Book 3: The Centre

by Rick Beck

Chapter 12

No Longer One of the Boys

When I broke out the French food for her lunch, Matilda put her hands on her hips and cocked her head to one side. She thought so much sauce couldn't help but cover up the taste of the food. The color of the food changed, once it was refrigerated, but the taste was excellent. The crepes with strawberries and gobs of freshly whipped cream were the favorite for both of us. Matilda had to admit it made for a great lunch.

That was the day I walked to The Castro to make an effort to talk to the kids I was there to help. They sat in groups of two and three in the same places I had sat. I asked about boys with the names I remembered. Gene always came to mind. He'd showed me the way over the rooftops to escape the police, who weren't as swift as teenagers.

"Dark curly hair. Taller than me. Thinner than me."

The description was old. He'd be taller, more mature now.

Rink, the boy who sat talking to me from the doorstep of the Korean market admitted to sixteen. His white blond hair and freckled pure face made him look thirteen. He was thin, but they were all thin. He kept his baby blue eyes out of mine, until I said Gene's name. For the first time his face met mine.

"Gene, yeah, he was here. Some guy from L.A. picked him up. He's living down there now. I hear he's living large."

"How long ago?" I asked.

"Can't be sure. What day is it?"

"Monday September 17th," I said suspicious.

"Last month? Late July, maybe. He's been gone more than a month. I seen him once since and he said he was living in LA with a rich dude," Rink said, going over my face carefully. "I can do anything he did for you if the price is right."

"Anything?" I said, surprised by his frankness.

"It's extra for taking it up the Hershey Highway. You got to use a condom. I blow, but I don't swallow. I can do what Gene did. You'll see," he said, his voice smooth and certain.

"He was my friend. He helped me when I was out here last year," I said, looking for his reaction.

Once more his eyes moved around my face. He looked away while thinking about my words. There were no further offers or negotiations as he sat silent, looking uncomfortable.

'I wouldn't have believed me either,' I thought.

If he thought I lied about that, he knew I'd lie about everything. It wasn't easy reaching kids on the street. The first rule was to trust no one. I wanted to be able to talk to them without running into a stone wall.

"I only said that because I got two brothers. They depend on me to feed them. We ain't ete today," he revealed, sounding more honest than I ever did.

"I can get you something. A sandwich? A soda?"

"I told you I got two brothers. I can't eat if they don't eat."

"What are you doing here with two brothers?"

"What were you doing here?"

"I understand," I said softly. "Where are your brothers?"

"Safe," he said, drawing circles on the sidewalk between his legs. "I'll do what you want but I got to get enough to feed my brothers."

"What about you? Don't you eat?"

"If I make enough I do. Come on, I'll take care of you."

"You're pretty young," I said, wiggling on his hook and feeling guilty for letting the conversation go so far.

"I'll get you a guy 'at's sixteen, but I got to have five."

"You're sixteen," I said, as he looked away from my face squinting as he thought about it.

"Okay, I'm not sixteen."

"How old are you?" I asked, knowing better.

"Fifteen," he said, knowing I wouldn't believe him.

"Fifteen, sixteen, they're the same and you're still awfully young."

"What, you want my birth certificate? I ain't got time for this. I got to feed my brothers."

"Okay, I'll feed you," I said.

"All of us," he insisted.

"Did I say I'd feed you? Go get your brothers."

"My brothers ain't part of the deal," he explained.

"There is no deal. I'm going to see all three of you get fed. That's the deal." "No body just comes along and decides to feed three kids without expecting something in return," Rink advised me.

"Well, then, you got a problem. I'm going to take you home and feed you. I don't have enough money on me or I would feed you now. Do you want to eat or not?"

Rink turned to take a long look at me before he headed up toward where the party hotel once stood. I could see him thinking over how much of a threat I might be to them. He seemed to decide I didn't represent any physical threat.

What in the world were three little kids doing out here? They were too young to be dealing with the street. In fact his two brothers should have been in elementary school. Denny was ten and Danny was eleven. They looked more like triplets than brothers. They had identical hair, eyes, and skin, with each boy having more freckles than the one who came before him.

