Chapter 18

“So this is home,” Sean said as he pulled up to his tidy three-bedroom house. “It’s not much, but too much for me,” he laughed. The house was on a big lot in a quiet old neighborhood.

“It’s great,” Billy said. “You don’t have to….”

“I don’t have to, Billy! I want you to come live here!” Sean said. “You know, I’ve not thought of anything else since you showed up last night but you.” He looked over at Billy and said, “How is it that parent’s like yours get a kid like you, and people like me live alone? I think I was there last night because I was supposed to be….”

Billy looked like he was going to cry again, so Sean smiled and said, “Come inside and let me show you around!” Billy nodded and followed him to the door. The living room was nice, with comfortable furniture and the walls were decorated with art and photographs. There was a little dining room with table and chairs, as well as an eat-in kitchen. “My room is down there,” he pointed, “and over here are two guest rooms. You can pick which one you like best, and decorate it however you want!”

“This is like a dream,” Billy said, smiling over at him.

Sean put an arm around his shoulder and squeezed. “I just want you to feel like this is home,” he said. There’ll be curfew and chores and all that, and I’ll expect your grades to stay up, but I also want you to know you don’t have to be afraid here! Not of anything!” Billy nodded and he said. “Let me show you the garage!” As they walked past the windows overlooking the backyard, he said, “There’s a pool out there!”

“Cool,” Billy said.

“And out here is my own little retreat,” Sean said. He turned on the lights to reveal the three-car garage he’d converted into a man-cave.

“COOL!” Billy said as he wandered into the room. Two walls were set up with nice workout equipment, and there was a big wall with a big flat-screen, with a couple of couches in front of it. There was also some cool video game equipment hooked up to it.

“Hey, these are pretty much my only vices!” Sean joked. “A couple of buddies to watch a game or play some videos, and I mostly work out alone here.”

“This is so AWESOME!” Billy said. Having seen no pictures of the man with women he wasn’t related to, or suggestive posters or magazines, Billy asked, “So have you ever been married or anything?”

“What?” the man laughed. “You didn’t catch it, eh?”

“Catch what?” Billy asked.

“Billy, when I was a kid, I was in love with a boy who passed away,” Sean said. “I’ve pretty much been single my whole life…. I’m telling you this, but it could be bad for me if it got out. Some of the parents might not want me to coach anymore, and I’d miss working with the guys….”

“You can trust me,” Billy said. “I’m not going to be afraid anymore,” he added, showing some of his shame.

“Paul’s forgiving you, Billy,” Sean said, giving him a hug.

Billy melted into his arms. “This IS like a dream!”

“What?” Sean asked.

“I can talk to you and not even get judged, much less hit,” Billy said, his head on the man’s shoulder. Sean wiped his eyes at the thought that something as simple as that was all the boy needed.

“We should get back,” Sean said, “and there’s one more thing I want to show you!” Billy followed him inside to one of the guest rooms, and Sean opened the closet and pulled out a very big box that he had clearly wrapped himself. “Merry Christmas!”

“But all of those things at Paul’s house,” Billy said.

“Nothing fun,” Sean smiled. “This is for you.”

Billy smiled at him and ripped into the package, getting an awed look on his face. “How did you know?” Billy whispered.

Sean laughed and said, “I told you I’ve been thinking about you since last night. I stayed up half the night cyberstalking you trying to figure out something to get for you!”

Billy ran his hand along the picture on the box gingerly, his eyes getting misty again. “You can open it,” Sean laughed. Billy opened the box and pulled out his brand new Epiphone DR-200S acoustic guitar.

“I’ve wanted to learn to play since I was a kid,” Billy said.

Sean smiled and said, “They guy at the store gave me some names of people on this side of town who do lessons…..”

Billy put the guitar on the bed and hugged the man tightly around the neck. “This is the nicest thing anyone’s ever gotten for me,” he whispered. Sean had gone to the trouble to figure out what Billy wanted: simple as that.

***

Two uniformed officers knocked on the apartment door. They’d been out earlier in the day but had gotten no answer.

The younger, a rookie of two months named Smith, asked, “Do you smell that?”

His partner, Johnson, said, “No….”

“Smells like a dead rat or something,” the Smith replied.

