The Discerning Palate

 

The Discerning Palate
Part 3

Thank you, Reed, for ze editing!
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He was all rough and all masculine, and it was sexy as hell. We'd thrown ourselves together suddenly, as if our bodies had known it was coming and might as well get to it, despite the weary, often sarcastic, tone of our conversation.

He lifted his lips off mine just as he thrust forward, rubbing his cock against my leg even as his hand moved from where it had sat on my thigh up to my erection. I moaned as his mouth moved to my ear.

"I didn't expect this," he almost snarled, "especially since you drive me crazy." It almost made me laugh in it's almost angry ambiguity. Did he mean sexually? Or that he wasn't sure how much he actually liked me? It was hard to tell.

But I really didn't care as I undid his pants and I moved downward to see if all met my now damn high expectations. As I took him in my mouth and he grabbed my hair roughly, I most certainly had to say it did.

It had been a very weird 24 hours. But, I admitted as I ran my tongue hungrily down the pulsing ridge on the underside of his cock, I was currently much preferring this side of the law.



After I had rushed Alex, the large man in the suit had moved with shocking speed and pushed me back, causing me to go flying into the unfinished sales counter. That hurt. Robbie kicking me before leaving had hurt even more, with a hissed, "Stupid fag". I think he wanted to get a helluva lot more into it, but Alex had called his name sharply, despite being already almost out the door. Everything happened far too fast for me to see more than the most fleeting reaction when I'd hit Mr. Channing... but what I had seen had been shock. Good.

"You'll be hearing from us soon, both of you." Mr. Suit said, his voice smooth and calm, as if nothing at all was happening. Maybe this was something he saw every day. "I'm sure we can work this all out to everyone's satisfaction."

"Fuck you," I had spit out. He lifted his eyebrows, but gave no other indication he'd heard me.

After Kim had picked me up from the floor – the dude had a powerful push, I'd give him that - and helped me hobble to the crappy bar/family restaurant down the street with boring decor and even more boring food, we'd sat down for The Talk. Also known as the "Explanation of how Kim ended up Owing Money to Slimeballs." I was both impatient to hear it and sorta didn't want to. She was having trouble getting around to it, however, starting out by directing her anger at me and my refusal to leave town.

"Why won't you listen to me?" Kim dragged her fingers through her hair in frustration, her face scrunched up in frustration, all sorts of splochy after all the emotions she'd run through over the course of the evening. Me? I calmly took another sip of my drink. "I'll deal with this, you know I can."

"I don't think so."

"It's the best thing for you, damn it! Don't be a stubborn asshole just to be a stubborn asshole!" She was trying hard not to yell, but it was obviously taking a great deal of effort. The parents of a family of four two tables over shot us a death glare, which we ignored.

"No, it's not, and I'm not just being a stubborn asshole." Not to disagree that I was one, of course, but that wasn't my current motivation. I studied the ice cubes in my drink, watching them melt into the tonic and creating a constantly moving show. "It's not the best thing for you for me to leave; if I did, you'd have no one."

"I can handle it!"

I rolled my eyes at her. No, she couldn't, no matter how very strong she was; and even if she could, she shouldn't. She was tearing at her napkin with her nails, and I could tell she was struggling, wanting to scream and hug me and break down and freak out.

My eyes trailed around the room of the old family restaurant with its faux wood walls... to a couple of families, bored couples, a table of hipster college students that looked a bit out of place. I felt different from them, separate. Did they know what went on this town? Would it make a difference if they did?

Was that the way it was everywhere? Wow, I was feeling emo.

I pulled my mind back to the situation at hand, back to Kim. I know she wanted me to stay, not leave her to deal with this shit alone. But she was right, of course... I would have every right to go. I should go, to some place far away where these small-town thugs couldn't touch me. But I wasn't going to.

Kim let out a big sniffle, and tears started rolling down her cheeks.

"Oh, Isaac..." Her hands came forward and covered mine, and she was crying again. There'd been a lot of crying over the last hour. But she was finally ready to tell me the story.

Her fall into the dark side had started with a conversation as these things often do. She'd first heard about the local criminal element from her idiot roommate's skeezy boyfriend.

During a conversation about her credit and loan issues he'd suggested that he knew someone who might be able to get her all the money she needed, as long as she was willing to pay slightly higher interest than usual. She hated the guy and logically knew he wasn't to be trusted, but she was desperate, and what was a little more interest in light of her dreams?
So he'd gotten her a name and number, that of Del Raeburn, aka Hulking Suit Dude. He'd been very nice, asking all the right questions. She was convinced he worked for a savings and loans company or bank of some sort. And when he emailed her the offer, it'd been more than good enough to say yes to. It was all okay, until she'd gone to the signing meeting at a restaurant the next town over.

