Castle Roland

Dessert Fantasies

by Jack Scribe, of Honored Memory


Chapter 19

Posted: N/A


The 'shakedown' soft opening of Barcelona gathered momentum over the next month as word spread amongst gaming devotees and weekend refugees from L.A. Throughout Nevada, California and Asia, the buzz about this newest wagering Mecca was positive. As a P.R. ploy, Nick stated in an Entertainment Tonight interview that Barcelona would ante up the stakes. Anyone who won a million dollars from the casino would also receive a complimentary Bentley Continental GT Coupe. He knew the 'whale' clients in Hong Kong, Taiwan and Australia couldn't ignore this bait.

The lives of everyone involved with Barcelona's success were intertwined like metal shavings drawn to a powerful magnet. For Drew, the operational aspects slowly fell into place so that the resulting sum was a magnificent, functioning resort by the time the grand opening party occurred on the Tuesday of Thanksgiving week. The event was chronicled in all the media outlets - locally and nationally - with glowing testimonials about the creative talents of Nick Maggiano and his management team. Every angle was covered: the architecture, interior design, culinary feats, the mega-stars engaged for the Aragon show room, and the analytical roundtable discussion on the cable TV business channels. Except for Al Bromley, Senior, nary a word trickled out about the names of the other owners; they were always referred to as 'investors'.

As December arrived, the hotel's 2,000 rooms were mostly filled on a nightly basis and the restaurants were cranking impressive volumes. EyePod had become the 'must be seen in' club. And it didn't hurt that each posse visiting with Jake, Leo and Tobey from L.A. - along with other bonafide 'A' list movie star players - now made the nightclub 'their place'. From the music scene, Kayne West, Alicia Keys, Sean Combs and 'Team Tim' were now regulars. The status of EyePod rose even higher when video paparazzi captured a couple of the blond, girl-brats from Hollywood being denied admission by door security because of their inebriated state and demanding attitude. After all the TV gossip shows masticated and regurgitated the story, EyePod's popularity was soaring. The real movers and shakers felt comfortable that their status would be protected. The club's status was least for the season...when the Demi/Ashton/Bruce mnage trois was reported as partying with the Affleck and Damon foursome.

Nick's prime area of interest - the casino - was percolating with excitement and cash. The average daily 'drop' of money wagered was tracking at 27 million. "Not bad," he had told Drew, "for a casino open only a month." He also predicted that Barcelona would easily double those numbers during the New Year's Eve weekend and asked Drew to make sure all heads understood this tsunami of visitors was a 'sure bet' and to keep the staff primed for action.

The unqualified hit within the vast gaming area was Tibidabo, a private VIP casino that could be accessed by invitation only. The formal baccarat room within these exclusive surroundings - exclusive if your 'earning potential' passed the casino marketing criteria - was successfully drawing many international visitors. Clustered in the interior of this faux-Spanish mansion were several $50.00 minimum blackjack tables and a separate area for craps and roulette. But Nick pushed the boundaries when he created a club within a club. The Algerian-themed Quesbah was entered through an unmarked door in the cognac library of the mansion. Once inside, the players were treated to an erotic playground that featured skimpily costumed, full-breasted, female dealers at all gaming areas...with two exceptions. Buff men, who wore only low-cut black pants, attended two blackjack tables. These male dealers were appropriately groomed to show off their gym-created, tanned physiques. As Nick had envisioned, women gamblers - and a few men - queued early for seat positions.

In private, however, Nick urged caution. "Don't get carried away with this euphoria," he warned at a confidential executive meeting in the first week of December. "We're the new guy on the block and have a damn fine product. All cylinders are firing and we will have a very good year. However, there are mixed signals concerning the U.S economy and the owners are shelving plans - for the time being - on going ahead with Barcelona's second tower." He explained that the investment group was fast tracking the Macao project and would revisit Las Vegas expansion plans in six months. Nick ended his briefing by adding, "Our Asian positioning is now ensured with the final piece of the puzzle. With the financial and legal assistance of Chinese partners, by 2010 we will open a spectacular casino in Singapore." Nick paused for a moment to allow the news to sink in. "Finally, we are seriously studying the feasibility of developing a casino in Spain...Barcelona of all places. However, I think that we will create a Southern California theme at that location."

