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His Secret Admirer

By Edward Kendrick

Published by JMS Books LLC at Smashwords

Visit jms-books.com for more information.

Copyright 2017 Edward Kendrick

ISBN 9781634864497

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Cover Design: Written Ink Designs | written-ink.com

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This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are solely the product of the author’s imagination and/or are used fictitiously, though reference may be made to actual historical events or existing locations. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

Published in the United States of America.

* * * *

His Secret Admirer

By Edward Kendrick

Chapter 1

“My secret admirer strikes again,” Jim said under his breath as he read the note.

Like the ones before it, it had shown up on Saturday morning, tacked to the bulletin board by the front door of Bannock’s, the restaurant where Jim worked three days a week. The board was there for people who wanted to announce they were having a yard sale, did dog-sitting or handyman work, were advertising an upcoming event, play or concert, or anything else they thought the customers might be interested in. As always, the note was in a sealed envelope with his name, Jim Foster, printed on the outside—without capitalization.

Mazie, one of the waitresses, had spotted the first one. She’d given it Jim, smirking as she did, “Does one of our customers have a secret crush on you?”

“God, I hope not,” he’d replied before opening the envelope to take out the note. It said, hand-printed, all in lower case, ‘your smile makes my day’. “Okay, that’s just weird.”

He’d shown it to Mazie, who grinned. “I was right. Now you just have to figure out who she is. Or he, though that doesn’t sound like something a man would write.”

“Good luck with that. We get a million customers a day, half of them regulars.”

She laughed. “Hardly a million, though some mornings it feels it. Whoever wrote that is right, though, you do have a great smile.”

“Maybe this is from you?” he’d teased.

“Sweetie, if I was interested in you, I’d come right out and say so. Of course, my husband might not like that idea, so…”

They’d laughed, Jim had crumpled up the note, tossing it in the trash basket before getting back to work.

He’d thought that was the end of it until a week later when a second note appeared—again on Saturday morning. The way his schedule was—Saturday through Monday at the restaurant from six until two, to accommodate his primary job with the Onyx Repertory Theater—he figured it had to have been pinned to the board either Friday before closing, or right after they opened on Saturday.

It said—again printed all in lower case—i like the way you smile at everyone as if they were personal friends. it makes me happy.

“Another one?” Mazie asked with a grin. “It wasn’t there yesterday when I left. But I took off a bit early for a dentist appointment.”

“Yeah, another one.” He’d crumpled the note, dropping it in the trash with a shake of his head.

“Another what?” Tom, one of the other waiters had asked.

“Someone’s leaving love notes for Jim,” Mazie replied. “Pinned to the bulletin board.”

“No kidding? Any idea who?” Tom asked Jim.

“No clue, but I wish they’d stop. It’s embarrassing, and kind of creepy.”

“Some chick is too shy to come out and say she’s interested,” Tom said. “This is definitely a chick thing.”

“So she leaves anonymous notes? That’s not going to get her anywhere, even if I was in the market for a girlfriend. Which both of you know I’m not.”

Tom had laughed, smacking Jim’s shoulder. “Someday you’re going to break down and find the right person, fall in love, and end up quitting so you can get a real job that’ll support both of you, and your assorted pets.”

“As if,” Jim had replied. “I’m destined to be a waiter ‘til the day I die—or someone discovers that I’m really am a talented designer and hires me to work for a big city theater.”

“That’ll happen,” Mazie had told him, giving him a hug. “Right now, though…”

“Yeah, yeah. We’ve got a room full of hungry people waiting for us to take their orders.”

* * * *

The most recent note said, ‘you make people feel special when you serve them with that smile of yours. it’s what makes you special.’

Jim put it back in the envelope, stuffing it in his pocket. It was the fifth one he’d gotten in just over five weeks—all of them showing up on Saturday mornings. He’d saved the last three. Not because he cherished them. Nothing could have been farther from the truth. It worried him that some girl, or woman, seemed to have fixated on him. Tom and Mazie are right, it has to be a female. No man would pull something like this. He supposed that wasn’t necessarily true. A man could be too shy to come on to him personally, he guessed. Either way, he’d decided to keep the most recent notes, in case whoever was leaving them intended on escalating things—and not in a good way. If that happened, he’d at least have some evidence to show the police.

When his shift ended at two, he went home. Callie, the mixed-breed stray cat he’d adopted, greeted him at the front door as if he’d been gone forever. He laughed, picking her up to pet her. “I take it your food bowl is half empty, meaning truly empty as far as you’re concerned.” Setting her down, he went to top it off with more dry food, then headed to the bedroom to change into jeans and a T-shirt. He hung up his work slacks, remembering at the last second to retrieve the note from the pocket. After reading it again, he stuffed it in the top drawer of his dresser with the others before returning to the living room.

“Not today, Callie,” Jim said, lifting her off his desk chair. “I have work to do.”

She looked as if she was going to debate that, then strolled across the room to settle in the corner of the sofa.

Taking a drawing pad from a desk drawer, Jim opened it to the sketch he’d been working on for one of the costumes for the upcoming show at the Onyx, where he worked during the week. He studied it for a minute, shook his head, and made a couple of changes. “That works better. Let’s just hope his majesty agrees. His majesty was Ken, the show’s director, a man in his mid-fifties who had been with the theater well before Jim had joined the company. Generally calm and collected, Ken had his moments when he went the other direction. “Like when I show him my designs,” Jim grumbled under his breath. They seemed to butt heads at least a couple of times for each show—if not more. In the end, they’d come to an agreement, generally with Ken grudgingly telling Jim that his designs were excellent, “as always.”

