A federal judge running from the truth.
A U.S. marshal running from his past.
A trial that can plunge the world into war.
Federal Judge Tom Brewer is finally putting the pieces of his life back together. In the closet for twenty-five long years, he’s climbing out slowly, and, with the hope of finding a special relationship with the stunning Mike Lucciano, U.S. Marshal assigned to his D.C. courthouse. He wants to be out and proud, but he can’t erase his own past, and the lessons he learned long ago.
But a devastating terrorist attack in the heart of DC, and the subsequent capture and arrest of the terrorist, leads to a trial that threatens to expose the dark underbelly of America’s national security.
As Russia beats the drums of war, intent on seeking revenge, and the United States struggles to contain the storm before it races out of control, secrets and lies, past and present, collide in Judge Tom Brewer’s courtroom. With the world’s attention fixed on Tom and this case, he suddenly discovers he may be the only person who can put everything together in time to stop the spark of a new world war.
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Tom set down his glass of wine on his kitchen counter, obsessively twisting the stem until it was in the perfect meridian on his slate-gray granite, exactly between the two edges of his expansive kitchen island. He was surrounded by French provincial décor, cream and ivory cabinets and foggy gray granite, and fragile blown glass bucket lights that hovered over his island. They were the only lights on in his house, three little pools of light that barely stretched to the counter’s edge. His wine glass sat on the outside of the circles of light, untouched. Unexposed. Unilluminated. He’d come home and grabbed a glass of wine and sat, and hadn’t moved.
In the living room, a clock ticked, the soft tocks as loud as a shotgun blasting through his silent home.
His silent, empty home.
Perfect, in a catalogue decorator’s way. He’d poured his time and money into his house over the years, giving his weekends and his evenings into fashioning the perfect home for himself.
And, for Etta Mae. Etta Mae, his six-year-old Basset Hound, snored softly on his sofa, spread-eagled and flat on her back. It was her post-dinner nap time.
But other than Etta Mae and him, his home was as warm as a haunted house. And as lived in as a Hollywood set, a cardboard cutout of a surface-level life. His life was practically scripted in its routine and repetition, but who would want to see something so boring? Laundry for one, done every Sunday, socks and undershirts and boxer-briefs that he collected in a little plastic basket in his closet and that Etta Mae liked to ransack. His dry cleaning, picked up every Wednesday like clockwork. Cooking for one every night, except Tuesdays, when he ate out before teaching his adjunct law class at Georgetown.
A single chicken breast. A lonely salad. A glass of wine, occasionally a second. Tonight, he’d had at least three. But a bottle could last him a week, sometimes.
He was utterly, completely, alone.
He rolled his wine stem again, watching the burgundy cabernet shiver in his glass. He’d chosen this. He’d chosen to be alone. It had been his plan.
Ever since 1991.
1991: The Moral Majority had successfully united the Christian far right with the Republican party the decade before, and their firebrand religious purity defined the national attitude toward gays. Freddie Mercury died that year. He died of AIDS, of “Gay-Related Immune Disease”, of “gay cancer”, according to the press, and society, and every terrible headline that screamed the news. The Reverend Jerry Falwell called it a “gay plague” sent to cleanse the world. The World Health Organization had only stopped listing homosexuality as a disease the year before. In Washington DC, Congress had disallowed the District from repealing the sodomy law. The U.S. Congress had forced DC to keep the sodomy laws on the books, criminalizing homosexuality.
ACT-UP protested across the nation. AIDS ravaged the community. Fear clung like cloying perfume, choking everyone, an oppressive humidity made from millions and millions of fallen tears, the cries and wails of gay men dying all alone, dying in fear, dying in rage. Dying for no reason at all.
There were only two gay members of congress then. The Democrats had only added support for gay rights to their platform in 1980. Terry Sweeney defined gay men on Saturday Night Live, and was widely regarded as a national laughingstock. Gay men and women on TV were relegated to the tragic roles—dying of AIDS, dying of violence, dying of drugs, dying because that’s what gay people did; they just died—or to the comedic roles, where they were slapstick sidekicks, or inconsequential buffoons, never to be taken seriously. A whole swath of people, written off as a momentary tragedy or as inconsequential frippery.
