Diamond in the Rough

by Richard Natale

 

Until shortly after his twenty-first birthday on June 17, 1972, Stanislaus lived in a remote Swiss village high in the Alps. The town, whose population never exceeded seventy at any given time, was evenly divided between Lutherans and Calvinists, neither of whom had much use for the other. He was home schooled and his parents did not own a television, and radio transmission was spotty.

Innately curious, Stanislaus kept his brain occupied by reading—science books, travel books, histories, fiction. He particularly enjoyed biographies since they gave him insight into human behavior and a view of life in the world at large. He hadn’t met many people outside the village and had become acquainted with fewer still.

For all that, he was happy with his life. At eighteen he’d been apprenticed to the town’s chemist, and it was assumed he would eventually marry a local girl or one from a nearby town, though he never gave the matter much thought.

When his father died suddenly, however, Stanislaus’ circumscribed life was upended. No funds had been set aside for him and his mother, and his meager salary would not support them both. So they sought refuge with a maternal aunt, moving into her small flat in London’s Notting Hill neighborhood.

The contrast between the two places could not have been more distinct. Initially, Stanislaus found the din and bustle of London unsettling, but that quickly changed and soon the chaos excited him. So many lives intersecting and crashing into one another—the possibilities were endless.

His mother was hired on as a janitor in a local school, and owing to his experience at the apothecary, Stanislaus secured a comparable position behind a Boots checkout counter. He enjoyed interacting with the public and also proved to be a whiz at the register, efficient and precise as a Swiss timepiece.

On the thronged streets of London, Stanislaus, who was pale and slight in stature, was swept along by the crowd, an odd but invigorating sensation. A quick study, he soon picked up the differences—in speech, mannerisms and attire—between the city’s different classes and was fascinated by the little tells that gave people away, from their clothing to the gait of their walk. His interest, Stanislaus concluded, was similar to his boyhood study of ornithology with its distinctive social rituals, language and plumage.

One afternoon, as he ambled past the makeup counter after clocking out at Boots, Danika, a large but stylishly dressed West Indian woman, called out to him. “You… Funny boy. Come here.”

From her thick-tongued accent, Stanislaus placed Danika as an émigré from either Barbados or Trinidad, and guessed she probably now resided in South London. (It turned out she was from neighboring Tobago and had lived in Croydon since girlhood.) As he approached, she leaned forward and studied his face. “You could be almost beautiful,” she said, shaking her head in dismay. “But first ya gotta make some changes.”

“Changes?” He shrugged. Ah well, life seemed to be in a constant state of change these days. What difference would a few more make?

Specifically, Danika singled out his exaggeratedly bushy, strawberry blond eyebrows and thick hair, which veered off in several directions and was neither brown nor red nor blond. She dubbed it “copper.”

Copper. He liked the sound of that.

“First we gonna trim dem caterpillars crawlin’ across your face. Then we get to that mess on your head startin’ with a good brushing.”

Though he was not used to being fussed over, Stanislaus could think of no good reason to object. Danika appeared to be kind and well intentioned.

“Yah, yah, yah,” she said when she was done looking pleased with her work. “Now you need you some proper clothes. Go up the street to Marks & Sparks. Find the boy named Carruthers in the men’s department. He know what to do with you.”

Carruthers was a rail with freckles, moon-shaped eyes and a wide pouty mouth. He practically sneered when Stanislaus presented himself. “I suppose you’re salvageable,” he sighed. “So what is it? Girls or boys?”

What kind of question was that?

“Do you want to attract women or men?” Carruthers explained.

Indelicate to say the least. “Don’t know,” Stanislaus said. And truly, it had not occurred to him. Except for self-pleasure, which he’d discovered quite by accident in the bathtub when he was thirteen, his familiarity with sex was entirely technical and book-learned.

“Come back when you do,” Carruthers said, moving on to another customer.

If Stanislaus did prefer boys, which he must have suspected, he was content to be in the dark about it. Adjusting to life in London was difficult enough without being a bender, which had only been legal for a few years. Besides, sex was not high on his list of priorities. At the moment he was determined to make order of London’s serpentine byways, which often led him around in circles. He had first heard about The Knowledge from one of his co-workers at Boots. The rigorous course, a mandatory requirement for securing a taxi driver’s license, seemed the ideal way to orient himself with the spidery network of arteries that changed direction and signage as if by whim.

On his free day, Blue Book in hand, he set out on foot to break down each neighborhood, starting with Piccadilly. Except for one or two hidden lanes that had no visible entry or exit, it took only a couple of weeks to fashion a mental grid of the major avenues and the lesser streets that fed into them. After Picadilly he moved on to Chelsea, Soho and Mayfair, and eventually Notting Hill, where he’d been living in the same cramped flat for the past year with his mother and aunt and slept on a pull-out in the living room.