It was getting dark when Jim eventually came up for air. He had added colors to the designs, making notes at the bottom of each one on what fabrics he’d had in mind to use for the costume, from the supply he had at hand at the theater. He’d cut swatches Tuesday morning, before showing Ken what he’d come up with.

“Eight? Already? No wonder I’m hungry.” He went into the kitchen to see what he could make to eat. Nothing appealed to him, even though he’d gone grocery shopping only two days earlier and had plenty to choose from.

Callie had trailed after him, and now sat by her bowl, staring mournfully up at him. He opened a can of wet food, scooped it into her dish, then went to change into a T-shirt that didn’t look as if he’d owned it since before the turn of the century. With that done, he put his wallet and keys in his pockets and then left the apartment, making certain the door had locked behind him.

“So, what do I feel like?” he asked himself when he was in his car. After a moment’s thought, he decided on Laterza’s, his favorite Italian restaurant, which was about five blocks away. Maybe I should walk, to work off what I’m going to eat. Hell, why not? Getting out of the car, he set off on foot, enjoying the cool September evening.

“You live,” Beth, the hostess, said when he entered the restaurant.

Jim laughed. “I do, and I’m starving.”

“Then you came to the right place.” She grinned, then escorted him to a table for two along the side wall of the main dining room, handing him a menu. When the waitress came over, Jim asked for a glass of red house wine, and an order of lasagna with a salad on the side. She came back quickly with the wine, and while he sipped it, he watched the other people—mostly couples in twos or fours, with a smattering of singles.

One man caught Jim’s eye because he looked seriously lonely. His thin shoulders were slumped as he stared at the book he was reading, holding it in one hand while he ate with the other. Every once in a while he’d glance up when laughter or loud conversation from another table caught his attention, looking longingly at the people involved. Then he’d push his glasses back up on his nose and return to his reading, looking even lonelier.

Jim felt sorry for him, not that he’d do anything about it. He wasn’t the kind of guy who willingly introduced himself to someone he didn’t know—except when he was waiting tables. Then, it came naturally as part of the job.

By the time his dinner arrived, the guy Jim had been covertly watching was finished with his. He flagged down the waitress, paid, then left the restaurant. At least Jim presumed he had, since he didn’t see him leave. He was too busy eating his own meal, which was as good as he remembered from previous visits.

Now what to do? Jim leaned back while he waited for his check, sipping the coffee he’d ordered in lieu of dessert. The waitress returned to give it to him, at which point, after giving the bill a quick glance, he handed her his credit card.

When she came back with the credit card slip for him to sign, a few minutes later, she said, “This is for you. Beth says someone left it at the hostess stand.”

What the hell? She was holding an envelope with his name printed on the front, all lower case, just as it had been with the one’s that had been left where he worked. Jim thanked her and signed the slip, waiting for her to leave before opening the envelope. The note inside was handwritten as always, with no capitalization. It said, ‘he looked sad, didn’t he? if he saw your smile it would have cheered him up.’

What is with you and my smile? And who the hell are you? Jim looked at everyone still seated in the restaurant, although he was dead certain his message sender would be long gone by now. Getting up, he strode over to the hostess stand. “Did you see who left this?” he asked Beth, showing her the envelope.

“No. It showed up while I was seating some people. Since I know you, I gave it to Josie to give to you.” She must have read his expression of apprehension because she asked, “Is there a problem, Jim?”

“No. Thanks for asking. I’m just pissed that Mary—” he pulled the name out of a hat, “—left it instead of coming over to say ‘Hi’. I guess she’s still upset with me.”

“Send her flowers,” the hostess replied, patting his arm. “That always works for me.”

“Great idea. I will.” If Mary existed. Jim shoved the envelope in his pocket then took off. It’s bad enough that whoever’s doing this is leaving notes at work, but now this? Who the hell are you and why don’t you show your face?

* * * *

How could I have been so stupid? Mental hand-wringing accompanied that thought, followed by a deep sigh. I’m not in his class. I’m nowhere near it. He’s so handsome, so sweet, so nice to people, like he owns the world but doesn’t expect people to treat him as any one special.

How did we end up in the same restaurant at the same time, tonight? Why did I write him that note? If he saw me there and remembered me…But he wouldn’t have. I’m just the person hiding in the back corner at Bannock’s, eating breakfast with my nose buried in my reading. Not even close to the section he works. I wouldn’t have the nerve to sit where he would be my waiter.

This is insane. Take a chance. Talk to him. What’s the worst that could happen? He smiles nicely and then ignores me the next time he sees me, like I don’t exist? Which I don’t, to someone like him. Tall, dark, and handsome men like him don’t pay attention to someone like me. They never have. So get a grip and stop acting like a crazy stalker. Because I’m not! I only want him to smile at me, to notice me, just once. To see me. But that’s not going to happen, so deal. And for the love of God, stop going by Bannock’s. There’s plenty of other places to eat breakfast. Plenty.

* * * *

Chapter 2

Ken thumbed through Jim’s sketches, nodding at some, shaking his head at others as he pushed his fingers through his graying hair.

“This one’s not right. She needs to show more cleavage,” he said at one point.

“No she doesn’t.” Jim scrubbed one hand over his short beard, trying not to sound snide as he replied, “It would be completely out of character, and wrong for the time period. She’s a prim and proper, small town librarian.”

