Chapter 1 – The Job Offer
“Is that a real fire?” a fleshy lady in hot pink shorts asked the man next to her.
“Of course it’s real. All that metal’s hiding the gas pipes that feed it,” he huffed, sweating in the heat.
Jordan tightened his lips, resisting the urge to correct the tourists with a few choice words, as he hammered the glowing, red steel of the sword blade. A dark-skinned, remarkably muscular young man who, at twenty-four, appeared to be in his thirties, he inherited his Southern Italian grandfather’s nose and cheekbones, his Middle Eastern grandmother’s skin tone, dark eyes, and eyebrows, but he bore little evidence of his Scottish mother’s influence. He wore a sleeveless, homespun cotton shirt to cover his back and chest, over which he had a leather apron to protect his body from the scorching hot metal he maneuvered as he shaped the claymore he was tasked with constructing. Acting as a living museum piece for the tourists who paid for the privilege to see what life was like in medieval times wasn’t the ideal position for Jordan. As a “master,” he was given the contracts from the weapons guild which sold authentically crafted blades to medieval enthusiasts, which he enjoyed, but it came with the meaningless tedium of answering questions about the blacksmithing process from the daily crowds.
Jordan swung the sword around to thrust it back onto the anvil. The blade flew a little too close to the polycarbonate shield, and the crowd gasped and moved back. He wasn’t allowed to voice his displeasure with the crowd’s inane chatter, which came to him through a speaker system so he could respond to their ridiculous inquiries. At least the tourists aren’t accusing me of being an audio-animatronic figure, he thought. There were those who couldn’t believe anyone as big and as steady as he was could be real. Why they believed a European medieval theme village in Los Angeles would order a blacksmith robot with Mediterranean features was beyond him. He resumed striking the blade with the hammer, then turned it over with the tongs and inspected the length, width, thickness, and alignment. One more round of heating and hammering, after this one, should bring it into perfect shape for the forging portion. Then he could quench it, before grinding it down and polishing it. He loved claymores. They were big, solid blades, for fighting men.
The metal was still hot enough that it didn’t need more forge time yet. He swung the hammer to shape it, the rhythm mesmerizing… Swing – clang! Swing – clang! Swing – clang! Swing – clang! Gradually, the metal lost the bright red color it needed for alteration. The adult portion of the crowd, having seen enough, moved on to the next exhibit. To his chagrin, several giggling teenage girls remained. They collected around his display like flies. It wasn’t so much his looks, as the way his muscles on his five-foot-eleven-inch frame rolled under his shirt, especially in the firelight.
He began weightlifting seriously when he was twelve, in the hopes of being able to defend himself from his father, and athletic authorities had accused him of being on steroids since he was fifteen. He’d been forced to take drug tests on a frequent basis for the wrestling he’d competed in all through high school, hoping to earn a college scholarship. Jordan was a fortress of a man, physically and mentally. Few people understood him when it came down to it, and he saw no reason to change that since he would have to reveal things about his youth that he felt were better left untold.
Jordan continued muscling the sword into its proper shape as the teens giggled. A deep voice came through the speaker and jarred his rhythm. He lost his grip on the tongs and the steel dropped to the floor. Flames shot up from the ground where it fell and the girls squealed in alarm. It surprised him the first time he learned that steel hot enough to shape was also hot enough to ignite dirt and impurities on concrete, and apparently it surprised them as well. He focused his mind, and swiftly reached for the almost-formed blade with the tongs, fumbling as he tried to grab it. It slipped from the pincer grip, but his next grab succeeded as he dominated the blade and placed it on the anvil with a thunk. The voice that caused the combustion was one he hadn’t expected to hear again. The face attached to that voice was pale gold and a touch red from the Southern California sun, burnt with the slightest exposure, unlike Jordan who was a natural copper color over every inch of his body. The visitor’s curly, dark-blond hair supported a pair of Tom Ford sunglasses and his pale blue eyes regarded Jordan intently. It was Carl Sanders.