The man she'd met, Jimmy, had been professional looking and nice enough, but he showed up without any actual paperwork... Nothing but an assurance their construction crew would be in the next day, and one very large check. She'd asked what the guarantee for either of them was... and he'd said, with a smile, that there were several.

His tone of voice, although ostensibly warm, sent chills down her back. Kim sensed there was something very wrong, and she shouldn't get involved. She attempted to back out, gently but firmly.

And even more gently but much more firmly he'd told her it was too late. She'd never been so disconcerted in her life – with his calm demeanor while he told her they already considered the money accepted and would conduct themselves as such. No matter what she said, she was informed she had to take the money, and there was nothing she could do if she did not. And when she'd asked who "they" were... all she got was "concerned local interests." And the meeting, with that, had been over.

She'd threatened her roommate's skeezbucket of love that evening, and he'd come clean that they were local gangsters. If she'd not just seen Mr. Raeburn in action, she would have laughed her ass off at him. But now... now she believed him.

And thus she learned how all those years of rumors were true... Marrington had families in control, groups of men who ran downtown, men who told the city council what to do. They did a lot of 'support', and it was a very good idea to stay on their good sides, supposedly. All the businesses paid them a little something. ALL the businesses.

"Even the chains?" I interrupted Kim's story, incredulous. "Starbucks pays protection money? Seriously? They probably have corporate ninjas that could take down one bone-headed Marrington criminal idiot with a used coffee cup, for fuck's sake."

"I don't KNOW if they do. I only know what I heard!" It was very difficult to not roll my eyes as she sniffled. I wasn't sure I bought it, but that wasn't the point at the moment.

The rest was fairly easy to extrapolate from what had just gone down in the shop.

"How'd they know about me?" I asked.

"I... told them. As part of my sales pitch as to why they should support me, and the cafe. I was just bragging, I don't think I even used your name, just 'my cousin'! I didn't expect, I didn't think they'd bring you into this! Oh, god... I'm so glad you're not leaving me, Isaac. I don't know what I would do if you did. I know it's horrible, but, oh..." I let her weep. My body hurt too much to be comforting. Nor did I really feel like it at the moment.

"So now we wait." I put down my empty glass, rather depressed there was nothing still in there. I indicated for another. This pain was not going away, and gin would be my Ibuprofen. "I wonder what that means."

"I don't know. I don't know how these people work." Kim leaned forward. Her crying had had shockingly little effect on her makeup; she must use a high-quality brand. It didn't hide all, however, her eyes were bloodshot and her forehead wrinkled in stress. "You're worrying me. Isaac. How can you be so calm? WHY are you so calm? Aren't you mad at me?"

"I am." I gave the waiter a smile as he set the drink in front of me; aw, he blushed. He was cute, but a young 20 if a day, and I was no fan of the Zac Efron hair. "Absolutely, completely enraged at you." She pulled back suddenly, as if just saying it was like a slap in the face. "I am astonished at how stupid you were, and I don't know how to express it other than screaming my head off at you. I want to do that so badly, it almost hurts." Tears again. "But you've got your own problems, and me verbally beating you - although, oh, do I want to let you have it - won't help either of us." This obviously surprised her... Control had never been my strong point. She didn't know about Junichi, however, and what it had taught me about myself.

"So listen to me and LEAVEif you feel like that! I can't stand the thought of you screaming at me for the next several months! No matter how much I deserve it. Fuck that!" She said fiercely. Now there was the Kim I knew and loved.

"No." I shook my head. "I'll get over it, and I'm not leaving. We have to work through this, somehow." She sobbed. Sigh. "But tonight, Kim. Just give me tonight to sorta hate you. To get all of my resentment out. Tonight. Tomorrow we'll have an adult conversation."

She was silent for a moment, looking like she was going to argue, but wisely thought better of it. "Okay." With a sniffle, she pulled herself together, and started to go into her purse to pay for her drink. I shook my head.

"I think, with your current financial problems, I can at the very least buy you a drink. Stupid bitch." That last was half-playful, half-honest. But the playful part was what she needed to hear. She gave a little smile, and stood up.

