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The Good Fight [MultiFormat]
eBook by Andrew Grey

eBook Category: Gay Fiction/Romance
eBook Description: Jerry Lincoln has a problem: his Sioux Falls IT consulting business has more work than one man can handle. Luckily, that means he can hire some help. Jerry just hopes his new employee, John Black Raven, ends up being more helpful than distracting--but John's deep eyes and long hair are very distracting.

John came to town for an education and a chance at a life he couldn't have on the reservation, but what's important to him now is getting a job and keeping it. Six months ago, his sister died, and now her children are in foster care. Despite having the law on his side, John can't get custody--can't even see his niece and nephew.

As Jerry and John grow closer, John discovers he doesn't have to struggle alone. Jerry helps him win visitation rights and provides much-needed support. Yet their victories aren't without setbacks. Child Services is tangled up with money, politics, and red tape, and Native American children are their bread and butter. But John and Jerry are determined to fight the good fight and to win--in more ways than one.

eBook Publisher: Dreamspinner Press/Dreamspinner Press, Published: 2012, 2012
Fictionwise Release Date: October 2012

8 Reader Ratings:
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Chapter One

"Hello, Jerry," Peter said as he approached where I sat on the familiar bench in the small park across from Darrington's department store. This was sort of our spot, where we met for lunch once a week when the weather was good. When it wasn't, we met in Peter's small office in the store, but it was always nice to sit outside in the shade, even if it was hotter than hell. "You're a little early."

"I got finished with a project and thought I'd get down here before I got engrossed in another one," I told him as I stood up. Peter hugged the stuffing out of me, the same lunch bag he used every week still in his hand, probably momentarily forgotten in his enthusiastic greeting. I expected to feel it bump against my back, but it didn't for some reason. "How are things?" I asked once he stepped back, indicating the department store with my gaze.

"The same as usual. It's quiet this time of year," Peter answered, taking a seat on the bench, and I sat down as well. Darrington's was one of many department stores dying a slow death. It was still the place to shop in Sioux Falls, but a lot of the normal business that had once been there had migrated to the shopping centers on the south side of town near the Walmart and Lowe's. The place had been dying by inches for years, but somehow they'd managed to hold on, and that said a lot about the community and the people who worked there. Since meeting Peter a year earlier, I'd staunchly refused to shop anywhere else out of loyalty to Peter and because I liked the old place, with its ornate, gold-capped pillars that lined the main aisle and colorful tiled fountain in the center of the building. "You should stop by after lunch. We're having a huge sale on summer clothes," Peter said as he looked over my ensemble of jean shorts, old University of Wisconsin T-shirt, and flip-flops. "And God knows you could use the help."

"I like being comfortable," I protested. My job rarely required me to meet other people, or even leave my house, so I could dress the way I liked, and I was a hedonist for soft and comfy. I didn't give a damn how it looked as long as it felt good.

"You don't have to look like a street person," Peter countered as he lifted the lunch bag into his lap and opened it. A protest formed on my lips, but I looked down at myself and realized he was probably right. What I had on, especially compared with Peter's smart-looking work clothes, probably made it look as if he was having lunch with one of the homeless.

"Okay, after we're done eating, I'll come shopping with you," I promised, holding my hands up in surrender. "I didn't come here to be accosted by the clothes police," I added with a smile on my face, and Peter smacked my shoulder and chuckled before unzipping the top of the bag and pulling out a plastic container that he handed me. "What did Leonard make?" I asked, removing the top without waiting for an answer.

"Pineapple chicken salad," Peter answered with what sounded like anticipation as he handed me a fork and a round of pita bread. I reached for the bag by my feet and pulled out two bottles of iced tea that I'd gotten from a convenience store on my way over. "Leonard sends his love and told me to remind you about having dinner with us on Saturday."

"I'm looking forward to it," I told him honestly. My weekly lunches with Peter and the almost weekly dinners I was invited to were some of my only meals that didn't come out of a box and weren't eaten next to my computer. If I couldn't microwave it and forget it, I could give a crap about it when it came to food, but Leonard and Peter were trying to change that. Lately Leonard had taken to having me help him in the kitchen. He'd never said anything, but I knew he was trying to teach me the basics of cooking. "Can I bring something?" I asked with trepidation.

