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Issue 185

This issue features

fiction by Will Fawley,

photo by Dastin50,

poetry by George Freek,

poetry by Diane Sahms, and

fiction by John Szabo,

Picture Partners

Hiroshima, Japan, May 25, 2017 (Students gathering at the Children's Peace Monument to offer thousands of colorful origami cranes in memory of atomic bombing victims)

Beth Brown Preston

Anthropology: Hiroshima

for Aiko

August 6th, 1945

Orange sky, black rain:

On the way home, thirty minutes from Kure to Hiroshima,

I heard through the trees, sirens scream and wail.

On the clear August day before, white leaflets fell like gifts

from the sky, warning our people not to leave the city.

They fell in paper clouds the citizens ignored.

We held hostage no American POWs.

We were the innocent victims of an endless rage.

Today people release hundreds of paper lanterns on the Motoyasu River

beside Genbaku Dome written with calligraphy

bearing the names of our dead.

Orange sky, black rain:

“Little Boy” falls from the Enola Gay into the morning sky.

The force – twenty thousand tons of dynamite.

The target – Aioi Bridge.

One hundred forty thousand perish in an instant.

Orange sky, black rain:

Overhead the flash of a strained lightning violated

the morning. In my ears the roar of thunder.

I, Kiyoshi Yoshikawa, covered my eyes and trembling fell

into a ditch as the searing heat of one hundred morning suns

scorched my back and spine.

Orange sky, black rain:

August 3rd, 1951, six years later.

I, now hibakusha, opened a modest souvenir stand

Near Genbaku Dome and sold penny postcards of Hiroshima

on the day of the atomic blast.

Now seventy-five years later,

people fold

one thousand paper cranes, drop them

from our tallest buildings and pray for peace.

Copyright © 2023 by Beth Brown Preston.

Blind Love

for Steve

I want to write how I feel about you today:

Your quiet indignation at my leaving you so long alone.

Eleven months having passed, we are one year together in July.

I need to write of our hesitation in avoiding the inevitable.

Because of your confidence, I now fully believe in me.

And your spirit the motivation urging me toward the sacred.

As I sit on my bed in this musky June light, I carry inside

The seed of your promise, the antidote to all ruin within me.

Fear of separation leads our generous steps toward each other.

You are love’s strict discipline. I am love’s gracious mood.

Someone sleeps in the next room.

Someone who teaches me how to love you.

Our passionate cries echo throughout twilight.

We entwine in embrace as vines clinging.

You pull me closer, away from the reign of fear,

Away from our carnal distances.

In the next room on a table sits a vase of roses.

You and I will live inside each other forever.

The roses will not live. They will perish of fear and desire.

The roses will die of melancholy:

To hear a teardrop in the rain.

To hear a teardrop in the rain.

Copyright © 2023 by Beth Brown Preston.

About the Author

Beth Brown Preston is a poet and novelist with two collections of poetry from the Broadside Lotus Press and two chapbooks of poetry. She is a graduate of Bryn Mawr College and the MFA Writing Program at Goddard College. She has been a CBS Fellow in Writing at the University of Pennsylvania and is a Bread Loaf Scholar. She is a recipient of a scholarship at the Hudson Valley Writers Center. She has completed her debut novel Circe’s Daughters and is working on two new poetry collections Oxygen I and Oxygen II. Her work has been published in the pages of Adanna, African American Review, The Black Scholar, Callaloo, Obsidian, Passager, Paterson Literary Review, Pennsylvania Review, Rain Taxi, Sinister Wisdom, Storm Cellar, Talking River Review, That Literary Review, Vox Populi, and other literary and scholarly journals.

Will Fawley

Chapter 4

(from Shattered City, a novel-in-progress)

I didn’t see Matthew again until the following Tuesday. It was a damp, cold December evening in DC. The sun was a memory by the time I left work around 6 p.m. The streetlights glittered in the cold air and illuminated the melted corpses of snowflakes as they dissolved into wet pavement.

I rubbed my hands together and shoved them in the pockets of my peacoat as I scanned the crowd at the station. And there he was, his head peering out at me from between a middle-aged Latina woman dressed in the full-black garb of the restaurant industry, and an attractive Black man in a grey suit. They both looked tired, and I could identify. I hadn’t been sleeping much because I was too scared to be alone with my thoughts. Night after sleepless night, I lay in bed awake next to Chelsea, retreating into my city and then away from it again before my shadow-self could find me.

