Matt answered his cell phone as he walked down the street to the garage. “Hi, this is Matt.”
“Matt, hi, this is Nina Slate. I’m working with Peter and I have your number as an emergency contact and…okay, before I go any further, is he with you?”
“Uh, no,” Matt said, freezing in his tracks on the busy sidewalk.
“Well, we were meeting, and he excused himself to go downstairs for a minute and, that was an hour ago.”
“Do you know where he went or what might have…”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m afraid I do.”
Looking out the window as the car sped across the George Washington bridge, Peter watched the boats in the Hudson River. He recognized the Circle Line boat, and he wanted to open the window and wave his arms wildly at it, begging for rescue. As if they could even see him, as if they were even looking…he thought about all the people on it, watching the skyline and totally oblivious to his plight, and it struck him how many things just as crazy as this were going on in New York right now. What was a little interstate kidnapping in the city’s grand scheme of things, he thought absurdly, as Cody rambled on.
“So we’ll start over. A new life, man. You’ll see, I’ve changed. I’m going to make you happy.” Cody nodded, his fingers tapping on the wheel to the music of his own riff.
“You can be happy on your own, Cody. I’ll give you a million dollars. Just take me back to the hotel. My wealth manager can start the process…”
“NO!” Cody shouted. “You’ll throw me a bone and then I’ll just be…” He stopped. From years of experience, Peter realized that Cody had almost told the truth about something. “I’ll be alone again. No, Peter, never again.”
Cody was crying now. “It’s not fair. Nothing good ever happens for me, everything always goes wrong. It’s not fair.”
Sociopaths do have feelings, and they can cry, Peter remembered Millie telling him long ago, after he’d gotten rid of Cody the first time and spent that night sobbing with relief in her kitchen. But they can only cry for themselves.
I need to be calm, Peter thought. I need to think my way out of this. And the most surprising thought of all was, I can do this. Matt, you believe in me and I won’t let you down.
Matt’s emergency response team went into action. Chadrick and Guy grilled him for details, anything that could help them figure out where Cody might have taken Peter.
“Peter mentioned a cabin, in Pennsylvania, where Cody said he was going to take him someday.”
“He owns it?”
“No, no, it’s some guy’s. Some past victim.”
“Great. We can find that guy, Matt.”
Guy raised an eyebrow. “Don’t ask.”
“Hack Cody’s bank account,” Chadrick said, less shy with the details. “Find his deposit history. See where the money came from. You gotta figure if he had a sugar daddy with a cabin, he got some bucks out of him. If we’re lucky it was enough money that he had to take a check.”
“Highly illegal, mind you,” Guy said.
Matt made his own call. “Jose, my man.”
“Dude,” his coworker said. “What’s up? Where are you? People looking for you, man, trying to figure out why their cars aren’t ready. That’s not like you.”
“Listen. I know you’re on the up and up now. But do you still have any connections from your old days?” Jose had worked in a chop shop before going straight, and leaving the criminal underworld behind.
“Well, you know, you try and get rid of those people, but when one of them is your brother, it’s kinda hard to do.”
Matt smiled. “Great. Listen, write down this name. Cody Ray Burrell. I need to find out what he’s into…”
An hour later, Matt paced the room, running a hand through his hair. “We should go. We know where they are. We can…”
Chadrick moved in front of him, put up a hand, gently pressed against Matt’s chest. “No, man. It’s in the hands of the professionals.”
It hadn’t taken long to find the string of deposits, each one for around a thousand dollars, then one for ten thousand, then nothing. Another man Cody had used till he was used up, Matt thought. A search of property records under the name of Cody’s victim had found the cabin in Pennsylvania.
Google Earth showed them its location, remote, nearly inaccessible, a road to the south that didn’t reach it. Cody and Peter would have to abandon the car and trek the rest of the way on foot.
Then, though it had broken Matt to do it, it was time to let the cops and the FBI take over. Chadrick’s family connections in Albany and Washington ensured that few questions would be asked about how the cabin had been found.
Matt was afraid they’d fuck it up, end up getting Peter killed. But there was nothing to do but wait.
Then his phone rang.
“Hey man,” Jose said. “I got bad news.”
“Okay.” Matt steeled himself.
