Well, I like to keep everyone off center. Especially my team. Just kidding. With the signings tomorrow, especially Gale's and Randy's both being at 7:30, it made sense to post NOW instead of waiting. So here it is. Thanks to my beleagured team, and this is for LME, you know who you are, a thank you to you and encouragement to SHARE. LOL! Roz, Jen and Pfyre, sorry for the ambush, Alan, thanks for the usual great beta.
The next morning, Justin ran downstairs in his robe to greet Cynthia at the front door of the loft building. Together, they loaded four banker's boxes into the elevator and then struggled to get them inside the loft where Justin stacked them beside Brian's desk.
"How did you get all that in a cab by yourself?" he asked quietly, offering her a mug of fresh coffee which she gratefully accepted. "He's still asleep," Justin explained the reason for his half-whisper. She nodded and they sat together on the sofa after he started the gas fireplace.
"One of the boys brought them down for me on a dolly. The cab driver was nice enough to help me unload them, for a tip, of course. I'm pretty sure I got everything that was Brian's. A lot of it is personal files, like tax returns and so forth. How is he doing, Justin? I know he was being brave for me."
Justin shrugged. "It's tough on him, but he's being brave for me too. I think he's still in shock. Do you know what happened? I didn't really probe. I figure he'll tell me when he's ready, but I'd rather be prepared for it when he does."
She looked perplexed. "Nothing happened! He's always handled his clients beautifully. There was jealousy among his peers because Brian was building up a big portfolio, and because he'd won so many awards. He's also made a ton of money for the firm. Of course there was the usual sniggering about his being gay, but everyone seemed to like Brian, except the jealous ones. If I were Brian, I'd open a competing agency and steal all their fucking clients away from them."
"Could he do that?"
"Why not? He has the rainmaking skills as well as the creative genius. It would be hard, especially in New York where all the huge agencies are located, but he could still make a dent. Find a niche to start with and grow from there. I've told him this before. I've always believed Brian would be happier if he worked for himself."
"That would take a lot of money, right?"
She shrugged. "It wouldn't be cheap. Rents are high in Manhattan and he'd have to hire a staff, establish credit with commercial printers, etc. Anyway, I am so angry over this, Justin. It's just not right. I think the final straw was when that fucking Kimbrough learned that one of their biggest clients said they would wait until Brian returned from vacation to start a new campaign, rather than work with another partner. Brian was gaining too much power with his accounts. I shouldn't have done this but…this is a list," she pulled it from her purse and handed it to him, "of all of Brian's major accounts, along with his contact people, their numbers, their average billings. Also whether they're under contract to the agency and for how long."
Justin took it with a smile, both of them looking up as Brian came into the room, stark naked. Cynthia stared even though she knew she should look away. Brian appeared completely nonchalant. "Oh. Sorry. I didn't know we had a visitor."
She finally tore her eyes away from the parts of Brian she hadn't seen before as Justin smiled wryly at him and motioned to his dick. Brian looked down as if remembering he was naked and returned to the bedroom, emerging in a robe. "Sorry Cyn," he said, smoothing his sleep-fluffed hair with both hands. "Why are you here so early?"
"It's almost ten," Justin informed him. "You slept like a log."
"Someone, uh, something wore me out."
They shared a chuckle and Cynthia sighed. "How can you be so happy? I'd be slitting my wrists."
"What's the point?" Brian took Justin's mug from him and drank the remainder of his coffee. "I can't change what's done. I thought about it last night. If I had it to do over, I would've been less naïve about Jeffrey, but I still would've gone to Pittsburgh to help Molly as much as I could, and I still would've taken Justin to Italy. This isn't about the time I took off to handle my personal life. This is about homophobia in corporate America."
"Homophobia?" Cynthia looked surprised. "I thought it was because they were worried that you were getting too tight with their clients."
Justin handed him the list Cynthia brought with her and Brian perused it, then looked at her. "You could get fired for this."
"My loyalty is to you, Brian, not to that stupid agency. I live paycheck to paycheck, so I can't leave until I have a place to go. But as soon as you find your new home, I expect you to call me. I'll give my notice that day."