After several months, eager for a new challenge, he set his sights on the East End. Hopping off the tube at the Bethnal Green station, he methodically made his way to Brick Lane with its pungent aromas of exotic spices emanating from the local Indian and Pakistani eateries. After pausing for a curry, he stepped into the men’s room for a piss and happened on his waiter and a busboy having a suck. The sight stirred his innards and he gasped in amazement as the waiter emitted an extended moan and creamed all over the busboy’s face. A kiss followed, and the exchange of saliva and other fluids.

“Like what you see?” the waiter laughed.

Stanislaus nodded enthusiastically. He did. He did indeed.

*****

“Boys, please,” he announced to Carruthers in the middle of the men’s department of Marks & Spencer.

“Assumed so, but didn’t want to be presumptuous,” the salesman said, as if Stanislaus’ decision was all too predictable and tiresome. “Dear me. This is going to take some doing. Hope you’re the adventurous type.”

“Couldn’t say,” Stanislaus admitted.

He was not quite as trusting of Carruthers as he had been with Danika. The boy flitted around, speaking with wild hand gestures and forever tossing his layered dark mane as if in defiance of some unseen enemy. After trying several different coordinates, all of which provoked the same reaction—Carruthers’ nose going into spasm as if the clothing reeked—he finally hit on an ensemble that pleased him. Tight black jeans, work boots, and a white tee under a leather jacket festooned with studs and zippers.

“Ya look like a teddy boy.” Danika laughed. “But if ya gonna wear that, gotta change the hair,” she said, thinning and spiking the copper-colored mop and gelling it into place.

Carruthers and Danika’s efforts paid off in unexpected ways. Stanislaus could barely walk fifty paces without turning a head or being accosted, particularly by older aristocratic looking gentlemen who would walk up to him and whisper, “How much?”

“How much for what?” he replied, and they quickly ran off.

When men closer his age propositioned him, he hesitated, and they too lost patience. It’s not that Stanislaus didn’t want to go with them, but since everything he’d learned about romance came from books, he couldn’t understand why the men seemed to be focused exclusively on the physical act. When he mentioned this to Carruthers and Danika, they conceded that his guttersnipe outfit might be giving he wrong signals, so they cleaned up him and went a safer route—a neatly parted coif over a proper white shirt, navy blazer and slacks. Now he looked like an overgrown public school boy. He still caught the eye of the older gents, but now they didn’t offer him money. They invited him to tea. Their intent was the same, however, and Stanislaus politely begged off.

*****

On a wet and blustery afternoon as Stanislaus navigated the crowded sidewalks on his lunch hour, the metal tip of an open umbrella sailed toward him, missing his right eye by only an inch. A tall man several years his senior, wearing a knee-length navy blue mac rushed over to retrieve the rogue umbrella and apologized profusely.

Stanislaus listened with bated breath. He was immediately taken with the rugged character lines on either side of the man’s beautifully long nose and his heavily lidded, almost somnolent eyes that seemed to be lost in thought. When the man extended one of his long, delicate fingers and touched the bruise on Stanislaus’ cheek, he involuntarily began to tremble.

“Are you getting a chill?” said the man, alarmed. “Might I offer you a cup of tea… hot chocolate? The very least I can do.”

“Cocoa would be lovely,” he said dreamily, eager to spend more time with the man.

“Splendid,” the man smiled, walking abreast of Stanislaus to a nearby tea room. En route he introduced himself as Afton Briers.

“Afton,” Stanislaus said, rolling the name around in his mouth like a lozenge. “Lovely.”

“‘Flow gently, sweet Afton,’” the man said unprompted. “Sound familiar? It’s Robbie Burns.”

As he took his first sip of cocoa, Stanislaus shook his head. It was then he noticed the redness and wrinkles around Afton’s left eye—and only his left eye.

His curiosity couldn’t have been more blatant. “From wearing a loupe,” Afton explained. “I’m a diamond cutter.”

“A diamond cutter. Marvelous,” Stanislaus said with wonder in his voice.

Afton assured him it was no such thing, calling the work “exacting and tedious.”

“Then why do you do it?” he asked.

“Because I enjoy the challenge of taking an ill-defined mass and shaping it precisely until it is a thing of beauty.”

Stanislaus floated along on his words as if Afton were reciting a love sonnet.

“Not much to tell,” he said when Afton inquired after his life. “I’m a shop boy at a Boots.” Damn, he thought. Afton, who by his dress and demeanor—if not by his profession—was decidedly upper crust, would probably frost over now that he knew. And if he didn’t, it probably meant he was looking for a quick shag like the others.

But Afton seemed unfazed, almost charmed. “Must pop by Boots more often,” he said, and Stanislaus noted that the distant look in Afton’s eyes had melted away and they were staring directly at him with what he sincerely hoped was longing.

“Don’t need to come to Boots to see me, you know,” he said, attempting his first flirtation.

