July came with sunshine and financial obligations towards the Citizens and again, just like every month for the last two years, Ocher found himself heading to the familiar pawn shop to report his illicit earnings. He couldn’t believe that only a month had passed since he’d last been here. It felt like a lifetime with everything that had transpired. The sheer cubic volume of deeply existential thoughts that had passed through his mind this June left him feeling like he’d aged a century. In that single month alone he had done more thinking on his life than in all previous years combined, and he had done more thinking on his death than all inhabitants of a typical retirement home probably did in a year. He felt old. It was a certain consolation. He knew he would die young, but at least not mentally young.
And yet despite all these thoughts on death he had not drawn up his last will. He had been considering that, of course, but he’d concluded that there was no point to do that. There were two reasons for that and neither of them was that he was just twenty two. The first one was that if Hector found out and followed up on it, Wyatt’s premature death could arrive before its time. The second reason was much simpler. He realized he didn’t really own anything. Except for debt, that is, but nobody would like to inherit that and luckily nobody had to. His student loan was a federal one and would be discharged after he died. It was nice of the American government not to intend to take his old parents into slavery after he was no more, though he supposed they would have to take out a loan to organize his funeral anyway. That is, if there was a body. Maybe there wouldn’t be one by the time Hector was through with him, which was another consoling thought.
Wyatt sighed as he climbed the stairs to the pawn shop. He paused on the last step, hesitant. He had to stop thinking about the aftermath of his death. For now he was still walking this vale of tears and was bound with earthly tribulations like paying rent, bills and his dues. Speaking of which, there was a bit of a problem that he was coming to his fence with today. Despite how long last month had felt, he still had almost nothing to show her for it. Ever since he’d got tangled up with Hector, he hadn’t done any thieving at all. There had just been no time for that. He’d spent all his free hours in the library and going on dates with the city’s most wanted. All that had shaken up his usual schedule so badly, he also had to lie his way out of his June trainings with Hunter and never picked up his promised jar of mayo.
So he didn’t even have that much.
The only real haul from this month was the stuff from the house they’d burgled, but all that had gone into Craig’s garage back then, and Ocher hadn’t heard of it since. But that was mostly because he hadn’t had the time to contact Craig through Hunter and ask about his share. Craig was generally kind of fair with them, but he also considered himself exceptionally resourceful and streetwise, so he didn’t just take stuff to the fences like they would. He always said fences had bad prices, so instead he used his own mysterious contacts to get the very best prices — according to him — but that took some time and even more time after that before the rest of them actually saw their cuts.
As a result, Wyatt was bringing squat to his fence hoping that it would simply result with the percentage of it taken by the Citizens to also be close to nothing. Any percentage of zero was still zero. That only made sense, right?
He took a deep breath and went in.
* * *
When he stepped outside again, despite having had no expectations of this going well, somehow he still felt disillusioned by the fact the Citizens were not fond of basic maths concepts.
He had previously thought that only Hunter had to pay a flat fee on the account of being a master thief. Now it turned out that unless he reported well in advance that he was taking a break, which of course he hadn’t done, he still owed a minimum flat fee. Why was this even a thing? Paying money for stealing was a ridiculous notion. Plus he hadn’t taken a break, it’s just he was too focused on dating the terrifying owner of this whole enterprise to have the time to do such mundane things like stealing. In fact another meeting with Hector was scheduled for tomorrow. He wanted to tell his fence that he was the Man’s boyfriend now, and that none of this applied to him anymore.
But of course it still did. And he couldn’t tell her, he couldn’t tell a living soul.
He owed a hundred bucks. A hundred. That shouldn’t be much for anyone, but it was for him now. He had just paid his rent, his bills and his student loan installment, his salary wasn’t coming in until mid-July, and right now a hundred bucks was beyond his reach. He simply didn’t have this kind of financial fluidity.
And yet he had to acquire it somehow. He had three days to pay up, and that was only because the fence lady took pity on him again.
His feet carried him home on auto-pilot while his mind raced. He had to get that money. He knew it wasn’t an impossible dilemma and unlike some other problems in his life, it could actually be resolved and rather easily too. There were multiple options. He could try asking Hunter for instance. Then again, chances were that while he would be waiting for the older thief to answer the door, Hunter would meanwhile be waiting in front of Ocher’s building to also borrow some quick cash. No, Hunter never had any cash on him when it was needed. But maybe he could ask him to steal some wallets on the go? It wouldn’t be a big deal for Two Bits.
Ocher stored that thought for later use if things got really dire and went onto exploring the alternatives. He could ask his parents to send him a money order. No, he couldn’t. If he did, his entire charade would fall apart. He was a successful professional with a lucrative job, and he was the one supposed sending them money, not the other way around.
By the time he reached his tiny apartment, he’d settled on a solution. Hamsi. She knew about the troubles he’d been facing, well, at least the non-criminal ones. She was his friend, and she wouldn’t find it too weird if he had to borrow money because she knew about his shitty gas station job. Moreover it was Sunday, so there was a chance she was home.
He sat at his desk and dialed her number, praying that Abhilasha wouldn’t be the one who picked up. That one was never ready to listen to his excuses.
“Hamsi Rathi speaking, hello?”
He was in luck! “Uh, hi Hamsi. How are you?”
“Hi, Wyatt. I’m alright, the week was a bit hectic, so I’m getting some overdue chores done, what about you?”
“Oh I’m all good too, thanks, some chores here too, though you know, smaller apartment, smaller chores.”
“Um, so… what happened?” She inquired. “You haven’t called me on your own in forever. It’s not my or Abi’s birthday, so something must be the matter.”
“Yeah, sorry, I just wanted to ask if I can borrow your old notes on stratigraphy and sedimentology. I’m kind of confused about some of mine, you know my terrible handwriting.“ Ocher heard himself say without any hesitation. His impromptu lies got even smoother now that he had to navigate his life in the clutches of the local mob. But why did he lie to Hamsi? He called her specifically to ask for money. Would it really be so bad to simply do that? Yeah, yeah it would. The sisters would be on his case even harder than they already were.
“Oh. Sure… But don’t you have these already though? I mean I can check, but I recall preparing them for you and you picking them up like a year ago… it was like in May last year maybe? You were also borrowing the geochemistry of soils and statistics, remember?”