He smiled and leaned over to hug her. "I'd marry you if I wasn't already encumbered."
"Hey!" Justin said with a laugh as Cynthia blushed.
"You have my home number, and my cell phone, Brian," she reminded him."Anything I can do to help, just call. I can type your resume, research the firms you consider, whatever."
"Just keep your head down, Cyn. I'll stay in touch. Let me know what the buzz is about my leaving."
He thanked her for bringing his personal items to him as he escorted her to the door. When she'd left, he went back to Justin, sitting heavily beside him. "She's good people."
"Yeah and she's totally crazy about you."
"Yes, but not in that way."
"After seeing your dick, I'd say, yes, in that way. Now you'd better get dressed. We're meeting with your financial advisor in an hour."
"Plenty of time," Brian said, pulling Justin onto his lap, kissing him as his hand roamed between the flaps of his robe. Justin started to protest, concerned about the time, but within minutes he was as enthusiastic about this diversion as was Brian.
The noise and bustle of the Carnegie deli was a good counterpoint to the heavy silence between the two men as they stared at their overstuffed sandwiches and untouched mounds of potato salad. Finally, Justin spoke. "Most people would be grateful to have as much money as you have at your age, Brian."
"Most people aren't facing my debt load either," he said glumly. The meeting with his financial advisor had been sobering. With heavy losses in the market and a recent increase in his debt, largely due to their extravagances in Italy, they were informed that, if they continued at their current level of spending, they had approximately four months of income, depending on how Brian's partnership units were valued. If they were more cautious with the outflow of cash, that period could be extended to six months, perhaps a bit more.
"We don't have to pay that COBRA stuff. That was really expensive," Justin suggested.
"Justin, COBRA is the only way we'll continue to have medical coverage. We can't afford to be uninsured. What if one of us got sick or hurt?"
"Poor people get medical treatment for free."
"We're not poor. We'd just be in that netherworld where we'd have no insured care but we wouldn't qualify for indigence. No. COBRA gets paid. Besides, I have Lydia, you have your shrink, we need to keep that up."
"I'll get a higher paying job than the one Leo is offering me, or I'll work a second job at night. I can wait tables. The tips are good."
Brian reached over and interlaced Justin's fingers with his own. "You're freaking me out. I know you're trying to be helpful, but you're causing me to panic. Please, just don't say anything at all for a few minutes."
Justin tried, he really did, and then, "It won't take you six months to find a job."
Brian groaned and placed some money on the table, rising to leave. But Justin paused and had their uneaten food wrapped to go. No sense in wasting it. Brian glared at the paper bag he carried out. "Scraps? We aren't reduced to scraps, Justin."
"Scraps, hell, they're whole sandwiches. We can eat them later. Let's take the subway instead of a cab. It'll be fun."
"Stop it!" Brian angrily insisted. "Just stop it! You're already making me feel like a loser."
"I'm just trying to help."
"Well, don't. Your help isn't helping!" Brian waved down a cab and they sat in sullen silence in the back seat. Finally Brian spoke, resting his hand on Justin's thigh. "I'm sorry I blew up like that. I'm just on the razor's edge right now."
"I didn't take it personally."
"I can't do this," Brian said, almost as much to himself as to Justin. "I can't use you as a convenient whipping boy, just because I'm frustrated."
"I understand, Brian."
"Well, don't. Don't let me do that."
Justin nodded, holding Brian's hand tightly throughout the remainder of the drive.
Brian slept while Justin left for work the next day, a reversal of their usual roles. When he finally awoke, he was disappointed to find himself alone. He made coffee, went to the corner to buy the New York Times, read it, jogged on his treadmill, showered, dressed casually in jeans and a cotton sweater, and then sat down by the phone. He knew he should call and tell Lindsay his situation. Sooner or later he would have to tell Mikey, too. He couldn't bring himself to make those calls. Instead, he called Lydia's brother. The man sounded as smooth and eloquent as his sister. He listened to Brian's story and commented thoughtfully.
