⚞ ¥ ⚟
“Does the radio have to be so loud, Nana Riley?” Yen gestured dramatically to indicate his displeasure, as he lay sprawling on the couch in the living room.
“Yes, it does. My hearing isn’t that great, Yen.” The old woman leaned closer to the radio. “Now shush, you are interrupting my programming.”
Yen made a very sour face and with some effort turned towards her, hoping to awaken pity in that shriveled old heart, but Nana Riley wasn’t even looking his way, focused entirely on the radio blasting into her ear.
“That was refreshing, wasn’t it, New Coalport? Coming up next, the astrological forecast for the week, but first, your favorite shoutouts block. And as per usual we have a message for Larry from Cordelia — ah, don’t you just love these elderly best friends, or should I even say lovebirds?” The host chortled heartily. “Looks like someone has a reason for celebration. The Locomotives, Larry’s favorite team has won against the Vultures. ‘Congratulations, Larry! Another win for the unstoppable Locomotives! Make sure to savor the celebratory muffins I sent your way with my youngest!’ Isn’t that just lovely, folks?”
Yen groaned. “This is so boring, how can you listen to this? I wouldn’t do it even if they paid me.”
Nana Riley gave him a cold glare. “If you hate the broadcast so much, why don’t you go to another room, boy?”
“But I’m so ill and miserable, and I can’t move. I need some motherly care, a blankie, soup and preferably some peace and quiet.”
“Sam!” Nana Riley yelled. “You spoiled this brat, you tend to him!”
A few moments later Sam’s apron-wearing form appeared in the door to the hall. “Behave.” He gently shook a wooden spoon at Yen.
“Yes, moma.” Yen made a show of sucking his thumb like an infant.
Sam walked over and laid his empty hand on Yen’s forehead. His eyebrows rose. “You’re burning up.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I’ll get you paracetamol.”
“And I still want that blankie!” Yen shouted after Sam, as his nanny headed back to the kitchen.
“I thought you wanted some peace and quiet,” Nana Riley said skeptically.
Yen grinned at her, ready to spurt out a witty response, then burst into an unfortunately genuine coughing fit. So much for not having a carwash shift this weekend.
“Junior, it’s time for your geography lesson.” Hector draped himself over the back of the armchair that Zack occupied.
“Stop calling me that, dad!” the teenager protested. “I hate it when you do that! Especially in front of people! What am I, five?”
“You’re not. But sometimes you act like it.”
Wyatt watched their exchange a bit worriedly. He was quite sure Hector Jr… Zack, would try to avoid the tuition, and that once again he would be left all alone with the kid’s father. He prepared all the materials of course, there were maps and textbooks ready, but Wyatt’s hopes that they would get to come in handy today were not too high.
“I can’t study today, I’m volunteering at the shelter in an hour.”
“I’m sure if you call them and apologize, someone else will be found to clean up after the cats. Your education is more important than some strays, and you’ve avoided this lesson long enough,” Hector pressed. “Don’t forget who pays for your Dr. Dolittle enterprise.”
Zack winced. “Fine. Give me five minutes.”
* * *
Zack dropped into the chair next to Wyatt.
They were in a richly furnished study, not Hector’s, but it was really no surprise there was more than one study in the huge house. All the materials Wyatt brought lay on the desk together with sheets of paper, notebooks and pens. Hector’s cold-blooded secretary had made sure they had all they could possibly need before she departed. Hector himself was gone too, having left to attend a business meeting that was supposed to last into the late hours of the afternoon.
This left Wyatt completely alone with Zack. But that had never helped his desperate attempts at communication before.
“Let’s get this over with,” the teenager said.
“Alright,” Wyatt decided to just try and be professional about it. “Any particular continent you’d like to start with?”
Wyatt looked at him skeptically.
“What? You asked for my preference. What does your gay ass have against Antarctica?”
“There is no capital of Antarctica,” he tried patiently.
“Wow. Australia then. Sydney. Fascinating.”
“Not quite. It’s actually Canberra. Maybe you should give it a chance?”
“Maybe you should go home and never return?”
I’d love nothing more than that, Wyatt thought, but what he said instead was, “Listen, Zack, it wasn’t my idea, but if we’re going to have to do this, we really need to learn to-”
“Blah blah blah.” Zack glared at him. “Go fuck yourself.”