“Really?” Afton ventured with beguiling shyness. He reached over and brushed his hand, and Stanislaus’ penis pushed boldly through its tight foreskin. “You’re quite unlike anyone I’ve ever met.”

Stanislaus felt elated and became flush, blood rushing to all parts of his body.

The conversation shifted to Stanislaus’ pursuit of The Knowledge, a hobby Afton deemed “most amusing.” They made an appointment for the following Saturday to explore South Kensington, not on foot this time but rather in Afton’s Series 1 Alfa-Spider. “You guide. I’ll drive.”

On Saturday, they were caught in a sudden downpour in front of the Victoria & Albert Museum and shared their first kiss behind the fogged-up, rain soaked windows. Stanislaus declared it, in a word, “splendid.”

“Bugger. I’d hoped for something more than ‘splendid’,” Afton said, sounding somewhat deflated.

But Stanislaus was still busy savoring the kiss. “Again,” he said. “And might I have some tongue this time?” Secretly, he was uncertain about tongue. When he’d popped by Marks & Sparks to solicit Carruthers’ dating advice, he was told that while lips were sweet and romantic, only tongue could ignite the fire. And for the first time in his life, he wanted to be set ablaze.

Carruthers was right. The flames were soon shooting out of his shirt collar. He eagerly accepted when Afton invited him back to his flat near Hyde Park, and regretted not having inquired what followed tongue. No matter. He had every confidence he would find his way.

That afternoon Stanislaus had his first suck and quite enjoyed the tartness and the texture and fullness of Afton in his mouth. He was overjoyed when Afton creamed all over his chin and lips, and then, without needing to be asked, returned the favor.

“I’ve never done that before,” Stanislaus confessed.

“Apparently,” Afton said.

“Why? Did I do it wrong?”

“Not at all. You took me back… back to my first time… before I became jaded.”

“You don’t strike me as the cynical sort,” Stanislaus said.

“Oh, but I am, I am,” he moaned, “Difficult to be jaundiced around you, though. Knew it the moment we met.”

Stanislaus struggled not to let Afton’s declaration turn his head. While he was no more insecure than the next person, he was unaccustomed to flattery and couldn’t think of anything he’d done so far to warrant such wholehearted approbation. If only he could summon up the right words to compliment Afton. He felt them but had no idea how to string them together without sounding disingenuous. He wanted to thank Afton for the love lesson and tell him how unselfconscious he felt being naked in his bed. The best he could manage however was “Might I see you again?”

“I insist,” Afton said.

Several cream-filled afternoons later, Afton used his tongue to explore his underside and before Stanislaus could protest, unexpected sensations pulsed through him and he forgot to complain. Despite Afton’s efforts, however, his sphincter stubbornly refused to unclench—not even for a discreet index finger.

“Not enjoyable?” Afton asked.

“Oh, definitely enjoyable,” Stanislaus said. Yet, while the probing tongue was electric, he didn’t understand the purpose of it all. He’d never given much thought to that part of his anatomy. “Is there a reason men do that?”

The question charmed Afton. “Yes,” he explained. “Sometimes it’s an end unto itself; and at others, a preparation for intercourse.”

“Like between a man and a woman?” Stanislaus said, sounding somewhat dubious.

“In a manner of speaking.”

He glanced down at Afton’s engorgement. “Is that even possible?”

Afton laughed. “Absolutely. Takes a bit of getting used to, is all. Loads of fun… with the right person. Like to have a go?”

Afton got on his knees and offered himself up. Stanislaus hopped on but stopped after a few thrusts, concerned about the muffled sounds Afton was making into the pillow. “Am I hurting you?” he inquired.

“Not at all. Fire away.”

Afton behaved like a gentleman when Stanislaus’ curiosity finally got the best of him. He took his time, working his way inside slowly, inch by inch. The first two or three attempts were unsuccessful (that damned sphincter again), but after experimenting with different entry positions they chanced upon one that suited him. Discomfort soon dissolved into enjoyment, which gradually evolved into pleasure and craving. Stanislaus was embarrassed by the moans that escaped from his throat, but there was nothing to be done; he’d lost all control.

“Oh Stani, how I love you!” Afton screamed with one final push as he emptied himself inside him, an affirmation that induced a simultaneous climax.

Stanislaus lit up with wonderment, amazed at having been fortunate enough to stumble onto the connection between sexual intimacy and affection. He had admired Afton from the first, and his feelings had quickly deepened. But he’d been loath to declare himself, afraid it would sound trite or that Afton might dismiss him as a silly romantic, an overeager, inexperienced young man. Now that Afton had confessed to similar feelings, however, he could not contain his joy and immediately became aroused again, and to his surprise, so did Afton. They became consumed in one another and spewed all sorts of uninhibited sentiments, uncensored and unashamed.

As they slouched toward sleep, Afton coiled him in a tight embrace and whispered, “If only…”

“Yes?” Stanislaus asked.

