Monday, March 2, 2015

Buddha's Bad Boys excerpt by Alan Chin


In Alan Chin's new collection of stories, there are many reason why Western men turn to Eastern religion—searching for inner truth, lost love, loneliness, fleeing the law, hopelessness, alcoholism. Some travel halfway around the world in an attempt to overcome their particular dissoluteness, only to realize that improving yourself is like polishing air. What they eventually discover, nevertheless, is one of the Buddha’s most significant lessons: enlightenment comes to those whose singular focus is on helping others less fortunate. 

Some of these stories are purely fictional, while others are based on true events.

Six stories, six troubled gay men trudging down the road to enlightenment. What they each find is that last thing in the world they expected.

The first story in this anthology is called Monk For A Month and is about two men, Reece and Doug, who are almost done with the “Monk for a Month” program at the temple in Chiang Mai, where they have been living like Buddhist monks. But on the same night that Reece finds that Doug is having an affair with another Thai monk, there is a murder lose in the town. Reece sees the killer hiding in the temple and goes about trying to help him escape the police. In the process, a love affair begins.

Buddha’s Bad Boys
Bold Stroke Books (February 17, 2017)
ISBN-10: 1626392447:
ISBN-13: 978-16263924419 

Excerpt:

I sat at the bar sporting saffron robes and a shaved head, sipping a Singha beer and listening to the bartender, who was clearly agitated. I couldn’t tell whether the man was upset over the recent murders, or because the hard rain was hurting his business, or if he simply didn’t like serving alcohol to a monk, even a Caucasian one.
“His name Somchai,” the bartender said. He spoke English, but with the usual Thai singsong clip that I had come to adore. “He kill American expatriate named Warren. Tony Warren.”
I had seen a dead body only once, a gruesome spectacle. It took an effort to settle my nerves as the bartender glared at me, as if, also being an American, made me an accomplice. I had never learned the invaluable art of staying detached in the face of tragedy, of not identifying with the victim. I had no way to shield myself from the reality of how brutal humans can be to each other, what ruthless lengths they will go, and the pain they are capable of inflicting on each other.
Across the street, four soldiers trudged along in the rain.
“When did Somchai kill Warren?” I asked, my voice scarcely a whisper.
The bartender didn’t know exactly, sometime at the beginning of the afternoon that had now come to an end. At the same time that he killed Warren, Somchai had also slain Warren’s Thai girlfriend. Both victims had been found two hours earlier at the apartment belonging to Warren.
The barroom was already dark, due to the lateness of the hour and another power outage. Candles flickered on the bar and at each table; their yellow light mingled with the blueness of the dying day.
The shower stopped as suddenly as it had started, as it often does in Thailand.
“How old was she? The girlfriend I mean,” I asked.
“Very young. Nineteen.” Regret passed over the bartender’s face. “A real beauty.”
“I would like another Singha,” I said, “but I have no more money. Can I buy on credit?”
The bartender’s look of regret turned to disgust. As he walked away, a customer two stools over ordered beers for me and himself, and also shots of cheap Thai whiskey.
The bartender prepared our drinks while the customer moved to the stool beside mine. He introduced himself as Ty Poe, and did not shake my hand, as it is considered disrespectful to touch a monk. Poe was courteous, offering the customary wai gesture of respect. He was somewhere in his forties, and had a smoking-induced cough. The polluted streets of Chiang Mai didn’t help his lungs any more than his chain-smoking, I thought. I gave him my name, Reece Jackson, and told him I was from America, San Francisco in fact.
“I overheard your talk about the murders.”
“Why haven’t they caught him yet?” I asked. “Chiang Mai’s a small town.”
“They have him trapped within the walls of the old city, but you should know how it is,” Poe grunted. “We’re talking about an American expatriate and his whore who got themselves killed by a homeless gay kid. I mean, there are limited resources available to the police department. The police force, as a rule, is not well trained. Officers have to buy their own uniforms, their own guns. They are poorly paid. Not much would be happening now except that this dead girl happens to be the daughter of an army major. The army is doing what they can but they do not know the town as well as Somchai.”
Poe was right, I thought. What could anyone reasonably expect of this situation? The unvarnished fact was that in this country, any given police station’s cases were ranked according to priority. And priority in Thailand had to do with wealth and status. Those on the low end of the spectrum were unlikely to receive much attention. And for a homeless gay kid with no family who happened to murder a bit of riff-raff, then it was probably the victim’s fault. Why bother figuring out all the sordid details?
I felt thankful that I came from a country where every death warranted respect, every victim merited justice, no matter how far down the social and economic ladder that victim might fall. At least I liked to believe that bit of hype.
The bartender placed the beers and shots before us. I lifted my shot in a toast to Poe and knocked my head back, taking the drink in one hot swallow. Poe stared at me in obvious surprise.
“I’ve never seen a monk do that,” Poe said.
“I’m not really a monk. My partner and I paid good money to enroll in the Monk-For-A-Month program here at Wat Phra Singh. He’s on some damned spiritual quest that I, frankly, don’t understand. Me, I’m just an IT geek along for the ride.”
“So you’re not alone,” Poe asked, exhaling a stream of smoke.
“Technically, no. But it often feels like I am.”
The bar stood only a few doors down from Tha Phae Square, which spread before one of the four main gates of the old city, and where two of the town’s chief avenues collided. The square was bordered by the city wall, built of ancient brick, and butted against by the city moat on the north and south sides.  The top of the wall was wide enough to walk on, and just then a flock of children scampered along the wet brick, heedless of the danger of slipping. Among them ran Archer, my adopted son, also sporting a shaved head and wearing the saffron robes. The children looked down on the tourists who gathered in the square, clutching their umbrellas in case the rains returned.
It must be between six and seven in the evening, I thought.
Another shower started and people in the square ran for cover.
Archer hopped down the wall steps and dashed across the road like a fleeing deer. He entered the bar and huddled against me, giving Poe a cautious glance. Archer was a handsome seven-year-old with a round face that gave way to a large jaw and a brilliant set of teeth. He had an impishness and good humor in his eyes, and was strong for so young a boy. But what I admired most about him was his gentle and trusting disposition. Unlike most boys, he was incapable of hurting anything. His only flaw was that he was fathered by two gay men, which made him an outcast back home, someone to be pitied, stared at, whispered about, laughed at, and occasionally beaten up by his peers.
Strokes of lightning lit the sky, coming so close together that they seemed like a ceaseless illumination. The thunder was continuous. The noise burst like metal fireworks, and then would immediately rise again; its modulations grew less and less defined as the shower let up, until there was only the sound of rain striking paving stones.
“This rain will last all night,” Poe said, lighting another cigarette from the butt of his previous one.
Moments later, the shower stopped. Poe left his stool and pointed at the leaden sky, patched with massive blotches of somber gray so low that it seemed to brush the rooftops. “Don’t let that fool you.”

Buddha’s Bad Boys is "available everywhere fine books are sold." You can buy it now, in paperback or any eBook format, at Bold Stroke Books

Monday, February 23, 2015

Two Loves excerpt by JacobCampbell



This is the second excerpt from Two Loves by Jacob Campbell, dedicated to the writer Mykola Dementiuk.  The author states, “Mykola is my dear friend and mentor, and he is a multiple Lambda Literary Awards winner. Mykola has been a constant encouragement since I began writing for publication. He suffered a physical crisis which left him partially paralyzed, and he types his books with one finger, a letter at a time.  I cherish his friendship and dedicate this novel to him with warmest wishes.”

In this book, Joey is growing up with no gay role models. In the dim light of the early 1960s, Joey only knew what he picked up on the streets, at magazine stands, and in public restrooms. In his senior year in high school, he falls in love with Ross, a beautiful athletic “straight guy.” But once in college, his love life takes a turn.

Ike, a flamboyant college freshman, turns Joey on to gay sex and the newly formed gay lib movement. But things don’t go well for Joey, and he fumbles through a few one-night stands and semi-relationships. After nearly losing Ike to a gay bashing, Joey gives up on love and turns his motorcycle toward New Orleans and the French Quarter, where he moves in with his bohemian cousin, Judy. 

Joey likes the gay scene in the Quarter but he is lonely, missing intimacy, and flails through life. The sexual nights in the French Quarter aren’t enough to satisfy his real needs -- but his resourceful cousin magically opens the door for him to have the best of both worlds.

Two Loves
JMS Books (November 30, 2014)
EXCERPT:

The hour drive from Crystal Springs to Mettray Seminary at Saint Clare, Arkansas was a time of great expectation. I had to fight the urge to masturbate while driving there.

That night, I downed two beers while driving, and was less inhibited by the time I parked in the tree lined, dust road behind the priest’s cemetery. The towers of the basilica-like chapel at Mettray Seminary showed over the treetops, as did the matching towers of the real basilica that stood at the entrance to Fontevrault, the Franciscan monastery. Fontevrault overlooked Mettray Seminary, and for many of the minor seminarians to move up from a mere diocesan seminary to a full-fledged cloistered monastic life was their ultimate goal. There was nothing holier than to enter the Franciscan’s cloistered world. Had I not been brought to the destiny of a hedonist at an early age I’d cheerfully become a prisoner for God.

I spent four years at Mettray trying to be a virtuous seminarian, but I failed in every way. I didn't know how badly I was doing until I was required to repeat my junior year. I was not dumb, but I did a lot of dumb things. I studied but it seemed I got poor marks even when I thought I did good work. I didn’t know anything about speaking with professors or appealing my grades, but looking back, one has to wonder what the standard was. My hedonism may have been noticed long before I was told about it.

At Mettray I was promiscuous to the extent that I could find partners for masturbation or for sex in some form, but I suppose it was denial that kept me from realizing what sort of spectacle I was making of myself. I refused sex with the college guys, the ones who wore black cassocks and white Roman collars, all the time. There was one I found particularly difficult. I made the mistake of letting him give me a blowjob one time, and that error haunted me. He gossiped about me, too, to his peers in the fifth and sixth year classes. I honestly didn’t know who knew what about me.

So, I was tolerated by the rector until I reached eighteen at which time he turned on me and I was unceremoniously expelled; eventually I was even banned from entering the grounds again after I came back and slipped out my former bunkmate, Vellas. Vellas and I even went to elementary school together. We were not sex-buddies, but still we were friends. Only problem, when I took him to get drunk, he got caught. How? I think he sort of turned himself in because I’m sure he confessed what we did. He believed the priests actually kept secret the sins confessed to them in the little wooden box at the rear of the chapel.

I never went to confession to a faculty member. I didn’t trust them because back home my parish priest had exposed the circle of his friends who were in the know about sex with altar boys, and who hung out together. Some of that same circle of priests came out to visit at Mettray and I heard them drinking with the faculty and I knew they shared stories about us.

For Vellas’s downfall, I drove the "getaway car." That's what we called my dad's old 1957 Oldsmobile. I loved the massive car, and only wished it was not creamy white, because it stood out starkly in the moonlight. I was stigmatized as “a bad ex-seminarian.”

But my expulsion wasn’t going to keep Ross and me apart. When the calls came from Mettray, Dad knew it was Ross. He wanted a son like Ross, not like me. I was odd and possessed of strange interests like coin collecting, and doing biology experiments in my homemade laboratory in the garage. I dressed like a sissy.

Ross was muscular and handsome and Ross's visits to my parent's home always ended with my father comparing him to me. Dad always made small talk with Ross, talking about sports, or about something in the Bishop’s Sunday letter to the faithful, or just asking him how his studies progressed. He had to know I had a thing for Ross. Perhaps he was living vicariously through me.

Sometimes, I wondered if my dad didn’t like guys too. His relationship with my uncle Gordon made me very suspicious. I was careful to avoid him seeing me; after all, Uncle Gordon was one of the regular cruisers on the uptown streets. He had a travel agency nearby where he could entertain tricks. My dad visited his business location more than any other client he had, and my dad asked him to be my confirmation sponsor. There were other men my father seemed enthralled with too, like one college boy he hired to work in the office when I was at Mettray, Dickey Geist—as effeminate and flamboyant as a guy could be.

Sometimes I felt my father just wished I would leave home and not come back. He was so moody, I never knew if he was happy or angry with me when we first saw one another each morning. Sometimes he stood in my bedroom door after midnight, when everyone was asleep, and watched me for what seemed like hours. I never asked him why he did it, but I knew he was staring at me as I slept. I thought maybe he was insane. I’d fall asleep and when I’d wake, he was still there. I wondered if I dreamed it.

I cared less and less about what my father thought. What I was sure of was I wanted Ross to love me, actually, to be deeply in love with me.

But, I couldn't express my emotional longing to be lovers to Ross. All I ever ended up saying to him was I wanted his friendship. I knew not to talk about the kissing or touching his stomach or chest, and I knew he didn’t ever want to communicate with words about sex when we began parking and drinking during our soirées. Even though he never said anything, I knew he liked what we did because his nipples hardened to my touch, and he made out with me when he got very drunk. He seemed to forget everything once he sobered up the next day. Each time we got heated up together it was always like it was the first time it ever happened. Never did he talk about it.

I drove the hour to our rendezvous. I didn’t have a curfew. I only had rules about keeping the car clean and not getting popcorn on the floor. Why my dad focused on the popcorn and ignored that I came in at three in the morning, I never understood. As I got older I began to believe he held secret wishes that I was living out for him--him in his prison of a life tied to a desk and telephone at the beck and call of shopkeepers and filling station operators, a few country doctors and a rickety old country hospital in our miserable town. He was an unhappy bookkeeper, a reluctant accountant. No wonder he liked to be around Ross, too. For sure he wanted to swap him for me. I wasn't making anyone proud.

I was a failure when it came to most things dad valued. I was the one who left the seminary in a state of confusion and questionable circumstances. I was the son who ran away from home and lived with a grown man in the French Quarter and only returned home to Crystal Springs when I screwed up.

I missed the French Quarter too and every day at school in Crystal Springs was misery for me. The work in the office was misery for me. I was like Cinderella in a way: doing chores while hidden away in the background, kept away from family reunions, parties, dinners, a black sheep who shamed the family by being “queer”—a word that was never uttered around me, but a word with which I sincerely identified. I looked for other “queers”; this really was my main avocation in life.

I had a double standard about the word “queer” however, and when I overheard my father cussing and shouting at my mother for turning me into a “goddamned sick queer” I felt really unloved and rejected. This atmosphere was present since my earliest memories. When I was home on vacations and for the summer break from the seminary I entered into a secret life, cruising places guys hung out, looking for sex.

