Can out-and-proud high school teacher Skyler Foxe find the Redlands firebug before he falls prey to a killer?
High school English teacher Skyler Foxe is now out and proud, even though a few months ago he had no intentions of being so. But since the cat is now out of the bag, he embraces it as well as his boyfriend, head football coach, Keith Fletcher. But who is that good-looking gay parent hanging around Keith, causing mischief at the school as well as in Skyler’s private life? And then some of Skyler’s past returns, stirring up trouble. Add to that a firebug and suddenly everyone seems up to no good, especially when a smouldering corpse is found outside the loacal gay bar. Skyler can’t help himself and gets up to his old sleuthing tricks once more.
Skyler pulled into Trixx’s parking lot a little after nine. He got out of the Bug and gazed at the little gay bar he had called home for the last several years since coming out in college. Trixx always gave him a good feeling, mostly for the happy experiences he’d gotten from the place, but also from the many friends he had made there.
It was a small 1940s one-story building, sitting by itself on the corner in downtown Redlands. Painted dark blue with climbing vines on the outside, it could have been a chic restaurant, but its clientele was not looking for that kind of entertainment. Trixx did have food, but mostly it had well-made drinks, and served as a place to gather, to grope, to dance, and to hook-up. It was far too small to have a backroom, and being the only gay watering hole in the area for miles, the owners didn’t want to give the local authorities any reason to close the place. The guys knew better than to hook up in the back alley, but it did sometimes happen in the cramped restroom.
Not for Skyler. Knowing as a teacher he had a reputation to uphold, he usually brought his tricks home. Or as a last resort met up in their car.
He sighed, nostalgia tickling his senses as he spotted a parked SUV moving with a telltale rocking. The tinted windows offered no clue as to who was inside doing what, but he recalled many a time giving or receiving blowjobs in that same remote parking space away from the street light.
The outside patio, with its wrought iron fence and overhead canopy, was all aglow with twinkly lights. Men crowded the little space to chat away from the loud music or to smoke. It looked like a good turnout for a Wednesday. But then Skyler brought himself up short. The turnout used to matter when he was cruising. It certainly didn’t matter now that he wasn’t. But his instincts couldn’t easily be turned off, he supposed.
When he opened the door, the pounding beat of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” filtered out. The lights from the small dance floor flickered over the faces of the men and a few women who were either dancing or clustered in small klatches shouting at each other to be heard. He cast a glance toward the bar and there was that muscled bartender with the beard and the long blond hair. His shirt sleeves were always torn off at the shoulder, and he wore his shirt open and unbuttoned, revealing a perfect hairless sixpack. The man was breathtakingly gorgeous and if Keith weren’t his boyfriend, he would have been all over that.
Without thinking, he made his way to the bar and flashed a smile at the bartender, who grinned right back and settled quickly in front of Skyler. “Grey Goose on the rocks, my friend?” he said.
Skyler swallowed and nodded. “Thanks.”
Gil, the bartender, deftly complied and soon slid the drink toward Skyler and waved off the bills in Skyler’s hand. “First one’s free tonight…for hot blonds.” And then he winked.
Skyler felt the blush creep up his neck. Oh to be single! He stuffed the bills in the tip jar instead and smiled back, taking the cool glass and moving away into the depths of the bar. He sipped at the vodka with its twist of lime and let the alcohol ramble through his system. When he looked across the room, he spotted Jamie. Who could miss that hair?
He made his way through the churning physiques, allowing a few hands to skim over his chest or across his ass as he went, inhaling deeply of the scent of many warm male bodies with their intoxicating blend of sweat and cologne. He tapped Jamie on the shoulder and he turned.
“Sky!” He wrapped Skyler in a hug and lifted him off his feet. Skyler held his drink to the side to avoid spillage. He set Skyler down and smiled at him. His hair was now acid orange and spiked all over. It seemed he liked to dye his hair according to his mood or maybe the weather. Perhaps this was a bit of both.
“I like the hair. I think.”
Jamie ran his palms carefully over the coifed spikes. “Do you think it’s too much? I don’t think it’s too much.”
“For you? No.”
Jamie smiled and grabbed his arm, yanking him back to their booth. Rodolfo and Philip were already there. “Hi guys,” he said.
Philip scooted to the edge. “Skyler, I wanted to apologize for earlier…”
Skyler laid his hand on Philip’s shoulder and shoved him back in his seat, sliding in next to him. “It’s all right, Philip. I understand. I’m completely untrustworthy.”
