"Fucking Bonnie," Chris muttered.
Everything was fine, just fine, until the stupid bitch got it in her head to throw him out. Again. He did everything right this time, too, that was the hell of it. He'd never worked so hard to make it work... make it... do something. Whatever. He'd worked damn hard, that's all.
Chris lifted the paper bag covered bottle to his lips and took another swig, letting the liquid burn over his tongue and down his throat. He leaned against the alley wall as he steadied himself. Under other circumstances, he might have worried about the dampness on the bricks soaking through his coat and the shirt underneath to spread over his skin, his tattoo. He usually took better care of it, showing it off; he loved that tattoo.
Not tonight. Lately, God hadn't been looking out for him, especially considering he'd been walking on the side of the saints for the past year. Hell, God seemed to love him more when he was being as bad as he could be. Luck always seemed to be on his side when the Devil was in him.
Maybe that was the problem. Bonnie might like him better when he was pissing her off. Maybe he should go back home, well her home now, and throw rocks at her windows, or slash her car's tires. Make her see that he was the same Chris as the first time they got married.
Yeah, that's what he'd do. He never should have left, no matter how loud she was screaming at him. He'd always hated it when women screamed at him. He had to get away from her when she started with the screaming. And throwing things; fucking high heeled shoes! Still, he should have kissed her and taken her back to their bedroom and fucked her 'til she was sweet again.
Too late now. But the brick throwing thing was a great idea. She'd have to pay for new windows and he'd be in jail long enough that he wouldn't have to do it. Fuck her, she could fix her own fucking windows.
Chris pushed off the wall and staggered toward the end of the alley. He tripped over a garbage bag, startling a couple of hungry rats into squeaking and dashing away. He regained his balance enough to keep from falling on his face, or more importantly, dropping the bottle. Cursing, he kicked at the garbage bag and heard something break with a satisfying crunch.
He trudged toward the entrance to the alley. There was a light up ahead above a heavy duty door, and a cross street, but no traffic. In fact, the sound of traffic was only a distant hum. Chris wasn't sure where he was or how he got there. He'd started out at one of his favorite bars, then moved on to a liquor store for the bottle. There may have been another liquor store and another bottle. He wasn't sure. He must have done a lot of walking, because his feet hurt and he was getting tired.
After bouncing off a dumpster, he decided that maybe he should sit down for a while, take the load off his feet and finish this bottle before going home. No, wait, it wasn't his home anymore, and he probably needed to keep drinking until he remembered that. It was too easy to pretend that he could still get Bonnie back when he was sober.
There was a clear spot right there, tucked behind some stacked boxes and crates. He flopped down next to a pile of rags and --
"Fuck! What the fuck! Get off me!"
Jerking back, Chris's shoulder hit the stack of boxes, making them shake precariously, but they didn't fall.
"Fuck!" he yelled back.
A pale face swam up through the shadows into the light, and startled blue eyes blinked at him. A voice slurred, "Wash watcher doin', asshole."
"You're the asshole," Chris said.
"No, you are." A hand gripping a bottle very much like Chris's appeared from the darkness and the man took a deep drink, then swiped the back of his hand across his mouth, the liquid sloshing around in the bottle.
"Shouldn't be hiding," Chris grumbled, taking a drink from his own bottle.
"I'm not hiding," the man said. "I'm resting."
Chris snorted. "Riiiight."
"I am," the man insisted. "I was looking for my car and I got tired."
"What about you?" he demanded. "What are you doing here?"
Chris thought for a minute. "I'm tired too."
That cracked them both up. It felt good to laugh after feeling like hell all evening. When they finally settled down, the man held out his free hand. "Name's Tobias Beecher."
Chris took his hand. "Chris Keller."
Beecher's hand was broad and warm in his. Strangely, he didn't want to let go.
"So where's your car?" Chris asked.
"If I knew that, I wouldn't be sitting in an alley, now would I."
"Touchy, touchy." Chris pulled his hand away and stuffed it in the pocket of his coat. "I meant, where'd you leave it? In front of a liquor store?" Chris gestured at Beecher's bottle with his own.
"Oh. No. No. I wush... I was driving around, and around, and around, then decided to get out and walk for a bit. Wanted to clear my head before going home. Got turned around, and around. Couldn't find my car. Found a liquor store and bought this." He took another drink; Chris did the same. "What 'bout you?"
"Wife threw me out. Jush threw me out. Threw a shoe at me."
"A shoe? Did she hit you?"