“No, you go fuck yourself!” Wyatt reflected angrily, unable to take any more of this. He regretted his slip up instantly. “I mean, oh God, sorry, I didn’t mean to…” Oh no, he’d just offended Hector Viteri’s son. While he’d only wanted to talk to him, come to terms with him… Now Zack would certainly go and tell his father that his geography tutor told him to go fuck himself, and it wouldn’t matter that it had been Zack who started it. Wyatt’s nerves had been pretty much on edge, but he felt he was going to pay dearly for this. He clutched a textbook to prevent his hands from shaking. His knuckles grew white.
The teenager gaped at him for a moment, flabbergasted. “What the fuck you gonna do, bitch? Hit me with that?!”
Wyatt looked at him in desperation. “No, please, I’m sorry. C-can we just start over?”
“What are you, bipolar?” Zack gaped at him. He stood up. “I’m out of here.”
No, no, no, he screwed it all up, and now Zack was leaving. “Please, Zack, listen to me. I know you’re a decent kid, and I just want to talk to you…” He reached out and gripped onto the teenager’s shirt.
Zack tore away in disgust, violently dusting his shirt. “Keep your faggot hands off of me! You jerk my dad off with those hands, you sick fuck!”
“I don’t! And I don’t ever want to!” Wyatt yelled, and instantly clutched a hand over his mouth, staring at the boy terrified.
Zack stopped and stared back at him. The anger and disgust drained from his face. He looked at Wyatt seriously.
“Please,” Wyatt asked really quietly this time, his eyebrows furrowed. He felt this was going to be that day where he suddenly vanished. “Please, don’t tell your father…”
“What do you mean?” Zack lowered his voice as well. He frowned. “You’re not from the FBI, are you?”
Wyatt’s own voice trembled, as he shook his head and bet his whole life on a single card, “I-I’m not, and I’m not a fan of you dad’s either. It’s some gruesome misunderstanding. I don’t want to be here as much as you want me gone. Please, Zack, just let me explain, I tried to talk to you before but you’d never let me…” Even saying this, Wyatt was already sure he was going to die today, and he was somewhat reconciled with that thought. There were actual tears in his eyes now, and he felt like he was about to faint.
“What the fuck?” Zack looked shocked. “What the actual… Jeez.” All hostility was gone from his expression. He touched a hand to Wyatt’s shoulder, looking concerned. “Do you need a glass of water?”
* * *
Zack stared at the world map on the table. There was silence. Wyatt still clung to his glass, by now completely empty. He was a bit less pale than before, but his hands were still shaky.
“Man, I’m sorry I treated you like shit,” Zack said finally. “Called you names and all.” He turned to Wyatt. “Want some more water?”
Wyatt shook his head, “No, and it’s okay, Zack, I never blamed you. I imagine how it must have felt like. Thank you for talking to me… I-I don’t know what to do. Please don’t be offended… but I have a feeling your dad will kill me, if he ever finds out. That I live only as long as he thinks this is for real… So I play along, but it’s like living a nightmare, and it’s only getting worse. I don’t even know if he knows. I mean… maybe he’s just playing with me. You told me that I’m gonna disappear one day, and I think that’s exactly what’s going to happen and soon…”
Zack rocked back and forth in his chair. Then he got up abruptly. “Man, this isn’t right!” The boy paced around the table and returned to his chair, leaning on the back instead of sitting. “You’re right, he can’t know. He could kill you, if he did.” Zack bit his lip. “I can’t say for sure, but better safe than sorry, right? Damn…” He swayed some more, like he could neither sit, nor stand still.
Wyatt just stared ahead of himself. He was a failure who’d just trusted all his problems to a sixteen-year-old. But even if Zack couldn’t help him, it still felt like a great burden had been lifted off his shoulders. “So you think there’s no escape?” he asked dejectedly. “It’s your dad, so tell me, when it gets to that… will he torture me? Should I kill myself now, or should I wait some more? Or just have the means to do that, like a poison capsule, or something… Will he really kill all my friends and family first? He mentioned he likes to do that, there was a man in a bag with all limbs cut off…” Wyatt had held up bravely all month, in front of Hector and his associates. But he broke down completely in front of this kid today.
Zack stepped closer to Wyatt, gripping him by the shoulders. “Calm down, dude!” He shook him a little for good measure. “I know my dad is a ruthless killer, but you can’t just lie down and die. Chin up, we’ll think of something.” He sat down again, moving closer to Wyatt. “Did he hurt you?”