With my parents never knowing anything I discovered that as a teenager I could hang out in public bathrooms, libraries, and in parks. Long before I learned what the word “cruising” meant, learned that shop owners didn’t mind me hanging out at magazine racks looking at rock star and teen picture magazines while older guys cruised me. I loved shirtless Davie Jones best; other shirtless hottie rock stars stirred me, but I’d page through magazine after magazine looking for Davie Jones, while I sported a semi-hardon. I figured I was good for the magazine stand’s business, like an added attraction.

No one ever said anything about me hanging out in the bathroom at the courthouse where I peeked at the guys who came in to pee. Some were intentionally showing their stuff. Others didn’t know I peeped through the little holes in the stalls overlooking the urinals, and no one seemed to care if I stayed in the bathroom for thirty minutes or two hours. I even found that the back pews in the big cathedral downtown was a place where other guys, some in their business suits, came to pray and exchange glances, same as in the seminary. We communicated subtly; maybe a smile was allowed.

So, for my teenage years I’d been learning more and more about men seeking men, but nothing really helped me in my heartfelt desire to be closer to Ross. The dissonance from my parents’s battles encouraged me to look for happier emotions outside of our home. A chance to see Ross, announced by one of his calls, was the best that things could be. I loved it. This call from my hero was no exception, and I forgot everything else except getting ready for what I thought of as a date.

That day, on my way to see Ross, I was euphoric. I stopped to pick up the beer at the Last Call, just inside the city limits of Crystal Springs. The next county over and the one past it where Mettray was, were dry counties, and this was the only alcohol stop for an hour—alcohol was a big reason I did so well getting calls from Ross. He couldn’t get anyone else to bring him alcohol out in the middle of nowhere, but I believed he cared more for me than he was aware of. I believed that he used the beer and drinking on our escapes as a way of letting his deeper self come out and be known.

Out there on the country roads it was darker than ever. I was buzzed from the beer and was really into the music on the Old’s radio—Brenda Lee singing “Break It to Me Gently” was my favorite song. I turned the radio off, entered stealth-mode, and drove the last mile along the two-lane dust trail under the cover of darkness. I stopped the white Olds in the woods just far enough from the cemetery so that I couldn't be seen from the school, and I waited.

Bulldozers had dug firebreaks, ditch-like furrows that helped prevent the spread of forest fires ran along through the woods in a grid pattern, and they afforded the cover that Ross needed to crawl away from the seminary unseen. He was invisible and yet I sometimes could sense his presence as he neared the car. I’d see some movement in the brush and he would appear like a wild animal, a deer, running with his body humped over to where he was actually using his hands like front feet as he hurried through the ditch and slipped up to the car. The light came on in the cab only for an instant and then went off again, and he there he was next to me. I was so attracted to him I shook with excitement.

We didn't touch, didn’t even shake hands. At first we were concerned with riding as quietly as possible out of the woods. We only spoke whispers for some reason until we were on the highway, and Ross would give out a Rebel Yell and pop open a beer and the fun began. Our dates all worked like this, a ritual. By my actions he knew I was there to bring him pleasure.

I felt so excited I focused on myself for long enough to make a mental note to write about this in my journal. I kept records of all my Ross emotions. I wrote about him every day, especially if we got closer physically. I even allowed myself to imagine writing that we’d gone all the way.

****

Ross got into the Oldsmobile on the passenger side, breathing heavily, panting, because of the physical exertion of running along the ground on all fours. He panted when he was filled with expectancy. He panted when he was out of breath. He panted when he saw me. I don’t think he knew, but he panted.

I smelled his after-shave, his unique body scent—a mixture of antiperspirant and a subtle musk he exuded.  I saw the veins in his forearms, pronounced from weight training.

He poked me in the ribs and whispered, “Hi!”

“Hey!”

My body shook with a surge of sexual energy. I was immediately his. He caught his breath and watched me. There was a moment in which his gaze at me turned into a question. I answered with my silence. His gaze asked had I brought enough alcohol but seemed to include a question about how much risk was I good for on this particular night. He looked at me like someone above my class checking to see if I would be a good servant.
My eyes dropped away from his gaze and my silence indicated I was waiting for his direction.

I kept the Olds running with the lights all off. Once the charged moment of mutual sizing each other up passed without any failings, I put the car in reverse and backed out of the dark forest.

Pride in my ability to maneuver in the forest in this big tank of a car filled me.

“I handle this old tank pretty good, huh?” I looked to Ross for some sign of approval. Driving was such a big thing, especially to seminarians that didn’t have cars.

“You’re amazing,” Ross said. “You’re a great undercover guy! You remind me of Flash Gordon eluding the space criminals.”

While he spoke I noticed him rearranging himself to get himself comfortable. He was discreetly shoving his hand inside the tautness of his jeans, under his brown leather belt. I saw his fingers reach into his underwear to adjust himself.

“We’re the criminals,” I joked. We both knew we were breaking the major rule of Mettray, a rule that basically was designed to totally cut off the seminarian from the outside world, to sever all ties to lay persons, to shut out worldly friendships, and to distance, and even cut off, ties to family.
“I’m so glad to see you, man,” I said in a whisper. “I’m so bored at home. Leaving Mettray was a big fuckin’ mistake for me. I don’t fit in at Catholic High worth a damn. It’s not really very religious and its rough there, lots of tough guys. I don’t fit in.”

“I think you're fitting in with great success,” Ross said. “You’ve got me out of prison for the night and I see the beer cooler and would guess you bought a case of beer at least.”

“I got a case of Miller Highlife and a six pack of Bud. And these, too!” I pulled two quarts of Bud out of the cooler. 

The ice slushed around. “Cold!”

We emerged from the dark thick part of the forest, and I turned the car around and faced the highway. I pressed the accelerator and surged us forward. Ross was suddenly thrown back in his seat. I watched his tight physique adjust to the force with such poise, such comely strength. I stirred deep within myself. He was as beautiful as ever. I reached out and cupped my hand over his left deltoids and told him, “Hang on for the ride of your life!”

Zooming out of the seminary property, Ross gave out the Rebel Yell, a great “Yahoo!” I shouted “Yahoo” also, and together we both howled like hyenas and raced through the night to our favorite spot, Berthelot’s Lake.

The lake was a large, rectangular, manmade lake about two miles wide and about four miles long, and although busy by day, it was mostly deserted at night. It had a hilltop park, a picnic area with tables and brick fire-pits and places to park; some were way atop the hill. I drove the Olds to the highest point of the deserted park and we popped open a couple beers. It was cool out and we enjoyed the snugness of the car. Soon mosquitoes attacked. We lit a coil of green stuff. The smoke repelled the unwanted bugs, but it wasn’t just the bugs feeling the smoke. It was a constant irritant. I coughed a lot, my eyes watered, and so did Ross’s but it was a requirement for parking to keep a mosquito coil burning.

The coil glowed red at its outermost tip and the smell of the smoke was a familiar parking odor. I liked the incense quality of the repellent. It was a symbol of our approaching closeness. We overlooked its noxious quality. We had other things to attend to and we turned our attention to our mission.

I slid over on the seat and sat next to Ross. We were side by side in the passenger's seat, our arms and shoulders pressed against one another but otherwise making no physical contact. I got sexually aroused fast, and I bet he was too.

“I’m having fun!” I exclaimed. I wanted to reach out and grope him but I didn’t dare. Instead we just did like we’d done as boys in chapel and let our arms touch consciously. We felt the warmth of each other’s upper arms and shoulders pressed together. Sweat formed in the closed space where our skin touched and the moisture felt like an erotic balm. To touch felt precious.

“Yeah, I’m having fun, too. I feel like I’ve been in prison since I saw you last, Joey.”

“I feel the same way at home, and secular high school sucks. The students are so fuckin’ dumb and they act like monkeys in class. No one wants to learn. It’s a horrid place.”

Smoke, sweat, beer, and more beer—the two of us seated in the moonless night, a large lake barely visible in the night—it was a beautiful evening, and the darkly beautiful visuals enhanced the promise of intimacy. 

Encouraged that Ross didn’t pull away or sit sideways and face me, I increased pressure against his left arm and leg. I was carried away with such inner comfort I felt blissful. We faced forward as I gradually pressed us harder and harder against one another.

We looked out at the lake and its boat landing. My growing sexual appetite created something like a concrete plan. I felt the subconscious gears and wheels turning, latches on giant doorways of desire opening, and it was as if the very foundations of my being rearranged themselves and the focus was pointed: on Ross. Years of rehearsals of inner dialogues about what I’d say and how I’d act in this situation fueled a process that was one with my deepest longing. My inner rehearsals would lead me and tell me how to act.

 “You seem happier than the last time I saw you,” I said. The first two cans were drained of their contents almost in a single gulp. We were so thirsty for the beer and its effects, that we focused our attention on the ice chest on the back seat. Ross grabbed another two beers, and I disposed of the two empties, tossing them out the car window on the driver’s side.

I took the beer from Ross’s hand and let my fingers overlap his fingers as I took it. He knew how I operated. He’d grown up with me as I developed my routine. He knew my patterns, and yet he didn’t withdraw when I felt his hand. My passions surged again. Heat accumulated inside me, and I was hard for him. I kept looking at his tight jeans, and could see his soft cock hardening, slowly, like a sausage bulging along his left leg, his boxer shorts allowing him to display the outline of his hardon, but he acted unconscious of this arousal, and maybe he wasn’t aware of it. I wanted to jump him and kiss him, but I knew kissing him could only happen if he were fairly anesthetized. The first beer went down fast and the next beer seemed to go down in a few gulps.

It was time for a cigarette. Ross only smoked when he drank. I pulled out a pack of Lucky Strikes and patted the end on my watch crystal to tighten up the tobacco in the white paper, and I then lit the cigarette and gave it to Ross. He inhaled deeply. I felt close to him, lighting his cigarettes. I adored him, worshiped him actually, and had been infatuated with him nearly four years, wanting to be like him and part of his life. I was always surprised how he could keep up the appearance of distance from me, emotionally and physically, and at the same time play the game we played.

I lit my own Lucky; now I had my right leg pressed firmly against his left leg, and I let my hand rest on his thigh with my cigarette in it. I was a boy in love and in real ecstasy because my hero, my ideal man, now became available to my touch.

Once the cigarettes were finished and tossed out the windows, Ross displayed a mixture of calm collectedness combined with a little pang of uneasiness as we became intimate. But he was complicit. Liquid fire ran through my veins. I reached out and touched his abs admiringly.

The touch of my fingertips against him was the only thing that existed for me in that moment. He reacted by tightening up his abs, as if to show off how muscular he was, but his empty hand also clenched, in an aggressive gesture. The half-year age advantage Ross had over me seemed to have given his body more time to become hard and man-like, less boyish like I was. I felt inferior.

“I’m just admiring your body. You’ve really added a lot of muscle since we were out last.”

“Not really,” he whispered. “I’m just pumped from a workout today.” His hand unclenched as he spoke of his weight workout routine.

I got hot fast. Part of me wanted to remain just friends like before, but I had fires burning in me because we touched. It was so intense it was almost painful.

I wanted Ross to be part of me. I craved a permanent “us” rather than just Joey and Ross, some sort of mystical and physical union. I knew that I’d crossed a threshold into the depths of male longing for male sex.

Ross got two more beers and we began to drink them quickly.
The night cooled so we rolled up all the windows. Our body heat began to cloud up the windows; the outside world was shut off from view, the windows an opaque screen. I felt hidden from observation and my paranoia relaxed. “I think we’re invisible to anyone who would show up.”

“Yeah. I think we look like any couple out parking,” Ross said, but there was a question mark in his voice.

“Yeah, sure. We’re safe.” The other parking places remained empty. We saw no one else in the park.

I rested my beer on Ross’s leg and used my free hand to pull his T-shirt up out of his jeans so that I could touch his skin. He resisted, tightening his tummy against his belt and jeans, and I looked at him in the dim light as if to fuss at him. I confidently pressed my hand against his tummy at his belt line and unbuckled his leather belt. I knew not to unsnap his jeans. With the belt opening the leather and the metal buckle fell to the side of his zipper.
I felt precum oozing out of my dick, almost a minor orgasm. He tensed a little, and then relented, swallowing his beer fast. He laid his head back on the seat and let me put the palm of my hand on his stomach. I rubbed his belly now, blatantly. His skin was on fire. He writhed, clearly liking the petting, so I shoved my hand up a little higher and rubbed his uppermost stomach.

I put my empty beer on the floor of the car and moved down so that I was next to his legs on the floor of the car. "Grab the whole six-pack," I said. He put it onto the seat between us. I opened a beer for him and handed it to him, taking his empty, tossing it on the floor. I opened one for myself and took a big swallow and then put it on the car seat. My hands ran up to his chest and began to rub his pecs. "You're so muscular."

His pec muscles tightened up like steel, my personal Adonis making my cock rock hard against his leg. I was deep in the trance of the seducer. This was a routine Ross and I forged over the years in school together, when we’d spend hours with me giving him massages, and often straddling his back. I stayed close to the script we’d established. I knew I had to keep telling him how masculine he was and how chicks would die to have him fuck them, and when I began talking about fucking, he began to let his hardon press against his jeans. Had it not been enclosed I’d have not been able to resist kissing or sucking his dick.

But I wasn't allowed to touch his cock. I knew it. I could let my arm brush up against it and I could sometimes even lie with my head in his lap, and his cock pressed hard against my skull, but I was sure that if I unzipped his pants that the party would suddenly end. So we drank and I petted him. He wasn't ready to let me take his shirt off so I pulled it over his head behind his neck, leaving his torso exposed.

His nipples were soft, pink, compact and beautiful. I felt my lips begin a sort of sipping motion, a sucking feeling in my mouth, and I leaned forward and began sucking on his tits, first his left one, which immediately grew hard. I licked it with my tongue and then I sucked on it like a baby.

I pulled my lips from his chest.

“Here, drink this beer. Hurry up and get high as you can. I’ll make you feel like a champion.”

He took the beer from me without question and turned his head away as if to ignore my rapid drinking. He would do this as if to conceal his own rapid drinking. It was as if he didn’t’ want to be held accountable for getting as drunk as a skunk.

Beer in hand, my eighteen-year-old hero leaned back and allowed his nipples on both sides to be sucked and nibbled, writhing and moaning in pleasure. He turned his head back, and I put my lips against his cheek and let him slide his mouth where it met up with my own. For a second he hesitated, but I rubbed his nipples and pinched them in rhythm with the need to kiss. I felt myself beginning to have an orgasm and tried to pull my cock away from his leg, knowing if I came I’d be in a mess.