“You can’t be,” said Jamie, sitting opposite. “If that were the case you wouldn’t be sitting here with us, but with that bartender.”
They all turned as one and stared at Gil, giving a collective sigh. “He is a big scoop of oh-my-god,” Skyler admitted.
Rodolfo leaned forward over Philip. At another time, this would have set off a firestorm of bitching back and forth, but ever since he and Philip hooked up, they had been nothing but sickeningly lovey-dovey. It’s not that he wasn’t happy for Philip; it was just too much gooeyness for Skyler’s tastes. He hoped that he and Keith never looked like that either in private or public.
“You shouldn’t take offense at what minino says, Skyler amante.” Rodolfo’s smooth Spanish accent purred from his throat. He could have been Antonio Banderas’ twin, if Antonio had been Ecuadoran. “Philip gets over-excited, don’t you, minino?”
Jamie flicked Skyler a high-browed glance before he sucked on his mojito straw for all it was worth.
Philip gave Rodolfo a peck on the lips and smiled at him indulgently before he fastened his gaze on Skyler again. “Well, I’m just glad you got over it. The SFC must endure!”
Warmth glowed in Skyler’s heart. Yes, he was glad he came tonight. He needed a little boost.
“So Skyler,” said Jamie, leaning into the table so they could hear him. “You said you wanted to discuss something with us?”
Skyler leaned in, too, and then Philip and Rodolfo followed suit. “Yeah. Um…I was thinking of asking Keith if we should—”
“Get married?” squealed Jamie, clapping his hands.
Skyler gave him a scornful look. “No! Something else.”
“Skyler wants to go au naturale,” Philip cut in. “Sleeveless. Fully armed torpedoes in the tube…”
Jamie’s eyes widened. “You want to BAREBACK?” It was loud. Especially since the music hit a lull at that particular point. It seemed everyone in the place turned around toward them. Skyler sunk down in his seat, feeling his face flame.
“Thanks, Jamie!” he hissed.
Jamie waved his hand as if erasing Skyler’s thought bubble. “It’s no biggie. Every gay man at one time or another thinks about it.”
“But should we?” said Skyler, straightening. “We’ve only been together five months.”
“Do what feels right, Sky. You’ve both been monogamous, haven’t you?”
He nodded, clutching his drink. “But I still…you know. Look.”
“Honey, you wouldn’t be male if you didn’t look.”
“But the problem is,” said Rodolfo, who had been quiet during their exchange, “is that if one of you strays, what are you going to do then?”
Everyone turned to look at him lounging back against the seat. Philip glared. “What do you mean?” he said, voice a bit strident.
Rodolfo slunk forward, laying his hand on Philip’s cheek. “Not with you, minino. I have no reason to go anywhere else.” He nibbled the man’s lips.
“Damned straight,” said Philip with a huff. “But Rodolfo’s point is well taken. What if you do stray, Skyler? Then you’d have to own up and go back to condoms. And how would that work out?”
“Are you saying you’d lie about it if there was no bareback issue?”
This time, no one would look at each other.
“Oh, my God! I can’t believe you guys. I wouldn’t lie to Keith. And I have no plans to stray.”
“But what about him?” asked Jamie. “What if he lies?”
“He wouldn’t. He doesn’t.”
“How do you know?”
“He just wouldn’t. He’s in lo—um…I mean…”
“He’s in love with you, you mean,” said Philip softly. “And yet you’ve never said it to him. How do you suppose that makes him feel?”
Skyler took a long drink and stared into his melting ice when he lowered the glass. “He knows how I feel.”
“Look you guys, I just asked for a little advice. I guess you’ve given it.” He grumbled to himself for half a minute before he sat up again. “I forgot to tell you. You’ll never guess who came calling the other day.”
“You’re such an asshole, you know that!”
They heard it even above the music. Everyone else within earshot had, too, apparently, as heads swiveled toward the plump blond woman wearing a tight yellow t-shirt yelling at her taller companion, some blond man with his back to the crowd. The slim man in jeans and a tan corduroy long-sleeved shirt looked familiar to Skyler, like he’d seen him recently, though he couldn’t be sure from that angle. The woman seemed familiar, too, come to think of it.
