The stink of the portable john followed Cameron Waters into the bright autumn sunlight. He was surprised everybody at the flea market didn't run screaming as the miasma crept over the grounds like the Blob. Inflating his lungs with the blessing of fresh air, he looked at the man waiting to use the facility.
“Don't go in there,” he said, “if you value your sanity.”
The man smiled. “That bad, huh?”
“I should've guessed by the look on your face.”
Cam tried to relax his grimace. The waiting man had no such look on his
face. He had the comfortable ease of a young guy who knows he's nicely put together and handsome enough to turn heads. In fact, the mellow sound of his voice as well as his looks seemed completely out of place in this tacky world of Chinese imports and used household goods.
The stranger glanced beyond the enclosed cesspool. “I suppose I'll take it to the bushes.”
Cam looked over his shoulder. Scrubby woods abutted the flea market on three sides. “Bet there's plenty of dead vegetation back there.”
The man laughed. “I feel sorry for the women who have to relieve themselves.” He began to head toward the tree line, then abruptly turned back. “By the way,” he said, “have you been walking around here for a while?”
Cam shrugged. “Not too long. Maybe a half hour or so.”
“Did you happen to see something sort of like”--the man's face gathered in thought--“an artillery shell? It was standing upright on one of the vendors' tables.”
“An artillery shell.” Hell, even if Cam had
walked past something like that, he wouldn't have paid it any mind. Armaments didn't interest him.
“Well, it had more of a blunt nose,” the man said. “I caught a glimpse of it a couple rows away from where I was browsing. Then something else got my attention. I sort of wandered off and lost track of where I'd seen it.”
Cam shook his head. “Sorry, can't help you.”
“Just thought I'd ask.” Flashing a quick smile, the man lifted a hand. “Thanks for the warning, though. Now I'd better take care of business.”
Cam watched him stride toward the woods, certain wordless thoughts gathering around his receding form. Cam pushed them away. His stare was bold enough; it didn't need any garnish.
* * *
“Don't even ask what it is, 'cause I don't have a clue.”
Frowning, Cameron removed his sunglasses and bent toward the item sitting in a corner of the vendor's table. The bustle of the flea market retreated as his attention funneled toward the object. Until now, nothing had grabbed his interest.
He wondered if this was the “shell” that man at the porta-crapper had been looking for.
Carefully, Cam lifted the oddity to study it. The vertical cylinder was under a foot tall, but its substantial wood base added another six inches or more to its overall height. The tip was somewhat tapered, but not nearly sharp enough to be a deadly projectile. What really threw Cam off, though, was the color. Creamy rose paint, dull with age, covered the metal body. The paint had begun to crack and flake.
Why would an artillery shell be painted?
“It's heavy,” Cam said, raising and lowering the thing to make his point. He wanted to tap it, test it for solidity, but feared further damaging the already stressed exterior.
Lifting it higher, he squinted at the bottom of the footed base. There appeared to be incised lines, like an old scar, in the center. Cam touched them to confirm their depth. Yup, too deep to be mere scratches. He angled the base toward the sun and peered more closely.
Two words? Or a marking?
“Where'd you get this?” Cam asked as he set the thing back on the table. He lightly rested a few fingers on the base, signaling he had dibs on the piece in case another interested shopper came along.
The vendor scrunched his face as he lit a cigarette. “Can't remember exactly.” A veil of smoke drifted from his mouth. “We clean up so many places, they all sort of run together.”
“Yeah. Old houses and barns and commercial buildings. Places that are gonna be demolished or renovated. We haul away whatever stuff's been left behind. 'Declutter' is what we call it.”
Cam nodded. “I see.” He'd heard of such businesses. “Do you pretty much stay in this area?”
“Well, Milwaukee to Chicago mostly. Sometimes we'll go a little farther up the lakeshore. Depends on the project.”
The answer was encouraging. There were plenty of historic buildings in that corridor, just as there were along the shores of all the Great Lakes. Cam was sufficiently intrigued to talk price.
Someone who'd been wandering by the table suddenly stopped and ogled the missile. Cam tightened his hold. The woman dawdled for a moment, checking out the vendor's other offerings, then moved on.
“What do you want for it?” Cam asked.
The vendor pulled down the sides of his mouth as he studied his strange treasure. Or pretended to. “I'll take fifty.”
Cam coughed out a laugh. “You don't even know what it is! Or where it came from.”
Grudgingly humbled by this reminder of his ignorance, the vendor made a show of reconsidering. “I know it's old,” he said. “And prob'ly collectible.”