Jordan had been his bodyguard and, as a cover, personal trainer to Carl for a much needed twenty dollars an hour back when they both went to the same magnet high school. Carl was a privileged, British-born addition to Jordan’s class, and an odd fit at such a modest educational institution. The school was in Jordan’s rough area of town and Carl’s family had enough money to make him a target for kidnapping. His Labour party father earned his money fighting for-profit healthcare in the U.S., and his parents had a desire to keep the boy humble and to teach him about the pitfalls of classism, even if it made the daily experience a bit risky for their son.
But that was six years ago. The question was, what was Carl doing here now?
Jordan opened the tongs and grabbed the blade more securely this time, putting it back in the forge, when the door behind him leading into the exhibit opened. His coworker, apprentice, and, lunchtime replacement, had arrived. Jordan pulled the blade out of the forge and set it aside instead. He thought briefly about the competing theme park farther north, where the blacksmith position was entirely blade work. There, he could focus on the craft, which left him alone with his thoughts. The blacksmith demo area at this other place had no polycarbonate shields, but also no speakers, and the distance between blacksmith and crowd made questions difficult to hear. It seemed blissful compared to this human interaction crap.
Jordan stood up and stretched his tired shoulders, to the sound of coos from the gallery. Disdaining to glance their direction, he left through the same back door his replacement had come in. Stopping at the message board down the hall, Jordan tore off the note asking him to meet Carl at the pub across the street. Still no clue as to why he was here. From what Jordan could see, Carl looked quite a bit slimmer than he had been in high school, but some of the weight loss could be attributed to the fact that Carl was a medical student now. He and Carl had discussed their college options back when Jordan had them, but his mother’s injury when he was seventeen precluded Jordan from accepting offers, despite all the hours he’d spent studying calculus, chemistry and college-level English. He’d reluctantly turned down athletic scholarships to work full-time instead, sending money home to his mother and younger sister while his mother went through physical rehabilitation, and eventually began to look for ways to retrain herself, since she could no longer work as a maid.
Jordan showered briefly, and changed to loose-cut jeans and a huge short-sleeved shirt, oversized so that it hung loosely over his forty-eight-inch chest. He preferred even looser cut jeans, but few men had his measurements. It was hard enough to find jeans that fit him at all at a price he could afford, especially ones that could be belted in without having to fold the waistband over several times. He left the building and walked toward the pub wishing he could avoid the inevitable, but Carl could be a persistent fool. Jordan wanted to find out what Carl wanted, then nip it in the bud. Carl was part of his past, and Jordan wasn’t interested in changing that.
Carl’s car, a yellow Jaguar, was parked outside. After six years, Jordan was surprised that Carl had held onto the long-nosed coupe. Entering the pub, Jordan took a swift look around the dimly lit pub to find Carl sitting at a small table in the corner, laughing with the waitress. Still a charismatic son-of-a-bitch.
Carl smiled, rose to his feet and offered his hand when he saw Jordan, who strode over, pulled out a chair and sat down abruptly.
“How did you find me?” Jordan asked, before Carl could say anything. Taken aback, Carl paused for a moment, his hand still in the air. The waitress left swiftly.
“I... need to talk with you,” he responded with less of a British accent than Jordan recalled. Carl slowly dropped his hand and sank into his chair.
“That’s not an answer, Sanders. I can’t even get my magazines delivered when I move. I haven’t been in touch with anyone from high school since we graduated. If you can find me, I want to know how,” Jordan growled.
Carl paused, almost frowned, then smiled reassuringly. “I had to try pretty hard, actually. I hired a man to find you. He followed your work files. He started with the most recent W-2 we had for you. Fortunately, your last name is Fontana rather than Smith.” Carl grinned as he brought his hands up and clasped them on the table.
There was silence.
“So, I suppose you know my whole friggin’ work history, then?”
Carl pursed his lips. “I didn’t want to inquire about your work history... Though I must admit that your income was of interest. You’re worth a lot more than you bring in, Jordan.”
“I can make you a rather lucrative offer. I’d appreciate it if you’d listen. You know, of course, that you’re under no obligation to accept.”
