Chapter 4: The Cost of Living

The walk from his apartment to Mario’s Bohemian Cigar Store on Columbus was a short one. So Luca took the long way—down Napier, up the Filbert Steps, across Montgomery, and then through Pioneer Park. Even so, he arrived at Mario’s precisely at noon, just as instructed. Not seeing anyone he recognized, he took a table, ordered a meatball sandwich and a beer, and sorted through a pile of discarded Chronicles hoping to catch up on Leah Garchik’s column from the past few days.

While he waited and sipped his beer, he scanned the scene in Washington Square Park. Momentarily mesmerized by the silent rhythms of a group of tai chi practitioners, Luca daydreamed of Joe DiMaggio and Marilyn Monroe. He pretended he could see them. On the steps of Saint Peter and Paul Church on the opposite side of the park. On those steps on January 14, 1954 where the couple posed for wedding photographs. The steps of the church that didn’t let them get married inside, but where they posed for photographs nonetheless. He wondered if they knew, through their acquiescence, that their days were numbered.

Before long his cousin, Paulie, appeared at the table around the same time as his sandwich. The sandwich looked great. Paulie did not. He was panting, sweating, bleeding, and had stuffed his portly frame into one of those brightly colored, spandex bicycling outfits.

“What’s with the get-up, cousin?” Luca asked.

“Oh, so I guess that means you didn’t get my email?” he answered, throwing himself into a chair at Luca’s table.

“Nope. What email?”

“My fundraising email. I’m riding AIDS/LifeCycle this year. Joined a team and everything. Set my goal at $10,000. You’ll sponsor me, right?”

“Of course.” Luca loved ALC training season, mostly for the excess of cute guys in bike shorts around town. However he had no idea that Paulie—a straight goombah in his late 30’s—was interested in AIDS, or charity, or knew how to ride a bike for that matter.

“I’m going to be 40 in November. Adriana thought I should set a goal for myself. Selfless and all that.” Paulie offered by way of explanation. “Anyway, it’s good to see you. I thought you were, ya know, out. Thought you were hanging up the holster to be a full-time fishmonger.”

“I can’t retire, cost of living and all that. Dues at the Olympic Club aren’t cheap.”

“O Realm Where Stalwart Manhood Rules.”

“Exactly. Besides, my sabbatical or whatever you want to call it wasn’t exactly voluntary.”

“Yeah. I know. You pissed off the old man something good. But even you gotta admit… I mean I know you’ve pulled some stunts… but how did you think he was going to react?”

“I was hoping he wouldn’t care.”

“Dude, he’d just gotten used to the fact—after years—he’d just gotten used to the fact that you, his golden child and number one button, was a cocksucker. No offense.”

“None taken.”

“And then you go and you get married to…”

Luca cut him off, “Keep it down, cousin. We’re not here to talk about my marriage.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.” Paulie responded, dropping his voice.

“Anyway, I’ve got a long day ahead of me if this is gonna get done. You have something for me?”

“Yeah.” Paulie pushed one of the folded newspapers across the table toward Luca. “The executive. His usual reservation tonight.”

Luca picked up the folded paper and put it in his bag. “Tell the old man I said thanks. I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss this, just a little.”

*          *          *

Just before 10 that night, Luca turned on the TV and turned up the volume so he could hear the local news broadcast from his bath. Just as he suspected it was the lead story.

“The high-tech world is on high-alert tonight as a senseless shooting downtown sends shockwaves through Silicon Valley from San Francisco to San Jose. Good evening, I’m Ama Daetz. Security firms are warning of out-and-out war on the investor class. Anti-gentrification groups refuse to condemn the attack, calling it a blow in defense of the city’s soul. Islamist watch groups are calling it a cowardly act of terrorism by ISIS. And the police are scrambling to determine who would do such a thing and why.”

“So far what we do know is that Track Gipperson, a venture capitalist and early Twitter investor was struck and killed by a sniper’s bullet while leaving the Battery Club in downtown San Francisco. We’re told that, because of recent threats made by ISIS, the Department of Homeland Security has been called in, and the President has been briefed.”

Luca smiled when he heard someone at the door. He knew it was Fred, whom he’d been missing, a lot.