“Ah, lady’s probably a shut-in or something. Bet she’s got 5 years of newspapers and takeout cartons piled in the living room. Amazing the shit you’ll see on these calls,” the man said dismissively.

“Should we call it in?” Smith persisted. “What I smelled … was like something dead.”

“Hell of a lot of paperwork when you go into somebody’s house and they’re just off with some boyfriend,” Johnson laughed, shaking his head. “You sure?”

The young man shook his head and put his hand on the knob. The door was unlocked, but before Johnson could tell him to wait a damn minute, he’d opened the door. Johnson turned his head away violently, while Smith vomited off the balcony.

“Jesus Christ,” Johnson said, grabbing his radio. “Dispatch! This is 3-Adam-2, calling from that missing person’s address; please dispatch crime scene techs and homicide.”

“10-4,” the dispatcher replied. Johnson and Smith proceeded to secure the scene and stand on guard until support arrived and homicide took over. They’d not seen a body, but if there wasn’t one in the apartment someone had died there.

***

Billy and Sean arrived back at Paul’s house to find everyone sitting around the living room chatting to pass the time. But when they joined the rest of the family, Paul got up and walked over to the high-back piano and sat down.

It was his family’s tradition that he would play Christmas carols and they’d all sing. This year the crowd was much bigger, and somehow they all felt something wonderful as they began to sing.

Jim sat down beside him on the piano bench and sang in a beautiful baritone, surprising Paul with his skill. Between “Oh Holy Night” and “Little Town of Bethlehem,” he whispered, “I used to sing in a children’s choir!”

Their little mini-concert lasted about forty-five minutes, and when Paul stopped playing there was a general silence.

“That was wonderful,” Bethany said at last. “I’m so glad we were here!”

“And we’re so glad you all could be here,” Phil said. “I know tomorrow is family time, but … if everyone wants to bring your presents here, it seems fitting….”

“We’ll make breakfast,” Paul volunteered. Normally Molly would have been less than amused, but she agreed.

“That sounds perfect,” Carl nodded, Jim having caught his eye with a pleading look.

It was getting to be time to go, so Sean led Billy into the kitchen. “You can stay here for tonight, or you can come home with me – I don’t mind if you want to spend the night here again, but….”

“No,” Billy said. “I’m good. Paul’s … moved on, and Jim’s been so nice, I wouldn’t mess with that if I could. I’d rather try out my new bed!”

“Then I should tell you something … about what we talked about before. I’ve been alone for a long time until really recently. We probably won’t be alone tonight,” Sean said.

“Who is he?” Billy asked. “I mean, are you sure this won’t mess up things with him?”

“He would have said something already, I think,” Sean laughed. “It’s Andy….”

“Jim’s dad,” he began with a confused look, “is like us?”

“I don’t know what he is, gay or bi or whatever, but I know we’ve got something nice for me right now,” Sean said.

“You boys talking about me?” Andy asked, walking in and wrapping his arms around Sean’s waist from behind, laying a cheek on his broad shoulder.

“No, my studly boyfriend,” Sean teased.

Billy laughed and the men kissed chastely before leading him out to briefly rejoin the others. Sean drove Billy back home to get settled in for the night after the boy fetched his bag, while Andy dropped his former in-laws at their hotel.

***

Detective Vickers had seen his share of crime scenes, sick and twisted remnants of human evil. But what he found in that apartment would reset the bar for him. He’d made fun of Smith for puking over the balcony, but it took every ounce of his self-control to stabilize his stomach as he entered the apartment.

The smell was vulgar, but at first glance around the living room and dining space, there was no discernable sign of criminal activity. Except the smell. But he walked toward the little hall off the living room and the smell worsened. At one end of the hall, the bathroom was open; at the other end of the hall, and closed door was made ominous by a big red X painted on the door. Not painted, smeared.

“Have the boys from crime scene been over the bedroom yet?” Vickers asked, chewing a toothpick nervously.

“They’re all through,” one of the officers replied. “Coroner’s office is just waiting for your okay to remove the body.”

“Why is it so warm in here?” Vickers muttered, and then he noticed the thermostat was at 80.  Sick fucker did that on purpose!