Wyatt looked at him hopefully. He shook his head. “N-no. Never. He’s been really alright, i-it’s almost like he actually likes me. But it’s terrifying. Each time he touches me, or kisses me… and I have to go on pretending I like it, oh god… And I dread the day when he wants to… you know. I’m not… homosexual, I don’t want any of this. I just want to get out alive…” Suddenly Wyatt’s eyes widened, and he stared at Zack intently. “Zack, do you think if I ran away, moved to another city… no, to another country. I mean… would he go after me and still kill me there?”
Zack’s expression was sour. “Probably, yes.” He patted Wyatt on the shoulder.
Wyatt withered in his chair.
“Listen,” the boy began. “I’m afraid there’s no quick escape here. He won’t buy the sleepwalking story, that is like really hard to believe, so you need to keep lying. If you can keep this up for several months, maybe you could try to pretend you’re slowly losing interest or something. If he really grows to like you, and he’s convinced you won’t turn on us, he might just let you go.”
“That is, if he doesn’t already know I’m faking it…” Wyatt furrowed his eyebrows and fixed his eyes on Zack again. “How does it look like from your perspective? Is he being genuine, or has he seen through it, and it’s just funny to him to watch me digging myself into an early… hole?” He wanted to say, grave, but the kid was just sixteen, and he already put way too much on his shoulders.
Zack looked at him with sympathy. “I’m sorry, but I don’t know. I sure thought this was for real, and he acts like it’s for real too, but… you know, my dad, he’s a weird guy.” He shrugged. “He seems pretty invested in you. I mean…” The boy looked kind of embarrassed, and his face gained some color. He looked sideways. “Maybe he’s just doing this whole thing to show me how open-minded and tolerant he is, he did say something like that, when he first announced he’s gonna be dating a guy. He never seemed to be into dudes before…” Zack hesitated. “Dad seems to think I… might be… a fag… and I guess it’s his way of being supportive…”
Wyatt took a long moment to process that information. Did it mean that by climbing in through Hector’s window he conveniently volunteered to be some strange social experiment? Either way, it was all his fault. He should have treated sleepwalking when he was five years old, he should have done something about his kleptomania, should have never fallen in with the thieves, and this would have never happened. Well, the sleepwalking thing was probably more of his parents’ call, but he would never blame his parents for the mess he was in. Only a moment later what Zack just said really got through to him, and he looked at the teenager absolutely puzzled.
“Wait… what? Why would he think that?”
“Oh, I don’t know. Dads, you know?” Zack shrugged, looking embarrassed. “Anyway, I think he likes you. So let’s work with the assumption he’s not just playing you. Then you can still be saved.”
Wyatt nodded. And sighed. He was starting to pull himself back together. “I’m sorry I dumped all my problems on you like that. But there… there’s just no one else I could tell it to. I didn’t mean to tangle you up in this mess. But he’d never hurt you… right?” Wyatt suddenly had to make sure.
“Oh, no, don’t worry about me. I don’t think there’s anything I could do, that would make him hurt me,” Zack assured him. “Just, please, don’t tell him that I told you to go fuck yourself, or he’ll take away my pocket money.”
Wyatt smiled, and it was his first genuine smile this place had witnessed. “Hah, sure, no problem. You thought I deserved it. I’m sorry too. I also misjudged you. I first thought you’re a killer, like him… You know, the first time he mentioned you was when we were watching a movie with people’s faces melting off, and he said you would have loved it. And then when you got into the car with us, and the first thing you said was that you’re going to murder some guy, Daniels or something, so uh, well…” Wyatt scratched his cheek guiltily.
Zack laughed. “Ah, no. I wish. Life would probably be a lot easier if I could just kill everyone I dislike like Dad does, but I’m not like that. Don’t worry, Wyatt, we’ll figure something out. If Dad goes too touchy-feely, tell him you’re nervous or whatever. I can’t guarantee, but he always seemed to be quite respectful towards the people he likes.”
“Alright…” Wyatt nodded. He felt like he should be writing stuff down. But mostly he felt like he owed this boy. “Thank you, Zack. I hope I can pull this off… and then move out to Antarctica, or maybe some desert, so that you won’t have to see me ever again. That’d be a happy ending for us both, huh?”
“Nah, man, you’re cool. I like you.” Zack patted him on the shoulder again. “Hang on. If anything happens, come to me. If you blow your cover, run to me. Dad won’t hurt you while I’m around.”
Wyatt’s relief was infinite. Of course, if he blew his cover, it could be too late to run anywhere, but this… this was a light at the end of the tunnel. This kid had a good heart. He wondered how that happened, considering who his dad was, but he guessed maybe he would have an opportunity to ask one day. “I… I don’t even know how to thank you, Zack. If you figure out a way I can be of use, please let me know. I’m also really sorry in advance for all my future faggy grins you’ll have to endure.”
