Romantic, wordy, and a tad goofy.

Discerning Palate Part 5


Murder was on my mind when I exited that black car. Robbie, who was functioning at the general maturity level of a sociopathic 6-year-old, sat next to me in the back seat and just. kept. poking me. His behavior was ridiculous.  As my younger sister had been a calm and withdrawn child I had little experience or patience for systematic pestering.

But there was nothing I could do. Even when he pinched me – twice, painfully - I clamped down on my most violent instincts and kept my hands to myself. While Robbie's current actions were childish and fairly innocent, I was sure that an escalation on my part was exactly what he was aiming for.

Dude wanted to fuck me up, and fuck me up bad. I could smell the malicious intent wafting off his skin. As many people as I'd managed to piss off in my life, I'd never met someone quite so hell bent on hurting me before. Was it because I was gay? Was it because I had humiliated him? Was it because he was just that sort of person - once you were on his radar, his lasers were set to 'serious harm'? Who knew. What I did know was that this jittery shit was scary as fuck, and I didn't have a death wish. Not yet, anyhow.

So I had sat there quietly and with outward calm as we had driven through town, ignoring his fingers and his disgusting breath. Thank god the drive from my apartment to the restaurant was a short one.

My new prison was located around the corner from Kim's cafe and not far from the square. For the past couple of weeks the joint had been a simple empty storefront, a place with brown paper covering the windows and a rather generic, if lovely, dark wood facade. Last time I had been in Marrington it was a clothing shop. I'd been briefly curious who was fixing up the place to such an extent, figured it was just going to be another boutique, and had promptly forgotten its existence.

Obviously it was going to be the restaurant destined to employee me. I already hated the place.

We got out of the car. Robbie hung back to light a cigarette, and I was grateful to be able to step away from him, although I'm sure the fumes would mix wonderfully with his already potent personal fragrance.

Mr. Suits Raeburn opened the front door with a lockbox attached, obviously unsurprised that it was unlocked, and ushered me in. I was first hit by paint fumes and then the loud hum of an industrial portable air conditioner. Two young men straightened as we entered; I vaguely recognized the chunky balding guy from the construction team that was working on Kim's place, but not the guy with the shiny blond hair.

I tried not to let my facial expression shift as we entered the main room. Oh, fuck, the place was really nice. The floors were a gleaming dark, imperfect wood; if I could hazard a guess I'd say they were acrylic-infused hardwood.

The walls were painted in a gradiated, muted flame palate; it was an effect that could have been cheesy, but because of how slowly the colors shifted from red to orange to yellow and back again, with none of the hues allowed to reach levels of boldness that overwhelmed the senses, it was warm and welcoming. Judging by the drop cloth and the buckets of paint in one corner the job had only recently been completed.

The lights were open fixtures that hung at different levels. This was a trendy touch, but I liked it. There weren't yet tables or chairs and those pretty walls were bare, but there was already a warm yet modern feel to the room.

I looked up at the ceiling – high, with holes for the fixtures and padding for the sound. A smart addition, since all that hard wood could help create an ugly din when a restaurant was crowded.

"Huh," I said. "This isn't bad."

"Not bad?" This from one of the workman, the blond one. I concentrated on him, and noted that he was pretty cute, if you liked them 20 and twink-y. I did not. He scrunched up his button nose at me, giving me a thoroughly pissy look. "It's gorgeous. How can you think it's not bad?" I half expected him to stomp his foot.

"Brenden…" Mr. Raeburn said quietly. It was a warning.

Brenden took that warning, but still gave me a kitten's snarl. I took that opportunity to grin at him. He reddened.

As Raeburn led me into the kitchen I lifted an eyebrow at him. "That kid does construction? He doesn't look the type."

He smiled minutely before controlling his face as the swing door closed behind us. "Not really, no; he's going to be a waiter once everything's finished, but he's helping us with some of the simple finishing tasks."

"Someone's out-of-work kid, huh?"

He paused before answering. "Something like that."

"Mmmm," was all I answered, since my mind had already been snapped up by the room we were now in.

I had entered a personal heaven.