“I think I know her character,” Ken snapped back. “This is for the party.”

Jim bit back a retort, just telling him, “I will not lower the neckline. Not for her dress, not for any of the women’s. I know what I’m doing, like it or not.”

Ken’s mouth tightened. He picked up another sketch. “At least you got these ones right. Do we have the fabric for the plaid suit? Okay, I guess we do,” he added fingering the swatch Jim had stapled on the back of the design. “What about the rest of the men’s suits, and the Quartet’s matching jackets?”

“The suits will come from stock. We’ll have to make the striped jackets for the Quartet. A lot of the women’s dresses we’ll remake from ones we’ve already got in stock.”

“As long as the audience doesn’t recognize them from previous shows.”

“Damn it, Ken, you say that every time. Has that ever been a problem?”

“No,” Ken admitted. “Are we renting the uniforms for the band?”

“No. I talked with the music director at one of the high schools. He’s willing to let us use theirs for free, as long as we take good care of them and dry clean them after the run of the show.”

“Okay. It looks like you’ve got everything covered.” Ken traced his finger along the neckline of the one dress. “You’re sure you can’t…?”

Jim sighed. “Yes, I’m sure.”

* * * *

Jim spent the remainder of the week working with his crew on the costumes. He’d often thanked his lucky stars that the owners of the theater realized the importance of having good costumes, and didn’t balk, too much, about the cost.

Since the theater had a resident company, there was no need to spend Tuesday taking the actors’ measurements. Jim had them on file, and unless he thought someone had gained, or lost, weight since the previous show they’d been in, he worked from the measurement sheets. The only ones he didn’t have on file were for the kids. One of the seamstresses had spent part of Saturday getting them during the first meeting of the cast.

By Friday afternoon, he and his crew were well on their way to having the basics of the costumes sewn, or pulled from stock. He arrived home Friday night feeling as if he’d managed to accomplish everything he’d planned for the week.

He fixed dinner, with Callie following his every move, obviously hoping he’d drop something—which he did, on purpose. It was their normal routine at mealtimes and had been since the day he’d first brought her home from the shelter.

With dinner eaten, and the dishes in the washer, Jim decided to catch a movie that had just opened at the multiplex in a local mall. Checking to make certain he had his wallet and keys, he told Callie he’d be back, then left the apartment, going down to the lot behind the building where he kept his car. Twenty minutes later, after finally finding a parking spot at the mall, he was entering the multiplex. While he waited in line to buy his ticket, he had the strange feeling that someone was watching him.

Looking around, he didn’t see anyone who seemed to be the least bit interested in him. Nerves, because of the notes? He chuckled. Or ego, because I’m irresistible. As if.

With his ticket in hand, he stopped at the concessions stand to buy a small soda, grumbling, “This damned thing costs almost as much as the movie.” The girl behind the counter smiled in commiseration before asking the person next to him what they wanted.

The theater was crowded, unsurprising since it was a Friday night. The lights were dimming as he walked down the aisle, looking for a seat, when someone bumped into him from behind. If the soda hadn’t had a lid on it, it would have splashed several of the people close to him.

“Sorry,” someone whispered.

Jim turned to see a young man, his head bent as he stared at the floor before looking up at him momentarily.

“Hey, no damage done, so we’re good,” Jim told him, smiling. He might have said something more if he hadn’t finally spotted an empty seat. It took crawling over several pairs of legs, and an apology when he stepped on someone’s toes, before he got to it. By then the trailers were starting and any thought of the young man who had bumped into him vanished.

* * * *

He smiled at me. He didn’t really see me, but he smiled at me. A wave of elation washed over Alan, and he almost forgot he was looking for a seat. He had just come out of a bookstore farther down the mall when he’d seen Jim enter the multiplex. On impulse, he’d followed him inside, hovering at the fringes of the ticket line to see what movie Jim was going to. Once he knew, he bought his own ticket, barely in time to see Jim enter the theater. He hadn’t meant to bump into him, but in the semi-darkness he’d stumbled and—And made a fool of myself, but it was worth it. He smiled at me. Not that it meant anything. He was just being nice, but still…he smiled at me.

* * * *

Jim didn’t think of the small incident in the theater again until he was back at his car, after the movie was over.

That poor guy was terrified I’d make something out of his running into me. That’s not me, but of course he couldn’t have known that.

As he thought more about the guy, Jim had the feeling he’d seen him before, although he couldn’t put his finger on where. It was recently, though. Like…He snapped his fingers. Last Saturday, at Laterza’s. The lonely guy in the corner. He must live somewhere in the area, if it’s the same person. He chuckled as he turned the car on. He’s my secret admirer, as Mazie puts it, which is why he keeps showing up. If he really is and he’s stalking me, there’s nothing to be afraid of. I could take him on with one hand tied behind my back.

The truth, Jim figured, since the guy was a good four inches shorter than his six-one, and probably twenty pounds lighter. He’d blow away in a stiff breeze. He wasn’t wearing glasses, though, so it’s probably not the same guy.

Pulling out of the lot, Jim laughed. “I’m jumping at shadows, or more like I’m conceited enough to think I’m worth stalking. Yeah, someone’s leaving those notes, but it has to be a woman. That is so not a man thing. At least not any man I’ve ever met.”

He’d known his fair share, mostly as friends and nothing more. The occasional one’s he’d hooked up with had not been the sort who would have written what seemed like…

Love notes is the best way to think of them, I guess, from someone who’s fixated on my smile, of all things. He leaned over quickly to check what his smile looked like in the rearview mirror. Just like anyone else’s, as far as I can tell.