“Oh damn, you’re right… I didn’t lose them, I swear, I just forgot I already had them. Sorry. I’m going to find them right now, and I’m going to study them, I swear.” Wyatt performed his usual litany of promises to study. “Sorry for bothering you.”
“No worries. And Wyatt?”
“Don’t be a stranger alright? You can actually call us even when you don’t need anything, you know that, right?”
“Um, thanks Hamsi, I’ll keep that in mind.”
“You should drop by, maybe on Friday, or the weekend? You know we love to have you over.”
“I would, really, just been busy lately. But I will find the time soon, for sure. I’ll let you know. Have a great day, both of you! Oh and parents say hi.”
“Hi to them from us as well!”
Wyatt said bye and put down the receiver.
Well, that phone call did nothing to better his financial situation. Maybe except for bringing his attention to the fact that he had study materials handy, knowledge just lying in wait, ready to be absorbed, so that he could graduate and change his life around. Those notes must have been lurking under his bed somewhere. He felt obliged to check, he owed that to Hamsi, though for all he knew under the bed was the right place for them, in fact, with them in this strategic location the knowledge was emanating up through the mattress and into his brain every night. At least he wished this was how it worked.
But doing something normal and boring, like leafing through a box of papers, should calm him down enough to think his situation over. Yeah, he guessed he could do it now.
He lay down on the floor that could use some vacuum cleaning, and looked under his bed.
The box of keys was at the very front and the box with the notes must have been one of the few others behind it. That was a telltale sign that he wasn’t using his notes often enough. He pulled the obstacle out and looked at the keys uneasily. Recently he hadn’t been picking up any new ones, so that was good news. Apparently the consequences of pocketing a random key while sleepwalking through the Man’s mansion finally cured him of his affliction. But that didn’t really matter anymore. This here was probably the last cardboard box he filled with keys before he died anyway.
As he expected, Hamsi’s notes were in the box right behind it. They were neat and highlighted in different colors. He pulled them out and just flicked through them, more for the sake of hearing the calming rustle of paper than the acquisition of knowledge. But the rustle instead reminded him of all the newspapers he scoured in his frantic searches for the true nature of Hector Viteri in the library. He slid the box of keys back under the bed and left the one with the notes out. These notes here were an investment, thanks to them he could earn a lot of money in the future. They were a treasure in their own right. But they couldn’t help him now.
He needed that hundred bucks.
The other two thieves were an option, but women were too inquisitive and logically thinking, too hard to fool, and they always tried to get to the bottom of everything. So no, he didn’t want to talk to Kat right now. Anyway, Kat didn’t have his money, Craig did. And Craig would either give it to him or turn him down, but at least it should be quick and painless. Having decided on his next destination, Ocher slipped on his shoes and jacket and headed out again.
When he got out at the bus stop in Craig’s part of town, it turned out that he knew the way to the other thief’s house only after dark. Now in the daylight all the familiar landmarks were gone, and all the houses looked the same. It took some getting lost in the maze of clean sidewalks and identical, well maintained lawns of the residential area, before he saw a familiarly shaped hedge. Now that he thought about it, Craig lived in a nice part of town, everything was pretty neat and quiet here. How he came in possession of a house in this area, nobody knew, but knowing Craig’s assertiveness it was probably one of those stories of him trading a paperclip for progressively more valuable items, until he exchanged the last one for this here home.
Ocher rang the doorbell and waited. There was a fair chance that Craig was out. It would have made a lot of sense to call before he showed up, but somehow while Craig had all their numbers, he had never given them his. Maybe Kat had it, but Hunter — whenever he owned a phone that is — was just supposed to stay put and wait for Craig to call him, which he did, because he was a pushover. Ocher, despite having been bullied into giving out his number, because, well, he was also a pushover all in all, had tried to opt out of participating in any kind of phone calls with his fellow criminals. And for two years they had almost respected his wishes, but what did it matter anymore when he had the boss of all criminals calling him bi-weekly?
Just as he was about to ring the doorbell again, the door opened, revealing an annoyed Craig who quickly pulled him in, closing the door after him.
“What gives? Why are you snooping around here like that?” Craig was wearing a wifebeater and some sort of working pants, both smeared with something greasy.
“Hi to you too, Craig, thanks for inviting me in.” Ocher snorted. “Listen, I don’t want to take up your time, I came because I really really need my cut from that last burglary. It’s been over a month now, and you’re always so proficient at this whole lucratively selling stuff that I don’t even dare doubt that you’ve already dealt with it and just forgot to tell us. So can I have my share, or at least a part of it, please?” He staged a hopeful smile.
“Sorry, no can do, it’s actually harder than it seemed to sell most of that random crap that was in the boxes. Anyway, I didn’t have the time to deal with this kind of stuff.”
Ocher squinted. “What do you mean ‘this kind of stuff’? This is our important secondary source of income… primary in your case even…” Craig didn’t have a dayjob, and he always praised himself on being ‘a professional thief for a living’, so what had he been doing if not selling their loot? This only fuelled Ocher’s suspicion that their little gang was only one of at least a dozen other wannabe thief gangs that Craig was ‘managing’ and profiting from.
“What’s up with you suddenly having the guts to call me out Ocher?” Craig laughed. “But anyway, let me explain it to you again. It takes a shitload of time to find the right buyers and get the very best prices on all this junk. It takes knowing the right people, and those business relations also take a whole damn lot of time to form and maintain, a real fuckton of time. Choosing the perfect timing and closing deals is not easy, and I toil day and night to get the best of the best deals. So to sum up, appreciate it sucker. You will get your cut once it’s there.”
Ocher gave up, frustrated. “Alright alright, I’m sorry. I hope you know we all really appreciate what you do. Because we do. Our gang wouldn’t exist without you.” He tried his best to placate Craig, and when he saw the man’s expression clear up, he tried again. “So… if the cut is not an option, can you maybe just lend me a hundred bucks? I really need it, will give it back like in no time. Two weeks tops.”
“I don’t know, Ocher. Do I look like a bank? What is going on anyway, what do you need this for now… wait a second… are you gambling?”
