"I can't believe you've got it all figured out," I said.
We were still sitting on the sofa an hour later. Through the glass door to the balcony I could see the lights of ships moving down the Cuyahoga River in the darkness, on their way out to the lake and beyond.
"We all discussed it," said Raj. "I have been on the telephone constantly for the past two days, talking to the other members of The Club. But they wanted to meet you first."
"Of course. They wanted to see what they were getting." I was numb and didn't know what else to say.
"No," insisted Raj. "They wanted to meet you. To get to know you. To see what kind of person you were. I told them they would like you and they all did. They are eager to help you out of your predicament, Shea."
"You mean eager to get into my ass." I stood and walked to the glass door, looking out.
"Eager to help you." Raj came up behind me. "Were you serious about taking up Mr. Barbuto's offer? Truly serious about going to Las Vegas?"
I bit my lip. "Yes. It's the only way I can make that kind of money in so short a time."
"Then do not work for this criminal!" said Raj. "Work for The Club instead. That way you can stay here and not go so far from your family. And you will be safe. Instead of having to be with whoever can pay the price, you will be only with members of The Club. There is no danger for you. And you will not be at the mercy of thugs and gangsters."
"No, I'll be at the beck and call of bunch of rich queens." I turned and glared at Raj. "Or closet queens. But it's the same deal. Guys who want to fuck me and are willing to pay for it!"
"I offered you the money outright, Shea," said Raj quietly. "That offer still stands. I will go to the bank tomorrow and get a cashier's check and pay Mr. Barbuto in person. And that will be the end of it. All you need do is say the word."
"And in exchange, I'll be your kept boy. That's what you really want, isn't it?" I demanded.
Raj shrugged. "Yes, I confess that is my desire. But the money is a gift. No strings attached, as you would say."
"Of course there are strings attached! You've admitted as much!" I swallowed hard. "If I take the money from you, I'll owe you for the rest of my fucking life! And I can't do that!"
"I know." Raj sighed. "That is why I thought The Club would be a solution. We will pay off your father's debt and Carter's firm will hold the mortgage on your parents' house. That way you will not be paying any more exorbitant interest. If what Mr. Barbuto said is true about the amount of money an escort can make, then in a year's time or less the debt will be paid off. And you will be free and clear. You will not owe Barbuto and you will not owe me -- or anyone else. That is what you said you wanted."
"It is what I want! But..."
"But you do not want to sell yourself." Raj touched my shoulder. "I understand. Both Carter and Dennis Marshall have offered to employ you. But they cannot pay you more than they would pay an other beginning employee, so it would take much longer for you to settle the debt. But they will employ you, Shea."
"At what?" I challenged.
"At... whatever you wish."
"In other words, a fake job. I don't know anything about investments. And I have no legal training. So any job Carter Kingman or Dennis Marshall would give me would be a sham! I can't accept a fake job!"
"I knew you would say that," said Raj. "And I told both Carter and Dennis as much, but they offered it as an alternative." His mouth was close to my ear. "Shea, if you work for The Club you will still have plenty of time to seek a teaching position. You also told me that you are working on your book. This way you will be able to finish it. I know that is important to your future career. Sleeping with Club members is not all you will do. Any activity with any member will go toward the debt. The Club isn't paying you for sex, Shea. We are paying for your time. Your precious, valuable, beautiful time. Think of it that way."
"So I can work for Barbuto's cousin -- or I can work for you and your friends. Either way, I'm selling myself. Either way, I'm a whore."
Raj turned away in exasperation. "Then accept the money from me! I am offering it in good faith."
"I know you think I'm being ridiculously pigheaded, but I can't. I... just can't."
"I have no other plan, Shea. It is up to you now." He reached into his pocket and took out his cellphone. He called and said something in Hindi, I assume to Sanjay. Then he closed the phone. "The car will be here in a few moments."
"I guess that special occasion you were saving that bottle of champagne for will have to wait for another time -- or someone else," I said.
"Go home now, Shea." Raj went to the closet and got out my jacket. "Think about our offer. Sleep on it. Do only what you feel you can live with."
I slipped on my leather jacket. "Yeah, like I could sleep after all of this."
Sanjay drove me home. When I came into the house the old man said, "You're home early."
I didn't answer. He was the last person I wanted to talk to. My mother and Danny were already asleep. Tomorrow would be Danny's first day of Kindergarten.
I fired up my laptop and went online. While I was waiting for the connection, I thought about what the guy at the party, Russ, had said. How on New Year's Eve everything would come to a halt. All the computers and telephones and televisions, everything that was connected to something, everything connected to time, would stop working. What would that be like? The world brought down to a basic level.
But if I accepted the offers of Barbuto or The Club, my job would be safe. I could still fuck even as civilization crumbled.
I searched the internet for information about Las Vegas, then for escort sites. There were pages and pages of them. Guys of every age, shape, and size. I didn't know the name of Barbuto's cousin's agency, but it didn't matter, they were all pretty much the same. Men for sale. Pictures. Prices. Dick sizes. Specialties. Offering themselves to anyone with money. Anyone.
Then I thought about the men in The Club. Raj's party to introduce me to them.
I kept seeing Marcello Barbuto's face. His merciless face. He'd have no problem taking this house and forcing my mother, the old man, and even Danny out onto the sidewalk. And if they refused to go, he'd arrange for the house to have an accident. That's the way those guys worked.
I thought about New York. That was a cold winter. Is there ever such thing as a warm winter when you're hustling on the streets? I thought about Aaron's little apartment near NYU. His tiny bedroom and the bed where we made love for the first time -- Aaron's first time ever with a guy. I thought about the day I walked out of that apartment, thinking I'd never see him again.
I clicked on the mailbox and brought up a message box, but I couldn't think of anything to say to him. It was too late. Too late for so many things.
I logged off and shut the laptop. Then I went downstairs and called Raj's cellphone. I got his voicemail.
"Raj, this is Shea. I've thought about it and I accept The Club's offer," I said. "Call me to let me know what I have to do next."