"Brian, we have people in this firm who specialize in employment law, and they would do an excellent job for you. But they would also cost you an arm and a leg. What you need is someone with a pit bull reputation, who doesn't share our overhead expenses and is thus more affordable. One of my classmates from Harvard Law fits that bill precisely. Brilliant, eccentric, well-respected in the legal community, a lone wolf. Impeccable reputation, but aggressive and determined."
Brian took down the name, number and address, calling immediately to make an appointment. An hour later, he was in a cab headed for an address in East Village. When the driver pulled over to the curb, Brian looked confused. "This is a bar."
"That's the address you gave me, buddy."
Brian paid, left the cab, flipped open his cell phone and dialed a number. The same brittle-sounding woman answered as when he made the appointment. "This is Brian Kinney. I must have written down the wrong address. Can you give it to me again?" She did, and he frowned. It was the same one as this bar's, which was called "Hot". He had heard of the place, a gay bar with an active cruising reputation and a back room. Gay men only, straights and lesbians were unwelcome.
"Are you looking at a fag bar called ‘Hot'?" she asked, without a care for the political incorrectness of that question. He found that odd given her boss' specialty.
"Then you're here. Go in the bar, past the main room and up the stairs. Don't go down the stairs unless you want to get your dick sucked. Upstairs office, downstairs backroom. Got it?"
Brian assured her he did. What kind of lawyer had offices upstairs from a hardcore gay bar? How would a woman feel running this gauntlet to get to the office? He walked in. Owing to the early hour, it was uncrowded, but not empty. He nodded at the bartender, a handsome, butch type. The bartender grinned at him, appreciative of his looks. Brian found the stairs and glanced at the descending steps, wondering what the action was like in that dark void at the base of the stairway. Like any other backroom, he decided. Hard cocks, open mouths and waiting asses. Ah, youth, he smirked to himself. Or was it something more sinister than youth? A desperation he didn't want to examine too closely.
He went up, finding a single door, unmarked. He knocked. "It's open, come in," called the same brittle voice as before.
He went inside, finding a small reception area where a woman was foraging through some file cabinets. She put the diesel in dyke, Brian thought to himself. A big-boned, broad-shouldered solid wall of woman with graying dark hair, buzzed much shorter than his. A cigarette dangled from the corner of her mouth, and her khaki Dockers were worn with a red Izod shirt that displayed some fairly well-developed biceps. Brian figured she could take him easily in two falls out of three.
"Motherfucking son of a bitch," she exclaimed as she slammed a file drawer shut. "I can't find JACK SHIT in this fucking office. Are you Brian?"
He nodded, noticing she was almost as tall as he was when she stood up, and a good twenty pounds heavier, most of it hard muscle. "I have an appointment with Mick," he stated the obvious, and she narrowed her dark eyes at him.
"Duh. I'm the one you talked to," she stuck out a big hand decorated with a couple of rings and a leather cuff bracelet. "I'm Mick Donovan."
"You…are?" He automatically shook her hand, impressed by the power of her grip. She laughed.
"Michelle, okay? I prefer Mick for obvious reasons. Everyone knows me as Mick. Come into my office. This place is making me nuts. When my secretary takes off, I may as well take off too. I have no idea where he puts things. I'd need the Rosetta stone to figure out his filing logic."
He followed her into the inner office where utilitarian furniture that looked as if it had been lifted from a government-issue fire sale occupied most of the space. Nothing broke the monotony to confer a sense of style. The only wall hangings were her diplomas, which were admittedly impressive. Smith undergrad, magna cum laude, Harvard Law, with distinction. Brian noted they were hung too high on the wall to be fashionably placed, a small faggot moment overtaking his thoughts.
She sat behind the desk, and crossed her ankles on the edge of it, displaying feet clad in Hush Puppies that would've easily fit Brian. If he would be caught dead in Hush Puppies.
"Okay," she said, lighting another cigarette, prompting him to do the same. What a relief to be able to smoke without incurring wrath. He noticed that despite her masculine qualities, she had a sizeable rack. No doubt she hated that fact. "Discrimination, you said over the phone. You're young, white, gorgeous, male. Unlikely to be a veteran, so you must be queer."