Was there anything more beautiful than an utterly untouched high-class restaurant kitchen? Other people might disagree with me, but I personally couldn't resist the lovely gleam of all that brand new, sparkling equipment, the shiny ovens, the barely used floors.

And over time that kitchen would become used, full of life and food and swearing and sweating and knives and screaming and steam and smells. Perhaps that's what excited me so  - the future of this room, the places it could go and the food it may see. It hadn't yet been disappointed by mediocre, over-priced fare or crappy cooking.  At the moment I walked in it was simply a blank canvas, or perhaps more aptly a brand new workman's bench, its surface unscratched.

"You like it?" A smooth, deep voice said. Of course Alex was here – I suppose I knew he would be, and had been ignoring that fact so I didn't think about it too much.

"Not bad," I lied.

He laughed. Fuck him and his beautiful laugh. "Yeah, right. We got the best equipment money could buy, and not just the best based on price, the best reviewed, the most coveted." It was true – I would have made almost all the same decisions if outfitting a restaurant of my own. "You don't have to tell me – I know you approve."

Arrogant son of a bitch. "Don't presume to know anything, Channing." I turned to him, and saw he had emerged from a room to the side of the kitchen near a stretch of work tables; I was guessing that's where the offices were. "Why am I here? I could be on a date right now." Another lie, yeah, but I didn't want them to think I had as much free time on my hands as I did.

His expression chilled, his cheekbones drawn in under his dark eyes. "You can reschedule," he said. "This is more important."

"Only to you," I noted, leaning against the counter behind me and crossing my arms. "I'm only here because I don't have a choice. That doesn't make it important to me."

Alex exchanged a look with Raeburn, one that I couldn't read. "Let's introduce you to what we've done so far, Mr. Kiersted," the large man said smoothly.

"Whatever floats your boat," I said with a shrug. At that moment Robbie came into the kitchen, and I was happy to see him move to the opposite side of the room from me. His glare was much less frightening than his bite.

Raeburn had ignored the sarcasm in my voice, folding his large hands in front of him." We are attempting to craft a fine-dining experience in Marrington, truly, the only genuine fine-dining experience in this area. We don't, however, simply want to run a nice restaurant, we want to run one of the best restaurants in the state. We would like a restaurant that draws crowds from the city, and is seen as a local destination. This is not simply a mob-run business, as I'm sure you see it."

"Money laundering with class, hmmm?"

"This is not a front," Alex said, "there's a lot of money invested in this venture, and we care, deeply, about this restaurant's future."

I simply lifted an eyebrow and gave a small smirk in disbelief. His expression went from stony to downright grim. He was so handsome when he looked pissed off. I hated that about him, just as I had in high school. He had no right to be that bloody attractive.

Raeburn continued. "We have optimized the layout in several ways." He ran through what made the kitchen especially effective, some of their choices for the equipment and for the décor, blah blah blah. I mean, their reasoning was sound enough, and they had obviously talked to some knowledgeable people on the subject. Still, he had yet to even touch on what was, to a kitchen professional such as myself, the most crucial question. "And the chef?" I said.

"We have already lined up several employees, and are preparing to hire many more. We don't, however, want to move until we have a head chef, since that person will most likely to want to be in charge of who works in his kitchen."

"Finally," I said, pushing myself to stand up straight. "I was wondering when you'd actually talk about what was important. I'm just a goddamn pastry guy – I have nothing to do with most of what you've gone over. You're not going to be able to make a world class restaurant," I rolled my eyes at the complete improbability of that one, "without a truly world class chef. You need a powerhouse talent, or you're doomed to fail even before your doors have opened. Your costs must already be astronomical."

At that Raeburn fell silent, and physically stepped back. Alex then stepped forward, and cleared his throat. Something flashed in his eyes that I couldn't put my finger on. My whole body tensed up in some strange, instinctive way, as if I knew from years of long-ago friendship that what he was about to say was not good.

"Well, actually, Isaac… our head chef is going to be you."

I just stared at him. For once in my life I was struck utterly, completely silent.