Vickers walked down the hall toward the mark, more obviously blood now, and shook his head. He knew what was waiting for him on the other side. A shit storm. Media assholes, political pressure, jurisdiction fights. Everyone wanted a piece of the ones who signed their works. “Fuckin’ serial killer wannabes!” he muttered as he pushed open the door and was hit with a wave of vile stench.

“Good God Almighty!” the man declared. “Maybe not a wannabe….” The bed was soaked in blood. “He spent a lot of time with her, didn’t he,” the man muttered to himself, pulling out a pad and making notes. There were a number of track patterns in the room; she’d not bled all at once, and he’d come and gone. Vickers guessed they’d find residue in the living area if they tested for it.

The body was face down on the bed, and numerous shallow cuts crisscrossed her back in a horrible pattern. Some were fresh, but others had scabbed over before she was gone. She was totally nude and there was little doubt she’d been violated. And while there were clear signs she’d been restrained, there were no ropes or tape found around the body or in the trash. But there was no trash. Whoever he was had taken out the garbage before he left. Not bad for a psycho.

But any thought Vickers had about the killer trying to avoid identification by disposing of evidence was upended when the coroner’s boys turned the body to load it into a body bag for transport. In the midst of the numerous shallow gashes, the killer had carved a message: “1432 Cedar Lane. Merry Xmas.”

“Jesus Christ,” Vickers said.

“Merry Christmas to you too,” one of the morbid coroners snorted, earning a scowl from Vickers.

He picked up his radio and said, “Run an address for me?”

“Go ahead,” came the response.

“1432 Cedar Lane,” Vickers said.

“John and Celia Dyer. There’s an open warrant out for the son, Vickers,” came the response.

With a sinking feeling, Vickers asked, “What are the charges?”

“You got a minute?” the woman asked rhetorically. “Aggravated sexual assault of a minor, three counts rape, three counts blackmail, five counts possession of child pornography, one count terroristic threats.”

“Can you connect me with a judge? I need a search warrant for his home and his family property,” Vickers replied.

“The place has already been searched,” came the reply.

“I need to go over the place with cadaver dogs,” Vickers replied.

“Why?” the operator asked.

“I just got that address from a carving in a dead woman’s chest. Now get me a judge!” Vickers said.

“Putting you through now!”

Vickers multitasked, having someone call for the dogs while he was on the phone with the judge, who approved the warrant quickly enough that they could roust the scumbag’s family while it was still Christmas Eve. But when they arrived, they found a second-best alternative: the house was empty so they had the run of the place.

***

“So you and Billy are going to be like brothers,” Paul teased as he cuddled with Jim.

“See what you’ve done to my life?” Jim joked.

“Me?” Paul asked with a smile.

“My dad wouldn’t have gone to talk to Sean if it wasn’t for my having to look out for your ass,” Jim laughed.

“Yeah, well if you weren’t so into my ass, maybe you could have let it go and let me fall to the wolves,” Paul retorted with a grin.

“It’s a nice ass,” Jim said, kissing his cheek and hugging him tight.

“Can I ask you something?” Paul asked somewhat nervously. Jim nodded and he said, “You still haven’t … tried anything….”

“Tried anything,” Jim laughed. “You talk like I’m a predator!”

Paul laughed. “That’s not what I mean, but … don’t you want to … you know?”

Jim looked at him and sighed. “I thought I made myself, and my interest, clear. I want you more than anything … ever! And that’s why it’s worth waiting for. I’m just not ready to rush into that; I want to enjoy every step of the way with you!”

“It’s just, I guess I figured that’s the way it works. You want to hold onto someone, you get intimate; you want to express your feelings, you get intimate,” Paul explained, blushing.

“You don’t have to worry about holding on to me,” Jim said. “You’ve got me deep….”

“I just … you make me want to give you everything,” Paul said, glancing away at the admission.

“Everything starts here,” Jim said, tracing his fingers across Paul’s chest over his heart. “Without that nothing means anything. And I can see in that picture you gave me, and in your eyes when you don’t know I see you looking, that that is mine,” he added with a gentle laugh. They hugged tightly before relaxing and drifting off in each other’s arms.