"Okay. Thank you. Just. Thank you. I'm so sorry for all of this, and...." She put her hand on my shoulder, and squeezed. "Sorry about Alex. I didn't know it was his family. I really didn't, although I guess it makes sense. But, still." She squeezed one more time, and left.

I laughed at myself, and shook my head as I took another drink. 'Sorry about Alex.' Yeah. Obviously I was all transparent, all the time. The bitch knew me really well, no matter how long it'd been since we'd been besties. She recognized that while being upset over my former crush being a scuzzball gangster wasn't issue #1, it was right fucking up there.

I sighed to myself. How much I'd not believed the old rumors about the "mob of Marrington" had come back to smack me on the ass, now that I had proof it was true.

The Channings were a crime family.

Just. Wow. Of course, it also explained so very much, really. Sandy's dad and his weird mix of friends, many of whom in hindsight were more associates and employees than buddies. The vague job descriptors when Alex would talk about his father. His mother's way of being both perky and perfect but also a little bit crazy, like she knew too much that she was doing her best to ignore.

And the perks, which my erstwhile friend had always been so embarrassed about. Now I knew why.

"And I just thought it was because you were a spoiled rich little fucker." I muttered. That had seemed the obvious answer for all the freebies in stores and restaurants, him being treated as if he was a prince. Which to them, I suppose he was. Where was his dad? Still alive? In control? That made my blood run cold. I had every bit of faith that the elder Mr. Channing was without scruples.

So what did this mean to me? For me?

Nothing good, that's what. Now I was bound in this little town that I'd been so fast and proud to escape, and I was going to be used by a bunch of scumbags. Scumbags and idiots who manipulated me into this situation by using my sense of familial obligation. I did not like this. My independence was something I took very, very seriously, and the thought that I was completely beholden or my cousin would be severely messed up, at the least financially, was a difficult reality to accept.

"Screw that. I'm not accepting this." I muttered to myself. "Fuck that." I wasn't just going to roll over, accept this. There had to be SOMETHING that we could do.

Something else hit me then, something new: I had this crazy thing happening in my life. I had so much I wanted to talk about... and I was alone. I didn't feel like I had anyone to bounce off of. I had no one to talk to. Oh, I had friends, so many wonderful friends all over the place, but right then all of them seemed really far away, both physically and mentally. Oh, I could call Aaron in Tokyo, he might have some knowledge of criminal elements... or my old buddies from my New York kitchen days; Raphael always liked to hint he had mob connections.

But it was too ridiculous, I couldn't bring myself to do it. I rather expected anyone I did call to laugh at me. And with her, well, I was a source of strength and a much needed one, for she was far more fucked in all this than I was.

And then, as I finished my drink, this somehow snowballed into a desire for more, for sex, for someone to screw silly while I got out all this messy emotion about Alex, about Junichi, or, heck, Todd and then Aaron before him. I wanted a companion, but there wasn't one in sight. My day had started out full of hope and cheerfulness and ended in a quagmire.

"Fuck me." I said out loud, getting the startled stink eye from an old couple at a table near me; the other family we had been torturing had left. I'd eaten here when I was younger, and it was as depressing as always in its generic, threadbare style. I needed out; this was not the best place for a drunk Isaac. I pounded my drink, threw too much money down on the table, and stalked out.

There wasn't more to my night. I picked up some overpriced wine from the liquor store on the way back, and wrote a few vague emails to friends on Kim's laptop. I then drank too much while watching some god-awful television with highly botoxed ladies on TV, and went to bed. Not the best time of my life. At the ancient age of 29 I felt old for the first time.

***

Despite waking up with a beaut of a hangover the next day - why did I mix gin and wine, again - things looked a bit better, at least in the sense I knew there was no use fighting reality. It was about 9:00 when I stumbled in my boxers to the patio door and opened it. I 'whoof'ed at the rush of hot, humid air that hit me. It was going to be a humdinger. I collapsed on the A/C chilled cotton couch with a glass of water and looked at my day with a gimlet eye.

I'd originally thought I'd be here for a few months, 6 at the most, making up a menu, being the original creator for a while, and then turning it all over to a talented replacement before moving on. Tokyo'd been my longest time in one city, at one job. But who knew how long they'd force me to stay here? Shit. No, I wasn't going to let them force me into anything... but even then, even fighting, who knew how long this would take.

Not being in the mood to mess around with the cafe menu at the moment - I knew when the creativity was flowing, and this was not one of those days - nor feeling like sitting around reading and moping, I decided my next best option was exercise.