“No… no!” Ocher protested vehemently before he could think. “I’m just short on paying my dues…” He watched the light disappear from Craig’s face. Shit! This was the wrong answer.
“Pity. I thought Two Bits got you into poker. That would have been something.” Craig commented, but the short-lived flash of willingness to invest in Ocher disappeared from his face replaced by mild disappointment. Ocher understood what was up; Craig had hoped that he got into poker, and now he and Kat would be able to milk money out of him and Hunter both. In that case of course Craig would be willing to invest a hundred bucks to fuel his addiction, because he’d get his money back quickly, and Ocher would still owe him anyway.
“No, I mean, yeah, actually, Two Bits was mentioning it, and I-”
“Don’t try this on me, Ocher. You already said it’s the dues. I still don’t get it though. What do you mean short? How can you be when they just take a cut of what you bring? You’re not on a fixed amount like Two Bits.”
“Well lo and behold, it turns out that they also have a minimum.”
“Yeah of like a hundred something bucks. Wait, didn’t you like steal anything at all last month?”
Ocher felt defeated, but since it looked like Craig wasn’t borrowing him the money after all, a defiant spark lit in his eyes. “Well we did right… but since I don’t even know what was in those boxes, I couldn’t declare it! This will get us in trouble by the way, we can’t just burgle a house and then hold onto the stuff forever and pretend we didn’t get it the month we did.” He tried to guilt Craig since invoking his pity did not work.
“Don’t go preaching, Ocher, I know my Citizen business. There is a three months grace period to liquidate the stolen goods if we’re using our own channels and not the official fences.”
“But I will get branded if I don’t pay them!” Ocher tried stirring pity again after all.
“Oh please, do you know how many times I heard that from Two Bits? It’s the same old song.”
“It’s a new song for me!” Ocher protested.
“Yeah, sure, I still don’t care, because you know what, you’re a thief, and this is a hundred bucks, you shouldn’t even be having this problem. Also decide if you’re sucking up to me or trying to intimidate me because this is just hilarious in a sad way. Anyway, I have a car to fix, I’m the guy who keeps you all afloat, like you just said yourself, so how about you leave me to what is actually important.”
“Fine. If I die, it’s on you.”
“Hey it’s the first branding if anything, worst case you’ll have a tattoo that you’re too much of a pussy to otherwise get!” Craig mocked him with a smile as he turned to leave.
“Yeah, thanks Craig. I’ve always dreamt about that.”
Well, this did not go too well.
Ocher was coming back home on foot. He needed every dollar, and he refused to pay the price for the bus fare again. He wished he was like Hunter and was able to fish for some wallets while he walked across the town. Where Hunter would already be overflowing with cash and various useless small items, after a two hour walk, Ocher had nothing to show for those ten thousand or more steps, other than calluses on his feet. He just couldn’t muster the courage. He was never a good thief and recently he’d been doubting himself more and more. What if he got caught and arrested? Especially now, when he was the Man’s boyfriend. Would Hector try to bail him or would he just pay someone to shank him in jail, so that he wouldn’t spill any secrets? He just didn’t know.
He returned home and tried calling Hunter, but Hunter wasn’t picking up. Chances were that he still didn’t have a phone at the moment. It was bad. Out of the three days he had to pay up he wasted one day already, and tomorrow after work he had a date with Hector that would probably last late into the evening, so that gave him only one day after that to find the money.
Ocher went to sleep with a sinking feeling of dread.
Almost two weeks had passed since the stressful midsummer. Those were two very relaxing and mostly uneventful weeks. Luke almost felt at peace again. Almost.
El returned to the Rat Trap today after a week-long absence. Luke knew he had other places like this one to be, and perhaps some of them out of town too. Others said there were ways to contact him even when he was gone, but usually that wasn’t needed because they all knew what to do even when he was away.
There was always work to be done, always something that needed to be delivered, sometimes it was a package, other times a message. El had been right, and every single day Luke found himself bumping into people that needed assistance of one kind or another. He was always on a lookout for those in need wherever he went. And it turned out those people really were all around. And now that he could be near them, he learnt to see their problems and help them out when not running errands, or often, even while doing that — like El seemed to be encouraging him to do.
Sometimes all it took was Luke just being there, looking after a child or pet while the other person hurried away to do an errand — he still marvelled that people trusted him, a stranger, to do these things, but it appeared he was building a reputation for himself. Sometimes people came to him, looking to resolve quarrels or helping them divide something in a fair way when they could not figure out how. He was always happy to help with that. A few times he witnessed injustices wrought on the powerless, but other than consoling the injured party he could do little else. Still, his help and kind words were appreciated.
And as if it were a reward for his diligence, he had not seen Wilma and Betty in those two weeks. He sometimes thought that he heard Wilma’s voice while out on the town, but as he hid and then emerged out of hiding, he never actually saw her or Betty. He met Xenia a few times since the midsummer, and she seemed quite friendly despite how miserably he had failed her at the celebration. Luke still felt ashamed about that. But it had been too much for him.
Luke touched the talisman through his shirt, something he learnt to do quite often just to make sure it was still there, that he continued not being a threat to everyone around him. It was there, a small black polished circle lined with fur. But even with it around his neck, he could never be truly at peace. What if he lost it one day? What if it stopped working?
Whenever he closed his eyes, lights danced behind his eyelids. Falling stars, burning barns, bonfires. A sign that warned about trespassing. Luke felt even more keenly now that he should not break the rules, that he should always stay out of trouble. He should curb his curiosity that led him astray so terribly when he was young. And yet… And yet he wondered about his curse. The talisman could subdue it, but how? And what even was the nature of it? Could he break it somehow? For once he had access to someone who knew about these things. And while curiosity was a dangerous thing, it couldn’t hurt to know how to better avoid harming others, could it? Now El was back, and it was a good moment to raise these questions.
He found the small man sitting on a blanket on the blocked staircase, as high up on the mound of rubble as he could climb, biting down on a sandwich and writing something down in a notebook flipped open across his leg. It was just one of El’s notebooks that he had seen the man scribbling in on previous occasions. It was late and only one dim light in the hall was lit, and hardly any of it reached the pile of debris on the staircase. How the small man saw anything in his notes was a mystery.
Luke stood there for a while as El kept writing and eating. He didn’t want to disturb him, so he decided to wait until his host was finished. A few minutes passed in silence.
