Stepping into the pub, Jamal was pleased to note that while it might have a warehouse district location, the inside was warm, well lit, and welcoming, without being a dive bar, stuck in the 1970s, or worse, pretentiously hip. Off to his left was a decent-sized stage, currently set with a single bar stool and a microphone. The highly polished bar proper held center court against the back wall. Immediately in front of Jamal was a host stand, currently unoccupied. A mix of square and rectangular tables filled the space, and the pub looked to be about a quarter occupied. Bluesy guitar music was being played over the speakers at a level that was unobtrusive.
Stepping forward, Jamal took a seat at the bar. The bartender who took his order wore a dark blue shirt emblazoned with “Joe’s,” and introduced herself as Maggie.
“First time here?” Maggie asked.
Jamal nodded. “Just moved here last week. My boss suggested I check this place out when he found out I like blues.”
Maggie smiled and pulled out a yellow flyer from underneath the bar. Pushing it at Jamal, Maggie said, “That’s the list of upcoming shows. Nothing tonight though.”
Jamal studied the list, impressed by the artists he saw there. “Wow, you guys get some big names here.”
Maggie’s smile widened. “I know. If you’re looking for a tour guide for everything local, talk to Rich.”
“Guy at the back table over by the men’s room,” Maggie said, gesturing with her hand. “Redhead, can’t miss him.” Maggie grinned, a hint of mischief lighting her otherwise ordinary face.
“I’d hate to bother him.”
“No, I think someone should,” Maggie said. “He’s tired of me.”
Intrigued at that, Jamal pocketed the flyer, picked up his beer, and made his way over to the indicated booth.
He found a lean, muscular man with short reddish-blond hair seated there, reading a book. A half-finished pint of some dark beer was within easy reach, and he’d set a black motorcycle helmet on the table. Jamal felt the instant flare of attraction, and it made him stumble a little over what he wanted to say.
“Odd place to read a book,” a deep male voice noted to Rich’s left. "I mean, I'd never think to bring –” He cleared his throat and started over. “I’m sorry, I shouldn’t be judging. Are you Rich?”
Rich looked up from the French novel he’d been reading to see a large-framed man standing beside his table. His black, three-quarter length puffy ski jacket hid any definition of his musculature, but Rich had seen enough to know he wanted to see what the jacket hid.
Grinning, Rich set aside the book and gestured for the stranger to join him. “Yes, I’m Rich, and no, it’s not that odd. Can’t drink good beer in a library.”
“Good point.” Chuckling, the stranger took him up on the invitation, pausing to strip off his jacket before sitting down. Underneath the jacket, he wore a long-sleeve green Henley and dark blue jeans that hugged his long legs and clung to a trim waist and wide hips. Rich liked the way the stranger moved, with a fluidity of confidence in his broadly-built body. In a fight, the stranger would have a sheer mass advantage, but in bed, Rich suspected the man would be a teddy bear. Rich's lips curved; he hadn't taken one of those for a ride in years.
“Jamal Huxley,” the stranger introduced himself, reaching across the table to shake hands. “Maggie said you might be willing to be my tour guide to all things local? I just moved here from Detroit.” Jamal had neatly layered black hair cut fashionably short, deep-set green eyes, an oval face, a wide nose, high cheekbones, and sensual lips. He was clean-shaven. His skin was the golden brown hue of a mixed race ancestry.
Rich shot a look in Maggie’s direction and made a mental note to thank her: Jamal was strikingly attractive, and just what he wanted as a distraction. Rich turned on his charm. “Detroit? What brings you to Seacouver?”
“I’m a marine engineer,” Jamal explained. “The company I was working for in Detroit went out of business, so I had to start looking for work. Got lucky – I was only out of work for a year before I was hired by Sound Maritime Consulting. My fraternity brother’s been trying to get me to move out for years, so he’s excited that I’m here. What do you do?”
“I’m the manager for Studio Martial Arts on West 17th,” Rich said easily. Before Jamal could respond to that, a server came by to take his drink order. Jamal refused alcohol, opting for water instead. Once the order had been placed, Jamal leaned forward.
“I was going to look for a martial arts studio,” Jamal began. “I haven’t taken a class since I was a child, but I’ve always wanted to go back again. What do you teach there?”
“Shaolin kung fu, tai chi, and self-defense,” Rich said. “Duncan MacLeod’s the primary instructor; I’m just the assistant. We also host capoeira and yoga.”
“Ah, darn it. None of the things I’m looking for. I wanted to stick with karate. I don’t suppose you’d have any recommendations?”
“I’d try West Karate in Northlake,” Rich told him. “Unless, of course, you want to try something different and want to come to where I work.”
“So you do teach classes?”
“Just the self-defense and tai chi classes. Mac and I have a standing disagreement on the kung fu,” Rich said easily.
Jamal chuckled. “Somehow, I don’t think that’s all you do. I’ve yet to meet an assistant who wasn’t actually secretly in charge of it all.”
