He would sooner die than admit it, but Gerard was secretly, privately over-the-moon about tonight. He'd been preparing for it for weeks, digging through consignment shops and boning up on gangster movies, becoming an expert on Duke Ellington and period architecture. Of course, period was all he had to go on—the All Staff announcement called it “a murder mystery set in a 1920s Atlantic City speakeasy.” That’s it, nothing else. He didn't have a clue what kind of character he'd be playing. He could be anybody tonight, and the possibilities were intoxicating.
Exactly one year ago, Gerard swore to call out sick today. Not that he didn't get along with his coworkers, but last year’s annual Employee Appreciation Day / Team Building Exercise had pushed him one trust-fall too far; he’d spent the afternoon holed up behind the dumpsters, smoking an entire pack of Marlboro Lights before his hands would stop shaking. He'd vowed that was the last team-building activity they would ever drag him into.
Until this year's activity turned out to be his secret kryptonite.
The local Knights of Columbus reception hall looked the same as last year, but the radio was playing big band songs from the 20s, and his coworkers were decked out in dresses and suits instead of jeans and t-shirts. Gerard eyed them critically and reveled in wearing one of the best costumes in the room. A few of the women had found actual flapper dresses, but the men looked like they’d grabbed any old suit from the closet. Gerard's thrift shop adventures had found him a snazzy black-and-white pinstripe suit and spats to cover his best black wingtips. Mikey had given him the black-and-white striped tie for his birthday a couple years ago, and he already owned the black shirt, but the white fedora he'd found on triple-markdown last week was the ultimate in authenticity.
Gerard carefully fingered the brim and smirked his way over to the bar. He loved playing dress up.
He was leaning against the bar sipping his club soda when the new guy walked into the hall. Okay, so he wasn't new anymore—Frank had joined the marketing department a few months ago—but it wasn’t like Gerard had actually met him yet. He'd seen him around—or, not around, exactly, but out on the quad between their buildings every day for the past three months. Frank smoked by the dry fountain at the east entrance. And Gerard spent his own smoke breaks in his usual spot by the loading dock, mooning over Frank's tight jeans and blond mohawk. They'd nodded to each other, even waved once or twice, but Gerard had never taken the 50 steps over to introduce himself.
That wasn't going to be a problem tonight, because Frank was walking straight toward him—or toward the bar, possibly. But no, he was definitely eyeing Gerard's costume and heading his way, and Gerard held his breath until Frank sidled up next to him and gave him an approving nod.
"Well played," Frank said, hands tucked in his pockets and lip ring glinting oh so prettily.
"Thanks," Gerard said, "you, too." Frank had obviously put work into his own costume. He had on polished shoes, grey wool trousers, a grey vest, and shirt-sleeves rolled up like he was ready for a fight. The English driving cap even did a decent job covering up his insane hair, and Gerard felt a moment of kinship with Frank. They worked for the same company, they both smoked at least five times during the work day, and they both were over-invested in costuming.
Frank cocked the brim of his cap, winked at Gerard, and said, "They confiscated my tommy gun at the door."
Just for tonight, Gerard could maybe be head over heels in love with Frank-from-Marketing.
At 7pm, Jackie got on a microphone and read the rules of the party. Her assistant passed out the envelopes, supposedly at random, but she winked at Frank when she handed him his. Jackie gestured to where the CEO lay face-down next to the cold hors d'oeuvres and explained the setup, the timeline, and the need for full participation from every employee to make the evening's entertainment work.
It was murder to hold back, but Gerard managed not to tear open his envelope until Jackie gave them the go-ahead. Then he pulled out his detective's notepad, a miniature pencil, and his character bio—just a name and four bullet-points to capture his identity. Huh. He'd expected something a lot more elaborate. When he looked around, Frank had disappeared, and cliques of coworkers were comparing character cards, making premature guesses at the killer's identity.
Frank was exhaling smoke by the time Gerard got outside. He looked up from his slump against the brick wall, fist on his hip and cigarette pinched between thumb and forefinger, and raised an eyebrow. "Whadaya think you're doin' out here, kid," he said, his voice almost a snarl, low and dangerous.
Gerard had a minor heart attack and struggled to get into character as quickly as Frank. He put on his hat and scowled. "Take a hike, gramps. This stoop ain't big enough for two."
Frank's face cracked into a huge grin, and he stuck his hand out. "Gino 'The Arm' Antonio. Low-level hood trying to horn in on Big Sal's operations. Who are you supposed to be?"