I nodded to Matthew, and he pointed up at the schedule for the arriving trains. I rarely checked the board because the trains came frequently enough at rush hour, but I saw what he was pointing at: DELAYED. DELAYED. DELAYED.

He shrugged, and I felt connected to him, even through the crowd. Everyone was tired and angry, and just wanted to get to work or get home, but Matthew, he was different. He was able to turn the situation into a joke, or at least an absurdity that could be laughed at. He kept looking at me, no doubt waiting for me to look away as I always did. But not today.

I felt my body moving on its own. It was the shadow Nathan from the park of my city. He steered me through the crowd until I reached Matthew. I felt my face growing hot and knew it was bright red despite the cold air that seemed to cling to me as all of the warmth rose to collect high above in the vaulted ceilings. I waited for my shadow-self to speak through me, because I didn’t have anything to say, but he left me hanging, standing there in front of Matthew. It was too late to run away.

Thankfully, Matthew saved me from the silence. “Do you want to get out of here?” he asked.


“Do you want to grab a coffee or something? We obviously aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.”

And then the bastard found the words in my mouth to respond. “Yeah, I’d love to.”

“Cool. There’s a great place just down the block. It has amazing Columbian coffee.”

“Alright,” I said. “Lead the way.” I followed Matthew out of the crowd, not sure what to say, but too afraid to be left in silence again. “Cold,” I said eloquently as the escalator pulled us up toward the surface. The lights of the above ground sparkled through the snow, which had gotten heavier while I’d been below.

Matthew was a couple stairs above me and leaned back against the moving handrail. “Yeah, hard to believe it was in the fifties yesterday,” he said.

I nodded, looking up at him against the crystallized light and snow and darkness, the profile of his face glowing with a yellow aura. He was attractive in a way I had never noticed. Or never paid attention to.

I let my eyes linger on his face for too long. “Yeah, crazy weather,” I said quickly. “It’s hard to know what to expect from one day to the next.”

“Indeed. I mean, I never thought I would be going for coffee with Nathan Turner.”

I looked down at my shoes as I stepped off the escalator. More than anything, I wanted to apologize for being such a jerk in high school. But my words were lost somewhere in my city. I imagined the big, important words on display in the park, like LOVE in Philadelphia. Other words scattered into letters in piles of debris on the streets and sidewalks, blowing through the smog, trapped in the wrong places on license plates and street signs instead of finding their right shapes in my mouth.

“It’s the next one,” Matthew said as we walked through the night. The sidewalks were quiet, but the streets were packed with bumper-to-bumper traffic. I was not looking forward to the commute.

My pulse pounded as a man who looked like my coworker Steve came into view in the distance. Even though none of my colleagues would have any idea who Matthew was, I felt my forehead prickle with sweat as I thought of Steve asking me who I was with, then putting two and two together. And even that shouldn’t have mattered. We were friends from high school, and having an innocent coffee together didn’t make me gay. But the idea of being caught in that vulnerable moment scared the shit out of me, turned me inside out.

What if someone who knew me—really knew me—like my mom, heard about it and questioned my sexuality. And what about that really terrified me? That she would be right to ask that question? That she would say I was going to hell? All the worst-case scenarios rushed through my head: being kicked out of the family, shunned from society, attacked, bullied, being the brunt of a joke at best, or the target of a hate crime at worst.

It was something different and more than all that. It wasn’t really even about being seen as gay, but being seen, no longer able to hide in the shadows of others. If people saw me, I was vulnerable. If they didn’t, I had the advantage.

Matthew opened the café door for me and gestured for me to go in first. There it was again, my face on fire. It would have melted a solid block of ice in an instant.

The Daily Buzz was a tiny café with barstools along the walls and a standing-room-only table in the middle that had napkins, lids, sugar, and a variety of milk and creamers on it. There were only a couple people ahead of us in line, so I didn’t have much time to scan the menu and ended up with a regular coffee. “What did you get?” I asked Matthew after he ordered.

“Just a coffee.”


“Yeah. It’s so delicious.”

“Are you some kind of coffee snob?” I asked.


“It’s cool,” I said. “I’m not very picky, but I sure know a bad coffee when I taste it.”

He laughed and I smiled, but my laughter was still off somewhere with the words and letters.

