Chapter 13 - Adult Life Skills.
“Why aren’t you answering your fucking texts, Sunshine?” Brian growled at his phone for the 50th time in the past twenty-four hours. “What the hell good is having the damn thing if you never answer me.”
Frustrated, Brian tapped at the screen of his brand new replacement phone a couple times, brought up a new contact, and hit the button to call Cynthia at her work number. The line rang only twice before a pleasant voice answered. “Welcome to Kinnetik. This is Cynthia. How may I help you?”
“It’s me, Cyn. I’m trying to track down my annoying blond but he refuses to answer his damned phone. He’s probably lost it again. Is he in the office?”
“I assume so . . .” Cynthia grumbled, sounding quite unlike herself.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Brian asked, the anxiety he’d been holding back because of not being able to contact Justin immediately escalating.
“Oh, nothing . . .” Cynthia paused for a moment and then seemingly decided to just get whatever was bothering her off her chest. “It’s only that, Justin doesn’t seem to be himself today. He's been acting a little off ever since he arrived this morning. He claimed he didn’t sleep well last night at Michael’s, went straight into his office, and he hasn’t come out yet. Which is just not like our Justin.”
“That doesn’t sound good,” Brian agreed. “You think he’s sick? Did someone check on him?”
“I don’t think that’s it,” Cynthia rushed to reassure her friend. “He wasn’t acting sick, he was just acting . . . Strange.”
“Define ‘strange’,” Brian insisted.
“Well . . .” Cynthia sounded almost embarrassed as she continued. “When he first came in this morning he called me ‘Doll’ and he . . . I think he winked at me.”
Brian let out a snort of laughter. “Seriously? You really think Sunshine was flirting with you? Get real, Cynthia. Justin can barely bring himself to flirt with ME in public, I can’t see him coming onto a woman . . . No offense.”
“None taken. But still, it was the weirdest thing, Brian. Normally I would agree with you and say Justin would be the last person on earth to make a pass at someone without any encouragement, but . . . I just got this weird vibe from him. Like something wasn’t right.”
“Yeah . . . He was acting a little weird last night when I talked to him on the phone too,” Brian confessed, thinking about how Justin hadn’t seemed even a little bit shocked when he’d hinted at teaching him about phone sex with Michael right there in the room with him and how he then disconnected the call early. “He actually hung up on me, the little shit, and then, when I couldn’t get a hold of him again, I sorta trashed my phone. That’s why I didn’t call you back till after 9:00 am this morning; I had to get a new fucking phone. At the time I thought, maybe, he was just pissed off at me for going out of town without him or something. But if you say he’s still acting strange, maybe it’s more than that . . .”
“How about I put you through to him and you can ask him yourself what’s going on?” Cynthia, ever the practical one, proposed. “Hang on a sec and let me buzz him . . .”
Cynthia put Brian on hold and he listened to the horrible muzak in the background while he waited. He needed to remember, once they were finally in their own offices, to make sure the hold music on their phone system was at least halfway decent. This stuff was crap. Complaining to himself about the music helped get Brian all the way through one soft rock hit from the seventies, and even part-way through a second, before he started to get freaked out again. What was taking so long? Usually, Justin would have come running to take a call from his Brian. How long did it take to push a couple buttons on the phone console and transfer the call? Had Cynthia forgotten how to work the damn phones?
Or was Justin really sick after all and lying there, passed out in his office, or something?
Brian was about to go out of his mind when another voice finally came on the phone line again. “Uh . . . Hey.”
“Justin? Is that you? You sound kinda strange . . .” Brian wasn’t sure what to think.
“Who else would it be?” was the kinda snarky answer.
“Why’d it take you so long to answer? Is everything okay there?” Brian pressed. “Come on, Sunshine. Talk to me.”
“I’m fine. I just fell asleep and Ms. Tha . . . I mean, Cynthia . . . had to come wake me up and tell me you were on the phone.”
That definitely did NOT sound like his bubbly, always enthusiastic, energizer-bunny-like, Sunshine. “If you think you’re getting sick, I could have Cynthia or Ted take you to the doctor’s . . .”
“Nah. I’m fine. I promise,” the voice that sounded like Justin’s, only less Sunshiney, assured him. “I was just up late last night playing video games with Michael. I’ll be fine. I just needed some down time, you know?”
Everything Justin was saying sounded perfectly reasonable to Brian, except for the fact it didn’t sound like something his Justin would say. “You’ve got me worried, Sunshine,” he admitted, his voice dropping to just above a whisper. “If you’re really not feeling good, I can cancel the rest of my meetings and be on the next plane home . . .”
