Thirteen – Stirling
As I crossed into Illinois at a speed that would surely get me pulled over if a cop were clocking me on radar, I had my head in some sort of space.
It might not have been a great space. Actually, it was a dank, dismal place. A place where my father called me an immoral demon who had fallen into the writhing pits of Hell of my own accord. A place where my father slapped me for shaming him in such a manner. A place where my father informed me that once I left on the morrow with Tucker, I was dead to him. So yeah, not a great place, but that was where my head was. Probably I should have just called in sick. I sniggered at the thought. Calling in sick. Just picking up the phone and telling your boss you were sick and staying home with no one the wiser. Who cared if the clerk at the corner mart wasn’t the same teenager who usually took your gas money or sold you your smokes?
Me taking off was a bit more complicated, but Lord above, I was tempted to chuck it all and run off with Tucker. We could be out of the country by nightfall. Somewhere warm and welcoming to gays. A tiny tropical island with white sands and friendly natives. Somewhere the INS and the Bianchi’s would never find us. We could make love on the sand and sell coconut monkeys to tourists.
“You’ve lost it, Sterling,” I said, then chuckled, my eyes darting to the signs alerting me to another exit with food and gas.
I hit the blinker, crept off the interstate, the wipers removing the wet snow that was timidly falling with speed. The rest stop was bustling. I pulled a ballcap out of the backseat and dug my sunglasses out of the glove box. Head down, shoulders up to my ears, I gassed up then took a quick circle through the convenience store. I found the cheap burner phones next to a rack of earbuds and phone charger plugs. I grabbed two, an energy drink, and a turkey sandwich from a cooler. No one seemed to notice me, other than being a big black man, which was attention that I always drew, be it if I were dressed in tails or a hoodie. I paid in cash, jogged to my car, and climbed inside and pulled from the pump to a row of parking slots by a flower bed. The bushes were coated with snow and the flowers long dead.
I ripped open the sandwich package, taking a huge bite to fill my empty, rumbling gut. Hitting the field without eating was going to bite me in the ass, but there was nothing for it. I’d manage. The bread was dry, yet soggy. Amazing. I ate it anyway, chewing loudly, then washing it down with sugar and caffeine. My after game crash was going to be Hindenburg epic. Once I had something in my stomach, I tore open the phone packaging, dug out my wallet, and called Gems. Tucker’s card, the one he’d given me when we’d first met, rested on my thigh. Garnet, it read. He’d captured my attention from the moment I’d seen him, just like the brilliant jewel he was named for. What would happen once we had him freed from the government mess? Would he go back to being an escort? How did I feel about that?
“Why don’t you worry about not getting the man turned into fish food,” I chastised myself as the call finally went through. Like our biggest worry right now was my sudden possessiveness? Talk about stupid.
“Gems Escorts. How may I help you?”
It was the same young male voice as before. “May I speak to Butch?”
“May I ask who’s calling?”
A momentary pause. “Hold on. Do not hang up!”
I had no plans to end the call, but they did need to hurry the hell up. Time was ticking.
A gruff sounding man picked up without a hello or how do you do. “Where the fuck is he?”
“Is this Butch?”
“Yes, it’s fucking Butch. Where the hell is Garnet? Tucker. Whatever. Where is he? We’ve got INS up our ass and an immigration lawyer being paid by the hour to sit here and jerkoff to the pictures on the website, so any news about him would be appreciated.”
“He’s safe. I took him to a place where no one will find him.”
“Bring. Him. Home. Now.”
I tossed the empty energy drink bottle to the back and cranked over the engine. The Audi rolled over smoothly. “Sorry, I can’t do that. There are complications that make it imperative that he stay hidden.”
“What complications? Exactly who the fuck is this?”
“I’m his friend,” I said, then winced at how lacking that was. “I’m his lover. I’m his…more. Look, just trust me he’s safe from curious eyes.”
“Listen, you cocky mother—”
I ended the call, then got out and placed the phone under my front tire. When I backed up, the crunch eased a bit of the anxiety creeping up my spine. By the time I reached the stadium, there was a solid ball of worry lodged in the center of my chest. I was shaky from the rush of that energy drink. My mind was leaping all over the place. And my teammates were all looking at me rushing to change as if I’d just dropped out of the skies from a passing spaceship. Then, I realized I was talking to myself.
“Too much coffee,” I joked as I pulled my shoulder pads over my head. The guys kind of laughed, then went back to their own shit.
“Vesco, coach wants a word,” Steve Marks said as he passed by. I gave the big linebacker a nod, finished dressing, then made my way to Coach Bergman’s office. One rap and I was called in. He was behind his desk, his eyes dead.
“Shut the door,” he said, so I did. “I don’t appreciate you coming in late and jacked up on whatever kind of speed you’re on,” he said as he glowered at me.
“Sorry, had to make a run to see my father. And it’s not speed, it’s an energy drink in a teal can. Bang or Slang or Crang.” I shrugged.
The glare lessened just a little. “He sick?”
“He is, yes.” Sick and hateful and filled with disgust. Thanks for asking.
“Ah, well, a heads-up would have been nice. It would do the organization good to be able to get a higher ranking draft pick.”
I blinked stupidly, my cleats in my hand. Bergman stared at me. “Yeah, I agree.”