"Potatoes," Peter answered, and I had to stifle a gasp. Peter always says to bring a bottle of wine. I turned to check if he was serious, and he obviously was, because he continued eating as though he hadn't just dropped a cooking bombshell on me. "Leonard is serving steaks, so a simple potato salad would be perfect." There it was--that slight tremble round the mouth. Peter lifted his gaze, and his eyes caught mine. Setting his fork in the container, Peter threw his head back with a deep belly laugh. "Good God, you looked like I'd asked you to eat bugs," Peter gasped through peals of laughter. "You can just bring a bottle of wine. It'll probably be safer for everyone involved."

"No, you asked me to bring potatoes and I will," I told him defiantly, and Peter's laughter died as realization dawned on him. "Yes, you may be taking your lives into your own hands, but you're old and you've lived a good life, so you can go out with a bang, or a good case of botulism." It was my turn to chuckle, and Peter swatted my arm again, his laughter returning. "Besides, I can show Leonard how much I've learned." We returned to our lunch, and my gaze swept across the park with its gazebo, green grass, and huge trees with locusts singing in them.

"How's work?" Peter asked, and I swallowed my bite of heaven before sipping from my bottle of tea.

"Busy as hell. I did some checking this morning, and I have six months of work lined up, and that's if I work sixty hours a week. Otherwise I have nine months. It's good to be busy, but I'm turning away new clients who aren't able to get in line. I was doing that in San Francisco, as well, but in this economy, I hate to." Whenever I had to tell a potential client I couldn't get something done in their time frame, it killed me because I knew I'd probably never hear from them again. I'd always been afraid, ever since I went out on my own as a contract web systems designer, that the work would suddenly dry up and I'd end up trying to figure out a way to buy food. That, of course, hadn't happened. I knew that part of my success could be attributed to the way I'd always been able to get to what a client really wanted and needed. But that same part of me hated to see clients go to someone else, because I never wanted to disappoint them, even if I rarely actually met any of them. After all, I now lived in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and many of the people I worked with were on either one coast or the other.

"I've been giving that some thought," Peter said, and I cringed slightly. This could not be good. Whenever Peter began thinking about something, it usually meant something along the lines of cough medicine when I was a kid. It might have been good for me, but it always tasted awful going down. "You should hire yourself some help," Peter said. "There are plenty of students who just graduated from the community college, and I bet there are some that are quite gifted."

I let his idea sink in, and it wasn't too bad. "I don't know anything about hiring people."

Peter scoffed. "Well, duh," he said, and I did a double take. Did he actually say that? "What do you think I do--twiddle my thumbs all day? I hire people. I am the director of Human Resources, after all." He looked haughty for a second, then chuckled. "I can help you weed out candidates and make sure you fill out all the right forms."

"Okay," I said doubtfully. "But will I be able to get as much done if I have to supervise other people?"

"I'm not talking about bringing on an army--one, maybe two people. You need to pass on what you know to others." Peter looked around the park at the nearly empty sidewalks. "This is South Dakota. It's a great place to live, affordable, with a decent quality of life, sort of. But we need to have more than the Black Hills, the Badlands, and the Corn Palace. You make a good living, and if you hired people, then they could too." Peter continued eating, talking almost continuously between bites. "You'll bill your clients at a reduced rate for your employees' services and check their work to make sure the quality is where you need it. I know you charge $120 an hour, so you charge less for their time, say a hundred an hour, and you pay them forty an hour, which for this area is an amazing wage. You make money not only on your time, but theirs as well." Peter set down the plastic container and turned to look at me. "You could work out a package for insurance, and that, along with the hourly wage, should attract the top talent. We could work out the details if you need some help, but this could turn into a great business." Peter's excitement was catching, and I found I was intrigued by the idea--not sold on it, but intrigued.

"How do I find qualified candidates? I don't want to put an ad in the paper and have a million people pestering me and sending me crap," I said, a bit surprised that I was pursuing this. But the idea had merit, I knew it did, and there had been times when I'd thought about hiring some help. I wasn't egotistical, but I also felt very strongly that I was among the best at what I did, and if quality suffered, then my livelihood would be out the door.

"Leave that to me. I can help you, and I won't waste your time with unqualified people. I can promise you that," Peter told me with determination, and I found myself agreeing.

"Am I going to have to find an office or something? I work out of my house, and I like it that way." I really did. I could fall out of bed, grab my coffee, and go to work in my underwear if I didn't feel like getting dressed. It didn't matter and I'd gotten quite used to it.

"Turn your grandfather's old workshop into an office," Peter suggested. "You'll never use the tools, and they're just sitting there. They may be old, but they're good quality. You could probably sell them easily, and you have one of those... radio Internet thingies." He waved his hand around the way he always did whenever he brought up anything technology related. "So everyone could work off it."