“Oh, hello there, Luke.” El lifted his head up finally. “Hope you haven’t been standing here for too long. How is it going? I’ve been hearing good things about you. How you put an end to the year-long strife between the families from the Harbour Street, and how you helped the tailor find his little daughter when she strolled away? Impressive. You’ve really got the hang of it fast.”
“Um…” Luke decided to clarify. “Hang of what?”
“Of working with others, making friends, being a part of a community. Helping, reaching out!” El beamed at him, as always radiating positivity. “It’s great progress for someone who has been forced to stay away from people for so long.”
“Oh…” Luke blushed. “It’s not a big deal, I’m glad to help. Always was,” he added quieter. “But thank you. Uh, El, I was wondering if I could have a moment of your time, when you are not busy?” Luke eyed the notebook in El’s hands cautiously.
“Of course.” El smiled and instantly shut the notebook, putting it back into a bundle that lay behind him. “Now is as good a time as ever. Come up here, sit down with me.”
Luke felt a little odd climbing the rubble, but El sat there like it was an ordinary thing to do, so Luke tried to ignore the feeling. In the poor light it almost seemed like there were pieces of bas reliefs among the bricks, and for a moment Luke thought he saw a broken image of a snake on one, but he did not look twice, focusing instead on not dislodging anything. He joined El on the blanket, sitting hunched, afraid to hit his head on the big slates of debris all around them.
“So… I don’t know much about my curse, except what it does and how I got it. But since you gave me the talisman that can subdue it, I was wondering, maybe you know more, maybe you can tell me how I could get rid of it permanently?” Luke studied the small man hopefully.
“Ah, yes, your curse.” El nodded, appreciating the gravity of the topic at hand. “I thought you would ask about that eventually. It is quite puzzling to me as well. I do like to analyze these things, and your case is not something I’ve ever seen before, which naturally makes it even more interesting to try to get to the bottom of. You can make existing plans instantly succeed, set goals be reached. That’s why the Citizens want you back so much. And yet, at the same time, your ability does not exactly grant wishes, it does not work with abstractness either, one could say it is more down to earth that way…” He gave a small snort, growing serious again. “And there is a price to be paid for this, that seems quite random in nature. I feel I’m still missing information. Tell me, who pays the price? Is it the people who make the plans? Is it you? Is there a rule to it? How often do those who succeed thanks to you get to walk away from it?” El was looking at Luke with incredible interest.
Luke felt a bit uneasy under the scrutiny, but then, he came here precisely to have this conversation. He frowned, recollecting in short the countless brutal demises and injuries he had witnessed. “It is usually the people who want something that the bad things happen to, but it can be anyone involved, really. I’ve been a casualty of the curse many times myself, ending up dead or wounded, I have also seen strangers suffer just because they got caught in between.”
“Aha, how interesting…” El nodded and it seemed like he was itching to reach back for one of his notebooks to write things down, but respectfully, he didn’t.
Luke sighed and pulled his knees to his chest. “Except for the Citizens, mostly those women, Wilma and Betty, I have never seen anyone use my curse and walk away completely unscathed. But most of the people it killed were regular civilians, unaware of its threat or even of its promise. Their only fault was that they were striving for something when they found themselves near me. I guess the Citizens survive because they know what they are dealing with, and they have more experience with danger…”
El made some more ponderous sounds. “Hm, I don’t actually think they know what they’re dealing with either. It’s all a bit more complicated. Anyway, what you said would still agree with my musings. I do have a theory. It is all just one far-fetched, educated guess, but what you call your curse strikes me as an unfinished business sort of affair. I think that while its effects might appear random, there is some sort of end goal to it.”
Luke waited in apprehension, and when El did not immediately continue, he pushed himself to ask the question. “What is it?”
El raised one finger in the air. “First of all, let me say I’m not quite sure, so please don’t go hanging on my every word. But destructive as it ends up being, your ability seems to be helpful at its core. My guess is that to get rid of it, you may need to assist something, like an event, or possibly, someone particular. You just haven’t found them yet.”
“So, if I keep helping people, there is a chance I will run into the right person, and the curse will be lifted?” Luke looked to El hopefully. “Is that why you encouraged me to help people?”
El hesitated. “Well… no, I wouldn’t go that far… what you do while you stay here is a different thing. Of course I wouldn’t entirely rule out the possibility of you randomly resolving whatever this is while you’re in my employ, I mean, if it even works that way. But once again, it’s not why I think you should be helping others out. The problem is also that what you call a curse, might not really be a curse per se. And whatever it actually wants you to do, may be beyond our, or at least beyond my comprehension.” El looked at him very attentively again. “You see, Luke, I know a thing or two about stars, and it feels to me like this might be… quite related.”
“It is,” Luke admitted guiltily. “I was struck by a falling star. Because I was too curious.”
The small man frowned. “I think there might be a bit more to it, in fact I think it might have been the opposite even, but like I said, I am not sure yet, of anything really.”
“So I might never truly be rid of this?” Luke felt despair creep into his heart again.
“I’d love to tell you that you will get rid of it, but the truth is, I just don’t know.”
“But you gave me that talisman that cancels it out, how does it do it?”
El shook his head. “I think you’re better off not knowing how it works. At least for the time being. It works and that’s all you need right now. But I promise you, if I find out how to break you free of this once and for all, I will tell you.”
Luke nodded. “Thank you. For at least giving me this much, when I never even hoped for it.”
“You’re welcome. You really are safe now, to yourself and others. And for all it’s worth, I think you are in a good place.” El grinned at him. “This city has a lot of promise to it. Trust me, I should know.”
The thing that was even scarier than pretending to date the mob boss, was pretending to date the mob boss when you knew you owed him money, even indirectly, like Ocher did now. It was a warm evening, and Hector sat right beside him at an outdoors table overlooking a huge open swimming pool and smoked a cigar. He didn’t know about Wyatt’s little problem of course.
The whole Citizen enterprise was a huge operation that transgressed the boundaries of New Coalport, and Ocher was just a tiny gear in that machine. If Hector had not requested to be specifically informed about his doings, then the news would probably never reach him. Ocher could be branded for non-payment, once, twice, maybe even executed, and that would still not be important enough to make it to the Man. Ocher wasn’t sure if he found that relieving or quite the opposite.