The barista set our drinks on the counter, and we grabbed them and then took a seat on the barstools by the window. I half-expected Matthew to pull my chair out for me. But he pulled his own chair out and sat down. I was a little disappointed. And then, you guessed it, my face ignited again, just at the thought. It was feeling more and more like a date every second, and I heard Shadow Nathan’s voice echoing through my city. Nathan, you want this.

I poured a generous amount of sugar into my cup, stirred, and took a gulp of the coffee, which scalded my mouth.

“Woah, thirsty?” Matthew asked.

“Ouch. Yeah, too hot,” I said, reaching across the table to grab a napkin and then wiping a dribble of coffee from my jacket. “It is really good though. I see what you mean.”

Matthew took a quick sip of his own coffee, studying me as he tilted the cup back, his eyes angling through his glasses at me.

I put my hands in the pockets of my coat and let my own cup sit on the table in front of me. I wasn’t risking another burn right away. “What did you mean earlier,” I asked, “when you said you never thought you’d be going for coffee with me?”

“Just that.” He took another sip. “I don’t know, Nathan. We have kind of a complicated history, don’t we?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I guess you could say that.” My eyes fell on the scar on the back of his left hand that ran from just above his thumb to his wrist. I saw flashes of him being shoved in the locker, the blood oozing from his hand.

“We were friends as kids,” he said. “And then, you just stopped talking to me.”

“Yeah, well, we hung out with different groups of friends and got into different stuff as we got older. I got into skateboarding, and you had your whole thing.”

My whole thing?” he scoffed.

I stared out the window at the snow to avoid eye contact.

“You had your group of friends, sure,” Matthew said. “You know who my group was, Nathan?

It was me, myself, and I. And they all hated me. And I hated all of them.” The corners of his mouth turned up in the shape of a smile, but there was hurt in his face. I suddenly wondered, did he see himself as a city too?

Go on, it’s time, Shadow Nathan said. Only he didn’t seem so scary now. There was something almost paternal in his coaxing. “Oh god, Matthew,” I said, making eye contact for the first time since we’d sat down. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry. I was an asshole. I know. You went through so much, and I told myself I wasn’t there for you because we went our separate ways. But I pushed you away. I didn’t want to; I didn’t mean to. It just sort of happened over time, little by little, until we stopped hanging out, stopped talking altogether.”

“It’s okay, Nathan.” He held my gaze, and I desperately craved his forgiveness, so I didn’t look away even though every instinct told me I should. “It hurt, I’m not gonna lie. But I get it. You were popular. People liked you, and it was high school, so you did what you had to do to get by, just like we all did. It wasn’t only you either. I could have reached out, called you or something. You’re right that we did drift apart. It happens.”

I shrugged. “I thought I was doing the right thing, or the only thing. But I said things, horrible things I can’t take back.”

“You didn’t do or say anything worse than anyone else did in high school. Honestly, you were nicer than most people.”

“But I completely ignored you after that.”

“Exactly. And that hurt more than anything you could have said, but honestly, I didn’t expect anything different from you.” His glasses were steamed up from the coffee, and he took them off and wiped them with a napkin. He looked softer without his glasses somehow, younger, like the Matthew I’d ignored.

“Wow. That’s horrible,” I said.

“That’s life,” Matthew responded. “You live, you suffer, you keep going.”

“Yeah, and I’m sure you’ve got lots of friends now,” I said. Ask him, Shadow Nathan urged.

“And boyfriends?”

“Woah, Nathan, cutting right to the chase!” He put his glasses back on and smiled. “I’ve done pretty well for myself here in the city,” he said. “Definitely had more luck than back in farm country.”

I laughed, a real laugh that shook through my city.

“What about you?”

“What about me?” I asked, afraid of his response, and of mine.

“Do you have a boyfriend?” He asked playfully, giving me an exaggerated side-eye.

Had he seen something in me, some desire when I’d let my gaze linger on him too long, when I’d accepted his invitation to this…whatever it was? I felt Shadow Nathan laughing deep inside me as my face reached an all-time-high redness level, like one of those fundraiser thermometers when you meet your stretch goal, and it bursts out the top. I took another swig of coffee. It was still too hot, and I was now overheating in my coat and sweating through my skin.

I needed a diversion, so I grabbed my coffee and chugged, letting it burn my mouth and throat on the way down. I choked and set the cup back on the table.