I collected them and we headed toward home, praying Argyll understood it was only for a meal. My desire to help cornered me into doing something I hadn't thought through. If I left them to go get money, they'd never have waited. Rink was only willing to trust me as long as it meant feeding his brothers, but he watched me carefully for any sign of danger.

Once in the apartment they seemed to relax. I got them Pepsi from the fridge, after sitting them in the kitchen and ordering the super deluxe everything but the kitchen sink pizza and more Pepsi from Stromboli's Pizza.

"What's the deal?" Rink asked.

"No deal. Are you hungry?"

"Starved," Rink said.

"Starved," his two brothers chimed.

"It'll be a half an hour."

"There's got to be a deal," Rink insisted.

"Rink, there is no deal."

"Whose place is this? You got a sugar daddy or what?"

"I live here with a friend," I said.

"You're gay?" Rink asked, as his brothers looked on.

"You a detective?" I asked, and they all laughed. "What's up with bringing your brothers out here, Rink?"

"Long story," he said, sliding down in his chair.

"How old are you?"

"This is the price of the meal?"

"No, it's something that's bothering me. You aren't fifteen?"

"Thirteen. You caught me. Denny's ten, almost eleven. Danny is eleven almost twelve. My mother was nothing if not consistent. I turned thirteen in May. Let's eat."

"What are you doing out here?"

"Living. What you related to Harry Mason or what?"

"Perry Mason," I corrected. "Yeah, why can't you go home?"

"Donnie!" Danny said uncomfortably.

"Who is Donnie?" I asked.

"Mother's boyfriend," Rink said ill at ease, swinging his feet back and forth under his chair.

"He beats you?"

"No, Donnie wasn't mean."

"Why did you leave?" I persisted, not having anything I could do about it.

"You got a television?"

"Yeah," I said.

"Can they watch?"

"Yeah," his brothers agreed.

"I don't want to talk in front of them. They won't bother nothin'. Don't touch nothin'," he told them.

Rink was right. He sat them in a chair in front of the TV and told them not to move, until he came to get them. They were hypnotized by the cartoons before we left the room.

"Donnie's the youngest boyfriend my mother's brought home. I suppose he's twenty, twenty-one. She's going through her second childhood. They screw all over the house. He's always hard. He walks around naked. Hard to miss he's horny."

"That's a lot better than being on the street."

"No, that was no biggy. I kind of liked that part of it. Some of her other boyfriends got me to play with theirs. Donnie was younger and he liked me more than my mom. I think it's why he stayed with her."

"You're gay?" I blurted with no more consideration than many of my comments, but he needed to tell someone.

"I don't know what I am. I'm fucking thirteen. I didn't mind he paid attention to me. I liked his dick. It was kind of cool, ya know. He liked holding me close. He'd come get in my bed at night and we'd fool around. Most of my mother's boyfriends growled and yelled. Donnie was such a little boy."

"So what happened?" I wanted to know.

"Donnie was cool as long as I was the one he was getting in bed with."

"What's that mean?"

"I caught him with Danny. I'd been out for some reason and when I came in Danny was sitting on his lap as they watched television. They were both naked. Now Danny is bashful so I knew whose idea it was."

"Maybe he liked him, too," I reasoned.

"Yeah, and I might have gone along with that, but Denny was watching them. I knew he would be the next one sitting on his lap and Denny isn't the least bit bashful. It's how he got the ball rolling with me. He knew I looked at him. Didn't take no Alfred Einstein to figure out what was on my mind."

"Albert," I corrected.

"He gay too?"

"No, what happened?"

"It excited me but they're too young to be fooling around with an old dude. I'm too young to know the difference, but Donnie was getting way too friendly."

"I'm sorry," I apologized for what he'd learned too young.

"We never had no old man. Donnie was the closest thing to a father. He did stuff with us. Not just sex stuff. He took us to the movies. He hit the ball to us. We passed the football. Stuff like that. He paid attention to us. He liked us. We all liked him."

"The streets are totally dangerous. You were better off at home. If you can't go back why not send your brother's back?"