“Hi honey, I’m home,” bellowed Fred in his baritone.

“Hi, baby, I’m in the bath. Turn off the TV and climb in with me.”

Chapter 3: A Visit to the Bear House

He had a couple of days before his meeting at Mario’s, and Fred was delayed in Ft. Lauderdale on the way back from his cruise, so Luca decided to visit his friend, Wesley, who had just completed his third stint at Kaiser Permanente’s Chemical Dependency Recovery Program.

He scooped up the little brown puppy that had been delivered anonymously to his door a few days earlier—now excised of its illicit cargo—and placed him in a milk crate mounted on the handlebars of his bike.

“Let’s go, Bummer. You and I are going visiting.” Despite the cone of shame, which obscured much of his view, Bummer held high his twitchy, wet nose and lapped up the beguiling, city-scented breeze as they rode across town to the Haight. Luca, envious of Bummer’s obviously carefree disposition, spent much of the ride thinking about how he was going to explain their new pet to Fred.

After a 20-minute ride, Luca and Bummer climbed the front steps of Wes’s place, a four-flat, Stick Style Victorian on an odd-shaped lot near Buena Vista Park. The neighbors had affectionately nicknamed the dark-blue building “The Bear House” because of the number of burly, bearded, hirsute men who lived there. Luca let himself in, made his way up to the second-floor apartment and found Wes sitting on his back porch staring at a laptop screen.

“Hey, kiddo, whatcha doing?” Luca asked.

“Waiting in line for Burning Man tickets.”

Luca marveled. Waiting in line. Online. Even inconvenience has gone virtual. “How’s that going?”

Wes stood to give Luca a hug. He looked great, healthier and a little heavier than usual. A month without meth does a body good. He was wearing cut-off jean shorts and had his hair pulled up in what Luca referred to as a “man sprout,” a tiny ponytail of sorts that stuck straight up off the top of his head.

“Okay, I think. Though the countdown timer keeps jumping between ’17 minutes’ and ‘More than an hour’ remaining. Oh, my god, lemme see doggie!”

“Bummer meet Wesley. Wesley meet Bummer.” Luca said, picking up the squirming pup and handing him to Wesley.

“Please tell me you saw Patty Hearst at Westminster.”

“Nope. Missed that one.” Luca said.

“No? Well, her Shih Tzu, Rocket, won the toy group. But then it lost best in show to some Beagle named Miss P. Anyway she looked gorgeous.”

“The Shih Tzu?”

“No. Patty Hearst.” Wesley glanced over at his computer screen. 25 minutes remaining.

“You know I went to the first Man burn on Baker beach?” Luca said.

“No, way!”

“Yeah when I was 14. My folks used to hang with the Good Earth commune when I was a kid. So I’ve kinda known a bunch of that crowd for a long time. I went to the playa a couple times, too, early on. But it’s been a while.”

“Your parents were hippies?”

“Sort of. More like coke dealers.”


“Yeah. Big time. Grace Slick once traded my mom a Mercedes for an ounce of blow.”

Wes sat back down, put his feet up on the porch railing, and grabbed a joint off a table. He lit it and handed it to Luca who sat down beside him.

“Is this part of the program, now?” Luca asked.

“I’m trying San Francisco sober this time.”

Luca looked confused.

Wes explained, “You know, people who are ‘L.A. sober’ still drink white wine. ‘S.F. sober’ means you can still smoke weed.”

“Ah, gotcha. That makes sense.”

“I mean, it’s not officially in the Big Book or anything, but I think there’s room for interpretation. And you heard about Pink Saturday?”

“No, what about it?”

“Cancelled. Done. We got together and took a vote. It’s just too much trouble.”

They passed the joint back and forth a few times without saying much. Wes was one of the few people Luca knew whose silence didn’t make him uncomfortable. In fact he’d come to value the quiet moments he got to spend with his younger friend. One of those red, double-decker tourist buses drove past, and they caught just a piece of the guide’s narration, “…as we pass several of the most adorned Victorians in the…”

“Did I tell you about the guy I met on Scruff?” Wes asked.

“I don’t think so.”

