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First pages

Part I

Barry’s Dilemma

“The secret of a happy marriage remains a secret.”

- Henry Youngman

 

 

Standing on top of the ladder, Justin gives the screwdriver one last, dramatic turn. He shakes the base of the camera mount.

“Told you. Tighter than a––”

“Don’t say it,” Barry Masterson says and watches Justin climb down the steps. The flimsy aluminum ladder barely rattles under his scrawny frame. He adjusts the seat of his designer jeans and arches his back in a move that reminds Barry of a storefront mannequin.

“The apron makes you look fat,” Justin says, reveling in the fact that he can read Barry’s mind. His gaze, somewhere between sly and superior says: I can read you as easily as my cameras record people.

Barry pretends the comment doesn’t hurt. Checks his Rolex. Plays the part of the bored restaurateur, for whom the installation of security cameras is business as usual.

Ten minutes after three. Janelle is due in twenty minutes. It is Monday and The Reef is closed. With only a few lights turned way low, the restaurant emits a foreboding vibe.

Barry carries the ladder past a bussing station, avoiding looking at the floor. The unsealed wooden floor, part of the 19th century nautical theme, means red wine stains from careless wait staff. They fade with cleaning and time, but never quite disappear. He stashes the ladder in the utility closet and ambles back to Justin.

“Are you sure you won’t take any money?”

“I don’t want any of her money,” Justin says, wounding him for the second time less than two minutes. Reading Barry’s eyes, he adds, “It’s the least I can do.”

Barry looks up at the rafters and admires the sleek black bubble of the camera’s housing which makes the camera look like a malevolent fly.

“Not even for the cost of the cameras?”

“I’ve built most of them.”

“How many are there?”

“Six that you can see. Two that you can’t. All from my private stash.”

“You make them sound like drugs.”

“Trust me, they’re way more addictive,” Justin says and laughs in a way that makes Barry forget his insults.

“Where are the two hidden ones?”

“I don’t think I should tell you. You’ll tip your hand to your employees. And then all this is for nothing.”

“Why would I? I’m the one who hired you to find the thief.”

“I know you, Barr. You don’t have a sneaky bone in your body. And just because I won’t accept any payment doesn’t mean I won’t let you take me somewhere nice and warm.”

Justin steps close, strokes Barry’s face in a way that makes Barry think of a an overbearing nurse.

“I told you. Virgin Islands after Christmas. British Virgin Islands.”

After Christmas. You’ll be spending it with her, I suppose. I don’t want to wait that long. At least a long weekend in Miami. Come on, Barr, throw me a boner.”

Gay sexual innuendos and word play; Barry hates them almost as much as homophobic jokes. Why doesn’t Justin respect that?

“You know the drill. The election’s in a few days. Looks like Arthur’s going to the Senate, but it’s not a sure thing. Janelle has pulled out all the stops on the campaign. Plus, this place is bleeding money, along with The Bistro. It’s a bad time for me, Justin.”

“A bad time for us.”

What sounds like a throwaway line from anyone else sounds like the real deal from Justin. Another one of his idiosyncrasies. He could hurt you one minute and stroke you the next and you always forgave the slight.

Your pain is my pain.

Barry kisses him on the lips, catching Justin off guard. Barry is usually the reserved one, the prey who, if not outright attacked, has to be coaxed into giving up the goods. Barry feels Justin’s tongue and tastes mint. Mouthwash and something sweet.

“Stoli Raspberry? Or do they make that flavor mouthwash now?”

“Why you judgin’?” Justin says, slipping into his effeminate act.

“It’s not even Happy Hour. I thought you were cutting down.”

“Cutting, shmutting…”

A polite cough pulls Barry back into the present. He breaks contact first and Justin reluctantly follows suit.

Janelle Masterson stands under the archway that separates the dining room from the hostess’ desk. Her expression is the domain of most upper class women; equal measure amused and annoyed. The late afternoon sun filtering through the venetian blinds backlights her light brown hair. Lighter brown, Barry thinks with the detached part of his mind.

Chestnut? Auburn?

“You want to give me a heart attack? You’re early.”

“They moved up the ribbon cutting.”

She moves to the window and turns down the blinds even more. The Reef’s interior turns from foreboding to sinister.