Jordan sat back warily. He wasn’t listed in the phone book, and lived in a secure apartment building. Not even all of his “friends” had his number, and he had left strict orders with the people at work not to release any of his contact information to anyone at all. It was no surprise that Carl had been unable to locate him except through his record of employment, but Jordan disapproved of personal business of any sort interfering with his job, even remotely. The thought that Carl had discovered things Jordan considered private, like his income, was infuriating. On the other hand, he was in a position of damage control now.
“I’m listening,” Jordan said finally.
Carl relaxed, slightly. “I... would like to take you on again as a... trainer.”
Jordan watched Carl’s eyes as he spoke. He saw the slightest trace of something: guilt? Fear? “As a personal trainer?” he said slowly, gauging Carl’s response carefully.
“At a minimum, actually. I’m ill – not contagious,” Carl added quickly as Jordan immediately leaned away from him. “I’m indisposed several times a month. I’m also losing weight. I don’t want it publicized. You know how the gossip rags like to follow our family. I just want to retire to the mountains, to the old cabin, and I need someone to assist me until I’ve recovered fully.”
Jordan shook his head and moved to stand up. “Wasting your time –” he stopped abruptly as Carl put out a hand to grip his wrist. He looked down at Carl’s hand balefully, Carl didn’t let go, and Jordan finally met his eyes.
“Jordan, I need your help. I’ve known many people throughout my life, but not many that are absolutely trustworthy. Not many who are as intelligent, as widely skilled, and as health-conscious.” He paused in consideration. “I admit, I’m aware of your work history –”
Jordan stood, flexed his muscles and threw off Carl’s hand explosively, his lips thinning even past their normal grimness and his eyes narrowing to black slits in his dark face.
Carl stood up and faced him directly. “Just listen for once, damn it,” he whispered fiercely. “I came 1500 miles to talk to you. Look, you owe me nothing, but I’d appreciate it if you’d hear me out.”
He was serious, then. Jordan realized people were staring at them, and slid back into the chair.
Carl sat down slowly, as the waitress quickly came over to take their order, as if she had been at fault for the tension between the men she was waiting on. Carl kept his eyes on Jordan as he dropped a silver credit card on the table to signal that lunch was on him, to which Jordan nodded briefly. Jordan suggested the pub’s specialty, a thick roast beef sandwich with house fries and a soft drink in a pewter mug. For Jordan, they made it cider. He took water on the side as well, and drained it immediately for the waitress to come back and refill at once. Since he started blacksmithing he was going through more than one hundred ounces a day.
“So this is about that training I did for you in high school,” Jordan said finally.
“You did well. I gained twenty-five pounds of pure muscle in a single year,” Carl reminded him.
“And fell twenty percent short of your potential,” Jordan replied, refusing to be flattered.
Carl rolled his eyes expressively. “It’s just a game, Jordan. One I never intended to play past high school. I had to concern myself with chemistry and biology.”
Jordan took another swallow of water before asking, “So why did you play at all?” His eyes were narrow as always, and calculating.
Carl gave Jordan a self-deprecating smile. “You know my father. He always wanted a strapping boy to play American football, and all he got was me, a tall and relatively slim one. But as long as I was on the team he had something to boast about to the relatives.”
“You were pretty damned good for a long-legged blond.”
Carl pressed the palms of his hands together and put them against his chin. “I need you to do it again. I’ve been losing a great deal of weight, and I can’t seem to get my diet and workout routine quite right. At best I can maintain, but overall it’s still a gradual loss.”
Jordan frowned. “Eat more.”
Carl shook his head. “It’s not at all that simple. I don’t need more fat, I need muscle. I can explain more –” Carl looked around the restaurant, “somewhere else.”
Jordan paused, then nodded. Carl’s face looked too thin. Jordan had learned that face quite well in the three years he’d spent as Carl’s trainer and bodyguard. What Carl didn’t know was that Jordan did feel indebted to Carl for hiring Jordan in high school. Jordan had been strong even before he started weightlifting when he was a kid, but he had unintentionally run his father out of the house three years later. It had been hard to hide his bulk in huge sweatshirts when his father was still throwing him around periodically, and Jordan’s added mass finally became too obvious when his father ripped Jordan’s shirt off his back to whip him one evening. Jordan simply grabbed the man and threw him into a wall, reversing their roles for once. After that, his father left abruptly, but not before he beat Jordan’s mother so badly she would never walk again. Out of guilt, and need, Jordan started taking heavy labor jobs to help support his mother and sister while his mother endured years of surgery and physical rehab. If it weren’t for Carl, he would have been working ships in Alaska every summer just to survive, leaving his mom and his sister alone and vulnerable.