I don't know what Alex saw in my face, but it made him turn, and run a hand along one of the shiny tables. "We've done a lot of research on you, and we've gotten your most recent CV. You've been a pastry chef for the last 4 years, yes, but before that you were an accomplished sous chef and an assistant chef at Michael Si. According to your employer, you were often left in charge of the restaurant, and ran the kitchen efficiently and well. Michael Sicarous also said you were intrinsically involved in the creation of the menu, and many of the most popular dishes were all yours." Every word he spoke was casual and matter of fact; he rattled off this information as if it was about himself. Had he memorized my CV? "Your teachers at culinary school speak highly of your skill and ability to innovate, and most of them thought you would most likely end up with your own restaurant. We spoke to several of them, and they are surprised that you ended up focusing on pastry, as they thought you are 'capable of more'. They were not shocked, however, since you showed a tendency to become obsessed with one skillset and practice that only until you felt you had mastered it before moving on."

"You spoke to my teachers?" I was stupefied. Hell, I couldn't believe they even remembered me, what with how many fresh faced future Billy Flays and Eric Riparts they saw swagger through their classrooms.

"They only had good things to say about you, Isaac. Especially about your talent. And your experience at Michael Si shows that you're capable of running a kitchen-"

"Michael Si was a tiny restaurant," I interrupted, starting to come out of my stupor and to feel violated by this whole experience, "with a kitchen staff of 6 and seating for 25. It was a bistro, and one he couldn't sustain –that's why he went to work down in Vegas."

"You're being too modest," Alex said, looking up. "Everything we've gathered on you says you can do this."

"To remind you, Mr. Kiersted," Raeburn said with a faint, bland smile, "you don't have any choice. We will pay you handsomely, and excuse your cousin's debt beside, but we will need you to sign a contract that guarantees your employment."

I looked at him, then I looked at Alex again. He was watching me, and his expression was a mask.

I stepped back, my butt hitting the sinks behind me, and gripped the cool metal ridge. There were no words that would successfully express what I was feeling, because there were several emotions mixed into one.

Later I'd break them down and place them in their compartments. There was rage, burning bright and blue and flickering. When people told me what to do I told them to fuck off, and for the first time in 11 years I was in a situation that I couldn't escape without real consequences to people other than myself. This rage was a carryover from the rage of the last two days, but this new situation definitely turned up the temperature. Also, cowering behind the anger, was terror; a knowledge that I hadn't worked in general food for several years. This meant my cuisine muscles were flaccid, their flabbiness enhanced by how many innovations and food trends I'd only noted in passing. Michael Si was a long time ago. Did they not understand that fine dining was in its way a language, and if you didn't use a language for an extended period of time it became rusty, you lost its vocabulary and the more complex modes of usage?

These emotions were obvious and overwhelming by themselves. But the final reaction was the one that kept me from raging at them and from reacting the way I did last time I had heard something disturbing from this crew, when I launched myself at Alex. This was the excitement. Damn it all, I fucking loved the idea. Alex was right, more right than he knew: most culinary school graduates had egos, egos that let them decide on a career full of malcontents, drunks, and insomniacs, and we all wanted our own fucking restaurants. There was a wide range within that ambition - some only wanted cafes, corner places in our neighborhoods where all our good friends could eat, and now and then drink, for free.  Others would only be content with Gordon Ramsey levels of success and excess.

At some point I'd convinced myself I was above that. I, Isaac Kiersted, had decided I was going to become a master pastry chef because I wanted to, and because once I had latched onto a goal I became obsessed with seeing it through. I wanted to be mentioned in reviews, I wanted to be innovative, I wanted to start trends. And mostly I just fucking wanted to make sweets. My old teachers weren't wrong - when I started doing something I had to give it my all. I had, and I'd done well. And a voice pointed out that maybe this was exactly where I was heading regardless; I'd started to shift, to feel like it was time to start in a new direction, maybe back to prep and second-in-command-dom, maybe to work towards that place of my own. Because yes, like all my peers, that's exactly what I wanted. I'd not felt ready to take that step, no. But it was always in my headlights.

So here it was, handed to me on a silver platter, done up in wrapping paper with skull and crossbones on them and a shiny red bow. There were these backers who seemed willing to spend any amount of money to craft a great restaurant, a place with stars and bars and drooling reviewers, and they just told me they were going to hand me the keys. I was being blackmailed into a dream.