Throughout the 'shake-down' period, Drew and Bob made it a point to have breakfast every weekday morning and Sunday dinner as a family unit with Cray. The rest of the week, however, was pretty much 'on the fly'. Cray was still working his part-time job and he had dinner in the Barcelona staff cafeteria on Fridays and Saturdays. Other evenings included 'Tai Chi Tuesday' with Michael, impromptu dinners with Mario and Mr. Ed, and takeout with Spike and Lou. With that freedom, Cray respected the rule that he was expected to be home by 10:00 p.m. and homework came first.

Wednesday night officially became the weekly SAT study session at Cray's home. The group consisted of Tim, Chris, Glenn, Benny and Michael. Cray was proud to host the crowd at 'his place' and noticed how comfortable everyone felt around his dads when they came home from work. Bob insisted everyone use first names in the privacy of the apartment and made a point of reviewing the group's study material before retiring to his bedroom.

Glenn and Benny appeared to revel in their status as 'one of the guys' with this crowd. In an effort to shake his image as a silver-spooned sloth, Benny surprised everyone by participating actively during casual discussion periods. He was also the first to guess that Cray and Michael had something going other than a buddy friendship. Benny purposely - he admitted later - arrived at Cray's home 15 minutes before the 7:00 p.m. start time.

"Benny. Whazzup?" Cray asked with a little surprise when he answered the door. His newest friend was habitually a little late. Nothing serious; just something everyone understood.

"Wanted to talk with you and Michael for a few minutes before everybody shows up. He's here?"

"Yeah, he's on my computer. Come in." Cray stepped aside to let the tall guy in. 'Glad he didn't arrive ten minutes earlier when Michael and I were showering,' he thought. One of the ongoing benefits of the study sessions was for Michael to come home with Cray after school for a little 'R and R' in Cray's bedroom. Cray licked his lips and smiled when he discovered he could still taste Michael. 'Whoops...forgot to brush my teeth.'

"Mind if I grab a water?" Benny asked as he followed Cray.

"Naw. Pull a bottle out for me. I'll get Michael." Cray walked into his bedroom and saw Michael pull on his rugby shirt.

"One of the guys already?"

"Benny. Wants to talk with us." Cray shrugged and turned out his hands. "Must be important for him to be early."

"Yeah," Michael said. "How do I look?"

"Hot. For a size queen." Cray grinned and added, "Let's see what he wants."

The two guys returned to the living area and joined Benny. Cray watched Benny nervously bump knuckles with Michael when the two exchanged 'Hi's'. 'What's the big friggin' mystery?' he wondered.

"Cray said you wanted to talk about something?" Michael asked as the three guys sat down.

"Um, yeah." Benny took a long sip of water and smacked his lips. "You know, Cray, it took me a little while to get used to you being gay an' all. I want you to understand I'm cool with it."

"Okay...that's reassuring but not exactly new ground. What..."

"It's just that I've been picking up some pings on my radar concerning Michael." Benny shuffled his legs and he looked directly at Cray. "Ah, shit, here goes. I think that you two are tight - like boyfriends - and I just wanted to tell you I could give a rat's ass. I'm like fine with it. Okay?"

"First, it's called 'gaydar'," Cray replied with a shrug. "But why don't you reload to the beginning. I've lost something in the translation."

"I had a little talk about life in general with my dad before I came over here the first time. Funny, but I didn't know any gay guys and all of a sudden I've got a new friend - you - and you've got these two guys who are your dads." Benny took a pause and sipped more water. "Also, I noticed these kinda intense looks you guys would share when you didn't think anyone was looking. I guess the whole thing just got a little overwhelming for me, so I wanted to get a reading from my old man. Among other things, he told me that I would be meeting a variety of people, as I moved beyond high school, who were going to come in all shapes, colors...blah, blah, blah...guys who like guys, an' know. Funny, except for the sex talk, Dad and me have never had many serious talks...'cept about the car business. Mom was always the one to correct me if I said something stupid about others when I was a kid."

"Is this a fishing expedition to find out if I'm gay?" Michael asked with a little edge in his voice.

"I think he's figured that out already," Cray replied. "And if I'm reading this right, he just wants to get this out of the way and move on." He turned to Benny and asked, "Is that the skinny?"