Rich laughed. “You haven’t met Duncan MacLeod.”
Jamal grinned as the server delivered his drink. “You sound like you know him well.”
Rich nodded. “He’s like family and I’ve worked for him on and off for years.”
“Is that a full-time job?” Jamal wondered.
“Close enough,” Rich told him with a smile. “So, besides blues and martial arts, what else do you like?”
“Figured I’d do the usual tourist stuff at some point. I went to the aquarium when I was here for my interview; it’s not as good as some. I heard the art museum is impressive.”
Rich nodded. “It is. There’s a special exhibit on modern art right now. Mac gave me a season pass and I haven’t had a reason to use it. I’d love to go with you, if you’re interested.”
“Oh, you don’t have to –” Jamal began, hesitant.
“I insist,” Rich said, and leaned forward. “My friends have all heard my comments already. Be interesting to find out if you share them.” He considered. “Do you get weekends free?”
“Most of the time,” Jamal said. “I sometimes have to travel to vessels to perform inspections or work a weekend to meet a deadline, but I’m not yet scheduled for any of that.”
“Let’s plan for Saturday at one, then,” Rich said. “I have class to teach in the morning, but I can meet you there. What’s your number?” Rich palmed his phone from beside his helmet and waited expectantly.
Jamal dug into his coat pocket and pulled out his phone as he distractedly rattled off his phone number.
Rich typed it into his contact list, then sent Jamal a text with his number in return.
“Wow, you’re fast,” Jamal said in surprise. “I was just getting ready to ask you for your number.”
“Easier to text it,” Rich said with a grin.
“True,” Jamal acknowledged. “So are you from here?”
“Grew up here,” Rich said. “I keep leaving; something always draws me back here, even after all the places I’ve seen.”
“From what I’ve seen so far, it’s beautiful. Cold and wet now, but beautiful. When does the rain stop?”
Rich chuckled. “You haven’t seen the forecast yet, have you? We might have snow this weekend.”
Jamal groaned, though his eyes sparkled with humor. “I knew I should’ve taken that job in Houston.”
“So why didn’t you?” Rich asked.
“They wanted to pay me less and give me fewer benefits,” Jamal explained.
Rich made a sympathetic noise. “I’ve heard that the job market’s gotten tougher, with employers expecting more for less.”
Jamal nodded. “That’s one of the reasons I wanted to leave Detroit. I grew up in the city – my mom emigrated with my dad from Egypt before I was born – but it’s just a mess. I think the city expected the car manufacturers to be there always, propping up the economy, and so much money got mismanaged along the way.”
“I was wondering about that. A guy could spend all day trying to understand the news.”
Jamal laughed, and Rich decided instantly that he wanted to hear that again. “Oh yeah. I lost four hours trying to get all the information on the cruise ship that sank last year.”
“So what does a marine engineer do?” Rich wondered. He was rapidly becoming intrigued by Jamal, and felt the familiar spark of desire. Physical attraction was fine for a one-night stand, but Jamal didn't seem the type. Still, Rich wasn't ruling anything out just yet.
“Depends on what the project requires,” Jamal told him. “Mostly, what I’ve done has to do with designing, maintaining, or repairing the mechanical systems on a ship.”
“Not a mechanic?”
“More like the guy who draws the diagrams and writes the procedures the mechanic has to follow, or designs the entire system that gets built and installed. I also help the owners and crews meet the various regulations, like for Coast Guard surveys and such.”
“Do you need to go to college to learn how to do that?”
Jamal nodded. “A lot of guys go through the Navy or the Merchant Marines or the Coast Guard first, but I knew what I wanted to do from a career fair in high school. Got lucky and got a partial scholarship to the University of Michigan. Have you gone to college?”
“I wasn’t the greatest student,” Rich admitted. “I pick up languages pretty easily, though.”
Jamal glanced at the book Rich had been ignoring. “That would explain why you’re reading – is that a Stephen King book in French?” He eyed the cover, which had a headshot of a beautiful model. “And I’m sorry, but that has to be the worst cover I’ve ever seen for a book.”
Rich grinned. “One of the reasons I bought it. I like his stuff, though. Are you a fan?”
Jamal shuddered. “I can’t stand horror.” He paused and looked warily at Rich, as if trying to gauge how he’d react. “I had a boyfriend made me watch horror movies in the hope I’d leap into his arms.”
“And did you?” Rich kept his face calm as he fought a surge of anger over the way Jamal had to have been treated to think Rich was going to dislike him for his sexual preference.
Jamal laughed. “Hell no, I ran from the room, are you kidding?”
“I’ll just scratch those off the list, then,” Rich said, flirting more openly. “But if you wanted to run in my direction, I wouldn’t mind.”
Jamal hesitated, and Rich read hope and attraction mixed with wary experience. “You won’t get into trouble here for that?”
Rich swallowed a laugh. “Jamal, this isn’t Detroit. Seacouver is very accepting of people like us. Besides, I work here sometimes. If they didn’t already know about me, they haven’t been paying attention.”