Cam rolled his eyes. Old and collectible
--an uninformed seller's favorite justifications for overpricing his wares.
“Old, yes,” Cam said. “But if it turns out to be nothing more than a piece of junk missing all kinds of parts, it isn't even worth fifty cents. I'm just curious about it, that's all.”
Or maybe it was the other man's interest in it that had sparked his own interest. May he'd run into the guy again...
He did a quick scan of the flea market, but it proved futile. The place was too big, too packed with people.
Pondering, the vendor rolled the filter end of his cigarette between thumb and forefinger. “Well, that ebony base alone...”
The large cube of dark wood was
beautifully carved. “Okay, I'll give you ten. Just because of the base.”
His gaze falling to the treasure, the vendor released a weary sigh. “Yeah, I suppose. I don't wanna haul that thing back home with me. It's been a bitch to lug around.”
Cam handed over the ten. The vendor slipped the bill into a cigar box and began swaddling Cam's purchase in newspaper and duct tape. When he reached over the table to deliver the package, Cam felt someone else's presence behind his right shoulder and caught a peripheral glimpse of that someone. He slid a glance at the shopper, and his breath caught. It was the guy from the portable toilet.
“What'd you buy?” the man asked in an oddly intimate way, the way a soon-to-be lover might ask, after stripping for the first time, Do you like what you see?
“Oh, hi,” Cam said self-consciously. He shifted the wood-and-metal enigma in his arms, trying to accommodate its weight. The thing now looked and felt like an enormous frozen fish. “Actually I'm not sure what
I bought. It just caught my eye.”
“Do you think it might be that object I described to you?” The man carefully squeezed the layered newspaper, obviously trying to feel the form buried within it.
He stood close to Cam, too close, his body a firm length of heat against Cam's side and back. It was probably his nearness and his low, smooth voice that made his simple questions so disconcerting.
“I don't know,” Cam said. He ambled away from the vendor's table. “Could be, but I doubt it. Then again, I don't know jack squat about artillery shells.”
The young man walked beside him. “I don't either.”
Stopping, Cam gave him a puzzled look. “But I figured you were a collector.”
a collector,” the man said, “but not of artillery shells.” He looked down the pathway between the rows of tables. “Would you mind if we sat down for a minute so I could hold that? I won't open it; I just want to...get a sense of its shape.”
The request pleased Cam far more than it should have. “No, I don't mind. I already feel like I'm toting around a freakin' anchor.”
Don't do this to yourself. Don't give in to it.
They took a seat at the first bench that appeared. Cam almost set his purchase between them but at the last minute decided to hold it. He refused to examine his motives. They didn't require examination.
It hadn't hit him in a merciful while, this unsettling impulse to be close to an attractive man, to drink in the sight of him and store that image in a hidden well he tapped only in his dreams. But the impulse was hitting him good and hard now, and he was having more trouble quashing it than he cared to admit.
“My name's Paul Patrillo, by the way.” Smiling, the man offered his hand.
“Cameron Waters.” He clasped Paul's hand but made the contact brief. Then he handed over his purchase. “Feel away,” he said.
For a deliciously disturbing moment, he watched Paul's fingers creep over and press into the bunting of newspaper. He flicked a glance at Paul's face, now gathered in concentration. This collector--although of what, he hadn't said--was probably around Cam's age or maybe a year or two older. In spite of his apparent youth, he had an aura of maturity and intelligence that didn't quite suit his appearance. He looked like a model, tall and dark and handsome. Strikingly so.
Enough for even a straight guy to notice.
Yes, enough for anybody to notice. A nun. A child. An eighty-year-old former athlete who'd fathered an entire football team.
Cam turned his eyes to the chaotic pattern of shoe prints on the broad, dusty path. The restless churning inside him intensified. The hidden well was filling.
“Damn,” Paul whispered, then spoke the word again, with greater frustration.
It gave Cam another excuse to look at him. “What's wrong?”
Paul sighed. “The shape and dimensions seem right, and this location seems right, but I can't be sure of anything unless I study it.” He handed back Cam's find.
His explanation was more confusing than his exasperation. “What're you hoping it might be?”
Paul leaned back, crossed his arms over his chest, and stretched his legs out in front of him. He continued to regard the bundle. “A chimera,” he murmured.
“I beg your pardon?”
Paul gave him a half smile. “I'm afraid I'll jinx myself if I talk about it. Let's just say it's something that's intrigued me for years, something relating to my studies.”
He again touched the newspaper, wistfully, as if he could wish his chimera into reality. Cam's gaze felt glued to him. A mild breeze stirred Paul's rich brown hair, and its strands made a fluttering tracery around his features.