“Nah, man, it’s cool-”
There was a knock on the door and Hector walked in. “The meeting ended earlier. How’s geography going?”
Wyatt almost fell off his chair. He looked at Hector paralyzed. He was supposed to give a geography lesson, meanwhile all he’d done was to have a mental breakdown and tell Viteri’s teenage son his sob story. He wasn’t sure how educating that was. And he didn’t know what to tell Hector.
“What did you learn?”
“Lotsa stuff,” Zack beamed at his father. “None of it geographical.”
“Really?” Hector crossed his arms on his chest.
“Well, I did learn that Canberra is the capital of Australia. But mostly we just talked.”
There was a moment of silence. Wyatt held his breath.
“Great,” Hector said with a smile. “It’s good to see you two finally getting along.”
⚞ ¥ ⚟
It was evening, and Yen walked his bike behind Blaise’s house, feeling like a complete loser. Despite the summer heat, there was a thick layer of scarf wrapped around his neck courtesy of Sam, and he didn’t even have the energy to pull it apart. What he wanted most was to crash and lie groaning in his bed. Even the prospect of riding around town with the rest of the Pharaohs seemed unappealing at the moment. But he wasn’t going to let some dumbass cold make him look like a quitter.
“The prodigal son is here. And he’s ready to throw some cash at hot mature men. Where, oh, where can he find one this hour of night?” Yen didn’t even bother knocking and just walked in, narrating his arrival to Blaise’s dark hallway.
He heard the sound of a chair being moved and the creak of the floor upstairs, and soon the priest’s voice reached his ears. “Ah, look who favours the front door again. You are so fickle, Yen.” Father Ivers came down to him, flicking on the lights in his wake. “Welcome back home, son. Though you are not quite as prodigal as you could be.”
“Are you saying I should try harder? I’ll work on that!”
“Please… refrain from doing that. Now, shut the door and come on in. And take off that new fashion development.”
“Yeah, I’m afraid it’s kind of semi-permanent now. It’s got some kind of fisherman knots in the back, I’m afraid I’d lose my arms if I try to undo those.” Yen closed the door and walked towards the priest, but stopped several steps away. “I probably shouldn’t get too close, I got like the Black Death or some such.”
“Hm, it’s influenza, and not even the 1918 Spanish one, which by the way, was not actually Spanish. That said, I’ve seen worse. Come.” He beckoned for Yen to follow and directed his steps to the kitchen. “Sit down.”
Yen dropped on a chair at the kitchen table. He pulled a roll of banknotes from his jeans pocket and set it on the table, watching it unfold like a very expensive flower. “The money’s here. Quite the haul.” He turned to see Blaise wasn’t even looking. “Do you want to count it? I counted it before, but I might not be great at math in my present state.”
“No need. I trust my clients have the common sense not to cut me short even when my courier is not at his best.”
“Aw, so since you don’t need to count the cash, you finally have some time just for me.” Yen made his best goo goo eyes at Blaise.
“Unfortunately not quite, but I might have a quick fix for you, so that at least you can enjoy the rest of your night out. Your current state might be my fault in part anyway, since these moonlight excursions might have you undersleeping. But then again I absolve myself from that guilt, because if you weren’t working for me, I’m sure you would not spend that free nighttime sleeping anyway.”
“What baseless accusations, why of course, I would have been sleeping like a babe! Not sure in whose bed, but that’s beside the point.”
The priest poured a glass of tap water and set it on the table beside Yen.
Yen grabbed the glass and downed it in one go. “Thanks. Say, Daddy, who is that Dollar Bill Gold-Nugget you were banging? He looked like he got lost and needs to be returned to Wall Street.”
“He is my associate. He likes to be called Shaazgai.”
“Shagsguys? Nice nickname.”
“It was a nickname once. Now it’s his surname.”
“He must have shagged a lot of guys!” Yen was impressed. “Also associate… can’t spell that without ‘ate’ and ‘ass’ you know.” He snickered.
Blaise gave him a mild scowl. He took the empty glass and refilled it.
Seeing Blaise bring the glass to the table again, Yen lifted a hand. “Thanks, but I’m hydrated.”
“The previous one wasn’t for you to drink, but I’m glad to hear that. Now, let us see if your arms really do fall off.” The priest made surprisingly quick work of Sam’s fisherman knots and pulled off the scarf-like contraption. He took a step back, and looked at Yen with an entirely serious expression. “Well, looks like they’re still attached. Now, I need more access to your upper body so this goes.” He tugged on Yen’s biker vest. “And this too.” He pointed at the t-shirt under it.
