In The Trenches
by Jack Scribe
I put the encounter and threat from 'Charlie' on the back burner. An exhausting Saturday included a matinee for the Long Island blue hairs and a sold-out evening performance packed with season subscribers. Most important, however, was my expanded family gathering at The 21 Club.
Our cab pulled up to 21 West 52nd Street, with the driver inching his way through a gridlock of black limousines. The restaurant building, a combination of old, joined brownstones, displayed miniature iron jockey statues, painted in different racing colors, up a staircase and across the second story balcony. Only the numerals 21 on the lamps flanking the entry announced the name.
We checked our coats in the lobby and entered the bar. A lively, animated, supper crowd was elbow-to-elbow on the red leather banquettes and checkered linen-covered tables when we arrived at 10:30 p.m. Walter, the headwaiter, addressed me by name, greeted everyone warmly and ushered us over to a center table - in the first section. I learned later that it was coveted table 14. Looking at the other diners, I had the distinct feeling that behind the well-tailored dark suits and designer dresses sat the select members of the world's social and commerce vortex. They discreetly noticed me with a combination of recognition and curiosity as we were seated. I also discovered, later, that we had been seated in the front section of the restaurant - that area was reserved exclusively for regulars and the famous.
This odd dcor I had only previously seen in the vintage black and white movie, The Sweet Smell of Success, starring Burt Lancaster and Tony Curtis. Corporate symbols and miniature airplanes hung from the ceiling and the long, 40-foot standup bar was packed with handsome men and stunning women. In the background, tuxedoed captains and red-jacketed waiters orchestrated perfect service - the mahogany and silver service carts with warmers keeping the food in copper vessels at the proper temperature before serving. This was all part of a visual statement that announced, 'you have arrived.'
"From the look of things, you're going to blow a paycheck on tonight's dinner," dad said, with an incredulous smile.
"I'll handle it with their layaway plan," I said, nudging him with my elbow. "Don't worry, I've got a few bucks set aside for this family event. By the way, Pam, you look absolutely beautiful. Maybe you'll find some rich guy tonight?" I winked, as I placed my hand over hers.
"Boyfriend would be great. I don't need a sugar daddy."
"Well, if you don't mind another brother, I'd like to apply," Doug said with reserve and candor.
"I've kind of already adopted him," replied Dad. "The guys and I decided to get the family back together in a big way." He placed his big hand on top of mine and smiled as the captain approached the table and gave us the menus. I asked that the sommelier select a moderately priced Chablis for the table and told the captain that we would be ready to order food in a few minutes.
The sommelier arrived shortly and presented a bottle of 1991 Jadot Premiere Cru Cote de Lchet. Having scant knowledge of white Burgundies, I trusted his judgment and nodded my approval. Moments later, after limited discussion with the captain, we ordered chicken hash with baby spinach, the 21 burger, Maine lobster salad, and 'Speakeasy' steak tartare.
We were in a light discussion about life in L.A. when a distinguished man in a dark suit and dark blond hair, combed straight back, came over to the table. "Excuse me, I'm Bruce Snyder, the manager, and I wanted to welcome you, Mr. Williams, and your guests to 21. I don't recall your being here before, but hope that whenever you're in New York, you'll consider us home?"
"Mr. Snyder, first, it's Brad. And, let me introduce you to my sister Pam, my dad, and my friend from California, Doug DiMarco."
"Most people call me Bruce, or worse," he said with a smile, as he extended his hand to all. "Here's my card, Brad. Please call me whenever you need a table. For friends we move mountains."
"I'll certainly do that." I took his card, and we all smiled before Bruce went over to the next table and my eyebrow shot up as I heard Bruce greet the man behind me as Governor Pataki.
The evening was an absolute smash, and I was delighted that the family unit was together again, expanded by one more. The sommelier was gracious in his service. Everyone got a kick from his sampling the wine in his silver cup - a tastevin, I was told - before presenting the Chablis for my approval. I knew that this was normally only done with rarer wines and decided Sam's office had probably asked that the service be 'spread very thick'.