But I sure as hell wasn't going to run in this weather, nuh uh. It was never my hobby of choice in any case. Martial Arts was, but the closest Tae Kwon Do studio was not close enough. Luckily I had a pass from my cousin to join the mega-gym down where the big box stores lived at a ridiculously low price, and exercising would be an excellent way to burn off this energy and frustration. Kim had her car again, but there was a bus, and I'd never been above public transport. Heck, I was drawn to cities where I could avoid vehicles as much as possible.

"There we go, a plan," I thought, and went forth to get my endorphins going.

I made it to the gym nice and sweaty, since using the bus did mean I couldn't avoid the nasty humidity completely, and signed up with the flirtatious very young lady at the gym front office. It took a bit, as we had to do the dance of her trying to sell me personal trainer sessions and unnecessary 'perks' on top of my discount membership and me resisting with increasing annoyance. A tour, and then she released me and blissfully left me alone.

Well, as alone as you can be in a big industrial gym. In the cardio room I noticed I was getting stares, and the youngish blond woman on the arc trainer next to me shot me a little flirtatious smile as she checked me out. I think she was considering starting up a conversation with me. But, as often happens, my tattoos gave her pause. They were all readily in view, as I was wearing a loose pair of grey cotton Under Armor shorts and a black tank top. My ink was a strangely effective barrier in a place like this, giving me a bad boy sheen that wasn't really true. It'd first been a rebellion, a way to stand apart and piss off my parents with an arm band here, a dragon there.

But over the last 8 years I'd only gotten tats that meant something; markers of events and people I loved. I considered myself an artist, but, by its nature, my art was transitory and prone to spoiling if not eaten. But this art - it would last as long as I did. I liked that.

And the attention they got me, well... sometimes I loved it, sometimes I couldn't care less. At that moment, I prefer to be ignored. Knowing a bunch of criminals had still-unspecified plans for you did enough to raise paranoia. My mind moved on to how I could find out more information... So many questions, about their structure, how big they were, what did they do if you got on their bad sides...

And I sweated mightily, and moved on to the bikes, and...Ow. Nothing like exercise to flush out a hangover... and remind you what an idiot you are.

There was a moment where I considered not doing weights. I would gladly have been done after 45 minutes of tough cardio, and my body would have been quite grateful. But I was on a roll... "Don't be a wuss", I muttered to myself.

It was a fateful decision, mostly because of the beautiful man doing bench presses.

Seeing Jason again, in his sweaty sexiness, re-booted the part of my brain that refused to accept that I was absolutely going to have to work for the criminal bastards.

The law. I mean, wasn't there a representative of the local enforcement right there? This upstanding gentleman was proof, standing here in all his glory.

I blinked at him and remembering him pressing against my back yesterday in the rain; muttering threats/come-ons in my ear about seeing him again, came rushing to the forefront of my brain. No, not just my brain.

His round, impressive muscles strained as he lifted the weights, his tan skin covered with a sheen of sweat. He was wearing a white cotton T-shirt that was clinging to his pecs and basketball shorts that covered up more of his thighs than I really thought necessary.

"He's the law, you need the help of the law, so you should probably not eye him with pure lust,"I told the hormone-driven me firmly. Also, you annoy him. Gun, remember?

The other me answered: "Huh. Nice outline - definitely packing, wasn't just my imagination yesterday. Definitely not my imagination he pressed his erection against me, thus: Interested. I think I would like to lick the sweat off him.

Other me: not listening, obviously.

I'd rather the two halves were in agreement of some sort, but it was too late - he'd finished his set, swung his legs over and stood up - and was staring right at me.

I smiled, but worked to look nonchalant - there were a few other guys in the weight room, and by staring at him blatantly I'd already broken a few unspoken exercise rules. "Hey."

What was it about my smile that pissed him off so much? Not unlike the time he'd blatantly considered shooting me in the cafe two days ago, a look of conflicted annoyance passed over his handsome features. I liked his nose, just wide enough with a subtle upturn, and his blond, oh-so-Scandinavian eyebrows. His cheeks were flush and he looked younger than he obviously was - towheaded and boyish, but all man.

And goddamn sexy.

"Hey," he answered, his eyes sliding over me and then to the leg press, where he decamped. This was going to take some work. My first instinct was to approach him in my usual obnoxious way, but he seemed pretty tense... I'd give him some time, I decided; let him get used to me in the same room as him. At least he'd not fled completely.