“The mob is looking for this dude. He got into a deal, used your boy as leverage. Said he had Peter’s financial backing, showed them pictures of the two of them together, and they recognized him from the news and went ahead with it. And, well, of course the dude fucked it up. Matt, it was a big ass coke deal.”
“It gets worse. Cody rented a car under his own name. The car has GPS. And someone at the rental car agency was bribed by these guys to give up the data. They’ll be on their way to the site.”
“Well, then they’ll run into the cops, so…”
“No, they won’t. The cops take the road. These guys are going to come through the woods. Quiet like.”
Matt’s stomach flipped over. “Oh my god.”
“I’m sorry dude. Not the best news.”
Think! Matt told himself. If Peter still had his cell, Matt could send him a warning. But if Cody had taken it, any message Matt sent would go straight to him.
But maybe that was even better, he thought. He racked his brain for a message that would do the trick, regardless of who read it first.
Then it came to him. He wrote it down and showed it to Guy and Chadrick. “I’m going to text this to Peter.”
They read it. Chadrick raised an eyebrow. “You don’t want to wait for this to play out.”
“No. If the cops and the criminals arrive at the same time, that is not going to be good. We have to force Cody’s hand one way or the other.”
He pulled out his phone and started to type.
Cody took an exit, then a side road, into the hills. “You’re going to love it up here,” Cody said. “It’s really peaceful.”
Peter’s phone hadn’t vibrated in a while, but he knew there were messages backing up on it. He was so glad he’d turned off the ringer when he’d met with Nina. There was no way he could take it out and check it, and he knew that only the roar of the highway had kept Cody from hearing the vibrations of incoming calls and texts. And only his coked-up state had prevented him from thinking to take away Peter’s phone.
Think. He calmed himself, thought back on all he’d been through. You can do this. Who would be calling him? Nina, of course, because he hadn’t come back. Then who? Matt, his emergency contact.
They could trace me! They can find me via the phone signal! He clenched his fist in glee. Then, Cody parked the car.
“We’ll walk from here.”
As soon as Cody got out, Peter slipped the phone out, just to look for a second. No Service. He was off the grid now. They could trace him as far as the last cell tower, but that was it.
Cody got a bag out of the trunk. “I packed some clothes for you. See, I remember your size!”
Peter smiled back. “Thank you.”
Cody was clearly pleased. “Come on, let’s go.”
As Cody led the way through the woods, Peter slipped his phone out again. A text from Matt.
He read it. Everything came clear to him then. Matt, you clever bastard. Peter smiled. Here we go, Cody, he thought. The end game at last.
At the cabin, Cody peeked out the windows, his nerves on edge. Did he know? Peter thought. Or was it just the drugs making him edgy?
Cody finally noticed him, sitting there calmly. “You’re taking this well.” He sounded suspicious.
“Isn’t that what you wanted? For me to be happy, with you?”
Cody narrowed his eyes. “You’re being sarcastic.”
“I got a text from Matt, Cody.” He handed his phone over. “I think you should read it.”
“You’ve had your fucking phone all this time!” Cody snatched it from him. “God damn it!” He went to throw it against the wall.
“STOP.” The strength in Peter’s voice surprised them both. “Read it, Cody. Then smash it if you must.”
Cody scowled, read the text. Cops coming to your location from the South. Mob approaching from the North. Your call.
“Oh fuck, oh fuck,” Cody said, dropping the phone. “What the fuck does that mean, your call?”
“You’ve got two options, Cody. The law or the criminals.”
Cody ran a hand through his hair, pacing the floor. “Okay. Okay. We go north. We meet up with these guys and we…and you pay them. It’s a half a million dollars. That’s nothing to you. Then you’re free, okay? We’re done. I promise.”
A surge of rage went through Peter. It was as if his psychic polarity had been suddenly reversed – what had once exhausted him, suddenly energized him. Any other time he would have bent, folded, collapsed and given in, given Cody anything, everything. Cody’s promise wasn’t worth the air it took to make it, and he knew it.
That voice inside him said, just give him what he wants, one more time, and it’ll be over. Always the voice in the back of his head, always the shadow standing behind him, unseen, whispering. In his mind, Peter turned around and punched it in the face.
“You heard me. No. I’m not bailing you out.”
“We’re gonna die, man! They’re gonna come and fucking shoot us!”
“No. They’re going to shoot you.”
