In the first chapter of Survival is a Dying Art, Angus Green’s friend Tom invites him to sit in on the meeting of a gay men’s book group.
“This is emblematic of the problems facing our generation,” another man said. He was a real estate agent with a big personality. “Many of us were shunned by our families when we came out. We didn’t have the opportunities younger people have to get educations and good-paying jobs, so we never made that much money while we worked. And then we lost so many of our friends and lovers to AIDS. Now we’re on our own without pensions or savings accounts or kids to look after us.”
There was a general assent among the men at the table, and I felt guilty about the opportunities my generation had because of the pioneering work these men, and others like them, had done.
“A lot has to do with how soon we came out,” another man said. He’d been introduced as Frank, and I had the sense that he and Tom were friends outside the book group. “I was too scared to come out when I was young, and I covered it up by working my ass off. I made money, yeah, but I never had the life I could have had.”
The doctor nodded. “I married my high school sweetheart because I couldn’t see any other path,” he said. “She worked to put me through college and medical school and gave me two wonderful children. For years I knew that I was gay, but I couldn’t abandon her after all she had done for me. It wasn’t until the kids were grown that I finally told her.”
I couldn’t imagine how painful that must have been for both him and his wife. “Fortunately, she understood, and I was able to keep my relationships with my sons, and now I’m loving being a grandfather. But I know a lot of other men in similar situations who’ve been shunned by their exes and their kids.”
The conversation wandered off onto tangents, and I was amazed at how many different paths these men had taken to get where they were. Tom insisted on paying for my meal, and then asked if I had a moment to speak with him and his friend Frank.
Frank ordered us glasses of Scotch from the bar, and the three of us moved over to stand at the railing overlooking the waterway. It had gotten dark by then, and the only boat moving was a small powerboat with Fort Lauderdale Police along the side and a big searchlight at the prow.
Frank was a couple of inches taller than I was, close to my boyfriend Lester’s height of six-foot-two but much skinnier. His gray hair was close-cropped and there were crow’s feet around his eyes, but I could see he’d been quite handsome when he was younger.
“I was surprised when Tom told me that you work for the FBI,” Frank began. “I wasn’t aware they’d lifted the rules against homosexuals in sensitive positions.”
“That happened long before I joined the Bureau,” I said. “Now there are gay men and women at the highest levels. Even so, I’m the only openly gay special agent in my office.” I took a sip of the Scotch, feeling the warmth on my tongue and the back of my palate. Smooth. “How can I help you?”
“I’m afraid someone might be trying to scam me, and while I don’t want to be taken advantage of, I do want to buy what he says he’s selling.”
“Slow down, Frank,” Tom said. “Go back to the beginning.”
Frank pursed his lips and thought for a moment. “Okay. My family are Italian Jews. Centuries in Venice. Did you know that the word ghetto originated there? It means foundry, and the Jews were segregated in the neighborhood where the iron works were located.”
“Not quite that far back,” Tom said. “Start with your father and his brother.”
“Sorry.” Frank grinned sheepishly. “I get distracted by all the history. My father and my uncle were born in Venice right after the turn of the century. When he was in his twenties, my father came to the United States, but my uncle Ugo stayed in Venice. He was gay, and he had a lively group of friends, so he had no desire to leave.”
“Until the Nazis came,” I said.
“Until the Nazis came. And by then it was too late.”
We were all quiet for a moment. I imagined that being both gay and Jewish had made Frank’s uncle a prime target.
“A few months ago, I started looking around online to see what might have happened to the painting. I discovered that it had been confiscated by the Nazis, but then it disappeared. I put up a bunch of posts on art and auction sites asking for information, and eventually a man contacted me, saying that he knew where the painting was, and he could get it to me – for a fee.”
I nodded. “And you’re afraid he’s scamming you.”
“Exactly. I did my own research on him and I discovered that he owns a pawn shop in Fort Lauderdale. That made me concerned. I don’t want to be involved in anything shady, and the very fact that he runs an operation like that makes me distrust him.”’
I agreed to help, and we finished our Scotch as people partied on that fancy yacht moored below us. When it came to say goodbye, I kissed Tom’s cheek and hugged him, then shook Frank’s hand, but the two of them seemed unsure what they were supposed to do. I wondered about their relationship – just friends? Or did one of them want something more?
Whatever Tom and Frank wanted from each other, I hoped they could get it. And maybe by helping Frank track down his uncle’s painting, I could pay back Tom for the favors he’d done for me in the past.
Neil Plakcy has written or edited over three dozen novels and short stories in mystery, romance and erotica. To research the Angus Green series, he participated in the FBI’s sixteen-week citizen’s academy, practiced at a shooting range, and visited numerous gay bars in Fort Lauderdale. (Seriously, it was research.)
He is an assistant professor of English at Broward College in South Florida, and has been a construction manager, a computer game producer, and a web developer – all experiences he uses in his fiction. His website is www.mahubooks.com.