Was it any wonder that society followed?
1991: He was a brash and brazen twenty-one-year-old, with one semester left before he graduated college. His grades were rock solid, and there were four years of stellar pre-law under his belt. He had acceptance letters for all his top choice law schools: NYU, Cornell, Columbia, Harvard.
His last semester, and he had time to burn. He was young, dumb, and full of come. He was invulnerable and fearful at the same time, rebellious and cautious, needing to live, to love, and to be loved.
He wanted the world to be the color of his dreams, wanted to paint in primary colors. He wanted to stride away from fear, and build the world that rang out in the protest marches, in the calls to action. He wanted the future, and wanted it in his hands.
He went looking for life in all the wrong places.
Long nights dancing, partying. Running from the cops when their bars were raided. Meeting Peter, and falling head over heels for him. Wild days and nights and days again of seemingly never-ending sex, smoking cigarettes out of the window over Peter’s bed, refusing to detangle long enough to pull on shorts and head outside. Alcohol-fueled adventures, and living life so fast, so raw that he felt like his nerves were exposed to the sky.
And, one day, his professor’s voice, still as blaring, still as distinct, still as stunning as a crash of cymbals in the center of his chest, even twenty-five years later: “I didn’t know you’d chosen the homosexual lifestyle. This will seriously hurt your career. Are you hoping to work for the gays and their organizations as some sort of legal counsel? There’s no money in the work, but… you won’t work anywhere else.”
He didn’t know what to say.
His entire life, his entire plan for his whole existence, struck down in a handful of sentences.
He’d stumbled, fumbled. “What are you talking about?” he’d finally muttered. “I want to be a prosecutor—”
“Not with that lifestyle choice, you won’t.” His professor had handed back his legal brief, a giant D written on the front. His first. “Your law schools have already been notified.”
“You’re not going to be a serious attorney, Tom. You might not even live long enough to graduate law school, what with your lifestyle. Why waste the slot on you?”
1991: He’d spent the rest of his final undergraduate year in a daze. Days and nights blended together, a smear of shame and self-flagellation. He blinked, and a month passed. Peter disappeared.
He built a wall around himself, removing every part and piece of him from the public eye. He sent letters to Cornell and Columbia, Harvard and NYU, declining his admission to their law schools. His professor seemed smug, radiated smugness, seemed to live in a swirling maelstrom of it, secure in his knowledge that he was right about Tom. He was oh-so-right.
1992 came and went. He worked as a paralegal in DC, working 80 hour weeks and living in the basement sublease of an older couple with three yippy dogs. They growled at him every time they saw him.
He had no time for a life. No time for fun.
And he built his wall higher.
His plan restarted then. He’d always had a plan, and he’d always followed it. He was going to be the top of his class in high school. He was going to get into a prestigious undergraduate school. Graduate top of his class, and earn acceptance to the top law schools in the nation.
He never planned to be outed by his professor, painted with stripes of shame like he was a criminal, like he should walk around with a scarlet letter on his clothes. A pink H, perhaps? Or go all the way back and bring out the old pink triangles.
He was labeled a homosexual and his future was ripped from him.
So he relabeled his life. Refashioned his identity.
If he couldn’t have the life he planned and be gay, then he couldn’t be gay.
A year later, he was accepted into Georgetown Law, and a prim, proper, and perfunctory Tom Brewer strode up the steps. He planned to graduate top of his class. Planned to work as a prosecutor after clerking in the DC federal courthouse.
Nineteen years as an AUSA for the DC federal district. He had the life he’d planned.
His nomination to the federal bench caught him by surprise.
That was unexpected.
He’d leapfrogged over Dylan Ballard, the United States Attorney, the lead prosecutor appointed by the previous president for the DC federal district. He’d never seen eye to eye with Ballard, but his appointment—over Ballard, instead of Ballard—had chilled their relationship to near-Arctic temperatures. They still hadn’t spoken, a full year later.
After five rounds of vetting, more paperwork than he’d ever seen, and a background investigation by the FBI that kept him awake for a solid six weeks, he got the call that the Senate had confirmed him and twelve others as brand new baby federal judges across the U.S.