"You got it. Live and let live. Vince, with all his faults, didn't really mean what he said about gays. It was just his wiseass way of talking. Thinking back, Glenn and I should have called him on it when we first met you before school started. Sorry."

"Accepted." Cray decided that Benny was showing much more depth of character than he'd witnessed earlier and was pleased that they had become friends. "But that's history."

"Exactly. And honestly, what happens between two guys is not my concern. I'm more concerned about trying to get laid with some gal." Benny looked at Michael and smiled. "Here's the bottom line: if I'm picking up on you two, the other guys can't be too far behind. So, I thought I'd bring up the subject and maybe help you - if ya want - deal with them. I think all the guys are goin' to be with you on this."

"Point taken," Cray replied. "And before we become the 500 pound canary in the room."

"With you guys, I feel we've become buddies. My dad also gave me a little lesson about, um, how did he express it...being inclusive." Benny beamed at his use of that word. "He pointed out that your friend, Lou, came in to buy a car based solely on me knowing you. Plus I found out that Drew was responsible for approving the lease of several cars for the hotel. Dad said that it's just common sense and good business to accept people who are different than me."

"Sounds like your dad is a pretty sharp guy," Michael said. "I guess it's time for me to fess up, huh?"

"Us...we both need to 'fess up' to being boyfriends." Cray grabbed Michael's hand. "Benny...all guards are down. Friends?"

"Friends. No problem. Oh, by the way, I also found out that my uncle - dad's older brother - didn't die of cancer when I was a little kid. Apparently it was AIDS and he left behind a partner in L.A. So I guess I've got an uncle by proxy or whatever the fuck you call it. Mom and Dad still keep in touch with Uncle Chuck's...partner. I've met him a couple of times when the guy was over here for a visit. Nice guy."

"Maybe if your uncle's partner is in Vegas again, we can all get together." Cray thought that Benny was sincere and accepted his new understanding of people.

"Just tell me one thing. Who is this Lou guy?"

"As in...?"

"He meets with my dad like he said he would, selects a loaded SUV and makes a good deal. Next he pulls out a black American Express credit card and asks Dad if he wants to take the card for payment or deduct a 3% discount and accept a certified check. That takes balls."

"Big balls and a few bucks," Cray replied with a grin. "I'm assuming on the first part and know that money's not a problem on the second part. Seriously, I know there's family money involved but he doesn't talk about it. Neither should we." His expression turned serious as he looked at his new friend.

"Got the message. I'll zip it," Benny replied.

"Whew. I've gone from feeling scared, getting pissed off and finding emotional relief all in the space of ten minutes. You really know how to push buttons," Michael said to Benny. "But I guess they needed to be pushed. Thanks for being a friend. It is time for a little honesty."

And that was that. The three guys stood, shook hands and set up the living room for the meeting. Michael and Cray decided they would let the rest of the group know about their relationship at the end of the study session. As usual, Bob got home around 8:00 and made a point of speaking to each guy for a few moments before grabbing a beer and retreating to the master bedroom. As the end of the evening approached, Cray asked everyone to put the books away. He looked at each of his friends, nodded to Michael and gestured for his buddy to take the lead.

"Guys, it's been pointed out to me that I haven't been completely truthful with y'all. Without getting into the nitty-gritty, I guess it's time to let you know that Cray and me...well, we've become really good friends. You could say I figured out a few things about myself this fall. I've realized I'm definitely 100% gay and Cray has become my boyfriend." Michael looked around and added, "That's all I wanted to say."

"And this is news?" Tim replied with a chuckle. "I think I speak for the other guys when I say we're just glad you finally said something. This ain't a secret or a big deal. You guys are buddies and as long as you don't try to convert me, we're tight." He rolled his eyes and added, "Just kidding about the last part. Plus with the karate business, you two could kick the shit out of me."

"Kung Fu...not karate, doofus. That's how we'd kick the shit out of you," Cray said with a loud laugh.

"We're in Vegas and I like my odds better with you guys together; it's less competition for me getting a date with a hot chick," Chris added. "Plus, if anyone gives you crap, they've got us to answer to."

"I'm already good friends with two guys on the track team who are gay." Glenn stood up and said, "I won't mention any names cuz they're not ready to come out. When they do, we'll have to have a grand ole party - and I don't mean the G.O.P. with those goofy elephants. Whoops. I probably shouldn't have said anything."