“No. No. No need for that,” the voice instantly became more animated. “I’m good. I promise, My Brian. You don’t need to come home early.”
The alarm on Brian’s phone chirped at him to alert him that it was time to leave for his next meeting. “Okay. If you say so, Sunshine. But, can you at least stop ignoring all my texts and calls? I’m starting to feel neglected here.”
“Um . . . Uh . . . There’s, uh, something wrong with my phone. The fingerprint thing isn’t working,” Justin’s voice admitted, which was the first truly Justin thing he’d said so far.
“You probably just have to resync your Touch ID. That happiness sometimes. Just use your passcode for now and we’ll reset it when I get home.”
“Um . . . I kinda forgot the passcode too . . .”
“Typical. Only you could forget 69-69-69, Sunshine,” Brian laughed, because forgetting his passcode was the most reassuring and Justin-like thing that he could have done. “Now, before I let you go, text me something so I’m sure your damn phone is working, okay?”
“‘Kay.” Ten seconds later a thumbs up emoji appeared on Brian’s phone screen, which at least proved the damn phone was still working.
“Oh, before I forget, did you see the email I sent about the Carter’s print layout? It just needs some minor tweaks; I told them you could crank it out in no time. Can you prioritize that and get the changes back to me by the end of the day? I’m supposed to be meeting with them again tomorrow for breakfast to finalize the new campaign. And then I’m off to a lunch meeting with a possible new client that Zoobabies provided a reference for. Hell, by the time I’m done here in Chicago, I could have secured another five million in annual revenue for us if I work this right. Which means you and your artistic fingers will be busy for the foreseeable future,” he chuckled, thinking that should make his favorite artist happy.
But the only response he got was a lukewarm, “uh, sure. I’ll get right on that for you.”
“You’re SURE you’re feeling okay, Sunshine?” Brian asked again, still unconvinced.
“I told you, I’m fine. Just a little tired. You don’t have to worry.”
“If you say so, Sunshine . . .” Brian was reluctant to go even though he was going to be late for his next meeting. “Make sure you stop and get some lunch, though, and if you start feeling worse, or you need to go home, tell Ted or Cynthia to call me right away.”
“Will do,” was the curt reply before the line went dead again.
Brian was not reassured by that phone call or the utterly unemotional ending. Justin was never that cold or distant. Not when he was talking to Brian at least. Hell, most of the time Brian couldn’t get the little imp to stop chattering long enough to end a call. But he’d basically hung up on Brian twice in as many days now. No wonder the call had left Brian feeling very unsettled. He was about to call Cynthia back so they could compare notes further when the alarm on his phone went off again.
“Damn it!” Brian cursed the device but was so trained to obey it’s directives he got to his feet right away. “I hope you really are okay, Sunshine . . .” he mumbled as he slid the phone into his pocket before grabbing his briefcase and heading out the door, making a mental note at the same time to check in with Cynthia and Ted after his meeting.
Hopefully, whatever was causing his Sunshine to act so out of character, would have worn off by then.
Tristan spent the next hour of his day trying to figure out the damned computer.
That kind of shit had never come easy for him; he’d always been more of a hands on kind of guy. Probably why he had hated school. It was no wonder he’d given up and dropped out when he was only fourteen. At the time, the pretty picture of a school-free life with Hugo seemed like paradise to the boy who’d just gotten beaten to within an inch of his life by his shitty foster father after bringing home a report card with two ‘D’s and an ‘F’. Even now, knowing what he did about the false picture Hugo had sold him, he didn’t think he’d want to go back. School wasn’t something he’d ever be interested in.
But now, his lack of skills in the computer area, was about to cost him his con. He knew Kinney already suspected something was off with his ‘Justin’ based on all the questions he’d been asking. If Tristan didn’t figure out the fucking computer and finish that layout thing Kinney had emailed him about, he was sure to be found out. And if Kinney came flying back before Tristan could get his haul out of that Brunet Guy’s apartment, all this would be for nothing. He didn’t think he’d get collared or anything - he could always play the sympathy card and probably weasel out of Kinney beefing on him - but he didn’t think Hugo would appreciate him disappearing for two days with nothing much to show for it. Besides, how hard could it be to change the fucking color of the font and resize it like the email said?
