A Mann's World

by Rick Beck

Chapter 5

Spread Your Wings

On Sunday Robert had the brunch at the Eagle. There was more leather and more bluster but he didn't mind it. It was like a busy Grill with more costumes. After a few hours he drove to just past the Capitol on Pennsylvania Avenue. He went into Johnny's. It was full of characters with a bizarre mixture of drag queens and cowboys with a seashore motif. It was the strangest bar yet.

It was too loud to think inside so he walked across the street to the Plus 1. A guy in a cowboy hat followed him and offered to buy him a beer. Robert froze and turned down the offer, then returned to his car. He had the sudden urge to go over to the Hubbard House to see Fran. He asked her to spend the night. He told her he'd leave the door open and she was delighted. Robert needed to get his arms around a woman and Fran was fine, making no demands and having the same desire as he did.

The next few days Robert ate at the Hubbard House and the Grill as often as possible. It was during one of his visits to the Grill that he overheard two men talking about the 'meat rack.'

He followed them out, leaving his half eaten ham and Swiss on pumpernickel and almost fresh chips. He did grab the pickle because the ones Judy served him crunched and made his mouth water when he thought about eating one. The pickles made the sandwiches worthwhile, but then again, so did Judy.

The two guys led him on a walk around the block. It wasn't what he expected. Just before they were ready to take the turn that would take them back to Wisconsin Avenue the pace slowed and Robert noticed two boys sitting on a wall looking back over their shoulders at the men as they approached the corner. Exchanging glances, the four were obviously engaged in some kind of silent communication. He ran the words 'meat rack' through his brain and got the picture.

They continued these glances after turning the corner and walking passed the boys. They looked back over their shoulders at them, not staring but indicating some interest. As Robert approached he was hardly noticed at first. The boys were sitting on a four-foot high concrete wall with their backs to Robert as they 'cruised' the most recent passersby. Robert looked up and saw the big red church that was confined behind the wall. It stood high above him as he walked and it ran back to the previous corner. He thought this to be an odd setting for a 'meat rack.'

He had an interest in the boys but he wasn't sure what it was. While they seemed apprehensive, Robert could find no sign of fear or of any danger. In fact they seemed anxious to make contact as the two men were passing. Only after the men were starting to put distance between themselves and their observers did anyone speak.

"Nice day," one boy said and more glances were exchanged but there was no connection beyond the two words.

Robert wasn't sure of what he was seeing but there was an interaction between the four obvious strangers. The interest of the wall sitters quickly shifted to him as he reached the corner. Both boys smiled and seemed eager to be acknowledged. He returned the smile and noted they were in their late teens but not old enough to be out of school, though they obviously were. He wondered what the penalty was for truancy. He knew the penalty for careless gay men could be death.

Robert thought nothing of the scene beyond the obvious and he continued on his way. Nodding as he passed, the idea of conversation seemed awkward. They could take it wrong and that was still a worry. While he contemplated turning back to have a chat, their interest shifted yet again to a car stopping in front of them. The opportunity for Robert to learn anything from them was lost in a sudden shuffle of activity.

Looking back, he saw a scramble for the car door and a clearer picture of what was going on started to develop. The winner mocked the loser as he shut the door on him. Robert tried to see the driver's face when the car passed but he was looking at his new passenger. Robert's apprehension about the 'meat rack' and 'cruising' were replaced by fear for the boy who had just gotten into the car with an absolute stranger.

The age of the kids and the man who picked one of them up was of less interest than the event itself. How many gay men got into cars with strangers and let themselves be casually driven away? It was startling to Robert that anyone would get in a car with a stranger while the DC Strangler ran rampant. His unease chipped away at him as he finished his walk.

He passed the Grill on the return trip, walked to the corner and found the line of phones beside the Little Tavern, he stepped into one of the booths and dropped his coins in the slot. Mike picked up on the second ring.

"Commander Brown's office, Connell speaking."