"I won't bug you to find out who the teammates are," Benny replied. "But I'll host the party at my house."

Cray and Michael spent a few minutes individually with their friends. Each guy personally seconded his support. As the guys left the apartment, there was an abundance of hugs at the doorway. When only Michael was left, Cray walked with him out to the front of the building and they stood in the shadows where Michael's bike was stowed.

"This has been a big night." Cray tenderly kissed Michael as they held hands.

"Yeah...and another chapter. I think I made a good choice in a boyfriend and in school friends. It now feels kinda stupid that I wanted to hide my sexuality."

"But Benny wasn't fooled. He showed me a lot, tonight. Behind that 'I don't give a shit' attitude is a guy who thinks things through. I gotta feeling we'll be friends with him for a long time."

"Maybe we can even find a gal for him so he can get laid," Michael replied with a snicker. He leaned in for one more kiss and said, "See ya in the morning, babe." He unlocked his bike, got on and pedaled away.

Cray watched as his friend and the bike became smaller down the streetlight-spotted road. He smiled and sighed as Michael made the last turn to exit the apartment complex. 'This has been a big night,' he thought as he went inside and locked the door. Since Drew was still not home, he didn't set the alarm. As he cleaned up the living room and straightened the furniture, he knew that news of their relationship would not be as well received by some of their classmates. 'But that's just tough.' He left one light on and went to bed.

Bob and Drew were very pleased at the topic of conversation during breakfast the next morning. They validated Cray's enthusiasm but also warned him that it isn't a perfect world. He was encouraged to be optimistically cautious with strangers and embrace solid friendships with guys such as those in the study group.

Spike was officially retired from his former job and now working in the casino's finance department as a trainee/gofer. His days consisted of juggling his school with a 20-hour weekly work schedule, studies and his new relationship. The first couple of weeks were major adjustments for him. After a superb farewell dinner prepared by Mr. Ed and hosted by Mario for the residents of his house, Spike packed all of his clothes and computer in his Honda and drove away...literally into the sunset as twilight created an image of Oz behind the Strip skyline. It didn't hurt the image having the humongous green glow of the MGM and the other themed resorts radiating their evening lights.

The Mondrian Tower sat majestically on a lush, secured landscaped five acres just a half-mile east of the famous boulevard. It was also only a three-minute drive to the UNLV campus. From the 39th floor, Lou and Spike's new home wrapped around the northern side of the building to offer views of the Strip, downtown and the ubiquitous eastern sprawl. A second apartment occupied the other half of the floor. Space was not a problem... their 2,800 square feet of shared living space assured privacy when needed. Spike decided to go with the flow and not comment about the vastness of his new home. As long as Lou didn't flaunt it, Spike decided he could live with the man he loved in this lofty environment.

By agreement, the previous owner left a decent inventory of nice furnishings. "Think of this place as a canvas for us to create our home. We can take our time selecting additional stuff," Lou said one evening while they were looking at a portfolio of art their interior designer - a slightly-diminutive man Nick Maggiano recommended - had sent over as suggestions on how to 'tastefully' cover their barren, white architectural walls. Spike was pleased his voice mattered and enjoyed the collaboration.

A breathtaking result was the acquisition of five dramatic paintings by regional Denver artist, Vance Kirkland. The original collector, recently deceased, had accumulated over 20 paintings during his lifetime and the estate executor had been directed to sell them. Through a pipeline of art dealers, the designer was able to identify the best of the collection and made anonymous bids - on behalf of Lou - for large, modernist, space abstraction paintings simply referred to as The Dot Paintings. In that other Kirkland art donned the halls of Denver's art museum and the new opera house, Lou was convinced the purchases represented a sound investment.

The second bedroom for Spike's computer and desk while Lou set up his office in the den. The layout offered each man a modicum of privacy when needed. While Spike used his space for studies, Lou kept busy managing his personal financial interests. However, the lovers looked forward to the end of the evening when they would meet in the master bedroom for a final eye-to-eye conversation concerning the day's events and plan for the next day. Eventually, one touch led to another until any talking would disintegrate into giggles and carnal utterances. Depending on the mood, neither knew whose legs would be parked on the other's shoulders until the last moment.