Did Hector even care if that happened to him? Had he predicted such a probability and requested to be warned should his pet thief get in trouble? Did Ocher even want him to be getting these kinds of updates? He nursed his beer, looking at the reflections of the villa’s shining windows in the dark surface of the pool.
Hector smoked silently for a while, seemingly also lost in thought. Perhaps he was actually digesting Ocher’s earlier tirade about nannofossils that came as a panicked reaction to a series of compliments the mobster had rained on him. Thankfully, the geology trivia that Ocher spat out as a defense mechanism seemed to always genuinely interest the Man. Or perhaps they didn’t, and Hector was just connecting some final dots and thinking on how to best get rid of Ocher’s body.
Their eyes met, and Hector frowned. Ocher felt suddenly faint as he realized he had lowered his facial defences while thinking and must have let his unease show.
“Is something the matter, darling? You look troubled. What is it? I’m sure I can help.” Hector sat up and leaned towards him, ever the attentive partner… or a vigilant predator. Somehow maybe both.
“A-ah, it’s nothing really,” Ocher lied. Did he want to tell Hector? No, of course he didn’t, he still had a whole day to get out of his hundred bucks predicament. Hector never had to even find out. But now he had to tell him something. “I mean… just stuff. But I don’t want to ruin our evening with it.” He blabbered to gain some time to think on what he actually wanted to say.
“Don’t worry, darling. Whatever it is, I am sure we can figure it out.” The crime boss offered him a reassuring smile.
For some reason his brain was urging him to tell Hector what was going on. One day wasn’t actually that much to find a hundred bucks. And since he was already going to die via this relationship at some point, what harm would it do to assure it wouldn’t be twice preceded with a red-hot poker on skin?
He hadn’t been considering Hector as one of his options, but maybe he should be? Maybe he should just tell Hector about his thieving blunders — he was the Man after all, and the amount of money Ocher owed to his mob enterprise would be a joke to him. It was too early to say he knew Hector, but after all these dates, he sort of, kind of, was maybe starting to guess what to expect of him. And this seemed like one of those issues that could potentially just make Hector laugh and smile. So maybe they really could figure it out. He looked at Hector.
Hector looked back at him expectantly.
No, he shouldn’t. The amount he owed to the Citizens now really wasn’t all that much even for him. Even Craig had laughed at him. It was just that it had been unexpected, and the timing was bad. He would call Hamsi again and this time just ask her outright. Or maybe instead he would pawn his phone, his fridge and whatever else of value he could find. He didn’t know how he would transport his fridge to the pawnshop, but where there was a will, there was a way. Yeah, that also sounded like a valid plan. There was just no need to involve Hector and make things more complicated. He hadn’t planned to involve him anyway.
“Ah, it’s just some family stuff, nothing much to be done about it. So my mom had recently been to an allergist, and she-”
“There’s no need to lie.”
Ocher’s blood ran cold. Hector had never accused him of lying before. Was he slipping up? First Craig catching him lying yesterday and now this… were his nightmares coming true? Ocher knew he wasn’t old enough for a heart attack, but he still felt like he was about to have one.
“Are you in a bit of financial trouble?” Hector locked his eyes with his, looking grave.
That searching gaze was inescapable. Ocher’s own eyes widened. “Yes… A-a t-tiny tiny bit.”
“Did your landlord raise your rent? Or… is it perhaps that our dates interfere with your… side-job? Are you short on your dues?” The Man’s eyebrows rose as he effortlessly pieced it together.
“Yes, y-yes!” Ocher’s heart was pounding, and his hands shook a little, but he squeezed the beer bottle tighter. Hector had managed to both get him caught up in a lie and pinpoint the truth in a matter of seconds. He had to immediately stop this man from thinking and deducing what else he’d been lying about. “Yes, I-I haven’t managed to steal nearly enough last month, and since money is tight, I couldn’t yet afford to pay what turned out to be a monthly minimum, I didn’t even know there was a flat fee like that, and I might borrow the money from my friends, but I know people get branded, and I have only tomorrow to pay up, and it’s just because I didn’t know about this rule, and I just paid my rent and my student loan, and my parents had some expenses last month, and they are relying on me sending them some money, so I took extra hours at work to earn as much as I could… but then I didn’t have the time to go out thieving, and I enjoy our dates so much, but days are only this long, and it’s been really hard to even make ends meet…” he gushed on and on until he was entirely out of breath and slightly teary-eyed from genuine fear — everything to make Hector focus on this and not on unravelling his other lies.
Hector leaned back in his chair and watched him with a sort of bemused sympathy. “Shush, darling, that’s enough, I get it. So that’s what’s been gnawing at you. You should have told me sooner, I would have been glad to lay your worries to rest at once. How much do you need?”
The thief shook his head. Being indebted to Hector on top of everything didn’t sound like a good idea. “No, no, I-I didn’t mean to ask you for money. I’m not like that. I’ll figure it out, I’m just nervous, I mean it’s such an awkward situation, but I should be back on track soon, I just need to go out and do more thieving, that’s all…”
“Ocher, relax,” Hector rumbled affectionately. “It’s admirable that you want to handle this on your own, but what kind of boyfriend would I be if I left you high and dry? But if you want to earn that money, let’s do it your way.” Hector snorted. “It could actually be fun. You are a pickpocket, aren’t you?”
He tried not to look at the mobster like a deer in headlights. He didn’t like where this was going. “I…uh…I… kind of am…? I’m still learning, and it’s mostly in crowds and on packed public transport right before the stop, and I’m still way better at running away with your backpack as you eat your sandwich in a park or leisurely burglaries while you’re away on holidays but yeah… there’s some pickpocketing I do sometimes…”
“Marvellous.” Hector steepled his fingers. “Steal my wallet.”
The thief stared at him unblinkingly.
“Where would you prefer it? Should I put it into my jacket pocket? Outer I assume? I should be walking around, looking elsewhere, and you will just try to reach for it without me noticing? Bump into me perhaps? Oh, this sounds like fun.” Hector got up and rubbed his hands together. “Where do we begin?”
