. Again. Apparently, this time a simple apology wouldn’t be enough to get him off the hook. While his manager liked him, she had also warned him that the owner of the apartment building was far less forgiving than she, and the next time Larry was late forking over the rent, he might very well be evicted.

She was right. And here in front of him was the eviction notice to prove it. He had found it hanging on his front door when he left that morning to run up the street to steal a paper.

Larry tore his eyes from the notice because it made him a little ill to look at it. It wasn’t like he wasn’t trying to pay his bills on time. It’s just that the department store where he worked kept cutting his hours. He had tried to find another part-time job to fill the dead time, but when the store continually shifted his hours around as if on a whim, it was almost impossible to hold down a second job.

Weary of thinking about it, Larry tried to push everything from his thoughts, refocusing on the ad instead. And an intriguing ad it was too.

 

EASY MONEY. Wanted! Two gentlemen needed. Live-in.

One to cook. One to run the house. Must be single and

unattached. Need no references other than a ready smile and a gay, romantic heart. Kindness a must. Need for new

beginnings a plus. Hunger for life an absolute necessity.

Interviews one week from today at the address below.

 

Larry stared at the ad so long his eyes began to ache. What the heck did “gay, romantic heart” mean? Was the hirer actually looking for gay men, or did they simply mean “gay” in the “cheerful, happy-go-lucky” sense? Was this some old man or woman expecting sexual favors along with cooking and a little light housekeeping? Or was the ad legit?

But “live-in”! Now there was a delightful phrase. “Live-in” would mean no rent. And for Larry Walls, no rent at the moment was a very appealing prospect indeed.

At twenty-three, with a mere high school degree and no college courses under his belt, Larry’s prospects weren’t exactly stellar. This ad could be the break he needed. It could help him get on his feet. It might also be a good way to keep his mind off Daniel, who after a six-month affair had just broken Larry’s heart by dumping him for a barista, for Christ’s sake. You know you’re at the bottom of the slag heap when you’ve been replaced by a barista. And it wasn’t even a barista at Starbucks. It was a barista at some shit-hole coffee shop on the wrong side of town with a B rating in the window and probably mouse turds in the muffins. Jesus.

Larry hadn’t even known Daniel had left until he went to get something out of the closet and found all of Daniel’s clothing gone. What kind of a lover would leave without saying a word? Or at least chucking something at your head as they stormed out the door?

Larry slumped in his chair, the hamburger bun in his hand forgotten. He closed his eyes and absorbed the silence in the apartment. The lonely, lonely silence. He had loved Daniel. He had. He had even been foolish enough to believe Daniel loved him back. At that embarrassing realization, Larry’s throat tightened and tears sprang to his eyes. He tried to swallow away the urge to drop his head to the table and bawl like a baby. He was an adult. Adults don’t do shit like that. Instead he sat there ignoring the tears streaming down his cheeks and stared out the kitchen window until the need to weep was vanquished.

A book Larry read in sophomore literature class suddenly came to mind. The Scarlet Letter. Larry wondered what tattoos cost, because he had just about come to the conclusion that he wanted a big scarlet A tattooed on his frigging forehead. Not for adultery, but for abstinence, which was how Larry was pretty sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life. Abstaining. Yes, at the ripe old age of twenty-three, he had already come face-to-face with the fact that being in love sucked. And being hurt by the people you love sucks even more.

Angry at himself for feeling as miserable as he did, but unable to do anything about it, he stuffed the rest of the hamburger bun in his mouth, thinking that might take his mind off his misery. Which it didn’t.

“Fuck it,” he said, rebelliously spewing the words out into the silent apartment on a cloud of peanut butter breath in an attempt to ease his pain, not unlike delivering a dose of antivenin to a snakebite. Then he upped the dosage. “Fuck it, fuck it, fuck it.”

And with that rather feeble attempt at asserting his authority over life’s miseries, he made a vow to himself. Never again would he fall in love. His heart was now off the market. Forever.

Larry sniffed up a wad of snot and studied his reflection in the dented, jelly-smeared chrome toaster sitting in front of him. Waiting for another hamburger bun to pop out, he eyed his red hair, which was in need of a cut and at the moment was sticking up all over the place because he had just crawled out of bed not thirty minutes ago. That was just before he stole a paper and returned home to find an eviction notice thumbtacked to his door. His blue eyes, warped in the chrome as if in a funhouse mirror, were bright enough. And since he wasn’t wearing a shirt, or anything else for that matter, his bare shoulders were also reflected rather fetchingly in the toaster. He looked handsome enough to still reap some attention in the gay bars he occasionally frequented, when he could afford it. He supposed he wouldn’t be frequenting them anymore, however, since abstinence was the game plan from here on out, or so he had resolved less than five seconds earlier.