“You don’t care if I live or die!” Cody was across the floor in a moment, one hand on the gun, another seizing Peter by the neck.
Cody put the barrel up against Peter’s temple. “I’ll fucking kill you first.”
It was almost as if Peter could see them. The pack of cards that Matt had talked about in “Alice in Wonderland,” coming to behead him at the Red Queen’s command. But like Alice, he was growing bigger every moment, and he sent his hand flying, scattering them. They were nothing but a pack of cards!
It was over. Even if he died right now, he’d finally done it, destroyed that part of himself that Cody had needed in order to control him.
All his life he’d never seen it. How strong he’d been, through his mother’s illness, the sacrifices he’d made to bring in more money, the way he’d thrown Cody out before, the way he stood up to his boss, the decision he’d made to take the burden of the money, and to give it away, properly. He’d thought Matt a fool, in love with a weakling. But he wasn’t weak. He’d never been weak. Just very, very tired. But now the energy flowed through him, the exhilarating sense of freedom, of knowing nobody would do this to him ever again.
Matt. I’ll miss you so much. But at least I had you for a minute. At least once in my life I was loved by a man who just wanted…me. Peter finally felt sad, but not for himself, only for Matt, knowing how he’d take this.
“Okay. Go ahead and shoot. I’m free of you, Cody.”
Cody laughed disbelievingly. “No you’re not, I’ve got a fucking gun to your head.”
But Peter could see it, the hint of doubt, of fear in Cody’s eyes, that canny animal deep inside him knowing when the prey had escaped.
“Yes, you do,” Pete replied. “So go ahead. Shoot me. Then what, Cody? The criminals come and they kill you. Or the cops come and arrest you. We’re in Pennsylvania. It’s a death penalty state.”
“Or,” Peter went on. “We can start moving fast now, back down towards the road, and you can go to jail. You know you’ll be fine in jail, Cody. You’ll fit yourself into the system and you’ll run your scams and play your games and you’ll…you’ll thrive.”
“You fucker.” Cody lowered the gun. “I hate you!” The rage was clear, and Peter saw it now. Cody had always hated him, had always despised him. And only now, when the game was up, could he let fly his true colors.
“I know you do. Now let’s go.”
Cody’s survival instinct kicked in at last, as Peter knew it would. “Fuck you,” he said, opening the door. “You did this to me. This is all your fault.”
It was like water off a duck. All the buttons that Cody was looking to press were smashed, the control panel fried out, useless to him.
“Leave the gun, Cody, you don’t want that in your hand when you get arrested.”
Cody threw it, hard. “You’ll be sorry you did this.”
No, Peter thought with the animal exhilaration that comes from a narrow escape, the exhilaration of freedom regained. I won’t.
The rent-a-car was surrounded by dark sedans. When they came out of the woods, it took a second for the FBI to see them. Then they were on them, hurling Cody to the ground. Only then did Peter begin to shiver uncontrollably.
They wrapped him in a shock blanket and he sat on the bumper of the ambulance as Cody was whisked away. “Can I use a phone, please?” he asked, and was instantly handed one.
He dialed the number from memory. “Hello?” Matt said cautiously.
“Oh shit, Peter, are you…”
“It’s over. I’m safe. With the cops,” he added, remembering the alternative Matt had given him.
“Oh thank God.” Peter could hear the tension leaving Matt’s body, could hear the whoops of victory from his friends.
“How did you get him to the cops?”
“I gave him the choice.” It wasn’t the time, Peter realized, to tell Matt how close he’d come to death. “He’ll be fine in prison. It’ll suit him.”
“Yeah,” Matt agreed. “That’ll suit me, too.”
Peter smiled. “I love you.”
“I love you too. Peter?”
“It’s really over?”
Peter laughed. He knew what Matt meant. Was Peter free inside, free of Cody, free of all the things that had led him down that dark path…
“Yeah, Matt. It’s over.”
EPILOGUE – YES, IT IS
It was such a nice morning for a walk, Peter thought, ambling down 11th Avenue early on a Saturday morning. He was glad he’d put the foundation offices out here, near the water. And near Matt’s apartment – his and Matt’s apartment, now.
“I can’t move. I’ll have to take a cab,” Peter groaned, after stuffing himself on the breakfast Matt had made him. “You’re trying to make me fat.”