Carl and Jordan studied each other intently for a while before Carl began to speak again. “I’m willing to work with you on this. I know you have a life here, a steady job and all. I know you aren’t the kind of man to throw that away. I’m willing to make it worth your while.”
Jordan’s ears perked up. “How worth it?”
“Eighty thousand a year.”
After a shocked moment, Jordan snorted.
“Plus room and board,” Carl added with a hint of desperation.
“At the summer house, in The Cascades.”
Jordan tilted his head at that. He’d never been to the “cabin” Carl’s parents had built up on Stevens Pass, but he had spent as much time as he could afford up in the clean air of The Cascades, hiking narrow forest trails until they broke through the tree lines and exposed sapphire blue mountain lakes. It was country a person could lose themselves in, could forget the grit of the city, become one with the scent of pine, the trail of bird tracks across the snowfields. “And when you’re feeling better, I’m jobless, with no unemployment benefits,” Jordan answered with contempt.
“I can guarantee you a year of pay.”
“A year!” Jordan responded incredulously, then leaned away. “What’ve you got, anyway?”
A line of tension formed on the bridge of Carl’s nose. “Nothing you’re going to catch just by being near me. I can guarantee you a year because whatever I have hasn’t been documented. I need to research it, and I need you to help me. Even if we get my weight leveled out, I want to have you there for a while, just in case, while I continue my research.”
Jordan saw the intensity in Carl’s eyes and paused. He needed to know more. “Okay, then; put it all in a PDF. Email it to me by five tonight, I’ll write my new email down for you. I’ll look at it, and we can talk this weekend. Where are you staying?”
“I’ll be at the Beverly Hilton.”
Jordan nodded, chewing slowly. He rolled his fries in a napkin to degrease them and looked out the window as he spoke. “Write it all down. Everything you want me to do, and what you’re willing to pay me for it. I’ll reply with my counter-offer tomorrow, and we can talk Saturday morning. I won’t turn you down outright, but I’ll tell you what it would take to hire me.” He looked back at Carl. “Accept it or reject it, that’ll be your choice. But I warn you, if I agree and later on you want me to do anything that you don’t write down, you might regret it when I refuse to do it. Get it in now or don’t plan on me doing it.” Jordan hadn’t heard anything about being a bodyguard yet; if he had, he’d have left already. He’d looked out for Carl during school hours, then come home watch over his own mom and sister, and it had made him exhaustingly paranoid, looking over his shoulder and fearing an attack every moment of the day. He never wanted to spend another hour of his life protecting anyone but himself. Never again.
During the rest of the hour, they discussed what they’d done since high school, sticking to safe topics such as exercise and weather. Aside from Jordan’s email address, no personal information was exchanged, particularly on Jordan’s part. Jordan had no intention of making his terms acceptable to Carl. Every time he looked at the guy, he remembered his life when he was younger, and with it everything he’d lost in one afternoon. He compared his current meager existence working in an outdated theme park and living in the space under someone’s stairs with the college degree and professional career he could have had. Should have had. It wasn’t Carl’s fault, but still, he didn’t want to be reminded of that.
* * *
Jordan finished his morning workout and was just stepping out of the shower Saturday morning when his cell phone rang. The email from Carl had been simple enough: Carl had raised his offer to $100,000 a year plus benefits, as well as room and board, which was quite substantial. In return, Jordan would be squire/maid/cook/personal trainer and a few other titles to boot, but mostly physical trainer and assistant dietician. To all appearances, Carl wanted a single servant to cater to all his needs, on-call twenty-four hours a day. Jordan was sure there was more to it, but the letter hadn’t said anything about bodyguard duties. What was Jordan missing?
He briskly toweled himself dry and threw on a short, thick robe his mother had made for him, then redialed the last number.