“Yeah, the notes are not a man thing. Ergo, that guy is not the one writing them. It’s just coincidence we both were at the same place at the same time, and nothing more.”

* * * *

Chapter 3

Jim went over to the bulletin board the moment he entered Bannock’s Saturday morning, expecting to find another envelope tacked up there. When he didn’t he felt a sense of relief—and much to his surprise, disappointment.

“You look like you lost your best friend,” Mazie said when he turned around.

He huffed. “I should look happy. There’s no note from…whoever she is.”

“Or he,” she replied with a wink.

“Nope. I’ve decided it definitely can’t be a man. Men don’t do things like this.”

“Hey, now. My husband used to write me love notes when we were courting.”

“Yeah, but that’s a romantic thing between a guy and a girl who know each other. Couples have been doing that for centuries. This…these notes I’ve been getting? That’s definitely a girl thing. Probably one of the college kids who come in here between classes to grab a bite to eat.”

“She fell for your romantic smile and sexy blue eyes,” Mazie said as they walked back to the break-room to hang up their jackets and get ready for work. “She waits until just before we close Friday afternoon to put it up. Twenty to one she’s a Saturday morning regular, hoping you’ll finally put it together and figure out it’s her.”

“Damned stupid way to go about it,” Jim muttered.

“She’s got a romantic streak, and reads too many of those novels you find in grocery stores,” Mazie replied, laughing.

“At least she seems to have given up, which is fine with me.”

Despite his words, Jim found he was looking at the various young women that he waited on, wondering if one of them was his secret admirer. He knew several of them, as they were regulars, and smiled cheerfully at the ones who made it a practice of flirting with him—but otherwise ignored their teasing advances.

Even if I were interested in women, come on, this is a restaurant, not a bar. And not even a dinner restaurant that serves drinks. Honestly, get a grip, ladies. Now if there were a few cute guys, trying…Hell, I still wouldn’t flirt back. I’m here to work, not make a date. I’ll leave that to Logan.

That had happened more than once with Logan. He had gone out with several girls he’d met while working as a host for Bannock’s—customers, and even one of the waitresses. That relationship had lasted barely a month. Then she’d caught him flirting with one of the women seated at her section. She had quit in a huff after publicly reading him the riot act.

Several times during the day, Jim checked the bulletin board to see if, maybe, his secret admirer had changed their routine. There was no envelope with his name on it. Again, he wasn’t certain if he was relieved, or disappointed.

The same held true on Sunday and Monday. By the time he left work Monday afternoon, Jim decided his secret admirer had given up.

* * * *

At the theater, things were moving along as normal. Or as normal as possible considering Jim was working with actors.

When one of the Quartet complained that the sleeves of his striped jacket were too tight, another Quartet member’s rebuttal was, “If you’d quit working out, trying to get the perfect body so Patricia will finally notice you…” That got laughs from all the other male cast members who were in the costume shop at the time for their fittings—including the man who’d complained to begin with.

It wasn’t quite so amusing when the woman playing the mayor’s wife had trouble fitting into her costume. An extra, who had wanted the part, and lost out to her, said maliciously in a stage whisper to another actress, “If she’d quit stuffing her face and concentrate on learning her role, that wouldn’t be a problem.” Jim shot her an angry look, while considering taking the extra’s dress for the dance at the picnic in two inches just to teach her a lesson. He wouldn’t really do that, but damn, it was tempting.

Over all, though, everything was pulling together. So, by the end of the week, he was ready for dress rehearsals, which would begin the following Tuesday.

* * * *

Jim was wired when he got home Friday evening. That often happened when he knew he and his crew had done everything they could to create the best costumes possible for a show. Now it all came down to the final rehearsals, when any small problems would have to be dealt with before next Friday’s opening night.

He fed Callie, then fixed his own meal, which he ate while watching the tag end of the news. He tossed the dishes in the sink, promising himself he’d deal with them when he got home, then went to change into good jeans and a turtleneck. Putting his wallet in his pocket, he snagged his keys from where he’d tossed them on the dresser, then took off for a club he frequented on occasion—when the mood hit him to work off some energy with dancing.

The club was in an older part of the city and had been there since before the area had been gentrified. As he walked in, the sound of upbeat music washed over him. He spotted a just vacated stool at the semi-circular bar at the far end of the room, away from the band. He hurried to grab it before someone else did.

“Jimmy. Long time since you’ve been in,” Steve, one of the bartenders, said.

Jim hated being called Jimmy, but Steve was cute, and bare-chested except for a vest, so Jim didn’t protest. “Busy, busy. You know how it goes,” he replied. “Give me a draw, if you would.”

“Coming right up.” Steve was back moments later, setting the glass down on the bar. “Vic was asking about you, maybe a week ago.”

“Is he here tonight?”

“Haven’t seen him, but he could be. Guess you’ll have to wander around and find out for yourself.” Steve winked, then moved down the bar to serve another customer.

Picking up his beer, Jim turned around, resting one elbow on the bar as he scanned the dance floor. He saw several guys he knew, but none who he was in the mood to ask to dance. He jumped when a hand landed on his shoulder, smiling when he heard Vic say, “Put that down and let’s see if you still remember how to cut a rug.”

Jim did, and proved as much to Vic. One thing he liked about the man was that he didn’t expect the evening to end with them going home together. They were friends and nothing more. Friends who liked to dance without the ensuing complications.