Matt had wrapped his hands around Peter’s narrow waist. “That’ll never happen.”
“Keep making sausage and bacon omelets and it will.”
“You can burn it off on your stroll through ‘Midtown West.’”
Peter laughed, thinking about the conversation he’d had with the realtor when he’d been looking for offices for the foundation. She rattled off a list of buildings in “Midtown West,” and he’d said, no, I want Hell’s Kitchen. Which was the same thing, he discovered, only realtors didn’t want to use the old name with its slummy historical associations.
He looked at his watch, a $600 Luminox that had been his one real extravagance. He still had time before the nine o’clock meeting to sneak in his site visit. He picked up the pace, remembering all too well the days when he’d sat in a room, bored to tears, waiting for some account executive to show up fifteen minutes late. He wouldn’t be that kind of boss.
The building had been a steal, really – a nondescript, boarded-up building at 13th and 11th Avenue, that his architects and engineers were transforming into a handsome, but relatively modest, headquarters. Peter stepped inside and carefully picked his way through the building materials and wood chips.
“Where’s your hard hat, mister?” Katie asked him from the top of the stairs.
“Why, is this place going to fall down around my ears?” He smiled at the sight of her; it had been the work of a moment to get her to quit the ad agency and become his right hand man.
“Possibly. You sure you don’t want to move into a nice skyscraper?”
“Very funny.” Who on earth would want to move into a glass tower when they could be a block from the water, a block from the High Line, in a building where all the windows would open? And there would be lots of windows; Peter had mandated that.
He looked around. He rarely had time to come here and do that these days. He was being careful with the foundation’s money, but this was something he wanted very badly, and in the long term, the amount of office space he’d be able to provide free of charge to other agencies made it a win-win. It would be a year or more before the Rabe Foundation could move in here, but it would be worth the wait.
“Okay, let’s go do this.”
He and Katie took the short walk to the temporary offices on 14th. In the conference room, the staff was assembled and enjoying the coffee and food Peter had ordered in.
Peter nodded, smiled at everyone in turn, and took his seat at the head of the table.
“Thanks, everyone, for coming in today on your day off. I really appreciate it.” Monday was the last day of the quarter and Peter had promised the grant applicants to the foundation’s theater department that they’d have their answer by then. The decisions were pretty much complete, but this was the staff’s chance to make any last-minute appeals for their personal favorites that had come in late or hadn’t made the cut.
“So, what have you got for me?” he asked his eight employees.
Annalise raised her hand. “The Metro Theatre Company. They’ve got a really great idea for a contemporary version of ‘Antony and Cleopatra.’ The framework is a presidential election, and Cleopatra, Antony and Caesar are all candidates.” She handed a piece of paper up the table to him.
Peter looked at the numbers. “The budget’s low, can they really do it for this amount?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “That’s the thing, in modern dress, the sets and costumes are cheap. And Metro has a great social media presence, that’s why their promotional budget is low.”
He looked at Annalise, saw her excitement, her hopefulness. Peter had taken to heart the example that Matt had given him, of Wallis Annenberg, who may not have known about finance or administration, but who knew how to find good people, the right people, and trust them.
He nodded. “Okay. It’s your baby.”
“Thanks, Peter.” Annalise smiled.
“Let’s see, what else?”
Gary spoke up next. “Um, this is kind of silly. But it could be a money maker for the East Edge Players. You saw ‘Silence! The Musical’?”
Everyone laughed; the musical satire of “Silence of the Lambs” had been an off-Broadway hit.
“So this is ‘Snakes on a Plane: The Musical.’”
Everyone groaned now. Peter shook his head, laughing. “I don’t know. I mean, ‘Silence’ worked because it was a great movie, that everyone’s seen, that was just short of overripe, you know? That just needed a push to be hysterically silly. But nobody saw ‘Snakes on a Plane.’ So there’s no built-in audience.”
Gary nodded, not entirely rueful. It had been a left field idea that he thought would be shot down.
“But,” Peter added, “if they come up with a better movie to take off from, I’m open to it for next quarter.”
They went through a dozen projects in a half hour, and after that the staff started making calls of congratulations or regret. With a glow of satisfaction, Peter signed a stack of checks to a number of crisis hotlines, abused women’s shelters, and a cancer patient’s advocacy group.