Ocher wanted to scream. This was a fate worse than death. No, no, it wasn’t. It was probably far better than where the evening had been headed before. He didn’t want Hector to give him money, but he wouldn’t be all that opposed to the idea of having that money. Maybe this could actually be fun?
It was the third most nerve-wracking experience since being thrown to his knees in front of Hector in the basement and finding out there was a man inside a sports bag. No matter how hard he tried, stealing anything off of Hector without him noticing proved an impossible task. Despite the favorable darkness outside, and Ocher trying to sneak as hard as he could and not let the stress get the better of him, he couldn’t pickpocket Hector. Even despite the insistent song of cicadas that drowned out the sound of his footsteps, the Man could still tell him coming and always — always — caught him red-handed. The first time it happened Hector grasped him by the arm and, grinning, pulled him into a kiss. Then he let him go, eager to play again.
To Hector it was a fun game, meanwhile Ocher felt like a game animal. Even though he was the one sneaking up on Hector, there was no doubt about who was the prey. His heart beat wildly. Trying to steal from Hector felt impossible, and yet he had to continue trying. The moments when Hector caught him were like the universe was caving in on him. It wasn’t supposed to be happening, and surely not so many times in a row. It was like re-enacting that first nightmare night they met over and over, in perpetuity, only this time with actual kissing. It was absolutely horrible. Ocher would take being drowned in the pool over this. No, he wouldn’t. He wanted to live. He was scared and shaken, but he had to go on.
The bright side to all this was that Hector seemed to be having a great time. He laughed and spun him around, as if they were dancers, sometimes dipping Ocher, sometimes lifting him or just pulling him close. It was almost like a sparring practice with an overly cheerful, careful but inappropriately hands-on instructor over a head taller than you. Each time he caught Ocher, the Man’s amusement grew, and he encouraged the thief to try again in new inventive ways. At least he seemed to enjoy watching Ocher fail over and over and over again and since that was precisely what Ocher specialized in, it meant he would live to see another day.
Finally, when the thief was properly disheveled and heavily out of breath, Hector caught him in his arms one last time and carried him to one of the recliners by the pool. There he sat down and pulled Ocher into his lap.
“I’m afraid you weren’t made for this, darling. Looks like you’d better stick to your minerals and tectonic plates. But it was a valiant effort. Here.” Hector pulled all of the banknotes from his wallet, folded them and stuck them in Ocher’s front jeans pocket. “Let’s pretend you robbed me at hm… gunpoint.”
Ocher felt absolutely alarmed. Both by the fact he was in Hector’s lap and the amount of money that was just tucked into his jeans. “But I-I don’t even have a gun…”
“Of course you do.” Hector took Ocher’s right hand and folded it into a gun, then pointed it at his own forehead. “Oh no, I surrender.” He lifted his hands, making a very poor impression of quaking with fear. “Please, I have a son. Have mercy.”
Ocher watched Hector with disbelief. How was this the man who ruled the city with an iron fist? How was this the man who had people dismembered and tucked into bags? How could a man like this also have the sense of humour he did, how could he be a father, a businessman, and so many other things? Hector masked himself so well Ocher couldn’t even tell if he was toying with him now or if he was being genuinely amused. He could never really tell that, and it scared the life out of him. While he was searching for something to say his shaky gun withered, and Hector laughed even more heartily.
“Thank you, thank you, kind robber!” The Man chuckled, then ruffled Ocher’s hair. “You are too cute.”
The thief suppressed a shudder and fiercely begged to differ. He glanced down at his pocket money and felt majorly uneasy. “This looks like way too much… I don’t owe that much…” Not even a fifth of it by the looks of it. Well, he did now. And he didn’t know what was worse, owing to the Citizens, or to the Man directly. “Can I just take the amount I actually owe? It’s a hundred dollars. And I will give that back to you later too…”
“Forget about it, you just had a very successful robbery. It would be absurd to seek out your victim and return the money, not to mention you could get caught that way,” Hector purred and pulled him closer. “You didn’t have time to do your usual amount of thieving because of me,” he said seriously. “Keep it all, I insist.”
“But… but I wouldn’t even… I don’t think I ever stole something worth this much money…” Ocher looked at the Man in powerless desperation.
Hector tapped him on the nose gently with his index finger. “Oh, you are wrong here. You stole my heart, darling. I am sure the black market would offer much more for that.”
Ocher let out an agonized howl, of course, solely on the inside.
Luke sat alone in the common room. Except having the late night talk with El, he had been running errands and helping around the kitchen from early morning, and as a result felt almost too tired to move now. The television set was on, mostly because Luke couldn’t muster the strength to find the remote. He wasn’t paying much attention to it, but the background noise of the perky advertisements was in a way soothing.
Luke rubbed his eyes tiredly.
“… It’s been over a year now, right?” The talk show host’s warm voice filtered through his thoughts. The man sounded sympathetic and for a moment Luke even felt as if the man was addressing him.
“Yes…” The woman’s voice was deathly tired. Even more tired than Luke felt. He looked up.
Mrs Mance sat with her hands clasped, her elbows on her knees. She was looking at the talk show host as she spoke of her long search for her mysteriously missing husband. Luke shifted, almost ready to run away, as if she could notice him from the other side of the TV screen and try to take him back to David Mance’s family. But then he realized that even if such a thing were possible, it wouldn’t have been a problem now that he had the talisman. Luke clutched onto it instinctively.
Laura Mance looked straight into the camera, and Luke shrunk under her sad, tired gaze. Then the woman was gone, and there were photos of the Mances on the screen, the children laughing, the parents holding them, grinning, then many photos of David Mance: fishing, hugging his wife, holding his young son up beside the Christmas tree. Luke watched them with an intense feeling of shame and guilt. He had stolen this man’s life. He had stolen David from his family.
But he could go back to them now.
Go back and… do what? Pretend that he was the lost husband and father? That he had somehow forgotten who he was? Then what if they tried to treat him? What if they took the talisman away? Luke shook his head. No, he couldn’t go back just like that. Not only did he loathe the idea of lying and pretending, but he could also end up endangering the Mances. He rubbed his stubbled chin and focused again on the TV screen.
Laura was showing the TV host the letter Luke had left before departing. She said it sounded nothing like her husband though a professional had confirmed the handwriting appeared to be his.