As agreed to in discussions at their rocky beginning, Spike paid for the utilities. In addition, he started a routine of shopping and preparing Sunday dinner each week. Lou understood, social obligations during that day aside, that this would be their one day together without the distractions of work.

On the first Sunday of December, an exception occurred late morning when Lou answered his cell phone just before noon. He was instructed to attend an urgent family meeting at Nick Maggiano's home and a driver had already been dispatched. Spike was curious but didn't press for more information. They agreed to call out for pizza when Lou returned rather than Spike making a dinner that might not be eaten if the meeting ran late.

Spike was lazily flipping back and forth between a 49ers-Broncos football game and the Lakers on the den television when he heard a faint click from the front door foyer. 'Hmm, Lou is back early but being awfully quiet,' he thought as he looked at the clock. 'Just after two. Great. I can still cook something.'

"Hey, babe. I'm in here," Spike said loudly. He flipped off the TV and stood to greet Lou. He was startled to see Mario enter the room with a gun in his hand. "What the..." He froze in his movement and stared at his old boss.

"Whoa, relax. Sorry to sneak in like this but I wasn't sure what I might find. There have been some serious problems in New York, L.A. and here in Vegas." Mario looked around a bit more before slipping the revolver into the waistband of his jeans. "You okay?"

"Uh, yeah...except for my heart going into overdrive," Spike said as his rose from the couch. "You scared the crap outta me. What problems are you talking about and where's Lou?" Spike looked at his friend with a questioning expression and frowned. It suddenly dawned on him that Mario's presence was hardly a good sign. "And what are you doing here?"

"Under the circumstances, he's doing okay. Others weren't so lucky."

"Wait. What the fuck has happened?" Spike urgently asked. A tightness of his stomach was accentuated by his sudden rapid breathing. "Talk to me about Lou."

"Lou's fine. Let's go into the living room and sit down, buddy, cuz a full explanation will take a few minutes. I also want to make sure the deadbolt is set on your door." Mario motioned for Spike to follow him. He quickly secured the lock on the front door and continued to the living room. "There's been a series of attempted hits on the Gallian family today. We know exactly who is behind this and they are ruthless." Mario sat down in an easy chair and waited for Spike to sit in the other chair across the coffee table.

"Lou, Lou. What happened to Lou?" Spike barked. His emotional and intellectual circuits were becoming overloaded in his attempt to process all this information.

"He got banged up a little and is at Sunrise Hospital. Except for superficial abrasions, a possible concussion and smoke inhalation, your friend is fine. I'm sure he'll be released tomorrow."

"Smoke inhalation? You mean..."

"There was an explosion at Nick's house. The police think it was some sort of bomb launched with a rocket assist. Christ, you'd think this was Beirut instead of Vegas," Mario replied as he shook his head. "Nick, Lou and his Cousin Al had just walked out of the house to the pool area when the shit hit the fan. Unfortunately, Nick's partner wasn't so lucky. I'm told that Rod had stayed behind in the den to clean up the room when the bomb hit."

"Rod Liddy is dead?"

"Along with Lou's mother in New York - a car bomb meant for Mr. Gallian. And Mr. Bromley was targeted by a sniper at his country club in L.A. Fortunately the shooter missed his target and our guys got him."

"What about Nick and Al?"

"The impact of the blast caused Nick and Al to fall into the pool. They just got shook up and wet."

"Fuck, I've got to see Lou," Spike said as he stood up.

"We'll do that in a moment. He knows you're coming and that I was sent to bring you. Among other things, that's why I'm here." Mario rose and joined Spike. "Hug time, first. Just be thankful your partner is safe and sound." He opened his arms and nodded.

Spike walked closer and the two men hugged. He felt Mario's warm lips kiss him gently on the neck followed by a pat on the back. Each released the other and stepped back. From the expression on Mario's face, Spike realized that what had happened was very serious.

"Let me give you a quick synopsis of what's going down before we leave. Since you're married into the Gallian family, so to speak, you need to be filled in. Got some water?"

"Yeah. Or something stronger?" Spike started walking to the kitchen.

"Any other time a beer would be fine. Right now...agua will do." Mario followed Spike and continued, "It's the fucking Russians. Devious cutthroats who thought they could horn in on the 'company' business. They're thugs who operate out of Brighton Beach in New York and the Fairfax District in L.A. About six months ago, their number-two honcho had a meeting with one of our guys in Brooklyn. The long and short of it was they wanted to take over certain parts of our businesses. Sleazy bastards just wanted to grab it for practically nothing."