Yen looked up at him in confusion, then began to strip, a sly smirk forming on his face. “I like where this is going.” Yen draped the clothes over the back of the chair. “What next?”
“I remove the disease, and you abstain from commentary the best you can.” Blaise said with a deadpan expression. Then he bowed down, touched his lips to Yen’s temple and breathed in sharply. He repeated the same on the other side of his head and moved lower, sucking in the air on Yen’s neck.
Yen’s right eyebrow arched as high as was physically possible. “Eh… No comments then. Just… uncontrollable laughter.” He delivered on the promise and laughed awkwardly. Blaise had to know he didn’t for one moment believe in any of the kookie hoodoo-voodoo they were selling to the superstitious nutjobs, right? Either way, Yen watched in amused bewilderment as Blaise spat into the glass with quite admirable precision and then not saying anything went back to sucking — this time at Yen’s chest that was vibrating with laughter. Laughter turned into a coughing fit, but Blaise just continued sucking. It lasted a couple of minutes until he spat into the water again. Then, he carried the glass to the sink, poured its contents out and turned the tap on, additionally flushing it all down the drain. He turned to Yen with another poker-face. “Tomorrow there will be no sign of the illness left. You should feel better already.”
“Well, I do feel quite cheerful, so that’s an improvement.” Yen gave the priest an incredulous look. “But I must say I am a bit underwhelmed by the lack of tambourines, dancing, smoke and mirrors. I mean…” Yen trailed off, feeling oddly better. His breathing was lighter, the aches in his limbs had vanished, and he wasn’t sweating like he’d run a marathon. “That’s a… convincing placebo blowjob you just did there, Daddy.”
“You’re welcome.” Something akin to a smirk tugged at the corner of Blaise’s mouth. “As to your disappointment, well, let’s just say I’ve moved past those things. I still find them beneficial sometimes. Just not as crucial.”
“Sure…” Yen drawled, still not buying it in the slightest. He reached for his clothes.
“Before you put these on, how about you show me that tattoo of yours. It’s almost as if you forgot I’ve only ever seen it through the glass, darkly.”
Yen’s face stretched out in surprise. “Damn, you’re right, padre. Check this baby out.” He stood up and twisted around, bending over with his hands on the back of the chair to let Blaise have a very good look. “That’s one big-ass beetle, eh? Hehe, ass-beetle…”
“Mhm…” Blaise sounded somewhat amused. The priest came up closer behind him, and Yen felt the older man’s calloused hand trace a trail on his lower back. Yen’s eyebrows rose, and an anticipatory smirk crawled on his face, but Blaise withdrew. “Well, looks like it’s healing well.”
“Really? I expected more of a reaction, Daddy. Where’s the drama, the outrage?” Yen stood straight and turned to face the priest. “The disapproval? Where is it?”
“You would expect that of a father, wouldn’t you? If that makes you feel at ease, I do in fact disapprove.”
“Phewh, I feel validated now, thanks.”
“Namely, I would argue on the technique.” Blaise clarified. “I am not a fan of the modern means. Electric tattoo guns, pheh.” The disdain was apparent in the priest’s voice.
Yen laughed out in surprise. “Not hardcore enough for you, Daddy? You like the old-school?”
“It’s not just that. I find the use of a machine in such matters insulting.”
“What are you saying, Daddy?”
“I’m saying, I could do better.”
“Ho-ho.” Yen looked at him appreciatively. “Daddy, you’re full of surprises. I’m definitely up for it, and down, and into. Whenever you’re game.”
“I thought you would be.” Blaise looked at him, and in his stern gray eyes there was something that Yen couldn’t read. “Perhaps on some rainy day, when the time is right, and you are ready.”
“I’m ready whenever. So it’s all up to you, Daddy. Free tattoos, I’m not passing this up. But it has to be something cool. Like… Like a skull pierced with nails and they’re painted with blood but like… nails you know, or a snake shooting a gun or-”
“Or something with a meaning.” Blaise cut him short, tiredly. “We’ll get to it. Some day. Now, weren’t you on your way to meet your friends?”
“I… didn’t tell you that.” Yen gave the priest an odd look. “Did the bones tell you that or was it deduction, Father Holmes?”
“Let’s just say it was an educated guess. Now, start getting dressed, Shirt-lack.”
