“What the fuck does he want now?” Brett, laying on one of the cheap, webbed loungers they had picked up earlier, closed the book he was reading and glanced towards the open glass doors. They had returned to Malibu to meet with a couple of contractors unable to make it the previous day. His glacial pace was apparently not fast enough.
“Move your butt, Jarhead. Get in here already.” César disappeared back inside the kitchen after the second shout to his husband.
The rain and gloom of the preceding days had dissipated. A bright sun made the waves breaking on the beach a few yards away sparkle. Brett was hell-bent on taking advantage of the warm, winter day. Standing up, he adjusted his silkies so nothing poked out, and headed inside.
“What up?” Brett glanced at the young woman standing by César next to the kitchen island and smiled. He had heard the doorbell ring but had allowed César to deal with whomever their visitor was.
“Hey, I’m Sabrina. He called you Jarhead. You a Marine?” Freckles moved and eyebrows rose as she smiled.
“Captain Brett Davenport, retired, at your service.” The sloppy salute would have embarrassed any active duty military personnel.
The woman bumped the raised fist. “Corporal Sabrina Coates. Although I went by Steven when I served.” Apparently, the fact she was in the presence of a married, gay couple made her comfortable enough to discuss her gender.
It was impossible to miss the spread of her shoulders. Brett nodded. “Cool. You still transitioning?”
“Yeah. Started hormones and had my chest done last year.” She raised a hand to her throat. “I’m having the Adam’s apple shaved down next month.”
“Good luck, Corporal.” He turned his attention to César. “So, why did you call me in here? I want to finish the book before we return to Washington. I plan on it being the first new one in the study’s shelves.”
“Take a look at these.” César waved a hand to encompass the nearly three dozen electronic eyes lined up on the island. “Nalbo even had a couple inside the pantry!”
Sabrina, the technician the security firm had sent over, was tasked with removing cameras from everywhere inside the house except the first floor’s main room. She had finished her work in the residential portion of the home; the pool house was next on her schedule.
“We already knew that guy was just plain sleazy.” Brett grinned and turned towards the door. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going back outside. I need to even out the farmer’s tan I got playing golf last week.”
By the time Sabrina was finished, the pool house and guest quarters had yielded another dozen devices.
“What a creep.” Brett had rejoined them in the kitchen and shook his head looking at them.
“You’ll get no argument from me on that.” César went on to say something about the footage Nalbo might have kept but admitted they had no way of knowing. He and Brett were aware the man had tried to blackmail Chipper with a naked photo of him, Bryce, and Zion next to a cocaine-covered mirror; thankfully, there appeared to be no evidence of Chipper snorting any of it. Who knew what else the slime ball had done.
“That’s it, Mr. Abelló. As you requested, the only ones left are on the outside perimeter and in the main room. If you’d sign off on the service ticket for me…”
“Do you also have the monitoring contract?”
“Yes, sir.”She placed a different set of documents in front of César. “I’m also leaving a summary sheet on how to create individual access codes for different individuals. And another one with instructions on how to activate and use our app. You can track who comes in and out of the house through your smartphone, and even view live feeds from the cameras.”
“Excellent! Thank you so much, Sabrina.”
“My pleasure, sir. You and the captain have a good day. Thank you for choosing us.”
Legal pad and pen in hand, César followed Brett outside. They had two more appointments that morning, planned to speak with Bryce and Zion later in the day, and would meet Chipper for dinner. César had mentioned wanting to jot down everything he thought would be needed for the pool house furnishing. “Nice woman. She mentioned that was an overkill on cameras for security purposes.”
“Hell, we know those weren’t installed for protection. That Nalbo guy’s really a sleazebag.” Brett opened his book once again.
“Pretty cool she was a fellow Marine.”
“She’s still built like one. Hell, she still looks more like a dude than a chick.”
“Shaving her large Adam’s apple will help with that. I wonder if she’ll go all the way and get the bottom surgery as well.”