Alex jerked his head to the side; Raeburn nodded and left the kitchen.

There was silence. When he moved himself in front of my vision I shifted my eyes inches to his right to settle on the counter.

"Isaac," he said. The fucker had the temerity to attempt a soothing tone. "I know this is a lot to take in."

I looked up at him, chewing on my lip. My eyes felt raw, and my nose itched. "What the fuck is happening here?" My voice sounded hoarse to me, like I was still smoking, or had been screaming at a concert.

Alex's brow furrowed and he looked down, as if he was calculating the best response. "This wasn't my decision, but-" he started.

"Who the fuck's was it, then? Your dad's?" He didn't answer, just looked up with an expression that had a tinge of apology that made me even angrier. "Where the hell is that fat fuck? Why aren't you answering my questions?"

Alex turned into the counter and leaned on it so I saw his back, his muscles tense under his charcoal shirt. "This is a business venture for my family and our employees. We are attempting to do something new, and, as much as you may not believe us, this something is not criminal. Everything Raeburn told you is true - this will be an excellent restaurant, and it will be run as all restaurants are run."

"Except for me," I said. I wanted to sound tough and angry, but I just sounded confused and pleading. "Most chefs are not seduced into the position by blackmail, which makes it plenty damn criminal. You didn't answer my question. Why are you doing this? Why me? Why Kim?" I closed my eyes. "What the fuck are you up to, Channing?"

He turned back to me. "I hate it when you call me that," he said quietly, his eyes bright with what I read as anger, "that's what you called me in high school, and it drove me nuts."

That did it. The audacity of him telling me that "Channing" drove him nuts when he had been the one to tell me to never call him Sandy again on one very bad day for a 14-year-old me; the sheer gall of him bringing up the fact that we had been friends once upon a very long time ago before he turned into a dismissive dickwad who was now blackmailing me into a future I wasn't prepared for pushed me over the edge. I lunged at him - second time in a week! It was becoming a habit - and grabbed his shirt as I pressed him back so he fell back into the mental prep table behind him with a dull thunk.

"What the fuck is wrong with you, Channing?" I said with a snarl. "Do you think I give a fuck what 'drives you nuts'? Don’t you understand that I want to drive you nuts? That I fucking hate you? That you are destroying my life? That you are destroying Kim's life? How can you think this is okay?"

Last time I had attacked him I hadn't seen his face, as Suits and Robbie had disengaged and diffused me instantly. Now I did.

He simply watched me. Those dark eyes were unreadable, his brows were furrowed, and that wide, mobile mouth was still and lightly pursed. There was no movement in his expression, no struggle; I suspect he would look just the same if I has been across the room and telling him my plans for breakfast. "What does 'okay' have to do with any of it?" He said. His tone struck me as mocking, sardonic. There was distance there.

"Are you really this fucked up?" I said in a hiss, a bit desperate now. I couldn't reach something inside him that cared. He cared so damn little for me I couldn't even piss him off, and I sure as hell wasn't frightening him.

I started to loosen my grip on his shirt, feeling stupid and helpless. My own face felt flush, almost feverish, and all the drinking I had done earlier came back to send my head spinning.

And then Alex smiled. It was private and a bit sad; I saw his trademark sharpness at the edges. And fuck I hate myself - I wanted to lick that smile just as badly as I wanted to make him hurt. This must have shown, as I was ill-equipped on all fronts to dissemble. His gaze flashed to my neck, my collarbone, and I was having trouble not watching his lips. I remembered when he had kept me from getting my ass beat by Robbie, in that parking lot of the Nickel, when he hadn't recognized me - I'd felt that same flash of desire that with anyone else I would be positive meant we were flirting.

It was unnerving, because this dude was straight.

This attraction was all me, of course. I was horny after my interaction with Jason, still coming down from too much wine, overwhelmed by all sorts of emotions. And lust. I could feel the heat coming off him, like he was breathing faster, like if I just pressed my legs into his maybe -

I stepped back and ran my hand through my hair. "Fuck." I stepped back and turned.

"Isaac," his hand was on my shoulder, and I shook it off.