“Oh! You are learning, Daddy.” Yen laughed and pulled his clothes on. “Next time you also gotta make the word-play dirty. But we’re getting there.”
Father Ivers just rolled his eyes.
* * *
Yen rode through the night feeling like he was born again. His sinuses were cleared, his throat and muscles no longer ached. He felt like he could party till dawn and beyond. What ever Blaise must have mixed into that first glass of water was potent. Why didn’t they just sell the drug over the counter? Or was it ground up possum with toadstools? Yen grimaced and decided he was better off not knowing how the sausage is made.
It was probably Sam’s good old paracetamol kicking in at last. Yeah, that was it. Yen snorted at the wacky superstitious nonsense and rode on to his meeting with the Ancient Egypt fanatics.
Ocher was feeling hopeful when he headed out to meet up with Hunter that evening. He made an ally earlier today, and it wasn’t just any ally. It seemed like Hector’s son and him were no longer mortal enemies, he would even risk saying that they ended that geography lesson on quite a friendly note. After an eternity of suffering in silence there was finally someone who knew about his situation, and perhaps it was actually a person in a position to protect him. Run to me if you blow your cover, Hector Junior… no, Zack, had said, and it felt good to have somebody to run to. Not that he was planning on ever blowing his cover. But if he accidentally did, he now had Zack to possibly hide behind. Because Hector wouldn’t kill his own son, would he? Of course not.
Ocher enjoyed coming to this conclusion, and he smiled to himself. He looked at his own reflection in a store window as he waited for the traffic light to change and found that it was a real smile, and not a faggy grin. Several streets further, he was still smiling. Was this how being partially carefree felt? It was a good feeling when a son of the Man became your friend. And it didn’t even matter all that much that Zack hadn’t seen a way out of this mess either, what mattered was that he could stand between him and his father.
And then suddenly Ocher remembered.
Zack’s mother… What happened to her? Hector had her killed, that much was clear. But how, and for what reason exactly? He didn’t know, and he didn’t want to. He needed to have some hope left to latch onto. Still, he couldn’t help but wonder if Zack had been there to see his mother being killed. No, probably not. The teen appeared to still love Hector, and witnessing your father killing your mother was probably not the most bonding experience. But maybe Zack was just a baby when it happened, and he wouldn’t even remember… Suddenly Ocher’s mood was no longer just as good. He kept walking, but the day no longer felt as nice with dark thoughts swirling in his mind.
Those thoughts must have caused him to slow down too, because the chatter of voices behind him grew closer. It was just two women with a stroller. He relaxed. And then tensed again as something snapped into place in his mind. Women seemed to be coming in pairs recently. First, the two women beating up a guy in the alley, then two women at the library, then two women buying produce at the supermarket he went to in order to avoid his local grocery store run by the buck-toothed Citizen, the two women tanking at the gas station… wherever he went, it was always two women, always different two women but always two of them… he looked back again, suddenly scared, and the couple of women behind him stopped and looked at him.
He skipped the nearest bus stop, where he would have had to stop and wait, and got on the bus on the next one, but inside it there were two sets of two women sitting next to each other and now all of them seemed to be looking at him. Ocher hovered next to the door and got out a few stops before Hunter’s apartment building, making the rest of the way on foot. He knew he was just being paranoid right now, but some deep-set and unsettling feeling told him that he felt that way for a reason. There was something about pairs of women always there in his peripheral vision, and he was only now beginning to comprehend it. It kind of felt like a horror movie, and he was glad when Hunter buzzed him in pretty quick.
They were supposed to go out together for a long mentoring session out on the town, to make up for last month when Ocher had no time for that stuff. There was no point to go up, so he just waited in the lobby downstairs. He looked around to while away the few minutes Two Bits typically took to get down. Hunter’s apartment building was really nice and well maintained, unlike his. Which contrasted sharply with Hunter’s actual apartment and his own run-down appearance.
Especially when he stood in all his dishevelled glory beyond the doors of the fancy mirror-strewn elevator. Shrinking in the bright light, Hunter looked like he didn’t belong and knew it too. And next to the nicely dressed old lady who came out of the elevator in front of him, in his oversized jeans jacket and old t-shirt, he really looked like he had to be trespassing.
“Uhm, Mrs Thomson, you dropped something,” Hunter called after the old woman as she passed Ocher. He walked up to her and held out her wallet.
“Goodness!” The old woman looked at her fancy purse in shock. It was so full and overflowing, it was more of a surprise how everything else was still in. She scuttled over to Hunter and gratefully accepted her nice leather wallet. “Thank you, Mr Fitzroy, you are such a wonderful neighbor.”