"Donnie!"

"Oh, yeah, maybe he's gone. Maybe if you told your mom?"

"You kidding me? She found out he slept with me, she'd kill me and then she'd kill him. My mother isn't about sharing her men… or boys in his case. Donnie was closer to my age than hers."

The pizza came and when I went to get the boys, they hadn't moved, mesmerized by the screen. They looked so young. Boys that age being on the street was a crime.

Rink took each of his brother's plates and served out one of the huge pieces of pizza for each of them. He served me before taking a piece for himself. I caught him glancing at me a couple of times. He'd been waiting for me to make a request for services, but it hadn't happened and I could see the uncertainty on his face.

"What's your real name? What's with Rink?" I asked.

As Rink chewed his pizza, holding it as it dangled down around his hand, he pointed at his youngest brother, "Denny," he said, pointed to the other, "Danny," he said, and he pointed to himself, "Donnie. I changed my name because it reminded me of him."

"You have the same name as your mother's boyfriend?"

"He said it made us brothers, having the same name. I thought it was cool. Do you think he was gay?"

"More like horny," I said, before realizing his brothers were listening to our conversation.

"He said I was his brother," Danny said. "He said lots of brothers were close."

"Close doesn't mean taking it up your butt," Donnie snapped.

Denny started laughing into the pizza he was eating.

"You never minded it when it was your butt," Danny countered.

"I never did it in front of you," Donnie reasoned.

"No, just in the next bed. You think you're the only one he liked? He liked me, too."

I had it in mind to take the boys back to The Castro before Argyll came in from work, except I couldn't bring myself to put them back out there. At twenty-five after eight, I heard Argyll's key in the lock. He carried something into the kitchen and I knew I was skating on thin ice.

"Billie Joe Walker Jr., in here. Now."

The ice broke.

Denny was sitting at the table chewing on a piece of pizza, staring at Argyll who glared right back.

"Who's this and what's he doing in my kitchen?" Argyll asked in a stern voice.

"That's Denny," I said. "Denny, this is Argyll."

"Who's he?" Denny asked with his mouth mostly full.

"He's the man in charge," I said.

"Oh, hi," Denny said, finishing his cold pizza.

"Go watch television, Denny," I said, and we both watched as he made his exit.

"No! No! No! No! I can't do this, Joe. I can't be party to this. How old is that kid and what the hell is he doing here?"

"His age is the point. You want that kid living on the street?" I asked, figuring it was an argument we were going to have. "You take him back, because I can't."

"Joe!" he yelled, cutting it off before he was screaming at me.

"This on account of us?" Donnie asked, as he leaned into the door of the kitchen to see who was yelling at me. "We can go if you want. Don't get in no trouble for us. It was good pizza and it was nice not be scared for a few hours."

"There's more?" Argyll asked in disbelief but keeping his voice controlled.

"This is Donnie and you haven't met Danny," I said, as Danny and Denny poked their heads in beside Donnie's.

"We out ah here?" Denny asked. "Thank you, sir, for the wonderful pizza. I really enjoyed it. You sure got a big nice house," Denny said in his best Oliver Twist imitation.

Donnie smacked Denny on the back of the head. "Cut it out. He's not falling for that crap."

Argyll sat down hard, looking at the three angelic faces peering at his before he put his face in his hands.

"Why me, Lord?"

"I'll leave with them. It's not your problem, Argyll. I just couldn't leave them out there. I'm sorry," I said, hating to see Argyll's anguish.

"There's three of them? Joe! Joe! I got a job to think about."

"How could I leave them on the street? I couldn't."

"Joe, they were just fine where they were. I can't have kids up here. My old man would croak."

"He's home?"

"Figured this was too nice a set up to be yours," Donnie said, as Argyll peaked out of his hands at him.

"Father Flannery," I said, and Argyll looked up. "Maybe he'd take them?"

"I talked to him like I said I would. I think he wants to help. They can't stay here. Even if he'd take them, it would take arrangements. He's looking into what would be practical without upsetting the powers that be any more than necessary."