"Do you have someone who'd like the tools?" I knew exactly what Peter was thinking. "Why don't you tell Leonard that if he wants the tools, he can have them."

"We can't do that," Peter protested.

"Yes, you can. Grandpa would want those tools he used all those years to go to someone who will care for them and use them. He'd hate to have them sit and rust away, and so would I."

A cold feeling of loss settled into my heart as I thought of Grandpa and the last time I'd seen him working in his workshop. He'd said he was making something special at the time. A year earlier, I'd moved to Sioux Falls to take care of my mother's father. He was the only family I had left, at least as far as both they and I were concerned, and when he'd called and said he needed help, I'd packed up and moved back. Grandpa had lasted six months, and I took care of him and worked from his house. We got to know each other again, and after he died in his sleep, I realized how much I'd loved him and just how much time I'd lost. Grandpa had left me his house in his will, and I'd contemplated selling it and moving back to San Francisco, but by then I'd met Peter and Leonard, and consequently almost every other gay person in town, not that there were many, and they had convinced me to stay and put down roots. I hadn't regretted staying yet, although that could change, since I'd managed to avoid the rest of my family so far, except for the funeral, and the little town on the Great Plains had quickly become home.

"Leonard will be thrilled," Peter said, and I could feel his excitement. "But you know it isn't necessary."

"I know, and that's part of why I offered." Peter and Leonard had quickly grown into surrogate parents.

"So you'll consider hiring some help?" Peter verified, and I wondered what he was up to. "We worry about you working so much."

"You won't believe me, but I work fewer hours here than I did in San Francisco," I confessed. "The house itself takes a lot of time, and Grandpa left a lot of projects that need to be finished." Like the kitchen sink that only ran when it wanted to, or the back porch that needed the floor replaced. Mostly I hired people to do the work, but there were some things I liked to do myself to sort of get out of my head for a while. Not that it worked all that well, but a distraction from HTML and Java code was welcome and sometimes required to remain sane.

Peter didn't look as though he believed me, but he said nothing and began to close up his empty lunch container. I finished my salad and then handed him the Tupperware, and he put that away as well. Then I sat back on the bench and finished my tea. "Have you seen the falls since you got back?" he asked.

"Yeah. I always liked it there as a kid," I said, closing my eyes for a few seconds. "I used to like to lie on the grass and listen to the sound of the rushing water, and in the winter, the ice and cold always turned it into a magical sort of Christmas wonderland, especially with the colored lights." I could still remember the last time I was at the falls before I'd left town for good, or so I'd thought. I'd told my parents I was gay, and that had been that. I'd wanted to tell them earlier, but I'd been too afraid and said nothing until I was done with college. I already had a job offer, and I'd told them a week before I'd planned to leave town. After the big news, I left earlier than anticipated and hadn't looked back or stayed in touch with anyone except Grandpa, who called me faithfully and had even flown out to California to see me a few times, and I'd shown him all around San Francisco....

"Jerry, are you still with me?" Peter's voice pulled me out of my daydream. "Where were you?"

"Just thinking of Grandpa, I'm sorry," I said guiltily. My mind tended to wander more and more lately. Sometimes, being back in town after so long, something unexpected would trigger a memory long suppressed or forgotten, and sometimes I'd remember something about Grandpa, the one person I could always count on for unconditional love. "You were saying," I prompted.

"Come on," Peter said as he stood up. "Let's take you shopping, and then you can go back home to your computers." Most of the time, I was more comfortable with the machines than I was with people. But I smiled and nodded as Peter led me across the street and into the air-conditioned store. "Jerry, this is Emile." Peter introduced me to a darkly handsome man as soon as we entered the menswear department. "He'll act as your personal shopper for the day." I rolled my eyes, but either Peter didn't see me or chose to ignore me. "Emile, he needs everything. This is how he usually dresses." Peter tsked before turning back to me. "You'll never catch a man looking like that. I know you don't judge on looks and you want someone willing to see the real you, but, honey, it never hurts to use a little bait on the hook." We were in Sioux Falls, and I really wanted to retort that I didn't think it mattered how much bait you used when there were no fish in the sea, but I kept quiet, and after saying good-bye to Peter, followed Emile through the department and let him "help" me pick out some new clothes. By the time he was done, my wallet was considerably lighter, but he'd assured me I would look good and had even written down what went with what, because I had no clue. The only thing I knew was not to mix stripes and plaids. I stopped by Peter's office to say good-bye before leaving the store and then schlepped my packages to my car and drove home.