Brian smiled. "Interesting elimination game."
"Look, there are only so many protected classes. You have to fall in one in order to qualify. I guess you could be gender-reassigned or something, but you look like a natural born to me."
"Yeah. I'm gay."
"I don't wear sandwich boards or rainbows, but I don't hide it, either. I have a partner. He's listed on my benefits."
"So tell me what happened."
Brian did so, succinctly and she peered at him the whole time, her unflinching gaze seeming to bore beneath his surface as she listened. When he stopped talking, she sighed. "Did they ask you not to go on that vacation?"
"No. No one said a word other than have a good time."
"Did you stay in touch with your office?"
"They knew where to find me, and I called in a couple times a week."
"Did your doctor recommend that break?"
"Definitely, but I didn't tell anyone that."
"When you were in Pittsburgh, caring for the little girl and working remotely, did anyone ask you to come back?"
"I went back for a couple meetings. When they needed me, I was there. Otherwise, no."
"And you stayed in touch with the office?"
"I was in the office. The Pittsburgh offices. Every day, I went in at least for awhile, barring some extreme emergency. Look, we have partners who take the summer off and work from their vacation homes in Chappaqua or the Hamptons. I had my laptop, my pager, my mobile, it's not as if I disappeared."
"Do you have a sales quota or anything?"
"We have thresholds for billable hours. Like lawyers, I guess. I've always exceeded those thresholds, even now. Admittedly, my hours are lower this year, but still well over my threshold. Now that I'm back, I would make up most of that lost ground before year end."
"Did you sign anything when you left?"
"I need to see your partnership agreement."
Brian opened his leather portfolio and handed it to her. She got up, went into the other room to copy it, and then returned it to him. "Do I have a case?" He asked nervously.
She shrugged. "I don't know yet. New York City has had anti-discrimination laws protecting homosexuals since 1986. Only last December did the state pass SONDA, the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act, which codifies rights similar to the city's measure. It became effective earlier this year. So be glad you live here, or you'd be completely unprotected since the federal government doesn't give a rat's ass about faggots."
"Yeah, I read the literature, Mick."
"Any other gays or lesbians who are partners in this firm?"
"Your gaydar suggest there are?"
He shrugged. "Not really. I think they are mostly married, or divorced, straight- appearing and if not straight, deeply closeted. We do have gays and lesbians who work for the firm, in production or support functions."
"What's your history, Brian? You mentioned a partner. Long term relationship?"
"Why do you ask that?"
"I'm trying to gauge how attractive you'd be to a fact finder. I'm not your enemy, Brian. I'm not some straight person out to judge you. But if you lie to me, I'm outa here. I don't take clients who lie to me."
Brian sighed and gave her the short version of his relationship with Justin.
"Before him? Any dirt there?"
Brian shrugged. "Look, I'm a healthy, hot looking gay man. I had no interest in a long term relationship before I met Justin. I had my fair share of tricks and maybe a few others' fair shares as well. But so what? I was single."
"Let's talk about your professional life for a minute, Brian. You're quite young to be a partner in a big firm. How did that happen?"
"I'm good. I work hard. I know how to make clients happy and I'm a genius when it comes to ads."
"So you made them a lot of money?"
"I've been a top biller every year."
"Tell me this story about the doctor, the man you alluded to earlier when you gave me the overview."
Brian sighed and gave her the main data points concerning the way Jeffrey ingratiated himself into his life, drugged him, drove a wedge between Justin and himself, and then used his treatment of Molly's illness as his hook to keep Brian with him. She listened intently, then sighed. "I read about him in the paper. Some fancy ass rich family, right?"
"Apparently so, yes."
"So he'll hire fancy ass criminal lawyers to savage you when you testify against him. They'll try to destroy your evidence by destroying your character."
Brian winced. "Should I get a lawyer for that?"
"You have a lawyer for that. The D.A. is your lawyer," she made a note. "I used to be a public defender. I know a bunch of those guys. I'll see who has the case and we can talk about what to expect."
"Mick, are they on solid ground to fire me because of Jeffrey Walker and the publicity?"