"A priest? We'll go," Donnie said. "Thanks, Billie Joe. Come on," he said to his brothers. "The pizza was awesome. You're awesome. You sure I don't owe you nothing?"

"Don't be in such a hurry," I said. "I might be going with you."

"No, go ahead and be in a hurry," Argyll said, looking directly at Donnie as he spoke.

"No offense, Billie Joe, but I can't take care of no one else. I hardly get enough to eat as is. Hey, Mister, we forced him to bring us up here and buy us pizza. It weren't his fault. It's all I got, Billie Joe, good luck," Donnie said, holding the door for his brothers.

"I was thinking?" I said to Argyll.

"No, don't do that. I always end up fixing things when you start thinking, Joe," Argyll said, resting his chin on the back of his hands as he rested them on the table.

"Are we leaving?" Danny asked. "MASH is on."

"Go watch television for a few minutes. All of you," I ordered, and the doorway cleared out immediately.

"We can't put them back on the street," I explained.

"We can't? Why didn't we leave them where we found them? Sounds like what I might do."

"They're being molested at home," I said. "They can't go home."

"Sounds like a case for the cops. Wait a minute. I'm a cop. Where are they from?"

"I grilled them but they aren't talking. He was doing Donnie, when Donnie caught him doing Danny."

"He could tell them apart?"

"Argyll, they're kids in trouble. You're a cop."

"I can't arrest them. How'd that look?"

"Argyll!"

"Well, we can always wait them out. They'll eventually talk or grow up. Maybe I'll just have a cardiac arrest and get it over with."

"They aren't criminals. They're victims. They aren't going to say anything to a cop. Where's your uniform anyway?"

"I had some things at the cleaners. I changed there and they're doing an overnight job for me. They're tailoring a couple of uniforms for me but I've only got the one at the moment."

"He's thirteen, taking care of a ten and an eleven year old. We can't put them back out there. That would be criminal."

"It wouldn't be if you hadn't brought them here. You are testing my patience, Joe. They're sleeping in your bed," Argyll dictated. "They can use your bathroom. They can use the television room and the kitchen and I'm locking the rest of the rooms. Tomorrow we're finding a more suitable place for children. Is that understood?"

"I can't sleep in a bed with three little boys," I said. "Donnie seems determined to pay me for helping him and you know what that means for a street kid."

"I'm locking all the other doors but mine. You can sleep in my room if that helps, but this arrangement is not an answer, it's a make-it-though-the night proposition. Are we clear, Joe?"

"Yes, sir," I agreed before shutting up.

"You are? I'll have to mark this date down."

We walked into the television room and all three of them were sitting in the overstuffed chair in front of the TV, staring into the screen like little boys do.

"I want you to know, Joe, when I saw us together, I never saw us with kids," Argyll revealed. "One night. That's it. If Father Flannery won't take them off our hands, you'll have to take them back to where you got them or I'll be forced to bring in social services."

"Yes, sir," I agreed, sensing an ever-so-slight weakening in his so far steadfast opposition to housing the boys.

Donnie heard everything without speaking. He was ever vigilant and very good at pretending he didn't know what was going on. I figured he would already be planning their getaway if anyone unacceptable got close to them. He seemed to trust that I wouldn't betray him and for a street kid that was a reach in such a short period of time.

I remembered the street sense that came to you fast if you survived the first few days. We all had it, but as dangerous as it was on the street, the real fear was being locked behind closed doors with bigger and stronger kids, street smart, and conditioned to the survival of the fittest.

Argyll dug ice cream out of the freezer and the five of us sat around the table eating Neapolitan out of fine china dishes, staring at each other. We were perfect strangers with nothing in common. I was all right because I'd fed them and asked for nothing in return. Argyll presented a new challenge. He was less malleable and more pragmatic than me, but he'd furnished ice cream and that won him points.

I could tell Argyll didn't want these harmless kids on the street. It was possible he was rethinking the issue of helping three adorable kids. It was obvious they didn't have a malicious bone in any of their bodies. Keeping it that way was tricky but essential business.