***

When Jim woke up at six, he was alone. He pulled on a t-shirt, having slept in just pajama bottoms and wandered across to the bathroom, before heading downstairs to find Paul. He checked the kitchen first, and finding coffee grabbed a cup. Paul was nowhere to be seen. Jim began to get worried, but he sighed as he stuck his head in the living room, dark except for the dazzling colors arraying the Christmas tree.

“There you are,” he said, and Paul smiled up at him from the couch.

Paul patted the seat next to him, and when Jim sat, Paul curled up against him and lay watching the tree. “Ever since I was a little kid, I could never sleep on Christmas morning,” Paul whispered. Then, nodding toward the tree, he said, “It’s so beautiful!”

“Yes it is,” Jim said, smiling down at Paul. “I don’t know if we ever had a Christmas like this, but if we did, I was just a little boy…. I can’t … of all the things I’d hoped for when I was hoping you’d come into my life, this wasn’t on the list.” Jim laughed to clear the emotion from his voice.

Paul smiled up at him and crawled up so he sat in Jim’s lap and laid his head on the boy’s shoulder. “My family’s great,” Paul said, “but this has been the best Christmas ever!” Jim squeezed Paul tight and kissed his forehead.

***

Molly and Paul were making a big breakfast when the bell rang. Thinking it was Jim’s family, she asked, “Will you get the door, Jim?”

The boy left and returned moments later with a grim-looking man, a little shorter than himself, wearing a heavy overcoat and heavy bags under his eyes. He was almost a caricature with the brown hat that matched his overcoat. “This is Molly Anderson, and that’s Paul,” Jim said. “This is Detective Vickers.” The man shook Molly’s hand and nodded at Paul.

“Is everyone here already?” Phil asked, emerging from the bedroom. So introductions were made again.

“Did you find him?” Paul asked. “Robert, I mean….”

Vickers shook his head with a grimace. “No, young man, we haven’t. I’m just talking with all the people that were recently his victims. Seems the major complaining witness is still not able to receive visitors, and you boys were really on his radar. I thought I might … hear your story, Paul, to get a better idea of what he’s all about.”

“Sure,” Paul said. “We can go in the living room!”

“I don’t know,” Phil said. “Maybe I should call Arnie?”

“Arnie?” Vickers asked.

“My uncle, Arnold Prince,” Paul said. “I’m not in any trouble, dad!” he added with a laugh. Phil shrugged and shook his head. “Jim can help me fill in the details!”

The two boys went and sat down with the detective while Phil lurked in the doorway and looked on. The man was about to encourage them to start at the beginning, when Paul smiled and said, “Would you like some coffee, sir? You look like you’ve been up all night!”

Vickers laughed and said, “That would be wonderful!”

Paul smiled and asked, “How do you like it?”

“Sweet with a lot of cream,” the detective laughed. When Paul was gone, the hardened detective looked over at Phil and said, “You’re son has a way about him, doesn’t he?”

“You don’t know the half of it,” Phil said, immediately softening toward the man and taking his accustomed seat in the room. “Maybe you should wait a bit to get started. Billy, Robert’s one time best friend, and Sean Spencer, the coach who expelled Robert, will be here for breakfast soon.”

The man checked his notes and said, “That would save me a lot of time and mark two more off the list.”

“You don’t mind talking to them all together?” Phil asked.

“This isn’t ‘Law and Order,’ and like your son said, they aren’t in trouble. I’m just trying to figure this bastard out!” the man said, as a smiling Paul returned with his coffee before sitting down by Jim, rather close together. “Thank you, Paul. Your dad suggested we wait for your friends, which is a good idea.”

“But we’re keeping you on Christmas! That’s terrible!” Paul said.

“Oh, don’t worry about me, kid. My shift ended already, but nobody’s waiting for me,” he said with a laugh. He patted his badge and said, “This is my mistress!”

Paul frowned and said, “Since you’re waiting anyway, you should stay with us for breakfast!” The man was going to protest, but Paul raised his hand dramatically and said, “We’ve all got to eat. What are you going to do, wait in here while we do? Your shift is over….”

“Thank you,” the man accepted.

Paul said, “I should go help mom finish then,” and dashed from the room.

“Is he always that,” the man began to ask.

Both Phil and Jim answered simultaneously, “Yep,” and “Yeah!”

“So … you and Paul?” the man asked Jim directly.