“We don’t want to take any chances six days before the election.”

“Agreed,” Barry says, trying not to look at Justin. “Honey, this is Justin. Justin, my wife, Janelle.”

Janelle shakes Justin’s hand. Barry watches the reluctant touch of two manicured hands.

“I heard so much about you, Justin. I hope you can find out who’s stealing from my husband. He’s too trusting to do it himself.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Barry admires his wife’s professionalism which lets her ignore Justin’s evil eye.

“I’m sure you will. Is that your mini Cooper parked outside?”

“Yes.” Justin is slow to respond, thrown off by the non sequitur.

Janelle pulls a bumper sticker from her attaché and hands it to Justin.

“Don’t forget to vote next Tuesday.”

Justin holds the bumper sticker like it’s a dirty spoon.

Leave it to Arthur to put his picture on the bumper sticker.

Arthur Giafaro – R for Senate. Results with Resolve. In the half light of the The Reef, Arthur looks more like a successful real estate developer than a U.S. Senate candidate with his store-bought tan and capped-toothed smile. I’m a man who gets things done, even if I have to crack a few skulls, his smile says.

Just your prejudice against Italians. You think all of them are macho homophobes.

“That all depends,” Justin says, laying the sticker next to his tool box. “Where does Arthur stand on gay marriage?”

Janelle throws her head back and laughs as if Justin said a ‘bon mot’ at a cocktail party.

“All we need to know is that Arthur hates tardiness,” she says finally and heads for the front door. Barry trades his apron for a tailored jacket and follows Justin. Janelle holds the door open and locks up after them. Barry doesn’t remember giving her a spare key.

But you don’t have to give her a key, do you? Not to a restaurant that she owns.

It is unusually warm for late October. In two hours, the streets will be congested with luxury cars of every size and stripe. Wives picking up commuting husbands from the New York and vice versa. At three o’clock in the afternoon, though, Scarsdale is quieter than a race track at dawn. Barry climbs into the passenger seat of Janelle’s BMW and keeps an eye on Justin from the side view mirror. Justin puts his tool box in the back of his Mini Cooper and lights a cigarette with twitchy fingers. He frowns, which means he just read the license plate.

Imsoin2u.

Barry’s idea. Janelle never objected, probably because it was the kind of cutesy detail a conservative journalist would include in an article about the Senate-hopeful’s family. The BMW was a Thank You Gift from Barry for the fact that Janelle bankrolled his passion. A few years back, when The Reef was hot, he could actually afford the car payments. Hot enough for him to think that he could buy back his freedom.

Janelle eases The Ultimate Driving Machine onto the street. Barry watches Justin shrink in the rear view mirror.

“You’ve lightened your hair. I like it.”

Janelle beams at Barry; delighted that he noticed.

“How long have you been with Justin?” Janelle asks, fiddling with the radio. Barry takes over and finds the Bach channel she is searching for. Usually he does too, drawn to all that organ and gravitas, as if Johan Sebastian is hell-bent on single-handedly converting all heathens.

But not today. If he were alone, he would tune in to the 80s station in search of a Pet Shop Boys classic.

“Six months.”

“I get a weird vibe from him.”

“Are your surprised?”

“No, I mean really weird. I really liked the last one. The investment banker. What was his name?”

“Samuel. He was boring.”

“Yes. But probably reliable.”

In Janelle’s world, reliable means steady. Barry fixes his gaze on the curvy lanes of the Sprain Brook Parkway. They are doing a reverse commute into New York, so their southbound side is mercifully light on traffic. The oncoming lanes are just starting to fill up with the first drones fleeing New York.

“You don’t have to worry about Justin. I promise I’ll shelve him until after the elections.”

“It’s not that I don’t trust your judgment. I just can’t help being protective.”

Protective of whom? Me? You? Arthur’s career?

Janelle takes the Willis Avenue Bridge and cuts off a taxi to merge onto the FDR Drive into Manhattan.

 

Flash. Turn. Smile. Slide your arm around your wife’s waist. Not in a way that calls attention to itself, but like you’ve done it a thousand times before.

How many times have you done this?

The places and names change, but the common denominator stays the same: The Arthur Show as stage managed by The Wizard, government name Scott Liebowitz. Arthur’s press secretary and right hand man.