My grandfather's house, because that was how I still thought of it, was on the edge of the city portion of town, as opposed to the suburban sprawl, such as it was. It wasn't particularly large, but it was one of the oldest homes in town, and Grandpa had always loved it. I parked the car, unloaded the packages, and then walked to the back door and let myself inside. After setting the bags in my bedroom, I immediately went to my computer to get to work, the list of things I had to get done growing longer by the minute.

* * * *

The following morning, I got up and showered before pulling on a pair of old shorts and another T-shirt. I did have some pride, after all, and wouldn't wear dirty clothes--unless I was desperate and forgot to do the laundry. I even unpacked my new clothes and put them in the washer. There was no way I could wear new clothes from the store without washing them and cutting out those tags they sewed inside the shirts. Those always drove me crazy. Anyway, after getting my cup of coffee, I settled at the computer to get to work.

At about ten, my phone rang. My first impulse was to ignore it and keep working. I was just beginning to solve one of the problems I'd been wrestling with all morning. "What?" I said absently as I answered the awful thing.

"Good morning to you too, sunshine," Peter said, and I sighed.

"Sorry. I'm in the middle of a problem on the code I'm supposed to deliver by the end of the day today, and I'm almost done. The damned thing is nearly perfect except for the loop that is determined to run one more time than it's supposed to, and I think I just found the answer, but then you called." All of that ran together in a blur of words and frustration.

"Take a deep breath and mark your place or whatever you do with that codey stuff." Peter gave me a second, and I made sure the line of code that I thought was the culprit had been highlighted. "I found you four people who might work well with you. When can you meet them?" Peter was speaking softly, and I knew he was at work and didn't want to be overheard.

"Already?" I said and then stopped. I knew I'd been had. There was no way Peter had just found these people. "How long have you been planning this?"

"Okay," Peter said with a chuckle, "you got me. I got a call from the community college because they have graduates who are having troubles finding jobs in the area. They're skilled and, from what I can tell, quite good. The problem is the brain drain. We have good colleges, but without the good jobs, they leave." He was such an activist, and I had to admit to myself that he was probably right.

"Fine, I'll meet with them tomorrow morning between ten and noon. I want resumes, and tell them each to bring me an application they've designed and coded themselves. I want to see examples of their work. I also want them to bring laptops if they have them, because they're going to have to code for me before I'll consider any of them." I figured I wasn't going to waste my time and effort on people who couldn't perform, and the best way to make sure of that was to make them prove it. That was how I'd gotten my first coding job.

Peter was quiet for a few seconds. "Is there anything more?" I figured Peter was writing things down.

"No. They can come to the house." I cradled the phone under my chin and resumed work, the error jumping out at me, and I changed the variable setting and reran the application. This time it worked perfectly. "Yes."

"Sorry?" Peter said.

"Nothing, I just fixed my error. Is there anything I need to have them fill out?"

"I'll bring you copies of the forms tonight. You'll need to make sure they sign them, and you should file them for records and legal purposes. You probably don't need them, because of the size of your business, but I want to be safe." Peter paused, and I assumed he was writing.

"Thanks, Peter. I'll have a martini waiting," I told him with a laugh. Peter always said I made the best martinis, but I didn't drink them so I had no idea if he was right. I made them the same way each time, though, so everybody was happy.

"It's a deal. I'll call Leonard and see if he wants to join us, and he can bring the truck and start to haul away the tools."

"Sounds good. I'll see you then." I hung up the phone and wondered just what I was getting myself into. I hadn't even agreed to hire someone else, and Peter had four people ready to come by for an interview. Not that it mattered, because I knew if none of them were acceptable, I wouldn't take them on, and if I got lucky and one of them happened to show promise, then I'd be a fool not to hire them and take off some of the pressure. Besides, I fully intended to take shameful advantage of Peter. If he was determined to busybody me into this, then he was going to have to help. Shaking my head to clear it, I moved my mouse to wake up the bank of computer screens and went back to work.

At some point during the day, I gulped down a sandwich and then went back to work. I was making amazing progress. The afternoon turned into one of those magic sets of hours when everything seemed to go right and the code flew from my fingers. I was in the zone and got an astounding amount of work done. By the time I heard the doorbell, I was so deep in what I was doing it barely registered. It wasn't until Peter tapped me on the shoulder that I actually looked up from my screens.