“There’s only one way to ensure that happens.”
Then the lightbulb went on. The fuckers. “Right.”
“The Gubernatorial Booster Club is thrilled with the prospect of a young superstar. Maybe they’ll aim for a running back and not a quarterback, since you’ve been so cooperative in matters of team spirit.”
“Right, yeah.” I reached back, found the doorknob, whipped the door open and stalked out, my feet growing colder as the winter chill seeped through the cement floors. My socks were chilly, my heart frozen. Motherfuckers. They wanted me to throw the last game of the season so our record would be worse, thus insuring we got a higher draft pick. I stormed back to the locker room, sat down, and watched the men around me talking. As I laced up, my mind began to slip, the cogs of rational thought sliding off balance. I wasn’t sure what the world wanted from me, but I knew what I wanted from it. Honesty. Balance. Peace. Tucker.
I wanted to be honest for once in my life. I reached up to touch the spot that had carried my father’s handprint. Fingertips rubbing my cheek, things flickered from blurry thought to blurry thought. It all seemed so easy, sitting there with my blood rushing and my pulse skipping. But it was anything but easy. If I came clean, truly clean, my honesty would endanger Tucker and my father, the congregation, perhaps. I’d end up dead, an example of what happened when someone went against the Bianchi’s. Just like poor old Morton Briggs who had disappeared like a wispy cloud on a summer day. Here, then gone. What had Morton done to warrant such a fate? Probably disobeyed a direct order. Had his family been hurt as well? It was a huge risk to walk out there and win, but I craved it. I had to break free, but I had no idea how to do so.
It wasn’t like I could walk up to a Colchester cop and turn myself in for illegal game fixing. Half the force was on the take if rumors were to be believed. No, no local cops. My muddied mind kicked up an idea. It was one of those bolt out of the blue things, the kind that zapped you and made your hair stand on end. Local cops were out, but what about a federal agent? There was one at Gems, snooping around looking for Tucker. If I went to him, perhaps we could work out a deal of some sort. He’d turn me over to the U.S. Marshals, I was sure, as this would fall under RICO jurisdiction, but I could hold out. Use my knowledge about the team to get INS off Tucker’s back. Yes. It was so simple. And no one would get hurt, aside from me. I’d probably do some jail time, but it would be worth it. Maybe it would expunge the guilt and shame. Maybe I’d get shanked in prison. That would also expunge my guilt. Daddy’s God would take me in his arms, that I knew for a fact. He’d made me and I was perfect just the way He’d created me. It had taken me so long to see that fact. I’d never have made that journey if not for Tucker. He’d led me back to my God, and to an understanding of myself, and I loved him for that among a million other things.
I got to my feet as the clock on the wall counted down. “Today, we’re going to show the world what the Colts are made of!” I shouted, lifting my helmet high in the air. “Today, we’re showing the world just what kind of men we are. We’re winners!”
The team shouted, pounded on lockers, and pumped the air. And so we went out and we played our best. Most of us. The final score was 48-6 and the Colts went off the field with their tails tucked. It was the hardest loss I’d ever orchestrated. My soul had been crying out for honesty and fair play. I ached deep down inside, but the decision I’d made was a good one. The only one that would get us both out of the quicksand Tucker and I were sinking in.
I gave the press my soundbites, then showered, taking extra time with my grooming. After the game, I pulled on a spare suit that I kept in my locker for emergencies. It was a smoky gray designer suit with silvery lining in the jacket. The slacks fit perfectly, as did the jacket. I left the stadium looking like I was attending a cocktail party instead of heading to a brothel-turned-escort-service on the shady side of town.
Oddly, I felt strangely calm as I rode over the Colchester River, the address for Gems Escorts fed into my GPS. The Heart & Soul channel played on Sirius XM. I made my way through the winding city streets, the houses growing smaller and rougher the further one got from the river. I passed by Gems the first time, because I simply couldn’t believe the GPS’ cool feminine voice telling me that I’d arrived.
The outside of the place looked decrepit.
Maybe the inside was better. Leaving my Audi locked and parked by the sidewalk, I pushed into the escort service, stunned to see rubble and busted walls. I’d assumed it would be elegant, chic, upper class, given how beautiful Tucker was.
“Anyone here?” I shouted, looking up a grand staircase that was coated with plaster dust. A moment later, five men descended the stairs. They were all different as night and day. One was a slim, young, Asian man, the other a towering redhead, and the third a Mark Wahlberg lookalike. Behind them were two men in tacky suits who radiated an aura of law and order. “Which one of you is the INS agent?”
“Sterling Vesco?” The redhead asked, coming to a halt at the bottom of the stairs. “What exactly…”
“I’m the one who took Tucker Cameron out of state to hide him from one of you two gentlemen in the ugly suits.” The short, stocky, Mark Wahlberg guy gave his old brown Brooks Brothers a fast once over. Both legal types began talking at once. I rode over them like a defenseman with a stumbling QB in his sights. “I’ve been taking part in illegal game fixing for the past three years as the Colchester Colts quarterback. I’m willing to trade information on what I know about who is behind the racketeering in exchange for total immunity and a green card for my boyfriend, Tucker Cameron.”
The old place was deadly silent for about five seconds. Then, all manner of hell broke free.