He was sitting at the kitchen table naked, see, because once he returned home with the stolen newspaper in one hand and tore the eviction notice off the door with the other, and after coming to terms yet again with the fact that his lover had dumped him without even having the decency to say good-bye, for God’s sake, he felt so hemmed in by the restraints of his miserable existence that he couldn’t stand any further restrictions, not even clothes. They were currently scattered across the kitchen floor where he’d flung them in a fit of pique, which he had been throwing a lot of lately, now that he thought about it, which was another reason to abstain from men forever.

At that moment, the awaited hamburger bun popped out of the toaster. Larry smeared it with peanut butter and lazily gnawed away at it as he turned back to the ad.

The address in the ad was unfamiliar to him. He reached over and dragged his secondhand laptop off the counter. After punching a few keys and waiting for it to boot up, he was finally able to log in to Google Maps and see where the job interview was taking place.

Holy cow! It was way the heck out in the middle of nowhere, up on a mountainside south of the city. He ran his cursor over the little yellow man waiting patiently at the corner of the Google Map page and walked him up to the address displayed.

The screen opened up and there it was. A mansion! Larry leaned in closer. It really was. An honest-to-God mansion. With brick and brown-stuccoed walls and a confusing patchwork of gables and sloping adobe-tiled roofs and tall leaded windows. Flagstone chimneys poked up here and there off the roof, denoting, Larry assumed, fireplaces scattered throughout the edifice, and all of it surrounded by desert landscaping, with boulders and cactus and a gravelly macadam driveway leading to the house from the county road half a mile away.

To the left of the secluded mansion stood a greenhouse, with glass walls and a glass roof, it too tucked in among the boulders and cactus. The greenhouse stood in the shadow of the main house, like a poor relation cowering behind the skirts of a formidable old aunt. No glimpse of blossoms sprinkled colors behind the transparent greenhouse walls. The building stood empty, bereft of life and care and flora. Its glass panes, especially those on the roof, were yellowed with grime, as if a good rain had not swept them clean for many a long year. The glass structure appeared forlorn. Neglected. Sad.

Larry walked the little yellow man across the computer screen to see if he could catch a glimpse of what lay behind the mansion, but the little yellow man refused to go that far.

Since Larry was no five-star chef—his breakfast of hamburger buns and peanut butter was a good indication of that—he had to figure he would be applying for the caretaking part of the ad, not the cooking part. Judging by the mansion he could see on the computer screen, if he should turn out to be the only caretaker on the premises, he would have his hands full. Keeping the windows clean alone might well prove to be a lifelong vocation.

But surely there would be other servants around. Maids, maybe. Butlers. That would be interesting, Larry decided. He had never seen a real butler in his life, only the ones on Downton Abbey and Upstairs, Downstairs. He wasn’t sure how well he would fit in with the snootiness of a household boasting butlers, but for free rent he was certainly willing to take a stab at it. And Larry wasn’t afraid of a little work. He never had been. He could work like a pile driver when he set his mind to it.

He turned away from the computer screen and perused the ad one more time. While he studied the newsprint, he tried to decide what to wear for the interview, which more than anything told him he wasn’t waffling anymore. He had decided to go for it.

The thought of waffling reminded him of the waffles he couldn’t afford. With a sigh, because he still missed his lover who was most certainly never coming back, and since he was still as naked as a jaybird because he hadn’t yet dressed to go to the job he hated at the department store, Larry slathered the very last glob of peanut butter in the jar over the very last goddamn hamburger bun and chewed it to a pulp.

While he chewed, he decided he’d wear his one and only suit to the interview.

At least in a suit he wouldn’t look homeless, and homeless was what he’d be in exactly—craning his head, he checked the calendar on the wall—fifteen days.

Things were suddenly fairly desperate here, he realized. Perhaps he should even squander a portion of his last fifty dollars to spring for dry-cleaning the suit.

Oh God. How could his life so suddenly have gone spinning out of control like this?

Larry Walls closed his eyes, trying to shut out the day ahead, but it didn’t work. When he opened them, the day was still there, waiting for him like a spider.

Resigned, he slouched off to the bathroom to shower and dress for work.