An officer roused the trio from their uneasy sleep. Weak light seeped in through the windows in the front of the station. “You three may go. The streets may still be unsafe for you, so we have arranged a transport to take you to a safe house here in Paris.”
“It’s about bloody goddamn time,” said Juliette, stretching her back, no doubt sore from being hunched over on the table top.
Gwynne stood up, he eyes bleary and her temper unchecked in her semi-conscious state. “What the fuck even? You’re not going to question us? You have nothing to ask? Nothing to report?”
“You’ve been cleared to go,” the officer said, sounding confused.
“You mean to tell me we spent hours and hours here in this cold, miserable room just to be let go? What about the investigation?”
“That’s not your concern any longer.”
“We were ushered into a delivery van at gunpoint by some kind of madman that wanted to kill someone dressed as a clown, and it’s none of our concern?!”
Adam put a hand on Gwynne’s shoulder. “Come on, Gwynne.”
“No! I want some fucking answers! Did you catch that gun-toting maniac?”
“We have not apprehended him, no.”
“And did you find the clown man?”
“We haven’t apprehended him, either, no.”
“And you’re going to send us out there so we can—what?”
The officer was silent.
“So we can be hunted down for what we know?”
“But we are transferring you to a safe location. And officer is taking you.”
Adam squeezed her shoulder. She ran out of energy, steam, and temper all at once. “There had better be coffee there.”
The officer led them out the back door of the police station to a waiting limousine.
Juliette whistled a long, low whistle. “Spared no expense, I see.”
Adam got inside. He was expecting a squad car, and this was finally a welcome surprise. Gwynne entered the limo and sat at the other end of the car. Juliette piled in and sat next to Adam.
“Oh man! Muffins!” she said, grabbing one from a basket that rested on a sideboard. She threw one to Gwynne and one to Adam, not checking to see what flavors they were before chomping in. “Banana nut!” she said around a mouthful. “What’d you guys get?”
Gwynne scrunched her nose. “Blueberry. I hate blueberry.”
Adam held out his lemon poppyseed. “Have mine. I’m not hungry.”
She took it and started in. He opened the lid on a thermos that was built in to the inside of the limousine and snapped it out of its brackets. Gwynne sniffed and looked up. “Coffee!”
Adam poured her a cup. “I wonder who is paying for all of this.”
Juliette swallowed. “I don’t care. I’m just glad it’s here.”
Gwynne munched her muffin and sipped her coffee.
They wove their way through the Paris streets, which at this hour were mostly empty. The Eiffel tower, which they passed near enough to get a good look at, was unlit. It was the most unpleasant hour of morning, and everyone’s heads felt heavy. Several minutes later, they arrived outside a huge apartment building. The driver got out and opened the door for them.
Adam looked up at the gorgeously styled facade. “What is this place?” he asked the driver.
Juliette looked at the driver and gasped.
“I’ve heard so much about this place already. I can’t believe we’re going to be staying here.”
“What is it?”
“This is where Petros spent many of his days when he first arrived in Paris. We’ve driven by several times, but he never introduced me to anyone he knew here. Said they weren’t the sort of people he was proud to have known. Anyone who had hot coffee and muffins waiting for me in a limousine is someone I’d be proud to know.”
The driver stood by the door of the limousine until they climbed the stairs to the entrance. A pencil thin, red-haired boy opened the door for them. “Hello,” he said, with a thick French accent. “You must be our new guests. My name is Adam.”
Adam smiled. “That’s my name, too!” He felt instantly foolish.
The boy smiled, though, and looked him over. “Well, I can’t wait to see what else we have in common.”
Juliette giggled and shook the boy’s hand as they entered. “I’m Juliette. Like the play.”
“Tragic,” the boy said with a subtle smile. He turned to Gwynne. “And you?”
“Gwynne. I’m…not really…”
“Come in,” he said, leading them into the huge entry area with a chandelier of paper lamps.
Adam looked around. “So…what is this place? The police said it was some kind of a safe house?”
Other Adam explained while he led them through a series of hallways, each with a closed door every few feet. “This is the home of a man we all refer to as Le Ours. He is one of Paris’s oldest institutions, a great man and a kind soul.”