"Sure, if you WERE Jeffrey Walker, Brian. Sitting in jail, a fucking, stalker psychopath! But you were the victim, not the perp. They gonna fire some woman because she was gangbanged in the park? Probably, but they'd lose that one, too. So what are you keeping from me?"
"Sure you are. But we'll think of it as we go along. When he fired you, did he say anything stupid? They usually do."
"He said the problem with gays is that they are over-emotional. I need to be a real man and not overreact to everything."
Her eyes grew wide. "Get the fuck out of here!"
Brian shrugged. "He did. Something like that, anyway."
She laughed. "What a MORON. We'll have some big fun with that. Think about it and write it down exactly the way you remember hearing what he said. Email it to me. Now, let's talk about goals. Is it your goal to publicly humiliate that firm and make good case law for the rights of gays everywhere, or is it something else?"
"I don't care about being the poster child for gay rights. I'm not an activist. I don't need any more publicity. I just want to be treated fairly."
"You want your job back?"
He hesitated. He wondered if he could ever work there again, after this. He'd feel humiliated and exposed. Everything he did would be subject to strict scrutiny and they'd be building a case to get rid of him from the moment he showed up. "No."
"You want money?"
"Yes, and an apology."
"Fuck the apology, it sounds good, but that never happens. Money is what matters. Listen to me, Brian. You go through with this and you're not only mud with them, but also with every other big firm out there. They will label you a troublemaker no matter how right you are. That means that finding employment will be difficult, at least in your chosen field. Is that fair? No. But it's a fact."
He frowned, having let that fact escape his own analysis. She went on with her bad news scenario. "Plus every aspect of your private life will be examined in detail. Their goal is to make you look unstable and unreliable. They'll dig up all kinds of dirt in order to accomplish that goal."
"Are you trying to talk me out of this?"
"I'm trying to make sure you understand what you're up against."
"Okay, I get it."
"Fact finders are not as likely to be inclined towards helping out a gay man as they may be towards a person of diverse race or a woman. You get on that stand, looking like a movie star in a thousand dollar suit, and they're like ‘Give me a fucking break. That's what you get for sucking dick'."
"I'm used to my sexual orientation being viewed as a blight on the world."
"We all are, man. But this is more than a prejudiced view, this is why it's harder to collect on one of these cases."
"So you're telling me not to do it."
"Brian, this is how I make my living. No, I'm telling you that this is a case we should try to settlement, not to trial. You have to be emotionally prepared to go to trial, if need be, but we should push them and bully them into a fat settlement. Get you enough cushion to do what you want to do. You understand?"
"Your partner has to be prepared to put up with some hard times and hard truths too."
"My partner is like steel," he said proudly.
"Good, he'll need to be. Now let's talk about the important stuff. My fee structure." Brian smiled, and began to relax. As graceless as she was, Mick's intelligence glowed beneath that gruff exterior, and her insight was solid. Everything she said made sense to him, and he appreciated her blunt frankness. After talking money, and agreeing to her terms with a handshake, she told him she wanted to review his partnership agreement and that she would call him later with her impressions. As he stood to go, Brian paused.
"Why the hell do you have offices above a hardcore gay bar?"
She smiled. "I own the bar, this building. I'm cheap. What can I say?"
"You own a bar that has a gay men only policy?"
"It was that way when I bought it. Why change? It's making money. There are enough fern bars for straights to keep them busy, and just as many dyke joints. Let the boys play. I don't give a rat's ass. I also own Regency Baths. We just remodeled and reopened in Chelsea. I live upstairs, above it. Check it out. The guys tell me it's the top of the line. I did a lot of the tile work myself. I'm a great handyman."
Brian smiled and nodded. His days at the baths were becoming a memory now, and strangely enough, he didn't miss them.
"Hi gorgeous," a man at the bar said to Brian as he walked by and Brian nodded at him, acknowledging the cruise, but not slowing his pace as he went out to the street and hailed a cab.