“I thought you’d run out on me!” Carl’s voice sounded panicky.
“If I hadn’t planned to talk to you, I wouldn’t have given you the number,” Jordan replied, logically. “Did you get my email?”
“Yes, I’m looking at it now,” Carl replied.
Jordan paused. He had raised his counteroffer to $140,000 to force Carl into turning it down. “And you’re still willing to talk?”
“I don’t think you understand; I haven’t got a choice. Have you eaten?”
“Not a full meal. I was working out,” Jordan responded.
“Why don’t I come by then, and we can talk? If you give me an address, I’ll pick you up in, say, half an hour?” Carl’s voice sounded strained.
“Right.” Puzzled, Jordan reluctantly decided to give him the address and hung up the phone.
Carl’s father was a self-made man, and Carl had always been careful with money, after a few indulgences like the car. If Carl accepted the terms Jordan had counter-offered, he would be throwing a lot of that money away, wouldn’t he? Jordan began to wonder whether it was still billions or into the trillions that the Sanders were worth by now, and how many more hospitals they’d bought or built to get there. More than that, he wondered what could make Carl so insistent. He didn’t want to make this decision between the money he could use to take care of his mom, and the fear that he’d lose what little control he had over his own life. Shit, he thought, now what do I do?
* * *
Carl’s car was waiting in the loading zone when Jordan walked out of the apartment building carrying a notebook with a copy of the terms inside. Jordan checked his watch. He was early. So much for being fashionable. He opened the car door and slid down into the leather bucket seat.
“Which way?” Carl asked, looking at the traffic in the rearview mirror.
“Breakfast or lunch?” Jordan asked.
“Lunch, I suppose,” Carl replied slowly.
Jordan thought for a moment. “Take a left at the next light,” he said turning to Carl.
Carl looked at him and shook his head, pulling out onto the one-way. “Not likely. Changing four lanes in less than half a block is a bit much. I can go a block past and circle right, can’t I?”
Jordan grinned. “So, you do have limits.”
“Bloody bastard,” Carl said, only half joking, then stopped at the light. Carl put his head down on the steering wheel.
“Tired?” Jordan asked.
Carl nodded, not lifting his head. “I couldn’t sleep. You’re driving a hard bargain.”
“Didn’t think ‘no’ would be such a hard answer,” Jordan said.
Carl lifted his head. “‘No’ would be the easy one. It’s ‘yes’ that I find difficult to swallow.”
In a minute, the light turned green, and several people blew their horns at them. Jordan glanced irritably at Carl, who jumped at the cacophony. “Want me to drive?” Jordan asked impatiently.
Carl pulled the car around the corner and nodded, pulling into another loading zone. Jordan walked around to the driver’s side and lowered himself into the seat. It was like sinking into a cloud. The stick-shift was right where his hand wanted it to be after he adjusted the seat forward several inches. Carl was one inch taller than Jordan, at six feet, but much of the difference was in Carl’s long legs. The clutch was high. Carl’s head lolled back against the neck-rest as Jordan pulled out and nearly had to slam on the breaks, not prepared for the surge of power. Carl glanced at him, then closed his eyes. It didn’t take Jordan long to get used to how responsive car was. It was like an addiction. He began to think he’d been had, that access to the high-performance car was a ploy to get him hired, but looking at Carl he could see Carl was beyond the point of plots. He was asleep.
After an extended jaunt on the freeways and a winding path through several back streets, Jordan saw the forest of bamboo that cloaked the parking lot, as he’d expected, and pulled in slowly, then parked in the back corner. Carl finally rolled over and mumbled, “Sorry.”
“For what?” Jordan asked, puzzled.
“Falling asleep,” Carl answered, yawning.
Jordan grabbed the notebook and stepped out. Carl yawned, stepped out, stretched languorously, then followed Jordan into the restaurant.
Foreign music filled their ears as they looked at lacquered screens and gold cloisonné baubles. A six-armed gold statue of a woman sat cross-legged in front of the hostess station. The windows were curtained so heavily it was impossible to tell whether it was day or night outside. The essence of garlic, lemongrass, and chili wafted through the air and Jordan heard Carl’s stomach growl. He’d heard this little Thai restaurant had great food, and the smell was intoxicating.