"I've only read about those guys." Spike opened the fridge and retrieved two bottles of water. He handed one to Mario and cracked the cap on his bottle. "So this was their power play? Christ, it's surreal, like a Hollywood action movie."

"A bad beginning of a movie from our perspective...but it'll have a good ending. I'll tell you more while we drive to the hospital. I needed to let you know that this is serious shit and some changes to your daily routine are going to start right now. We will all be living in a defensive mode until things get sorted out." Mario opened his water and took a long swig. "First, there's going to be a bodyguard living with you for a while. He's standing outside in the hallway by the front door right now and will be moving into the spare bedroom."

"I suppose Lou and I have nothing to say about it?"

"Comes from the top. It's primarily for Lou's protection but you're getting a shadow guy to be with you when you're out. You'll never see him so don't worry about it. Just so you know, there's also a bodyguard at Al and Trish's home as we speak."

"Our bodyguard is outside in the hallway?"

"Right. I'm going to introduce you to him right now." Mario took the lead and walked to the front door. He knocked three times and waited for a reply. After two taps, he unlocked the deadbolt and opened the door. "Everything's set up," Mario said as he stepped aside for the stranger holding an overnight bag to enter.

A fit, compact man with short hair about the same size and coloring as Mario walked into the foyer. If Spike didn't know any better, he would have guessed that the guy was a combat-hardened Marine jarhead in civvies. A thin scar on his left cheek and jaw accented the guy's rugged handsomeness. Spike couldn't help but to admire the flat six-pack beneath a tight tee shirt and the respectable bulge in the crotch of the well-worn jeans. 'The loose windbreaker jacket is probably concealing some weapons,' he thought.

"Jack, this is Spike Jensen, one of your hosts. We're about to head over to Sunrise and see Lou Gallian."

The stoical bodyguard reached out and shook Spike's hand. "Sorry to intrude but orders are orders. I promise not to be in your way."

"Um, I'll show you the guest bedroom." Spike felt intensity - physically and mentally - when their hands melded with a powerful grip. 'This is someone not to screw with,' he judged. "If you want something from the fridge, help yourself." Spike turned to Mario and asked, "Does Jack know that Lou and I...are together?"

"Not a problem," Mario said with a chuckle. "Jack's straight but understands the score."

"I'm cool, Mr. Jensen. My job is to protect you guys - not judge."

"First, it's Spike and Lou. Second, we'll keep our physical stuff limited to behind our bedroom door. Come on. I'll show you your room so we can get to the hospital."

"Go ahead and get Jack squared away. I'm going to make a call." Mario nodded and pulled his cell out of his pocket.

"Be back in a few." Spike nodded to Jack and started walking to the kitchen. "There's plenty of food in the freezer. I had planned on cooking steaks tonight so feel free to have one. As you see, there's a TV on the wall."

"Nice layout. I'll have no problem staying out of your way." Jack smiled and added, "Go ahead and show me the bedroom so you can get to the hospital. I know if my wife was laid up, I'd want to be with her."

"Well, I don't think of Lou as a wife...but I get your point." Spike shrugged with a slight smile and walked down the gallery hallway. "Your room is the last door on the right and there's a large TV in there, as well. I guess that's about it. I would prefer you not to use the computers in our house, if that's okay?"

"My laptop's in the bag and the mission is to keep you guys safe until the problems are resolved. I'll respect your privacy."

"Got it." Spike patted Jack on the shoulder. "I'll take my lead from Mario and you." He turned around and rejoined Mario in the foyer.

"Yep. Mr. Jensen is here and we're off to the hospital." Mario flipped his cell off and slipped it into his pocket. "Let's boogie and I'll tell you what's happening in the car."

The two men called an elevator and silently rode down to the entrance of the tower. Mario slipped some money into the hand of the front desk attendant and headed to his gray Mercedes 550 coupe. As they got in, Mario said, "I didn't want to say anything in the elevator." He started the powerful V-8 and they drove away from the porte-cachere.

"This sounds like super dangerous crap. Are we going to be okay?" Spike turned to Mario with a frown.