The woman making a scene suddenly edged away from the dancing and caught a glance at Skyler. Her eyes widened for a fraction of a second before she whirled toward the bar, hunching her shoulders in a dismissive gesture. The man put his hand on her arm but she shook it off. With a look heavenward, the man stormed out the back door.
“What was that all about?” said Jamie after sucking the last of his mojito from the glass. “Strange couple for this place.”
“Haven’t you noticed?” said Philip. “There are all sorts of strange couples here.”
“I had,” he muttered out of the side of his mouth, flicking his eyes once more toward Rodolfo and Philip before he stared down into his empty glass.
The music churned up with “Levels” and Skyler looked Jamie square in the face and said, “Dance with me?”
Jamie smiled his boyish grin. Maybe it was the Grey Goose, maybe the lights flashing around him, but Skyler was getting to like that acid orange hair. Jamie slid out of the booth and took Skyler’s hand, waiting for him to slide out as well. Rodolfo began pushing on Philip’s shoulder and they, too, headed for the cramped dance floor.
They started moving to the beat and the feeling brought Skyler back to more carefree days. He closed his eyes and just let it go. Jamie’s hand came to rest on his hip and they both moved together. Jamie was a great dancer and Skyler realized that he hadn’t danced with him in some time. He opened his eyes, watching the colored lights glance off Jamie’s bright face.
“You’re starting to look relaxed again, Sky,” said Jamie over the music.
“I didn’t realize how tense everything was making me. I wish Keith didn’t have to work so late. I wish he was here.”
Jamie was about to speak when Skyler spotted someone just over his shoulder. Slender, blond, tan long-sleeved shirt. That guy that that woman was yelling at? And then he turned and noticed Skyler. “Dave!”
Dave the fireman danced his way over, grinning. His blond hair was casual, with longer locks hanging over his forehead like Skyler’s. He looked even better in civvies than he did in his fantasy-inducing uniform.
“Hey, Skyler. I didn’t think I’d see you here again. Thought you were off the market.”
“I am. Boyfriend’s working late. I’m just here blowing off some steam with my friends. Speaking of which, this is Jamie. Jamie, Dave.”
They shook hands. “Hi, Dave,” said Jamie, crinkling his nose as he smiled.
“Jamie. That’s some hair you got there.”
He tugged on a spike. “You like?”
Dave smiled noncommittally. “Does that mean you’re a fiery personality? Or is it just ‘cause you’re hot?”
Jamie fanned his face and smirked at Skyler. “I like your friend.”
“He’s just got fire on the brain,” said Skyler. “Dave’s a firefighter.”
“Oh?” Jamie sidled up to him and put his hand on his upper arm, squeezing the muscle. “Firemen do all sorts of brave things, don’t they? Rescuing people and lugging that big hose around.”
Skyler rolled his eyes. He realized he’d just lost Jamie and backed smoothly away, letting him dance with the man.
He passed Rodolfo and Philip entwined and grinding, eyes only for each other, and made his way back to their booth. He sipped his watery vodka and watched the pairs and groups of men, missing it a little, but missing the company of Keith more. It felt grown up suddenly to make that realization and he sat back, a little proud of himself.
He made his way to the bar for a second drink and decided to stand outside, get a little air. On the patio, a bald man, maybe forty-five, but in fit form, was leaning in close to a guy around twenty. A black drag queen was batting his lashes at an Asian guy with a buzz cut. Skyler sipped his drink and smiled. He loved his kids and colleagues, but it was nice to be among people who understood him, whom he understood. His tribe. It was probably why he loved Trixx so much, even if he wasn’t looking to hook-up anymore.
A dark maroon sedan with tinted windows cruised slowly by. It hadn’t turned on its headlights and went around the parking lot until it stopped at the far end and just idled there. Someone’s getting lucky. He sighed. Ah, memories.
He took a long sip and shivered. The weather was finally cooling off, at least at night. He was wearing a light shirt, and even with the warm proximity to the others he shivered. He waved to a few old tricks smiling at him, before shifting through the men on the patio to make his way back inside. He returned to the booth just as Jamie and Dave joined him. Jamie’s face was glazed with perspiration, and Dave had taken off his shirt. It was stuffed in the back of his trousers. His smooth chest gleamed in the flickering light.
“Get you a beer, Jamie?” asked Dave.
“A mojito, if it’s not too much trouble.”
“No problem. I’ll be right back.”
Jamie watched him go and then turned to Skyler with a wide grin. “He’s so great! Isn’t he great?”