"Nothing is simple," he said.  I was going to ask what the fuck he meant, but at that moment Raeburn strode in at that moment and looked to one and the other of us sharply, as if assessing what just happened. Alex straightened his shirt and sighed. "I'll call you tomorrow. We have to start planning."

"I'll take you home," Raeburn said.

"No. I can walk; I need away from you slimy bastards and your weird, noxious shit." He shrugged minutely, and opened the door to the kitchen for me. I started through it and then stopped, feeling that flare of anger return. I turned halfway to Alex.

"You know why I call you Channing, asshole? Because when you dropkicked our friendship you reminded me of your goddamn father, and what a bastard he was. And now you work for him, just another criminal like he fucking was. You're the next Christos - a nasty dickhead who thinks he's god. Just another Channing fuck." His eyes widened in what I guessed was fury, and with a deep satisfaction that my attack had connected - finally, somehow, I'd landed a punch - I left.

And then I walked and I walked and I walked and I ended up in a bar on the edge of town on the opposite side from my apartment, The Horse's Head.  Good and drunk was in my future, and I vaguely remember my old teacher Marian telling me it was a place to go to not see any of the assholes that had been in the Nickel.

So I walked in, ignored its generic wood and plastic personality and the other patrons, and asked for two shots of gin that I polished off instantly. I then ordered a gin and tonic, light on the tonic. The bartender, a wiry man with the beat up visage of a fighter, didn't even blink. Drunkenness came quickly. At one point he asked me, with an edge of amused sarcasm, if I'd had a bad day.

"Fucking Channings," I said at one point, slamming down my upteenth drink. "This town is fucking fucked up."

He put his towel over his shoulder and leaned on the bar, eyes narrowed. "Huh. And what'd the Channings do to you?"

"Hijacked my fucking life in one fell swoop," I said with a bitter laugh, threw down way too much cash, and dismounted from the stool. "G'night."

"Hey, guy -" the bartender took my money, and straightened. I stopped to peer at his blurry shape. "If you have any more trouble with the Channings, come back and tell me about it. I might be able to help you. If you know what I mean."

I had no fucking clue what he meant. "Yeah, sure. Thanks." I nodded, and stumbled out into the still-warm night. I don't even remember getting home, but I magically somehow did, sleeping fully clothed on top of the sheets and forgetting to lock the front door.

The next day I threw myself a massive self-pity party. First came the sleeping for 12 hours, only getting up to pee, gulp Advil and water, force down some almost-raw eggs, and later order a pizza that was gross and rubbery as hell but did the booze-soaking trick. Then I started to pace, watch some TV, then get restless and pace some more. I napped off my hangover but still felt like shit.

"Ok we totally need to talk - not mad anymore. Gotta hear your side of the story!" was the text that came in from Kim at some point in all this. I ignored it. Then I ignored her three phone calls.  Eventually I'd have to tell her what the Channings were up to, and that they were making me run their restaurant; I dreaded it. If my emotions were altruistic at that time, the reasoning would have been that I knew the news would upset her, and add to her already massive reservoirs of guilt over what she had gotten me into. They weren't. What I didn't want to talk to her about was how much I fucking wanted this, and how horribly confusing it was to consider something both the ultimate wish fulfillment and a freedom-destroying nightmare.

Around 5 she got worried, and the texts became strained. "What the hell's wrong, Isaac? I'm coming over."

The possibility of her doing so finally stirred me to reply. "No. I'm fine. Hungover. We'll talk tomorrow."

I paced some more. I walked into the bathroom, caught a look at myself in the mirror. Fuck, I really needed a haircut; I was nothing less than shaggy. I needed to feel less craptastic, and feeling craptastic looking didn't help. And I needed to get out, to escape my brain and its incessant dual screeching of "you're being forced to sign your life away to criminals" and "holy shit your own restaurant! Yes!" There was even a part of me, a betraying bastard part, that was starting to plan out a menu, starting to stir creative juices and suggest ideas and ponder how I could be unique yet appealing.

So I took a shower, got dressed, and stalked downtown. The day was muggy and hazy, with a grey sky and that sort of wet, oppressive heat that made summer uncomfortable. This was better than the blue skies of the day before, as there is nothing quite like beautiful weather to highlight the ugly boils and pockmarks of a bad mood.