He recited it like a poem he had learned by heart but hadn’t fallen out of love with. “Under this roof live many people who would otherwise be out on the street working and living. Instead, we are given a warm place to stay and something to eat.”
Juliette added under her breath, “Yeah. For a price.”
Adam shushed her. She was strangely giddy, and he couldn’t figure out why. She clearly knew something about this house that he did not. Other Adam led them to two doors at the end of a long hallway. “Adam, your room is on the left. Girls, yours is on the right. There is a bathroom inside the third door down on the left where you can find private bathing chambers with robes and clean towels. I suggest you all have a bath before you get some rest. Papa Bear likes his sheets to stay clean.”
Juliette snickered. “Papa Bear?”
“You will, of course, address him as Le Ours. Be courteous to your host and he will see to it that you are taken care of.” He addressed this last comment to Juliette, who reined it in enough to nod politely.
“You can leave your laundry in the bin in the bathroom.” And with that, he departed.
They peeked in at their rooms. The beds looked warm and inviting. The decor wasn’t exactly what they would have chosen for themselves, but it looked expensive. The allure of the beds was too strong to look at for long. They decided to head straight to the bathroom, where a hot soak sounded just as good.
Inside the door was a long room with a swimming-pool sized hot tub, placid and unheated at the moment. Further past that were smaller, sunken tubs, each with their own hot and cold running spigots like a traditional bath.
Gwynne looked at the twin rows of tubs that faced one another unobstructed. “I thought he said they were private.”
Adam pointed to the Shogi screens that separated the tubs laterally. “I think that’s what he meant.”
Juliette went around and peered through one. “They’re just as private as a sheer curtain. Jesus. Petros wasn’t kidding about this place.”
Adam was too tired to ask what she meant. He waited for each of the girls to choose a bath. Each tub was equally spotless and inviting. Juliette chose one in the corner and started the water running. Gwynne picked one out of eyeshot from Juliette on the other side. Adam situated himself in the tub closest the swimming pool, though he would have rather had the tub across from Gwynne. It had been far too long since he had had any sort of female interaction at all. He welcomed even a glimpse of her, but knew he had to settle for being polite at this point.
The tubs seemed to take an eternity to fill. Adam undressed and lowered himself into his half full tub, letting the warmth melt the day away. He heard Juliette sink into her tub. Gwynne waited until it was full before getting in. They all soaked in silence for a few minutes, backs facing the main aisle. When it came time to wash, Adam called down to Juliette’s tub. “So what do you know about this place, Juliette?”
“Only what Petros told me.”
“It was a good place to stay for a few months while he got his feet in the city.”
“Anything else?” He knew she was keeping something from them.
They all bathed in silence after that. Adam wasn’t going to pry. He wasn’t in the mood. He desperately wondered what was on Gwynne’s mind, but after her outburst at the police station, he knew he would get farther with her after she had slept.
Adam finished his bath first, took his robe from the hook, and slipped it on. It was an inch thick white terrycloth number with a tie around the middle. It felt like wearing a blanket. After he had dressed, he left to go to his room. As he left his tub, he caught sight of Gwynne’s tub. Her long blonde curls hid anything he really wanted to see, but her legs were up out of the water, crossed at the ankle, like a pin up. It’s all he needed to see to be glad he had his own room, free from distraction and private enough to take care of himself after such a tense day.
Adam didn’t stay awake long enough to hear either of the girls make it to their room. He dreamt of twisting hallways lined with doors, each leading to a closet containing a single clown. He was looking for someone. Every wig he removed became a wriggling jellyfish. Every one he dropped landed in the flooding hallway, blocking his return.
He awoke to the full light of day pushing against the thick curtains in his room. It took him a moment to remember where he was. Despite his nightmares, he felt rested. He was sure it had something to do with the pillowed cocoon of a bed. He lay for a moment, just letting himself exist with nothing to do and no one to answer to. Most similar mornings at home ended with him feeling panicked about what his life was becoming, depressed about the day ahead, or just generally anxious about everything. He’d spent so many mornings feeling unhappy in one way or another that he had forgotten what contentment felt like. If only it could be bottled, remembered, or recalled when real life reared its head.