The unfinished gallery in Tribeca smelled of varnish, wet paint and freshly planed wood. Carpenters were putting in the final touches, but it was almost finished and the lights were working. Tracks and spotlights which were meant to illuminate the works that had yet to be hung. There was a showroom with a maze of moveable walls and some offices in the back, along with bathrooms. Storage was upstairs, temperature controlled and secured with a sophisticated alarm system. Justin had a clipboard and was making notes of anything he saw that appeared unfinished.
"Anybody home?" A voice called from the showroom, echoing in the vast emptiness.
Justin came downstairs, grinning at Brian, who stood there, holding a paper bag, smiling back at him. Justin threw himself into his arms, ignoring the workmen who smirked at each other when the two kissed. "What are you doing here?"
"I brought lunch. Where can we eat?"
Justin led him into the office and peered into the paper bag, laughing as he took out the sandwiches from Carnegie, now a day old. The bread was a little tough from being refrigerated, but they didn't mind. They sat on molded contemporary chairs, using the cube-shaped glass table as their dining platform as they ate potato salad with plastic forks. Brian told him about his visit with the lawyer, then asked, "When does the art arrive?"
"Leo's first show is scheduled for next week. He's already pimped it, and the art begins arriving in two days. It's called ‘Queer Art' and features out artists from the city. Part of the proceeds goes to his favorite AIDS charity which underwrites hospice care."
"Well, you should have lots of artists grabbing your fine ass, in that case."
Justin beamed at him. "They can grab, but they can't have it. It's what we in the art world call, ‘reserved'."
Brian laughed. "Better be."
"You seem much more chipper."
"I tasted blood after talking to the attorney. I love a good fight."
"Cool. I'll be a little late tonight."
"Oh?" Brian raised a brow slightly, while pretending not to care.
"I have that appointment with Dr. Friedman. Regression therapy."
Brian brightened up. "Oh yeah. Good. Want me to go with you? Wait for you?"
Justin shook his head. "I'll be fine. Want to go see a movie later? We're way behind on current movies."
"Yeah, maybe." As he finished his sandwich Brian reached for Justin, kissing him across the expanse between their chairs. Justin smiled and got up and walked over to kneel between Brian's knees, reaching up to unbutton his jeans. Brian watched him take out his cock, fondle it, slip it into his mouth. He then closed his eyes and threw his head back, giving in completely to the sensation. After he came, he looked down at Justin who stood, wiping his forearm across his lips and edging up to be flush with Brian's body while he slowly unzipped his own jeans. Brian smiled and spread his hands on Justin's firm ass, returning the favor with equal gusto.
"Now that's what I call a great lunch," Justin said with a sigh when they were both sated, zipped and standing together in a tight embrace. Brian laughed and kissed him gently.
"Yeah, especially dessert. But don't expect it every day, I have other things to do, and blowing the delivery boy is hit and miss. You never know which one will expect a different kind of tip."
Justin walked with him to the door, waving goodbye as Brian slipped into a cab.
"Nice lunch, little faggot boy?" One of the workmen called out. When Justin turned to face them, no one gave away who was the talker.
"Eat your heart out," Justin said smugly, wondering if any of them had ever had a blow job even close to the mastery of the one he just enjoyed. Leaving them with that thought in mind, he resumed his chores.
Brian was feeling better about life. He stopped to pick up Ad Week to see which agencies were doing what, along with Time and the latest issue of GQ. He was planning on working out and then enjoying a nice, leisurely drink while perusing magazines, listening to music and waiting for Justin to come home. He'd check the paper for start times for movies they might want to see and return some emails that had accumulated while he was gone. He needed to call Mikey back, and to check in with Lindsay.
Preoccupied with thought, he almost tripped over a barricade on the sidewalk, recovering just in time to trip over a second and careen into his loft building while trying to retain his balance. "What the fuck?" He stared at a collection of bags and paraphernalia, only then noticing Lindsay who was seated on the steps of the stoop, holding onto Gus's stroller, where he napped. She looked dragged out, exhausted, oblivious to the fact her belongings were not only a hazard, they were easy pickings for a thief. Brian gathered them around her, off the walk, and stared at her in silence. She stared back without speaking and then burst into tears. He sighed, watching his pleasant evening slip away.
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July 25, 2004