The food, simply prepared and elegantly presented, was superb. While eating the chicken hash, I smiled at the long journey from five years ago to this point - Dad had a sparkle in his eyes that I hadn't seen since before mom died.
As the last dishes were cleared and the tablecloth was cleaned of any crumbs, the sommelier appeared again with four tall flute glasses and a bottle of Champagne. "Mr. Barron thought you'd enjoy a bottle of Cristal with the cookies."
"Guys, I guess we'll have to endure this culinary torture a little longer," I said with a smile. As the wine was poured, a waiter brought a two-tiered silver platter with every form of classic French cookie, macaroons, petit fours, and chocolate truffles.
"Pam, Dad, and Brent...a toast. May your family ties never be severed again," Doug said with glasses held high, "and thanks for including me."
Doug and I slept in until 10:30 a.m. after making love earlier in the morning. I got up to make coffee, returned to the warm confines of our bed and eased in close to my partner's back section and playfully gave his ear a tongue bath.
"Morning, punkin," Doug, said as he rolled over on his back and smiled with his eyes half-open.
"Wake-up call, number two." I rested my head on Doug's chest and wrapped my arm around him.
He turned his head and kissed me on the forehead. "What's up for today?" he asked.
"Other than our dicks? I think a special morning shower will take care of that." I emphasized that statement by cupping his balls and lightly squeezing. "Seriously, we need a game plan for my meeting with that asshole, 'Charlie'."
"I've got all the info from Tan Man in notes I made, and we've got help from one of his friends in New York. By the time we're finished with good old 'Charlie', he will have crapped in his pants big time. I only hope the upholstery at the Oak Room Bar is washable," Doug replied.
"Let's swig a little mouthwash, somehow get showered, and have some breakfast." I got out of bed and helped Doug up. "We can review the notes over coffee."
'This is a weekend of visiting landmarks,' I thought, as I entered The Plaza, using the small Central Park South entrance of the hotel. It was around 6:50 p.m. when I walked into the fabled Oak Room Bar. On Sunday night, the room was half-full. I found an empty table by the paneled wall and nodded to a few younger guys at the bar. This place had been a preppy pickup place for years.
'Charlie' had yet to arrive. But I did notice Doug nearby, sitting with an older gentleman who looked like he could press several hundred pounds at Gold's Gym without breaking a sweat. They both wore sports jackets and open-neck shirts, I observed, as I sat at the table with my back to Doug and the other guy. I was more casual, wearing a dark, crew-neck sweater and slacks.
A waitress came over immediately to deliver a bowl of dried peanuts and take my order of Pellegrino water. I munched on a few peanuts and was thankful that the Italian sparkling water was immediately served because the saltiness of the peanuts really encouraged drinking. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a familiar figure approach.
"Well, Brent, or Brad, I'm happy that you could make it," 'Charlie' said, as he walked up to the table. "Wise decision."
I stood and started to offer my hand. As he reached for it, I patted the breast-area of his blazer and felt a bulge. "Charlie, what's in your pocket?" I asked as I quickly reached in and retrieved a mini-wire recorder. "My, my, are you a news reporter? Is this an interview?" Part of Doug's notes from Tan Man suggested the possibility of further attempts that this guy might use to get his hooks in deeper.
"Um, I just wanted to make sure that you were cooperative, Brent," he said, slightly embarrassed.
"What else do you have up your sleeve, asshole?" I turned off the recorder and put it in my pocket.
"Hey, don't start calling me names. If you're not careful, I may just cancel our date and go directly to the Post with my story. Page Six would love something like this."
"Ease up, 'Charlie'. No one's going to the newspapers...yet." I eased into a chair and added with a growl, "Take a seat."
He followed my lead and sat down. "What do you mean, 'yet'? If you're willing to come upstairs to my suite, I'll be good to my word," he replied with a superior grin. "I want that famous 'Brad' dick up my ass. And after that, I'm going to eat you out and plow yours."
"Not going to happen, Mr. Ashcroft."
"Wha...what do you mean? My name's Charlie Jones," he said, with a surprised, shocked look.