Brett shivered and crossed his legs. “Ouch! Just the thought of that scares me. I like my willy just the way it is.”
“I like it just as much, Jarhead.” César licked his lips, making Brett laugh.
After the shared chuckles, their solitude and quiet was disturbed only by the sound of waves crashing against the sand and the squawks of seagulls. Putting his book down, Brett stared out to sea. He watched birds dive into the surf and occasionally take flight with a meal in their beaks. Maybe owning a beach house in California was the antidote to being empty nesters. Now that they spent less time in South Florida, he could get used to being back on the beach on a regular basis.
The doorbell interrupted the companionable silence. César placed the pad and pen on the ground and rose. “That should be the landscaper. I’ll get it.”
“I don’t need to put on a shirt, do I?” Brett glanced at his naked chest and rubbed the stubble. He doubted the weak sun would burn him but kept checking just in case he overdid the laying out time.
“You didn’t for a woman, why do it now?”
“She wasn’t a woman. She was a Marine. Anyway, I was originally planning on staying out of the way while she was here, but you had to call me in.”
César graced his husband with a benevolent, slightly askew grin. “Don’t bother with the shirt.”
The man accompanying César when he returned was older than both of them, lean, with skin darkened by years spent in the sun. He held a Dodgers’ ball cap in his hands.
“Hey, man. I’m Brett.” Having moved to sit on the pool’s edge, he offered the empty lounger to the visitor.
“Good to meet you, sir. Silvio Rivera.”
“Your company’s name, Ensenada Landscaping, are you from Baja?”
“I was born there, but it was my father who started and named the business.” Ensenada was some 200 miles south of Los Angeles on Baja California’s Pacific Ocean coast. “Have you ever been down there?”
“Once that I recall. A weekend trip with my parents.” Brett was momentarily lost in memories of holding a fishing pole, sitting next to his father in the back of a boat. “I remember going deep sea fishing there when I was a kid. How long has your family owned the company?”
“A long time, sir. My father started it in the 1980s.”
“Oh, so you’ve lived around here for a long time.”
“Yes, sir. My parents were illegal immigrants. They crossed the border when I was a baby. When President Reagan signed the bill legalizing people who’d been in the country for a long time, my parents, my brothers, and I became citizens. Once we were legal, my dad gave up picking fruits and vegetables and started the landscaping service.”
“How long have you been taking care of this place, Silvio?” César had reclaimed his seat and was once again scribbling on his pad.
“A couple of years, sir. I was surprised when Mr. Nalbo left me a message telling me our services were no longer needed. I didn’t know he had sold the house until you called.”
“Yeah, the sale was a quick one. But we’re interested in hiring you.”
“That would be great, sir. Thank you. Thank you, so much.” Relief was clear in his tone and his facial expression.
“However”—Silvio tensed and fidgeted with his hat at César’s word—“I think we’d like to make some changes.”
Silvio looked at the ground while twirling the ball cap. “In how much you pay?” The man was apparently concerned about taking a hit to revenues.
“Nope. We can talk about what you charge later. Our son in law’s an avid environmentalist. Considering how dry this area is, I’m surprised at the amount of grass out front and on the sides. Owen would not be happy with that.”
Brett had planned on letting César do all the talking, so he listened to the conversation in silence. He had to smile when Owen’s name came up. The Australian had wormed his way into CJ’s heart and to César and Brett he was another son. The fathers took the younger man’s environmental concerns seriously.
“Mr. and Mrs. Nalbo liked it a lot. They had us install a new irrigation system when they first hired us.”
“Oh, so you do more than mow the lawn and trim the shrubs and trees?”
“Yes, sir! We’re licensed to install and maintain landscaping and irrigation systems.” Silvio sounded proud.
“Excellent. As I mentioned on the phone, we live in Washington. This will be a family vacation home. Someone may move in permanently at some point, but in the near future you’ll have to deal with us long distance.”