“I didn’t know what to think. I’d expected a ransom note to follow, or funds withdrawn from our shared account. I thought David ran away with another woman, or that he had somehow become tangled in crime. I simply didn’t know what else could drive him from us, we were so happy-” The woman’s voice cracked, and she bit her lip, looking away. “I still don’t know what to think. But David, if you are watching this, please, please, come back to us. Janny, Bobby, your parents and mine, all of us, we need you back. I need you.”
She turned her teary eyes towards the camera, and Luke felt an ache in his chest. He hardly knew this woman, but her suffering was so raw, he didn’t need to know any more than that. A part of him wanted to find the remote and switch the program off. But his conscience said no. He was the reason for her suffering so he had to know all about it.
Luke followed his conscience and watched on.
The summer was in its full swing and with just the right amount of sun and breeze the weather was the best that Wyatt had ever seen, and that was something, because New Coalport had amazing weather in general. Everything around was nice and green and it inspired hope that things could get better one day. They weren’t getting better for him personally, but maybe they could, one day. What mattered was that he had paid his dues with Hector’s money, and at least he was still alive. While it was a life of constant fear, it was a form of life nonetheless.
Unfortunately, the visits to the Viteri mansion had become an inseparable part of it by now, and Hector Junior seemed to hate that fact as much as he did. Wyatt felt that if only he could somehow communicate this shared sentiment to his juvenile nemesis, things could improve between them at least a little, because the way they were now, Hector Junior clearly seemed to think that his father’s fan just loved it here. Wyatt didn’t exactly blame him for that. He always arrived at the Viteri mansion so radiant and filled with cheer that there was simply no other way for Junior to interpret it. In a way, that was a good sign because it meant that Wyatt’s disguise was working. But it had its consequences.
Junior hated him with a passion, and whenever he was around — luckily not always, since as Wyatt had found out, the son lived in his own apartment closer to his school, but still too often because the said school was unfortunately out for summer — he did his very best to try and make the time Wyatt spent in their household less pleasurable somehow. But making a living hell less pleasurable was a real challenge, so even though the hateful glares and faces the teen broadcasted at him behind his father’s back were unpleasant, Wyatt found that all in all Junior’s offensive behavior decreased his rock-bottom quality of life and mental health only a little bit.
As long as the kid wasn’t coming at him with a knife or a baseball bat, Wyatt decided to generally ignore Hector Junior’s hostility. In fact, he tried to even be hopeful about the teen. It seemed he had misjudged him, at least a little, because some things just didn’t add up. For the future heir of the criminal empire that Wyatt had assumed him to be, Junior displayed surprisingly little fondness for violence. He didn’t seem overly interested in what his father was doing in the basement, he’d even gone as far as calling it ‘messed up’, and it seemed he really thought so because one time when Hector Sr. began talking his crime business in the same room, Wyatt saw Junior wincing at the man as much as he usually winced at Wyatt. Ever since then the thief became somewhat less afraid of dying by Hector Junior’s hand. Though he still considered that a possibility, just to be on the safe side.
A lot of small observations made over time caused Wyatt to conclude that he was wrong on some other accounts as well. Junior was much taller than him and stood only a few inches shorter than his father, so Wyatt had assumed that he had to be almost twenty. But he turned out to be just sixteen years old. He was still just a boy. And as the first impression caused by his aggressive demeanor and manner of dress wore off, that teenage side really shone through. When he wasn’t being rude to Wyatt, Hector Junior acted like a normal rich kid would. He played his handheld console, he mentioned some sort of girl he liked, he argued with his father. He also loved the Dobermans, fooled around with them and took them out for walks, which was something Hector never had the time for, and which Wyatt really appreciated, because it meant that both the Dobermans and the boy were gone simultaneously.
Sometimes Wyatt saw Junior talking to his father’s secretary and even to other personnel around the house in a surprisingly polite way. It seemed that the teen’s animosity was specifically reserved for Wyatt. It wasn’t much of a cheer-up, but at least it meant there was a possibility that Hector Junior was more of a fairly decent person and less of a bloodthirsty monster. Wyatt still couldn’t be sure but resolved to stay unaffected by Junior’s hatred and find a way somehow make peace with the boy.
And yet despite that resolution sometimes Junior still managed to make him deeply uncomfortable. Just a moment ago while passing the living room the boy had spotted his father and him on the couch together, and when Wyatt made eye contact by accident, the teenager performed some very crude impression of a blowjob by sticking his tongue into his cheek and waving a fist next to his mouth. Wyatt, who still had that ahead of him, felt his stomach turn, and his defensive faggy grin dissolved into a long, blank stare. Hector Sr. was too busy kissing Wyatt’s neck to notice any of that.
A couple hours later that day, Hector had to unexpectedly leave to address some urgent matter. He pecked Wyatt on the cheek and departed, leaving his little domesticated thief free to stay or leave the house as he pleased. After over a dozen meetings, Hector was clearly beginning to treat him like a sort of a family member, and Wyatt wasn’t sure if that was a turn for the better or for the worse. Probably, for the much, much worse.
With no crime boss to pretend in front of, Wyatt was intending to head right out, but when he reached the ground floor, he faced a Cerberus in the form of an angry teenager and two murder dogs, blocking his way.
“Don’t make yourself at home, fag. The novelty will wear off soon enough and one day you will just disappear,” the boy said with a sneer. He patted his leg making Phobos and Deimos stay close to him and slowly lead them away, towards the front door.
Wyatt opened his mouth but didn’t manage to say anything before the boy turned heel on him. Common sense told him to feel angry at the teen’s threat, but somehow he wasn’t. He really knew where Hector Jr. was coming from. The kid didn’t want him here, and Wyatt didn’t want to be here either. Their goals were common. He wished he could tell Junior that, but it would give him away in a heartbeat.
What Hector Jr. just said scared Wyatt, but he was already well familiar with the thought of suddenly disappearing one day, so it didn’t give him a particular pause. He followed right behind the teenager, more afraid of the Dobermans, who weren’t warming up to him too much and had sharp teeth, “Please, Hector, hear me out, I’m just as-”
“Don’t ever call me that!” The boy whipped around furiously. “Only my father calls me that! I am not him!” The Dobermans stood alert, watching the thief menacingly, ready to pounce.