“It won’t affect your employment?” Jamal pressed, leaning his hands on the table in emphasis.
“Jamal,” Rich said, taking his hand and leaning forward, “I work for my former guardian, and Joe – the guy whose name is on this bar – is an old friend. Both know me well. I think the better question is, will it affect your employment in this city, and the answer is no. The city has an anti-discrimination ordinance that includes sexual orientation. If you do get hassled for it, let me know and I’ll help you fight it. Nobody should feel ashamed to be who they are.” He gripped Jamal’s hand reassuringly, then let go.
Jamal relaxed visibly. “My father was a police officer,” he said. “He was always so worried that I’d get beat up for being gay. My mom was supportive but she didn’t understand why I’d turn against her religion like that. I think I wound up in her ‘but he’s someone I know so it’s okay’ category of people.”
“I’ve known people like that,” Rich agreed, taking a sip of his beer.
“I miss them,” Jamal confessed. “They died the summer I graduated college. A drunk driver hit them head on, and they didn’t see it coming. They had an old compact car – my dad kept trying to get my mom to agree to buy a new car, but she didn’t see why if the one they had worked – and it just didn’t protect them at all.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Rich said sincerely. “Do you drink less because of what happened to them?”
Jamal looked at him, confused.
“You’re in a bar and drinking water,” Rich explained, gesturing to the glass in front of Jamal.
“What –” Jamal glanced down at his glass. “Oh, yes. That’s part of the reason. The other part is that I haven’t had a beer I liked. Wine I can take or leave, and the whole thing about hard liquors – I don’t understand it.”
“If you wanted me to,” Rich said carefully, “I could introduce you to a few things. No pressure, you understand, but if you wanted to try some good drinks, a few good beers, that sort of thing – I’d be happy to help.”
“You would?” Jamal asked, surprised. “I mean, you’re already helping me as it is. I don’t want to be a burden or anything.”
“Hey,” Rich said gently. “I wouldn’t offer if I didn’t want to. When you’re ready to do that, you let me know. If you decide you don’t ever want to, that’s okay too. I'm not going to turn you into an alcoholic, but I happen to agree with a friend of mine: a good beer is one of the finer pleasures in life.”
“Where have you been all my life? The guys in Detroit – if one of them made me an offer like that, I’d think they were just doing it to see how drunk they could get me before I’d sleep with them.”
“Oh, I want you,” Rich admitted readily. “Just thought I’d be up front about that, so you weren’t confused. But I’d like to know you a little better before then. I’d rather we were both sober when we fuck, at least the first time. Sound fair?”
Jamal stared at him, astonished at his frankness. Then his lips curved in appreciation. “Sounds fair. Are you always this up front with people?”
“For things like this? Absolutely,” Rich agreed. “I would hate to leave a gorgeous, classy, and intelligent guy like you wondering what I wanted from you.”
For a moment, Jamal goggled at him before chuckling. “What would happen if I said no?”
“I’d be disappointed,” Rich said promptly, and knew that if Jamal said no, he'd try to change his mind. It had been a while since he'd taken on that sort of challenge, and Jamal was pretty enough to be worth pursuing. “But I’d still want to meet you at the art museum on Saturday. I could always use a friend.”
Jamal studied him, leaning back. “You intrigue me, Rich,” he admitted after a few moments. “I’ve never met anyone like you.”
Rich chuckled. “I can imagine.” He waited, certain Jamal would have more to say.
“Can we take this a little slow?” Jamal asked. “I don’t think I know you well enough yet.”
Not surprised by the request, Rich nodded. “Would it be rushing you to ask if you have dinner plans?”
Jamal shook his head. “No, we can talk more over dinner, get to know each other.”
“That’s what I was thinking. I know a great Peruvian place five blocks north. It’s more substantial than the sandwiches and nachos here.”
“Peruvian? What kind of food is that?”
Rich grinned. “Steaks and pasta, South American style. I spent six months in La Paz helping a friend run a health clinic.”
Jamal looked at him, intrigued. “Sounds interesting. I get the sense you’ve had a lot of jobs.”
Rich laughed. “I prefer to look at it as a career spent helping my friends do what they do well, and when I’m not doing that, I’m traveling the world. It’s been good for me.”
Jamal whistled softly, admiration on his face. “I’ve always wondered what that would be like.”
“You have to be willing to live simply,” Rich said. “I have a dual-sport bike that I’ve ridden everywhere, and I never take more than what my bike can hold. It’s been occasionally dangerous, and there are places where I’ve been targeted just because I’m a white man with red hair.”
“I can see that,” Jamal said. “There were places in Detroit I didn’t dare go to more than once because people looked at me like I was a terrorist. And yes, I’d like to try Peruvian. Should we walk or do you want me to drive?”
“If you’re okay with walking, I’m good with that,” Rich said, dropping a bill on the table to cover his tab.