“That wouldn’t be a problem, Mr. César.”
“Good. We’ll be back in L.A. next month. In the meantime, continue your weekly services. When we return, we’d like you to have a plan for redoing the landscaping with native, drought tolerant plants. We’d like to minimize water usage.”
“If I may suggest, you may want to consider a rain reclamation system and drip irrigation.”
“You mean something like rain barrels?”
“Yes. There are some tax advantages involved.”
César grinned. “I’m impressed, Silvio. You just fed our desire for being proper land stewards, gave us a monetary incentive, and possibly got yourself a larger project. Good businessman.”
“Thank you!” Silvio sounded proud of himself. “Those business courses I took at the community college have been helpful.”
“Listen, if you can email us an invoice every week when you come, we’ll transfer payment to your account within twenty-four hours.”
“That would be perfect. Can you access the security cameras from your phone? I know Mr. and Mrs. Nalbo had them all over the place.”
The question intrigued Brett; Silvio was observant. “We will as soon as we download the app. How come you ask?”
“So you can check the footage when I bill you and make sure I did my work.”
Brett was surprised and pleased. Silvio Rivera was an honest man. He looked forward to a long relationship.
Right on schedule at 11:00 am, their last appointment of the morning showed up. Summer Dunn personified the idealized California girl: pretty, blonde, and perky. Her white shorts and sky-blue, long-sleeved t-shirt both had Summer Pools embroidered in a contrasting color.
“Alanna mentioned you guys live on the East Coast, and this would be a vacation home?” Miles had fibbed about his boys cleaning the family’s pool. When asked for a recommendation, he asked his wife to talk to the service they used.
“Yep. We may have a caretaker move in eventually, but it’ll be empty for the foreseeable future. César and I still want it serviced on a weekly basis.”
“Do you have security cameras out there so you can confirm my crew did what we bill you for?”
César looked pleased. “We hit the jackpot, Jarhead. Two in a row who want us to confirm their service before we pay them. Who knew Californians were so honest?”
“HEY!” The reaction was simultaneous from Summer and Brett.
“Ignore my husband, Summer. Florida boys have no idea how great we really are.” Brett raised his middle finger at César, making Summer grin. “I have a question, Ms. Dunn. Do you know anyone who could help us with solar heating for the pool? We’d like to install panels on the roof in the future.”
A nodding Summer did not need time to think of a response. “My brother. Summer Pools’ named after me, but it’s a family business. I oversee maintenance and my little brother handles construction and equipment repairs and installations.”
“Perfect! We’ll be back in L.A. next month. How about you bring him over when we’re here? We can discuss details.”
“I’ll do one better. He’ll be here with me next week, and I’ll have him work up a proposal. We’ll email it to you.”
“That works too.”
“One question, though. The wrought iron gate, do we need a code to open it?”
The sliding gate was not original to the house. It was a Nalbo addition Brett had already mentioned he might want removed. “Nope.” He shook his head as he spoke. “We’re locking them open for now. I don’t like the prison look. It’s low enough anyone couldjump it anyway. We’ll rely on the security system to keep intruders out.”
With César behind the wheel, they picked up lunch through the In-N-Out drive-thru on Sunset Boulevard in Hollywood; it satisfied another one of Brett’s nostalgic cravings. They ate while parked in the nearby Home Depot lot.
“So, what’s this surprise you have for me?” Brett replaced his soda in the cup holder and consolidated all the trash in one of the bags.
“I read about this place in a magazine a few months ago. When I realized we would be in L.A. longer than we originally planned, I asked Miles for help. He came through. A friend of a friend knew somebody who got us a VIP behind-the-scenes tour.”
Brett smirked. “That’s all great, but it doesn’t tell me shit about where we’re going.”
César snapped his seatbelt on and started the engine. “We’re taking the Santa Ana Freeway—”
“Nobody uses that name. It’s the one-oh-one. The Santa Anas are the winds.” Brett laughed when César rolled his eyes. “Dude, you wanna sound like a tourist or an Angeleno?”