"I'm almost done here, can't stop or I'll lose it," I said, returning to my screens. My fingers continued flying over the keyboard until I had finished the draft of the program I was going to embed in the client's website database. This was going to be the heart of their system and would probably make them a lot of money. I knew they were going to love it. After pressing "save" on the computer, I backed away from the bank of monitors and blinked a few times to get used to the real world again. Spending hours in front on a monitor tended to make me a little blinky, and it always took a few seconds for my eyes to get accustomed to being away from the screens. "Sorry, Peter," I said, getting out of my comfy desk chair. "I'll mix up the martinis if you want to have a seat in the living room." I peered around. "Where's Leonard?"

"He's out in the workshop packing up some of the tools," Peter explained. "He'll be inside in a little bit. He said he'll load everything in the truck, and you can look it over before we leave just to make sure there isn't anything you wanted to keep."

"I already went through it and cleaned out the few things I wanted," I told him as I opened the cabinet in the dining room that contained the little bit of liquor I had. I pulled out the gin and vermouth before grabbing the pitcher. I started mixing, measuring the ingredients and pouring them over a lot of ice and then giving it a quick stir. Then, after putting three olives in each chilled glass, I poured the drinks. Peter took his glass and sipped from it as I heard the back door open, and Leonard joined us, like a moth to flame.

"Best martinis ever," Leonard said after taking a sip and clinking glasses with Peter. I got a diet soda, and we all sat in the living room. The furniture was still the same worn but comfortable chairs and sofa my grandmother had bought ages ago. I hadn't had time to replace anything, and frankly, I hadn't had the heart to do it, either. When I sat in the same chair my grandfather had used for years, it felt a bit like he was still here with me. "There were some unfinished projects your grandfather was working on," Leonard explained, setting his glass on the coffee table. "Do you want to keep them?"

I shook my head. "No. I'll never get around to finishing them, so if you'd like them, by all means take them. There's also some wood in there as well, and if you can use it, take that too." It was sad cleaning things out, but I knew it had to be done, and I could see Leonard's excitement, his blue eyes boggling like the proverbial kid in a candy store.

"There's a great collection of antique hand tools in the chests in the corner. I set those aside for you," Leonard said as he lifted his glass again. "They're too valuable to give away. I'd love them, but I can't take them. You should find a collector or antique dealer who can give you what they're worth."

"Thanks, Leonard, you and Peter are the best." I wasn't sure quite what to say. He could have taken everything and I wouldn't have known the difference. But that was the two of them--caring and as honest as anyone I'd ever met.

"We're here to help, you know that," Peter said softly, and I nodded. There were times when realization of all the time I'd wasted seemed to hit me hard. I'd been loved unconditionally by only one person in my life, and now he was gone. I'd spent years away because I hadn't known what he meant to me. Closing my eyes, I nodded once, trying to force the grief away as I once again realized how alone I was.

"Did you get everything set up for tomorrow?" I asked with a croak, desperately needing to change the subject.

"Yes," Peter answered. "I left the forms on the table in the dining room, and I scheduled the four appointments each for a half hour between ten and noon. Make sure they're prompt, and try your best to be nice. I know you're demanding, and you should be, but you can be respectful at the same time." Peter finished his drink and set down the glass. "I know you're not going to be mean or anything, but don't come off too strong, at least not right away."

I nodded, and once I got over being a bit pissed, I realized Peter was probably right. My first job interview in California had been grueling, and once it was over, I'd gotten the job, but I'd often wondered if it was worth it. "I'll make sure they talk more than I do, and I'll listen to what they have to say. I do plan to see what they can do, though."

"Of course. All I ask for is politeness, and for the record, what I'm telling you I tell everyone who interviews candidates at the store. Interviewing is an art, and if done right, you can bring out a lot of details." Peter stood up, and Leonard followed suit. I walked both of them out to their truck, and Leonard insisted I check the back. Then I hugged them both and waved as they pulled out of the drive. Sighing in the evening heat, I went back inside and was about to go back to work but decided I'd made plenty of progress, so instead I ordered a pizza and settled on the living room sofa for the evening.

* * * *

The following morning I got up early, showered, shaved, and dressed in some of my new clothes. I was on my third cup of coffee and already working when the doorbell rang. Feeling a little nervous, I walked through the house and opened the door. A young man stood on the front step, nervously bouncing from foot to foot, energy and excitement pouring out of every pore.

"Morning, I'm Bryce Morton," he said, shaking my hand vigorously. "You must be Mr. Lincoln; it's a pleasure to meet you." He smiled up at me, still shaking my hand. "Mr. Harmon said I was to be here promptly at ten." He actually checked his watch and then smiled back up at me.