Argyll was a cop. I was their advocate, and because of Argyll's feelings for me, I held a certain sway over him. I'd been on the street long enough to recognize these kids hadn't been hardened by it yet. Keeping it that way was going to require both Argyll and me to get involved. I came back to save all the kids, but if I only got to save three, these three would do.

"Okay, bowls in the sink. It's time for bed," Argyll ordered.

"I haven't had ice cream in so long," Danny said, "Couldn't I have just one more scoop."

He held his bowl up toward Argyll with both hands cradling it. Donnie smacked the back of his head.

"Owe! Cut it out," he complained.

"You cut it out. The man gave you ice cream. Thank him and shut up," Donnie said forcefully.

"Thank you very much for the ice cream," Danny said and both Donnie and Denny agreed.

"Okay, time for bed," Argyll said, once he ran water in each bowl as it was handed over.

I tucked them into my bed as Argyll watched from the doorway.

"Night, Billie Joe," Donnie said, kissing my cheek as I leaned to get the comforter over all three of them.

"Night, Billie Joe," the other two sang. "Night, Mr. Argyll."

"Night, kids," Argyll said passively.

We sat at the kitchen table eating more ice cream. Argyll was pensive. He scraped his spoon against the bottom of his bowl long after he'd emptied it. He licked the spoon and hunched over the bowl once he was done.

"I eat when I'm stressed. I'm going to blow up like a balloon," he lamented. "Life was so easy before I found you."

"God, Argyll, you weigh a hundred and ten pounds and you're six foot tall."

"Today one-ten; tomorrow two-twenty. It's an endless spiral once it begins."

"You worry too much," I argued.

"I have you living with me. I'm entitled. I'm having my uniform tailored to please you. Now, I probably won't fit into it," he said with a sigh.

"Two bowls of ice cream won't alter your figure."

"I'm tired. I think I'll go to bed. We'll need to go to the store to get the kids breakfast, dear."

I laughed at his resolve.

"A box of Captain Crunch and a gallon of milk should do it."

"Not in my house you won't. They'll have nourishing food, while they're here."

"Ice cream and pizza. We'll never get rid of them."

"I've got that feeling too. Good night, dear," he said, haplessly moving away from the table.

I read for an hour before going to his bedroom. He had on thick horn rim glasses and was reading from a book too thick to be for enjoyment.

"I put two pillows on your side," he said. "There are more in the top of the walk-in closet if you need more."

"Thanks," I said, leaving my clothes on the chair on my side of the bed but keeping on my underwear.

I slid into the huge bed. We were almost as far a part as when I slept in my bedroom. He was propped up on three or four pillows and had his finger on the page he had been reading when I entered. He hadn't started reading again.

"Near as I can figure we're not guilty of anything beyond contributing and harboring, and there are half a dozen sexual charges that can be brought simply because we are gay men and have them here. I think we aren't looking at any more than thirty or forty years apiece."

"We only gave them pizza and ice cream. Surely we'd get time off for that," I said, smiling at his morose face.

"Right! Hey little boy, want some ice cream, or maybe some candy? I don't think that makes a good defense. What I do know is if the wrong prosecutor decides he wants to take us down, he'd have a field day making us appear like hardcore pedophiles. They make their bones on cases they can turn into sensations."

"We'll keep them safe, until we can see they're in a safe place. They're too precious for words, Argyll. We can't let those kids get swallowed by the mean streets."

"No, we can't, but it would be a lot easier if I didn't know anything about them."

"Life would be wonderful if no one was ever in trouble or needed help, especially kids."

"You're one of a kind, Joe. I just haven't figured out what kind that is yet."

"I'm beat," I said. "Kids can wear you out."

"If I read any more I'll have nightmares," Argyll said, laying his book to one side and pushing a button that lowered the lights to almost non-existent.

"Can you turn that back on," a voice said from the doorway. "I'll get lost without light."

Argyll sat straight up and there was light even brighter than before.

"I was wondering if I could sleep in here. I've usually stay awake to watch over my brothers, but they're sound asleep and safe. I'd like to sleep somewhere where I feel safe. Please."

I looked at Argyll as he looked at me.