Also: It gave me an opportunity to watch him work out, at least surreptitiously. I'd never been attracted to men as muscular as him on average... but I couldn't deny he was beautifully put together. And something about yesterday, and the way I pissed him off, was really attractive. He was so action-man, it was clear he took his job (and possibly himself) very seriously... but that tease yesterday, so unexpected, made me wonder what else there was to discover that he didn't wear on the outside.

So I just went about my routine, watching him whenever he didn't seem to be looking but overtly ignoring him. There were a couple of moments where I thought he might have been looking over at me, also, but that was probably my overactive and undersexed imagination connecting phantom dots.

Then, when he moved to the free weights, I sauntered over at the same time, acting like it was all a big coincidence. "Hey." I said again, as he began to grab one of the bigger options." He grunted in response, and I took that as a green light. "Thanks again for not giving me a ticket yesterday. I didn't mean to be such a blatant dumbass."

There was a hesitation there, I saw it. For a critical moment, he wasn't planning on responding, or was going to simply grunt and move away.

That was not, however, what he did.

"No problem." He turned to me, and I noticed his eyes were very grey. "But it won't happen again if I catch you doing anything stupid." His tone was less threatening than the words themselves sounded, but not much.

"But I thought that would make me lucky?" I gave him a lopsided smile. "If you caught me again, I mean."

Jason's lips pursed, his expression hovering between embarrassment, amusement and anger. It was sexy... the man obviously wasn't stupid. "That was a slip of the tongue." Oh too easy. He saw my eyebrow, and flushed. "You know what I mean."

"Maybe."

"You always like to piss cops off whenever you meet them?" he challenged, letting his eyes flicker over my visible tattoos. "It's not a good idea."

"Surprisingly, no," I denied cheerfully. "You're the first one I've, uh... excited quite so much." I'd moved closer, my hand resting casually just inches from where his still gripped the bar of a weight. "The life of a pastry chef isn't usually synonymous with criminal activity, at least not the way I live it."

"Pastry chef?" his confusion was adorable. And he also didn't move away. "I thought you were a construction worker."

"Nope. That was a temporary role, to help out Kim - thus my frustration with both her and her criticism of my tile work. I'm not very hot at tiling. I bake cakes."

"Cakes. Huh. Any good?" He was relaxing, his voice now amused.

"Reportedly not bad, actually, make a crème Brule to die for. I've seen women faint for my mousse." I said with fake modesty.

The cop was relaxing, excellent, and he opened his mouth to talk again... and there was a grunt behind us, a pissy looking i-banker type wanted to get to the weights, and he surprised me again by actually staying by me as we moved to a corner, continuing the conversation.

Now, how to get around to the little issue of being hounded by gangsters...

"So you say you're not a punk, huh, and crème Brule to die for?" he asked, and there was a touch of playful there. I felt the stirring of blood and a rising excitement. "You're a good cousin, then, to be out here, helping Kim."

"This is probably true," I agreed cheerfully, and gave him that grin, the one that seemed to infuriate him. I was testing him, truly. "But, hell, I owe her a few zillion, really. Least I could do. But it's been hard, really."

"Huh. Yeah, I can see that, Kim's a good person." The smile didn't seem to set him off this time. Good. He just had a bemused look on his face, the workout flush on his cheeks damn cute. He was so guarded, something about him screamed 'cop'... and yet there was something really boyish, something playful.

And that last statement of mine - about it being hard - was honestly simply supposed to be a lead-in to discussing the gang, the point of this conversation. But I'd probably been eyeing him without noticing it the whole of the time we'd been talking, eyes running down his arms, noting his strong, sexy neck, wondering idly what his sweat tasted like, avoiding staring straight at his crotch while thinking about it in the back of my mind, a low level hum of sex. I was calling out that playful side of his, poking at it with my flirtation and button-pushing.

So, perhaps in reaction, perhaps just because he was doing the exact same thing to me, I didn't take that useful cue. Instead of responding, "Yeah, she is. But she's gotten us into some trouble, actually. I wanted to ask..."I caught his bemused expression, that distraction. It looked just as it had yesterday, when he'd shifted from being asshole cop to being a cop blatantly checking me out. He was doing it again. And so was I. I hesitated, trying to remember my original purpose.

"I'm actually done here..." he said casually and yet with a touch of hesitation, now looking away, at the exit. "Was just going to head to the locker rooms."

It ended in a question. The hesitation behind the casual conversation... It was pretty plain what he meant.

"Yeah? Me too." I said casually. I picked up my towel.