Jordan asked for a table in the back, and the dark-eyed hostess nodded, motioning them to follow. There was a dancer on a stage they passed, swaying to the music. Jordan had to assume it was Thai dancing, to Thai music. He’d only heard of this place; that it was expensive, served excellent food, and that “business” deals could be cemented in privacy. It was the type of place Jordan avoided, but today, the ability to talk without being seen or heard was his highest priority. Something was off about this whole interaction with Carl, and he wanted to get to the bottom of it.
The hostess guided them to a small table next to a huge mural of a tropical rainforest. The lights were low, and the small lamps at every table burned, glowing with both light and a hint of jasmine fragrance as well.
They sat down as the girl left, and a waitress arrived immediately. “Anything to drink?” she asked with a mild accent.
“Tea, no caffeine,” Jordan answered.
“Is mint okay?” She asked, and Jordan nodded in assent.
“I’d like a coffee,” Carl said. “Black, please.”
She nodded and walked away. Carl and Jordan were left staring at each other in the dim lamp-glow. Carl’s face still looked harsh, even in this light. It had been six years since they’d graduated and Carl had been accepted to college. Jordan was grudgingly jealous of Carl for that. For having to work hard, himself, full-time in summers and part-time during the school year, still studying several hours a day. And for all that work, he had nothing after paying his mother’s hospital bills, while Carl had breezed into college without a single worry.
The coffee and tea came as the two young men continued to study each other, sifting through memories for some essence of camaraderie. Jordan perused the menu quickly, canceling out the curries, the beefs, the porks, the high-fat sauces. After checking with the waitress to assure it wasn’t prepared with a sauce, he ordered a chicken, mint, and lime dish with red onions and cashews, and went for four out of five stars on the spiciness scale. Carl’s eyebrows lifted, surprised that Jordan cared for food that fiery.
“I suggest it, if you can take it.” Jordan said. “Would wake you up.”
Carl grimaced and ordered a three-star green curry. As the waitress left with their orders, Carl said, “I wouldn’t be falling asleep if you were being a tad more reasonable.”
“You’re bitchy when you’re tired,” Jordan replied.
Carl gave him a disgusted look. “Well, where do we start?” he asked. “Your terms are rather broad in scope.”
Jordan grunted. “I’m still not sure I know why you want me.”
Carl put his head in his hands. “I don’t cook, I’ve never shopped for groceries, I don’t know a dust-mop from a dishrag, and I need to put on weight. I’m going into isolation, where I can’t pick up take-out on the way home every evening. If I were to hire one person for each task, there would be too many sources of leaks. I need one man, one that I can trust. Aside from needing someone to help me get my muscle mass back, I’ve known you long enough and well enough to know you keep other people’s business to yourself. You’ve always kept everything to yourself.”
Jordan could just hear Carl’s voice over the music. The restaurant was sparsely populated, but even someone at the next booth would be hard put to realize they were speaking at all. He leaned over. “That’s what gets me. Why do you need someone who can keep secrets? What’s your secret? What’s the real story?”
“I... I lose my memory, three nights in a row, once a month.” Carl’s brows drew together in apparent discomfort.
“What does that mean?” Jordan asked. It still didn’t sound like an illness.
Carl looked out the window before answering. “It’s nothing I understand, by any means. A couple nights a month I feel excruciating pain in the evening, then I wake up the next morning…in the nearest forest or field, stark naked.”
Jordan’s eyes widened slightly, then narrowed down to their usual slitted awareness again. “A couple nights a month?”
The waitress filled their mugs again, giving Carl time to look down and gather himself. After the waitress left, he looked up. “Three evenings in a row, then nothing at all for twenty-five days. Aside from the weight problem, of course.”
Jordan looked out the window. This was a better story than he’d heard in a long time. Collecting himself, he promised himself he would keep a straight face through the rest of the conversation. It was still a good offer, though he didn’t want it. He’d learned not to burn his bridges, either forward or backward.