His robe lay in a pile next to the bed. He didn’t remember taking it off. He stretched an arm out to grab it. There was a knock at his door. Adam covered himself with the white bedding. “Come in.”
He expected Juliette, Gwynne, or Other Adam. The door opened, and Petros walked in, scrubbed and smiling like he hadn’t disappeared for half a day. “Petros!” Adam said, sitting up.
“Adam. You made it.” He approached the bed.
Adam noticed he was walking funny. Petros was wearing a brace that covered his leg to just below the knee. “What’s with the boot?”
“I got my ankle pinned in the cab when the truck crashed. Had to wrench it free to get out of there before the police arrived.”
Petros and Adam both stopped for a moment. Adam wasn’t sure if he was mad or hurt or anything at all, but he felt like he should be. Mostly, he was relieved that his friend was okay. “Thanks. For, you know…abandoning us.”
Petros opened his mouth and closed it. Opened it again.
Adam smiled. “I’m really not mad, although I should be. Leaving us trapped inside the back of that truck. What if there had been a fire?”
“But there wasn’t!” Petros said, sitting on the side of the bed.
“I’m really just glad you are okay.”
“Well, mostly. I’d probably be in some cold, dank alley somewhere if it weren’t for Papa Bear.”
“Who is this Papa Bear I keep hearing about? Am I ever going to get to meet this mysterious benefactor? Juliette wouldn’t tell us anything either. Is he an ex of yours?” Adam gasped. “Is he your dad?!”
Petros made a face. “Ew. No. God.”
“Mmmhmm. Well, that tells me everything I need to know about your relationship to this man.”
Petros looked at the lump under the blankets and the robe on the floor. “Are you naked under there?”
Adam blushed. “No.” He pulled the covers tight around him.
Petros grabbed a corner of the blankets and pulled. Adam held on, trying to keep himself hidden under anything he could keep hold of. “You are!” Petros declared.
The struggle was short, and soon Petros had all the blanket and Adam was lying there on the bed, his right hand covering his junk, smiling in a way that made Petros wish he could change his friend’s mind about certain things.
“You’re a dick.” said Adam.
Petros dropped the blankets on the floor and leapt onto the bed with a war cry. Adam fended him off by holding him back with his good hand and shoving his arm stump in Petros’s face. Petros squealed and rolled away. Adam stood up and put his fists up.
Petros struck a fighting pose, but he was clearly not looking at Adam’s face. Adam grabbed his robe from the floor. “Even with one hand, it’s not a fair fight.”
“Not with that thing between your legs flopping around. TKO.”
Adam wrapped his robe around himself as best he could. He couldn’t quite tie it with one hand, so he just threaded the tie back through the loops and hoped it held. They both laughed, although Petros still couldn’t quite look Adam in the face. Adam sat on the bed, and Petros joined him. “So, if you can stop thinking about my penis for ten seconds—“
“What happened to you last night?”
Petros filled Adam in on the back streets and the cops. He told him about Mozer and his goons, about finding and building his own splint.
“Wow. You’re like MacGuyver!”
Petros’s face went blank. “Who?”
“Nevermind…80s TV reference. So…you built your own splint in a porn shop bathroom. Then what?”
“Well…then I came here.”
“You limped all the way across town on that thing?”
“I had to. This was the only place I could think of where I knew I would truly be safe.”
“And how do you know that?”
Petros thought a minute before he replied. “Papa Bear and I go way back. He was the one who accepted me off the streets when I didn’t have anything, gave me a family here in the city, and, although he didn’t mean to, introduced me to my future employer.”
“Yes, genius. Way to follow along.” Petros tousled Adam’s bed head. He couldn’t resist.
“So who is this Papa Bear? How can he afford this gigantic house if he doesn’t charge rent?”
“His business secrets are the one thing I never asked about. None of us do. You know that phrase about looking a gift horse in the mouth?”
“He’s the giftiest horse I’ve ever met.”