"Naw, doesn't wash, Peter Ashcroft. For the life of me, I can't imagine why you're not spending a quiet Sunday evening with your wife and two young teenagers in Scarsdale. Boys need a father around at that age," I replied, with an intense look.
"I...err," he uttered.
"Furthermore, Peter Ashcroft, I think that the National Bank of New York will be very interested to know that their youngest senior vice president is trying to blackmail and fuck guys at The Plaza."
"What are you...?" I sensed panic in his face. His entire body tensed.
"You're screwing around with the wrong man, Peter Ashcroft. I know who you are, where you live, where you work...and how much you spent in the last four years hiring male escorts when you were out of town on business trips."
"You'd use that? How can you prove it?" he asked, trying to regain ground.
"I don't want to, Ashcroft, but you're the one who is trying to blackmail me. Prove it? How about copies of all your credit card charges for the escort services? And affidavits from the men you hired. Furthermore, I'm taping our conversation." I pulled up my sweater to briefly show him the mini-microphone taped to my chest. "And, if you look beyond my right shoulder, you'll see a rather large man with a book. Look closer and you'll notice a lens. The lens is attached to a cam, and the cam's recording our conversation."
"Tha...that's illegal," he blurted out.
"Don't split hairs. Here's the deal, Peter Ashcroft. You leave the table, and either return to your suite and watch TV, or go home. I don't care which course you take. What I do care about is for you to forget you ever met me and tried to blackmail me. The consequences will be grave, I assure you, if you try this again."
"Um, okay, I'll take the hint. What about the tape?"
"Let's just consider it an insurance policy. Now, get out of here," I barked, with authority. He furrowed his brows and left the table. I turned and gave Doug and his friend a thumbs-up. Doug returned the signal and came over to my table with a small tape cartridge.
"Manny wanted you to have the tape. Apparently he's the quiet type who likes to disappear once the job is done."
"Doug, I owe you, man. This could have become nasty."
"We'll always cover each other. I'm sure there are a few others out there."
'Hmm,' I wondered, looking out the front window on this overcast, San Diego April morning. 'What's that black Ford sedan doing parked outside again?' It was the third day that I had observed the car with two men inside watching the house. Dave was upstairs getting ready to drive to the base and board his ship for a week of maneuvers. Having him back for two weeks straight had been a slice of heaven.
"Whatchu up to?" Dave asked, coming up behind me. "You've got the binoculars out."
"Funny thing I've picked up. See that black car out there?"
"Yeah, I think it was parked there yesterday morning when I left for the base."
"I do too. When you drove away, it set out to follow you," I replied. "And it's back this morning."
"No shit. Whaduya make of it?"
"To me, it looks like they're government. That's all I know. But when you leave today, I'm going to get their license plate numbers. You might try to do the same."
"This sounds kinda scary. Do you think that it has anything to do with the Navy?"
"Don't know. Try to observe if they follow you into the base. I'll see what I can find out from the license plates with a friend who runs security for North Island." Being the club officer allowed me to develop friendships of a broad range of officers in all departments.
"Okay, Mike. I'd better get going." He leaned in for a warm goodbye kiss.
"You really look sexy in your denims."
"And you look pretty hot in your gym clothes. Be careful in the shower today and watch out for stray sailors," he said with a smile. I routinely went to the gym for an early morning workout at the base and dressed in uniform for work there.
"See ya next week. In the meantime, I'll sniff around and see what I can find out."
"Love ya," Dave replied as he went out to his Mustang. It was 0700. I watched as he backed out onto the street. I had the binocs in my right hand and a pen in the left one as Dave started to drive away. Fortunately, the sedan slowly eased away from the curb. I zeroed in on the plate and wrote the data on a pad. 'U.S. Govt. 87534'.
I immediately went to the phone and called Tom Feldman and Mark Connelly's apartment.
"Yeah? This better be important," answered a very grumpy and half-awake Tom.
"Hi, Tom. Sorry to be calling so early but I think something strange is going on around here at the house."