I felt him relax and his mouth moved over to mine and we kissed lips to lips, no tongue at first, but then he got hotter and pressed his tongue into my mouth and against my teeth, which I intentionally held close together. He rubbed them with his tongue and this, I knew from experience, would make him hotter and more aggressive, and it did.

Ross moaned. He was half naked and I couldn’t stand it. I shot in my underwear. Coming left me partially hard, and my cock was quick to harden again.

“We better drink up.” I kept our supply of alcohol well tended. I was in heaven and working hard to keep at bay any suppression of our heated desires.

Suddenly, car lights appeared then flashed on the steamed up back window of the Oldsmobile. We broke off kissing and jumped in anxious response to the lights. A red police light flashed once menacingly, a warning it seemed.

I got behind the wheel immediately and turned on the engine. The lights came on showing the steamed up windshield. It was impossible to see to drive. Ross pulled his shirt back over his head and buckling his belt as fast as he could.

I barked at him, “Wipe the windshield for me.”

The cop drove on, evidently pleased that I’d taken his warning seriously.

Still not able to see, I put the car in reverse and moved gradually of the parking spot. By the time Ross wiped the window a couple swipes I was headed forward at a calm but increasing speed, and we abandoned our little roost and were back on the road. Our anxiety lessened when we were sure the cop hadn't followed us. I wanted to grope Ross but he was recomposed and didn’t seem open to petting any more. We drove back toward the seminary and parked in the woods outside of Mettray to finish the few remaining beers.

We had gone to the seminary, as children thinking we wanted to grow up to be like our priests, to become just like them. It might have lasted a year, this fervor to become a parish priest, but boredom took a toll on our vocations. We also discovered sex and that mostly got us thinking about life differently. We wanted more masculine roles than a priest in a black cassock. We developed our true goals in life secretly, hidden away from the faculty at Mettray. All the boys had something they wanted to grow up to be. Ross wanted to be a pilot in the Air Force. I wanted to be a novelist. It was a lot easier to rationalize making out since we pretty much secretly had decided not to stick it out in the seminary to be ordained. Yet no matter how we tried to rationalize our behavior together, we had to accept that we were rebelling in a big way against the rule, against the establishment.

We drove around a long time. We finished the beer about two a.m. I drove closer to the school and when I was a safe distance still, Ross gave me a big hug and jumped out of the car. He disappeared into the depression of one of the firebreaks and sneaked back into the monastic school, the dormitory full of forty other guys. He was drunk but he was an athlete and handled his body like an ice skater, with precision. I strained to see him in the night. I wasn’t ready for him to leave. He had to get back before he was detected.

When he was out of sight, I sat a while, missing him. I opened my pants and peed just outside the car. I stood in the forest alone at night. I got hard again and I jacked off thinking about his scent and touch, panting faster and faster. I smelled him on my hand when I licked it to wet myself more. I was exhausted by hours of excitement but shot repeatedly into the darkness. I shot five feet, at least—over and over.

“Ross, I love you. I love you.” The night air made no reply.

Like a soldier who dreaded returning to the barracks, I dreaded going home. I slowly pulled into the garage with the lights out. A weight came upon me, my chest heavy. I unlocked the door, walked in, and slipped to my room.
The bed felt good. I just pulled the bedspread over my clothes. I relaxed and felt full of love and happiness. “Thank you, Lord God. Thank you,” I whispered, praying as I undressed for bed. I felt peace.

And I did what all adolescent boys do when they feel strong erotic excitement. I used a sock to jack off again. I fell into a deep dream-filled sleep

.To purchase Two Loves, click http://www.amazon.com/Two-Loves-Jacob-Campbell-ebook/dp/B00Q1V5700/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1417913596&sr=8-1&keywords=two+loves+campbell 

Monday, February 16, 2015

Prince of Eisengraf fromHot Steamy Shorts excerpt by Neil Plakcy

Hot Steamy Shorts is a collection of Neil Plakcy’s previously published erotic fiction. This excerpt is from his story, “Prince of Eisengraf,” which inspired the erotic anthology he put together for Cleis, The Handsome Prince, in which this story first appeared.

Hot Steamy Shorts
Neil Plakcy (January 2014)

Excerpt:

The maître d’ took one look at Wolf, in his elegant, expertly tailored shirt and slacks, and me in my T-shirt and shorts, and spoke directly to him. But ever the gentleman, Wolf ushered me ahead of him as the maître d’ led us to a table. Or maybe he just wanted to look at my ass.

I couldn’t figure him out. Was he gay? Why would he have invited me to dinner if he wasn’t? Was he just lonely, a foreign businessman looking for company while he ate?

I expected him to order a bottle of fancy wine, but when the server arrived he ordered a Sea Dog raspberry wheat, and I said, “I’ll have the same.”

“You like beer?” he asked.

“Fruit beers and pale ales. Nothing too heavy. It’s too hot for lagers or porters.”

“I like a man who knows his tastes,” Wolf said. “You can recommend something from the menu?”

“Sorry, this is my first time. My budget stops at fast food these days.”

“In Europe, a bookseller is an honorable profession,” he said. “But in America, it seems most of the staff I have seen in bookstores have not yet outgrown their acne.”

I laughed. “You must have been visiting the chain bookstores.”

“Yes. It is very hard to find … books of a unique character, without having to ask many staff.”

“You mean gay books.” I figured we’d get that word on the table right away.

“Yes, but also historical fiction, poetry—anything that is not on your best-seller lists.”

The server brought our beers, and without asking decanted them into tall pilsner glasses. Then he launched into a long dissertation on the specials, along with his personal recommendations for appetizers and entrees. Wolf sat there listening as if the waiter was the most important person in the world.

I couldn’t get over the prices. I’d never had a guy take me out to such an expensive restaurant before.

“Shall I order for you?” Wolf asked me.

“Sure.”

He ordered us bowls of stone crab bisque, a pair of two-pound Maine lobsters broiled with spinach stuffing, and sides of hash browns and grilled tomatoes. “I have a large appetite,” he said, and smiled at me, and I could only call the look on his face wolfish.

I could eat for a week on what that meal cost. I hoped for his sake that Wolf had a good-paying job back in Eisengraf.

I picked up my beer, took a sip. It was good. “You said your family has been in Eisengraf for a long time,” I said. “So does that mean you’re related to the prince regent?”

“Actually, I am the prince regent. Though I’ve only had the title for a year and I’m not quite accustomed to it yet.”

I spit some beer back into the glass, nearly choking. Smooth move. “Excuse me? You’re the prince regent of Eisengraf?”

“Shh. I don’t like people to make a fuss.”

“You’ll forgive me,” I said. “I’m a little shell-shocked. I’ve never known an actual prince before.”

Wolf shrugged. “That’s why I am careful who I tell. People change.” He looked at me. “Will you change your attitude toward me?”

And just what was that attitude? I asked myself. I still thought he was cute, and I loved that sexy accent.

Though I wasn’t dense, I had been out of the dating pool for a while, and I struggled to figure Wolf out. Was he flirting with me? Every now and then our eyes would meet, and he would smile, and I’d feel a tingle run through my groin. But at the same time, he was so formal, so restrained.

We ordered coffee and dessert. Wolf seemed reluctant to let the evening end, and I was happy to stay with him. He intrigued me. And he made me feel things in parts of my body I thought had been put out of commission permanently.

By the time he asked for the check, I knew I would have to be the one to make a move. But how?

“I imagine that discretion must be very important to you,” I said, after he’d handed the waiter his black American Express card. “I know a lot of guys who would kiss and tell—but that’s not me. I know how to keep a secret.”

He quirked his eyebrows up but didn’t say anything. I plowed on. I was either about to embarrass myself or get Wolf into bed. But I couldn’t stop. “I live just a few blocks from the bookstore.” I lowered my voice and leaned toward him. “It’s not much, but it’s very private. If you wanted to take a walk up there with me, no one would have to know.”

Wolf’s body was as taut as a plucked violin string. I worried that I’d gone too far, that I’d get an icy no thank you. But then his shoulders eased, and he said, “I don’t get the chance to see much ordinary life,” he said. “I would like that. To come to your apartment. Very much.”

I smiled at him, and got a smile in return. Not the saturnine grin I had seen before, but something shyer. Sweeter. Oh, my, I thought.

There are fourteen stories in the e-book collection Hot Steamy Shorts.  To purchase, for just $2.99, click

Monday, February 9, 2015

The Jade Owl excerpt by Edward C Patterson



From the flagship novel of the Jade Owl Legacy, Book I - The Jade Owl by Edward C Patterson:

In China they whisper about the Jade Owl and its awful power. This ancient stone, commissioned by the Empress Wu and crafted by a mineral charmer, long haunted the folk of the Middle Kingdom until it vanished into an enigma of legend and lore. Now the Jade Owl is found. It wakes to steal the day from day. Its power to enchant and distort rises again. Its horror is revealed to a band of five, who must return it to the Valley of the Dead before the laws of ch’i are set aside in favor of destruction’s dance. Five China Hands, each drawn through time’s thin fabric by the bird, discover enchantment on the secret garland. Five China Hands, and one holds the key to the world’s fate. Five China Hands. Only one Jade Owl - but it’s awake and in China, they whisper again. 

Professor Rowden Gray has come to San Francisco following a new opportunity at the East Asian Arts and Culture Museum, only to find that the opportunity has evaporated. Desperate, he means to end his career in a muddle of pity and Scotch, but then things happen. He latches on to a fascinating young man who is pursuing a lost relic that Professor Gray has in fact been seeking. Be careful for what you seek - you may just find it. Thus begins a journey that takes the professor and his companions on a spirited adventure across three-thousand miles of Chinese culture and mystery - a quest to fulfill a warrant long set out to ignite the world in myth and legend. The Jade Owl is the beginning of a series - a legacy that fulfills a terrible truth; and in China, they whisper again. 

The Jade Owl
CreateSpace (10/23/2008)

Excerpt:

Chapter One

Opportunities Lost

1

When Rowden Gray charged into the San Francisco Museum of East Asian Arts and Culture, he caused quite a stir. He had been pacing in the buttery sun of Golden Gate Park for at least twenty minutes, his feet scuffing the grayment. He clutched a battered telegram. Stopping, he gazed at the Museum’s marble archway. He tried hard to restore his calm. Difficult. He was not calm. After the flight from New York, his jet lag advanced. His stomach growled like a fireball. His eyes strained from the grit of in-flight movies. He took one bracing lung-pulling breath and felt the strange warmth of the wintry air.

I should leave, he thought. I should just head back to the airport and go home. Why should I give him any satisfaction? Rowden sauntered to a bench, sat and then cracked his knuckles almost dropping the balled up paper. He loosened his tie. Hands wiped on his gray slacks. Eyes closed. Spit. Where would I go? All these years waiting for this or something like this, was shattered like the telegram he mashed. Shattered bythe telegram he mashed. Years of research and classroom slavery, a sea of bored faces cropping into his mind — students without interest, without aptitude. No reward for the serious scholar, the passionate expert in things Chinese. Here it was, before these doors, the opportunity of a lifetime, the reward that comes to the worthy. Only now that reward lay tarnished in words ill met by downcast eyes. I wish they hadn’t led me here. But they had. He had, and to Professor Rowden Gray, that made the telegram burn as if it had teeth biting into his palm, eating his composure to the marrow.

So when Rowden resolved to enter and face his foehe flew off the bench, whirled up the marble stairs into the cold luster of the Museum’s cavernous lobby. His feet kept him focused on the goal, but blind to the many visitors and guests. As Rowden bolted past the security guards, he ran smack into an unsuspecting visitor.

 “Aye.”

Rowden kept to his own feet, the visitor being a slight thing — a young man in a blue shirt, who careened backwards, spun and fell near the guard station.

“Are you all right?” Rowden asked. He came to the young man’s aid feeling quite the ass for his actions. “I didn’t mean to . . . I mean, I’m sorry to have . . . Christ, I’m sorry.” The man lay facedown, squirming to regain his feet. When he turned, his eyes met Rowden’s. Lavender, Rowden thought, although he had no idea why he thought it. Maybe it was the kid’s aftershave or perhaps his deep blue eyes. Whatever crossed Rowden’s mind, it stymied him from helping. The guards rushed to the young man’s assistance. They scowled at Rowden Gray.

The stricken visitor seemed more embarrassed than upset. “It’s okay,” he said. “I’ll be okay. Leave me be. I’m okay. Really.”

Rowden sighed, and then cracked his knuckles. The guards, appearing to know the young man, helped him brush off. One guard had a full cropping handlebar mustache. The other was as hairless as a Chihuahua.

“You better have a good explanation for charging in here like a fucking bull,” said the mustached guard.

Rowden looked about. Beyond the lobby, the main exhibition hall now echoed with the chatter of visitors.

“Well,” the guard snapped. “Are you listening to me?”

“I am,” Rowden said. He held the crumpled telegram in his right hand. “I have business here. Important business. Pressing business.”

“We’ll see about that,” the guard said, pulling at the telegram. Rowden refused to surrender it. He turned away from the main hall, glancing down a long corridor. A woman approached, her beige high heels echoing on the marble floor, announcing her arrival.

“RG?” she said upon reaching the entrance.

“Connie?” Rowden tightened his hold on the telegram. “Connie, look what I’ve caused.”

Connie inspected the damage. There was none. The young man was already recuperating. The other visitors were drifting back to the display cases.

“Quivers,” Connie said to the mustached guard. “This is Professor Gray. He has an appointment with the Curator-General.”

Quivers bobbed his head and fluttered his hands. “If you say so, Miss Wilson.”

“I’ll take him in,” she said. “Follow me, RG.”

The young man in the blue shirt sat on a bench now. Rowden thought to apologize again, but perhaps it was best to leave it alone. Incident over. He had vented his anger. Shame it poured over an innocent bystander.Shame.

Rowden followed Connie Wilson through the corridor past an authorized personnel only sign. She slinked, her fetching curves easy to follow, if one had a notion.

“Rowden, I’m really sorry this has happened.”

“Me too,” Rowden said. “I hope that young man’s okay.”

“Young man?” She smacked her lips and rolled her eyes. “Don’t worry about him. I’m sure he’ll recover. Accidents happen.” She turned toward him and straightened his tie. “No, I meant about the position.”

Rowden sighed, loosening his tie. “So you know?”