“…we didn’t have to separate. Ever.”

“What are you saying?” Stanislaus inquired timidly.

“I’m saying I want you to leave bloody Notting Hill and hang your trousers beside mine.”

“Hmm, I could do that,” Stanislaus said, trying not to betray his sense of elation. “But first you must promise to say you love me every day without fail, even when you’re not inside me.”

“You have my word,” Afton responded, lavishing him with kisses and professions of affection, both physical and verbal, that continued well into the night.

Despite his lack of experience in matters of the heart and the general disapproval sometimes visited on men with similar inclinations, Stanislaus bravely returned to Notting Hill, collected his belongings, and left his mother a forwarding address and telephone number.

For the first several months, Afton kept to his promise and Stanislaus felt connected to the world as never before. Desiring and being desired became a validation of his existence, the very reason he had been placed on the earth. And he was young enough and ingenuous enough to believe that what society thought didn’t matter one bit.

*****

A captive of first love, even someone with more life experience, can sometimes miss the signs of gradual decline in a relationship. In Stanislaus’ case it was even more difficult, since Afton rarely gave him outward cause for concern. They never seemed to tire of the other’s company and the hours apart were nearly torturous. They spoke several times a day even if only for a quick hello, and their conversations were filled with coos of affection as well as suggestions of a more indelicate nature.

Stanislaus took all this to mean that an indissoluble bond had been formed. Sexually, he became quite demonstrative, brazen even, using every means at his disposal to please Afton (including one or two public forays—with an audience no less—much to his partner’s scandal and delight).

Then, without warning, the clouded, distant look he’d noted in Afton’s eyes on their first meeting returned, intermittently at the start but with increasing regularity. It was as if, after being cured of some unnamed malaise, Afton had suffered a relapse. When Stanislaus, in his own clumsy way, tried to draw him out, Afton insisted, “Nothing’s the matter. Can’t you see how hopelessly I love you? If not, it’s your eyes need examining.”

Since he’d never given him a conclusive reason not to, Stanislaus took Afton at his word. Nonetheless, he was nagged by an extra-sensory premonition. He couldn’t shake the notion that embedded within Afton’s words was a lie, or at the very least an evasion.

When he discussed it with Danika, who had a long and well-documented history with footloose men, she offered two possible explanations: “Either he fallin’ out of love like some men do without they even knowin’—”

“No, that’s not it,” he interrupted. Afton remained attentive and passionate. He insisted that Stanislaus be included in all his social activities and meet all his friends, not the behavior of someone whose emotions are wavering. Even as a neophyte he knew better than that.

“The other possibility,” Danika suggested, “is maybe he still be lovin’ some other man.”

Stanislaus couldn’t conceive how anyone might have the energy and presence of mind to have feelings for more than one person at any given time. It sounded like a herculean effort. And however exalted his regard for Afton, he was reassuringly mortal. Besides, where would he have found the time? Even during working hours, they were in almost constant contact. Still, he did not dismiss this second choice out of hand. Afton might be harboring a dark secret, perhaps the dying embers of a past affair or a lingering melancholy for an unrequited love.

Pishposh, Stanislaus’ inner voice argued. And until he discovered tangible proof, he would trust Afton, even though he seemed to discreetly inch away. He always had an excuse. Fatigue. A headache. A foul mood. Nothing to do with Stanislaus, he’d insist. Then he’d apologize and breathe warm sentiments into his ears until he was lulled to sleep.

*****

Stanislaus was writing a check when his pen ran out of ink. Scouring through Afton’s desk, he happened on a cache of photos in the bottom drawer. At the top of the pile was a beautiful man, naked and in full arousal, defiantly exposing himself to the camera. His charisma leapt off the image. There were several other provocative shots, all obviously taken by someone who was deeply invested in his subject. Fully clothed photos of the man confirmed his appeal wasn’t merely carnal. He was as proud looking as he was captivating, with a piercing stare that could melt iron.

The photographer could only have been Afton at the peak of infatuation. The camera lens was fixated on the object of fascination with the same intensity Afton had lavished on him in the early days, before his eyes clouded over again.

Stanislaus was strangled by a sudden and unexpected surge of jealousy. Try as he might, he could not stifle the emotion. He wanted to tear the photos into little pieces and cast them to the mercy of the winds.

“You would admit it if you’d fallen out of love with me, wouldn’t you?” he said to Afton one night, displeased to hear a needy whine in his voice. “I’d be terribly unhappy, but I’d prefer to know.”

“Rubbish,” Afton snapped. “Once and for all, I love you… and will continue to do so long after the breath leaves my body.”

Yet even as Afton spoke those powerful words, the distance in his eyes disquieted him, and Stanislaus was not pacified. The disparity intensified over the next several weeks until it could no longer be ignored: The more distracted Afton became, the more he avowed his love for Stanislaus.