It turned out, though, it was plenty hard. He had no idea how to use the damn app that opened up when he clicked on the file attachment. He tried to google for help as he went, but it was slow going. Then it took him forever to figure out what the string of six random letters and numbers meant; eventually he discovered that that was code for a specific color of teal blue and that computer geeks always talked about their color spectrum that way. Who knew? Even after he figured that out, though, he still couldn’t figure out how to move the resized text to the right place on the layout. It was so frustrating.
Tristan was still fiddling with the damned thing when Ms. Thang came in carrying a take out bag and an equally large drink. “Hey, Justin. Brian texted me to remind you to eat lunch.” She set the food on the desk, looking over his shoulder to see what was displayed on the computer. “You still working on that Carter’s layout? I would have figured you’d be done with that already.”
“Just finishing up,” Tristan explained, fiddling with the mouse and trying to get the damned text to move to the right spot yet again. “I can’t make this go . . .”
Cynthia reached across him and tapped at the keyboard one time and the damn text he’d been trying to move around for a half hour just automatically centered itself in the middle of the screen.
“There. No problem,” she smiled at him but her eyes betrayed a hint of confusion. “If you save it to the system I’ll email it back to Brian for you right away. That way you can go back to working on the concept layout for your big Tropical Smoothies spread. That kind of thing is probably more fun for an artist like yourself than this kind of graphics.”
Tristan just managed to stifle the groan that wanted to come out at the idea of trying to keep up his con while pretending to be an artist. He couldn’t even draw a stick figure on a good day. How the fuck was he supposed to pretend to draw or paint something good enough for a fucking ad?
“I, uh . . . I’m not really in the mood to work on that this afternoon,” Tristan explained, hoping that his double was the kind of flaky, moody artist stereotype you saw in the movies and that he could get away with claiming he wasn’t creatively inclined to that project at the moment.
“Oooookay . . .” Tristan knew right away that was the wrong thing to say judging by the way Ms. Thang was looking at him. “Well, if you don’t feel up to that, maybe you’d like to come with me to see that real estate listing you suggested we look into? The realtor called me back about ten minutes ago with all the details. You were right about it being ridiculously affordable. But before I bother to pitch the idea to Brian, I thought I’d better go look at the place in person. If there’s too much work that needs to be done to make it workable, then we don’t need to bother the boss with it, right?”
“That sounds pretty cool. I’m down with that,” Tristan readily jumped on the alternative to an afternoon of his con falling apart when folks got a glimpse of his crappy artwork.
“Good. I’ll call Lamont and tell him we’ll be over there as soon as you’re done eating.”
Tristan was so glad to be escaping the office that he scarfed down the sandwich he’d been supplied with in less than five minutes. He couldn’t have even told you what it was he’d eaten. The milkshake thing, though was pretty tasty and he was still sipping at the concoction when he shuffled out of the art room and headed off to find Ms. Thang.
“Tropical Smoothies again, Justin?” Mr. Desperation said with a grin as soon as he saw Tristan. “Too bad that’s the only kind of smoothies you’re going to be getting until Brian gets home, huh?”
“Huh?” Tristan wondered if the guy was simple or something; what the hell other kind of fucking smoothie was there?
“You know . . . Last week, you were going on and on about Brian’s ‘smoothies’ and why you were late coming into work . . .” When Tristan just kept looking at Ted like he was insane, the guy finally just fell silent.
“Ready to go, Justin?” Cynthia interrupted the awkward moment, to Tristan’s everlasting relief. “Hey, Ted. We’re going to head over to see that real estate listing Justin suggested. You want to take a short break and come with us? We might need your money skills to figure out if the renovations the place is going to need will be worth it.”
“Sure. Sounds like a fun field trip,” Mr. Desperation agreed with way too much enthusiasm for Tristan’s taste.
Which is how they all three ended up wandering around the former Orgy Room of the White Swallow like some kind of alternative Stooges remake.
“This more what you were looking for?” Lamont Reid, the realtor, asked, waggling his eyebrows in Ted’s direction and causing Mr. Desperation to blush like a fucking school girl.
“Well, it’s definitely someplace I can see Brian . . . In fact, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him in this very room about a half a dozen times back before the place closed.” Everyone laughed at that statement, even Tristan, but then the laughter fell flat when the rest of the Kinnetik crew turned to look at him with confusion.