"Yeah, on my arm."
"Nah, she's done it before. Once with a lamp."
"No, really, that assault. I should know. I'm a lawyer."
"Get outta here!"
Beecher's brow wrinkled in irritation. "It's assault! How many times I gotta say it?"
"No, I meant the lawyer part."
Chris squinted at the guy next to him, and yeah, he could see it. The expensive haircut, the nice wool coat - though it wouldn't be so nice after spending the night in a filthy alley - and he could see one shoe poking out of the shadows. Expensive shoes, too. So this guy could be a lawyer.
Not that it made any difference. They were both 'resting' in an alley; they were both lost.
"So, why'd she throw you out, anyway?"
"Who the fuck knows?"
Bonnie'd accused him of cheating, he remembered that much. It had pissed him the fuck off, because he hadn't even looked at another woman since they got back together. He'd started to walk away to cool off, but she'd thrown that shoe and screamed that when he got back, his shit would be packed and waiting in the hall.
"Hey, hey, now. Don't yell at me about it. I got my own problems."
"Oh, yeah?" Chris sneered. "What kind of problems does a rich lawyer have? Let me hear your little sob story."
"Fuck you, too."
"Move on! I was here first. I was gonna share my bottle with you, but you can fuck off!"
"You fuck off!"
They could stay there all night yelling 'fuck you' at each other. It suddenly struck him as funny and Chris started laughing. The offended look on Beecher's face didn't help.
"You're some kind of weirdo, you know that?" Beecher said, as he started to scramble to his feet. Chris grabbed his arm and held him in place.
"Wait, wait. Don't go. I'll stop, okay? Had a fight with my wife and I'm drunk. Gotta make allowances."
Beecher sank back down with an grunt, too drunk to make it to his feet. "Fine," he huffed, his lower lip poking out. Chris wanted to laugh again, but he didn't.
It felt good to laugh. Why did it seem like he hadn't laughed like that in months? It was the alcohol. Had to be. Except Chris wasn't a happy drunk. He was a mean drunk, which is why he'd limited himself to a beer or two after work since he'd remarried Bonnie.
Chris contemplated that for a while, blinking blearily at the half-full bottle in his hand. Was that the answer? Did he need to be drunk, or high, or riding the adrenaline rush of playing the perfect con to feel right inside? He hated himself for all the rotten things that he'd done, but playing the good husband made him feel trapped, worse than when he'd been sent up to Lardner all those years ago. How fucked up was it that being in prison had been better than being good?
Swiping a hand down his face, Chris found that he didn't feel like laughing anymore.
An elbow nudged his side. "You okay?"
"Yeah, I'm fine."
Beecher leaned in close enough that Chris could smell his breath. "You're not fine. You're drunk in an alley. So... tell me your problems and I'll tell you my 'rich lawyer' problems."
"I shouldn't have said that."
"Yeah, well. Some truth to it. What are my problems compared to the starving kids in Africa? Why Africa, anyway? Why not the starving kids in Australia or Fiji or Canada?"
Chris smiled. "Canada, huh?" This guy was something else.
Beecher shrugged. "Starving kids everywhere." He sat quietly for a minute, then said, "My law firm hosts a charity dinner for starving kids or something like that. Thousand dollar a plate dinner. At least half the money goes to pay for the venue, and the decorations, and the celebrity guest speaker. By the time all's said and done, not a whole lot of money goes to the starving kids. It's just another excuse for a bunch of rich lawyers, their spouses, their clients, and a couple of glad-handing politicians thrown in, to dress up in their finest and schmooze. Be a lot better if we'd just gave a thousand bucks to the charity of our choice and stayed home."
"So why don't you?"
"Huh?" Beecher blinked at him.
"Stay home. Donate the money to whoever you want."
"Can't do that," he said.
Beecher frowned and shifted away from Chris, sinking deeper into the shadows, until Chris grabbed the sleeve of his coat and pulled him back. He had the weird feeling that if Beecher got too far away, he'd disappear, and he didn't want that.
He set his bottle down on the ground so he could get both hands on Beecher's coat. He plucked Beecher's bottle away and set it next to his. Against Beecher's half-hearted protests, he tugged and pulled until he was facing Chris.
"Now," Chris said. "Tell me why you can't spend your money the way you want to."
"So? Tell me anyway. I've got nowhere to go."
Beecher studied Chris for a several minutes, his gaze roving over Chris's face as if he was looking for clues. Chris didn't mind. He was busy studying right back.