“Whatever… We’re going near the Arts District.”
Brett leaned his head back as a smile formed on his face. Although challenging and upsetting at times, the almost two weeks away from Washington had been a good change of pace. He and César needed to spend more time together away from the daily routine. Hell, even their sex life had improved since landing in California.
They still had to decide what to do with the artwork, but everything related to the house seemed to be moving along. Hopefully, a chat with Chipper later in the day would help them solve one outstanding item. He stared out the window as César sped down the freeway, recognizing certain landmarks, and baffled by how much the city had changed since he was a teen. Most of it had been gradual, but his frame of mind made it appear miraculous.
“I wanna go to church when we come back next month.”
César took his foot off the accelerator for a moment. “Say what?”
“And the cemetery.”
“Okay, Jarhead, what the hell’s going on?”
Brett’s smile became a grin. “We’re coming up on Our Lady of the Angels. The cathedral’s this sprawling structure that’s an L.A. landmark. It’ll be on our right. Keep an eye out for it. I’ve never been there. It’d be cool to check it out.”
“And the cemetery?”
The grin disappeared as Brett sat a little straighter. “Westwood Memorial. Hang on one minute.” Brett fiddled with his phone for a moment. “Okay, the proper name these days is Pierce Brothers Westwood Village Memorial Park & Mortuary. Fuck, is that a mouthful. It’s where Mom and Dad are buried.”
It took a moment for César to say anything. When he did, it was in a very gentle tone. “When was the last time you were there, babe?”
“I’ve been there twice. The day they were interred and right after I was commissioned. I don’t know why I did that. I mean, I think it’s stupid to bury people. What a waste of prime real estate. This place could sell its land for millions. You could develop a whole new community there.”
“Right. Wasn’t that what they did in Poltergeist?”
Brett’s laughter was infectious, and César joined in. “Anyway, I’m not even sure why I went that second time. Maybe the realization I was going to be deployed and there were no guarantees I’d return.”
“I don’t know… I just want to make sure their tombs are being maintained. It’s been kinda overwhelming. La Casita, Frank Jackson being friends with Dad, Aunt Meryl… Oh and all that damn, expensive art we’re gonna have to pay a fortune in premiums to insure.”
Laughter again filled the car, and César appeared unable to control his headshakes. “Cheap bastard. I’ll start working on the insurance when we get home. Our agent will be happy to cover the house and art. I mean, we’ll probably need full appraisals, but he’s used to that. It’s why what we have in D.C. gets valued every few years. But we need to decide what you’re gonna let CAMALA have back.”
“Who says I’m giving them anything back?”
“Jarhead…” César’s tone was mildly accusatory. “I’m good with having them return everything and making them sweat for a bit. And if it ends up with that idiot being fired, so much the better. But let’s be realistic. We don’t even have enough wall space. And based on your reaction when you saw her, I don’t think you’d do that to Meryl.”
“Don’t bet on it.”
After passing the cathedral, César drove through Little Tokyo, and past Skid Row. He turned off Alameda onto 5th Street into a neighborhood lined with warehouses. “We’re here,” he announced as he parked.
“Exactly where are we?” Brett had no idea what his husband had planned and did not recognize their surroundings.
César looked both ways and headed across the street. “Told ya; It’s a surprise.”
They approached a doorway surrounded by a Queen of Hearts mural, and César pressed the buzzer.
“Names.” The one word greeting had the metallic twang of an old-fashioned intercom.
“Brett Davenport and César Abelló.” César was apparently not interested in wasting time on useless chitchat.
“This is like trying to enter a speakeasy back in prohibition days. Is what we’re doing legal?” Brett did not care one way or the other, but his curiosity was piqued.
“Approved to enter.” The disembodied voice did not sound very interested. “Dom will be with you in a moment.”