The conductor of a one-man orchestra.

This time, the conductor doesn’t have much to work with. Even though the backdrop is perfect, with the setting sun bathing the tall windows of the Children’s Hospital of Harlem in a serene, yellow glow. The marble floor, where the old hospital corridor meets the new wing is polished to a high gloss. It’s cordoned off from the rest of the hospital by a thick, red ribbon.

The mis-en-scene is wasted on lackluster showing from the press. Only ABC shows from the networks, one cable station and a Spanish-speaking station Barry has never heard of, and he thinks he knows them all.

Makes perfect sense. To a journalist, there is nothing worse than predictable news. Arthur is favored to beat Whitlock, a Republican Party Elder whose ultra right-wing rhetoric is alienating the middle-of-the-road guard, not to mention Republican millennials. A week before the elections, only a scandal would prompt the press to show in force.

Barry watches the show from the row of seats that has been set up to the right of the podium, facing the audience. Arthur’s family sits in the usual configuration––Barbara closest to the podium, followed by Janelle and Barry. Only one daughter. Barry always thought it unusual for a conservative family.

Arthur’s performance, as usual, is flawless and uninspiring. The connection between Arthur and the Harlem’s Children Hospital is thinner than a spider web, but that is the last thing that would deter a career politician. In a low, somber tone, Arthur evokes an African American custodian whose child was diagnosed with leukemia and who was saved from certain death by the caring doctors and nurses of the Children’s Hospital. The hospital custodian, a frail bald man stands sheepishly off to the side, mercifully spared the embarrassment of having to speak at the podium.

Arthur evokes racial equality, closing the income gap, and creating affordable (privatized) health care. And the 20 million dollars he finagled from the Albany Legislature to help pay for the new hospital wing.

Taking a pair of oversized scissors, he cuts the ribbon. He shakes hands with the C.E.O of the Children’s Hospital and its Chief of Surgery and poses for pictures with Barbara, Janelle and Barry. Even at a minor press conference like this one, family values must be on full display.

“Well done,” Barry says after the speech, keeping to the script.

“Appreciate you coming, Barry,” Arthur says, also keeping to the script. Graciously, he doesn’t inquire how the restaurants are doing, saving Barry from having to lie. Barry gives Barbara’s cheek requisite peck, asks about her health and acts relieved when she says that it is as well as can be expected.

The event is not a fundraiser, so there’s no make-shift bar, not even plastic cups of low-grade Chardonnay to ease the pain of publicity.

As if sensing her husband’s unease, Janelle extracts herself from a conversation with Arthur and the hospital’s C.E.O. and joins her husband.

“You don’t have to come on the tour. Dad and I are going out to eat afterwards. Drive my car home, I’ll take a car service.”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes. I don’t want to torture you any more than necessary.”

Plus, most of the press has left already.

“Okay. You’re the best.”

Barry kisses her on the lips, savoring the faint peach smell of her lipstick.

 

Barry eases into the turning lane which puts him on the short block to the northbound FDR. He is beginning to feel lighter when his Smartphone vibrates. The phone is paired automatically to the speakers and the chorus of Queen’s “I Want to Break Free” fills the car with surround sound clarity.

Justin’s inside joke. He periodically debugs Barry’s Smartphone and always leaves mementos. Pictures of himself in his underwear from their vacations. Quotes, or lines they had laughed about. New ring tones.

The Queen song is quintessential Justin, equal measures encouraging and ribbing. He once linked the theme from the Exorcist movie to Janelle’s number and it took Barry a week to figure out how to turn it off.

Barry steals a glance at the phone screen.

911

Ignore it. Turn onto the highway.

The last opt-out is the third-rate hotel, improbably located just before the 63rd street ramp.

Except he makes the mistake of looking at the screen.

911911911911911…

False alarm.

But what if…

Visions of Justin passed out on the floor of his grimy loft he calls home and office. Succumbed to a mixture of uppers and downers in a combination that made his heart seize up like the motor of the old dishwasher at The Reef.

You’re becoming a worry wart in your old age, Barr.

Barry executes a last minute maneuver which puts him on the circular driveway of the hotel. The doorman eyes the BMW and the possibility of a tip, but after Barry parks as far away from the entrance as possible, he vanishes inside.