“Okay, that wore me out,” Jim said when they returned to the bar a while later.

“Wuss,” Vic replied with a grin.

“A wuss who works seven days a week, so shut up.”

“I never did get why you do that,” Vic said.

“I like a roof over my head, and food on the table. Neither job will make me rich, but between them I manage.”

Leaning against the bar, Vic flagged Steve down, then grinned at Jim, “Is that why you have the beard, such as it is? To save on razorblades?” Jim rolled his eyes, then Vic asked, “When does you next show open?”

“Next Friday, so don’t expect to see me in here next week.”

“Well, damn. Guess I’ll have to find a new dance partner.” Vic grinned, then told Steve he wanted a beer, which Steve handed him seconds later.

“I’m sure you’ll find several who will be more than willing,” Jim replied wryly.

“But they won’t be you.” Vic took a drink, the asked, “How’s life treating you, other than being overworked?”

“Not too bad. Remember the thing I told you about, umm, three weeks ago?”

Vic frowned, then nodded. “Someone leaving you love notes at the restaurant?”

“Yeah. Not sure I’d call them that, but anyway, after leaving five of them, apparently she’s give up. There wasn’t one last weekend.”

Vic grinned. “Maybe she finally got the message that you’re not into women.”

“I don’t know how. It’s not like I announce I’m gay to anyone who walks in the place. And do not tell me she can tell by looking. You know that’s not true.”

“Nope. But some of the guys you work with know, you said. If whoever it is finally asked one of them about you…” Vic shrugged.

“Yeah, possible. Whatever the reason, I’m glad it stopped. It was sort of unnerving.”

“No kidding. I’d have freaked after the second or third one.” Vic took a pull on his beer, then said, “Let’s hope that the fact they stopped leaving them doesn’t mean they’re going to try something else, like sending you flowers or candy.”

“Bite your tongue. No. I think she just threw in the towel. Maybe, like you said, because she asked about me and found out I’m gay.” Jim smiled dryly. “That would have put a crimp in her plans.”

“And then some.”

* * * *

Jim was certain whoever his secret admirer was had given up when there wasn’t an envelope tacked to the bulletin board the following morning, when he arrived at Bannock’s. He sighed in relief and got to work. The restaurant was busier than usual, for whatever reason. That was saying something since there were always dozens of people waiting—inside, and out on the sidewalk—for Logan, the host on the weekends, to tell them their table was ready. By the time Jim’s shift ended at two, he was more than ready to go home and collapse.

Which he did, settling on the sofa, with a cup of coffee, and Callie curled in his lap, while he watched some mindless sports show on TV. He was half asleep when the news came on. He snapped awake moments later when he heard Vic’s name. The reporter was apparently recapping an earlier news story about the body of a man that had been discovered in the parking lot behind an apartment building, beaten to death. “The victim has now been positively identified as Victor Howe who lived in the apartment building where the body was discovered.”

For a second, Jim hoped it was another Victor Howe. After all, it’s a fairly common name. His hopes were dashed when the Vic’s photo came up behind the reporter.

“It can’t be. Why? A mugging gone wrong?” Shock and disbelief warred for supremacy as he continued listening to the story.

According to the reporter, the police were considering that explanation but wouldn’t confirm it until they had finished the investigation.

“It happened after I left the club last night,” Jim said, getting a cocked head from Callie, who was sitting on the floor at his feet at that point. “Yeah, an obvious statement,” he muttered dismally as he got up. “I wonder if the police know he was there.”

Probably, he figured. But he wanted to find out for certain. After changing out of his work clothes, he grabbed his keys and took off.

“You heard,” Steve said, coming down to where Jim had managed to squeeze in at the end of the bar.

“Looks like everyone else has, too,” Jim replied sourly. On his way across the room, he’d overheard several guys talking about Vic’s murder.

“It has increased our normal Saturday night business—unfortunately.” Steve shook his head in disgust.

“Have the cops been here?” Jim asked.

“Oh, yeah. From what one of them said, someone tipped them off that Vic was here last night, so they descended in force around noon. They told the boss to get anyone who’d worked last night down here so they could talk to us.”

Jim almost smiled. “Waking you from your beauty sleep.”

“Or something like that,” Steve agreed, with a ghost of a smile of his own. “Hang on, I’ll be right back. You want a beer?”

Jim nodded, then watched as Steve took care of several customers who were clamoring for drinks—and gossiping about Vic’s murder. Steve filled their orders, ignoring their questions, then returned, handing Jim his beer.

“It’s been like this since we opened,” Steve grumbled, and then muttered, “Oh, shit.”


“They’ve returned. Or at least one of them has,” Steve replied, nodding to a man in his late twenties, wearing a suit and tie, who was coming toward them. “Unless I miss my guess, he’s looking for you, which is my fault. I told him you were the last person to talk to Vic, because he left right after you did. I didn’t tell him where you live, because I don’t know.”

“Thanks,” Jim said, rolling his eyes as he took a long pull on his beer.

“Mr. Ward,” the man said to Steve. “Had Mr. Foster come in tonight?”

“I’m Jim Foster,” Jim said.

“Detective Baines,” the man replied. “I’d like to have a few words with you, if you don’t mind.”

“About Vic, I presume. All right, but…” Jim gestured to the crowded bar—and room. “Maybe somewhere else?”

“I was going to suggest that. We can talk in my car.”