“Jordan, please don’t mention this to anyone,” Carl said anxiously. “I’ve already had to deal with questions from a crazed journalist over checking into a hospital recently. I can’t afford to have them find me up at the cabin. So far, we’ve kept the place’s existence a secret. According to the books, it’s owned by someone else.”
Jordan was hardly paying attention to his words. “Are you eating right?”
“Better than ever, and more protein than before,” Carl’s blue eyes concentrated steadily on Jordan’s face.
“Tired?” Jordan asked.
“Not really. I suppose I had more energy than usual at the beginning.”
Jordan started chewing a fingernail. “Anything else?”
“I’m losing weight.”
Jordan looked at him and frowned. “You said that.”
“But that’s the key reason I need you, and no one else. I need to start a weight-gaining program. I know that I can do it with your help. Nothing I’ve tried myself works.”
Jordan chewed on the edge of his thumbnail. “Just a matter of balancing input and outgo. Shouldn’t be a problem.”
“Is that a yes?” Carl asked, hopefully.
“No,” Jordan growled, then, “I don’t know enough yet.”
Carl began to tap his fingers against the salt shaker in his right hand.
Jordan took a sip of tea. “Isn’t there anyone in your life? No friends? No family?” He paused. “No…woman?”
Carl turned away, then looked back. “I’d rather not drag my friends into this – no offense. My family is back in England. My mother wanted to be near my grandmother when grandfather died. And as for a woman...” Carl stopped and his eyes creased with pain. “She’s gone.”
“Gone?” Jordan prodded.
“We were engaged to get married.” He looked up at Jordan. “If you were a woman, what would you think if your future husband started calling you a couple of mornings in a row, asking to be picked up miles from home? And naked, with no reasonable explanation?”
Jordan’s eyes narrowed. “She thinks you were fooling around.”
“She probably thinks I’m insane! For all I know, I may very well be.”
“If so, I expect severance pay when you go into a hospital.”
Carl gave him a disapproving frown.
“Hey, buddy, you said yourself you’re not trying to hire a friend.”
“It could also be a plot,” Carl said, after taking a sip of coffee. “That’s another reason I’d like to hire you. People don’t mess with you.”
Jordan nodded matter-of-factly. “That wasn’t on the list.”
Carl looked up from his coffee. “Certainly it was!”
“Do you have the list with you?”
Jordan picked the notebook up from the seat next to him and pulled a piece of paper out of it. Carl scanned it quickly. “I’m terribly sorry! I thought I had worded that in a different manner. Here,” he took the paper, crossed off a few words and wrote above them, then handed it back.
Jordan looked at the corrected line, and looked up. “No,” he said, and handed the paper back.
Carl looked up from the paper in alarm. “Jordan, you have to... what will it take?”
“More than that. I was a bodyguard, once.” Jordan stared coolly. “I didn’t care for it.”
Carl drummed his fingers on the table. “Equipment?”
Jordan frowned questioningly.
“Any piece – every piece of exercise equipment you ask for, and you can take it with you when the job is over.”
Jordan gripped his chin in his hand. The food came, steaming. The waitress left.
“That was a mighty shallow offer,” Jordan finally responded. Actually, it sounded quite good. Jordan had frequently considered formally starting his own personal training service, with his own equipment.
Carl released the breath he’d been holding in a huff of air, then asked, “What … do… I… have… to… do?”
Jordan smiled slowly. “Up the offer by fifty thousand. Give me a lock on my bedroom and stay out of it… The kitchen will be mine. I want an hour and a half a day to myself; no interruptions under any circumstances, except death or dismemberment. Before I’m disturbed. Music – any that I request. And that equipment, as a matter of fact, and a room big enough to set it up in. A masseuse, as needed. Five weeks per year vacation. Retirement plan, same terms I have now but better rates. Use of your vehicle. Friday evenings and the following Saturday up to three times a month, as needed. Any other items that I consider necessary to do my job.” As an afterthought, he added, “And a hot tub, if you don’t have one.”
Carl sat for a moment, then got up and went to the restroom. Knowing Carl, Jordan was quite sure he’d be pacing the floor. Carl never could sit still when dealing with a problem. He had even paced in class during particularly hard tests in high school. The teachers weren’t about to tell him not to; his parents funded the new stadium. Jordan preferred to eat alone in any case, and the food was excellent. Jordan was nearly done with the bowl of jasmine-steamed rice he’d ordered on the side when Carl returned.