Barry picks up his phone. After the string of 911, Justin typed: I have to talk to you. This could change everything.

If you don’t leave your wife, I’m going to the press.

Ridiculous. For one, that’s something out of a 90s thriller, second Justin would never hurt Barry in that way. People like Justin leave a wreck behind them, but it’s not intentional.

Not usually.

Barry could call, of course, and make him confirm the emergency, but Justin would be ready to pile on the drama. Barry pulls onto the FDR, with the full intention of driving to Westchester. Then he reaches the turnoff for the Triboro Bridge and the BMW takes the ramp, obeying his innermost command the same way an old horse knows the true intentions of his master.

Ten minutes later, Barry is driving down Knickerbocker Avenue. Once a thriving hub for drug dealers and thugs, Bushwick is experiencing gentrification at a snail’s pace. The neighborhood is playing the first act of the familiar urban renewal drama: starving artists move into a decrepit neighborhood, make it trendy, then get pushed out by yuppies chasing the next hot trend.

At seven o’clock at night, the signs of revitalization are nowhere to be seen. Warehouse after warehouse follows a pattern of uniformed, industrialized ugliness.

He parks under a crooked lamppost and chases away visions of later finding his truck without wheels. He crosses the street and buzzes Justin’s loft. The modern buzzer with the black-and-white monitor is the only sign that this building is more than just a crumbling warehouse.

Each floor has only one loft and Justin’s is on the third floor. Barry catches his breath, careful not to touch the grimy banister. Justin stands in the doorway. Even in the half light of the corridor, Barry can tell his boyfriend has waved sobriety goodbye a long time ago. Still, he does not look like most people when he is under the influence. His speech is not slurred and his movements are still limber, but a strange focus comes into his eyes, as if instead of throwing his system out of balance, the chemicals give him a semblance of control.

“Where’s the fire?” Barry asks and pushes his way past Justin. The loft is a gigantic opens space, which gives free reign to Justin’s slovenliness. The only order is at the bar, where the glasses are lined up neatly and the dining room table, which Justin uses as a workbench. It is littered with cameras and all things digital surveillance. Barry always marvels how the equipment seemed to be getting smaller and smaller every time he visits Justin.

“I know what to get your for Christmas,” Barry says, pushing aside a bunched up pair of sweat pants so he can sit on the sofa.
“What?”

“A maid.”

“Boo,” Justin says as if the word is a balloon he is letting air out of. “Drink?”

“I just came from a Republican press conference. What do you think?”

Justin busies himself at the bar. He pours vodka and cranberry juice into a cocktail shakers and adds a dash of triple sec.

“Not too much cranberry juice. I know you don’t like to too fruity,” Justin says and Barry gets a sinking feeling in his stomach.

“Please tell me you didn’t get me over here just for a cosmo.”

Justin pours Barry’s drink over crushed ice, splashes his own into a chilled martini glass. Barry admires his steady hands. He hands Barry the short glass. He takes a sip of his own drink and puts it on the coffee table, where it joins its four empty predecessors.

Just another Monday night at the Chandler household.

Justin makes himself comfortable next to Barry, like a twitchy Lounge Lizard.

“So, I’ve been thinking.”

“Hm.” Barry takes a sip and feels the top shelf vodka hit home. At least Justin understands one thing. Life’s too short to drink cheap liquor.

“I came up with a way for us to be together.”

“We are together.”

“For good.”

“We’ve been over this. Once the elections are over, we’re going island hopping for two weeks. We can also do New Year’s Eve together.”

Barry can’t remember what else he promised Justin and hopes he is not repeating himself.

“I don’t care about two lousy weeks. You’re not listening.”

“No, you’re not listening. You know the drill. Everything is in her name. The restaurants, the house, everything.”

“And yet, there is no prenup.”

“There doesn’t need to be, because she would never agree to divorce me.”

“Who’s talking about divorce?”

“I thought you––“

Barry puts his drink down.

“Please tell me I didn’t drive here for this.”

“Of course she won’t agree to a divorce,” Justin says, as if picking up an innocent strand of the conversation.