“No problem, have a good day!” Hunter waved his goodbye. As the old woman went outside, Hunter looked to Ocher. “Did you get that?”
“Um… hey Hunter, I… sort of didn’t.” Ocher smiled apologetically. “Sorry. I know I need to be more attentive. But you’re too good. I need like one of those slow motion documentary nature videos, only about pickpocketing.”
“I’m afraid that would get me arrested,” Hunter said. “And please, don’t film me either. That’d be evidence.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll never be able to afford a camcorder or anything such. At least not if Craig keeps holding all our earnings. Do you have any idea what to do to speed these things up with him?”
“Well, you know how Craig is, always busy. I tried asking for my share, but that didn’t go nowhere.” Hunter shrugged. He tried walking towards the exit, but Ocher did not follow, so Hunter stopped and rubbed his elbow with his hand awkwardly. “You coming, man? Is it like… too hot or too cold out there or something?”
“Uh… no, it’s fine…” Ocher looked at the door, feeling uneasy. He knew his newly realized fear of women coming in even numbers was mostly irrational, and more of a hunch than a proven fact. “Let’s go!” He walked past Hunter and out of the building.
But in the street he still stole furtive glances left and right before he smiled to Hunter.
“So, teacher, where are we going tonight?”
“There’s some sort of food fest downtown, so it seems like a good place to start. Crowds and all that.” Hunter led the way. “And you can watch me work on the bus. And keep on the lookout, of course. Or would you prefer to walk? It’s not that far.”
Getting on the bus cost money so they walked and talked about Craig and his questionable habit of holding onto their shares of a haul for way too long. They passed by some people on the sidewalk, some others passed them by, and Hunter usually had something to show for it. It was great, until two women exited a variety store and started walking behind them with their shopping bags. It was nothing, Ocher kept telling himself, and it really turned out to be just that. The women ended up going one way, and they went another. But then on a crossing he looked to the side and locked eyes with two ladies in a car that waited at the red light, and he froze in the middle of the crosswalk. Hunter went back and tugged on his sleeve as the light was about to change, and as they reached the other side he looked at him confused.
“What’s up, Ocher?”
“Ah, nothing, sorry…”
“You look like you’ve seen a ghost. Like you’re seeing ‘em wherever we go.” Hunter rubbed the back of his neck and studied him. “Is something wrong?”
“No… no… Yes, I don’t know. It’s stupid, it really is, just please don’t mind me.”
“No, but what is it, really?”
Ocher groaned. “Alright… A few months back I saw some ladies kick the living shit out of a guy in an alley, and now I have a feeling that two women are following me. And that they have been for a while. It’s probably just bullshit, and I’m getting myself worked up over nothing.”
Hunter frowned. “Two women? Like in the scary stories about the two Citizen hitwomen that appear out of nowhere and drag you away with them never to be seen again?” Hunter laughed. “Why would the Citizen elite stalk a small-time thief like you? No offense.”
Ocher tripped and almost fell over. He recovered, smiled, and kept walking as if Hunter’s words did not make any particular impression. Because really, why would Citizens ever take an interest in him. But it’s not like he could tell Hunter.
Cyrus Park was packed. People swarmed the trails, crowding the street vendors gathered for the festival, standing in long lines to get their fill of greasy deep-fried carcinogenic goodness. Somewhere in that distracted, cash-wielding sea, two thieves were fishing for wallets and other valuables.
“We’re going to lose them,” Betty said noncommittally and took a bite of her wrap.
“Maybe. But this is a pretty damn good shawarma. Worth it.”
“Why follow them up to here then?”
Wilma shrugged. “We’re just checking up. We got a bit sidetracked with Lucky and haven’t been paying enough attention to the boss’s little plaything for a while. Looks like we didn’t miss much.” She gestured with her own wrap. “He’s up to the usual with his role model, big brother figure.”
“He’ll never be as good.”
“He won’t need to with a sugar daddy.”
“Or if he dies.”
“Another valid possibility.” Wilma nodded gravely. “Those kinds of things happen all the time. A young man in his prime throwing his life away over something stupid. Like a crush. Or whatever other suicidal impulse that chased him up into the boss’s bedroom in the middle of the night.” Wilma looked out into the distance, for a moment following the familiar mess of clay-colored hair. “He could be an out-of-this-world brilliant secret agent making a fantastic job of throwing us off…”
“Or he’s a moron.”