"Mike! I found something."

"Mann? What did you find?"

"I'm over at the Grill. I've just been around the 'meat rack'. Do you know that kids get into cars with strangers? They're out here trying to get themselves picked up."

"You called me to tell me that?"

"Yes! How many gay guys get into strange cars?"

"I'd bet that most of the men who walk the 'meat rack' have done it one time or another."

"Why would they do that with a madman running loose? Don't they know the danger?"

"Mann, there are some things I can't explain. The urge to merge is sometimes greater than the idea of being safe."

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Guys want to screw more than they want to worry. Gay men tend to relate to sex as a connection to happiness. Some just like it because they aren't alone while they're doing it."

"How are we going to catch this guy if the victims are jumping off the curb into his car?"

"There's no evidence that that's the case. Cool down and put things into perspective. You've started to discover that there is a lot more to the gay scene than men in bars chasing other men in bars. Use your knowledge to help you manage your time. You're out there to discover things like you have just discovered. No one thing is going to lead to the guy we're looking for, but a lot of little details might give us a clearer picture of how he operates. Keep doing what you're doing. At least I know you are taking it seriously. I've got some work to do, so if that's all you have, call me in a few days. Just be out there with your eyes open. You're the best tool we have at the moment."

The dial tone jolted Robert's ear. He placed the phone down firmly into the receptacle, holding onto it as he pictured that boy getting into the car. He cringed and thought the odds of catching this guy had just gotten a lot longer.

There were a few more days of making the rounds and meeting up with Phil for meals. On Phil's night off they went to a place called the Astor and Robert was introduced to Greek food but it was all Greek to him if it went beyond meat and potatoes. The food was good and the people were sedate compared to some of the places Phil introduced him to. Robert liked the food enough that he checked as they left so he remembered where it was.

Robert was feeling less stress around Phil and that was an improvement. Gay men in general still left him feeling uncomfortable but he'd never been comfortable around most people, so the feelings weren't unfamiliar. He still didn't like the thoughts about what they did, although his fear of being touched by one had passed. No one had touched him in anything but a casual way. He wasn't sure what he was expecting but most of them seemed harmless.

It was on the weekend when Phil invited Robert to dinner at the Fraternity House on Tuesday evening with a dozen or so of his most intimate friends. There was an article being done for the Style section of the Post for Thursday's edition and they insisted on pictures with people crowded around the piano listening to him perform.

Since there was no way to control the bar crowd and with so many men wanting to hide their homosexuality, Phil thought an early evening meal and pictures afterward would work best.

Eyes were opened wide as he was introduced around. "So this is Bobby," one man observed, standing to shake his hand. "Every bit as lovely as advertised."

Robert exchanged glances with Phil and Phil blushed. He had mentioned to a few friends that someone quite special would be sharing the meal without going into detail. He would let them imagine who Bobby was, knowing the conclusion they were most likely to draw.

Several of them held the handshakes for longer than necessary, creating their own images. He smiled and tried to take it in stride but the eyes never left him. All of it reinforced his discomfort around men who looked at him like he was the blue plate special.

He was placed next to Phil and found the pop-up photographer annoying. There was no way to know when he was going to strike and so it was always a surprise and too late at the same time when the flash blinded everyone.

Phil took it all in stride as he sipped from his fancy umbrella decorated drink while waiting for his Steak Diane, which sounded a bit suspect to Robert. He settled for the T-bone, and the waiter knew by then he wanted it burnt.

The drinks and conversation flowed; another flash, and the photographer was over here and then over there. One of the guests at the table was a former Washington Redskin's tight end and Robert recognized his name. There was a banker and the owner of an auto body shop. These all seemed like regular guys and Robert was somewhat more comfortable in conversation with them.

There was also an English hairdresser and a professional drag queen, not practicing his profession, thank heavens. Robert didn't have a clue how a tall skinny blond guy with a huge Adams apple could pull that one off, but some things are best left unknown.