When the crimson door at last creaked open, a bearded thirty-something with large earlobe plugs and a pierced septum nodded at them. “Welcome to Lost Spirits Distillery. I’m Dom. Tessa will be your guide, but I’ll escort you.”
Brett was confused. The place looked like a bordello. Heavy velvet drapes and dimmed chandeliers left him expecting a Madam. “Where’s everybody else?”
Dom graced them with a half-smile. “This is a VIP tour, so there won’t be anyone else. Just the three of us.”
“Except for Tessa. Whenever she shows up.” Brett shoulder-bumped César. “Miles pulled this off?”
“Nah, told you a friend of a friend knew somebody.” César winked at Dom. “How about you shelve the questions for now, and we let Dom show us around?”
The next two hours were difficult to describe. Brett’s senses were on overload. Tessa turned out to be a computer reminiscent of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey. At each stop on the tour, Dom would press a button somewhere, and Tessa would explain the setting and process. Dom handled the sampling.
Public and behind-the-scenes areas resembled movie sets. Copper vats with fantastical dragonhead spouts atop them coexisted with a river barge floating them through sections of the distillery. The sense for the dramatic was part of the company’s DNA. They existed to fool with Mother Nature.
The smoothness and flavor profile of aged spirits improves with the passage of time. Whiskey allowed to rest in barrels for eight years was superior to those kept in the wooden containers for only four or six. Lost Spirits Distillery was able to replicate the effect of twenty years aging in six days.
“Forget all the biology, physics, and chemistry, dude. Way over my neural capacity.” Brett had raised a hand to stop Dom when he veered into a technical explanation of how their gas chromatograph mass spectrometer worked.
“I’m with Brett. You’re creating a riot of wild flavors using fruit from the trees we saw growing in a previous section, and you recreate old recipes. What’s next?”
“Something will come up.” When not employing technical jargon, Dom was a man of few words. It fit his countenance. The tattoos added a dash of color to a sober personality.
César was the least inebriated one when they re-emerged into daylight, squinting after the darkness inside the distillery. However, he didn’t trust himself behind the wheel in an unfamiliar city. He and Brett had tasted countless samples of whiskey, rum, and bourbon, along with some strong, fruit-flavored spirits. They Uber-ed it back to the hotel for a nap.
“Okay, I’m in father mode. I’m going to ask a few questions about money, but there’s a reason behind them.” César reached for his Red Horse and sipped.
Claiming a craving for Pinoy cooking, Chipper had suggested LASA. “You can ask me anything you want, Mr. A.” The way the young man was inhaling his kinilaw—the Filipino version of ceviche made from a fat snapper filet briefly marinated in sugar cane vinegar—he resembled the starving artist he had claimed to be.
“You said performing at that bar didn’t pay much. And tips can’t be that great with the small crowds. How are you set for money?”
“I’m good. Remember what I told you: EZ I do because I’m thankful to Winn, the owner. During the competition, he let me use the place as a rehearsal hall, trying out different arrangements and new songs.”
“You said you’re booked elsewhere next week?”
“I am. And if you’re leading up to offering me money, thanks, but I don’t need it. It does make me love you guys a little bit more, though.” The comment exuded a warmth that made his companions smile. “I just got another check from Versace for underwear campaign royalties. On top of that, Miles called to let me know the record company agreed to the changes he wanted in the contract. By Monday, I should get a chunky advance. I was kidding the other day when I said I needed the job at EZ.”
César waved a hand in Brett’s direction. “Your house, your proposal.”
“Asshole! Our house.” Brett focused on Chipper. “We have a proposition for you. We’ll be back in L.A. in three weeks, and your buddies should have the guesthouse ready by then. We plan to stay there.”
“We’ll only be in town for a couple of days, but we plan to buy a car when we’re here.” César apparently felt the need to interject.
“What happened to my house, my proposal?” Brett smirked and winked at Chipper.
“Fine, fine. I’ll shut up. But he had to hear about the car.”
