That afternoon, a different boy fetched them to say there would be a house meeting at six o’clock, with dinner. He delivered clothes to their rooms, each miraculous in fit and style. Adam wondered aloud who ran the place.
Gwynne slipped her comfortable, simple black dress on and smiled. “It’s like the Wizard of Oz.”
Juliette snickered. “He found pants that fit my ass and a blouse that doesn’t make me feel like a beluga. He’s certainly fucking magical in my book.”
Juliette caught a glance that passed between Adam and Gwynne. “What’s going on here?”
Gwynne just lied with no inflection and no tell. “Nothing. Why?”
Adam let her talk, but his face said everything Juliette needed to know.
“You two had sex! Jesus! Is everyone getting laid but me? Typical!”
Adam and Gwynne just looked at each other again. He wasn’t sure what it had meant for them, but she had given if freely, and he had missed it. Juliette went on a tirade about how everyone around could be getting laid and she could be sitting there with her legs spread and a welcome mat and be as dry as the middle of June. They ignored her, for the most part.
She ranted until the dinner bell rang, calling them all down the hall to the dining room. The dining room was a long, classical affair with tablecloths and multiple forks and the whole deal. There was seating for twenty-two people, and tonight, every seat would be filled. Adam looked down the length of the table from where he stood. Each chair was occupied by a boy similar to the one who had taken them to their rooms. Skinny. Short hair. Probably just barely twenty years old. Some had visible muscles. Some were twigs. All were dressed in the same manner as Adam and the girls. The four chairs at Adam’s end of the table were empty. Adam and Gwynne sat on one side. Juliette took the empty chair opposite them. The chair on the very end of the table was left empty. No one wanted to be the center of attention. The chair at the other end of the table was also empty, presumably for their host. Petros hadn’t made an appearance yet, either. Adam expected both would show together.
Gwynne sat demurely, not sure exactly what to look at, but not wanting to stare at the rows of boys she had learned were paying for their stay with sex. She didn’t approve of the whole arrangement, but she had to admit that it was better than leaving them to fend for themselves on the street.
The boys all chatted, some catching up on Paris comings and goings, some talking in hushed voices and glancing at the end of the table, no doubt discussing the guests. After a while, their voices grew into a sort of lispy crescendo. Juliette leaned forward. “Is there going to be food at this dinner?”
Adam shrugged. The dinner bell rang once more, and from the far end of the dining room came a large, barrel-chested, pot-bellied man who Adam immediately recognized as Le Ours, the bear. If he had been born to forty lives, each in a different time and place, he couldn’t have been called anything else. Petros slipped in at the end of the table near Adam and sat in the very last chair, opposite where the bear was lowering himself into his oversized chair. Following their arrival, older men dressed in tuxedos and carrying silver platters with lids emerged from another door. They lined the table with trays, removing the lids at once to reveal glazed meats and vegetable dishes and desserts all piled high. When the serving spoons hit the table, everyone dug in. All dishes were passed clockwise around the table, and there was enough for everyone to get a serving of anything they wanted.
The champagne flutes at each place were filled with a white liquid from a silver pot. Adam and Juliette tasted it together. It was milk. They met eyes and, for a reason they couldn’t really explain, laughed. The atmosphere at the table was festive, like a huge family dinner. No one discussed anything of import while at the table, and the guests were too busy eating to discuss much of anything at all. Throughout the meal, Adam looked up several times to see various boys staring at him with disgust, others with hungry eyes.
Whenever the milk was drained, more was brought to fill the glass. If a plate went empty, the servers consulted the host, and if he deemed it would be eaten, they brought more. After everyone had gotten their fill and the eating slowed, Le Ours rang a bell he took from a hidden cubby under the table. The servers carted the plates away, leaving a soiled tablecloth. They returned for the table settings and, finally, the tablecloth. All that was left was a huge wooden table and the smells of a meal they wouldn’t forget for a long time.
When everything had disappeared, Le Ours took a large, ceremonial gavel and a battered wooden plaque from under the table. Adam wondered what else was hidden in there. The large man struck the plaque with the gavel, and conversations stopped. Everyone looked at their host.