 “I do. I was excited when I heard that you were joining our team. I told J.J. that the Board made a wise decision in choosing you. I heard the bad news only yesterday. I’m sorry.”
They had reached a dark cold spot in the hallway. Rowden could barely see his conductor, but felt her as she slipped his tie up again. She gave him a peck on the cheek.

“I only wish they’d told me before I came all the way out here,” he said. He raised the telegram and punched it.

“I agree. Not tactful nor timely.”

They turned a corner into a brighter stretch. A windowed door filtered light upon the mosaic floor. Curator-General was emblazoned across the opaque window proclaiming the seat of authority. Connie turned the knob, but hesitated before the pull.

“He’ll fill you in, RG. I believe there will be satisfactory compensation.”

“It’s not about the money.” Rowden’s chin tucked as his former anger rekindled. “This place is my dream. John Battle’s quarry is here. What an opportunity to prod and poke in the old man’s treasures. You, of all people, know what this post meant to me.”

Connie lowered her eyes, the look of understanding. She opened the door, ushering Rowden in. The Curator-General’s secretary, a pleasant, older woman with white hair and tidy heft, acknowledged them with a friendly smile. She stood behind her well-ordered desk.
“Millie, this is Professor Gray.”

“Professor Gray,” Millie said. “It’s such a pleasure. Your name is a legend among the staff. Just the other day I heard . . .” She stopped mid-smile, perhaps thinking what she had heard should not be repeated, although she probably had repeated it often enough. No matter.
“Actually, Professor Gray, I wish the Curator-General had better news for you. I’m truly sorry. It would have been nice to have you on board.” Suddenly, her pout changed to a broad smile. “Are your accommodations satisfactory?”

Rowden’s head cocked. She’s worried about my accommodations, when I’m out here adrift. How flaky is that? “Quite nice,” he said. “I’m at the Drake, but you would know that, wouldn’t you?”

“Yes,” she said, inviting him to sit. “Good. I’m glad. At least we can make you comfortable while you’re our guest in San Francisco.” She waddled around to his side. “I’ll tell J.J. you’re here.”

Rowden sat. He was the picture of anxiety. Lips tensed. Teeth clenched. Eyes scanning the room. He cracked his knuckles. Connie sat beside him.

“Still doing that?” she said, placing her hand on his.

“Bad habit, I know.”

“And noisy.” She brushed his pants toying with the crease, or what would have been a crease had the flight been shorter. “How’s Rose?”

“Rose?” He smiled. “News travels slowly. Rose and I split up. I thought you knew. It’s been four years.”

“I’m sorry. I’m not really helping you, am I?”

“Actually, you are. You’re a friendly face — a familiar one.”

He had felt abandoned since his arrival, even before he checked in at the Drake and got that poisoned telegram. He came to San Francisco filled with excitement. Things had been rough lately. Nothing but a sea of the same old classroom assignments and beginner’s guides to the Cultural Revolution — nothing special.

“Connie, this post was good news — great news. Then, to get this telegram.” He slapped the paper again. “You don’t know what it is to arrive with hope only to be handed bad news by a front desk clerk. It’s no way to treat a man of letters.”

“No,” she agreed. “But you needed to hear about it somehow and before you came here today.”

That’s certainly true. But why should he be here at all? Why didn’t they just leave him alone in his obscure fiddle-fucking, pen twirling sinological obscurity — allow him to fester on some innocuous research paper for The Harvard Journal of Asian Studies, a cancerous whim meant for importance instead of infecting him down to the knuckles he cracked? Why did he feel so alone and betrayed? Why should he not? He was both.

2

Millie returned through the Curator-General’s door, where a tall, portly man stood wearing a three-piece suit. Older than Rowden by two decades, J. Jenkins Gillenhaal appeared older still, time aging him with the same subtle brush that had varnished his office’s dark paneling.
“RG,” he boomed. “Please come in. Have a seat. Millie, two coffees. If I remember, you take it black?”

Rowden jerked to his feet. He veiled his thoughts behind a forced smile and followed J.J. Gillenhaal’s cue. The curator checked his pocket watch, proceeding to a large picture window overlooking Golden Gate Park. A grandfather’s clock bellowed the noon hour as Rowden sat.

“We have beautiful weather here in winter, RG,” the Curator-General said. “It gets cold during the summer. Befuddles your East coast logic, doesn’t it?”

“The weather doesn’t befuddle me, J.J.” He cracked his knuckles. “I love Golden Gate Park in any season. This museum is its crown jewel.”

“We are proud of it.” Within these halls, the relics told their tales and slipped their secrets. “Ah, the coffee. Thanks, Millie.”

When Millie left, Curator Gillenhaal sat behind his empire desk, his demeanor changing. He played with his MontBlanc pens, three of them — one green, one red and one blue. “It’s been some time since we’ve sat face to face. You were among my star pupils.”

“J.J., cut to the chase. I’ve come a long way for nothing. I’m as tired as hell and fucking pissed. Bottom line, please.”

“I can understand your hurt,” Gillenhaal said, shrugging, “but it’s not personal, you know. The Board of Trustees created a real position. You were their choice and rightly so. Although, I must say, you haven’t published much and you’ve never held tenure in any of your positions. Nonetheless, the Board reviewed your research. You were their choice.”

“It sounds like I wasn’t your choice.”

The clock ticked like a bomb somewhere in the corner of the room.

Tick dock. Tick dock.

“There is no other expert of your caliber in Sung Dynasty studies today,” J.J. said. “I did have reservations. Personally, I think you cleave too much to John Battle’s school of thought, you know. Battle’s methods were never my cup of tea.”

Tick dock. Tick dock.

“John Battle was a great man.”

“Yes. A pirate and swashbuckling scholar.” J.J. templed his fingers, tapping his lips. “There was always a touch of drama about John Battle. He was too driven. And then there was his obsession with the Jade Owl.” Rowden winced. Just this reference to his mentor’s lost relic sent shivers down his spine. “I mean, it’s a shame the damn thing went missing, if it existed at all. But whatever credibility the Old China Hand had with me evaporated when he lectured on the Jade Owl.”

Tick dock. Tick dock.

Rowden remembered one such lecture about that precious jade avian figurine. John Battle claimed it glowed and hooted and cast who-knows-what voodoo over its possessor. He delivered that lecture with the conviction of an evangelist on the Mount of Olives. Rowden also remembered the whispers. The old man’s lost it. He’s stayed out in the sun too long. Rowden hated that the field’s most prominent scholar was cast in lunacy’s tinge. Jealousy, more like it.

Tick dock. Tick dock.

“Last time I looked,” Rowden said, “the main exhibition hall out there sports John Battle’s name.”

“Don’t get me wrong. Without his contributions, this Museum would be poorer.” Gillenhaal smirked, apparently pleased to see his points secure. He had tossed a javelin and it hit its mark. “You see how you defend unorthodoxy?” he groaned. “Nonetheless, despite any reservations, I did approve you as the choice.” He tapped his coffee cup with the spoon.
Tick dock. Tick dock.

 “We didn’t expect the Endowment to be cut. That makes the new position out of the question. Maybe when the administration changes, the cash flow might improve. However, in my experience, it really does not matter who rules the national cupboard, once cut, it’s cut.”

“I see,” Rowden said. “So it really doesn’t matter that I have an agreement with the Board?”
Tick dock. Tick dock.

“Well, it’s not really an agreement. We extended the offer. You accepted. We were to finalize it here.”

Rowden exploded, standing so forcefully, his chair pushed back a half yard.

“That’s bullshit, J.J. We settled on salary and bonus. I don’t think you can pull this crap!”

Curator Gillenhaal, calm and silent, continued stirring. He placed the cup down and rearranged his MontBlancs. He glanced out the window again appearing braced by the warm winter weather.

Rowden sat again. He shook in the shadow of Gillenhaal’s calm. Firebrands may explode
over parapets, but if they fail to provoke, it’s no more than pissing in the wind.

Gillenhaal reached into a side drawer, and then flopped a document onto the blotter — a
rather legal looking document. “Calm down, RG.” He pushed it across the desk.

“What’s this?” Rowden asked, perusing it. He knew full well. He was almost ready to see just how prepared the Board of Trustees was to assuage his ire. Call it pain and suffering.

“You see,” Gillenhaal said with the tedium of an old bureaucrat, “we will compensate you for your time and expectations. It’s a fair amount, I believe?”

Tick dock. Tick dock.

Rowden cocked his head. His eyes bugged. “It’s not about the money. I love what I do, and I do it well. I would do it best here. It’s my passion you’re fucking with, J.J.”

“I believe, in the end, it will be about the money,” J.J. said, shaking his head. He raised a finger to the side of his nose. Rowden gazed at the plethora of degrees and awards ensconced on the walls, the ever-present clock (Tick dock. Tick dock), and the precisely stacked collection of expensive fountain pens.

“You will hear from my lawyer, J.J.”

He tossed the agreement at his former teacher.

“Very well.”

Gillenhaal swept the agreement into the desk drawer, and then slid it shut. “There’s still time. You have three weeks to consider the matter. The settlement will be here, if you want it. However, one call from your attorney and it’s a memory.”

Curator Gillenhaal arose, went to the window and warmed his hands in the winter sun.

“Good day, Professor Gray.”

3

Rowden wandered into the Museum’s main exhibition hall — John Battle Memorial Hall, named after his professorial mentor. He had let himself out of the office, drifting along the dark corridor past the guards. The mustached guard, the one called Quivers, regarded him. The other guard, the bald one, must have gone on break. Quivers sneered under his handlebars like a Schnauzer guarding a bone. Rowden ignored him and sauntered into the great hall.

The hall, high arched and skylighted, sported two balconies, tiers overlooking the precious displays of Chinese dynastic art and reliquary. John Battle’s quarry. Rowden’s breath hitched. He could almost feel the Old China Hand beside him pointing out long columns of text, rattling about the significance of this passage or that. Rowden shut his eyes. Lips quivered. He remembered his mentor and that wondrous find — the Jade Owl.
Rowden had never seen the Jade Owl. He didn’t know anyone who had except the old man.

Rowden had seen a sketch on fine linen sheets in John Battle’s own hand. We must find it, Battle had bristled. It has an inner splendor like no other relic, RG. Believe me, you must follow and take up the trail. You must . . . But Rowden couldn’t recall the rest of John Battle’s passionate call to mystery. He had blocked it from memory.BizarreUnorthodox. Swashbuckling.

“I’m sorry, JB,” he whispered.

Rowden opened his eyes. The sunlight filtered across the main display, a great glass cabinet at the hall’s far end. His gaze fixed on that display like a magnet to steel. He took two steps toward it, and then paused. He looked at his right hand. It shook, still gripping the telegram. Snapping his fingers apart, he jettisoned the evil paper ball across the polished floor.

“Does that make you feel better, RG?” came a voice. It was Connie Wilson. She had been tracking behind him.

“Better?” Rowden turned and walked backwards. “Better than what? Better for whom?” He quickened his pace, turning to assure he didn’t trounce another unsuspecting visitor. “J.J. has always been a bastard. Am I better for that?”

“Take it easy, RG. Slow down.”

Rowden stopped. “I’m sure my position could have been preserve, except for J.J. He’s had it in for me for years.” Connie gave him an incredulous look, probably drawing a different conclusion. “He’s always hated the fact that I followed John Battle’s research techniques. And why not? John Battle taught me everything.” Rowden cracked his knuckles. His gaze encompassed the display objects as if they were a fine blend of malt and barley. “Look about you, Connie. Look.*”

Connie shifted her eyes from side to side. Rowden grabbed her hand pulling her forward past case after case of Chinese relics — richly adorned porcelains, fine crafted silver jewelry, bronze vessels, and silk ceremonial robes. She resisted, apparently embarrassed to be pulled about like quarry.

“RG, stop pulling me around.” Connie stood her ground. “I see these objects every day. Of course, they’re special, but it’s where I work. They’re my familiars. I can’t get as goosey over them as you do.”

Rowden stopped.

“Work?” He clenched his fists. “Yes, to work here. This is the work — the real work, the kind of thing that a China Hand needs to survive.”

His eyes danced as he gazed to the skylight. Connie looked around probably assuring that they had not become the center of attention.

“RG, the old China Hands are gone . . . except J.J.”

He scowled. “Not J.J. You can’t call him that. Don’t even put him on the same plain as John Battle.” She signaled him to lower his voice, which had carried through the hall’s hollow.

“John Battle is like a god to me.” His hand swept up toward the vault. “See what an Old China hand can procure. Just look at these. I know you see them every day, but do you, really? Do you really see them?”

“RG, you’re just upset.”

“Wouldn’t you be if you were in my shoes?” He drifted toward the centerpiece display. To be custodian for any of these relics would be my great privilege, he thought. In that, I would be better. In that, this museum would be better. But I’m not going to do that now, am I? “You all lose.”

“I’m sure . . .”

“Sure of what?” Rowden shook his head. Sigh — a deep drawn bracing sigh preventing him from exploding at Connie. After all, she was a friendly face, a pretty face at that, with a fresh Ivory Soap aroma. Soft cheeks. Beige curls bobbing over a tight green sweater. He shut his eyes to blank her out. She was distracting. He turned toward the great display case.

“Take a look at it, will you?” He pointed at the glory of John Battle Memorial Hall — a great jewelry box, hewn from jade and encrusted with pearls and silver. Rectangular. Four feet high with ethereal carvings — cranes and sparrows, doves and ducks. At each bird’s eye, a pearl. On the cover, a sea of dragons chasing treasure — except at the crest. There, a break evidenced a missing piece. Where the missing piece belonged was a comet shaped indentation.

“The Empress Wu’s Jewelry Box,” Connie said. “The Joy of Finches.”

Rowden brought his face close to the glass.

“The box that cannot be opened.”

“There’s nothing in it.” Connie came close to Rowden’s shoulder. Oh, the Ivory Soap. “We had it x-rayed. It’s hollow.”

“The wonders of modern science. Who knows what hides in that emptiness?”

“Well, even John Battle couldn’t find out. He spent the better part of his fortune trying, the poor man. But he was a little daft at the end.” Rowden winced. “You must admit that the business with the Jade Owl was over the top. I know the old man was sincere in his belief that he had found and lost the cure for all the world’s ills, but I just think . . .” She didn’t have to say it. He stayed out in the sun too long.

Rowden bit his tongue. He was not going to drag himself through this argument again, defending what he didn’t understand — a relic he had never seen. He glanced at Connie. She’s so fetching in that sweater.“Are you doing anything tonight?” he asked.

“Would you like to get a drink?”