“Yeah. A few weeks ago. I took him to dinner. We went to Kitchenbeard’s pop-up dinner. He was cute, a teacher I think. We totally made out on the way home.”


“The next day I sent him a message to see if he wanted to go out again and he said he didn’t think so because my arm pits aren’t smelly enough. I mean, only in this town will someone tell you you’re not dateable because you wear deodorant.”

Luca draped a comforting arm over the shoulder of his young friend. Wes rested his head on Luca’s shoulder, his sprout tickling Luca’s ear. They sat in silence. Breathing in unison. Watching the fog break up above their heads.

“I need to meet someone like you.” Wes said, finally.

Chapter 2: Diamond Studs

Stepping into Yvonne’s office always made Luca feel like he was flying shotgun in Wonder Woman’s invisible jet—all glass and girly gumption, fueled by fantasy. At 33 stories above downtown with floor to ceiling views of the bay, it was seemingly more appropriate for a senior partner at a law firm than for the owner of Diamond Studs, even if it was the city’s most exclusive male escort agency.

Born Yunru Chen in a small Chinatown rooming house, Yvonne left San Francisco at 14, traveled the world on a wing and a prayer, and returned Yvonne Knickerbocker to amass a small fortune and a large circle of friends by catering to the kinks of a rarefied clientele.

For the most part, the Internet had killed off the middleman in the paid-sex industry. But business at the high end was, as she liked to say, banging. Nonetheless Yvonne liked to keep her business interests diversified, and one of those interests provided the reason for Luca’s visit. He took a seat across from her. She had a phone to her ear and, with the other hand, gave him the sign for “gimme a second.” Yvonne’s conversations were always fun, so he settled in to listen surmising that she was speaking with Konor “The Kong” Harrison, former A-list porn star and one of Yvonne’s biggest earners. He couldn’t hear Konor, but whatever he said obviously tickled Yvonne who threw her head back in hysterical laughter. “Don’t you get sassy with me, fucker, or you’ll never suck dick in this town again!” she quipped into the phone. “You’ll be stuck doing big dick shows in Bangkok by the time I’m through with you.” More hysterical laughter. “Of course I’m kidding, you know I love you.” She looked at Luca and rolled her eyes. “Ok, let me go. My lunch is here. Ok, kiss kiss.”

“You have something for me?” she asked him, not wasting a moment. Luca turned, fished through a messenger bag and removed the squirming puppy that had been delivered anonymously to his doorstep. He placed it carefully on her desk, which—to that point—held nothing but an ashtray and a copy of the Physician’s Desk Reference.

“Awwwww. It’s so cute.” She picked up the excited little ball of fur and let the doggie lick the tip of her nose. Luca’s surprise at Yvonne’s display of humanity must have shown on his face, because when she caught him watching her, she shrugged and mustered a, “What can I say? I love dogs.” before calling out for her assistant.

Frida appeared in an instant, silently took the dog from Yvonne, and left as quickly as she entered.

“Really? You’ve got her involved in this, now?” Luca asked. “She’s practically a kid.” “She’s 25 and studying to be a veterinarian. This whole thing was her idea. I love this generation. They’re always thinking.”

Not entirely sure about, or comfortable with, the goings-on in the room next door, Luca did his best to make small talk as he waited. That was, after all, his instruction. Deliver the dog. Wait. Take the dog away.

They chatted about the weather, speculated about Bruce Jenner’s transition, and dished about the lunch she was having later with the mayor at Tadich Grill, where she loves the fried oysters. Then, out of the blue, she surprised him by casually offering, “By the way, if you ever feel like going out, let me know. I’ve had a request.”

“For me?”


“Really? Who?” Luca had gone on “dates” for Yvonne in the past, but it had been years. His 40-in-the-rearview ego was flattered that any of his former clients might still be thinking about him.

“No one you know. But I think you’d like them. If you’re really interested, do a few sit-ups and then we can talk.”

Before he had a chance to press her, Frida returned. Under one arm she held the puppy, freshly bandaged around the middle. In the other hand she held a small stainless steel surgical tray. The tray was draped with a white cloth. And on the white cloth sat the biggest, pinkest, sparkliest diamond Luca had ever seen. Yvonne’s eyes widened and a little gasp emerged from her lips. Before Luca had a chance to get a better look, one of the two burner phones in his bag cut short his sense of accomplishment and relief.