“We’ve been friends for a bit, but we’ve been boyfriends for a week or two now. You’ll hear all about it…. In a way I owe Robert for getting us together!”

That surprised the man. “Really?”

“Not in a good way,” Jim assured him. “Danny asked me to help protect Paul at school when Robert and Billy were picking on him!”

“Wait, Billy Cooper?” Jim nodded in answer and the man continued, “The boy coming to Christmas breakfast is one of your son’s bullies?”

“Like you said,” Phil replied. “Paul has a way about him….”

“Let’s just do this once, though,” Jim said, before they got too in to the story.

***

Just a few hundred yards away, there was a knock at a door. Chris Cooper answered it, half expecting his fairy son to have come crawling home. “What do you want?” the man asked his visitor.

“I need to talk to Billy! It’s an emergency!”

“He isn’t here,” Chris sneered. “That little faggot doesn’t live here anymore.”

The boy looked deep into his eyes and cocked his head ever-so-slightly. “What happened?”

“I caught him online with some queer, jacking off,” the man said.

“Where is he?” the boy inquired.

“You still care?” Chris sneered. “Were you fucking him or something?”

“Or something,” Robert said, smiling benignly as he stepped past the man who stood impotently in his path. Then he closed the door and said, “You know, Mr. Cooper, I never did like you much….”

The next thing Chris knew, he woke up tied to a dining room chair with a tremendous pain emanating from his face. His wife sat across the table from him, likewise bound. Between them at the head of the table, Robert sat with a large plate of food and a glass of milk in front of him, eating as if it was family breakfast.

“So you put your kid out on the street ‘cause he’s gay, huh?” Robert laughed. Then he looked at the woman and said, “And you let him?”

“It’s an abomination,” she said, wrinkling her nose.

“What do you care?” Chris asked. “You hate fags. My son was just following your lead when you picked on that little queer down the street!”

Robert looked at him with an innocent surprise on his face. “Hate gays? What do I care who someone has sex with. I take it like I can get it, personally. If it’s offered, I’ll accept it, whoever; but I prefer to take it,” he smiled chillingly. “I just despise weakness. Billy’s a follower, but he’s not weak. Plus he’s hot.”

Chris Copper scowled at him and Robert just smiled at him again, and considered him like a child might a bug. Just before it crushed it with the heel of its tennis shoe. Then he returned to his breakfast, cutting leftover turkey with a dull knife. “You know, more people get injured by dull knives than sharp ones? Dull ones take more pressure to cut, so you have less control. Of course, one is speaking of accidental cuts. If you mean to hurt someone, dull and sharp work pretty much the same.”

***

Detective Vickers wore an amused look as he ate breakfast with this strange gathering on Christmas morning. Everything about them was a little quirky and yet still wholesome – nothing like his day-to-day.

But at last he felt compelled to ask, “What can you tell me about Robert? I want to get out of your hair so you can get back to your Christmas.”

Billy and Paul alternated telling their story, Billy clearly embarrassed of his part in it. “Did you ever feel seriously threatened by Robert?” Vickers asked. “I mean like your life was in danger?”

“If Jim hadn’t been there for me that day, I think he would have killed me when they finished,” Paul said. “I really do….”

“What division did you say you were with, detective?” Andy, the probation officer, asked.

The man smiled and nodded. “I didn’t. Homicide.”

“Christ, what happened?” Andy asked.

“Last night a couple of uniforms found a body of a woman savagely assaulted, murdered, mutilated. The killer left a clue pointing back to Robert, so I searched his place again. Another body was located there by cadaver dogs early this morning, this one a boy. It had been there for months, at least….”

“So the thing with us wasn’t like … a trigger or something?” Jim asked.

“No, you just happened to draw the attention of the most dangerous person you’ve likely ever met,” Vickers said. “You should warn your friend Danny….”

“We will,” Jim assured as Vickers passed out copies of his card. As he looked at Paul one more time, he said, “Wait a minute! You’re the kid from the news! The kid who stood up to the church people!”

Paul blushed, and Jim said, “You got it!”

“You had a lot of guys around the station talking, Paul. A lot of ex-military guys on the force, and all,” Vickers smiled.

Paul waved it off and said, “I hope most of the talk was good.”