I found myself in "Illuminate", a high-brow hair salon with artistic decor and attractive stylists. They don't usually take walk-ins, I was haughtily informed, but their lead stylist just had a cancellation and I was to be blessed with his talent. 'Oh, goody', was my response, and she pursed her lips at my sarcasm but sent me back regardless. I offered payment, after all.

"You have beautiful hair," Christopher told me, running his fingers through its thick shagginess. He was my age, friendly, gay, and hard to hold a bad-mood grudge against. With dark skin and perfectly shaped facial hair, I was okay with having to spend some time staring at him in the mirror. "This is your real color?" he didn't give me a chance to answer.  "Real strawberry blondes are a rarity, and it's nice and thick. What are you looking for?"

"Something that doesn't suck," I said with a small smile.

He laughed. "I can handle that. Let's also bring out those eyes of yours. You must photograph well."

After a quick wash I was back in his chair, and we chatted. He was from Washington, moved to the area recently for a boyfriend, was a bit sick of doing old lady hair but liked the pay and the low level of high class competition in Marrington. When he asked what I did I said 'chef'.

The word without 'pastry' attached just came out, rolling off my tongue. I hated myself.


"I'm in negotiations with the new restaurant down the street," I said, and mentally laughed bitterly. Negotiations, sure. As if I had any freedom to change my mind, to leave, without screwing over someone I loved madly.

"Oh, yes, that place! We're all curious what it's going to become?"

That was a hint for me to tell him, and I just smiled vaguely. "I'm not allowed to discuss it until the contracts are finalized."

He tilted his head at me in the mirror, as he sensed, I think, my discomfort with the topic. "Makes sense," he finally said. "Seen that new Matt Damon movie?"

25 minutes later I was admiring myself in the mirror.

"It looks amazing," I said.

It wasn't a comment borne solely out of vanity. Christopher was talented, and I looked good. The short length framed the lean oval of my face but didn't call too much attention to my forehead, and the sideburns were stylish, sexy, and a bit sharp.

"You're a very good looking guy," he said with a charming smile.

I grinned at him, my first real smile in a very long time. "Thank you. When I feel this crap it's nice to be flattered, although it's possible you're biased by my status as a customer."

He rolled his eyes in the mirror. "Whatever. You're aware you're hot." No, actually, I forgot that quite often, so it was nice to hear. "And if your strawberry hotness is free tonight, my boy and I are going to Revolution tonight. Ever been?"

"No. That a club in the city?"

"Shockingly, no - it's just over in Hudson. Place has been around for a while, but new owners have shifted Fridays to “pride night.” The “80s night” fans it displaced aren't happy, but the DJ is working hard to placate them with Duran Duran heavy playlists." Christopher cleaned off my shoulders and took off the apron with a graceful flourish. "We'll be there at 10:30 – you should definitely come with. The scene is solid for the suburbs, the drinks are cheap, and the music isn't at all bad, if kinda dated." He mixed some more gel in his hand and gave me one more fluffing. "Totally come!"

"Sure. I'll be there." Why not?

"Excellent. See you tonight!" he gave my shoulders a warm squeeze then handed me over to the desk woman to pay.

I walked out into the mugginess and enjoyed the feeling of less hair on my head, walking with a slightly lighter step than before. Talking to nice, attractive people did that, even when you're aware that niceness is a part of their job. And a possibility of going out was truly appealing. Something in me regretted not going out last night, Kristina and Jason drama notwithstanding, because different sorts of distraction would be good for me. Perhaps have given me something else to think about other than how I wanted something that every bit of logic told me I shouldn't.

When my phone rang and I saw it was an unknown, local number I ignored it, as was the way of most cell phone users. There was no good reason for you to call if I hadn't programmed you into my phone. I was grabbing a sandwich at a chain café (god, their bread was so bland – and they called themselves a bakery!) when I listened to the message.

"Isaac – it's Alex. We need to continue last night's conversation; you might not want to, but this has to move forward, and quickly. Call me and we'll meet. Tonight." That last was definitely an order, not a request. His voice was without inflection. Fuck he'd gotten boring. And where the hell had he gotten my phone number? This wasn't a particularly hard thing to do these days, I know, but the new invasion of privacy on top of all their other invasions made me deeply angry. Angrier.