"Okay," Beecher said, and some indefinable tension went out of him. "It's not really my money. It's inherited. A lot of it anyway. It's family money."
"No, it isn't. It's your money. They gave it to you. Spend it the way you want."
"Like I said, it's family money. I should spend it the way they'd want me to."
"Are you kidding? Wanna know what I'd do if I inherited a shitload of money? I'd buy a shiny, new sports car, drive to Vegas, and spend the rest of my life snorting coke off a whore's ass with hundred dollar bills."
Beecher burst out laughing. Chris found himself captivated by the warmth and humor in his eyes, the way the corners crinkled, showing the first signs of what he might look like years from now. Beecher stifled the last of his laughter against Chris's shoulder, and Chris took the opportunity to wrap his arms around Beecher and hold him close.
When Beecher quieted down, Chris murmured against his temple, "Tell me the rest."
To Chris's surprise, Beecher leaned back enough to look at him, but didn't pull out of his arms. It was an awkward position, so Chris moved his legs to tangle with Beecher's and shifted his arms to hold Beecher more comfortably. At Beecher's frown, Chris said, "It's warmer this way."
"Yeah, it is," Beecher said, snuggling closer.
That's exactly what they were doing. Snuggling. Chris almost started laughing again, because there he was, snuggling with a perfect stranger in an alley. A male stranger. He'd done some stupid shit in his life, but this night was aiming to make it to the top of his weird things he couldn't believe he'd done list. That was okay. It was one of his favorite lists.
"You really want to hear how pathetic I am?" Beecher asked.
"Yes. Gimme every pathetic detail."
Beecher snorted a laugh and lightly swatted Chris on the arm.
"Okay, I'm married, too."
"Your first wife or your trophy wife?"
Beecher swatted him again. "My only wife."
"So there's your problem right there. You should be on your trophy wife by now."
Beecher laughed. "I don't want a trophy wife. I don't want any wife." When Beecher realized what he'd said, his eyes went round. "I didn't meant that."
"Yes, you did."
"No. I love Gen."
"Loving someone doesn't mean you want to be with them."
His words hit him just as hard as they hit Beecher. He could easily apply those words to himself. He loved Bonnie, he really did, but he didn't want to be married to her; no more than she wanted to be married to him.
They weren't good for each other. Bonnie didn't have the spine to stand up to him. Even now, he knew that he could easily get back into her good graces, get back into her house, and her bed. The make-up sex would be fantastic, and they'd keep going on until the next fight. They'd keep pretending that everything was all right until even the love was gone.
He couldn't do that to Bonnie. He couldn't do that to himself.
"I -- " Beecher paused, squeezed his eyes shut. "I do love her. I do. But -- "
"I love Bonnie," Chris said. "But -- "
"I don't want to be with her any more," Beecher said, as if every word caused him pain.
"And I don't want to be with Bonnie," Chris said. Admitting it hurt.
As if a dam had burst, Beecher began to talk fast, the words spilling over each other. "I don't want to live in that house. I don't want to be a corporate lawyer sucking up to fat cat corporate assholes who only want to fuck everyone over for fun and profit. I don't want to play fucking golf every Sunday. I hate golf! I'm sick of feeling like the best part of my day is happy hour. I spend more time with clients than I do with my kids. I'm a crappy father, and a crappy husband, and a crappy lawyer. I don't want to do it anymore!"
The last words were a shout that reverberated up and down the alley. There were squeaks of protest from the rats and something metal hit the ground, probably the lid of a trash can. Beecher looked shaken by his own outburst.
"It's not that simple."
Chris shrugged. "True."
It wasn't simple, or easy. Chris had started all over again too many times to count. A guy who'd been married four times to three different women was a guy who wasn't afraid of change. Then again, Chris had been a different man with all his wives, Bonnie getting both the good and bad versions of Chris. It was like he'd worn a different mask for each of them, maybe a different mask for each person he'd ever met. So who was the real Chris Keller?
While Chris had been lost in his own thoughts, Beecher must have been mulling things over, too.
"You know what I wanted to be when I was a kid?" Beecher asked.
Chris wondered where this was going. "What?"
"A fireman. Mom got me this big, red firetruck for my birthday when I was little. It was my favorite toy for years." His smile was a little wistful. "I still have it somewhere, packed away." He shook his head. "I wanted to help people. Rescue people. I wanted to be a hero."