"We're the good guys in this and the 'company' has it covered. What happened today was not a total surprise. We knew these cretins had no sense of honor - you know what I mean - but no one expected the Ruskies to strike out in such a fashion at this stage. Rule number one is you don't target civilians. Therefore, our gloves are to speak." Mario slowed to a stop at a light and impatiently drummed his fingers on the steering wheel.

"The gloves are off? Like you're going to be kicking some butt?" Spike had never been exposed to Mario's other job responsibilities and was amazed that his old boss was in the thick of things. 'My friend is definitely part of a bigger picture in the 'company',' he thought. 'Whatever that picture is.'

"Kicking some butt is quite an understatement. The key characters in their organization have been carefully watched over the past month. This was after the last meeting when an impasse was hit and our people grew wary. However, when the shit hit the fan this morning with Mrs. Gallian's murder, all of our resources were called in. About an hour ago, two of their safe houses in New York were torched. In L.A., their local honcho was picked off by one of our guys." The light turned green and Mario gunned the 'Benz' into the clear lane of traffic.

"But you don't know if it's over?"

"Too early. We know their top goon is in Moscow. However, our Chinese associates are handling that situation. The best thing is to stay on the defensive and wait for some sort of signal that they understand we mean business. I figure it'll be tense for a couple of weeks." Mario turned onto South Maryland Parkway and accelerated. "Buddy, let's just keep everything I've said between you and me. Lou doesn't know all the details of the businesses his dad looks after and I've probably said too much already."

"You can count on me. I'll let Lou tell me what he wants me to know. From our conversations, I think he only knows about the Gallian Industries businesses and the new casino company. He and his cousin are being groomed to run it with Nick Maggiano."

"I'm sure that's the way Mr. Gallian wants it. However, the death of Mrs. Gallian will cause a little tension after the grieving is over. By the way, you should know that Mrs. Gallian is Nick's sister."

"That, I was aware of. Guess the best thing to do is lay low and give Lou all the support he needs."

"What about the press? Cable news will be all over this." Spike was sure Mario's bosses wouldn't want publicity of this nature.

"Handled. Mrs. Gallian was an auto accident fatality and Nick's home exploded due to an unfortunate gas leak. The police were very cooperative."

'Friends in high places,' Spike thought, 'come in handy.' He quietly watched as they approached Sunrise Hospital's main entrance. Spike was grateful that his partner wasn't seriously hurt. However, another part of him wondered if he was getting into something far more complex...and dangerous.

Mario turned into the parking lot and found a space near the entrance. The men got out of the car and walked rapidly to the main building. At the front desk, they inquired about Lou Gallian's condition and location. After showing his identification, which was checked off against a short list, they were given the information. Spike was comforted to know Lou was doing well and approved to receive visitors. Mario took the lead and started walking down the antiseptic hallways to Lou's room. Spike automatically stayed glued to Mario's side until they reached the private room. A blond man who physically appeared to be very similar to Jack, back at the apartment, carefully guarded the door. The man shook Mario's hand and whispered a few words in Mario's ear.

"Lou's been asking for you," Mario said as he nodded to the guard. "Let's go in."

Spike took a deep breath and entered first. There, lying in the bed, was his banged up partner. Various monitors and an I.V. were attached to his arm. However, except for some superficial scrapes on the face and a bandage on his forehead, Lou appeared to be in good shape. "Hey, babe," Spike said. "Sorry about your mom. I can only imagine the loss you feel." He walked up to the side of the bed and gently squeezed Lou's hand.

"Thanks. It was quite a shock and then this. Poor Rod." Lou attempted a weak smile, which quavered, and ended up with an anguished cry and streaming tears. Spike did the best he could, hugging him awkwardly, and eventually Lou calmed down and let out a relieved sigh. "I'm so glad you're here."

"That's what this partner thing is all about, Lou. And I'm so glad you're okay. Mario gave me a rundown about what's happened and the extra security we're going to have for a while. The main thing is you're okay and coming home soon." Spike looked at his lover and knew that whatever else was happening didn't much long as they faced it together.

"Home. I like the sound of that."

Spike nodded, leaned down and gently kissed Lou's lips. He knew Lou would probably be going back East for the funeral, but right now, Spike was determined to give Lou all the support he could.

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