“All right, you’ve got it.”
Jordan fumbled and dropped his fork. “What?”
“The deal. I’ll pay you one-hundred ninety thousand a year, plus all the fringe benefits in your email, and the items you just added at present,” Carl answered irritably, sitting down.
Jordan stared in consternation. “The hot tub?”
“I have one, of course.”
“From one to four times a month. Give me veto power on the items you consider necessary to do your job.”
Jordan eyed Carl warily. “No.”
Carl rested his forehead in his hands. “Jordan, that gives you quite a lot of latitude. How can I know you won’t take advantage of me?”
Jordan’s voice was taut. “You have to trust me.”
Carl considered, poking at his food, then spooned the curry over his rice and pushed it around a little. Grimacing, he answered. “I have to put my life in your hands then.”
“No more than I put mine in yours. And when I tell you what weights to lift and what to eat, you do it, not like in high school. You fell a good twenty percent short of your potential. I’m not throwing my job, my students -- yes,” he said when he saw Carl’s surprise, “I’ve also been training guys at the club in my spare time, which was not in your income assessment, as it’s all under the table. I’m not tossing it all aside for nothing. And you’ll guarantee me employment for two years minimum, or severance pay equal to it.” Jordan was sure, now, that he’d gone beyond Carl’s limits.
He was wrong. As Jordan ate the last piece of chicken, Carl answered. “Yes.”
Jordan stopped chewing and swallowed. “And the kitchen?”
“It’s yours,” Carl answered, scrubbing his eyes with his fist.
“You’ll stay out of it?”
“Yes,” came the reluctant reply.
“No munching, no crumbs on the counter?”
“Yes! I said,” Carl paused and looked over at Jordan, “yes.”
Jordan was floored. “And if you’re lying to me, I’m released with severance pay.”
Carl closed his eyes and put his head in his hands. “How many times must I accept your terms? When does it end?”
“When I’m convinced,” Jordan answered tersely. This was crazy.
Jordan had purposely made his demands unacceptable, having promised to take the job if Carl accepted them. Jordan could make good use of that money, but to commit to nearly round-the-clock work, and live in someone else’s house to do it, was giving up more control than he could stand. He’d tried to force Carl to make the decision he wanted so he’d be guaranteed to give up on this crazy idea. But it had gone the wrong way. With that much money, he could buy his mom a house she’d be willing to move into, and get her out of that God-forsaken slum. That was it. That was what he wanted more than anything. At $190,000 a year for two years, he could do it. Especially if he didn’t even have to pay for a place to live for that two years. Everything he needed was covered, the income was free and clear.
The waitress came to remove the plates, and Carl dropped his card on the edge of the table. She lifted it deftly with Jordan’s dishes and disappeared.
“I’ll need two weeks to give my boss time to find a replacement,” Jordan said finally, pulling a notebook out to look at a calendar in the front of it.
Carl rubbed his face. There was blond stubble on the pale gold skin. “I need you in three weeks at the outside, Jordan. Twenty-two days from now, on the evening of the twenty-first.”
“You’ll have me, but no sooner. I haven’t seen my family for a year, and I’ll be working overtime for the next few weeks, training their journeyman to reach a master level. I won’t have time to call... Huh...” Jordan was staring at the calendar.
“What is it?” Carl asked.
Jordan pointed at the day he’d marked on the calendar. “Full moon. That’s just more proof: you’re freakin’ loony.”
Carl shook his head in disgust, but Jordan saw a wariness in his eyes. He’d probably hit it on the nose. Carl thought he was transforming into some kind of monster when the moon was full. So, Jordan could take the job, get the pay, and when Carl was institutionalized after he talked to Carl’s father about everything, Jordan could walk away with enough money to finally take care of his mom, and to start a business.
They cemented the deal with signatures, not handshakes. Jordan still felt like he was being bought, and he didn’t like it, but he’d put up with it for just long enough to get what he wanted out of the deal.