A new text message read: Friday. Mario’s. 3:00.

Chapter 1: An Unmarked Package

Luca’s shift at Swan ended just after the lunch rush. He stepped out into the sunshine, took a deep breath of the January-disguised-as-summer air, and surveyed the scene on Polk Street. A horde of lap-topped hipsters nibbled gourmet toast at a corner café. Good Vibrations offered a sale on butt plugs. Pearl, an elderly Chinese lady who had once given him a very lucrative stock tip, swept the sidewalk in front of her reflexology shop. He waved to her. She smiled broadly and gave him a thumbs-up.

The current, prevailing angst about town involved handwringing over how much, and how quickly, the city had changed. But Luca, as a born-and-bred San Franciscan, knew better than most just how prone to change the city really is. He wasn’t inclined to hold this latest incarnation against the techies any more than he was willing to vilify the hippies before them or the Gold Rushers before them or the Chinese before them or the missionaries before them. His strategy of keeping to himself, paying the rent on time and going about his business had been working out just fine, thankyouverymuch. Besides, he thought, if they’re still finding body parts in suitcases South of Market, then things couldn’t have changed that much.

He hopped on his bike starting toward his apartment in North Beach. He’d barely made it two blocks when, remembering that Fred was off on a Bearracuda cruise, he changed his mind about going directly home. Instead he pulled over, chained his bike to a rack, and pushed through the swinging saloon doors at the Cinch.

Without giving his eyes much time to adjust to the darkness, he moved past the length of the bar, paused near a drawing of a lion fucking a man just long enough to order a beer, and then continued out to the back patio where he lit a joint and sipped his beer. Sitting there in the daylight his thoughts turned to a particularly strange interaction he’d had the day before with an occasional business associate. Luca had been asked to kill lots of times before, that wasn’t the strange part. But this particular request was something new entirely.

Before he had a chance to think for long, he noticed the guy sitting across from him. He noticed the guy noticing him. The guy wearing the “Weapon of Ass Destruction ” t-shirt. Luca took a drag off the joint and then handed it wordlessly to the handsome stranger.

“Your pun is a bit outdated, no?” Luca kidded.

“Yeah, I guess so. But it still fits.”

“The shirt?”

“The pun.”

*          *          *

45 minutes and half a bottle of Gun Oil later, Luca lay on his stomach breathing heavily into a pillow on the stranger’s bed. Yes, the pun fit—albeit snugly. The satisfied smile on Luca’s face was testament to that.

“Hang on,” the handsome stranger said, his weapon still resting along the crack of Luca’s ass. “Let me clean you up.” He leaned over, grabbed a towel from the bedside, and wiped his hefty load off Luca’s back. He dismounted, rolled over, and leaned back against the headboard next to Luca who did the same.

“What do think? New Jersey?” he asked holding the stained towel up to the light. Luca looked at him, perplexed.

“See, the stain, it looks like New Jersey. I always try to see which state the stain looks like,” the handsome yet somewhat odd handsome stranger explained. “Hawaii is easy. And you’d be amazed at how many come stains look like Florida. But Wyoming and Utah are the rarest. Too square.”

Luca looked at his watch and decided it was time to go. “I need to get home to receive a package,” which, all unintentional puns aside, was the truth.

*          *          *

Luca arrived at the gate just before sunset. It wasn’t evening yet. But the gnarl of old tree trunks and vined canopy at the entrance to his apartment building blocked the day’s final rays and made it feel later than it was.

He locked his bike alongside some others and made his way to the front door of his garden flat. The package was there, waiting for him. He sat on the stoop and slid the box next to him.

Carefully he opened the box examining its contents as if it were some sort of a macabre mystery basket from Chopped. He could hear Ted Allen’s voice declare, “Hello, chefs, let’s see what kind of trouble you can cook up with a pair of pre-paid cell phones, a chocolate Lab puppy, and a dossier on a certain silicon valley billionaire.”

Jesus, Luca thought, shaking his head and scratching his beard. He stood, fished his keys from his pocket, turned to the little brown dog at his heals and asked, “You ready to do this, little fella?”