Fucker thinks he has a right to demand I show up somewhere, huh? "Fuck him," I snarled, and wasn't aware I had said it out loud until the woman next to me with a small burbling rugrat prancing about her knees gave me a dirty look. I returned it with a squint and she conceded, albeit with a prissy 'harrumph'.

I finally called Kim. "You're alive!" She said, "How's that hangover? We need to sit down and talk about this Jason-you-Kristina thing like yesterday, boy."

"Conversation: Sure, but you'll be disappointed. Nothing's happened that she didn't see, although I suppose that was more than enough for her. And that Hangover: I’m about to go get a new one at Revolution tonight – just giving you a heads up where I am."

"Okay." She was quiet for a moment. "Isaac – you sound serious. You sound so serious that you don't sound like you. What's wrong? Did Jason break your heart, too?"

Ha. If this were only hot cop troubles I would already be over at her house, drinking something sweet, disgusting and liver destroying and telling her how, exactly, I got myself into so much crap so quickly. In a sick, "I'm Alive and experiencing totally normal Boy Drama!" sort of way, that would be fun.  Much more fun than this.

"Yes, something's wrong, but it's something I don't want to talk about.” If I was spending all my time working on the restaurant, when would I have time to help with her café? "It's not you. But… I just can't talk about it yet. I've nothing to say."

"That's really not helping me worry less, cousin." I heard her inhale sharply. "This is Channing and his bastards, isn't it? Oh, Isaac –"

"No apologies, they don't help."

"Okay, I can't blame you, but I've been thinking of ways we can deal with this. There must be legal recourses for us, and I've been doing research. We'll talk more, but I'm not going to lie down and let these bastards do this to you and me. Got that? We're going to get out of this."

I chuckled. "You sound so fierce, it's nice to hear."

"Better then bending over – especially if they're managing to shut you down, which is something I've rarely seen. Do you promise to call me tomorrow?"

"Promise promise, or I'll stop by. Oh, hey, Kim, question  - do you know where Alex lives?"

"Why?" She asked with heavy suspicion. "Please tell me you're not going to blow his place up, or go in there waving heat."

"Tempting, but no, I'm a crap shot. He wants to talk to me, and I figured I might as well go to him." This only involved the slightest of lies, I was proud to note. Just because I wasn't going to warn him didn't make it untrue, did it?

"And check his place out, hmmm?"

"Yeah, I'm curious."

"Well, my friend Jacqueline says he's at Lofts 30. You know, that shiny new construction at Miller and Holly. She lives in the building next door, says he's in and out of there all the time, and is on the top and fanciest floor. She wants to jump him, so she's constantly on the watch."

"Lovely." I couldn't blame her for wanting to jump him. Myself, I could blame. I blamed myself for a lot.

I walked into Revolution that night at 10:40, fully locked and loaded and on. I'd worn great black jeans, my favorite boots, a tight blue green shirt that I'd been told looks 'epic' on me by some friends I trusted.  The cologne I had was Japanese, subtle, and worked very well with my skin chemistry. There was lots of jewelry around the neck and fingers, and my best earrings in my ears. The accessories turned a lot of guys on, couldn't tell you why; it seemed to have something to do with the whole badboy-tattooed look I'd somewhat accidentally cultivated over the years. I leaned into it when the opportunities arose.

This place was definitely one such opportunity. Not the most body beautiful or fashionable crowd, no, what with a healthy selection of middle aged suburban men and some tucked in shirts, but what it lacked for in style it made up for in energy. Everyone was having a good time, including the large number of single lady clusters. I felt a bit guilty for not bringing Kim – I'd have to do that next time, she'd like the vibe at this place.

I could feel eyes on me; the show was on, and this place was geared up to distract me.

"You came," Christopher said, walking up to me from the bar area with a smile. He came up to me, his arm around a compact, attractive brown-haired man who he introduced as his partner Zachery.

Zachery gave me a straight-faced up-down, and smiled at Christopher. "You're right, he's a super-cutie," he said. "Look at that smile."