"Why not? There are still laws we've yet to break," Argyll said. "Come on, kid. You shut up and go to sleep."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Argyll," Donnie said in an oh-so-sweet voice, before climbing into the middle of the bed, wearing baggy underwear that obviously weren't originally his.

"Can I sleep next to you, Billie Joe?"

"Yes, you can sleep next to me," I said, and he scooted closer and wrapped his arms around me, resting his head on my chest.

"You've been here a month and the closest I've been to you is at the dinner table. This kid's been here a few hours and he's already sleeping with you. I got to talk to this kid about my technique."

"It's okay, Mr. Argyll," Donnie said, rolling over the three of four feet to throw his arms around him, hugging him in a warm embrace.

Argyll looked awkward, holding his arms up and away from the affection Donnie gave him, but he slowly relented and let his arms come to rest around the boy, looking ill at ease.

"You smell fresh as a bouquet of flowers," Donnie said, looking up at Argyll's amazed face. "Can I sleep like this? Holding on to you makes me feel safe."

"Donnie," I said, "As soon as you're done hustling us, you can roll over and go to sleep. Argyll works tomorrow and needs his rest."

"Yes, sir," Donnie said obediently, rolling into a position an equal distance between the two of us.

I pushed one pillow up under his head, which earned me an authentic smile. Argyll turned the light down low. The room grew silent as we all started to drift off to sleep.

"I'm scared. Can I sleep in here," Denny said from the doorway.

Argyll sat straight up turning the light back up.

"Come on," Argyll said, patting the bed beside where Donnie now slept soundly.

Denny hugged his brother and quietly settled down on the same pillow Donnie was using. Argyll had an adorable smile on his face as he looked at the brothers before turning the light back off. Once again, we settled in for a good nights sleep.

"I'm scared," Danny said from the doorway.

The lights came back up.

"Come on. The more the merrier," Argyll said, as Danny climbed onto the bed, scooting to the other side of where Donnie slept soundly, wrapping himself around him.

"Yours, mine, and ours," Argyll said.

"What's that mean?" I asked.

"A movie I saw once. I never thought I'd live it."

Even with the three kids in the bed, I slept through the night. They were still sleeping after I woke up. I wondered how long it had been since they'd slept in a bed? They seemed too innocent to have been exposed to the more dastardly things men do to boys. I didn't want to know much about what they'd done since leaving home.

I wondered how accurate the story was Donnie told me about his mother's boyfriend. He was honest about putting himself into the activity, which made me think he was telling the truth. Danny minced no words about his involvement, criticizing Donnie for thinking he had some special role, when it came to their mother's boyfriend. The idea that Denny would have been next, simply because he was there, wasn't unreasonable. I didn't look very hard to find a flaw in their story.

Both Donnie and Danny seemed protective of Denny, and protecting him from experiencing what they'd gone along with seemed consistent. It would have been something brothers did. Having no father, I could understand how attention from the guy they described led to sexual activity. I fell asleep thinking and worrying about the three new arrivals.

The telephone ringing woke me up too soon. I watched Argyll's eyes open wide as he fumbled for the phone, trying to come to grips with the new day.

"Hello," Argyll said in a raspy voice. "Let me see if he's in."

"Your husband, Joe," he said, handing the phone across the slowly awakening boys.

"Hello," I said. "Hi, Carl. I love you."

"I love you, too, but it didn't take long for him to get you on the phone. You're in his room?"

"I'm in his bed."

"Billie Joe, I told you I wasn't going to…."

I took the phone down off my ear and handed it to Denny, who watched me carefully.

"Hello, who is this. Hi, Carl. I'm Denny. Who are you?"

"Wait a minute. He wants you," Denny said, handing the phone back. "Who'sCarl."

"Billie Joe, I'm not kidding around. Who in the hell is Denny?"

"That's a long story, my love."

"You slept in his bed? If I lived closer…."

I handed Donnie the phone as he listened carefully to the exchanges.

"Hi, Carl. I'm Donnie. Now, I figured out why Billie Joe and Argyll aren't getting it on. You're Billie Joe's boyfriend. Yeah, he's here. He's a pretty nice dude. He took me and my brothers off the street. They fed us."