Who would she take to her father’s fascist rallies? Or to her kitschy fundraisers? Aren’t you tired––”

“How many times––”

“––of leading a double life?”

“––do we have to go through this? Life is full of compromises. Maybe you’ll realize that if you ever decide to grow up.”

“If growing up means getting leftovers, then I don’t want to.”

Barry feels tired, more tired than anyone should have a right to make him feel. Especially Justin. He stands up and fixes the creases of his pants. Janelle hates creases.

“I’m not the kept man, Barry. I can take care of myself.”

“Well, I can’t.”

Barry walks to the door.

“I will take care of you. And I’m not talking about a lousy divorce.”

Barry’s hand, reaching for the doorknob, freezes in mid-air.

“I know you won’t ever leave her.”

Turning to face Justin, Barry prays there is a logical explanation for what he has just heard.”

“Then what?”

Justin closes the door and blocks it, as if Barry is incapable of brushing aside a hundred and thirty pounds.

“Remember when we talked about what it would be like not to have her in the picture? Just the two of us?”

“I remember. That was just pillow talk. Fantasy.”

“It was more than that.”

“Tell me something, Justin. How many pills did you take today? Or did you lose count after your fourth cosmo?”

Justin steps away from the door and walks back to the sofa like a sulking child.

“How convenient to put all of this on me. Pretend that you don’t want it as much as I do.”

“I don’t. I’m very happy with the way things are. I get the best of both worlds. Security and excitement.”

Justin comes closer, a slender predator stalking its lumbering prey.

“I don’t know much more of this I can take, Justin. The parties, the fund raisers, the small talk.”

Justin plays Barry “straight”, the way he does when he wants to rile him, as if Barry is an over-the-top macho working man instead of a mild-mannered restaurateur.

“If your wife dies, you would get everything, plus the insurance money. What is that? A million?”

“More like two.”

“See? You’ve thought about it.”

“No, I haven’t. I don’t believe this. You get me over with a 911 text to try to convince me to kill my wife.”

Justin smiles the famous Justin Chandler smile which makes him look like a ten-year old caught cheating at the spelling bee.

“Don’t be silly, Barry. I know you could never do it.”

“At last we agree on something.”

“But I could. This way you’d also have an alibi.”

Barry waits for the inevitable laugh which does not come. It doesn’t come, because Justin is serious.

Dead serious.

But Barry does not feel like laughing.

“Tell me your joking.”

Justin launches into his flaming homosexual act, which is the one thing that annoys Barry more than the macho man act.

“Did anyone ever tell you, you look sexy when you’re angry?”

“Stop it. You know I hate the fag act.”

Barry is angry, but he knows it won’t last. He knows this seconds before Justin takes off his shirt, exposing a body emaciated in a way only a model scout could love. And Barry, of course. Barry, who gains five pounds just looking at a plate of dessert. He feels himself go just as Justin grabs ahold of him. Feels himself go even deeper as Justin unzips him, casually as if he is performing nothing more than a much needed adjustment. At this point, Barry can see the surface where normalcy floats. But when Justin kneels down in front of him, Barry sinks hopelessly out of reason’s reach.

 

When Barry pulls into the driveway at eleven, the house is dark and the alarm is on. Janelle likes to go to bed early and hit the treadmill by six thirty in the morning. For a woman, for whom work was always a choice and not a necessity, she has Spartan habits. She sleeps the requisite seven hours, puts in least ten as a commercial realtor in Manhattan. She rarely veers from her diet.

He doesn’t want to make noise, so his post-Justin shower goes down quickly. Slips on his silk pajamas, even though he normally sleeps in boxers and a T-shirt. The pajamas give him a sense of normalcy and control. Before going to his own bedroom, he looks in on Janelle in the master bedroom. She has kicked the covers off and lying on her back, with her head facing sideways, she looks like she’s dead.

You would like that wouldn’t you, Justin?

Another thought at the heel of this one. Would Barry?

Of course, not. What would I do in this big house, all by my lonesome?

“Barry?”

Barry flinches, glad that she can’t see his face in the darkness. For a second, he thinks she will ask him where he’s been, which is against the unwritten rules of their open marriage arrangement.

“Do you mind sleeping next to me?”