Gerard shook his hand. "The Arm? Nice. I'm Peter Wilson, wastrel nephew visiting from New York City, hoping to mooch off my uncle's fortune."
"Good luck with that," Frank said, nodding in the direction of the doors…and Gerard's freshly-murdered uncle.
A cool breeze swept down the street, and Gerard had to awkwardly clutch his hat to keep it attached to his head. Before he lost his nerve, he blurted, “I’m Gerard, though. Gerard Way."
“From the graphics department,” Frank said. “I’ve heard about you.”
“Uh…good things, right?”
Frank shrugged. “Good and bad about everyone, you know. Although there was one particular story about you. Something involving trust falls—“
“Oh god!” Gerard moaned.
“They’re the fucking worst,” Frank agreed. “And anyway, you came off pretty well in that story.”
Obviously Frank hadn’t heard all the facts, but he looked sincere and friendly enough, so Gerard beat back his blush and nodded. “You’re Frank.”
“In the living flesh.” He took off his cap and pointed to his bleached hair. “Not one for keeping a low profile. So what's the scoop on the murder?" He put the hat back on and sat down, stuffing his hair back underneath.
Gerard joined him, lighting up his own cigarette as the sun set across the street.
They went over the setup—Richard Wilson, the wealthy owner of a successful Atlantic City resort, found murdered in the back room of his favorite restaurant, a single bullet hole between his shoulder blades. They compared alibis—Frank pulling a small-scale jewelry heist a couple blocks down the boardwalk while Gerard slept off his drunk in his hotel room alone.
And then Gerard lost control of his mental filter, flicked his card away, and said, "This is so weak. How the hell are we supposed to play three-dimensional characters with only a couple facts and vague motives? It's like these people've never gamed in their lives. Christ, I’ve booted players for better character sheets than this."
And oh…shit. He just said that out loud, in front of super-hot and totally-cool Frank. Gerard braced himself for the 'are you a nerd' accusation.
But Frank was tossing his own card and nodding. "Yeah, obviously. I mean, these aren't even 2D characters. We need back stories, we need goals, we need enemies and…." His voice trailed off and he gave Gerard a long look. "Allies."
Gerard sipped his soda to hide his pleased grin. "Spoken like a true gamer. You've played before?"
"Yeah, D&D and 7th Sea in high school. A couple years of Werewolf: The Apocalypse in college, before I fell down the rabbit hole of video games. World of Warcrack, man. It's a miracle I graduated. What about you?"
"D&D was my gateway." Gerard spared a nostalgic thought for his grandmother's basement, his best friends and his brother crowded around the board as they bickered their way through their latest dungeon. "We still play, whenever I get back to Belleville." He checked one more time to make sure Frank wasn't judging him for still gaming at 33, but Frank was nodding in silent camaraderie. "So what do we do about these weak-ass characters they've given us?"
Frank shrugged. "We make 'em better, fill in the gaps. You need your uncle's money. Why?"
Gerard blanked for maybe 2-10ths of a second before he answered. "Gambling debts. I got in over my head at a dog track in New York. I got debts that need paying, or some very bad men will break my kneecaps."
Frank nodded, cigarette dangling between his knees, forgotten. "Me, I got ambition. I got in from Philly a couple weeks ago, looking to move up in this town. But Big Sal's got the business sewed up tight. Especially the liquor racket."
Gerard could immediately follow Frank's plot. "My uncle's got a contract with Big Sal, for all the beer and liquor in that backroom speakeasy. Maybe you tried horning in on that contract, approached Richard directly. He got mad—he's a real son of a bitch when he's drunk—and told you to go to hell. You pulled out your gun—"
"Hey, how come I'm the murderer! For all we know, you had it out with your uncle tonight. He told you to get lost, you hit the sauce to get over the disappointment, and then realized you could get your slice of the inheritance if you took matters in your own hands."
"But I would know if I was the murderer," Gerard protested. "My card would've said."
"And you could be lying to me about that. I know I'm not the killer…but then I could be lying, too," Frank said, a gleeful twinkle in his eyes, and Gerard was seriously contemplating kissing him, but his boss came outside just then and glared until they joined the party.
After getting fresh drinks at the bar, Frank sipping whiskey neat while Gerard nursed another soda, they started mingling. It was actually a lot of fun, everyone getting into it at least a little bit. Gerard and Frank stuck together, talking rings around their coworkers, throwing unfounded accusations at them and laughing behind their hats as their colleagues scrambled to think up an in-character defense. Everyone seemed relieved by the time they moved on, which suited Gerard just fine. As the wastrel nephew, he could be as big an asshole as he liked. And Frank seemed born to play the cocky street tough. From his look to his attitude, the role fit him like a glove. Which made him wonder….