Donnie handed me back the phone and winked, knowing he'd said exactly what was needed to sooth the savage beast.

"They started out in my bed, so I slept in Argyll's room, but they were scared being in a new place and ended up in here."

"I was not scared," Donnie objected.

"Billie Joe, I don't like that arrangement. You go back to sleeping in your own bed."

"As long as we have the kids, I might have to sleep here."

"I ain't no kid. I been living off the streets three weeks. I kept us alive," Donnie argued his rationale.

"Who's talking to you?"

"Donnie thinks he's grown up because he hasn't gotten in the wrong car yet."

"How old are they?" Carl asked.

"Ten, eleven, and thirteen."

"I'm almost twelve," Danny argued.

"Jesus, Billie Joe, what are you going to do with them?"

"Argyll knows people. He's going to see what he can do."

"Can't they go home?"

"They're being molested at home."

"All of them?" Carl yelped.

"Except for the ten year old and they left before the mother's boyfriend worked his way down to him."

"Let me speak to Argyll," Carl ordered.

"Yes, Carl. I love you, too," I said, knowing when to back off.

"No, Carl. We had three kids sleeping between us."

"I'm not a kid," Donnie objected. "Tell him I'm not a kid," he said to me.

"Carl, we've been alone in the apartment for over a month. I had him all to myself. Believe me, I would have if I could have, but he's not interested in me. He only has eyes for you. Okay, I will. You too, Carl. Stay in touch. You might need to come bail us out. Joe, anyway."

Argyll hung up the phone and glared at me.

"Did you tell him I was a cop?"

"He knows," I said.

"A cop," Denny said, sitting straight up. "We're staying with a cop?"

"Sort of a cop, but I wouldn't say the word staying. Your longevity here is in question. You boys do as Joe tells you."

"He's a cop?" Donnie asked, looking over at me for the answer.

"He's a liaison officer," I said.

"Oh. You aren't going to bust us, are you?" Donnie asked, keeping an eye on Argyll.

"Yeah, right after ice cream and Captain Crunch," Argyll quipped. "No, I'm not in the habit of arresting kids."

"I ain't no kid," Donnie objected strongly, blue eyes flashing out from under the strands of hair that had fallen into his face.

"Captain Crunch. Awesome. You can arrest me," Danny said, with the bed coming alive with children. "We should have come here right off, Donnie."

"I think you're doing the shopping, dear. I've got to stop at the cleaners on my way to work. By the way, Carl said he's not thrilled with the sleeping arrangements."

"No, he wouldn't be. I'll take care of the shopping, but don't leave until I get back," I said. "I'll go right now."

"Yes, sir, Mr. Joe, sir," Argyll said in Donnie's voice, earning him a dirty look from both Donnie and me.

I went to my room to dress and headed across the street to the market. As I was checking out, I looked down at the front page of the stack of papers next to the register.

"Boy's Body Found."

I cornered Argyll in his bedroom once I'd put out the milk and cereal for the boys. I handed Argyll the paper as he brushed his wavy black hair with two brushes.

"Joe, I haven't got time for this," he said, checking his image in the mirror.

"Left side, last column. Read!"

"Yes, sir. Boy's Body Found," he read aloud, his voice tapering off until he went silent as I watched his lips moving as he said each word. "Near the lake below the park," he said thoughtfully. "That's next to The Castro. He was a teenage boy. Damn!" he cursed. "It could have just as easily been one of these kids. They can't defend themselves. Not against the evil that roams those streets searching for the weak and helpless."

"Thank you," I said. "I couldn't live with myself if it had been one of them."

Argyll hugged me tight as if he'd known the dead boy. I made sure he saw the article for my own reasons. I didn't realize it might upset him the way it did. I suppose I didn't know much about him, but he got out ahead of me as soon as he recognized the hazards.

"Thank you," he said. "We did a good thing. You did a good thing, Joe. Thanks for making me listen. Those boys are never going back on those streets. I'll see to it. That's a promise. I don't need this fucking job that much."