“Relax,” Matthew said. “I was just kidding! Oh my god.”

I took a breath. “No boyfriend,” I said, recovering from the second coffee burn as I tried to fake a casual smile that said I was in on the joke. “But I do have a girlfriend, Chelsea, and oh crap, I need to text her to let her know I’m going to be late!” I grabbed for my phone, but it wasn’t in my pocket.

“I think she’s figured it out by now,” Matthew said, picking up my phone, which sat on the table between us. “Wait, is that Chelsea Nakamura from high school?”

“Yeah, that Chelsea,” I said as I grabbed the phone from him. My fingers brushed against his. I wanted to look up into his eyes but forced myself to look down at the phone instead as

I typed: Metro delay. Home in an hour or so. <3.

“No way! You guys were always close. I wondered when you’d get together.”

“You did?” I said, looking up at him with a grin. Chelsea and I were kind of a perfect couple.

“Yeah, I mean, how long can two people be that close and not even at least try dating?” he said.

I broke eye contact in that way I’d perfected on the train recently. I had a flash of that day at the campground pool when we were kids. That desire to touch Matthew, to hug him, the feeling that had confused me so much it had turned to wrestling. “I really should catch my train,” I said.

He nodded.

“Are you coming?” I asked as I got up from the table.

“No, I’ll wait here and catch the next train. I think you’ve had enough of me for today.”

His words cut through me again. I knew he was joking, but also felt like he was letting me off the hook. As I walked to the Metro, I thought about what he’d said about “me, myself, and I”, about the way he looked at me through his glasses and saw me. The way he’d opened up and let me see him. Something intangible that had kept us apart all these years was falling away, and I suddenly wanted to be seen. For the first time, I wondered if it was possible to let someone else into my city.


It took me a long time to piece together what “gay” really meant. I remember one time when I was around ten, Matthew and I were sitting in the cafeteria at school eating tater tots and corn dogs, and this kid Josh was sitting across from us. He had a rat tail and a habit of telling jokes about city boys and country boys. In these jokes you wanted to be the country boy because the city boys were weak and shallow, and the country boys were strong and god-fearing.

“Look what I found on the ground,” Josh said. He pulled a cheap golden earring out of his pocket and began clipping it onto his ear. “Which side means you’re a faggot?” he asked. My mom sometimes went on tangents about sinners, and I remembered her talking about how gay men were punished by God with AIDS, how they were beat up by people doing the Lord’s work, killed even. They were the dregs of society and would wear earrings in their right ears to signal to each other that they were sinners. So, I said, “I think it’s the left one.”

“Cool.” Josh put the earring in his right ear, and I felt like I’d won some kind of victory by making him look gay. The other kids would laugh at him when they saw it. I had tricked him into looking like the worst thing you could be. I told myself I did it because it was funny, but now I know it was so the other kids would use that word on Josh, not on Matthew, or me.

Copyright © 2023 by Will Fawley.

About the Author

Will Fawley is a Canadian/USA dual citizen who grew up in the mountains of Virginia and now lives in the prairies of Manitoba. He holds an MFA from George Mason University where he was assistant fiction editor for Phoebe Journal of Literature and Art. His queer fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies, including Prairie Fire, Acceptance: Stories at the Centre of Us, Parallel Prairies, Unburied Fables, Expanded Horizons, and The Northern Virginia Review.


Owl, friendly animals at the Prague Zoo

George Freek

The Owl

The wind blows a leaf

like a petal from a rose,

with no will of its own.

I walk into a clear night,

but nothing that I see

comforts me.

I hear the cry of an owl.

Sitting in a tree

high above me, he watches

for anything that moves.

Nature looks on,

indifferent to what it can’t see.

Copyright © 2023 by George Freek.

About the Author

George Freek's poem Enigmatic Variations was nominated for Best of the Net and his poem Night Thoughts was nominated for a Pushcart Prize. His collection Melancholia was published by Red Wolf Editions.

Diane Sahms

Dem Dare Blues

for Dad

blues, blues, blues

dem dare blues

I reckon’ I’m fixin’ on blues.

I walk endless blues for weeks

on end. Can’t pick my face up

off the sidewalk.


I reckon’ I’m fixin’ on blues

Can’t re(con)figure the closed

circuit wiring of my bein’

Can’t untangle my hair from

tangled branches.