If Stanislaus had any hope of discovering the truth, he would have to turn elsewhere. From the start, Afton’s friends had been quite affable, even the hoity-toity ones. The men in particular flattered Stanislaus, said they envied Afton’s good fortune. An indiscreet few hinted that, should the relationship not work out, they were prepared to step into the breach. Yet, except for vague rumblings that Afton had not been so fortunate in the past, they remained fiercely loyal. No details. No names. For a group that prided itself on being a wellspring of gossip and unfounded rumor, Stanislaus found this quite strange.

So he tried a different tack, approaching the one friend whose approval he had not secured. Tisha Lancaster was a Knightsbridge girl, well bred and filthy rich, spoiled and headstrong and haughty. She and Afton had grown up together and spoke every day without fail. Despite their occasional bickering—she protested that Afton didn’t need to work, much less in a nasty profession like cutting diamonds—theirs was a time-tested friendship that was all the stronger for having withstood the disagreements.

Though Tisha was never less than polite to him in Afton’s presence, Stanislaus was not fooled. Rigid good manners were second nature to members of her class when dealing with those they considered their inferiors.

“Why does Tisha disapprove of me?” he asked Afton.

“Pay no mind; she’s that way with everyone,” he said, which, while true, was not in the least bit comforting. Another evasion, Stanislaus thought, though he admired Afton for his gallantry, for not pricking Tisha’s blatant snobbery.

Stanislaus was left with little choice but to go right to the source, though he took no pleasure in having to resort to subterfuge. He invited Tisha to afternoon tea. If she was put off by the invitation, she was too well mannered to say so outright. As he poured her a cup of Earl Grey (lemon, one sugar), he asked, “I can’t help but feel you dislike me but hold your tongue because of Afton.”

In the absence of her friend, Tisha let slide her diplomatic mask. “I’m sure you’re a fine chap,” she said, heaving a sigh as if Stanislaus had badgered a confession out of her, “but I don’t understand why he would be interested in someone so below his level. It’s one thing for Afton to have a boy for his own amusement—that seems to be what men have always done—but quite another to share his life with him.” (Tisha was similarly dismissive of Afton’s other male friends, whom she dismissed as “toffee-noses and pantywaists.”)

Had anyone ever measured up to her high standards for Afton, Stanislaus inquired.

“I’m sure I couldn’t say,” she snipped.

“Was it that man whose naked pictures Afton keeps in his desk drawer?”

“Aren’t you the sly one?” she said, smirking. “So you know about Charles?” (She pronounced his name the French way: with an “sh” at the head and no “s” at the end.)

“I didn’t know his name until you told me,” Stanislaus said. “But thank you.”

“Why, you conniving little shit!” she exploded.

Tisha’s words wounded him, not because they were cruel—though they most decidedly were—but because at the moment he found it difficult to disagree. And worse, he was not in the least embarrassed. His love for Afton superseded any shame he might have felt about his trickery.

Tisha was not upset for long. With a sigh she said, “What a relief. Need further proof that Charles is and always will be the light of Afton’s life? It’s your own fault, you know. You pried it out of me after I swore never to utter Charles’ name again. I suppose now you’ll be a total horror and give me away.”

Stanislaus said he would do no such thing.

She said she didn’t believe him. “Not that I care. Afton’s bound to return to his senses. Then you’ll be discarded. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.”

It took little prodding for Tisha to elaborate. Charles was not merely independently wealthy but also a descendent of French aristocracy, though without a formal title since his mother had married a “commoner” (in Tisha’s words), albeit a filthy rich one. He and Afton had met in Alsace, where Charles’ family owned a winery. Afton had been even younger than Stanislaus at the time and had fallen instantly under Charles’ spell, according to Tisha. “He was enchanted. As well as he should be. Never seen him so happy, before or since.”

The Charles she described was a quasi-deity, a combination of beauty and wit and style, a sexual tiger who had awakened and fulfilled Afton’s hungers. “No other man stands a chance. Particularly not a… a shop boy. I’m not trying to be a hateful cow. You simply can’t measure up. No one can.”

Tisha did concede that the relationship had had its tempestuous moments. “But as the saying goes—was it Chaucer, Tennyson?—‘the course of true love…’ etcetera, etcetera. But how could it be otherwise? They’re thoroughbreds. Being in the same room with them, you quite expected them to tear at each other like wild animals. I’m flush just thinking about it,” she said, dabbing her forehead with a napkin.

Stanislaus felt suitably chastened. His and Afton’s lovemaking, while not lacking in ardor, was more of the caring and gentle variety.

“Then why did they separate?” he said.

“Entirely Afton’s doing,” Tisha huffed. “Because like all extraordinary men, Charles refuses to be hemmed in by convention. And Afton can be a bit of a prig. Old-fashioned… and all that romantic treacle,” she said, pretending to gag on the words. “In the best of relationships concessions have to be made. Well, Afton’s paid for his stubbornness… in spades. Never been the same; won’t be until he and Charles are together again.”