Argyll went to the kitchen before he left. I watched him muss up each boy's hair as he passed behind them. He looked at them differently now. They were too busy with their cereal to notice the change.

"What if I bring in burgers and fries for dinner?" he asked, once he reached the head of the counter.

"All right," they all agreed, chewing the sugar coated cereal vigorously, causing Argyll to cringe.

"Burgers and fries?" I asked, as I walked him to the door.

"You only live once, Joe," he said, more serious than usual. "You've got to loosen up. Variety is the spice of life. Will you still love me when I'm grossly rotund?"

It was burgers and fries for dinner. Argyll came home in his newly tailored uniform, which gave him a credibility he didn't rate while wearing the baggy ill defined version; his size but not meant for his thin build.

Argyll wasn't pretentious. He thought the uniform an accessory that mattered little, except he'd gone from looking emaciated and skinny in his baggy uniform to looking dapper and handsome. It would make it easier for people to take him seriously.

Argyll picked at the French fries and ate half a burger. He didn't change before he ate, so the boys were quite aware of the uniform. I figured Argyll had something on his mind, but he waited until everything but the fries were finished before speaking.

"Boys, I've been thinking," he said.

"Not good. Is this when we leave?" Danny calculated, grabbing another burger just in case.

"That's why I'm an adult and you're a kid, Danny. I've been thinking you boys don't belong on the street. I'll let you live here for the time being, but you've got to do what I say."

"I'll do what you say," Donnie said with just as much authority in his voice. "They stay out of it. I'll do what you want if you say we can stay here."

"Donnie, I'm a cop. I have a job I take seriously, but my job isn't to go out and bust criminals. I'm on the force to make the job of the police easier, when they interact with the gay community. I'm out in front of it whenever possible."

"You do?" Donnie said, thinking it over.

"You boys can't be on the street. It's too dangerous."

Denny paid no attention to the details, Danny paid attention to certain parts, but Donnie always measured each of Argyll's words.

"You've got to go into the system."

"No fucking way. You're crazy. We aren't going back home and you don't even know where we're from. We aren't going to be split up. You want my ass, fine. Whatever you like," Donnie said out his ground rules.

"I've got to go by the law, Donnie. If I'm going to gain custody of all three of you, I need your help. It's the only way you'll stay together. We've got to do what the law requires. I want to help you but you've got to help me."

"Cool," Danny interrupted. "We'll play along."

"What's in it for you? You didn't want us here last night."

"I've had time to think about it. I think we can make it work. It's not something I came up with right off, but cops are there to help people and you qualify."

"No, you wouldn't, because we were a pain in your ass. You like Joe and Joe likes us, so maybe you are saying all this to get to where you want to be with Joe," Donnie reasoned carefully as he took turns looking at us.

"Yes, all that is true, but there was a body found near Golden Gate Park last night. He was a boy not much older than you. Someone out there killed him. Someone that doesn't care much about what you say or want. One way or another, I'm taking you off the street, so one of you isn't a nameless body they find somewhere. We can do it as whatever kind of family we can come up with, or I can make a phone call and have you picked up. I want you to stay here. I'll see you're taken care of."

"Is this on the level, Joe?"

"On the level."

"We're in," Danny said. "I'm in and Denny is in. Donnie's hard headed, but I don't want to live in doorways and on street corners any more. I'm not afraid up here with you guys."

"Shut up, Danny," Donnie ordered.

"You shut up. You're only a year older an me. You don't get to say what I do. I say we stay."

"Yeah," Denny agreed. "I'm staying."

Donnie looked a bit miffed by being usurped by his younger brothers. Taking a minute to stop and think about it, he nodded his approval.

"Yeah, we'll go along with whatever you say. I don't want them in danger. I don't figure we can beat this place, and I'm a year and a half older than you, Danny."

I hadn't been included in the decision but I couldn't have come up with a better solution for the situation with the boys. I didn't know what Argyll had in mind but he was smart and obviously had connections that we'd need to stay out of trouble. The logistics involved in caring for three boys was far beyond my abilities, but I'd yet to consider Matilda as a solution.

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