Once every few weeks, Janelle craves human contact of the nonsexual kind. Barry sleeping next to her makes her feel safe. Like snuggling up to Papa Bear, he once said, an image she did not find it amusing.

Why tonight?

He slips under the covers. She drapes an arm around him, another rarity. Barry has read that people hovering at the edge of sleep are intuitive, because their conscious mind is suppressed. She can’t read his troubled thoughts, but maybe she can sense them.

Sleep is a slow train coming. Like most people who can’t make sense of the present, Barry returns to the comforts of the unchanging past. Ten years ago, when the Decision has been weighing on his mind, making every waking minute a nightmare. Two months of tossing and turning, losing the pleasures of life, even (heaven forbid) eating. Janelle noticed his usual joie de vivre giving way to Old World gloom. He dropped ten pounds, which made him comfortably chubby, no longer fat.

That’s what finally did it. She knew that Barry turning away from food was a cry for help. She made his favorite comfort food, meatloaf with garlic mashed potatoes and he still remembers the way it smelled and the way it made him depressed, because he wasn’t hungry.

She sat him down in their recently remodeled living room. Strange how the mind hones in on certain details. The feel of the new leather sofa. The new flat screen TV in the background. White-haired men spewing political wisdom. Kerry vs. Bush. Surely, the American people won’t make the same mistake twice.

He told her everything. He’s known he was gay since high school, fought heroically fought the urge through college, only to lose the battle as a recent graduate.

Full surrender, is more like it. I’ll spare you the details. I thought I could make it work. In a strange way, I love you.

I know you do.

I suppose you want a divorce.

It’s not that simple.

And, like a pro negotiator, Janelle pulls an offer out of the ashes of Barry’s confession. Arthur is running for Congress. His chances look good. The 1st District in Long Island wants a firm Republican hand with Common Man touch. Arthur Giafaro, successful builder turned real estate developer. Barry doesn’t know what’s more ridiculous, that she calls her father Arthur, or that he is running for Congress.

Janelle lays her cards on the table.

I love you, too. Enough for an open marriage.

Just for Arthur? It’s 2004, I think New Yorkers will get over the idea of a gay son-in-law. Or ex-husband.

They will. But they won’t get over the fact that he didn’t know. Goes against his image as an Intuitive Leader. And if he admits that he did know, then it looks like he was ashamed of it and hiding it. Negates his PR image as a straight shooter. The only way to avoid this nasty Catch-22 is if we keep this under wraps. Also, I’ve been having an affair with real estate broker from another firm.

Barry’s laughter echoes throughout the house. Just like that, his jovial nature is back. He knows it’s real relief, because it is followed by hunger pains.

The last 12 years? Other than the political showings, the perfect marriage. Like a movie trailer, which contains only the best parts of a mundane movie. Companionship. Someone to commiserate with when business is slow. Someone to transfer money into the business account when business is really slow. Someone who doesn’t care that the Profit & Loss Statement of The Reef tends to be confined to the Loss side, because, well, that’s the cost of doing business in this marriage.

Endless series of boyfriends on both sides. His: nerdy techno-geeks with flawless abs. Hers: Muscular ex-frat boys with flawless abs.

To each his own boy toy, as a wise and rich gay man once said.

Barry falls into uneasy sleep and dreams of Justin.

 

Days later, Barry is going over the accounts in the Reef’s womb-sized office. He is finished with the income report and barely halfway through the expense report when he realizes that he is looking at another week in the red.

When was the last time The Reef showed a profit?

Most business owners can point to a specific problem which spells their doom. Price of fish going through the roof. Rising gas prices killing transportation costs. Patrons staying home and eating TV dinners instead of going to restaurants.

Barry has no such comfort. Everything seems to be going wrong at the same time and on top of it, someone is stealing from him. He is sure of it. Little gaps in accounting that could have come from a dozen different sources. After a three-year hot streak, The Reef is sinking and Barry is sinking along with it.

The fun of it is gone. Or did the fun fizzle out first and then it started to lose money? Even the décor is making him ill. The early 19th century harpoon on the wall is meant to recall the sea of old, but today looks like Disney-style Melville, remnants of a romanticized America that never was. An overprized interior designer labeled it Retro Cape Cod. Justin calls it Retro Kitsch.