"Please call me Jerry, and come in," I said as I took my hand back and motioned toward the dining room. "I work out of the house, and I'm in the process of creating a proper work space." At least the workshop was being cleaned out.

"No problem," Bryce said quickly, and I could hear the anticipation in his voice. "I Googled you after Mr. Harmon called and said he had set up the interview." Bryce set his case on the table. I took the chair across from him as Bryce continued talking, his blue eyes sparkling with interest, wisps of blond hair flopping in his eyes. "You've done some amazing work, and I can hardly believe you're here in Sioux Falls and that I might be able to work with you." Bryce smiled and his hands shook as he pulled out his chair and sat down. The kid was a bundle of energy, that was for sure.

"Did you bring a resume?" I asked, and Bryce handed it to me before fishing out what looked like an older laptop from his bag. He pushed it off to the side, and I heard the beep as the machine booted up. Scanning the piece of paper, I noted a number of things, including that Bryce had a high GPA and had taken a number of computer-related classes. "Are you planning to go on for your bachelor's degree?" I asked, noting that he was graduating with his associate's degree.

Bryce stilled and some of his energy seemed to slip away. "Maybe someday," he answered, and I could tell by the regret in his eyes that he wanted to desperately. "I had a difficult enough time paying for community college. So until I can work and save up some money, I won't be able to go. It's only my mom, and she has two other kids still at home. They live outside Mitchell, so I've pretty much been on my own for the last two years." Bryce lifted his chin, and his eyes cleared. He might have been nervous, but he was also proud of what he'd accomplished so far. Checking his personal information, I saw that Bryce was twenty-two, and I figured he'd gone to school part time while he worked, judging by his work history.

"I understand. I worked my way through school as well," I told him before setting the resume aside and grabbing the notepad I'd set out earlier. "I'd like you to tell me what it is about software development that you like." I'd found out a while ago that developing unique and vibrant systems took passion and excitement.

Bryce leaned forward in the chair. "You know when you get this puzzle that nobody else can solve? And you look at it for a while and then the answer comes to you? It's like that. There's nothing better than being given a problem or a situation and being able to puzzle and code your way out of it. The absolute bomb is being able to make a computer do something that no one else has done before. When I started school, I wanted to design and code video games because I loved the graphics, and maybe I will someday, but I realized in school that it's solving the problem, whatever it is, that's really cool."

"Okay," I said, feeling that jump in my stomach that I got when I was with another true techie. "Let's see what you can do." I reached into my pocket and handed him a thumb drive. "I have two folders on this drive. One is a full program that has something wrong with it. I want you to use the specifications that come with it to figure out what's wrong and fix it. The other folder is a set of specifications. I'd like you to develop the simple system from the specifications, using HTML." I handed the drive to him, and Bryce plugged it into his laptop. After copying the files, he disconnected it and handed it back.

"How much time do I have?" Bryce asked, and I could see him opening the files, his attention already being drawn away by the problem. That was a good sign, and I began to have a positive feeling about Bryce.

"I'd like your solutions by five o'clock today. You can work in the living room if you like." One of the things I was concerned about was the candidates having someone else help them. "I want you to solve the problems on your own, without help from anyone else." I really needed to see what each applicant could do on his own. What I'd given him wasn't particularly difficult, but it would test his ability to solve problems as well as help me determine his basic development skills. "Is there anything you'd like to ask me?"

"How much does the position pay?" Bryce asked, turning away from his computer screen to look me in the eye.

"Honestly, that depends upon your skill level." I felt a smile coming on as Bryce nodded his understanding. "I suspect a starting pay of eighteen to twenty dollars an hour, but that could go up quickly depending upon talent. I'm a consultant and get paid by the billable hour, and the more I can charge for your hours, the more you'll make. Personally, I don't care how much schooling you've had--if you have talent, you'll do well."

"Can I work from home?" Bryce asked.

"Maybe eventually, but not to start with," I answered, and Bryce had more questions about benefits and start times. He also asked about the equipment he would be working on, and I showed him my office. Bryce was definitely impressed. I made a note to myself to put together a list of equipment I would need to purchase for whomever I hired. We talked about benefits and working hours. His questions were good, and by the time he settled in one of the living room chairs with his computer on his lap, I had a pretty good feeling about him.