“I really don’t know him that well.”
“He said you slept together.”
“Doesn’t mean I know him that well.”
Jamie shook his head with a smirk. “Such a dirty boy.”
“No more. I’m taken,” he said with a puff to his chest.
“Well I like him. He said he ran into you the other day. You were putting out a fire?”
“Oh yeah. Forgot to mention.”
“Forgot to mention that you had to go to the hospital, too, Skyler?”
Skyler toyed with the lime slice in his drink. “I…guess I forgot.”
Jamie tisked loudly. “You used to tell us everything. This is what comes from having a boyfriend!”
Skyler laughed. “I guess so. Sorry. Dave seemed like a nice guy. He said he wasn’t out at work but was thinking about telling his troupe or gang or whatever they’re called.”
“A ‘watch’ or ‘company’ or just ‘crew’.”
Skyler looked at his friend. “So how did you become so knowledgeable all of a sudden?”
“I had to design a new website for the Redlands Fire Department.”
Dave returned, looking over his shoulder. He set down Jamie’s mojito and slipped into the seat beside him. But he seemed distracted. His face was stiff and his fingers moved restlessly over his bottle of beer.
Jamie was too busy diving for his drink, so Skyler leaned toward him. “What’s up, Dave? You looked anxious about something.”
He looked at Skyler as if looking through him before he shook his head. “It’s nothing. It’s just… Something weird. I feel like I’m being…followed. Or stalked.”
They all twisted around to look. “From who?” said Jamie.
Dave settled back down and took a swig of his beer. “That’s just it. I don’t see anyone now. On the way over, though, I thought a car was following me, and then I kept seeing this guy.”
He leaned against Jamie, who didn’t seem to mind. “I don’t know. I couldn’t get a good look at him. He always wears sunglasses and a hoodie. Just a weird feeling, you know?”
Rodolfo and Philip returned, with Rodolfo dragging his boyfriend behind.
“That’s hot work out there,” said Philip, out of breath.
“Not as hot as later, minino,” Rodolfo purred.
Philip looked up and noticed Dave for the first time. “Hello. Who’s this?”
Jamie stretched a possessive arm over the man’s shoulders. “Everyone, this is Dave. He’s a firefighter. He helped Skyler yesterday.”
“Why?” said Philip. “Was he stuck in a tree?”
“No,” said Jamie, getting that excitable tone in his voice that Skyler recognized when Jamie had a secret to tell. “Skyler put out a brush fire yesterday and had to go to the hospital.”
Philip sat up so sharply it threw off Rodolfo’s grasping hand. “You what? And you didn’t tell us?”
Dave ducked out of the way of Jamie’s wild gesture. “That’s what I said! He always used to tell the SFC.”
“SFC?” said Dave. “What’s that?”
Before Skyler could stop him, Jamie said, rather loudly, “It stands for the Skyler Fuck Club. We,” and he gestured to all of them seated, “were all once Skyler’s tricks that became friends. Oh my God!” His shrill voice pierced even the loud thumping music. “So is Dave! You totally have to be an SFC member!”
Dave grinned into his beer, cheeks slightly pink. “And what does it require? Secret handshake?”
“Well,” said Jamie, plowing on despite Skyler’s trying to gesture to him. He felt his face flame again. “You already slept with him, so that’s the main thing out of the way. Now you just become a loyal friend.”
Dave gave Skyler a smile but quickly returned his attention, and his scouring eyes, to Jamie. “I can do that.”
“Then I call this meeting to order,” said Philip. He seemed amused by Skyler’s discomfiture. “I make a move to induct Dave…um…Dave…?”
“Oh, sorry,” said Dave. “It’s Dave Caruthers.”
“Dave Caruthers into the most honorable and secret fraternity of SFC.”
“I second the motion,” said Jamie.
“All signify by saying aye.”
“Aye!” they echoed, all but Skyler, who couldn’t stop blushing.
“All opposed? The motion carries.” He slammed his empty beer bottle down like a gavel.
“That means you’re official,” said Jamie, and leaned in to kiss him.
Dave looked momentarily stunned until a smile parted his lips and he grabbed Jamie by his biceps and drew him in for a deeper kiss.
“Oooh!” said Rodolfo. “I’d say that was against Fuck Club rules but I’m afraid Philip and I already broke that taboo.”
“It’s anarchy,” muttered Skyler into his drink.