There was one more meeting he had to take, and one of his grant administrators, Jeffrey Green, was late for it. Peter kept busy by thumbing through the book Matt had given him. “How Cars Work” was a kid’s book, but a good one, for someone at Peter’s mechanical level.
Peter had decided he’d wanted to learn about engines after one too many evenings when he’d asked Matt how his day had been, and Matt had needed to edit the details of his latest challenge to simplify it for Peter. He felt he was missing something, something about how Matt’s mind worked, by not understanding what it was he did all day.
“Sorry I’m late,” Jeffrey said in a huff, flinging his scarf into an empty chair and flinging himself into another one.
No, you’re not, Peter thought calmly. Everything about Jeffrey’s demeanor was resentful of this meeting. It was July, and people like Jeffrey were supposed to be in their summer houses on weekends, not in some office being called on the proverbial carpet.
“Jeffrey, I’ve had some more complaints from the staff about your behavior.”
“My behavior?” Jeffrey practically squawked. “How so?”
“You’re rude to them. Abrupt. And cruel. You’ve said some very mean things about their projects. And, about them. You’ve made it personal.”
Jeffrey raised an eyebrow. “Well, if their work is no good, what do they expect?”
Peter leaned forward. Jeffrey was surprised at the effect. Peter was short, small, in a neat jacket and open shirt, well-cut but not exactly high fashion, Jeffrey sniffed disdainfully. The little man shouldn’t have been able to suddenly fill the room with his presence, his voice.
“What I expect is for my people to be civil. To be decent.”
“I’m entitled to my opinions.”
“You’re entitled to your wrong opinions, yes. But not to airing them at will. And if you don’t change your behavior, I’m afraid I’m going to have to let you go.”
“I have a contract,” Jeffrey said airily. “You recruited me here, away from Richie Center, with a guaranteed salary for two years.”
“Yes, you do. And that contract is invalidated if you’re fired for cause. And I consider this behavior to be cause.”
“Well,” Jeffrey huffed. “I don’t think you understand what it takes to manage people. Sometimes you have to be harsh. You’ve got to…”
Peter raised a hand. Katie, standing outside the glass door, opened it and brought Peter a folder. He opened the folder, signed two pieces of paper, and handed them to Jeffrey.
“Here is your termination letter, and here is your severance pay.”
Jeffrey couldn’t believe it. “You’re firing me?”
“I am firing you.”
“I will take this to the board.”
“I am the board,” Peter said, his unblinking eyes matching Jeffrey’s gaze. “For all intents and purposes.”
“Yes, you are,” Jeffrey said disdainfully. “Well,” he said, getting up. “It’s your money.”
“Yes,” Peter said thoughtfully. He nodded. “Yes, it is.”
Then his day was done. It was time to meet Matt at the garage for his lesson. The garage was empty on a Saturday, and Peter put his coveralls on in the office. He always got a stiffie putting them on, the grey uniform with Peter stitched in red on the white badge, especially with the…modification he’d made to them since the last lesson. He had to look in the mirror to see if his ass looked as good in it as Matt’s did – not quite, but once he bent over…
Peter had a grin on his face at that, and Matt noticed. “Good morning?”
“Yeah. Really good, actually.”
Matt had the hood of their practice car open, and he held up a part, an ovoid piece of metal, with a large hole cut out of the middle. “What’s this?”
“Good job. How’d it go with Jeffrey?”
Peter smiled. “It went well.”
“He’s seen the error of his ways?”
“No. I fired him.”
Matt raised an eyebrow. “And how did that go?”
Peter thought about it. “Great, actually.” He paused. “You know, this is going to sound kind of fucked up. But… I didn’t give him what he wanted. I didn’t do what I always do, or did. Which was give in because it was easier. Because I always had a ‘pre-exhausted condition’ I guess. Stop laughing! Anyway, I was always anticipating what it would feel like to be worn down by someone, something, and I just jumped to the inevitable conclusion. What felt inevitable anyway.
“And with Jeffrey, I could have just paid his contract out and not had to fight him later. But I didn’t. I’ll fight him. He’ll make a stink and maybe sue me, but I’m ready. I don’t give a shit. Fuck him.
“And if Cody hadn’t come back… If I hadn’t had to face him, I don’t know, Matt. I don’t know that I would have ever changed. But he did, and I faced him, and I won. And now? Now all these people who are not even close to being as good as he was at pushing my buttons? They’ve got nothing on me.”