“Yeah. Which is it? We just don’t know.” Wilma slowly shook her head and took another bite.
“Relax, Ocher. Gee, you’re jumping at every four tits you see…” Hunter shook his head and dragged Ocher aside. “You are so over-reacting. I’m sorry I told you about those killer chicks. I don’t even know if they’re real. It’s just a rumor, ok? And why would they ever follow you? If anything they’d be on my tail, I keep being late with my dues.”
Ocher looked at him with horror-stricken misery.
“Calm down. Chill, man, chill. Look, the only two women I’d be suspicious of — if we have to go there — are those two.” Hunter nodded discreetly towards Wilma and Betty, who were sitting at a table at the edge of a terrace.
Ocher relaxed a little. Those were not any of the women he’d been suspecting today. These ones just seemed to be minding their own business and enjoying the festival.
“They’d followed us for like fifteen minutes until we got into the park and have been sitting at that table ever since. If they’d had their eyes on us, one of them would have gone to call the police by now. But they didn’t. And I don’t think it’s because they’re with the mob.” Hunter snorted. “Here, let me show you.” He broke away from Ocher and walked towards the terrace where the women were sitting.
Before Ocher could stop him, Hunter was already far away, so Ocher resorted to watching him with growing suspense while binge-eating his way through the big paper bag of mixed fried wontons they bought with stolen money.
Hunter strolled through the terrace, acting casual, like he was headed for another table, then, as he passed behind Betty’s back, he reached towards the purse slung over the back of her chair. Her hand was on his wrist in a blink of an eye. Ocher watched with sinking horror as a few words were exchanged, and Hunter was freed and hurried on, then trying to act casual walked away from the terrace, made a little loop in the crowd and re-appeared next to him.
“Let’s go rob people somewhere else,” Hunter croaked. His face was ashen.
“Okay.” Ocher said in a very small voice. Unlike some of the other maneuvers Hunter had demonstrated today, he had registered everything that happened right now in excruciating detail, and now he wanted to cry into his food. But instead he just turned around and started walking away. At least that meant that maybe he was still sane and not hallucinating things. And according to what Hunter previously said, perhaps it was just the Citizens. So he had nothing to worry about. Except them retelling everything they saw to Hector, and the Man criticizing him for poor food choices, because the shitty wallet fishing skills he already knew about. Ocher sped up, and so did Hunter.
“She had a gun in that purse…” Hunter muttered.
Yes, everything was just fine.
It was a beautiful, moonlit night, but Luke was not going to check just how clear the skies were. He was coming back to the tenement, exhausted after having helped Claud the baker with cleanup in his shop, and he kept his eyes firmly on the sidewalk.
A motorcycle sped past him, braked hard and turned around, coming to a stop in a badly lit patch of the road opposite to him. Luke froze, stopping in the light of a streetlamp he was just passing under. He peered onto the road intently. The biker did not crash into anything or fall off his vehicle, so this wasn’t an accident caused by Luke’s curse. But then what was this? Luke grew apprehensive. He knew there were private eyes and bounty hunters looking for him across the States. What if this was one of them? Or yet another Citizen? Standing in the light, he didn’t see the biker too well, and he felt way too exposed. He started moving back into the shadows.
“The beast got you too? How come I never saw you around before?” The biker called to him from the darkness.
“E-excuse me, I don’t understand.” Luke squinted, trying to see the man better. “Do I know you?”
“You’re trapped here, like me. How long since you died?”
Luke perked up, the dying part finally rang a bell. “Do you know something about my star curse? Can you help me get rid of it? I just want to be a normal human being again.”
“Get rid of it? A normal human being? Did you hit too hard and lose your mind?” The man sounded angry. “Just look around! It’s all fake. We’re dead and buried, and if you think otherwise, you’re just lying to yourself.”
“If you cannot help me, maybe I can help you?” Luke asked timidly.
The biker just laughed. “Only if you can make me forget like you seem to have.”
Luke did not know what to say to that.
There was a silence on the other side of the street too. Finally the other man’s voice crossed the road again. “Thought so.” The biker turned on the ignition. “Well, enjoy this nightmare then. As much as you think you can.”
The strange man rode off into the dark, and Luke found himself at the center of attention for the few late night passersby. Not wanting to make a scene or attract attention further, he bowed his head and hurried into a bystreet.
If the biker suffered from the same curse, or something akin to it, he did not seem to have a solution for it. Luke felt sorry for the man but also relieved that he was gone. There had been something disturbing about him.
And yet no matter how hard he tried, Luke couldn’t put a finger on it.