“Mostly,” the man said truthfully, though the not good made him uncomfortable to think about now he’d met the boy. “More than a couple of crusty old cops wishing their sons were more like you.”

“Not in every way, I bet,” Paul teased.

“I’ve met some of their boys, and I’m guessing their dads would take it however they could get it,” Vickers said. “I really should be going.” Paul and Phil walked him to the door and bid him farewell. On his way home, Vickers drove right past Billy’s house.

Conversation was subdued in the dining room for a few minutes until Paul insisted with his youthful enthusiasm, “Let’s open presents!”

***

Robert lay down on Billy’s bed and stretched out. He should have known Billy was gay; something hadn’t been right about the way he’d caught him with Paul. And Billy had, he now recognized, been keeping him from doing his worst to Paul all along.

Not that he was angry. People often thought he was angry but it was as foreign to him as love and hatred. He was just a little disappointed that he’d never figured it out; Billy was a beautiful specimen, and one of the few people he came near to respecting. He would have enjoyed mastering his friend fully; they both would have.

“Who knows what the future holds?” he smiled to himself. He heard a chair tip over in the kitchen and found Chris lying in the floor. He’d broken the chair holding him, but he was stunned from hitting his head on the floor so he had no hope of escaping.

Chris was a big man, but Robert was bigger, and he dragged Billy’s father to his feet and hit him in the face. “You don’t look much like him, Chris. Anyone ever tell you that?” Robert sneered, leering at the man’s wife. “Do you even know who Billy’s father is?”

“Chris,” she said, her voice trembling.

Robert chuckled and shook his head. He tied the man up much more tightly before untying the woman and dragging her off alone. “We’ll see about that….”

Chris’s only thought as he heard his wife’s screams emanating from their bedroom was that he needed to escape. Who knew what the boy had in store for HIM?

***

Everyone piled into the living room, and Paul immediately began handing out presents. Jim laughed and said, “You do know there’s no such thing as Santa Clause, right?”

Paul looked at him with a face as forlorn and distraught as he’d ever seen, giving Jim the ultimate ‘Oh shit!’ moment, before laughing and saying, “OF COURSE!” Everyone had a little laugh at Jim’s expense, as Paul kept handing out the presents.

All of the boys had, of course, received their most precious gifts of the year already, but there was still general excitement. Billy was overjoyed to get some new clothes to wear, and told everyone about his new guitar, and his new home.

Jim and Paul both also received some new clothes, as well as gift cards to mall stores and, in Paul’s case, Amazon.com. “I think I’ll buy a Kindle,” he said with a smile. He’d wanted one for a while, but wouldn’t dig into his savings for it, but with a $50 gift certificate, he could part with some money for a new toy. Jim’s gift cards were, for the most part, to outdoorsy stores, including one large one from his grandparents, and he had plans to buy some new gear for their trip.

“We’re sorry we don’t have anything for you, Paul,” Bethany said, “but we had no idea you existed!”

“That’s okay,” Paul laughed. “You let Jim stay here for Christmas! That’s all I wanted!”

Molly teased her son by making a gagging noise, to general laughter.

“Well dad and I decided you were too naughty this year, which is why there’s nothing for you under the tree!” Paul retorted.

“PAUL!” she said, pretending to be hurt. “Your father already told me you got me the best present ever!”

“DAD!” Paul laughed. Then he handed her the envelop.

She opened it and looked inside, finding two itineraries. One was for their flight to Florida, and the other was for a seven-day cruise departing from Port Canaveral. “This is this weekend,” the woman exclaimed.

“I already called your boss and cleared you for vacation,” Phil said. “I begged and promised some longer hours later to make up for it,” he added with a wink.

“We can’t afford this,” she said with a big grin.

“Paul helped me out with finding some last minute deals on the internet and since he’s not going,” Phil explained, “we can!”

“Just you and dad for a week in the Caribbean, mom!” Paul smiled.

“Wow!” she said, hugging them both. “I’m going to miss you!”

“I was going to be gone anyway, mom!” Paul said.

Other presents were opened, and then they turned on the television to watch the parade and just talked. They were chatting happily when Andy’s phone rang. “Hello?” The man’s face went white, before his face began to show his agitation. “NO!”