Tisha’s assessment corroborated the unalloyed desire Stanislaus had witnessed in the photographs. For a time he said nothing, waiting for an opportune moment. Then, one evening when they were out at a pub, he overheard one of Afton’s friends remark, “News flash. The prodigal lover has returned. Fireworks to follow.” After a round of tittering and back patting, they noticed Stanislaus eavesdropping and quickly changed the subject.

The news hit him like a volley to the gut. Until now, Charles had been an abstraction, a distant impediment. His re-emergence might explain Afton’s emotional distance.

In the car on the way home, Stanislaus could no longer keep silent. “Who is this Charles and why have you never mentioned him?”

“Who told you about Charles?” Afton barked. “One of those silly asses down at the pub?”

“I saw the photos.”

“Serves you right. Stupid boy, snooping around in my belongings. This inquisition is over. You’re never to mention him again.”

That night, for the first time since they’d started living together, they slept apart, and for the next several days Afton froze him out.

“Couldn’t keep your mouth shut, little pissant?” Tisha bellowed into the phone. “Not that it matters. The better man has returned to claim him.”

“Meaning?” Stanislaus said, though the statement couldn’t have been clearer.

“Don’t be obtuse. You’ll soon be ancient history. They’ve been together… several times. In public. I suppose they’ve met in private as well. How could it be otherwise? Charles is his addiction.”

Whatever his faults, Stanislaus had always considered Afton an honorable man. Could he have been so gulled that he’d misjudged Afton’s essential character? Was he truly capable of outright duplicity?

If he needed further proof, when showed the photos, Carruthers said, “What a beauty. No wonder Afton’s bereft.”

“What am I to do?” he asked, plaintively. “Afton won’t speak of it and he comes home at all hours.”

“Either you ride it out and hope for the best…”

“Or?” Stanislaus prodded.

“Pack your things.”

“I’ve never been so miserable in my life,” he moaned.

“Occupational hazard, don’t you know,” Carruthers said with an air of resignation. “The thing they never tell you about falling in love is that sometimes it can be a nasty fall. Leaves terrible scars.”

“If I stay, I fear I’ll grow to hate Afton. But where am I to go?”

“Stay with me if you like,” Carruthers offered. “No charge, provided you suck my cock now and again.”

“Don’t know as I could do that with a friend.”

“Oh, that will pass,” Carruthers said with a chuckle. “Go home, pack a bag, and meet me in front after closing.”

When he saw the suitcase in the hall, Afton merely tossed his head, and it shredded Stanislaus’ heart that he made no effort whatsoever to persuade him to change his mind. “For the best, I suppose,” he remarked, coldly.

Best for whom? Stanislaus wanted to scream. But before he could speak, Afton retreated into his study and locked the door.

Servicing Carruthers proved to be distasteful but tolerable; no kissing and little foreplay required. No reciprocation either, though (blessedly) Carruthers wasted little time reaching climax before rolling over and immediately falling asleep.

Far more onerous was Stanislaus’s attempt to disentangle himself from Afton. He suffered acute heartsickness and, except for work, rarely went out, and then only because Carruthers wanted to bring a boy home. “Go down to the pub for a few,” Carruthers would suggest. “I won’t be long about it, as you already know.”

Other aspects of his life suffered as well. He soon lost all interest in The Knowledge, a nagging reminder of the idyllic afternoons he and Afton had maneuvered through London in the Alfa, sharing confidences and kisses. Moreover, during his most recent solo outing through Bayswater, he had been unable to shake the sensation of being followed.

*****

“Two pounds eighty,” Stanislaus said without looking up from the register.

“Afton wants to see you,” said the man on the other side of the counter, whom he recognized as Eddie McCann, one of Afton’s pub-crawler friends.

“Really? Well, I don’t wish to see him,” he said, counting out the coins and depositing them into the cash drawer.

“Have a heart. He’s going through a rough patch,” Eddie said.

“That’s a laugh,” he countered.

“Haven’t you read the papers?”

“Sorry?”

“Afton’s been arrested.”

“Arrested? For…?”

“Why, for murder.”

. . . Stanislaus looked up and saw Danika and Eddie McCann hovering over him. “Where am I?” he said in a dazed voice. “What happened?”

“You fainted,” Danika said with a slight chuckle. “Went right out. Lucky you didn’t crack your pretty little head open.”

Stanislaus felt lightheaded, foolish and unnerved. What reason had he to swoon like a silly schoolgirl? Then Eddie’s words came back to him: Afton had killed someone. And if he had, that person was undoubtedly Charles.

“Where is he?” he said to Eddie.

*****

Eddie brought him up to date as the taxi jerked through the tangled streets of London during rush hour, and Stanislaus emerged from his stupor. Afton had tried to run down Charles with the Alfa. At the last minute, Charles had sidestepped him, lost his balance, and was struck by a bus coming from the opposite direction.