Everyone was asked to gather around the piano after having enough time to finish a drink and before the meal arrived. Phil arranged Robert on one of the corners closest to him and there were three, four, and five shots while they discussed "Send In The Clowns" vs. "Bridge Over Troubled Water" as favorite tunes.

Robert mentioned that he liked "I Fall To Pieces", and Phil immediately played it while Lady Melanie sang the words. It did not do Patsy Cline justice but maybe he sang better when he was a woman. Everyone laughed and there were more drinks for the needy and dinner was served. Robert stuck with the draft beer. He limited himself to two glasses, because in reality he was here on business, and he thought he could still do business on two beers. They also helped to loosen him up but not too loose.

There were the inevitable questions about where he came from, how long he would be in town, and how he came to know an 'old queen' like Phil. Robert knew the answers by now and even expected these questions. He was from the mid-west and came to DC to sample city living. A friend of a friend had asked Phil to show him around.

All the men were approximately Phil's age, except for one who was younger than Robert. He was quiet and quite good looking. They all came well dressed and even well mannered, but he noticed a distinct demeanor change when they talked to each other as opposed to when they were talking to him. They called one another 'dearie' and 'miss' and that had a way of confusing whatever issue came up.

It was a relief by the time Phil finished his meal and moved back to the piano. The music made it possible for him to disregard the table talk as he took an unusual interest in it. Phil patted the seat at the corner of the piano when he caught Bobby's eye.

By then more people were gathering around the piano. The entire bar was suddenly writhing with people. There was a background buzz that never ceased and the crowd grew to a point where you could hardly move once you left the confines of the dining area and the piano bar.

There was a difference in the crowds. The people in the main bar were for the most part Robert's age, although they ran the spectrum. The bar crowd tended to stay on the outside of the dining area.

Robert located the exit and the easiest escape route long before he was ready to excuse himself. He liked knowing his surroundings, especially in crowds, and he always planned his exit a head of time. It was even more important in places like this.

It was while leaning on the piano and planning his departure that the evening changed. He thought he would go to his Dupont Circle apartment and change into jeans and flannel and 'cruise' Southeast for a few hours. A place like Frat House was way too jammed for any close scrutiny, although there was a lot of scrutinizing going on as the booze flowed and the music from the jukebox in the bar pounded in the background.

Robert's back was turned to the cry. It was more a scream. The voice was distinctively feminine, but there was a hint of masculinity just below the falsetto soprano screech. The message was clear, and Robert immediately picked out the danger.

" He's killing him. He's going to kill him. Someone... help!"

Not only was it possible that Robert had walked into the break the police were hoping for but it was a perfect opportunity for him to escape the company that surrounded him. Of course he would need to get through the crowd that had stationed itself between him and the only public exit.

" Please! Someone help," came the plea again.

Robert charged towards the voice. The crowd around the man was a beehive of activity. No one was venturing out to where the mayhem was taking place but people were still coming in and there was a tight circle around the distraught queen.

"Where?" Robert yelled over the heads of her attendants.

The short red-haired man whirled with one hand up to his throat. His eyes showed appreciation as he sensed help was on the way. "In the alley," he/she said. "He jumped us. He's beating him. He'll kill him!"

Robert didn't wait for any more chit chat. He leaped down the stairs two and three at a time as people were spilling in through the double doors.

"Far out," one leather clad dude quipped as Robert leaped past him. People were rushing up the stairs but they cleared a path for the man on a mission. "He's so butch," another man lisped with his hand on his lips.

Once he burst through the door, he found another crowd. This was quite different from the upstairs version. These men were all pressed back against the building as far from the action as they could get but they weren't scrambling away.

There were two men on the ground and a third much larger man, circling and bellowing insults at his audience. "You fucking fags. Come on. Let's see what you got. You bunch of pussy mother fuckers."