Can’t bathe my body free of

dem dare blues.

A different kind of Midas—

everything I touch—

blue, blue, blue

blue, blue, blue

I reckon’ I have to keep talkin’

dem through. There’s no escapin.’

Just have to keep walkin’ ‘til

my achin’ feet can unshoe

this blues’ heavy soul.

blues, blues, blues

dem dare blues

I reckon’ I’m fixin’ on blues.

Copyright © 2023 by Diane Sahms.

Dulcimer’s Broken Strings—Restrung

Dulcimer’s broken strings—restrung.

Unpacked an old-time Philadelphian nightmare.

Released hands. A tumbling artist

spectacularly free, with mind blowing feats.

Unpacked an old-time Philadelphian nightmare.

Gone, those childhood ghosts will show their faces no more

spectacularly free, with mind blowing feats.

No more snake-charmer baskets of interwoven thoughts,

gone, those childhood ghosts will show their faces no more

nor haunting mice jumping out of toaster’s coils.

No more snake-charmer baskets of interwoven thoughts

scurrying about inside memory’s walls

nor haunting mice jumping out of toaster’s coils.

No more heartbreak of country tunes—crooning,

scurrying about inside memory’s walls

& numbing voices—playing over hollow airwaves.

No more heartbreak of country tunes—crooning.

No more superstitious stories, wives’ tales

& numbing voices—playing over hollow airwaves

or crucifixes hanging from rusty nails in cracked plaster.

No more superstitious stories, wives’ tales

& second floor toilet sinking through kitchen ceiling

& crucifixes hanging from rusty nails in cracked plaster

& walls spalling & broken sidewalks

& second floor toilet sinking through kitchen ceiling

& dangerous wiring & bungling plumbing

& walls spalling & broken sidewalks

a home, whose permanent stink stunk worse than skunk’s spray

& dangerous wiring & bungling plumbing.

No more display of hex signs’ celestial bodies & floral geometry,

a home, whose permanent stink stunk worse than skunk’s spray

where the shack of a lifetime was destroyed.

No more display of hex signs’ celestial stars & floral geometry.

Now, ghostly dreamt dream songs soar

where the shack of a lifetime was destroyed.

An inner child’s primal instinct flies into newness.

Now, ghostly dreamt dream songs soar.

Released hands. A tumbling artist freed.

An inner child’s primal instinct flies into newness.

Dulcimer’s broken strings—restrung.

Copyright © 2023 by Diane Sahms.

About the Author

Diane Sahms, a native Philadelphian, is the author of six poetry collections, most recently City of Shadow & Light (Philadelphia), 2022. Published in North American Review, Sequestrum Journal of Literature & Arts, Brushfire Literature & Arts Journal, The Northern Virginia Review, POEMS-FOR-ALL, Valley Voices, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Chiron Review, among others, with poems forthcoming from Echoes of T.S. Eliot & Tiny Seed Journal’s Wildflower Anthology. Former high school English teacher, she works full time for the government and is poetry editor at North of Oxford.

John Szabo

And Then Things Went Bad

Vegas is hot. 114 degrees hot. Cook scrambled-eggs-on-the–hood-of-your-car hot. My driver is nowhere to be seen. Yes, I am an hour late, after wasting time at a crappy Vegas airport bar chatting up a petite 20-something dirty blonde I met on the plane, until her muscular Italian-looking boyfriend wandered back from the slots. Anyway, drivers are paid to wait. I fired him via text.

It was a brief flight from my home; a ubiquitously foggy, drizzly Seattle.

The airport taxi line is long likely from a convention. Prostitutes, strip clubs and drug dealers will have a bonanza week. Eyes shut, I visualize the resort hotel pool; turquoise, green crystal-clear waters, wave machines, a white sand beach, a labyrinth of canals you can leisurely traverse in giant inner tubes lounging under a private cabana, washing down an exotic cheese and nut platter with a tall fruity rum cocktail, engrossed in a fast-paced paperback thriller, surfing the web via my iPad.

But instead, I see an enormous ostrich egg frying on my head, over easy, extra runny, streaming down my neck, under my shirt collar all the way down my back to my sweaty, itchy ass crack.