"Did you know who you'd be playing tonight?" Gerard hissed between interrogations.
Frank bit into a mini-quiche and smiled, pastry dough flaking off his lips. "I may have begged Allison to make sure I was a gangster," he said. "And watched The Untouchables like fifty times this month."
Gerard tried to hide his jealous pout. If he'd had a connection in HR, he totally would've done the same.
After an hour and a half of mingling, they'd gotten a pretty good bead on the bigger picture. Nearly a dozen characters were credible suspects, from Richard's mistress to his bitter wife, from his business partner Joe to Big Sal—Frank and Gerard high-fived when their guess about Richard's secret liquor supplier proved correct. Richard's own son, running for state senate on a dry platform, had been at odds with his father for some time, and even the Atlantic City mayor was known to indulge in Richard's backroom—perhaps Richard had dabbled in blackmail to block a rival resort's expansion plans.
Gerard and Frank threw their hats into the ring as potential suspects, too—why get left out? None of their coworkers knew what to make of Gerard and Frank's aggressive new business partnership—the potent threat of Gerard's New York underworld connections moving south, Frank's bootlegging family moving in on Big Sal's liquor racket, all funded by the inheritance money coming Gerard's way.
The setup had all the world-building of a gritty crime drama, and Gerard had to bite back embarrassing giggles every time his coworkers revealed a new twist. Frank kept biting his lip ring, maybe holding back his own secret delight, and Gerard couldn't imagine a better partner in crime for his next RPG. There was a new edition of Traveller he'd been thinking of buying, but he hadn't found many gamers in Hoboken. If he could get Frank on board….
They were interviewing the Senior Marketing Director, Carlos, playing the role of business partner Joe, whose concern for Richard's safety had been on the rise for the past few weeks. Frank seemed to have a hard time keeping in character in front of his boss's-boss's-boss, and he left to get them refills from the bar. Having no such qualms about talking to an exec, Gerard turned on the director with a hard glare.
"You told Uncle Rich not to help me out, didn't you!"
Carlos looked taken aback, briefly thrown out of character by the fury of Gerard's accusation, but he quickly rallied. "Look, Pete, your uncle made up his own mind about things."
"Oh come on, like you didn't try to warn him away the second I got into town."
"I'm not saying I didn't voice some concerns," Carlos said, "but you certainly can't blame me for having them. The kind of people you've gotten involved with…." He glanced toward the bar, toward Frank's retreating back, and Gerard felt the lines of his own character blur just a little bit.
"He's my friend. And a better one than anyone else I've met in this town."
Carlos didn't acknowledge Gerard's challenging tone. He reached into his pocket and said, his voice lowered, "I'm not really sure how to do this. Do I tell you my justifications, just blurt out my motivations like a Bond villain?—god, that's too cliché. I guess I just spring it on you like I'd really do it, make it a surprise." He held out a card to Gerard and let his face settle into a smirk. "Either way, tag. You're dead."
Gerard blinked down at the card in his hand and swore. You're my next victim, it read, followed by a set of instructions to stage the discovery of his corpse. "You're a dick," Gerard whined, and Carlos slapped his arm and laughed good-naturedly, like he hadn't just stabbed Gerard in the back—or shot him in the back, as the card indicated. "See you Monday, Gerard," he said, and wandered off to find someone else to talk to.
Frank showed up a couple minutes later, a swagger in his step as he dodged the flapper-girls from accounting. "What's up?" he asked, bumping Gerard's hip with his own. "You look like your mother just died. Or should I say your uncle?" He cracked up at his joke, but Gerard just took his drink and handed Frank his death card.
"What—me?" Frank gasped.
Frank suddenly looked pissed off. "Seriously? Somebody just killed you?"
"Yeah. Fucking Carlos."
"No way, he's the killer? Wait—you're not supposed to tell me that. In fact, this says you can't talk to anybody now. Except Jackie."
"Screw that," Gerard said, trying to hide how bitter he was. "Maybe I'm Old Hamlet's ghost, come to charge you with avenging my death."
Frank grimaced and then nodded. "Some punk in a suit and fancy tie thinks he can off my partner and get away with it? I'll teach old Joe a lesson in Italian loyalty."
Frank's outrage made Gerard feel a little better. "Thanks, that's perfect. Okay, I guess I have to go find Jackie, now. I'll uh…I'll see you Monday," Gerard said. He shook Frank's hand and headed in the direction of the foyer, careful not to look back.