And not a word was spoken of his deepest, darkest secret
Who knew anymore, though? His old professor, a bitter, nasty man, had finally died. He’d hung onto life for ninety-eight miserable years and refused to die just to keep raining spite on the world. He taught until the month before he died, full of vinegar and malice to the end.
Peter, his one boyfriend, his one lover ever, had disappeared. None of the men he danced with ever bothered to learn even his first name. And, thank God he was young and dumb before the advent of cell phones and social media immortality.
He was, to the world, exactly what he’d remade himself as: Tom Brewer—now Judge Tom Brewer—dedicated to a life of civil service. A valiant defender of the law, pursuer of justice. He foreswore relationships due to the fiery purity of his convictions, his steadfast dedication to the pursuit of truth, justice, and the American way. Defending justice left no time for love. He was a warrior of the law.
He was a terrified gay man, hiding in plain sight, locked in the closet of his own fears. Velvet rage thundered through his veins, and he watched the generations of gay men who grew up after him live open lives, seize their futures, be proud of themselves and their partners. How many openly gay attorneys had he served beside in the years after 1991?
Things were different, these days.
Mike was, obviously, openly gay. Secure enough to show his judge a picture of him and his boyfriend. Ex-boyfriend.
He’d never heard a rumor. Never heard a hushed whisper or a sideways comment. Not even a squeak.
Sighing, he folded over his counter, bracing his elbows on the cool granite. His house was a shrine to a life half-lived, hours he’d spent perfecting his DC townhome—in the poshest zip code—as an abattoir of empty dreams. He’d never planned to share his home with anyone, but he’d built everything for two. Two barstools. A kitchen nook for two, cozy and loving. A leather chair large enough to cuddle in, beside a quaint fireplace. Everything in twos, two by two by two, like he was mocking himself every day with the thought, the hope, the dream he could never have.
He spent his nights in a bed big enough for him and another. There was practically dust on the unused side of the bed, though. Empty space for a man who would never exist.
He was living half a life, with space carved out for a dream he’d killed in 1991.
Flowers in a vase in the center of his kitchen island caught his eye. They were wilting, petals starting to fall. He’d have to buy more on Saturday. He always bought from the farmers’ market, from the one stand with the brightest blooms. Rollicking freesias and laughing daisies, sassy roses and smart sunflowers. He liked the old man who sold the flowers, an immigrant with a thick accent and a megawatt smile. Short and stocky, and bald as Mr. Clean, with hair sprouting from his ears and curling up his forehead from his eyebrows. He picked the best bouquets for Tom each week, clucking over the flowers, wrapping them in butcher paper, making sure the package didn’t drip. He had a cookie for Etta Mae, too. Over Christmas, Tom had brought him a gift, a basket for his family.
Was that the sum total of his social life? He’d never had close friends, not even in the prosecutors’ office, and now that he was a judge… He was the crypt keeper of his social life, watching cobwebs settle in the corners of his existence.
What would it be like to go to the farmers’ market with someone he loved? Would his partner pick out flowers for him? Would they laugh and tease each other? Would his partner tickle his nose with a tulip, or a sprig of baby’s breath? What if his partner surprised him with flowers, walked in the door with a giant smile, a kiss, and a bouquet?
Groaning, Tom slumped and stretched across the counter. His forehead hit the granite, and his breath fogged the dark stone. He’d made his choices. The life he’d lived—had chosen to live—didn’t allow for a partner. Didn’t allow him to even dream of loving another man.
But… things were different these days.
Hope was a cancer. Dreams were a parasite. He’d banished his subconscious yearnings to the dark recesses of his gilded closet years ago.
God, he was lonely.
Why couldn’t he have half his life back? What if he wanted to smoosh his face against someone and take a ridiculous selfie with them, perhaps cheat and snag a kiss right before the picture snapped? Because who wouldn’t want to kiss their beloved as much as possible? What if he wanted that, wanted to be happy?
He didn’t want the wash of terror that yearning triggered. The spine-shivering, bone-puckering flinch of his soul. The fear that being open, being out of his padlocked closet, would be the end of everything.