"Um, hi, Mike. Sorry for being so gruff. A certain sailor kept me awake last night. What's goin' down?"
"I think Dave's being tailed and investigated." For the next five minutes I gave Tom the rundown.
"Shit, I'd better grab Mark before he leaves. The Enterprise is going out this morning for five days."
"Same with the Stennis. Tom, just tell him to be alert. I hate to think that it has anything to do with gay issues, but..."
"I understand. Listen, you want to go over to Hamburger Mary's tonight for a sandwich?"
"That sounds good. How about seven?" I'd do a little investigation on my own in the meantime.
"See ya at seven, Mike."
I got into my office just before nine and immediately reviewed the daily report from yesterday's business 'I should be able to present a decent profit for the advisory board,' I thought as I studied the impressive sales, 'and maybe they'll approve the purchase of the ice machine I need.'
Looking at my schedule, I noticed that there was a meeting with the chef and dining room manager at 1000. Just a little fence mending between the two department heads: the servers had been getting a little mouthy to the cooks.
I dialed Lt. Commander Biddle's line around 0930.
"Security Administration, Cummings, speaking."
"Cummings, this is Ltjg. Cole at the club. Is Commander Biddle available?"
"Just a moment, Sir." I was put on hold for a few moments. "Hey, Mike. How are you doing?"
"Morning, Bob. Doing fine. How's the family?"
"The kids are doing well in school and on the baseball team. And Helen can't wait for your Luau party next month." Helen and Bob Biddle had 16-year-old twin boys who were overachievers and very cute.
"Great to hear that. I'll make sure that your group has a good table for the party." Helen and Bob could always be counted on for getting together a large, fun group for a party at the club. "I've got a favor to ask, Bob."
"Give it to me and I'll tell you if I can help out."
"I've noticed a black Ford sedan in my neighborhood the last three mornings. They seem to be following a sailor when he leaves for work. I'm naturally curious about something like this happening in the neighborhood. But to be tailing a sailor - who's an awfully nice guy, by the way - really got my attention. The license plate number is 'U.S. Govt. 87534.'
"A black Ford sedan?"
"Yes, late model." I could hear paper rustling in the background.
"Hmm. I see from the logs that the car was issued to ONI. They're a mysterious lot."
"Wow. This sounds serious," I replied, being aware that ONI - the Office of Naval Investigation personnel - were all civilian and generally kept to themselves.
"Not necessarily. Could be nothing more than a child support issue. Tell you what, I'll make a few discreet calls and see if I can find out anything."
"That's great, Bob. The sailor is a decent man."
"I'll get back to you this afternoon around 1500."
"I really appreciate it. Talk with you then." I looked out the office window and wondered what the fuck ONI wanted with my lover.
The meeting with the two department heads went well and after lunch, I shuffled more paper. In the restaurant and club business, there was a daily barrage of invoices, payroll, sales receipts, purchase orders, and banquet event orders to review.
I was just finishing writing a change order to a wedding this Saturday when the intercom crackled, "Commander Biddle for you, Mike." I momentarily looked at the blinking red light before I picked up the receiver.
"You're a prompt dude, Sir," I said with a laugh, noticing the clock registering 1502.
"It didn't take too long to find out what's happening. Mike, what I'm going to tell you is confidential. But, I trust you not to gossip."
"ONI is investigating some allegations of homosexual activity aboard the Stennis. It's my understanding that six men are involved and the investigation is primarily on background, at this point. From what I gather, the C.O. of the Stennis isn't very gay friendly and considers Clinton an enemy."
"Then, I guess the base isn't involved. I appreciate the info, Bob." I didn't want to seem to be concerned. Inwardly, I was seething at what appeared to be a classic, homophobic, hateful witch-hunt. 'What has Dave gotten himself into?' I wondered.
"No problem. See you at happy hour Friday?"
"Yep. I'll spring for a few. Take care." I rested the receiver on the telephone cradle and pondered the next move. There was nothing I could do until Dave returned next Monday morning, but I'd still alert Tom to what was happening at dinner. Whatever happened to 'don't ask, don't tell'?