“I’d love to, but I have a long-standing appointment tonight.”

“Break it.”

“I can’t. It’s with the marketing consultant from Biggs. He’s in town for tonight only.” Rowden sighed. He cracked his knuckles. “How long do you think you’ll be in San Francisco?”

“I’m not sure. Not long.” He hunkered down near the display.

“I’ll tell you what, RG. I’ll check my scheduler. If I’m free this week, I’ll leave you a message at the Drake.”

“Thanks,” he said, standing. “It was really nice to see you again. I’m sorry I’m such a surly bastard today.”

She kissed him on the cheek. He hugged her and took a larger liberty beneath her nose, which she apparently did not discourage as she let his lips repose there twice.
“Will you be okay?” she asked.

Rowden smiled. “I’m in freaking John Battle Memorial Hall, standing beside the Joy of Finches. Now, that’s a restorative.”

Connie kissed him again before retreating to the entrance and beyond the authorized personnel only sign. Rowden’s smile dimmed. His fury had melted to despair. A wave of sadness engulfed him despite hisrestoration declaration. He returned his attention to the Joy of Finches, his eyes studying the contour of every beak, eye, and swirl. How he wished he could don latex and explore each contour of this lovely object with his scientific hand. It beckoned him, a power within, calling from an ancient, withered Imperial heart. As he stared, his imagination played a game. A mirage. He shuddered. At the crest of the box, he thought he saw the outline of that haunting bird — a deep velveteen green wavering in a fluorescent glow. He blinked. It was gone.

Rowden hunched forward squinting. Perhaps he had seen another relic in some back case imposing its image in his line of vision. But no. There was nothing. Nothing? He shuddered again.

“What’s that?” He thought he saw another ghost. No. A reflection in the display case glass — the young man in the blue shirt from his earlier encounter. He gave Rowden a start.

Rowden abruptly turned, but there was no one. Nothing. Just the lingering scent of lavender. He cocked his head, looking for reflections in the black marble floor.

How odd, he thought. I must be losing my mind. I must.


He took another longing glance at the Joy of Finches — the Empress Wu’s great treasure.

“You all lose!” he muttered.

He turned away wondering why he could think of nothing now but the aroma of lavender.

Chapter Two

The Powell Street Line

1

Rowden Gray did not normally drink. Nor did he drink to excess by most standards, but, as he sat in the dark recesses of the Drake Hotel’s bar, he past his own quota by three. An accommodating bartender mixed whatever accompanied the Dewars and gave Rowden an impartial ear for babble.

The bar was a perfect companion to Rowden’s mood. The late afternoon glow managed to peek through the street signage hinting that there might be a sky above the Powell Street canyon. At this hour, few patrons were at the bar. A couple of men, probably salesmen by the drone of their conversation, sat at a high round table with frosty beer mugs. At the far end, a solitary woman, about fifty, sucked a martini. Her part of the furniture appearance tagged her as a regular.

Rowden cared little for other people just now. I’m supposed to be the expert, he thought. I teach. I’ve no other calling. The lesson of the day, kiddies, is a bitter one. Never look for blue skies in winter’s bleak. He drowned his acidic thoughts with a shot, his soft brown eyes looking for anything in the bar’s mirror.

“There’s nothing for me in any season now,” he said. “Nothing.”
In the mirror, Rowden could see the salesmen turn upon hearing his comments. He could see the martini lady look up. Through the window, he saw that Powell Street bustled. Why did he care? They all have lives. Where’s mine?

There was a clanging — a sharp, high-pitched bell echoing through the Powell Street canyon.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“The Powell Street Line,” the barkeep said. Always in the shadow of tall buildings, the Powell Street’s cable car climbed up the steep hill to California Street heading toward the bay. “Passes here every eight minutes.”

Rowden stretched his glass forward for a refill.

“I have no other calling,” he said. “No other prospect left.” The bartender smiled, apparently pleased to dispense nothing more than Dewars’ amber balm. “I knew someone would understand,” Rowden said. “Thank you.” He sniffed the scotch, bringing it to his lips. His tongue leaped into the balm like a puppy lapping the last morsel of kibble. He heard the bell again and glanced into the mirror. He thought he saw the ghost again, but knew he was losing his mind. The outline of the Jade Owl flashed. With some help from the demon drink, it was a short hop to hallucination. Shot glass slammed on the bar. He shouted: “I never cared much for this life as a thing worthwhile.”

“Sir,” the bartender said, squaring his eyes into Rowden’s. “The other patrons. Please.”

“Sorry,” Rowden whispered. “Once I had purpose. A mission. I knew my path. It’s an empty road now. I’m alone and useless.”

The barkeep shook his head and poured another golden drop into Rowden’s glass. Another cable car passed, its sullen bell drawing Rowden’s attention away from his drink.

No. I’ve never cared much for life as a thing worthwhile. The bell beckoned him to breathe the canyon’s air, the fresh aromas of San Francisco. Rowden paid the bill. Lumbering over the hotel’s threshold, he emerged into the Powell Street canyon. Although people filled the narrow street, he felt alone. He noticed nothing but the leaden cable car tracks.

Such a notion, he thought, fighting the compulsion to stand in the middle of the street. His feet unglued, leaving the curb to await the next cable car, the one that would carry him somewhere other than Powell Street. He cracked his knuckles. He could see the next car a few blocks away, loading tourists. Rowden shook his sweaty hands. Eyes closed. He drew a breath. Lavender. He whiffed the scent of lavender.

“They’re better to ride,” said a voice near his shoulder. “Under the wheels is no place for you. Besides, they rarely kill — just maim.”

Rowden turned. Beside him stood the young man in the blue shirt.

“You,” he said.

“Why yes,” said the man. The wiry youth, who couldn’t be more than twenty-two, placed his hand on Rowden’s shoulder. “I heard your little homily in the bar. I thought it quaint, but unoriginal.”

“I thought I saw something in the mirror,” Rowden said. “Why are you here? Are you stalking me?”

The young man pulled a crumpled letter from his pocket. The telegram.

“You dropped this at the museum. I tried to catch up with you, but you’re walking on air or something. It’s addressed to the Drake, so I took a shot. Here.”

Rowden looked at the telegram. Shudder.

“You can drop that. It’s not something I’m likely to save. I was rid of it. I am rid of it.”

“Well, we can’t litter, you know,” the young man said. “I’ll just keep it safe for you.” He smoothed it on his shirt, folding it twice, and then shoved it in his pocket.

“Did you read it?”

“I guess. How else could I find you, Professor Gray?”

Clangclang.

The cable car arrived, passengers spilling out its sides. The young man jumped on board.

“Have you ever ridden one of these?” he asked. He extended his hand.

“No,” Rowden said. Rowden stared at the hand, hesitating as if the invitation, although the best one he had at the moment, stung with desperation. Finally, he grabbed it, pulling up just as the car began to move.

Clangclang.

“Hold on. It’s fun. You’ll love it.”

The car brimmed with passengers crammed into seats or hanging from straps. Faces blurred. Children smiled. Old women preened. Fathers caught tottering babies. Sunglasses were everywhere.

“Yo Ho, Nick,” said the driver. “Hey Ben, it’s Nick.”

“Hey, Nick,” the conductor said.

Nick waved, swinging on the guardrail.

“I take it you ride these often,” Rowden said.

“Every day, if I can. And this is the high flyer.”

“The high flyer?”

“To Hyde Street. It scales the Heights.” Rowden shrugged. “You’ll see.”

The Hyde Street car sailed up Powell to the brink of California Street, where another cable car line crossed. Rowden felt a gush of bay air blow away his whiskey stink. It fortified him toward sobriety.

The kid’s right, Rowden thought. It’s exhilarating, coasting along as if on glass with the wind in my face and the city in my sights. Rowden had a glimpse of serenity — a moment of bliss, detached from the urge to be nowhere. Not a telegram or a Jade Owl in sight. Here, bumping over the California Street divide, just blocks from Chinatown’s aromas, Rowden found liberation. Ironic. Had fate made an investment? A chance encounter at the museum with a man named Nick, a random toss of an odious paper scrap and fate delivered a delightful intervention. It chased the Dewars away.

“Recovered now?” Nick asked.

“This is fun,” Rowden admitted. “Not quite what I had in mind, but it’s relaxing. To think what I might have done.”

“Forget it,” Nick said. “You weren’t thinking then.”

Rowden sighed. He glanced about as they angled higher up Powell.

“You know, I’m sorry for knocking you over in the museum. It wasn’t intentional.”

“Forget it. You weren’t thinking then.”

Rowden laughed. This one has an answer for everything.

“How do you know what I was thinking?”

“I didn’t . . . then. But I’ve read your telegram since.”

“That was private, you know.”

Nick swung from the hand straps coming near Rowden’s face. “I don’t think so. It was trash I found on the museum floor. It was for anyone to read once you tossed it, you litterbug.”

Nick smiled, his deep blue eyes penetrating Rowden’s recovering spirits. Nick played on the cable car like a monkey dancing at the zoo. He stretched far outside the car, catching the wind in his shirt — blue sailcloth in a warm lavender wake. Rowden couldn’t help smiling, even laughing. He has spirit for a smart-ass.

Clangclang.

The cable car stopped.

“Is it over?” Rowden asked.

“No,” Nick said. “Stay here and watch.” Nick wended his way through the tourists. Only an agile person could have done it. “Hey Ben, can I help?”

Ben waved him on. Nick jumped off, and then worked with the conductor. They switched the tracks to direct the car up Jackson Street. They turned the capstan until it clicked.

“That ought to do it,” Nick said, hopping back on, resuming his place.

“Quaint,” Rowden said. “That sort of thing would not do in New York.”

“This isn’t New York, Professor Gray. They don’t have Rice-a-Roni in New York either.”

“Don’t call me Professor. Call me Rowden.”

Nick laughed. “Rowden? That’s a mouthful. What do your friends call you?”

“Are we friends?”

“Since you’re on the cable car and not under it, I’d say we have a working friendship. I’m Nick.”

“So I gathered. And my friends call me RG.”

“Well, I’m not calling you that. Let’s see. How about Rowdy?”

“That wouldn’t describe me.”

“It could, with a bit of work.”

Rowden thought of the various things he’d been called by the few friends he garnered through life. His mother called him Row. His father, rest his soul, called him Smitty, because he had wanted to name him Smitty, but was overruled by Mother Gray. Rowden once had a friend who called him Off-White, thinking the pun funny. Rowden never cared for it. Another endearment — Rawden, came from his ex-wife. He had enough of Rawden for a lifetime. No. He guessed Rowdy was as good as any other moniker. Silence confirmed acceptance.

 “Hold on,” Nick said. “Here’s the Hyde Street turn.”

The cable car bell clanged wildly, a howling screech sounding from the wheels to tourist’s delight. Their brochures promised it. The car had been climbing the steady Jackson Street incline. The abrupt turn conformed to the rules of physics, plastering the riders into each other. The car continued its climb through fashionable Russian Hill on Hyde Street until it reached a popular tourist drop off.

Clangclang.

“Lombard Street,” Ben shouted. “The world’s most crooked street. Lombard Street.”

Rowden tried to espy this wonder, but a wall blocked his view.

“That’s for the tourists,” Nick said. “Not for us. Just a little further.”

Clangclang.

Now half-empty, the car climbed higher until it stopped overlooking San Francisco Bay. Nothing blocked the panorama now — no wall, no conductor, no cloud of scotch whiskey. Rowden’s eyes opened wide. Beneath the steep hill, the glittering sapphire blue water was dotted with sails. Gulls cuffed the wharves. The hill was lush with ticky-tacky houses beneath the buttery sun.

This is the ticket, Rowden thought. His jaw dropped. He smelled the lavender again. Nick’s face was close.

 “A dose of serenity cures dark thoughts,” Nick whispered. “Whatever your complaint, Rowdy, San Francisco has the cure. All you need do is look for it.”

With that said, Nick jumped from the cable car and darted down a side street. Rowden’s reverie was dashed. He saw Nick hopping away like a tadpole.

It’s not over yet, Rowden thought, although he didn’t know what had been going on and when it began.

Clangclang.

“Wait for me,” Rowden shouted, jumping from the car just as it began to move. He nearly lost his balance, but managed to stay upright. “I’m going with you.”

Nick jogged backwards.

“Of course you are,” he shouted. “Move your ass.”

2

Rowden followed Nick downhill, catching up after two blocks. The narrow lane was rough, cobbles resurrected from a time before the tar lap and concrete presumed to cover them. They popped up like fretful shrouds thwarting Rowden’s descent.

“Slow down,” Rowden said. Breathless. “Where are we going?”

Nick turned around, walking backwards.

“Downhill. Keep up.”

Smart-ass, Rowden thought. Nick kept his pace. “I’m not as young as you.”

Nick slowed, and then stopped. 

“You’re not young at all.” He laughed, an infectious giggle. “Just a little further.”
Rowden looked about. No pedestrians. No traffic. Strange. The feeder streets were narrow, leading to dead-ends and gray stone houses. He could smell rotting cabbage. He heard the murmur of tenants sing-songing Cantonese.

“Where are you taking me?”

“You’ll see.”

Nick picked up the pace again. Rowden trailed at a huff and puff. Finally, he held his hand up, and then stopped.

“Let me catch my breath, for God’s sake.” He bent at the waist. Shallow breathing. Nick grinned like an imp. He appeared to enjoy the middle-aged professor’s stress.

“Too much time in the classroom, Rowdy. Not enough time on the street.”

Rowden shook his head. He looked about for some place to rest. Ah, a stoop. He plopped his ass on the cold gray cement, and then puffed his lips to catch his breath. Nick danced about, swinging on the metal banister, or at least the one that remained.

“Thank me, Rowdy. We’re going downhill. The trip back’ll be tougher.”

“No way. We’ll take a cab. I can do cabs.”

Nick sat beside him, scrunching his legs up. He leaned forward with his chin nestling between his knees. Rowden looked at him askance. He saw a patient face. Who is this guy? He’s the kid I knocked over in the museum — the one I thought I saw in the display case glass. He’s somehow latched onto me. How curious? He glanced at Nick’s peach fuzz chin and pencil thin sideburns. He’s familiar, Rowden thought, although he knew he never saw the kid before in his life. Yet, there was familiarity. Odd.

Rowden was not easily acclimated to new acquaintances. There was always a formality about making Rowden Gray’s acquaintance — the introduction, the chitchat about research and writing projects, a review of school references and other pissing contests. Finally, an exchange of cards and a firm handshake. No, this was different. Walk into the guy, knock him over and poof. Running now behind him down some San Francisco street to unknown parts. Was this the alternative to suicide?