A drunken booming voice of some idiot in front of me boasts to anyone that will listen about how its dry heat is and so it's not that bad, blah, blah, blah. I recognized him from the flight. He wandered up from the plebs of economy to first class trying to mooch free alcohol but was immediately turned away by a hot busty Asian first-class stewardess who directed him back to his fat steward who billed him likely more than he could afford for three gin and tonics. He looks defeated, a short, bald fat man, the tail of his wrinkled shirt pulled out.

I am dressed in old school 80's preppie, now popular again: tan khaki pants, a yellow cloth belt of tiny boats, a pink cotton Polo golf shirt and red suede loafers. I will buy a bathing suit at the hotel and toss it when I leave. Don't want it to appear I intended to have too much fun.

Often, I remind myself of a young Robert Redford, squared-jawed, dirty blonde, blue eyed man, for whom everything comes easy. At 5"10, 170 I am in excellent shape and am often told I look 10 years younger than my 42 years.

I have had enough of this waiting, wasting my valuable time, so I stride purposefully and confidently, up to a limo driver with a sign that reads "Netflix" hand him $20 and I'm on my way. The Netflix chump can wait in line and be late and arrive drenched in sweat and dehydrated. Not my problem.

Entering the hotel between enormous exotic rain forest trees of blown glass a fine mist sprays me from cooling fans disguised as palm trees. Stunning colorful giant hand-blown glass flowers grow from the lobby ceiling.

I live with my wife of sixteen years, Sharon, and our two kids, Debra, 14 and Aaron, 9. Sharon lives the good life; raising the kids, playing tennis and golf, volunteering for a myriad of causes. She stills looks great at 39; tall and slender with a body shaped by weekly yoga along with weight and cardio workouts with a personal trainer. She's from Cincinnati; Midwest honest.

We live in a tony suburb of Seattle on the waterfront. We see a psychologist monthly; her insistence yet I admit it has been useful in taking her scent off my indiscretions.

Sharon thinks I'm interviewing prospective account executives as part of my responsibilities as Director of Sales for Star Bone Growth, a startup medical device company that invented a smaller, better bone growth stimulator for patients with severe slow healing fractures.

The way I figure, if these little indiscretions keep our family together and secure my employment where's the harm? I make plenty of personal sacrifices for her and our family so don't I deserve a little fun? If I don't allow myself to fall in anything close to love I'm better than most of the corporate scum who have long-term affairs with colleagues, customers, and business partners, culminating in our yearly new product release trade show better known as an infidelity fest.

Then there are the scumbags and low life's who take advantage of naive, insecure, desperate job applicants or those willing to do anything to get a better sales territory or simply gain favor for greater job security. I put them to shame.

I met Chloe, my madam of sorts, through a blackjack dealer. I am very discreet about the women I meet and the arrangements I make for physicians. All my communications are via my Gmail account used exclusively for that purpose. They fly in for the day, sometimes just for a few hours. I take care of everything; flight, hotel, the woman, or women in some cases, and have a safety deposit box at the hotel so they can pay everything cash. More thought is put into this versus any other aspect of my job. I have a carte blanche expense account.

Give or take a few million, it is estimated I will clear 17 million after taxes, from the IPO in a few months.

A few weeks prior to the IPO I will divorce Sharon and marry one of my mistresses. Tiger Woods, next to me, looks like an altar boy, a regular angel. And don't get me started about Anthony Weiner or John Edwards, or Bill Clinton, or Gary Hart or John Kennedy or I could go on forever. I will never get caught hooking up doctors or having a little fun on the side myself.

When I started in medical device sales years ago it was exciting, even pleasurable. I took doctors on elaborate safaris to Kenya, to Tokyo seducing them with prostitutes and a week of luxury at the Frank Lloyd Wright designed Imperial Palace Hotel or awarding them and their families lavish gifts for attending a seminar in Kauai regarding a medical device new product release. Now I'm lucky if they can accept free donuts.

So, we circumvent the new rules by hiring tit and ass, baby. Doctors want to have lunch and be seen with beautiful woman who don't judge them if they leer at their perfect tits during a visit. We hire girls young out of college with biology or pre-med backgrounds. We hire young men and have them call mostly on female physicians, but they also must be beautiful.