The doorbell rang with my next appointment, and I answered it. Another young man stood on the stoop, and I took him, and later the next young man, through the same interview process. I didn't get the same encouraging signals from them, but I gave them the problems. One of them gave up after fifteen minutes, and I thanked him for coming. He looked disappointed, but I thanked him anyway. The other interviewee admitted defeat just before the last interviewee arrived. I noticed that Bryce seemed lost in his computer, typing away as I escorted the third applicant outside. After shaking hands, I said good-bye and was about to close the front door when I saw a man striding up my walk toward the door. As he got closer, I felt my throat go dry, and I had to remind myself that this was a job interview and not a pickup at a Castro gay bar.

"I'm John Black Raven," he said with a smile, and we shook hands.

"Jerry Lincoln. I'm pleased to meet you." The heat from his hand was startling, and I had to tear my gaze away from John's deep, dark, almost black eyes. "Come in and we'll go into the dining room to talk." I motioned him inside, and John peered into the living room as we passed. I saw Bryce look up from his work, and he smiled and nodded to John, who did the same back before continuing on. "I take it you and Bryce know each other."

"Yes. We've had many classes together," John answered before pulling out a chair. He passed me his resume, and I scanned it.

"Your grades are good, and you've had plenty of experience." It looked as though John had worked at least two jobs for years. Many of them appeared menial and looked like brutally hard, physical work. "None in software development," I commented. He was also older than the others, nearly twenty-seven.

"No. I worked hard to pay for school, and this is the first interview I've had." His eyes shone with intensity and determination, and I did my best not to look at John's shining black hair pulled into a ponytail, or his sun-kissed skin and full lips. This man was here for a job, and I needed to keep myself under control. "But I always work hard, and computers seem to speak to me."

I was intrigued. "How?"

"I seem to have a mind for them. My teachers often offered extra credit for solving tough problems, and I always saw the answers right away," John answered in a measured, rather soft-spoken tone that sounded almost musical. "I don't have much real-world experience because until I was able to come here to school, there were no opportunities." John sat back in the chair, indecision in his eyes, and I thought he wasn't going to elaborate. "I grew up on the reservation, and there are very few chances there." I'd heard rumors and stories, but I'd largely thought those were tales born out of narrow-minded stereotypes. "I left to try to make a better life," John added and then grew quiet. Of the four interviews, this one was definitely the hardest. Some things were apparent, though. John was a hard worker, and judging from his grades, that had transferred to his schoolwork.

"What sort of things would you like to know?" I asked him, and John asked the usual things about pay and benefits, which I answered the same as the others. I showed him my current workspace and explained about the work area that was being developed.

"Would the insurance also cover children?" John asked tentatively.

"You should be able to add them," I answered, reminding myself that I had to see about changing my health insurance policy if I was going to hire people. "How many children do you have?"

John looked sad. "None."

I thought his question combined with his answer odd, but it was really none of my business, so I let the subject drop. "I have something I'd like you to do for me so I can judge your skill level," I told John when we returned to the dining room. I handed him the thumb drive, and I watched as he pulled out a very old laptop. Then, after transferring the files, I got him settled in the living room.

"I'm finished," Bryce said with a grin once John was settled, and I had him come to the dining room to show me. Bryce had indeed found the error and fixed it. He'd also developed the application I'd requested. "I even got the exception handling to work with meaningful messages." Bryce showed me, and I couldn't help holding back a smile.

"It looks good," I said, quite pleased, because I had at least one candidate with potential. I made sure I had his current contact information, and after I shook Bryce's hand and said good-bye, he left with a grin on his face.

Once he was gone, I stopped in the living room again, and John looked up from his work. "Have you eaten?" I asked, and John nodded. "I'll be working. Come get me when you're done." John nodded again, and I sat down at my console to work. I could see John if I turned my head, and I found I was having trouble looking anywhere else. He was stunning, in a quiet, understated sort of way. His eyes held an intensity and pain that intrigued me, but it was his hair that I couldn't take my eyes off of, and I kept wondering what he'd look like with it loose around his expressive face. Forcing my attention to my work, I hid behind my monitors and got down to the task, but that failed as well. I kept wondering what I saw in John, and then I'd peer around the monitor again just to watch him for a few seconds.

I had lived in San Francisco and had seen smoking-hot men almost every day of my life--guys who walked down the street and made almost every head turn. Those men usually did nothing for me. Sure, they were pretty to look at and attractive as hell, but as soon as they opened their mouths, some form of incomprehensible gibberish came out with every other word punctuated by "like." "We, like, went to the store and, like, he grabbed my butt and I said, like, dude, like, don't do that." I'd actually heard that in a conversation, and I had wanted to smack the man on the side of the head. Somehow I knew deep down that John was very different from those men. There was definitely intelligence at the bottom of those eyes, and his attractiveness smoldered just below the surface in the way he walked and carried himself--tall and proud. I forced my eyes away from John and got to work for a while.