Not too long again, Chris would have laughed in this guy's face, hell, he wouldn't have given him the time of day. Poor, little, rich boy! But who was Chris to laugh at some drunk guy in an alley when he was sitting right next to him? Who was he to laugh when he couldn't even remember if he'd had any dreams as a kid? He'd spent a lot of years running from the pathetic, snot-nosed kid he used to be, as well as from the shitty excuse of a childhood he'd left behind when he'd gone to Lardner.
"You can still be a hero," Chris said.
"Too late to be a fireman," Beecher muttered.
He was looking as tired as Chris felt. The alcohol was getting to both of them. Chris needed to make some kind of point, but he wasn't sure what it might be. All he knew was that he didn't have a lot of time left.
"I didn't say you had to be a fireman. I said you could still help people. You can still be a hero. You're a lawyer, right?"
"A lot of lawyers do pro bono work, right?"
"Yes. I do a few pro bono cases every year for the firm."
"So why don't you do more of that? You'll be using your law degree to help people."
"I talked to my Dad about it once, about doing more pro bono work. He said he didn't want to see me waste my talent or education on cases that don't pay the bills." Suddenly angry, Beecher jerked out of Chris's grip. "Except I've got plenty of money to pay the bills. I don't need more money."
Chris reeled Beecher back in. "Okay, tiger, settle down."
"I hate that everything is about money. And appearances. The right house. The right wife. Connections."
Beecher let his head fall against Chris's shoulder. If Chris could pretend they weren't snuggling before, he certainly couldn't now. They were well and truly snuggled. Chris tightened his arms around Beecher so there wouldn't be any doubt.
"You can make a difference, Beecher."
"Toby. Call me Toby."
"Toby. " Chris nuzzled him right above the ear.
"I can't do it. I'm a coward. Chickenshit."
"Yes, you can. I'll be there to help."
He meant it. He really meant it. It came as a shock to realize that. He didn't just want to run a con, either. It would be easy as pie to squeeze a cool fortune out of this guy, then run off to find the next Mrs. Chris Keller. Or go back to Bonnie with a stack of cash to impress her.
That's not what he wanted.
He wanted Toby. He wanted this spoiled, rich man with his entire life handed to him on a silver platter, a life he didn't want. A man who wanted something better for himself but was to afraid to take it.
A fat bank account should be enough for anybody, but Chris knew that it wasn't. He wasn't exactly broke, and there had been times when he'd been rolling in dough, but it had always slipped away, one way or another.
There had to be more. Toby seemed to think so, too, or he wouldn't be there bitching about his life. Chris hadn't found it with any of his wives, or with any of the fleeting encounters in between. Maybe he could find that something more with Toby, and in the process, help Toby find it, too.
Toby pulled back, nearly clipping Chris on the chin.
"You will?" His eyes were wide, but bleary from alcohol. He blinked sleepily at Chris.
"I will." It felt almost like he was making a vow. To make it real, he said, "I promise."
"You don't have to do that. You don't even know me."
"I want to." To his surprise, he realized that he did.
"But what will you get out of it?"
Chris said the first thing that came to mind. "Sex."
First Toby stared. Then he started laughing. "Very funny."
"I mean it," Chris said. "You give me great sex, I'll help you become a hero."
Toby laughed some more. "How do you know I can give you great sex?"
"I'll teach you."
"You're just full of yourself, aren't you?"
"It's not bragging if it's true."
Toby's laughter turned to speculation. "You really think you're good in bed?"
"And on the floor, and the in kitchen, and the back seat of a car, and in the shower, and -- "
"Okay, okay, I get it! You're a sex machine." Toby was still smiling, but he shook his head. "I'm not sure I want to trade sexual favors. And why me, anyway? I'm not some hunk out of a porno movie."
"You're cute, and you smell good."
"I -- "
Was he blushing? It was too dark to tell, but Chris could swear Toby was blushing.
"And I already know you feel good in my arms."
Toby ducked his head. Oh, yeah, he was blushing all right.
"I do want to change. I need to change. People who have great lives don't end up in a place like this trading sex for salvation."
It didn't take a lot of nudging to get Toby's head back on Chris's shoulder.
"Get some rest. We still have a few hours 'til daylight. Then we'll go look for your car."
"I am going to change. You're going to help me," Toby said, his breath warm against Chris's throat.
"I promised to help, and I meant it."
"I'm going to be a different man. The man I should have been," he said, his voice becoming drowsy. "I'm going to like being the new me. And you're gonna love me."
Toby became a heavy weight in his arms as Chris followed him into sleep.