“Let me know when you’re ready,” Nick said.

“I’d like to know where we’re going.”

“Look around and take a deep breath.” Nick piped in the cabbage aromas, which trumped his own lavender bath soap. “We both love Chinese stuff, Rowdy. I practically live at the museum and when I’m not there, I’m here.”

“Here? Where’s here?”

“Chinatown. Where else?” Nick gave Rowden a hand up. “I’m hungry. I say we eat. We’ll take it easy from here. I wouldn’t want you to get a hernia.”

Smart-ass.

They came to the end of the narrow street. Rowden was glad to be on level ground as they crossed the center of Chinatown — Grant Avenue. Having been to China several times, he was familiar with the genuine article. Grant Avenue smacked of faux chinois. He did notice that Nick’s eyes lit up, as he babbled about the place as if giving a tour to someone less initiated. Nick bobbed past the emporiums and shoppers, sucking up the aromas.

The shoppers were mostly Chinese, which surprised Rowden, who thought Chinatown would be strictly for the tourists. Somehow, he had dismissed the obvious. He was in a Chinese neighborhood made to feel genuine because it was meant to be genuine. You learn something new everyday — know-it-all or not.

“You’re pretty passionate about Chinatown,” Rowden said.

“I love it here.” Nick nodded to several shoppers. They appeared to know him. Everyone appeared to know Nick. “This is my second home, Rowdy. I’m going to knock your socks off with a fine meal at the Vermilion Phoenix.” Nick walked backwards again, somehow avoiding the trashcans. “But first you’ll see some goodies.”

“Goodies?”

Nick halted before a grand storefront.
“This is Han Ch’i-wang Antiques,” he said, bowing. “Ch’i-wang’s goods rival the museum’s in quality and in authenticity.” He put one finger to his temple. “And this shit’s for sale. Reasonable too. I know the owner.”

Nick pushed Rowden through the front door. He’s a salesman, Rowden thought. All these shenanigans to get me into a bric-a-brac shop to buy cheap knock-offs. He recalled Tijuana, where tikes hung onto American tourists and yelled Señor, my mother, she is a virgin. You come now. However, Rowden soon banished these thoughts when he scanned the shop’s goodies.

Han Ch’i-wang’s narrow aisles wended around heaps of furniture, lacquer ware, jade figurines, jewelry cases, partitions, and porcelains. There was no order to any of it. All periods were mixed together in one sweeping Chinese historic brush. Impressive.

“So what d’ya think, Rowdy? What d’ya think?”

Rowden tried to catalog the sights into some clarity. He spotted many authentic items, but as many knock-offs and happy forgeries. Toying with price tags, he reacted as only his professional conscience could.

“Quite a collection,” he said. “They must have a direct pipeline to the Motherland.” He strolled through the inner aisles.

An old matron pawed silk mats and inspected cloisonné napkin rings. She smiled. “Hao tze,” she said waving the silk. “Hao bu hao.”

Rowden smiled. “Hao. Shr de, hao,” he said backing away. Her smile revealed a full set of broken teeth.

“Look at this,” Nick said, holding a small, exquisite vase that was decorated with a colorful country scene. “This, I believe, is Ming ware.” Nick raised the vase and pointed to what could have been a hallmark, although Rowden knew that no such hallmark would be there.

“See, the bottom’s unfinished and there’s gilding along the rim. That’s how I know.”
Impressive observation. Rowden took the vase and was about to interject his comments when a Chinese gentleman appeared from behind a rack. The man wore a gray three-piece suit, white gloves, and carried a walking stick. If ever a man typified the Charlie Chan stereotype, this was the man. Rowden had spent a career chiding students who stooped to ethnic dispersions that obfuscated China’s great cultural heritage. So when he thought, Charlie Chan, upon seeing this man, he had no one to chastise but himself.

“Almost correct, Nick,” the man said, reaching for the vase. “This vase is from a later period. It is K’ang-xiware from the Ch’ing dynasty. It was manufactured specifically for export.”
Rowden smiled. Again an impressive observation.

“Quite so,” Rowden said, trying not to clip his response and impugn the man’s dignity. He was a dignified (even noble) creature, bred within the traditions. Rowden took the vase.
Nick winked at the gentleman, shaking his hand.

“Rowdy, may I introduce you to Xiao Win-t’o.” There we go — a proper introduction. “He owns Han Ch’i-wang’s and several other shops on Grant Avenue, including the Vermilion Phoenix where I’m taking you to eat.”

“Glad to meet you, Mr. Rowdy.”

“Gray.”

“So you will enjoy the hospitality of the Vermilion Phoenix this evening.” Win-t’o’s smile revealed a silver tooth. “I have some great specials on the menu tonight. You’ll both be my guests.” Win-t’o noticed that the old woman ready to conclude her purchase. He bowed. “Nick, just ask for Ch’u. He’ll take care of you. Let us call it a welcome for your new friend.” Win-t’o proceeded toward his sale, but stopped again. “Oh Nick, a word with you please.”

Nick walked a distance with Win-t’o, into a side aisle near the green Sung ware. Whispers. Wincing.Rowden was content to examine the vase. He set it down when Nick returned. 

I’m amazed, Nick. I admire your keen eye for Chinese art, even if it is off by a dynasty or two.”

“Xiao Win-t’o is a true master with these things.”

“I don’t mean to spoil the illusion,” Rowden said, hesitating. He didn’t want to appear condescending. “Win-t’o is correct in his assessment on how to identify a K’ang-xi vase. However, this one is not the genuine article.” Nick frowned. “You see, it’s correct in every sense, except that export ware always had finished bottoms. The hallmark of the Lung-
ch’ien porcelain works would be incised just below the rim. This K’ang-xivase may have come from China or Toledo for all I know. It’s a clever forgery.”

“A fake.”

“No. A forgery. At this price, it would give its owner some solace. Something like the real thing. Forgeries can bring satisfaction, while fakes are downright criminal.”
Nick lifted the vase up to his eye, perhaps looking for the missing hallmark. “I guess it’s No Sale.”

He threw the vase in the air, and then caught it with one hand. Rowden gasped.

“Real or not, it still has a price tag.”

“Then,” Nick said, winking, “I couldn’t possibly interest you in the Jade Owl, could I?”

“The Jade Owl?” Rowden stammered, raising his eyebrows. What the fuck? The Jade Owl? How could he know about the Jade Owl? “What are you talking about?”

Nick grinned — an impish grin that would be his hallmark. “The Jade Owl,” he said. “I’m sure there’s a dozen or so in the stockroom?” The grin widened.

“In the stockroom?” Rowden stammered. “The Jade Owl in the stockroom?”

Nick smacked his lips. He turned to the fake K’ang-xi vase. “Wouldn’t it be nice, though?”
A joke. Smart-ass. “Maybe you have a Brooklyn Bridge in the stockroom too?” Rowden sighed. “Jesus, imagine. The Jade Owl.” Yes, imagine anyone other than those from the inner sanctum mentioning the Jade Owl.

Nick lifted the vase again. Rowden wondered whether he needed to catch it. No. He patted Rowden’s stomach.

“Hungry?”

Hollow thump. The good professor smiled.

“Famished.”

“You’ll like the Vermilion Phoenix. Very authentic.”

Rowden touched the vase. “More authentic than Win-t’o’s bric-a-brac?”

“Don’t worry,” Nick said. “We’re his guests. The price is right.”

Chapter Three: Night Life

1

Rowden had not forgotten the iron ball that sat in his stomach reminding him that his life might have been enriched by a major curatorship that now reverted to mediocrity. Marking exams. Scribbling on blackboards. However, for the moment, a sprite diverted him from the extravagance of self-pity. This fascinating sprite had a passion for things Chinese. He even struck on trade secrets. The Jade Owl. Odd? Now, Rowden was going to break bread with this lavender scented, blue shirted sprite.

The Vermilion Phoenix, unlike most Chinatown restaurants, enticed diners with a quiet ground floor lobby — restful, sporting a lionized menu of unique native fare. Rowden and Nick took the elevator up to this serene approach to East Asian cuisine. As the elevator rattled, Nick turned pale, eyes darting until the doors opened.

Not too keen on elevators, Rowden thought.

They arrived. Nick pushed out a sigh, and then hopped around the vestibule. Rich aromas enticed Rowden. His stomach sang. He couldn’t remember such delectable, enticing aromas. Whether it was the alcohol or having fasted since the airport, Rowden could have chased the pig around the room and picked it clean. As he lumbered toward the dining hall, he spied a black display case. At first, he thought he saw the usual Chinese restaurant statuary — Fu Bu of the Big Belly or Guan-yin on her lotus. But no. Double take. He blinked as he paused before the case.

“You weren’t pulling my leg, Nick,” he said. Rowden saw a six-inch jade figurine that sat on a red velvet drape, shimmering in a spotlight. “In this light, it could be the real thing.”

Nick’s reflection joined him.

“The Jade Owl,” he said.

A Jade Owl, with round eyes and stubby ears, perched on a black irregular base. Rowden cocked his head, his initial excitement subsiding.

“An owl, yes, but this isn’t even jade. Could it be another forgery from the antique dealer?”

“A forgery would at least be jade,” Nick said. “A forgery would also suppose one knew how the Jade Owl looked. I’d say this is a replica of a supposition.”

“Curious,” Rowden said.

“Curious?”

“It’s curious how you even know about the Jade Owl.”

Nick turned, thus avoiding the question. Rowden knew that he should not be pressing his new young friend on such issues. To press on the subject of the Jade Owl might only lead to a more problematic discussion.But how does Nick even know about it?

“Nick,” came an amiable voice.

Saved by the bell or at least the Maitre D’.

“Ch’u,” Nick said. He waved Rowden along.

“You and your guest are expected,” Ch’u said. He signaled an invisible cadre of servers.

“Come in. Come in. I have a table with a good view for you. Sam will be your waiter. This way.”

Rowden and Nick followed Ch’u into the dining room. If there were other diners, they were faded into the warm wooden fixtures, the black trimmed railings and the burgundy carpet. A touch of brass complimented booths and tables. This was unlike any Chinese restaurant he had experienced. No garrulous yapping from the kitchen, with canned p’i-pa and erh-hu music scraping on some cheap sound system tucked behind last year’s bamboo calendar. This was elegance.

“Over here, Nick,” Ch’u said. “Good view here. Overlooks Grant Avenue.”

“Nice,” Nick said. He sat. “Very nice.”

“Quite a contrast, this place and the street,” Rowden said. He noted Grant Avenue’s garish neon.

“Welcome to the Vermilion Phoenix,” Ch’u chanted. “Mr. Xiao has told me to personally oversee the best of all things for you this evening. You are his guests. To be a guest of Mr. Xiao is an honor.”

Ch’u turned, and then sang a string of orders in a mellifluent ramble to the help.

“Some place, eh?” Nick said, leaning into the table.

“Very different. I’ve been in many Oriental restaurants. I don’t think I’ve encountered one so restful.”

“Encountered?” Nick chuckled. “I love the way you speak, Rowdy. How is this place different? Is it like restaurants in China?”

“There are no restaurants in China.”

Nick gave Rowden a you’ve-got-to-be-shitting-me look. “No restaurants? Where do you get Chinese take-out then?”

I wouldn’t eat anything that’s a take-out in China, Rowden thought. Nick continued his stare for more information.

“Well, there are restaurants in Hong Kong and in the major hotels. Mostly, there are mess halls on the mainland. No menus. No ambiance. Fish stink and ratty tablecloths.”

“Wow,” Nick said. “Some day I’ll get there. Some day.” He looked across the room spying a stocky man, who marched in quickstep toward the table. “Here’s Sam Ch’ang. He’ll take care of us.”

“You seem to know everyone.”

Nick shrugged.

“Nick,” Sam said, smiling broadly, revealing a gold tooth. Did Nick only know Chinese gentlemen with precious dental work? Sam had a scar on his right cheek that made him appear older than he probably was. “It is always good to see you,” Sam said, rubbing his palms as if sharpening them on a whetstone. “You and your friends are always welcomed here. I have the plum wine.”

Nick smiled. He flared open his hands to show they were empty.  “Menus, Sam?”
“No need. Xiao Win-t’o has already ordered for you — egg-flower soup, Ming-shou dumplings, and broiled prawn with mung bean noodles. Fire Pot too, in our signature Guilinese chili sauce.”

Sam poured the wine, and then stepped aside. A pair of men, outfitted in white, wheeled in the meal.

“That’s service,” Rowden said.

“We have been expecting you. Enjoy it all. Especially the Fire Pot.”

“This sauce is special,” Nick said. “These chilies come from Xiao Win-t’o’s hometown — Gui-lin. I don’t think you can get them anywhere in Chinatown.”

Sam Ch’ang and his busboy brigade departed, leaving Rowden and Nick to enjoy their meal. Rowden, perhaps forgetting that he was a professional academic, the kind that set examples, dived into the trays and platters like a field hand. He managed his chopsticks (and these were genuine ivory) with native mastery. He dribbled little down his chin despite his rapacity. Nick used a fork.

“So, what d’ya think, Rowdy?”

“Everything is tasty. Quite delicious and authentic.”
Nick stared at Rowden. Rowden caught it across the golden lamplight. The glow made Nick’s eyes duller, navy marble rather than blue plate special. Rowden set his chopsticks aside.

“Question, Nick?”

Nick shrugged. “Just wanted to know if this meal was enough to knock you out of your depression?”



“I wasn’t depressed.” Rowden resumed eating. “Just disappointed. Maybe a bit despairing.”

“Well, if that’s your mood when despairing, heaven help us when you’re depressed. At least you’re coming around.”

Rowden smiled, a mung bean noodle dangling from his lips. “With your help and your passion for things Chinese. You certainly have piqued my interest.”

Nick poured tea.

“So we’re back to the Jade Owl?”

“I guess we are. I mean, it’s curious, isn’t it?”

“My knowledge of such things?”

“Few people know about the Jade Owl.” Rowden cracked his knuckles. “Few have ever seen it. I haven’t . . .”

Suddenly, Sam Ch’ang appeared at the table, startling Rowden. Sam glanced from Nick to Rowden, and then cleared away a finished plate of dumplings. His sheepish, gold tooth smile unsettled. He faded into the lamp glow, leaving Rowden waiting on Nick’s answer.


You’re not getting off that easy this time.