He had a few minutes, lying on the lobby carpet, to figure out why he was so pissed off. He wasn't mad at Carlos—from everything he'd heard, Carlos was actually really cool to everybody in his department. He couldn't blame the guy for playing out his part. He'd probably been just as surprised as Gerard when he got his character assignment.
It wasn't like Gerard was upset to miss the rest of the mingling. He'd already talked to all the people who seemed into it, skipping over the wallflowers and the too-cool-for-this hipster-jerks from the multimedia department. Now that he was dead, he'd lost the opportunity to 'win' the game with a correct accusation, but he and Frank hadn't been trying to win it, anyway. They'd just been hanging out in the fictitious world, trying to top each other with increasingly outrageous plots.
So, duh, it was Frank that he was most upset about. Frank, who looked dangerous and sexy in his gangster costume, who role-played like a pro, and who'd maybe seemed like he might be into Gerard. Or could have been. If Gerard hadn't gotten exiled from the party for the rest of the night.
Jackie patted him on the shoulder, called him a good sport for the fourth time, and then let out an ear-piercing scream to draw his 52 coworkers out of the banquet room. Gerard resigned himself to the gawking and tried to breathe without moving his chest.
It was last year's team building fiasco all over again.
Once his last coworker wandered back to the banquet hall, Gerard sat up, dusted himself off, and headed for a solitary smoke outside…where he found his partner-in-crime sitting on the stoop.
"I thought you were avenging my death," he said, sitting next to Frank.
Frank shrugged and took a pensive puff. "Not really interested in mingling with that mob."
Gerard put a hand to his chest in indignation. "What about revenge? What about the family I've left behind?"
Frank looked at Gerard from the corner of his eye. "Didn't figure you for the wife-and-kids type. I was kinda hoping you were the bachelor-type, actually."
That was flirting. Definitely, positively flirting. Gerard fumbled his unlit cigarette and lighter, and shook his head. "Never really put my mind to it—family, I mean. You?"
"I'm not the kind of guy to get distracted by dames," Frank said, and Gerard almost blushed. They both raised their cigarettes to their lips, inhaled, and smiled around the smoke, sharing quick, nervous glances.
"D'you wanna get together sometime?" Gerard asked, and then instinctively backpedaled. "To game, I mean. I don't know if you're looking for someone to play with…."
Frank nodded. "Cool. When are you thinking? This weekend?"
How about tonight, Gerard thought wistfully, but then Frank was saying, "Yeah, sounds good," and oh my god, he'd said that aloud. But Frank had said yes, and Gerard felt a little light-headed with glee.
"Cool," he said, trying to sound like he wasn't doing a victory lap in his head. "Have you tried Traveller 5 yet? I've been meaning to check it out."
They had their heads together, arguing over GM protocols for when a player was being an absolute shit and holding up the game, when Jackie stuck her head out the door and called, "We're ready to wrap it up, guys. If you'd like to join us?" She raised her eyebrows, code for that's not a request, and went back to the party.
Gerard tossed his cigarette and stood up, giving Frank a hand. He turned to head inside, but Frank squeezed his hand and pulled him back.
"What's up?" he asked, just before Frank pushed him against the brick wall and leaned up and kissed him. And Gerard closed his eyes and saw fireworks.
He'd knocked Frank's hat off without realizing, gotten his fingers threaded in his floppy mohawk, and when Frank finally pulled back, he had to tug against Gerard's overenthusiastic grip. "Hey," Frank said, beaming up at him. Gerard leaned down and sucked at the silver ring in Frank's lip for a second, feeling Frank's hands slide around his waist. Frank sighed and said, "So, we have to go inside."
"No we don't," Gerard said quickly, getting his lips on Frank's neck.
"Jackie said…yeah, that's good…uh, it's mandatory, the trust-building…."
"As the victim of said trust-building, for two years running, I promise there's no harm in ditching."
Frank snorted a laugh, which sounded silly and adorable on him, but then he said, "Don't you wanna know why he killed you?"
Gerard was about to shake his head no, but…he really did want to know. It would drive him crazy all weekend, wondering what Joe's master plan was, why Carlos's character had seen the no-good nephew as a threat. But Frank was nuzzling his cheek, his lean body tucked in tight against Gerard's, and nothing could possibly be more important.
"It'll wait 'til Monday," he decided, and drew Frank in for another kiss.
The night was turning cold, the sounds of applause coming from inside, and Frank's mouth was warm and inviting under his. This…this was all he needed to know.
They could probably make up a better story between the two of them, anyway.