Matt’s heart soared. “Finally,” he said, “Peter sees the same Peter I see.” He pulled his lover in for a hug.
Peter felt Matt’s warm embrace, and something more. His face was buried in Matt’s chest, and the coveralls were tough, but soft on his face from so many washings, such long use. He reached up and unzipped them down to Matt’s abs, put his face in the opening, tasted Matt’s skin with his tongue.
He felt Matt’s heartbeat rise. “Are you trying to get out of class, young man?”
“No, sir,” Peter whispered. “I want to show you my homework, though.”
“Oh? Have you been practicing something?”
Peter zipped the coveralls all the way down, took the gasket out of Matt’s hand and set it aside, then reached up and pulled the material off Matt’s broad shoulders. Then he unhooked the car’s hood support and let the hood drop with a satisfying slam. The closed hood was the perfect size, the perfect angle, he decided.
He had a smear of grease on his hand from the support, and he wiped it on Matt’s chest, put a little war paint on his face. “Now you’re all dirty,” Peter whispered.
“You like it,” Matt said, grabbing the back of Peter’s hair, pulling it just enough to excite them both. “You like it dirty.”
“Fuck yeah,” Peter agreed, going to his knees. Matt shrugged his arms out of the coveralls, letting them drop to his waist. Peter could see Matt’s huge erection underneath the grey fabric, big enough to cast its own shadow.
Matt reached down and freed his cock. Peter was still amazed at its perfection, the ridges and ripples and veins, the sweet taste of Matt’s precum as he darted his tongue into its opening.
Matt pulled it up flat against his belly, covered it with his hand. “What’s this called?”
Matt roared with laughter. “You think?”
“Yeah.” Peter couldn’t wait any longer. He reached into his own coverall pocket and pulled out a tube of lube. “And this is what makes it go.”
He put his hands behind his ass, and Matt’s eyes widened. “Did you…”
“You wouldn’t know it unless you were looking for it,” Peter said, slipping his lubed fingers through the incision he’d made in the coveralls.
The heat soared in Matt’s eyes. “You planned this.”
Peter looked at him for a moment, touched his greasy cheek. Then, wordless, he turned around, bent over the hood of the car, his ass in the air.
Matt thought he would burst, with love, with lust. “You’re one of those pushy controlling bottoms now, aren’t you?”
“Yes. Shut up and fuck me,” Peter said, one half of his smile plain to see.
Matt put his strong fingers in the small tear over Peter’s ass, and ripped it hard, opening it wider. Peter jumped at the savagery of it, the blood rushing to his ass.
“You think that little hole you tore was big enough for my cock?”
“My little hole’s big enough for it. Come on and see for yourself.”
Matt was so turned on he thought he’d burst. He had to hold back from mounting Peter like an animal, ramming it home. He was too well hung for that, had to take his time getting it into Peter’s tight ass, but once he was in…
“Oh yeah,” Peter sighed. “Oh my God you’re so good.”
Matt was in him, skin on skin, both of them tested, negative, monogamous, no reason for any barrier between them. Matt braced himself on the hood of the car and started to move inside Peter, the two of them forming their own engine in motion.
We’re making love, Matt thought. We’re making it, creating it, building it, something built to last…
This is love, Peter thought. And I deserve it, I deserve to be with someone as wonderful as Matt. I’ll keep earning it, I want to give him so much pleasure, I want to make him so happy…
Matt stopped moving, at least, every part of his body but his involuntarily twitching cock. “Oh fuck I’m gonna cum….”
“Do it, do it inside me. Make me yours.”
That did it. Matt wrapped his arms around Peter and shot inside him, filling him with warmth, with life.
Peter could feel it, Matt’s dick pulsing inside him, like another heart in his body. Two hearts, one body…
Matt sighed. It was comfortable, laying on top of Peter. “I should get up. We have a lesson to finish.”
Peter moved his ass in a slightly circular motion. “Lesson one. What’s that?”
Matt flinched, the sweet friction on his cock bringing it back to life. “That’s your insatiable ass.”
“Lesson two. What happens now?” He could feel Matt’s erection springing back, filling him up again.
Matt kissed him on the neck. “What happens now is, you find out that this is your lucky day.”