"'Kay."

We walked into the small, slightly aged locker room together. They were behind two squeaky doors and a big corner. He rounded it first, me following him, and he turned. We both paused, inches from each other. His face was intent, handsome, lips tightly together.

For all my verbal boldness, and my definite enjoyment of sex, there was a part of me that always hesitated, something in me that sorta still felt like the fat kid back in school. And that kid needed the other guy to move forward. And he did, a step, if not the whole distance between us. It was enough.

I put my hand on his muscular thigh, which I'd wanted to touch pretty damn badly for at least the last 30 seconds. In response, his muscular arm was around my shoulders and lips were all over mine.

Jason Michaels was a pretty damn good kisser; solid and forceful and adorably polite at first. Mmm, his sweat tasted and smelled excellent. We stumbled into one of the changing rooms, bumping against the tiled walls.

My other hand was on his other thigh now, and our erections were right there, so close to each other I could feel its strain.

And that's when Jason leaned down, and said "I didn't expect this, especially since you drive me crazy."

That sudden snarl, that drive-by anger... fucking sexy.

Taking him in my mouth was a pleasure. I loved the feeling of him throbbing in my mouth, his hands in my hair. He tasted like sweat.

He came explosively, groaning. I didn't let him go, licking him clean. His hands left my head, and I lifted up... and he pulled me into another kiss, his hands suddenly on my once again very hard cock.

"Can't let you go without returning the favor," He breathed, and I groaned as he jacked me steadily, roughly but pretty expertly, as I braced against his other forearm. Fuck, he felt strong. Fuck, that felt really good.

I was very close to coming, it was so close it almost hurt, bucking slightly, opening my eyes to meet his. I hadn't meant to do it, but it created a suddenly very intense moment. His expression was intense, concentrated; there was a sheen of sweat on his face.

It was that eye lock that made me come, that moment of synchronicity that was so inherently sexy it was explosive. "Rrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr!" I groaned, throwing my head back, bucking forward.

His hand finally left my cock, and I opened my eyes again to note I'd come largely on his front. He was looking at his hand with a touch of bemusement.

"Oh, damn," I said sympathetically. And, not knowing why I did it, other than I wanted to, I took his hand and started to lick the fingers clean of my cum, enjoying the taste of his sweaty hands. It wasn't the sort of thing I usually did when first hooking up with someone... but he was sexy, and it felt right.

He watched me, eyes wide. "You're kinda a freak." He said, but it didn't seem like an insult.

"Is that a problem?" I cocked my head at him.

He blinked at me, and I had no idea whatsoever what he was thinking... that almost official, definitely cop-like mask had come down again. "No, I don't think so."

Uh oh. There went the bemusement.

We slipped out of the dressing room, and we both opened our lockers, initially in silence.

I was caught in my own thoughts... that REALLY hadn't been planned. It'd been enjoyable, but... was this really going to help my attempts to get this guy on my side? I sighed at myself. This is what happens when you have low self control... Also, I didn't want him to go away with nothing more than a thank you grunt, which is where it was headed. Oh, crap. Barely knew the guy, and I was starting to sorta like him. I was doing a lot of self-flagellating in my corner.

He cleared his throat, and I turned to him inquisitively.

"You really don't look like a pastry guy," he tilted his head at me, eyes narrowed. I internally breathed a sigh of relief that we weren't just going to slink out without anything else.

"What do I look like, then?"

"A punk." He leaned back. He'd changed into jeans but he wasn't in a shirt yet. "I'm not completely convinced you aren't one, actually."

I rolled my eyes. "Yeah, yeah, tattoos, piercings, must be unsavory, into drugs, OMG, whatever. I'm a pastry chef pushing thirty, that's all."

"Thirty?" he genuinely looked surprised. "I thought 26, tops."

"Youthful demeanor." I smiled. I shucked my shorts and saw him turn away out of the corner of my eye - funny how we could do what we just did and then suddenly he was all sorts of shy. Heh.

"That's one thing to call it." He retorted dryly, but without rancor. I gave a mock affronted snort at that. Felt good, flirting with him, I was really way too relieved he was still playful. There was definitely a guarded element there, but it was understandable - not like we knew each other. Maybe he didn't get blowjobs at the gym with any regularity. Not like I gave them on a daily basis, either.

Ok, concentrate, Isaac. I'd been stalking him for a reason, right? I wanted to pick his brain about the criminal element in town... somehow, I'd forgotten. In, um, certain activities. But I couldn't forget completely.