"I think I'm finished," John said as he got up from the sofa. Thankful for something to do besides stare at John, I got up and met him at the table. "I fixed the problem with the program; that was easy," John said. "But I wasn't sure quite what you wanted with your specifications. On the right, you said you wanted each of the graphics lined up with the appropriate links. I wasn't sure if you wanted them static or not, so I made them scroll." He brought up the page, and the graphics scrolled along the side of the screen from top to bottom. "If you click on the graphic, they can link to the other pages if you create them."

I smiled and stole a glance at John. "I was expecting the easy method, and instead you gave me more. Very good." I was more than a little impressed. He'd delivered something beyond what I had expected, and he'd done it in the same amount of time as Bryce. "I'll be making my decision in the next week."

"Thank you," John said, and we shook hands. Then he gathered his things, and I watched him leave. As soon as the door closed, I released a long sigh before walking into the kitchen. I grabbed a diet soda and chugged most of it as I ran over both viable candidates in my mind. After throwing the can in the recycling, I was about to return to work when the phone rang.

I picked up the old house phone. "Hello," I answered, sitting at my workstation.

"Jerry, how did it go?" Peter asked excitedly. "I told you I could find qualified applicants, and I steered people your way I knew you could work with."

"How did you find these guys?" I asked, wondering how he'd been able to put together a group of reasonably qualified people so fast.

Peter sighed softly, and I heard him shifting as the phone crackled slightly. "Every summer there's a new graduating class, and at some point most of them don't get jobs and come here looking for anything so they can work. I simply pointed some of the more qualified people your way. I could have hired any of those men here at the store, but they'd either leave eventually or end up at a dead end. So what did you think?" Peter was not going to be put off.

"Two of them were fantastic, and I have to decide which of them I want to hire. They're both qualified, and I think I could work with either of them." I figured both Bryce and John would be a big help, and part of me had a particular preference, but I made it a point not to think with that head and make the right decisions for my business.

"Take some time and think about it. Your gut will tell you what you need to do," Peter said optimistically, and I rolled my eyes to the empty room.

"I'll do that," I promised, and after talking briefly about nothing, we hung up and I went back to work. I'd lost the better part of a day, and deadlines were always looming, so I hunkered down and tried not to think about red-brown skin, long black hair, and deep eyes. Getting into the code, I managed pretty well, and it wasn't until my stomach rumbled that I stopped and made some dinner. Leonard called while I was eating to ask if he could come pack up more of the tools, and I spent the evening helping him load them into the back of his truck. We made two trips that evening to his and Peter's house.

"Those are the boxes of antique tools, and that box is locked and I couldn't find the key, but it feels empty," Leonard explained as he showed me the things that he'd left, once we'd made the last trip. We moved all three wooden boxes into the attic, and I figured when I had a chance, I'd look for the key in among the myriad of keys Grandpa had kept. "This should make a nice office space," Leonard said as we cleaned and swept out the old workshop. The entire space smelled of fresh wood, a scent I knew I would always associate with Grandpa. After taking out the trash, I turned off the light and closed the workshop door, feeling a bit like I'd just left part of my grandfather behind.

"Are you okay, Jerry?" Leonard asked from behind me, and I nodded once, not ready to turn around because the emotions were too close to the surface. "You know it's okay to feel bad about letting his things go. That's normal, and so is moving on." I felt long, lanky arms pull me in, and then I was being hugged within an inch of my life. "You know that Peter and I love you to pieces, and we're here for anything you need." I knew that, but didn't answer, other than to return Leonard's hug and enjoy the feeling of being in someone's arms for a while. "It's okay," Leonard said, and I felt him rubbing my back lightly.

I completely lost track of how long we stood there in the backyard, but eventually Leonard released me, and we walked quietly to his truck. After saying good-bye and watching him drive away, I walked back into the empty house. Exhausted, I turned on the television and quickly fell asleep on the sofa. When I woke a few hours later, I went upstairs, cleaned up, and then climbed under the covers. As tired as I was, I figured I'd sleep soundly, but for most of the night I kept seeing and wondering about a particular face with dark eyes framed in glistening black hair. By the time I woke in the morning, I'd made up my mind regarding who I needed to hire.

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