“Good evening, my friends, my family, and my guests. I hope you all had a good meal.”
The boys started to clap, and the guests joined in. It felt indulgent and silly in the size of room they occupied, but they did it anyway.
“Good. Now, to business. As some of you have noticed, we have taken four guests into our house, one of whom you may know.”
Petros waved. Adam raised a hand. Gwynne bowed, and Juliette stood up and curtsied. The boys chuckled at that one.
“It is not necessarily custom for us to accept guests without a very good reason. They are here because without the protection this house offers, they would be at the mercy of a man I can only refer to as The Jackal.”
Petros leaned over to Adam and said, “That’s what he calls Mozer. It’s a long story.”
“They won’t be staying long, but while they are here, you are to show them every hospitality. You are also under new orders as to who comes and who goes. No one. Without exception. Is allowed to have a guest. No tricks,” he pointed to one of the boys. “No one night stands,” he pointed to another. “And no fits of passion,” he pointed to a third. “At least not under my roof.”
“And that brings me to my next rule. If you leave the protection of this place, you will not be allowed to return while they are still here. I will not have my boys being tempted by the mouth of the Jackal, which can be quite persuasive, as my old friend Petros can no doubt attest.”
Thirty-four eyes looked at Petros at once. Petros just nodded.
“With these rules in place, I think we can move on to what we are going to do with our guests.”
Adam swallowed hard.
“Normally, in this sort of situation, we let our guests stay until whatever it is they are here for is resolved, or until the issue blows over. Unfortunately, I know all parties involved in this, and this is not going to blow over. There will either be blood, or there will be money. My good friend Petros, fortunately, has plenty of both. But. I will not see him paying off a man who is such a disgusting cancer on this beautiful city.”
“I’m not even sure it would do any good,” said Petros.
“Of this, I am aware. So, without a solution, you would stay here indefinitely. Unfortunately, I cannot hold off the police forever. And since both sides of this equation are trying solve for you first, you will have to be removed.”
Adam and Juliette looked from Petros to Le Ours and back. “What does he mean by that?” Juliette hissed.
Petros waved her question down. “Relax. It’s okay.”
Papa Bear continued. “We already know that his friends are not safe out there, either. That is why I rescued them from the police station and brought them here. I regret putting you boys in any danger, but there was no other way to keep everyone safe from the Jackal’s teeth. Again, I cannot hide them here forever. I’m sure he already knows they are here. This is an old feud. But I run a refuge, not a protection racket. So. Petros. Do you care to tell your friends the solution we have devised?”
Everyone looked once more to Petros. “We’re leaving Paris.”
No one reacted for a moment. Juliette was the first to speak. “What do you mean, leaving? Like…forever?”
“Well, not forever, hopefully.”
“Hopefully? Hopefully isn’t good enough for me! This is my home. This city is…my life is in this city.”
Gwynne leaned across the table. “Sometimes you have to leave your home to really find your life.”
Juliette made a face like she ate something bitter. “Yeah, right. Look what happened to you and your boyfriend, here. Kidnapped. Shot at. Hand lopped off.”
Adam whispered, “Got laid.”
Juliette was caught off guard and stopped long enough for Petros to break in. “Juliette. I know that your roots are deep in this city. And if you want to stay, we can’t force you to come with us.”
“Us?” said Gwynne.
“I had hoped you two would be joining us.”
Gwynne looked at Adam. “I just want to go home. At least there I know my way around. I can ask for help if I need it. And I’m not being mobbed by clowns and shot at.”
“Funny you should say that, Gwynne,” said Petros. “Because you are going home.”
“What?!” Adam stood up.
Petros made Adam sit. “We had narrowed it down to two locations. Either we were going to America, or we were going to Japan.”
“Why Japan?” asked Adam.
“Well, Le Ours knows someone there who would take us in until Mo—until the Jackal could be dealt with here.”