With a nod, Jim followed him outside, then down to an unmarked police car parked half a block away.

When they were seated, Detective Baines said, “According to witnesses, you were the last man to speak to Mr. Howe before he left the club last night.”

“I doubt that, knowing Vic, but I was probably the last guy with him, before that. We danced, then had another drink together afterward.”

“You were friends?” The detective’s tone of voice implied he meant more by that than his words said.

“Yes. Just friends. We have been for a while. And that was it. There was no sex involved,” Jim told him bluntly.

“May I ask how the two of you met?”

“At the club. We both like to dance and found out we meshed well together…dancing. After a couple of times, that expanded into friendship, at the club.”

“Never anywhere else?”

“No. If you’re asking if I knew where he lived, I didn’t, and vice versa. I meant it when I said we were just friends. We knew things about each other, the way friends do, but that was it.”

“Did he ever say anything about men he was sleeping with?”

“No. Well, nothing specific. He might mention he’d spent the night screwing some guy he’d picked up at the club, and had a good time with him…or not.” Jim put it that way, wanting to see how the detective would react. He wondered if would shock him, and then figured probably not. That was undoubtedly minor compared to some of the things the man had heard while doing his job.

“And you did the same thing?” Detective Baines asked.

“Rarely. I’m not into one-night stands.” Jim chuckled. “Hell, what with working two jobs, I don’t have the time, even if I was.”

“What do you do?”

“I’m a waiter at Bannock’s, three days a week, and work at the Onyx Repertory Theater as the costume designer Tuesday through Friday.”

“But not in the evenings, since you were at the club last night,” the detective said.

“That depends. For example, next week we go into final rehearsals and then the show opens Friday night. So, yes, I’ll be there for as long as the rehearsals take, which can go well into the evening—and for the opening.”

“What time did you leave the club last night?”

As if you don’t already know. Jim refrained from saying that, telling him, “I got there around eight, I think, and left around ten, ten-thirty. I didn’t check the exact time. But it wasn’t any later than that. I had to be at work this morning at six.”

“That agrees with what other people told me. Mr. Howe left very soon afterward.”

“When was his…When did someone find him?” Jim asked.

“Around two this morning.”

“Damn. So he was…lying by his car?” Jim looked at the detective in question, getting no response. “Lying, wherever, for three hours, dead?”

“Yes.” After a moment, the detective added, “He was in his car when his body was found.”

“Does that mean someone he knew killed him?”

“Mr. Foster, I’m not going to answer any more questions about the case. I will ask you one more, however. Can you prove that you went right home after leaving the club?”

“Are you serious? You think I…?” He scowled, shaking his head. “No, I can’t, since I went home alone. Unless, of course, you can teach my cat to talk,” he added snidely.

Detective Baines chucked. “That might be interesting. And to answer your question, no, at this point you’re not a suspect.”

“But I could be, at some future date. Wait a minute. When I got home, I ran into one of the people who lives in my building. She was getting off the elevator just as I got on. So I guess I have a sort of alibi, if I need one.”

“In that case, I’ll talk to her, if you know her name. Where do you live?” When Jim told him, as well as giving him the girl’s name, the detective thought for a moment then said, “You live on the opposite side of the city from Mr. Howe. It’s would take approximately twenty minutes to drive to his building from yours. “

“And he was killed when? Okay. Never mind. No more questions you won’t answer.”

The detective smiled, then told Jim he was free to leave. Jim got out of the car, heaving a sigh of relief when the detective drove away. Going back into the club, he marched over to the bar, in the mood at the moment to make someone vacate a stool if necessary, so he could sit. He didn’t have to, as two men got up, leaving empty glasses behind them as they headed toward the door. Jim sat, resting his elbows on the bar, his head in his hands.

“Bad?” Steve asked, coming over a moment later to set a fresh beer down in front of him.

Jim looked up, thanking him before saying, “So far, I’m not a suspect, thank God.” Then he gave Steve a quick synopsis of his conversation with the detective.

* * * *

Deep in the shadows at the far side of the club, seated at a small table along the wall, Alan had been watching what was happening. For once, he was in the same place—other than Bannock’s—at the same time as Jim, on purpose.

He’d stopped going to Bannock’s, not that Jim was aware of that. He never saw me there, so how could he know I haven’t been there for over a week? Even though he had avoided the restaurant, it didn’t mean he hadn’t seen Jim. He knew where he lived. Had, since he followed him home the night he’d literally run into him at the movie theater.

He’d been tempted to leave one of his notes at the apartment building, but didn’t know how he could do that, since he couldn’t get inside. Besides, that would really make me a stalker. And I’m not. Not really. It’s not stalking when I don’t follow him everywhere he goes.

Of course, his having done just that after the movie, and then following him to the club last night, and tonight, hoping to see him again, sort of negated that thought, and he knew it. He’d watched, the previous night, as Jim had danced with one of the men who apparently habituated the club, wishing it was with him, instead. And he’d been very happy when Jim had left alone, although he had wondered if he and the man were meeting up somewhere else, when the man left right after Jim. He’d trailed the man out of the club, then driven to Jim’s apartment building to see if the guy showed up there. He hadn’t, and Jim’s car was in the lot, so he knew Jim hadn’t gone to the guy’s apartment. After sticking around just long enough to be certain Jim didn’t leave again, Alan went home. Someday, I’ll get up the nerve to approach him, to talk to him.