"Hey - Wanna grab dinner tomorrow night?" I said suddenly, apropos of nothing.

Jason had been putting on his shirt, and stopped mid pull, leaving it up around his midriff. "Wha'? Dinner?"

I had to grin at him. "Dinner." He was so adorable. He seemed truly shocked. Really, he was such a good looking man, it couldn't be that rare an occurrence, being asked out, could it?

"Uh... sure?" I had a suspicion the surprise had answered for him, as he didn't look completely sure about the whole thing. A breeze must have hit him, because he seemed to finally notice his shirt was still up and he pulled it down hastily.

"What's your phone number?" I asked, pulling my cell out of my bag, and after he gave it to me I called his, hearing it ring in the pocket of his jeans. "Great... we'll plan tomorrow?"

"Okay. Sure." He wasn't looking at me, engrossed in pulling together his gym bag, he didn't SOUND sure, and if I wasn't so intent on bending his ear about my and Kim's little criminal issue I'd probably decide he wasn't that into me.

"Bye, Officer Michaels." I said with outward confidence, and a bit of internal trepidation. Man, I hope he liked me. No, no, I hoped he was going to be of help to me, that's all. But the man was hot, and he was charming. And I was a bit lonely.

"See you." It was said neutrally, I think. but I was definitely a bit giddy. I'd just gotten myself a date – and my date was damn sexy.




My next encounter wasn't half as positive.

After going home to take a shower and try not to think too much about my upcoming date and dirty things I could do to Jason, (failed on that one) I headed out again... for info.

I wandered the fine streets of Marrington, dropping into the refreshing air-conditioning of a couple of stores... to get info.

"Hey, Mr. Sandhu, right?" I said cheerfully to the guy in the sandwich shop.

The thin, balding man looked at me in surprise, not having a clue who I was. He'd once been pretty good looking, if I remembered correctly, which he had passed on to his two kids, Lila and Gil. They'd been okay, those two. Dealt with being the only Asian kids in town pretty well.

It was a nice store, an independent convenience store with a small cafe attached, and it was open ridiculous hours. If I remembered correctly, his coffee was pretty damn good.

"Yes?" He asked quizzically. "Can I help you?"

"Isaac, Isaac Girard. William's son? Same grade as Lila, back in the day?" I gave him my best smile, the one without sarcasm. As much sarcasm, at least.

"Oh, yes, of course. How could I forget you." He smiled at me. Ah, my former dealer of chocolate and other sweets I wasn't supposed to have, back when my dad thought food lockdown was the way to get me thin. I had fond feelings for this place, and was touched that I'd not been forgotten. "Are you back in town?"

"Yes, I'm helping Kim with her cafe, down the street."

"Kim, of course. That's excellent, good to have you back." There was a pause, where I looked around the store cheerfully, but not going anywhere. "Can I help you with something?"

"Well, actually, Mr. Sandhu, I have to ask you." I leaned on the counter, looking him in the eyes in what I hoped was a conspiratorial way. "We've run into some trouble at the Cafe."

"Oh, yes." His brow furrowed in empathy. "The vandalism, what a horrible thing to happen. Too many bored teenagers with not enough to do... it's been quite a problem, lately."

"Well, actually..." I cleared my throat. "I don't believe it was hooligans... I think whatever happened has to do with the Channings, and their... associates."

If I'd been looking for a reaction, I got one. He knew exactly what I was talking about, although his self-control was masterful. After a brief widening of the eyes and a startled expression he shut it down, quickly.

"I'm not sure I know what you're talking about, Isaac." His gaze was now somewhere over my shoulder, at the magazines.

"But you know the Channings, of course."

"Of course, but what you mean by 'associates..."

I opened my mouth to ask another question, but he'd suddenly bustled around me, towards the sweet aisle.

"Here, look." He grabbed a Ritter Sports bar, an imported chocolate that used to be gold for me in school. "I remember how much you like these, they were your favorite, right."

I had to smile. "Yes, they were, good memory."

"Take it, take it, enjoy." He pressed it into my hand, and gave it a strong squeeze. "I'm glad you're back, but I have to prepare for the lunch crowd. Perhaps... I think you need to speak to your father." He gave the sandwich counter a significant glance, and there wasn't more for me to do than take the hint. Conversation over.

"Thank you, Mr. Sandhu."

He nodded with a small unhappy smile and moved to the back, leaving me with my chocolate and a sense of unease. But I wasn't going to be put off that easily, I swore to myself, and went forward.