“Shut up already. Okay, Chipper, while in town we plan to buy a car too.”
It was obviously too much for the young artist; he lost it and his laughter reverberated throughout the restaurant. “Crap, everyone’s staring now. You guys are a trip. No wonder CJ’s the way he is.”
“You mean handsome and smart?”
“Jarhead! The proposal?”
“Oh, right. Anyway, when we leave, how’d you like to move into our place? Rent free, and you get to use whatever car we get.” Brett was disappointed. He expected Chipper would be excited about the offer and immediately agree. Instead, there was complete silence. “Well?”
“I’m thinking, Cap.”He rested his utensils on the dinner plate and crossed his arms. “Why are you doing this?”
“One, because we trust you.” César looked at Brett and received an approving nod. “We think someone—family or friends— will visit every other month or so, but we’d like to have a caretaker. A luxury beach house left empty for long stretches of time could attract attention from a less than desirable crowd.”
“We all come out on top, Chipper. You get a place to live, and we get a little peace of mind.” The smile Brett gave the young artist was bright enough to light up the night. “Come on, fucker. Stop playing hard to get. How can you say no? A fucking beach house in Malibu and a car, dude.”
The earnest appeal elicited further laughter. Once Chipper had it under control, he nodded. “Fine, but you have to remember I’ll be gone for like four months starting mid-May.” Chipper would tour North America with Maroon 5 but would not join them for the European or Asian legs.
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.”
“Where’s your friend? The big tipper.” EZ’s bartender placed a cold bottle of Michelob AmberBock in front of César and an ice-filled tumbler by Brett as soon as the men appropriated two stools at the end of the bar. “Johnnie Black?”
Brett was impressed. “One visit and you remember what we drink? Black’s good unless you have Blue.”
“Nope. This ain’t that kind of joint. Take a look around. Beer and well cocktails are the staples.”
“I’ll stick with Black. As for Meryl, who knows what she’s up to. I don’t think she’s too happy with me right now.”
“Too bad. That was the first time I seen anyone drop a C-note in Chipper’s jar. The fact she did the same for me made an impression.”
Winn Reynolds, they found out, was a contemporary. In his late thirties, the chubby, bearded man had owned EZ for a handful of years. He claimed to be straight but had no problem with a majority of his patrons being gay. “Live and let live, my man. Who cares what people do in private? As long as they can pay for their drinks, everyone’s welcome.”
The attitude did not surprise Brett. He had always said capitalism would be the great equalizer. More so than the government. While it had taken years of work at all levels to acquire certain rights, companies like American Express, Disney, and Apple had equalized benefits for their employees without regard to sexual orientation. It was good business practice to keep a small but generally affluent community happy.
“Good evening, welcome to EZ on Santa Monica.” Chipper’s greeting made the Washington visitors swivel their stools to watch the stage—a corner of the space where two tables had been stacked to the sides. “I’m gonna dedicate this set to my uncles Brett and César. It’s good to have you in town, guys.”
Chipper did a couple of half-hour or so sets. Songs ranged from unknowns to covers with a couple of numbers in Spanish. During break, he explained to his uncles he was trying to figure out what worked best together. While on tour as an opening act for Maroon 5, thirty minutes would be about the length of time he would spend on stage. The unknown numbers were songs from his first album. Its release would coincide with the tour’s start. He ended the night with a moving rendition of John Lennon’s “Imagine.”
“It still blows my mind how talented the little fucker is.” Brett threw his underwear at César’s face and jumped in bed laughing.
“Asshole!” They had a morning flight and César had laid out the clothes for the next day on a chair; everything else he was stuffing in their luggage. “And may I remind you the little fucker’s taller than you?”
“Details, details. Hey, you serious about coming back out for the tour’s opening concert? I think it’d be cool to see him then and later in D.C. To see how much he changes.”
“It’s a possibility.” César wiggled his eyebrows and smirked. “What’s in it for me?”