Those did make Wyatt think twice before he took another step, but did not discourage him from trying to talk to the teenager. “Sorry… I’m sorry, I didn’t know… how can I call you then?”
“Zack.” The boy glared, but seemed to calm down a bit. “Call me Zack, if you have to call me anything, Ocher.” Zack turned away and started walking again. The dogs followed.
Wyatt did too. “Wait, Zack, please. Can we talk? I think you assumed a lot of things about me and I-…”
“Oh, no, no, no,” Zack said. “I am not playing this game. Fuck off.”
“What game? I just want to talk…”
Zack turned to glare at him. “Are you deaf? I already told you. I don’t like you. I don’t like a lot of things dad does. And he doesn’t give a shit. So just leave me alone,” he snapped and went out the front door, slamming it closed in front of Wyatt’s face the moment the dogs were out.
Wyatt stared at the closed door for a long time. Then he slid down to the doormat and leaned against a fancy shoe rack. He sat there lost and depressed. He was alone, seemingly free to leave but those were just appearances. In reality he was bound to this place and these people with invisible chains, with the fear of harm befalling his family and the fear of excruciating death. Everyone here was his enemy, nobody understood him, and he could not tell anyone about this.
There was no escape.
And no hope whatsoever.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
The Pharaohs were chilling together in one of their favorite spots behind a defunct distillery. The sun was shining, it was a great day for a ride, and as soon as Sam’s rickety bike started cooperating, they would hit the road. So far it wasn’t, and the club was left waiting. But the short bit of boredom did not get to last.
“Oh my! The sonny boy is back again, starboard,” Tamika reported, pointing with her chin.
Sam leaned to the side to have a better look. So did Josie.
“He’s retreating behind a corner,” she commented. “Aaaand he’s out.”
“He did not expect us to notice him, ha!” Tamika laughed. “Sunlight is treacherous like that sometimes. Should have come by night.”
“Please don’t give him ideas. Sometimes I think we should report his ass to the police just for laughs. A bunch of bikers harassed by a nosy prep,” Yen commented from the ground. He sat beside Sam’s old Frankenstein’s monster of a motorbike, tinkering with yet another part that was about to fall off. He did not care to look at the pesky rich kid, they’ve seen more than enough of him in the last several weeks.
“Maybe if we ignore him, he will just go away,” Josie dared hope.
“But we are ignoring him…” Tamika snorted. “Oh my, he’s back in the picture. He’s heading this way. Lady and gentlemen, this is incredible, he wants to be seen, because he’s on a bike…”
Yen and Josie sat up to have a better look. Sam covered his eyes in a gesture of second-hand embarrassment. Nakhti continued to dispassionately smoke his cig. He didn’t bother sparing the wanna-be biker a single glance.
“Guys, it’s really happening, he’s coming our way. Oh, God, it’s like he’s never done this before. I hope his Daddy is somewhere nearby, filming this. Wouldn’t want to miss the baby’s first steps,” Josie laughed.
Yen stopped tinkering with Sam’s bike and rested his arms on the seat, getting into a comfortable spectator position. “Oooh, let’s rub him into the dirt, guys.”
The shiny new bike with its rich young rider stopped at the entrance to the yard, where the bikers were hanging out, all but Yen seated on a bunch of old crates. Viteri Jr. wore sunglasses and all in all biker clothes, but their designer origins and fresh new state betrayed that every little rip was performed with surgical precision.
“Let’s just not say anything, he’ll make a fool of himself without our help, like the first time,” Yen hissed to the others and pretended to just stare at the sky idly.
Sam shook his head at him. But it was true, so far their stalker did great at embarrassing himself without any assistance.
Josie got busy studying one of the patches on Tamika’s cut-off, muttering some rubbish. The other woman joined her seamlessly, spicing their fake dialogue up with expressive gestures.
Nakhti kept smoking.
Their victim awkwardly walked his motorcycle in their direction, the new shiny Harley rolling cautiously between his spindly legs. It was like a dramatic slow-motion scene. Yen tried hard not to laugh.
“Hi,” Viteri Jr. started smoothly. “I, eh, I’m sorry about the other day. Maybe we could start over. What can I do to join your club?”
No answer. Everybody seemed very busy with what they were doing.
“Uh.” The young man looked a little unsure. “I could be an asset. I’ve had first aid training-”
Yen couldn’t hold it in anymore. He burst out laughing.
The rich kid grew red on the face. “I mean, I’ve aced first aid training. I’m probably going to study to be a doctor, that could come in handy, right?” he blurted out.
“Ey there, are you suggesting we don’t know how to ride our bikes without need of medical attention?” Tamika dropped out of the staged conversation with Josie, and arched an eyebrow at him.
“No, I mean all sorts of things happen! Someone else might not know how to drive their car. Or worse, a truck! And, and-”
“So you’re saying we’re too slow to react?” Josie joined in.
“I mean… I… No, I have… No, but-”
“You have no butt!? Then how are you supposed to ride with us?” Yen almost slid to the ground. “You shouldn’t be a biker, you should be a comedy act!”
The young man on the shiny new bike was growing redder and redder. “Why are you mocking me? I just want to be one of you…”
Nakhti took a last drag on his cig, and slowly breathed out the smoke. He dropped the cig on the ground and stepped on it on his way towards the newcomer. He passed next to snickering Yen, silent Sam and two amused women, and stopped right in front of the biker wanna-be, narrowing his dark eyes. “Listen, kid. This is a closed club, which you’ve already been told, but I am going to assume you are deaf on one ear and repeat it. You’re daddy’s precious boy, living up your pretty highlife. You don’t have what it takes to be one of us. We won’t accept you. So take your shiny new bike, your designer clothes and your childhood dreams, and get out of our sight.”
Junior grew ever redder on the face. “A-alright. If that’s how it is. Cool. Ok. H-have a good day, guys… and ladies…” He walked his bike backwards out of the yard, avoiding eye contact, while Yen howled with laughter at the awkward sight. Watching a rich kid denied and publicly humiliated was one of the small but absolutely precious pleasures in life.
Nakhti turned back towards his bikers. “There. It’s done. He shouldn’t be back for a longer while.”