Their host broke in. “I have some dirt on the Jackal that I haven’t wanted to use, since it would jeopardize my shelter here. But the Jackal has gone too far, now. Petty theft is one thing. But murder in my beautiful white city is quite another entirely. This Jackal has gotten too big for his territory, and it seems it is up to a bear to set him back in his place.”
The boys all cheered, even though they didn’t really know much about this old rivalry. They loved to support their master if at all possible. He had already given them all so much.
Gwynne waited a moment for the cheering to quiet. “When are we leaving?”
“Tomorrow, if all goes accordingly to plans.”
Juliette quailed. “Tomorrow?! But I have to pack my things, get a storage unit, tell—“
Le Ours spoke over her. “Please. It is all taken care of. Has been completed since this afternoon. You will receive the details before you go.”
Juliette closed her mouth. Adam shook his head in wonder. He wasn’t sure he wanted to leave a place where the head of the household had seemingly limitless power. He wasn’t sure he was ready to go home at all. The thought of starting over filled him with dread, took the jar of happiness he had squirreled away in his chest and shattered it on the table top.
The meeting adjourned, and the boys disappeared to various rooms of the house to do whatever it was they spent their time doing. Adam, Juliette, Petros, and Gwynne all took places in one of the sitting rooms.
“Isn’t he great?” said Petros.
Gwynne scoffed. “He certainly commands quite a harem. I don’t know if I could call him great, though.”
“Well, he could have left you to die on the streets,” said Juliette.
Adam sighed. “Look. I’m not sure I’m ready to go back home.”
Gwynne stared at him.
“The thought of going back there makes me feel like running away.”
“Of course it does,” said Gwynne, straightening. “You’ve been living rent free in Paris, eating on someone else’s dollar, adventuring on someone else’s dime. Why would you want to go back to the land of opportunity, a place you might actually have to work to get what you want?”
“Ouch.” Juliette commented. Petros fixed her with a glare.
“I know. I know. I am so grateful to you, Petros, and to Le Ours, for all of your help and generosity. And it has been wonderful. And I know it can’t last forever. But ugh.”
Petros asked, “Would it help if I told you Le Ours has a place for us when we go back?”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean, there’s an apartment in the city for when he travels.”
“Chicago?” asked Adam.
“Yes. It’s fully furnished and everything. He owns it, although I don’t know why. In the whole time that I’ve known him, he’s never traveled there.”
Adam hadn’t considered starting over in a different place. Chicago was the big city to his smallish home town. Corntown wasn’t exactly the sticks, but it was a far cry from a real city. Suddenly, the idea of going home didn’t seem so awful. He could have his stuff. They could still be together. He could find a job in the city. With no rent owed, he could afford to explore his options a little more. “This could work.”
“Maybe for you,” whined Juliette. “But god, I don’t want to be surrounded by rude, disgusting, greedy Americans everywhere I go. No offense.”
“None taken,” said Gwynne and Adam in unison.
Petros put a hand on Juliette’s leg. “But Juliette, my tragic little bon bon, American men love an exotic woman.”
She crossed her arms. “Well, I guess it might not be entirely terrible, then.”
“So it’s settled, then?” asked Petros, looking at each of them in turn.
Gwynne shook her head. “No. Nothing’s settled. What will we do? What about our families and friends? How do we know that Mozer isn’t going to hunt us down once we get there?”
Petros sighed. “We don’t. But it’ll be a hell of a lot harder for him to find us when we just disappear than it would be if we sit here much longer. Don’t underestimate him. Like Papa Bear, he has eyes and ears all over this city. But in America, at least the police won’t be after us.”
Juliette replied, “After you.”
Petros nodded. “After me.”
“Provided you keep your nose clean over there,” she added.
Adam stood. “Well, I can’t say that I’m ready to leave, but I know I can’t run away forever. Just let me know when we’re ready to go tomorrow. I’m gonna go have a swim.”
The meeting adjourned, they were each left to explore the house on their own. Gwynne and Juliette retired to their room, Petros went to find Papa Bear, and Adam headed for the pool. He would take advantage of the amenities while they were available to him. Tomorrow would start another long day. They all seemed to be getting longer lately.