A recent story in The Financial Times and another in The Wall Street Journal speculated we are being courted by some large medical device companies; a suitor may be found soon if we can quell rumors of a product recall. A story in a recent medical journal accused us of burying clinical studies in the early stage if they indicated less than stellar bone growth stimulation in clinical trials. I personally don't know enough to go to prison and the fact remains companies that manufacture joint and knee replacements are worse than us burying defects that should lead to product recalls putting quarterly profits ahead of patient lives.

Worst case our device is prescribed over a competitor based on exaggerated or false claims and if you're going to be a real technical jerk about it, could deny them a more effective device that could have saved their limb. But that's cutting some damn thin hairs.

The casino is busy; mostly corpulent pasty white poorly dressed ugly people. They sit at the slots, guts hanging over their belts, smoking, wolfing down delicacies like BBQ spiced pork rings out of the bag wiping greasy sausage fingers on plaid stretch jeans.

Chloe had arranged for Lori, one of my favorites, busty, tall, slender, and Japanese to visit me that evening for a few hours. But that was before I spotted Autumn, a tight ass blonde with long, thick, curly hair down to her ass. It was risky to go with a freelance courtesan; but she was unlikely to cause any trouble. She flipped that switch in me, the one that still enjoyed the hunt, reeling it in, closing the deal, bagging the big wild game.

We are both in the invite-only private blackjack pit. I am a bit down for the night but at a lively high stakes table winning a $12,000 pot when she glanced up from her martini with an olive, more likely water, our eyes locking. Against my usual proclivity to brunettes, she is all blonde; maybe 25, a tight, muscular bundle of raw sexual tension, perky nipples showing through a diaphanous low cut, red cocktail dress and three-inch bend me over the table heels and bright red pouty full lips. Slut and class at the same time. Her energy fills the room, everyone aware of her presence, men transfixed, women glancing at her with a mix of admiration and raw combustible jealousy.

When the cocktail waitress makes her rounds, I tip her $50 asking her to deliver the blonde my note on a cocktail napkin: "Room 2012. 10 Benjamin Roses. 2 hours. 11pm. Nothing weird."

When she arrives, I put a bottle of champagne on ice and pay her ten hundreds up front. Without counting she slips them into her small handbag. I pop the cork and we sit on the expansive balcony of my penthouse suite complete with a $50,000 bathtub sourced from an Italian quarry: all one solid piece of beautifully veined greenish marble.

I leave the balcony to retrieve a silver tray of freshly dipped chocolate strawberries. When I return, she serves me a fresh glass of champagne. It tastes a bit off and I wonder if the champagne is bad.

Thousands line the strip below us to watch the extravaganza of neon colored water fountains explode and spray to familiar opera; mostly the three tenors.

She scratches my neck with her long French manicured nails.

That's the last thing I remember before waking up naked, except for my red suede shoes, on the balcony.

It takes me a few attempts to lift the mattress. Everything is gone; $15,000 in cash, passport, and wallet. I scan the room for my clothing, but she has taken everything, leaving only the hotel robe. I should have used the room safely.

And then things go really bad.

My new iPhone signals an IM.

"Dear Scott. You seem like a man who values his time so let's cut to the chase. You will wire half your IPO profits to me -- details to follow -- or some very uncompromising images of you will be sent to all 1,700 of your address book contacts. In addition, your myriad violations against the Securities & Exchange Commission will be included landing you in prison for decades. Any funny business on your end and by default the server will send the photos and SEC violations every 30 days unless I enter a password. Notify the police and everything is instantly sent from a secured server. I will donate 10% to various charities if that makes this more palpable."

I also miss a few calls from Sharon.

I crawl on my hands and knees naked to the balcony. Before I can jump, I vomit. My cell rings, a Skype window opens, and a conference call commences. Autumn waves, grinning.

The blurred image of another person comes into focus.

It’s Sharon, smiling, waving, smirking.

She holds up a draft copy of the divorce papers my lawyer had prepared. And then my wife blows me a double-handed kiss as the screen goes blank.

Previously published in 2018 in this thing we call love.

About the Author

John Szabo lives in Newport Beach, California. Most of his stories are inspired by living in both Newport Beach and San Francisco. His stories have appeared in The Toronto Quarterly, The Rockford Review, The Stillwater Review and The Elephant Ear. He earned his BA at UC Irvine in Political Science and his MA in Journalism at Indiana University. He took creative writing classes at UC Irvine, Indiana University and UC Berkeley. Szabo also has worked as a reporter at The Los Angeles Times and The San Francisco Chronicle.

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