“And he doesn’t want anything in return for letting you stay here?”
Petros looked at the carpet. “Well…”
Adam immediately knew what that meant, but he sort of wanted to make his friend squirm. “Well…what?”
“He keeps us in his…sway.”
“I don’t follow.” It was hard to keep a straight face.
“We perform certain favors for him in exchange for his hospitality.”
“Like what? Dishes? Mowing the lawn?”
“Oh, no. There’s a staff for that.”
“Then what?” The smile was creeping in to the corner of Adam’s mouth.
“Something a little more…personal?”
Petros stammered, and Adam couldn’t hold his composure any more. He laughed, and Petros swatted him. “Jesus, man. Sex. We pay him with sex!”
Just then the door opened and Juliette entered. “Who are we paying with sex?”
Petros turned. “Juliette! You’re awake!”
“Just barely. I couldn’t listen to the sounds of you two paying each other with sex in here and not interrupt”
Adam blanched. “We weren’t…”
Juliette winked at him. “Don’t worry. It’ll be our little secret.”
Petros embraced her. “I’m so glad you’re safe.”
“No thanks to you!” she spit.
“Hey, now, my petit fromage, if it weren’t for me, you would still be rotting in that police station.”
“How did you know about that?”
“The master of this house knows all. He has eyes and ears all over this city, and it just so happens that one of the heads of the Paris police is a close friend and confidant, if you know what I mean. Le Ours pulled some strings, and here you are. It was a personal favor, actually, for me.”
Juliette nodded. “Ahhh. That’s who you were paying with sex.”
It was Petros’s turn to blush.
“You did!” Juliette said. “You had sex with that disgusting old man?”
“Old man?” Adam hadn’t considered the age of someone who might own a house like this.
Petros stuttered. “W-well. Yes. He’s not the youngest man anymore. But I can attest that he absolutely knows what he’s doing.”
“Well, as you tell me,” said Juliette, “he’s had plenty of practice on all the boys of the street. It’s a wonder the whole lot of you don’t have the HIV.”
“Everyone is tested once a month. This is the safest place to have sex in all of Paris.” Petros was surprised by the pride in his own voice.
“Where’s Gwynne?” asked Adam.
Juliette looked behind her. “She’s still in the room. She actually sent me in here to get you. She wants to talk to you. In private.”
Petros let fly a high-school “Ooooooh!”
Adam excused himself and went across the hall to Gwynne’s room. The door was open. She was sitting with her back turned at the desk that faced the room’s single window. Adam knocked on the door frame. She turned. He didn’t expect her to smile at him the way that she did.
“Good morning,” he said.
“Afternoon, more likely.”
“Juliette said you wanted to see me?”
He sat on the edge of the bed closest to her.
“Adam, I just wanted to say I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? For what?”
“For not believing in your dream.”
“Of traveling the world while you still can. Of getting out there and having stories to tell.”
“My dream isn’t exactly working out right now, if you haven’t noticed.” He held up his stump to illustrate his point. “Not to mention being besieged by clowns, shot at, kidnapped, and now hiding from some crime ring’s goons in a place where people pay for hospitality with sex.”
“Nevermind. I don’t think they’ll want anything from you. Besides, it’s me who should be apologizing. I put your life in danger. Derailed your plans for your career and this trip…”
“Umm…” She stared at the floor for a moment, waiting for her train of thought to make its circuit and return. “But Adam, despite all of that. Despite everything you have been through and just this last day, you seem…happier. More whole. Like…you’ve found what it was you left to look for.”
He thought about that for a moment. He had been too busy trying to stay alive to realize he wasn’t unhappy anymore. The cold absence of feeling had been replaced with laughter, with companionship, and with more stories than he could ever hope to be believed in retelling. He really was happy. All he could say was, “Shit.”
Gwynne smiled. “Right? What the hell are you going o do with yourself now that you’re no longer miserable?”
Adam smiled back. She was gorgeous. She was in a robe. He grabbed the tie and pulled. She squealed and held on with both hands. Before he could plan a next move, she was in his arms. He paid her for his transgressions in the customs of the safe house, and in that moment, everything was golden.