He had the same thought now, as he watched Jim from across the club. When a man about Jim’s age had approached Jim, talked to him, and then the two of them left the club, Alan was certain the guy had picked Jim up, and Jim had agreed to go somewhere else with him. Then Jim came back alone a few minutes later, much to Alan’s relief. Maybe he changed his mind, or…or it was someone he knows from the theater. Alan was well aware, from talk he’d overheard at Bannock’s, that Jim had a second job doing something for the local repertory theater, although he hadn’t pressed his luck by going there to find out what. If he saw me there, and recognized me…Even though he knew that was unlikely, until recently, he wasn’t taking any chances.

I’m stupid to have come here. But I have to know if he’s got someone in his life. If he does…He sighed, sipping his drink, club soda with a twist of lime, and continued watching Jim.

* * * *

“Even though Vic was in his car when he was killed, it still could have been a mugging,” Steve said when Jim finished telling him about his talk with the detective. “He opens the door to get out, the guy’s there, with a gun.”

“Vic was bludgeoned to death, according to what I heard on the news,” Jim replied.

“Okay. So the guy hits him, same difference. Maybe he’s got a baseball bat or something. He tells Vic he wants his wallet. Knowing Vic, he told him to fuck off. The guy hits him and…” Steve shook his head. “He didn’t deserve that.”

“No, he didn’t,” Jim agreed sadly. “He was a good man. A good friend, even if it was only here.” He rubbed his forehead.

“Headache?” Steve asked.

Jim grimaced. “Getting one. I should get out of here, go home, and get some sleep, if I can.”

“Pop a few aspirin. That’ll help.”

“Planning on it,” Jim said as he got up. “I’ll see you the next time I come in.”

“No doubt. I think I live here,” Steve replied with a small grin.

With a nod, Jim took off.

* * * *

Chapter 4

Sunday and Monday passed as they usually did for Jim, working at the restaurant then going home to spend time cleaning and grocery shopping, before eating dinner and settling down in front of the TV until it was time to go to bed. Through all that, his thoughts kept going back to Vic and their last time together.

He was a good guy. I’ll miss him. Damn it, he didn’t deserve what happened to him. I hope to hell they catch the bastard who killed him and fry his ass.

Then it was Tuesday and he didn’t have a chance to think of anything that didn’t involve what was happening at the theater. Things went well during the tech and dress rehearsals, although there were the usual last-minute mishaps, or the need for minor alterations to one costume or another, brought on by the actor or actress discovering they couldn’t move or dance as easily as they needed to. That was why there were dress rehearsals to begin with—to find any problems and solve them. Of course, that meant that Jim and Deanna, the costume mistress for the show, had to stay after the rehearsals ended to fix the problems, but they were used to that.

The final rehearsal went off without a hitch, much to everyone’s relief. And then it was opening night.

As was his wont, Jim spent the day, Friday, reading the script for the next show, making notes on what would be needed for costumes, and a few preliminary sketches. With only a month between shows, he had long ago gotten into the habit of doing that, as much to get a jump start as to relieve his opening night jitters. He stopped at five, fixed something to eat, and then got dressed for the evening.

“Everything’s going to go off just fine,” he told Callie. She was sitting on one corner of his dresser, watching as he combed his hair. “Right?” He chuckled when she nodded, as if agreeing with him. He gave her a pet, then checked to be certain he had everything he needed before heading into the living room to get his coat from the entryway closet. “Behave while I’m gone,” he told her, leaning down to pet her again. “I’ll try not to be too late.” Damn, you’d think she was my wife, or something. I need to get a life, and someone to talk to who can talk back. Not a wife, but…He laughed, put on his coat, and left for the theater.

* * * *

Alan applauded with the rest of the audience when the cast took their curtain calls. When he’d arrived at the theater, he’d prayed that he’d be able to get a seat, since he hadn’t decided to see the show until that morning, when he’d seen the ad for it in the paper.

If he’s one of the actors…That had been the impetus for going. Another chance to see Jim, even if he didn’t know Alan was there. He’d been disappointed when he’d read through the program, only to discover that Jim was the costume designer. So I won’t see him. He’d sighed at that thought, before settling back to try to enjoy the show anyway—which he had.

The curtain went down, then rose again to reveal the cast, who bowed in unison. Then one of the stars stepped forward to introduce the director, the music director, the scene designer—and the costumer. Alan felt his pulse quicken when Jim walked on stage.

He looks scared, like he doesn’t like being in front of the audience. I don’t blame him. I’d probably faint, if it were me. He’s so damned good looking. And, yes, he finally smiled.

Alan was still applauding when the curtain dropped for the final time.

* * * *

“We have a hit on our hands,” Ken told the cast as they started to disperse after the curtain came down. That elicited cheers from everyone still on stage. “Go change, and I’ll see you at Sullivan’s.” He turned to Jim, winking. “That means you, too.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Jim wasn’t wild about opening night parties, skipping them whenever he could. Obviously Ken wasn’t going to let that happen tonight. At least he had an excuse for leaving early. As always, he had to show up for work at Bannock’s at six Saturday morning.

Jim and Deanna spent the next hour making certain the actors had hung up their costumes in their rush to get ready for the party. He took two of them to the costume shop because they needed minor repairs—something he knew Deanna would deal with the next day.

“Now, we party,” Deanna said when they finished, around eleven-thirty.

Jim twirled one finger in the air, getting a laugh from her in return. They got their coats, which were definitely needed, Jim realized, when they stepped outside into the chill of the mid-October night. “I’ll see you in a few,” he called out as they walked to their cars through the nearly vacant private lot for the theater’s employees.