“Would you be willing to sell it?” Paul suddenly asked, reeling Cam's attention back to the simple surface of things.
“Uh...boy, I don't know,” he said, caught off guard. “I'd at least like to know what it is I'm selling. I'm curious about it too.”
Paul tilted on the bench and pulled a wallet from his jeans pocket. Cam's wayward gaze fell to the delicate shift of muscles in Paul's long, lean thighs and sleekly muscled arms. Light soil patched his knees. He must've knelt to study something on the ground, beneath one of the vendors' tables. Maybe sat on his haunches, legs spread...
A business card, dark blue and shiny as patent leather, glinted wickedly in the sunlight. It took Cam a moment to realize the card was meant for him.
“Here's my contact information. If you change your mind...”
The sentences jolted Cam. They echoed what a guy named Trent had said to him when Cam had applied for a position after graduating from the University of Michigan. “If you change your mind
” had had a double meaning, the least of which had to do with reconsidering the job offer.
“Thanks.” Cam took the card. Embossed white lettering in a classy yet simple font read, Paul Patrillo, Historian
. Below, to the left and right, were his street address and phone number, and his e-mail address and fax and cell numbers. Cam looked up. “You're a historian?” he asked with surprise. His image of a historian--a dour old fart with pinched features and eyeglasses that rested near the tip of his nose--sure didn't jibe with Paul's appearance. That was idiotic, of course. Historians weren't born old just because they studied history.
“PhD candidate,” Paul said. “I'm specializing in the history of American theater. The bastard spawn of the theater actually. Popular melodramas, jugglers and acrobats and magicians, vaudeville acts.”
Fascinated, Cam angled toward him. “Late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century stuff. The Gilded Age.”
“Yeah. You're familiar with the period?”
Cam cocked his head. “A little.”
“You know, that's really nice to hear. It's amazing how many people in this country don't know shit about its history.”
“Well, I made it through college, and I'm still a pretty avid reader.” Cam was pleased by Paul's approbation. He refrained from saying more, afraid he'd just keep running his mouth in some out-of-control attempt to impress the guy.
“I've met way
too many airheaded men,” Paul murmured. “It's kind of depressing.”
“Only men?” Cam asked, puzzled by the gender discrimination.
For the first time since they'd met, Paul's self-possession wobbled. Just a little. He might've even blushed faintly, but it was hard to tell through his tan. “Well, women too.” He abruptly slapped his hands on his thighs. “I really should get going.”
“I should too.”
They rose simultaneously. And at that instant, the words of Wendy, a female friend from college, a woman in whom Cam had always confided, skipped through his mind.
“So maybe you're bisexual. So what? A lot of people are--probably more than researchers realize. It's nothing to agonize over. Just go with it
Cam reached for Paul's arm, knowing damned well it wasn't bisexuality he'd been quailing from.
Their eyes met. Paul's were blue enriched by slate gray and quite beautiful.
“But...but...I wouldn't have a clue how to come on to a man
,” he'd told Wendy. “Worse yet, I wouldn't have a clue if he was gay or straight or something in between. It would be really sick to hit on a straight guy. Humiliating. Maybe dangerous too
“You'll figure it out
,” Wendy had said.
Problem was Cam never had
figured it out. He'd just avoided the whole issue.
Maybe he conveyed that when his eyes met Paul's--conveyed the jumble of uncertainty and yearning that made him feel too vulnerable to take any chances--because the look lasted a beat too long. Maybe Paul saw something he recognized in Cam's gaze.
Still, Cam found his voice. “Are you here alone?”
Paul nodded. “Yeah.”
“Got any plans for the rest of the day?”
“Nothing set in stone. Why?” Paul's voice had that silky, suggestive tone again. Or maybe it wasn't suggestive at all. Maybe he just happened to have a naturally alluring voice.
“I live pretty close to here, only five or six miles away. If you'd like to follow me home...”
Paul beamed. “Oh Christ, I was hoping you'd propose a get-together. I'd really appreciate it, Cameron.”
“You should've said something.”
“I didn't want to seem pushy.”
It was another statement that struck Cam as a double entendre. His reaction to Paul flustered him, made him second-guess his offer. “I wouldn't have taken it that way,” he said. “You don't strike me as the pushy type.”
Paul's grin dwindled to a smile. “That depends on how much I want something.” He lightly laid a hand on Cameron's back. “Come on, let's get to your place so I can see if you found my chimera.”
From the point of contact to the pit of Cam's stomach, excitement shivered to life.