Would it, though? He was a federal judge now, and barring him suddenly leaping headfirst into a wanton criminal spree or accepting bribes to rule in defendants’ favor, he was on the bench for life. He could step down, be impeached if he was a criminal, or die holding his gavel. He’d probably be buried with it still in his hand. That kind of job security didn’t exist anymore.
What if he did find someone? What if he—somehow—found a man who wanted a middle-aged, completely boring, practically re-virginized, servant to a Basset Hound?
If he cracked open the closet door, would he be yanked out all the way? Would his old, awful professor rise from the grave and tell him he was worthless, he was a dirty homo, and he was nothing but a fraud? Would the Senate find some obscure law that would un-approve a federal judge, a congressional ‘oops, our bad, we didn’t know you were like that’?
God, it wasn’t like he would be the only gay judge. There were ten openly gay judges. He’d tracked the nominations of each, tallying them up in his brain like he was collecting proof of the world changing, something to weigh against the inevitable hatred and disdain he always felt reaching for him, witches’ claws in the mist or an anvil hovering above him. He was a cartoon character in his own life, plodding along, waiting for the hammer to fall on his head and the laugh track to play. For the world to roar at him, mock him, scorn him.
But what number would be enough for him to join the ranks? What number of “enough gays” was enough for him to feel safe?
It would always be one less than he needed.
Etta Mae snorted and rolled, kicking the air before flopping to her side. She sighed, huffing, and stretched.
He needed to walk her. She needed her nightly walk before bedtime, the capstone to a long day of naps. In his next life, he was going to be a Basset Hound.
He’d probably be gay then, too. Maybe he could find a stately boy Basset at the dog park to drool with.
Christ, he was pathetic.
He pulled himself up, dragging his wine glass closer. He downed the cabernet in three huge swallows, like he was downing beer—or going down on a man—and ignored the burn at the roof of his mouth, the tightening of his nostrils. Cabernet wasn’t meant to be inhaled, and he coughed as his throat seemed to fill with sand. But, for the moment, he just wanted to drown it all out. Go back to 1991 and drink until he didn’t care if he woke up afterward or not.
Why today? Why was today the day he remembered everything? Why were his dusty dreams rattling the old bones of the skeletons in his closet now?
Because of Mike. Because he’d thought Mike, suave, sophisticated, Mike, ridiculously sexy Mike, professional, perfect Mike, was straight. He’d thought there was a girlfriend, or maybe girlfriends, or even a wife and two point five kids at home with a dog and a perfect picket fence. Mike was the pinnacle of what he’d always admired in a man: kind, confident, funny, strong. Deliciously competent in his job, too.
And he’d never, ever, thought Mike was gay. His gaydar, after all these years, was downright rickety. Less reliable than a leaking submarine. Though, he’d purposely unlearned the signs, had stopped looking for when men would check him out. Stopped making eye contact with strangers, stopped letting his gaze linger on other men long enough to see if they’d make the first move. He’d made his world small.
There was no way. No way at all. He shouldn’t, couldn’t think it. Him and Mike? Laughable. Utterly laughable. He’d never be young and sophisticated like Mike’s ex. He’d never be as perfectly put together. Would never catch Mike’s eye in any way other than as a stodgy old judge. Putting on the robe aged him twenty years, it seemed. He’d become a geezer in his mid-forties.
And he could never be as proud as Mike. There was maybe ten years difference in their ages? But going to college in 1991 versus 2001 made all the difference in the world. Mike had recent history on his side, protest movements and legislation and pride marches, gay-straight alliances, passionate speeches about equality and affirmation that people actually listened to. Ellen had come out, and found acceptance. Anti-discrimination laws had been passed. Hate crime laws that protected his people actually existed now. He vividly remembered the days when gay men were murdered—and their killers got off—just because they were gay.
Ten years had sped up centuries of progress.
But he’d shuttered the peephole on his closet door and barricaded its gilded frame.
Tal Bauer is an award-winning and best-selling author of LGBT romantic thrillers, bringing together a career in law enforcement and international humanitarian aid to create dynamic characters, intriguing plots, and exotic locations. He is happily married and lives with his husband and their Basset Hound in Texas. Tal is a member of the Romance Writers of America and the Mystery Writers of America.