Robert surveyed the situation, keeping his distance from the assailant.

"You better watch it. He's quick for a big guy," a man attending one of the fallen said, looking up and seeing Robert's demeanor and realizing he was about to take on the bully boy.

"Fucking fag," the man screamed, with spittle flying on his next intended victim. He swung wide with his punch and it gave his target a chance to slip beneath the blow. The crowd parted to let the enraged bull of a man have all the room he liked.

He circled, keeping his eyes on the crowd that had gathered around his mayhem. No one else retreated but no one was about to engage him either. There was that police instinct and the reality of protect and defend that moved Robert the last step or two that separated him from the threat.

"They called the cops. They don't respond too quick for us," the same man said, dabbing the nose of his fallen friend with a handkerchief. "He circles right. He's got a vicious hook."

"Thanks," Robert took the last step that separated him from the enemy. He found himself wondering if the DC Strangler could be this crazy? This was more the work of a homophobic drunk; any drunk he'd ever known in fact. There was one instant when he thought he shouldn't do this and then there was the cop who was dying to get out.

"You want some of this you little faggot?" the man bellowed.

"Why don't we just be nice and walk away before the police come?"

"They don't scare me. You don't scare me," he said, taking one unsure step backward as his wide open eyes locked on his next intended victim. "You're all faggots."

Robert moved deeper into the alley, keeping an arms length between him and the huge dude. Robert circled to the left so the man had to move left to follow him and this seemed to annoy the bully more than a little.

"Come on you little cock sucker. Let's have a go or are you too nellie for a good fight?"

Robert wasn't listening to what the guy said, but the word nellie did slip through. He could feel the anger rise when he needed to stay calm. He continued circling left, letting the big man make the first move.

The shrieking and screaming crowd had gone completely silent. Once Robert moved within the arms length he'd been keeping between them, the man lunged forward. Robert stepped to the side as the guy slid on his belly. The crowd roared it's approval. "Right on!" One happy man yelled. "Hit that sack of shit."

"You bastard," the hulk spat as he rose from hands and knees.

There was a wild swing that exposed the man's chin, and Robert placed a fist on it, sending him back down on hands and knees.

There was more approving applause and cheers that went up from the home team. This time the guy got up more carefully, keeping his eyes on Robert. There would be no more conversation. He knew he was in a fight and this was no one- punch wonder to be cowed.

He rested his hands on his knees, keeping Robert in his view, calculating his next move a bit more carefully. There was another lunge as Robert moved to within three feet of him, and this time Robert exploded a punch into the man's abdomen, forcing the air out of him. He went back down on his knees, holding his stomach, fighting for a breath of fresh evening air.

Robert stood over him with both fists ready if he made the slightest offensive move. "You had enough?" Robert asked, now sure this wasn't his man.

He wasn't even a good fighter, just a big one who used bluster to get his way. A blond with way too much hair piled on his head and way too much chest for any man, lurched out of the crowd screaming, "Stanley, you quit acting the fool. You done enough damage for one night. You tell this nice man you're sorry or I'm not coming back this time."

Stanley apparently wasn't quite ready to say uncle and words failed him just then as everyone looked at the spokes-personage. He lunged at Robert, throwing a diminished punch to his jaw that stung without doing more than superficial damage. Robert cursed the distraction and hammered Stanley three good punches, just like a prize fighter might do.

"A fag fight! Can you believe it. Give me that," Jim Bland said before yelling, "Break it up or I'll break you."

Robert was in mid-punch and Stanley was crumpling when without warning the world moved out from under him. There was cheering and applauding and then a dull thud that echoed inside Robert's head. The silence took hold as the overhead lights brightened to the intensity of a super nova, becoming so bright it scalded his eyes as his sunglasses broke, falling away from his face in slow motion. He was left to wonder what the hell he was doing down there, and then everything went black as pitch.

Rookie Robert Mann meet Detective Jim Bland.

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