“Then Afton didn’t kill him?”

“It’s not quite so simple. Charles left behind a note. He was going back to France. Feared for his life, he said. Afton had threatened him.”

“But Afton was in love with him.”

Eddie shrugged. “Maybe Charles was leaving him again. Afton went nearly round the bend last time. I suppose he snapped.”

Stanislaus suddenly felt dizzy again. “But it was Afton who left Charles.”

“That what he told you? No. Was Charles ran off with another bloke.”

Then Tisha was mistaken or had lied to him, and Afton was still carrying a torch. That would certainly explain the increasing distance after the first bloom of their affair. But if Afton was so obsessed with Charles that the thought of losing him again could lead to murder, why on earth did he want to see Stanislaus?

He considered jumping out of the taxi and running in the opposite direction. Only morbid curiosity kept him in his seat. He’d never met a murderer before and wondered if the act had altered Afton or, more chillingly, caused Afton’s true nature to emerge from the shadows. Perhaps now Stanislaus would finally see him clearly, unencumbered by love’s filter.

Sitting face to face in the dank, anonymous meeting room, separated only by a long gray metal table, Stanislaus noted the familiar faraway look in Afton’s eyes, as if he was glancing past him, no doubt lost in reverie for his one true love. Only this time their next meeting would be in the beyond.

“So good of you to come,” Afton began, his face drawn and sallow. “I felt I owed you an explanation.”

“Can’t imagine why,” he said curtly.

“Because, dear boy, this is as much about you as it is about me.”

What a peculiar response, Stanislaus thought. “I don’t follow.”

“Whatever I’ve done was for your sake.”

“Now you’re having me on,” Stanislaus said angrily. Did Afton think he could continue to prey on his innocence by plying him with falsehoods? He got up and prepared to leave.

“Sit down and let me to explain. Please, I beg of you.”

Stanislaus lowered himself onto the chair, but only because he was waiting for Afton to betray himself, to confirm his perfidy.

“May I say how good it is to see you? I’ve missed you terribly. More than I imagined was humanly possible.”

“You missed me?” he shot back. “While you were cavorting with Charles?”

“What on earth are you talking about?” Afton gasped, reeling back in his chair.

“You know perfectly well. You were so consumed by Charles that when he threatened to leave you again, you tried to kill him.”

“Ridiculous,” Afton said with a hollow laugh. “I despised Charles. He was the devil.” The vehemence with which he condemned Charles was as shocking as it was unexpected.

“Don’t lie to me. I saw the photos. They were taken by a man who was deeply in love.”

“A temporary insanity, for which I have paid dearly,” Afton said, running his fingers through his unkempt hair. If possible, Stanislaus found Afton even more beautiful in his distress and had to resist the impulse to caress his cheek.

“Whatever warm feelings I once harbored for Charles were long ago replaced by contempt.”

“Why do you insist on playing me for the fool?” Stanislaus said, pounding his fist on the table.

“My sweet angel,” Afton lamented, “how can someone with such a kind heart understand? There are people in this world without the slightest capacity for love; men who seduce simply for sport.”

“As you did me?” Even as the words came out of his mouth, Stanislaus regretted them. Whatever had transpired since, there had never been any doubt in his mind that Afton had cared for him, even thought himself to be in love.

“I was never unfaithful to you, I swear,” Afton said, “not in thought or deed. You were my salvation, everything Charles was not.”

“Don’t say such things,” Stanislaus whined, “I’ll believe them, and I’ve suffered enough.”

Afton nodded. “I’m so terribly sorry.”

“If he was like you say, how could you have become entangled with him?”

“When we met, I was even more naïve than you, if you can believe that. I was bewitched. How could I not be? Charles presented a dazzling façade. I didn’t imagine that Charles’ pastime was luring others into his web for the sole purpose of devastating them.”

“Surely you must have suspected,” Stanislaus said, since he couldn’t conceive of anyone being as unschooled as he.

“There were clues, certainly. But I didn’t want to believe that anyone I cared for could be so calculating and heartless. Hah! But who am I to judge? Until now, I would never have believed myself capable of murder.”

Despite his mixed feelings, Stanislaus felt compelled to come to his defense. “It was an accident. You didn’t kill him.”

“But I meant to. Not with the Alfa. With a gun.”

Stanislaus felt the blood chill in his veins. “So what Charles wrote in the letter was true? You threatened him?”

“More a warning… and I was prepared to follow through. But he beat me to the punch.”

Stanislaus was reeling, as if Afton’s words were playing ping-pong inside his head.

“Then you did try to run him over.”

“I most certainly did not, and there are witnesses to prove it. I’ll be exonerated on that count.”

Afton explained that Charles had telephoned him early that morning and insisted on seeing him, promising dire consequences if he did not come to his hotel at once. “I was trapped and determined to put an end to the whole bloody mess.”