Tristan chose to ignore them, moving instead to look at the dripping faucet head in the east wall. “You’re going to have to disconnect and plug all these pipes or you’ll risk more leaks in the future. Same with the floor drains. And probably have to check all the walls to make sure the wood isn’t rotted out because of water damage. Although, I’d leave the fixtures themselves in place. If you clean them up and all, they’ll add some interest to the otherwise plain walls. I’d even leave the tile on the walls. It’ll spice the place up. You’ll probably want carpeting in most of the rooms, though, otherwise the noise level will be out of control.” Tristan wandered around, looking in all the nooks and corners of the room. “If it were up to me, I’d make this room into your new conference room; there’s plenty of space and your clients will get a kick out of the ambience. It could double as the boss’ office too if you put in a partition here,” he indicated a space about two-thirds of the way across the large room, “so he could separate off his private space if he wanted to. It could work.” Tristan turned and nodded to his companions, all of whom were looking at him with awe.
“That’s impressive,” the realtor, who was the only one not shocked into silence by the boy’s analysis, exclaimed. “You have a good eye for renovations, Mr. Taylor. Where’d you learn all that at your age?”
“Uh . . .” Tristan fumbled for an explanation. He couldn’t disclose that one of his foster dads - the one he’d lived with the longest, back before the parents got a divorce and decided neither of them wanted to take on the foster kids alone - had been a contractor and had taken him out on jobs occasionally. “I, uh, used to watch a lot of those home improvement shows on television,” he lied.
“Well, you certainly learned a lot,” Lamont concluded, taking Tristan by the arm and leading the younger man down the hall to the area that used to be the locker room of the old bath house. “Now, what do you think of this space? I envision it as the staff break room, maybe?”
“Sure, but you’re gonna need more light in here. It’s like a cave without any windows. Maybe some skylights or something?” Tristan suggested, he and the realtor trading ideas as they continued to tour the rest of the building for the next hour or so.
Meanwhile, Ted and Cynthia trailed along behind, not saying much at all. They were both so surprised and confused that neither really knew what to say. Neither had ever seen Justin acting like this. He was so knowledgeable about construction - a topic nobody had ever heard the young man discuss before - and acted so much more sure of himself than they were used to. Not that there was anything specific you could put your finger on to say, definitively, that it wasn’t Justin-like. It was plausible that the kid had watched renovation shows on television as a child. But still, there was just something about this performance that made both the others stop and wonder.
“Oh, hang on a sec.” Tristan finally stopped the realtor and pulled his phone out of the back pocket of his jeans. “It’s My Brian. I need to answer this text or he’ll get worried,” the small blond exclaimed, sounding exactly like the Justin they all knew for once. But then he ruined the effect when he finished typing a quick text and then turned back to the realtor all businesslike again. “So, where were we?”
Ted stopped in his tracks. He waited until Justin and Lamont were out of sight, around the corner in another room, and then he looked over at Cynthia, his head tilting to the side in a questioning gesture. Cynthia shook her head in return.
“Do you understand what’s going on?” Cynthia whispered.
“I have no idea . . . But that just wasn’t . . . Right,” Ted whispered right back at his co-worker.
“Should we call Brian?”
“And tell him what, exactly?” Ted asked.
Since Cynthia didn’t have an answer to that question she held her tongue but decided to keep a close eye on their resident artist for the rest of the afternoon.
Tristan managed to lay low for the rest of the day. He hid out in the double’s office, played solitaire on the computer, and diligently responded to every single one of Kinney’s stupid text messages with the most ‘Justin’ thing he could think of to say. Whenever Ms. Thang or Mr. Desperation came in, he pretended to be doing something on that annoying photoshop app. He could tell they were checking up on him, but he didn’t think he gave them anything concrete to complain about. He knew his con wasn’t going to hold too much longer though. He figured he’d stick it out for one more night - just to get the cushy place to sleep, if nothing else - and then take his swag and disappear the next morning. No way was he going to fuck around at this office shit for another day, though. Talk about boring as shit.
He was more than relieved when six o’clock finally came around, giving him an excuse to leave. “Gotta go. Michael’s picking me up!” he shouted over his shoulder to Ms. Thang as he ran out the door of the office space.
He didn’t breathe free until he was all the way out of the building and standing on the sidewalk. Fortunately, Brunet Guy was right on time, pulling up only a couple minutes later. Tristan hopped into the beat up old clunker, surprising himself at how glad he was to see the less than brilliant man smiling over at him as he secured the passenger’s side seatbelt. At least Brunet Guy seemed easier to fool than the brainier Ms. Thang or her sidekick, Mr. Desperation. Those two had been giving him the willies all afternoon.
Now, all he had to do was get through one more night and he’d be home free with a bag full of swag that he should be able to fence for enough cash to get Hugo off his back for a good long while.