“You’d better show up,” she called back, “Or Ken will have your ass.”

Jim grinned at her wording, but didn’t reply as he got into his car. That Ken was gay was common knowledge around the theater, but he was very circumspect when it came to his personal life. If he has one, which you couldn’t prove by me. He never brings anyone to the parties. Not something that held true for some of the other people who worked at the theater. They’d often bring their spouses or significant others, if they had them, whether they were gay or straight.

As he drove out of the lot, the headlights of his car flashed over a lone man walking down the nearly empty street. For a second, Jim thought he recognized him, although he couldn’t figure out why. Then his attention was broken when Deanna honked as she passed him. He waved when she did, and followed her on to Sullivan’s, which was only a few blocks from the theater.

He waited for her, when they parked in the restaurant’s lot, then they walked inside together. The place was packed, with people waiting for tables. That wasn’t a problem, however, as Ken had reserved a private room for the cast party.

“Looks like everyone and their brother made it,” Deanna said as they walked into the room.

“No kidding,” Jim agreed, taking a beer that Neil, one of the actors, handed him. “How did you know I needed this?” he asked.

Neil grinned. “You look like you wish you were anywhere but here. It should help you relax.” It appeared as if he was going to say something else before changing his mind.

“You got that right,” Jim replied, taking a deep drink.

What Jim really wanted to do was to find a vacant corner and watch until he could safely leave. That didn’t happen because Neil slung his arm around Jim’s shoulders, urging him toward a group of actors standing with Ken.

“There he is,” Ken exclaimed. “You actually made it.”

Jim nodded, smiling. “It happens, now and then.”

“Too infrequently,” Neil said, letting go of Jim with a grin. “Have you already come up with designs for the next show?”

Jim laughed, beginning to relax. “I’ll need to know who’s been cast before I do that. I have read the script, and made some notes, but that’s about it.”

“Tryouts begin on Tuesday,” Ken said—well, announced.

As if everyone here doesn’t know that already. Jim shook his head when those closest to Ken cheered, then began telling each other what part, or parts, they were going to try out for.

Ken drew Jim aside, saying, “I’ll get the list to you as soon as I’ve made my final decisions.”

“Thanks. I have a few basic ideas, but nothing concrete, yet.”

“I’ll be interested to see what you come up with. But then I always am,” Ken replied, his gaze locking on Jim for a long moment.

Suddenly uncomfortable with Ken’s scrutiny, Jim chuckled. “As long as there’s cleavage, you’re happy.”

“Okay, so I was wrong about that, for this show. But…”

“Got it. We’ll see.” Jim turned when someone tapped his arm, smiling at Neil. “And what part are you going for?”

Neil told him, and then they rejoined the others, with discussions ranging from the next show to the present one and farther afield, as always happened at the opening night cast parties that Jim had attended.

Finally realizing it was getting very late, at least for him, Jim eased his way to the door. He tendered goodbyes to those people who asked why he was leaving “so early”, explaining that he had to be up and at work at his other job at six, which was only a bit over five hours from then. That rated him a few hugs of condolence, which he returned before finally exiting the room—and the restaurant.

He paused when he heard Neil call his name.

“I didn’t…well, no one did, did they…?” Neil said.

“Did what?” Jim asked.

“I saw a story in the paper this morning. About the guy who was murdered last weekend. I guess they were following up on it, and your name was mentioned.”

“Shit. Are you kidding?” Jim replied in dismay.

“Nope. I didn’t want to say anything in there, in case no one else had seen it.”

“Thank you!”

“I just wanted you to know, in case you didn’t.” Neil gave him a fast hug, then winked as he said, “Now, I’d better get back before people begin to wonder if we’re going home together.”

“Uh-huh.” Since Neil was in a committed relationship, that was very unlikely and they both knew it. “I’ll see you Tuesday. Good luck with the auditions.”

“Thanks.” Neil went back inside, while Jim walked to the parking lot, hoping as he did that his brief notoriety, as he thought of it, would be just that—brief. The last thing he wanted was customers at Bannock’s quizzing him about Vic’s murder, and his connection to it. Which is what? Nothing, other than knowing him.

He saw a news box across the street, crossed, and bought the last paper it held. It took him a moment to find the story, which was buried on an inside page, much to his relief. Neil had been correct; his name was mentioned, but only as the last person to have spoken to Vic, before Vic had left the club. At the bottom of the article was a request that anyone who had further information call the police.

After dropping the paper in a trashcan by the parking lot, Jim drove home, his thoughts on Vic as he prayed that the police would find his killer.

* * * *

Chapter 5

No note. Even though, at this point, Jim hadn’t expected one, he was relieved that there was no envelope with his name on it tacked to the bulletin board. He was too tired to have dealt with it, if there had been—given how little sleep he’d had. Gathering his wits, he suppressed a yawn and got to work.

A few of his regular customers had seen the article in the newspaper and asked him about it. He’d answered their questions, as briefly as possible, telling them he was certain Vic had been killed by a mugger and nothing more. “After all,” as he’d said to one very persistent customer, “everyone who knew him thought he was a great guy.” Of course a couple of the people he’d waited on had questions about why he’d been at that club, as they put it. He’d just smiled, replying, “Because I’m gay and know people there.” That had shut them up, once what he’d said had sunk in. Thankfully, as far as he was concerned, it didn’t affect how they tipped him. A good thing, since tips were his main source of income from Bannock’s.

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