As Afton rounded the corner to the hotel, Charles had jumped out from between two parked cars. Afton managed to swerve at the last moment, and Charles tripped and fell into the path of an oncoming bus.

“Why would he do such a nonsensical thing?” Stanislaus protested.

“Because if he couldn’t control me, he meant to destroy me. He’d planned it perfectly. Or so he thought. It was a wide turn and I had to slow down to make it. At best he would have been injured—a broken leg, a mild concussion. Then he’d have all the proof he needed to accuse me of trying to kill him.”

“But why?”

“To come between us.”

“But you just said you wanted to kill him. How would that bring us together?”

“It wouldn’t. But it was the only way to ensure your safety.”

“Forgive me, but I still don’t understand what part I play in this.”

By the time he had finished his story, Afton’s meaning was clear.

Several weeks earlier, Charles had been coaxed back to London by Tisha, who said Afton had reconsidered and was willing to meet his conditions. “Since Charles had already moved on to other conquests, he wasn’t even tempted,” Afton said. “The bastard came back for one reason only. Tisha told him about you. The chance to come between us was too delicious for him to resist.”

As for Tisha, she had misinterpreted his intentions, believing Charles was still in love with Afton. “She’s always been an idiot when it comes to men,” Afton said. “She saw only the parts of Charles that made him irresistible, never his malevolence or his faithlessness. That’s why she blamed me for alienating him. And nothing I said could dissuade her.”

But Charles had miscalculated. He had not counted on the depth of Afton’s feelings for Stanislaus, and none of his usual machinations worked. So Charles threw down the gauntlet. If Afton didn’t come back to him, he would see to it Stainslaus met with an accident. He had both the will and the wherewithal to carry out his threat, and Afton knew it.

“It’s the reason I let you leave without a fight,” Afton explained. “Though I suffered greatly.”

“I thought you’d fallen out of love.”

“That was deliberate. Would you have left otherwise?”

Given his low threshold for boredom, Afton was confident Charles would soon tire of his little game. But the more Afton continued to refuse his overtures, the more deranged he became. “He screamed he would not ‘be undermined by a filthy little shop boy.’ That you’d turn up dead one day and your blood would be on my head.”

Afton went on: “It was a point of pride. Bloody French and their bloody pride. He forced my hand. The only way to protect you was to put an end to him. Didn’t matter if he dragged me down with him. As long as you were unharmed.

“Then I was right. Someone was following me,” Stanislaus said weakly. The thought of it made him ill.

“I’ve no doubt. When Charles finally understood that I loved you heart and soul, more than I’d ever cared for him, he couldn’t bear it.”

“Or perhaps when he realized he was incapable of anything deeper than a momentary infatuation and was driven to a kind of despair,” Stanislaus offered.

“That only proves your goodness. After all I’ve said, here you are assigning human feelings to a cold-blooded monster.”

Stanislaus was disconcerted that anyone would go to such extremes to exact revenge. Still, one unresolved question lingered in his mind. “When you look at me, it’s as if you’re glancing past me. If it isn’t Charles, what distracts you so?”

“Until I’m convinced Charles hasn’t found a way to reach out to you from beyond the grave, I won’t rest easy.”

*****

That he’d been so right and so wrong about Afton required a period of adjustment. Afton’s affection had been genuine and sincere, yet that same devotion had driven him to terrible extremes. If only The Knowledge provided a map of the circuitous route of contrary human feelings, he thought, where they begin and end, and where they intersect. He took comfort in believing that even if Afton had planned to shoot Charles, he would not have been able to go through with it.

Witnesses to the accident came forth to testify as he had predicted, and Afton was freed. To her credit, Tisha played a part in it as well, admitting to being the catalyst in the whole sordid affair.

Through the marvels of phone call tracing, Charles’ conversations from his hotel with a paid killer were unmasked. For all his cleverness, Charles was a sloppy planner, leaving behind scads of clues.

As for Stanislaus and Afton, their reunion was euphoric. Right after his release, they flew to the Italian Riviera (having made a pact never to set foot in France for the rest of their lives) and holed up in a hotel overlooking the Mediterranean, reveling in each other past the point of exhaustion.

The distance in Afton’s eyes diminished and gradually vanished altogether, replaced by gazes so prolonged and intense that Stanislaus could climax just from peering into his eyes.

Though he looked comical, Afton brought his jeweler’s loupe to Italy with them and used it to explore Stanislaus’ body. “I want to memorize every pore, every bead of sweat. All facets of a perfect whole.”

Stanislaus cautioned, “Please don’t. I can’t live up to that. I see you for who you are and adore you regardless. Do me the same kindness.”

Afton said he understood but could make no such promise. “I know that to be true up here,” he said, tapping his temple. “Unfortunately, when it comes to…” (he placed a hand on his heart) “…reason plays no part.”

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