Fucked if I was ever going to even *begin* to speak to my father, no way, no how. But it was disquieting in itself, Mr. Sandhu telling me that, because my father? He largely equaled the city council, having been on it longer than almost anyone else. How deep did this go?

The lady in the pet boutique threw me out instantly with a permafrost that had me not even noticing the sultry weather for a while. It'd been a fast, speedy turnaround from an initially somewhat flirtatious manner.

"I don't know what you're talking about." She said through lips that had shrunk down to a tight little muscle of anger. "And if you don't leave now I'm going to call the police on you."

"I won't get you in trouble, really, I just was wondering if you could tell me what sort of arrangement -"

"OUT." Oh, dear, at that she looked like a Disney villain, Cruella, perhaps, eyes wide and full of loathing and fury. It was more than enough to make me listen to her.

I glanced in the now-repaired window of the cafe, the paper had been pulled back from the top panes in order to let light in. There were those burly, silent guys, doing their job. And efficiently, judging by the changes already taking place. It looked good. I hated them. I made this clear by giving the foreman a very dirty look, which he returned with narrowed eyes. Good, maybe I was finally pissing him off.

Tried two more places, the consignment shop (Designer now, I'm pretty sure it wasn't when I grew up), where the old lady went the 'straight denial' route, and the liquor store, where the teenager wasn't stupid, exactly, but he sure as hell wasn't helpful.

"Hey, your boss in?" I asked with a smile. He had scruffy hair, was barely shaven, and a scruffy shirt and skinny jeans, and a scarf. It was funny, being in the middle of July, but the store was indeed damn cold due to the A/C.

"Dad's not in." He was leaning on the counter, reading some magazine that appeared to have scantily-clad hipsters, probably Nylon or some such. "Might be back later."

"Huh." I looked around. It'd been there from at least when I was young... but it'd been spiffed up quite a bit, with new wood shelving and a fancy looking wine section in the back. Yesterday I'd gotten my wine from the grocery store, but maybe I'd have to come back here for a better selection. "This place looks a lot nicer than I remember it... did you guys have any help?"

"What do you mean, help?" Ooo, defensive, wouldn't look me in the eye! Kid knew something.

"Like... loans." I gave the word a salacious twist, and him an eyebrow.

"Loans? Uh, well..." He was flustered, standing up from the counter and shoving his hands in his pockets.

"Well?" I nudged him. It was a bit too much, because he found his footing.

"Of course we had loans." He said faux flippantly. "Everyone needs loans, right? And, hey! What right do you have to ask me that?"

"Wouldn't tell me from where you go them, would you?"

"No. You gonna buy something, or what?" He said pugnaciously.

"Maybe later." Woulda done it if you'd given me some info, boy, I thought. And, being me, I couldn't resist playing. "Hey, you old enough to work here?"

"I'm 19," he gave me a very dirty look underneath his mane. "You only have to be 18 to sell. Why you messing with me?"

"Huh." I grinned at him. "Look young." I was so bad, winding up strangers.

"Yeah?" He huffed. "Well, you look ancient!"

"Liar!" I said cheerfully, turned on my heal and headed out the door with a casual wave. "I might be back later!"

He muttered something behind me, largely about how he sure as hell hoped not, and I smiled as I hit the air. Teenagers. God, I was glad I wasn't one anymore.

But, regardless, that had all ended up as a waste of my time.

I sat on the bench, eating my hush chocolate from the convenience store and thought about the nothing I'd learned. The pet boutique lady was a bitch, Mr. Sandhu was a nice man who I now felt pretty crappy about upsetting, and they definitely knew something that they weren't about to tell me. And what Mr. Sandhu said about my father... I was having trouble thinking about that one, wondering what he meant. I would do anything to avoid talking to that man.

My thoughts were punctuated by me licking my fingers... ya' know, chocolate on a hot summer day in the sun without a napkin? Sort of a disaster, let me tell you. But far be it from me to let quality sweets go to waste.

I was trying to get the last of the sweet, sticky stuff off my left hand while casually watching a couple of yuppified dog-walkers when there was a shadow over the sun, much closer than someone should probably approach a stranger on a bench. I looked up, squinting.

"Isaac." Fuck. Alex, looking cucumber cool in a linen shirt and nice slacks. Heart did a little flip, for which I loathed myself. He also looked unamused. "It appears we have to talk."

Maybe I should have considered this possibility.




To Be Continued...