"I'm always right," Christopher said with a great dignity. Zach rolled his eyes at me, and they led me over to their table and introduced me to several of their friends, a group diverse in careers and ages but similar in their warmth.  A couple of them had their eyes on me, and I gave them looks that declined nothing but kept my options open.

"Drink?" Zachery said, tilting his head in the direction of the bar.

"Yes, please." I grinned, and I let him lead me through the thickening crowd.

And I was off.

Not just with the drinking, although there was large amounts of that going down; no, I mean I was in high form.  Talking, flirting, laughing, collecting phone numbers. (I never gave them mine.) A guy I went to high school with and had had a mad crush on came up and said he couldn't believe how great I looked; he said he was in a serious partnership and off limits, but it still didn't get any better than hearing the regret in his voice. I danced and danced some more – I'm not incredible but I'm certainly not bad, and it really is about the smile, the meeting of eyes at the same time, finding the right groove and going with it.

I remark on this because this isn't always me in situations like this. Yes, I'm outgoing, yes, I'm unfiltered, yes, I'm fearless… except when it comes to situations that hinge on my attractiveness. That fat little boy is still there in my head at times, lurking, whispering his twitchy little fat-boy insecurities to me. So he has to be let go, released and ignored, for me bring all of me to a venue where my attractiveness is on display.

Tonight that boy wasn't even in the same room, crowded out of there by all my other concerns, worries, and fears. In my way I didn't give a damn what these men thought of me, and thus I became a particular kind of powerful.

Someone bought me another drink and then another and somewhere in there I stopped feeling powerful – I became agitated. Drinking more didn't help.

At maybe twelve, twelve thirty, I had a highly tempting offer to go home with a new acquaintance. His name escaped me, but it didn't matter; he was tall, ripped, dark-haired and looked very good in black. His voice and his dark eyes dripped sex, and something about the way he touched my ass and then kissed me on the dance floor made me think he'd be a very good time.

But I didn't. Instead I called a taxi.

What exactly I was thinking or planning at the time I couldn't say, as I was mostly fueled by booze by this point. That's one of those questions I don't have a conscious answer for, although I could have presented a thesis on its possible roots inside my brain.

"I'm sorry, but I've got someone else to see," I said to tall, dark, and edible, and smiled at him to lessen the rejection.

The disappointment on his face was gratifying. "You sure?"

I nodded, and he shook his head and pulled out a business card from his wallet and slipped it to me. I didn't even look at it; just nodded, gave him one last smile, and slipped off to find Christopher and Zachery. Their regrets I was leaving seemed heartfelt, as did a certain underlying invitation in their parting that had me blushing slightly.

As I hit the humid night air, I took a deep breath and thought of how, if I so desired, my time in Marrington could get interesting. What was Jason talking about, no one to date around here? Maybe he was looking in the wrong places.

I slipped into the cab that was waiting for me.

"Where to?" The driver said. His license said he was Joe.

"Lofts 30."

"Live there, huh?" Joe said as he started the car. "Those are fancy. Got a friend's daughter who wanted to move in, but couldn't afford it. Too pricey."

"No, I don't live there," I said distractedly, and laughed to myself. "I'm just visiting an old friend."

"Huh." He took me there, and when he dropped me off I got his card.

There was a front desk and an older man at it, but Marrington was not a highly secure town, and thus it was easy for me to walk in, lean down, and tell him that "Alex Channing was expecting me."

"Let me ring him," He said. I acted like I didn't hear him, and drifted away towards the elevators.

"Sir, sir…" he called behind me with the phone cradled beneath his chin, and I blissfully ignored him, was pleased the elevator was there waiting for me, and pressed the top floor of 10. Just as I figured, he didn't move from his desk, just shrugged and put down the phone receiver.

The 10th floor had 5 doors. I drifted up to them all, and saw, indeed, only one had light coming from the door and the faint sound of music behind it.

I pounded loudly. 30 seconds later, I pounded again. Maybe he wasn't home and thus had ignored my earlier call. How disappointing would that be?

I heard feet on hardwood before they stopped. This was followed by an exclamation, an R-rated one, and the door swung open.

To Part 6