Nick sighed. “Rowdy, there’s no mystery why I should know about the Jade Owl.” He laid his fork aside. “Xiao Win-t’o knows all about the Jade Owl. I’ve learned about it from him.”

“That’s intriguing in itself. In fact, I have only met one person who claims to have seen the Jade Owl. That’s my old professor at Columbia University.”

“John Battle?”

Rowden’s hands dropped to his side.

“How did you know that? You’re beginning to scare me, Nick.”

“Why is that so strange? It’s common knowledge, for those of us with a deep enthusiasm for Chinese antiquities, that John Battle spent many years collecting rare T’ang relics.” Nick lifted his wine cup to his lips as if to toast. “I go to the museum specifically to view those relics in as much detail as I possibly can. John Battle is like a god to me.”

“A god?” Rowden said. That echoed. “Well, I’ll drink to that.” He raised his cup. “To the Old China Hand.”

“To the Old China Hand,” Nick said, completing the toast. “It’s well known that some of John Battle’s finds were stolen in transit, including the Jade Owl. So when you say my old professor, who else could it be? Eat your Fire Pot.”

Rowden observed Nick through the lamplight. How much passion can anyone have for such lost relics? How much devotion can be laid at the feet of old, dead Sinologists? His mind wandered back to his former professor. He actually felt that he was sitting with the old man at the coffee shop in Morningside Heights being drilled on the latest Bielenstein dissertation. Rowden could see John Battle’s curled brow as he tapped his saucer, waiting for a structured, theme-laden exposition on Sung governmental hierarchy. It was a warm feeling to sense the old man again.

“He was a tough man,” Rowden said.

“Who?”

“Who else? John Battle.”

“Flunked you, did he?”

“No. He was good to me.” Rowden looked across to Nick, imagining those coffee shop
days again. “John Battle was very good to me. He taught me things that the other China Hands jealously guarded. Professor Battle was open about his methodology — generous. Of course, some regarded him as . . . as a thief. The Chinese government viewed his digs as looting and tomb raiding.” He bit his lower lip. “Perhaps they were. Who can judge these matters in light of the results? I sometimes wish I followed his course.”

“Did you have a falling out?”

Rowden scanned the neon glare of Grant Avenue. His mind pained now to think of another opportunity lost, the most precious opportunity of his life. Squandered.

“We had a falling out over the most tsetse fly ass-hole reason.” Why am I telling this to a total stranger? Because you need to, you ninny. “John Battle wanted me to pursue a study of T’ang Dynasty reliquary. I preferred the Sung. He had plans for me. I was his successor — heir to his circle of research and his total absorption in a few mysterious relics.” Like the Jade Owl. Most certainly, the Jade Owl. “Over this, we went our separate ways.”

Nick glanced down, then quickly up again. “What’s a dynasty or two between friends?”
“Do tell.” Rowden played with his fire pot. “I sometimes think everything would have been different if I had followed the course John Battle set for me. As it turned out, I wasn’t able to land good work in the Sung field.”

“With your knowledge?”

“China closed its doors during those years. There were no more China Hands.” There were no successors to John Battle’s work, only bureaucratic ass-holes like J.J. Gillenhaal. “I wound up teaching frigin’ elementary Chinese History classes at night in community colleges. You know — the Han bone’s connected to Wei bone; the Sui bone’s connected to the T’ang bone.”

“Heavy stuff,” Nick said. He laughed nearly choking on his mung bean noodles.

“But lo and behold, the museum offered this curatorship.” This curatorship? Fucking bastard, Gillenhaal. Rowden cracked his knuckles. “You know the rest.”

“No backsliding, Rowdy.” Nick turned his attention out the window looking down at two tourists, who stopped by a homeless man. “Things could be worse.”

Rowden watched the homeless man also. It might just get to that, he thought.

“What do you do Nick? When you’re not at the museum or taking total strangers on the grand tour of San Francisco, that is?”

“A bit of this. A bit of that. Eat your Fire Pot.”

“Why, is it drugged?” Rowden cocked his head. He searched the restaurant’s depths as if maybe Sam Ch’ang’s presence unsettled Nick. “Really, what do you do for a living?”

“Odd jobs,” Nick said. He continued to scan the street. “Rowdy, are you married?”
You’re changing the subject.

“Are you?”
“I’m in a committed relationship.” Nick returned the stare to Rowden as if to say your turn.

“I’m divorced,” Rowden said. “A subject best left alone.” There was no reason for Rowden to dwell on that subject. Rose was a closed book. He didn’t need another iron ball dropped into his stomach tonight. One was enough. Nick did not pursue it.

“Do you see that man down there in the doorway?” Nick said, tapping on the window.

“The bum?”

“Homeless. It’s unfortunate, but we do have more than our share of homeless people in San Francisco.”

“I see him. What of it?”

“It’s a tradition in Chinatown that you take your leftovers in a doggy bag and give it to the homeless on the street.”

“That’s a nice tradition,” Rowden said. “And that man?”

“His name is Han. I call him Whiskey Han. He gets my doggy bags regularly.” Sam appeared at the table. Rowden wiped his mouth, and then took a last swig of plum wine. “Finished with your Fire Pot, Rowdy?” He was. “Sam, we’re ready. The usual bags.”
Sam stood aside while the bus boys cleared the table. “It will make a wonderful lunch, Nick,” he said, “although I suspect it will not get that far. I see Whiskey Han has taken up his post. He must have known you were dining here tonight.” Sam winked.

One boy returned toting two neatly wrapped white bags, which Rowden took. They felt heavier than he would have expected, but there were hefty leftovers despite gluttony.

“The check is on the house,” Sam said. “I trust all was well?”

Hao ch’i-fan ne,” Rowden said. He left a generous tip.
 “Hen hao ch’i-fan.”

Xie xie,” Sam said, watching the guests depart toward the elevator. If Rowden had lingered a while longer, he would have seen the busboys clean the table. He would have witnessed Sam Ch’ang gaze through the window, the neon reflected in his golden tooth. He would have heard Sam Ch’ang muse: “The Jade Owl indeed. Let it come.”

2

Whiskey Han sat in the doorway of an old noodle shop a dozen yards from the Vermilion Phoenix. He was surrounded by shopping bags. He wore old rags — an old rag wrapped around his noggin. To any casual viewer, Han appeared as a mass of old rags. To Rowden’s eye, the man was nothing more than a rotting old derelict. Might even be dangerous. Rowden stopped.

“I don’t know about this, Nick,” he said. “This is supposed to be a charitable act. He doesn’t look too charitable.”

Han smelled less so, a mushroom of stale urine reeking from the doorway. Rowden choked.


“What does that have to do with anything,” Nick said. “He knows me. He’s harmless.” Nick approached the rag pile. “Han Fu-xing. Hello, Han. A good haul tonight. Extra. I’ve brought a friend.”

Whiskey Han peered up at his company. His dark, rheumy eyes swept the tall landscape as if it had interrupted a meditation, some private sanctuary best not disturbed. Rowden set his doggy bag down beside the indigent.

“Don’t need your crummy food, you rich bastard,” Han snarled like a mad dog. “Do you take me for a fool?”


Rowden started to retrieve the doggy bag, but Nick stopped him.

“That’s his way of saying thanks,” Nick whispered. “Leave it be. He’ll take it when we’re out of sight.” Nick set his bag down with a gentle thud. “Soup in here, Han. Gui-lin chilies. Very good and rare.”

“You can pound your chilies up your ass,” Han grunted. “Piss in your soup. Leave me alone.”
“You see,” Nick said, as he led Rowden away, “he’ll eat just as well as we have. Great street view too. A guest of Xiao Win-t’o.”

Rowden watched Han Fu-xing’s statue pose. If the man was ungrateful during the giving, he certainly didn’t improve after the fact. Rowden was glad to be freed from the stench. It reminded him of the station tunnels in the New York subway — 34th Street, where an array of Whiskey Hans sprawled in vomit and piss on old blankets and newspapers.

“He’s rude,” Rowden snapped.

Nick looked back. “No, Rowdy. He’s proud.”

“Proud. Does pride keep him on the street?”

Suddenly, Nick grasped his shirt pocket.

“Wait here. I forgot to give him my fortune cookie.”

Nick bounded back into the stink zone.

“He’s not very fortunate,” Rowden shouted.

“And no wonder,” Nick quipped.

Rowden expected Nick to drop off the cookie and return, but Nick dawdled. How long does a cookie delivery take when a whole meal was dropped off in an instant? Nick stood over Whiskey Han for a full three minutes — just talking. There appeared to be an angry exchange.

When did we get fortune cookies? Rowden thought.

Nick returned. He glanced back at Han Fu-xing, who still hadn’t taken the bags.

“We’re set.”

“Where did you get the fortune cookie? I don’t remember getting fortune cookies.”


“They were . . . were on the table near the elevator. Let’s catch a cab.”

“Wait. What did Whiskey Han say?”

“Best not repeated.”

Nick hopped into the street­ — California Street. He looked both ways for a telltale taxi
beacon. California Street leveled in its steep decline to the Bay at Grant Avenue. The Bay was invisible in night’s pall. Nick strained to see a hack, waving at a few before one pulled over.

Rowden was tired now. It must be the meal. All this running around. He could just as well go back to the Drake. Nick whistled, signaling Rowden to get in the cab.

“Where to?” the driver asked.

“Castro Street,” Nick said.

“Castro Street?” Rowden echoed.

As the cabby flipped the meter down, and then pulled away, Rowden’s mind raced. He knew enough about San Francisco to know that Castro Street was the heart of the Gay Community — The Gay Ghetto. Suddenly, he was leery of Nick’s intentions. He had tried to fathom these intentions since they first met. They had run the gamut from scam artist to drug dealer. Now, perhaps there was another motive. Should I be flattered or upset? The lights on California Street flickered over Nick’s lemur eyes. The cabby turned the radio up, blaring the latest Cher.

“Why are we going to Castro Street?”

“I’m taking you dancing.”

“I don’t dance,” Rowden said, leaning away from Nick. “And what do you mean, you’re taking me dancing? I know about Castro Street.”

“You do?”
The taxi bounced over the cable car tracks, swerving at a breakneck pace. Rowden fidgeted.

“I like you, Nick. You’re smart and interesting, but I hope you’re not hitting on me? I’m not gay, you know.” Silence (except for Cher). “It’s a myth that geek University Professors are gay.”

Nick smiled. Perhaps he laughed a little.

“Relax, Rowdy. I know you’re not gay. I’m gay, but don’t give it another thought. I can tell gay men at a two-mile distance. I know you’re straight. Besides, even if you were gay, you’re not my type. I’m in a committed relationship.”

“So you’ve said.”

Nick looked Rowden squarely in the eye. “Listen. Nothing will lift your spirits better than an evening with the gay boyz. It’s a prescription from me, your smart-ass doctor.”

Rowden winced. He was not accustomed to being diagnosed by anyone so far his junior. He scrunched in his seat, and then cracked his knuckles.

“If you’re so dead against it,” Nick said, pushing his shock of hair from his eyes, “I’ll drop you off at your hotel. But you know what I think? I think you can’t be left alone tonight to brood. Before you go back to your solitary hotel room and your solitary life, I think you need a little pixie dust.”

Have I been insulted? If so, it was a gentle knock at least, not one to concern him. Instead, he worried in the moment.

“I’m not sure about this, Nick. I’ve never been in the gay district of anyplace.”

“It’s just another neighborhood. They sell milk and eggs and drink coffee in cups.” They had entered the Castro and, in truth, there were grocery stores and shoppers and theaters and parking meters — just like any neighborhood. There were also Rainbow flags every ten paces and men holding hands with men, enjoying the night air. Just like any neighborhood.

Nick leaned forward. “In front of the Painted Lips.”

“The Painted Lips?” Rowden said, cracking his knuckles again.

“That’s a noisy habit.” The driver flipped the meter and lowered Cher. Nick looked at Rowden for a decision. “Are we getting out, or shall we continue to the Drake?”
Rowden hesitated, but had stopped his cracking.

“I don’t know about this.” Obviously. “If I get into some compromising situation, you better tell them I’m notthat way.”

“Not what way? Presbyterian? Abyssinian? A non-smoker?”
Rowden chuckled.

“I give up. What the fuck.”

He opened the cab door slipping out onto the noisy, music filled street that was engulfed in a sea of flapping rainbow flags at every ten paces.

“Don’t worry, Rowdy,” Nick said, grabbing his arm. “No one will bother you. They’ll think you’re my sugar daddy and leave you alone.”

Rowden laughed.

3

The Painted Lips Lounge’s window displayed a pair of scarlet neon lips set between two
flashing pink triangles. From outside, Rowden felt the ground thump to a constant hip-hop.

“We’re going in?” Rowden asked waiting in queue as he nervously smiled at the men about him. Buff men and coifed. Hulky and stout. Men of color and men alone. Swish men and college crew. Some slick with party glitz — some in shabby leather. Rowden was reminded of his own wild bebop experimentation in Greenwich Village. Bearded beatnik spirits. Psychedelic tie-dyed shirts. Ripped jeans. The sweet and sour waft of marijuana. This was pretty close, but different. Then, there had been a melting of individuals into a stream of oneness. This was more like a beaded kaleidoscope, each bead on its own thread. Each thread tacked to a different pole.

“You’ll love it,” Nick said. He swayed to the beat.

Rowden just smiled. Knuckles cracked. The man behind him was as bald as a turnip, had a ZZ Top beard, wore round dark sunglasses (to shade what, Rowden couldn’t guess) and sported lederhosen and lace, the lacey part exposing his ass crack shamelessly to the world. Rowden rolled his eyes.

They reached a turnstile manned by a burly bear dressed in pink leather and a floppy glitter hat.

“Pay the man, Rowdy. Fifteen bucks each.”

“That’s steep.”

“I’m not a cheap date.” Nick laughed. He pushed Rowden past the pay post into the heart of the club. The burly bear counted the cash, and then blew Rowden a kiss.

The Painted Lips, cavernous, filled with smoke and writhing, dancing bodies, had a front bar, long and lined three-deep with patrons. A back area opened into a wide dance floor overhung with catwalks and a stage. There were fleshy boyz and burly men everywhere, all dancing or drinking or flirting or chatting. They seemed to be self-contained, unaware that they were squeezed tight into a smoke filled room. Maybe it was the thump-a thump-a music.

“Keep up with me,” Nick said. He pulled Rowden deeper into the club.

On pedestals at vantage points, lightly clad and muscular men danced. Their rippling flesh flashed between lasers and rainbow dance-balls. Rowden stared up at a dancing boy.