A reserved knock on the door jolts Barry back to the present. Before he has time to answer, the door opens and Christine, the hostess, sticks her head in.

“There’s a Justin Chandler here to see you.”

What did you expect? That he would just go away after ten unreturned texts?

“Tell him that I stepped out. And then have Josh make me a Grey Goose Martini on the rocks. Dirty, one olive.”

“You got it.”

She closes the door and Barry listens to her steps receding. He’s not the only one. The door opens again and Justin sneaks in like an errant cat.

“Trying to avoid me, Barr?” He plops his narrow behind in the guest chair. He looks pale, his cheeks are sunken and there are dark circles around his eyes. On Justin, the look seems calculated.

Hobo chique, by Calvin Klein.

He plays with the paperweight on Barry’s desk.

“I bought you this in New Orleans, remember?”

“If you did, it would be a glass penis instead of a pyramid.”

“Ha. Barry’s got jokes. But this no laughing matter. My poor fingers are tired from texting.”

“I’ve been busy.”

“Busy where?”

“Here. Or don’t you check your own cameras?”

“It’s for your own good, hon.”

Justin pulls a tablet from the inside pocket of his leather jacket.

“What am I supposed to do with this?” Barry asks, taking the tablet. It’s a mini, the size of a paperback.

“Cut the attitude, Barr. I’m here to help. Click the play button.” He looks around. “Jeez, my liquor cabinet is bigger than this office.”

“We needed the space to put in two more tables.”

Why do I have to justify myself to you?

Barry holds the tablet the way he holds all things technology. Like he’s afraid it’s going to morph into something else. Something dangerous.

He taps the play arrow. Grainy black-and-white footage from the camera posted above the bar. Christine, wearing the customary low-top which has diffused countless irate male customers, approaches the bar with the till. It’s part of her duty at the start of the dinner shift. She slides the till in with one practiced motion, closes the register and walks away. There is no sound on the video, but Barry can almost hear her high heels reverbing off the wooden floor.

“So? She does this every day.”

“Precisely. All’s well in Barry’s neighborhood when we look at the scene from this angle. Your cameras are swell, by the way. They were top-of-the-line fifteen years ago. Now, watch this. This footage is from one of my new babies.”

With two clicks and one swipe, Justin changes the screen. A fish-eye view of the bar appears in rich color. The perspective is looking up from counter-level. The view is so warped that the entire back bar is captured in the frame. Christine glides into view. The camera frames her head to midriff. She puts in the till and when she pulls back her hand, it is no longer empty.

“Freeze,” Justin says and the video stops. “A twenty here, a twenty there. Hard to detect and she can always blame it on the bartender. That doesn’t account for the entire loss, but it’s a start.”

“Christine? I never would’ve guessed.”

Justin glows.

“I always said you give women too much credit. Especially when they’re pretty.”

“Thanks. I owe you one. I’ll take you to the Russian Tea Room this weekend.”

Justin pulls out his tablet again and starts clicking away on it, like a bored teenager.

“It’s not that simple.”

He slides the tablet across the desk.

“Is someone else stealing from me?”


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

David Toth was born in Hungary and moved to the United States at the age of 13. After graduating from Cornell University, he worked as a journalist and as a producer of educational media before becoming a teacher of English and Film in New York City. His first published short story, “The Bracelets” has appeared in the July 2015 issue of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. Since then, several of his short stories have appeared in magazines and literary journals.

Q. What did you learn while writing this book?
A.
That you have to let characters make their own choices. I had an ending planned, but had to throw it out when some of the characters turned out to be more resourceful than I expected.
Q. This book is part of a series, tell us about your series.
A.
Empire Tales is a suspense trilogy. Each novel has a unique plot and characters, but theme and geography (New York State) allows them to be woven into a larger tapestry. In each episode, the central character faces a dilemma, where the adoption of a new persona presents a way out.
Q. Which writers inspire you?
A.
The ones that don't insult a readers' intelligence by spelling everything out, or who write pages of atmospheric prose, which I have to skip to get to the good parts.

Next in:
Ending Soon
White Male
There'll be some love-making & heart-breaking
Ghost Star
He'd fight an empire to save his family.
Avenue to Heaven
Bodyguard or temporary husband, why not both?