“Does nothing for you, does it?” Nick said, laughing.

“No.”

“But the music must be getting into your blood.”

“No. It’s just noisy.”

Nick shrugged, but didn’t seem to mind. “Let’s get a drink.”

They entered the dance area. At each end, bar stations serviced thirsty patrons. Dancers pounded the floor, swaying with wild abandon. Beside the smoke, the place smelled a bit gamy, somewhere between a men’s locker room and the monkey house at the zoo. Rowden observed that many non-dancers stared at the dancers, while other men stared at the watchers. Some paraded, while some leaned against the rails, posing with one foot up against a wall. Backs arched. Preening. What did this mean? Was it some gay ritual best left unexplored? No time to become Margaret Meade.

“Here.” Nick handed him a drink.

Rowden looked at the clear liquor with distrust. Gin? Tequila?

“What is it?”

“Sambucca. Drink up.”

Rowden sipped it. Cringe.

“It’s like drinking licorice.” He set it aside. “Don’t they have beer?”

“Willy,” Nick shouted to the bartender. “A Bud.” He looked at Rowden’s middle-aged spread. “Make that a Bud Lite.”

“Smart-ass.”

“Don’t you wish you had one?”

Willy, who looked as if he was born in a gym, cracked open a beer and slid the frosted bottle across the counter.

“$5.50, Nick,” he shouted over the music’s blare.

“Pay him, Rowdy.”

Rowden complied. Suddenly, the music changed. The thumps transformed into a march-like, brassy disco beat. Nick moved his shoulders, wagging his head to the new thump-a thump-a.

“Let’s dance,” he said.

“I don’t think so.”

“Afraid of what people will say if they saw you dance with a man?”

“No. I’m afraid of what people will say if they saw me dance at all.”

“Well, suit yourself.” Nick darted onto the dance floor.

“Don’t leave me here alone.” Rowden had suddenly lost his cover. He set his beer on the bar, and then blundered between the dancers until he reached Nick.

“Every man has rhythm,” Nick said. “Well, just don’t stand there. Move your ass. Shake your hips. Do something.”

Rowden did something between a modified walk and a sloppy shuffle, smiling — laughing as he almost got the beat. He never did, but it was amazing how close he came. He was never good at dancing (just ask Rose), but when sufficiently boozed up he would chance it. Now, it was more an attempt to fit in. He wondered if there was a watcher out there among the non-dancers waiting to cut in. Nick was an amazing dancer.

“Where do you get the energy?” Rowden yelled. He slowed to a huff and puff. Sweat beads mushroomed along his brow ready to gush down his facial arroyo.

Nick zipped around him, his wiry body, nimble and sleek. He waved his arms to the side in wide circles, clearing every dancer aside. Soon, Nick was the central attraction for a circle of spectators. Swaying. Clapping. Nick executed some fancy footwork. Rowden just stopped and watched.

“You go, Nick,” cheered the circle of friends. “Great, Nick. Go, Nick.”

Nick finished to wild applause, laughing that infectious laugh that made all that heard it feel good. He raised his hand, and then swept down in a bow as the cheers rained forth.

 “You’re soaked,” Rowden said, as they went back to their drinks.

“And I stink,” Nick added. “It’s a good thing I’m with someone who couldn’t care less how I smell, eh Rowdy?”

Whether it was the beer (or that shot of Sambucca) or just the thump-a thump-a, Rowden felt more comfortable. He supposed he had overcome his initial fears of being trounced by an army of flesh hungry men and ravished in some stereotypical backroom. Little did he know that the Painted Lips’ backroom was always full and active; but no one dragged anyone in there. It was a voluntary votary in those sacred shrines.

Back at the bar, Rowden still huffed and puffed. He coughed.

“How can you take the smoke in here?” He downed half his beer in one swallow.

“Gay men have lungs of steel,” Nick said. “And hearts of gold.”

Suddenly, a siren went off. Rowden nearly dropped his bottle. “What the . . .”

“It’s not a raid,” Nick said. “It’s time for Miss Chatty and the cute butt contest.”

“You guys.” He shook his head.

Drum Roll. Spotlight. On the stage, Miss Chatty appeared to applause and catcalls. Miss Chatty, very large, wore an overly tight mini-skirt, which he poured out of like silly putty. He wore several coats of lipstick and a tall beehive wig.

“So boyz,” he bellowed in a baritone voice. “Are we ready to judge some butt?”
The place went wild as the five contestants climbed the catwalks, moving to the stage.
“Rules! Rules!” Miss Chatty said. “Oh how darling y’all are. Ooo la la! Miss Chatty gets to keep the losers. The winner — well, the winner gets to take me home.” More catcalls and heckling. “Just kidding, sissies. Now, you all know the rules. You do a little strip-strip-strip. And a little zip-zip-zip. Then, we see you in your skivvies. Hope you did a wash and used all-purpose Cheer. Oh my, I hope you all wore skivvies. Don’t want to close the place down, you know. After all, your mothers told you in case of an accident to wear clean shorts and socks. If not, be prepared to love a man in uniform. May the best butt win! Fifty bucks for thederriere du jour or nuit, as the case may be.”

The contestants, in turn, did a little strip down to their skivvies. Each stripper, admired and poked by Miss Chatty, was subjected to a crushing repartee and the applause meter. They strutted their stuff. Several votes and recounts later, one lucky butt strutter won the coveted prize and danced around the stage proudly.

“So, boyz,” Miss Chatty bellowed, “now that we’ve got that out of our systems, are you ready for a song?” They were. “Then, give it up for everybody’s sweetheart — Simone DeFleurry.”

Amidst the applause, a glamorous drag queen emerged, wearing a long, black dress and arm-length gloves. Simone DeFleurry sported a smart raven wig with sharp bangs.

“Is that a woman?” Rowden asked.

Nick did not answer, his blue eyes resting on Simone as if nothing else in the world existed.

Simone began her song — the gay national anthem:

Somewhere over the rainbow, blue birds fly.

Simone’s enchanting rendition moved Rowden to wonder about his former fears in such company. Simone’s eyes fluttered with the little birds that flew, faithfully catching every Garland nuance. It was difficult to discern the divide between tribute and styling. The once boisterous, raucous club had been brought to silence until the last measure warbled. The room then burst into cheers. Whistles. Bravos. Calls for encore.Could there be any better acclaim on the Castro?

4

Nick sighed, still transfixed as Simone DeFleurry climbed down the catwalk. Rowden wondered at Nick’s transformation. Was it love?

“There’s a table in the back,” Nick said, walking toward Simone. Rowden was in tow. “We’ll go there.”

Simone slinked down the catwalk blowing kisses to his admiring fans. There must have been two hundred loving touches and feels. He sighed, absorbing the admiration and true appreciation for art. He then proceeded to the usual tableher table, reserved for the grand chanteuse. There he waited for Nick. The table, tucked in an alcove beside the dance floor, was shielded by a purple velvet drape, framing the star, as was the custom. As Nick approached, she waved to him as a queen does, with a hand twist.

“Dearest,” Nick said, greeting Simone with a kiss square on the lips. “Rowdy, this is my significant other — Simon.”

Rowden smiled. Wonderment explained.

“Simone,” Simon corrected, taking Rowden’s hand, anticipating a kiss. Rowden kissed her hand.  “Oh, a gentleman, indeed.”

“A straight gentleman, dear,” Nick said.

“That explains it. And Nicky, why are you out tonight with a straight gentleman? Not that I mind. It is preferable that my hubby stay true to me.”

Once Rowden settled in behind the drape, Nick made formal introductions. After all, nothing less would do for a prominent queen from her cute, sweaty consort.

“Simon, this is Professor Rowden Gray.”
“Professor?” Simone bubbled, preening with joy. “You needn’t tell me of what. It must be Chinesesomething. I knew one day my Nicky would bring home a Professor of Chinese something.” She leaned toward Rowden’s ear. “His hobby, you know.” She smacked her lips. “Oh, I’m so dry.”

Nick signaled for a drink.

“Your song was lovely,” Rowden said.

“Thank you. You’re most generous.” There was an awkward silence, the type experienced when the conversation runs its course like a river running uphill. Simone cleared her throat.

“Is this the first time you’ve been in a Gay Club, Professor?”

“Don’t call me Professor. Call me . . . Rowdy, I guess. He does.” Rowden pointed to Nick, and then cracked those good old knuckles. “I’m a bit out of place here, as you can tell.

It is my first time in a Gay Club. Is it that obvious?”

“Well, you have sweaty palms and a case of dart-eyes.”

“Dart-eyes?”

“You know, looking here and there, as if someone is picking your pocket. And, by the way, the first place gay men look at are the hands, dear. Don’t ask me why. It’s something we do naturally. Oh, I am thirsty. Where’s that drink, Nicky?”

“Willy’s slow tonight,” Nick said. “I’ll get it, dear.”

Nick slid out and headed for the bar.

“He’s always so attentive, Professor,” Simone said. “I can’t get him to take the garbage out or clean up the clutter in his study, but he’s the dearest bit of sunshine that has ever graced this getting-to-be middle-aged heart.” Rowden piped his beer. He stopped, realizing Simone was thirsty. He offered, but she declined. “So what brings you to San Francisco, Professor? I know you’re not from here. You have a New York accent.”

“You’re very perceptive.”

“Not really. I’m originally from New York — Brooklyn. In fact, when I donned my first drag, I called myself Brooks MacDonald.” Rowden did not make the connection, but bobbed his head as if he did. Simone explained: “The rule of thumb for creating drag names is to combine the name of your first pet and the street of your birth. I had a collie named Brooks and was born on MacDonald Avenue, in Brooklyn. Therefore, Brooks MacDonald.”

“So why did you change it?”

“My Nicky didn’t like it. He said Brooks MacDonald made me sound like a farm, Sunnybrook or the other. So we crafted a new name. But enough about me. Why are you here?”

Rowden bit his lower lip. He scanned the tabletop, a shiny glass mirror that reflected rainbows.

“It’s not a pleasant story,” he said.

“Well, lie then. Tell me you’ve been hired to find that damn Owl Nicky’s been looking for, so I can get a bit of peace.”

“The Jade Owl?” Rowden shuddered.

“Jade. Shmade. He’s always bent on it. He’ll drive me to the Darvaset with his Chinese stuff. It’s a good thing he’s a sweetheart — my sweet, sweet, sweetheart.”
Rowden slumped, allowing his mind to wander. So here we are again. Another complete stranger talking about John Battle’s mysterious lost bird. He felt as if he had been wandering his entire life on a furtive path only now to stray into a forest where every caterpillar sat on a pink toadstool and lectured on his specialty. As his eyes scanned the dance floor, he spied Nick at the bar. Nick talked to a rough dressed man, who wore a cowboy hat. The man turned facing the Queen’s table. Rowden got a good look, albeit a smoky one. The man definitely looked native — a shortened version of the old tobacco wooden Indian. However, something was wrong through the haze. What’s amiss with his eye? Nick appeared heated in his discussion. The rugged man scowled. They exchanged a note and a small white packet.

“Does your boyfriend deal drugs?”

“What?” Simone said. “What gave you that idea?’

“I don’t know. A guess. A few times tonight, he’s secreted away to talk with people as if he was negotiating deals. I just saw him now, at the bar, with a strange man.”

Simone shrugged. He rolled his eyes sky high.

“How would you know a strange man in here, Professor Gray?”

“The man wore a cowboy hat. I don’t see another cowboy hat in here.”
“Oh, him.” Simone smacked his lips. “That’s one of Nicky’s oldest friends. Drugs? That’s rich. No, everything is about his China hobby. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle for him. He’s probably got another piece.” Another piece,Rowden thought. China hobby? He tensed. The Jade Owl was in his thoughts again. China hobby? Another piece?

Nick balanced Simone’s drink (a Sambucca, Rowden thought, but it had a pink glow and floated a cherry) and two beers.

“Here we are,” Nick said. “Why so glum, Rowdy? I didn’t bring you here to continue your pout.” He raised the bottle. “Let’s toast to love, life, new friendships, and old China Hands.”
Rowden laughed. Nick’s right. I have no reason to butt into his business unless it’s my business. He clinked his bottle on Nick’s, tapped Simone’s happy pink drink and swigged.

“You’re a curiosity, Nick,” Rowden said. “The Old China Hands would have loved your spunk and tenacity. You’ve led me on a merry prance tonight. I feel something like life bubbling back through my veins.” He swigged. “What’s next? Where to next?”

“I know,” Simone said, as if on cue. “Since the Professor does not have a pleasant story, why not take him on your pleasant excursion this weekend.”

Nick pondered. Simone coaxed him with her bejeweled hands, pushing his arm like a nun shaking a novice.

“Excursion?” Rowden asked. “What excursion?”

“To Yosemite Park,” Simone bubbled. “I’m supposed to go. And I really would love to go.
But Nicky, I’ll gladly give up my place on the bus for the Professor.” She looked from Rowden to Nick, who smiled. “I’m not really good at the outdoorsy stuff — sun on this radiant skin, you know. Gravel and high heels don’t mix well. Besides, the season’s nearly over, and I have two shows this weekend. I promised Miss Chatty I’d cover for Duney the Looney.”

“You mean Claire de Lune, dear.”

“Isn’t that what I said? You wouldn't mind much, Nicky, would you? Besides Professor, you’ll see some wonderful sights like El General. ”

El Capitan.” Nick laughed.

“Whatever. It’s truly lovely.”

Nick took a swig. Wetting his bottom lip with his upper, he smacked them like a spatula on wood.

“Well, Rowdy, unless you have other plans, you’re welcome to explore the wonders of Yosemite with me. It’s just a day trip. Early rise. Back by midnight.”

Rowden laughed, swigged again, and then appeared resolved. His head bobbed. Yes.
“You’re on, Nick. You’re an interesting fellow. We have a great deal in common — common interests, that is. I’ve no other plans this weekend. I do enjoy your company.”

“So,” Simone said, “I’m off the hook.” She winked. “Well, no offense Professor. I do owe you one.” She hit Nicky’s arm.

Nick snorted, but conceded the game. He raised his bottle again.

“To my love, Simone DeFleurry, and my new friend, Rowdy Gray.”
Rowden lifted his.

“And to Nick.” He stopped, and then cocked his head. “You know, I don’t know your last name.”

Nick looked down at the table, and then to the ceiling. Finally, he gazed directly into Rowden’s brown eyes.

“Battle,” he said. “I’m Nick Battle.”