Chapter 15

Bugs and Circus

⚞⚿⚟

The telephone rang. Once. Twice.

Wyatt did not move. Hector had already called to check up on him. How many times could one criminal call to ask if you were alright? He wasn’t going to indulge Hector by picking up the phone again. He didn’t feel like it. He didn’t feel like anything. It wasn’t like he could talk to Hector about how he really felt anyway. And not just because these were not the kind of things that he could say on the phone.

The answering machine went off.

“Hi, this is Zack. I hope this is Wyatt’s place. I heard about what happened. If you want to talk-”

Alright, that was the criminal’s son, it was different. “Hi, Zack,” Wyatt picked up the phone.

“Oh, you’re here… How are you holding up, man?”

Wyatt sighed. “I really don’t know. But thanks for giving a damn.”

“Hey, I could come over, we could talk. I… I know exactly what it’s like, or well, more or less. I’d invite you over, but… I’d rather meet at your place. Can I come?”

“Today?”

“Yeah. I’m in town. I’ve got your address. I could bring food. I could try to get beer, too.”

Wyatt smiled. Zack’s voice in the receiver was uplifting. He guessed he wouldn’t mind seeing the teen one on one again. Talking to Zack that one time had given him a lot of strength to go on. “Eh, alright, just give me an hour or so. My place is a mess…”

“Not bigger than mine,” the boy laughed. “Alright, see you soon.”

⚞Z⚟

“Stupid booze laws. I could have beer in the school cafeteria in Germany. Old world, my ass. Bah.” Zack grumbled as he carried two boxes of pizza, but no beer down the street to Wyatt’s apartment. The hillbilly clerk at the grocery store closest to Wyatt’s place had been adamant about seeing his ID, and Zack wasn’t going to run around town with the pizzas, looking for someone less scrupulous.

He looked for the house number, then froze realizing there were two entrances to the same apartment building.

“Huh.”

Zack looked around, trying to make an informed decision. Or spot a payphone. Instead, he noticed two familiar faces in a car parked nearby. Or well, they didn’t actually look familiar, but there were two of them, and they were female and staring at him.

Zack walked over and grinned as the woman at the wheel rolled the car window down. “Hey, Wilma, hey, Betty! Spying on Wyatt for Dad, huh?”

“Ah, you caught us. Just making sure he’s not getting in trouble, but yes.” Wilma grinned back at him.

Betty nodded.

“Cool. Which one of those entrances will actually get me to his place?” Zack nodded back towards the building.

“Left,” Betty said.

“Thanks.” Zack grinned and turned to leave.

”A-a, not so fast.” Wilma’s voice stopped him. “What are you doing here, kiddo?”

“What, am I not allowed to hang out with my prospective…” Zack cringed. “Step-dad?” His grimace was genuine. But he’d rather have Wyatt be that than deceased. “Dad told me what happened. I’m here to cheer Wyatt up. But that righteous moonshiner over there won’t sell me beer. Hey, would one of you be so kind and get a few cold ones for Wyatt and me?” Zack made puppy eyes at the two women.

The women exchanged amused looks, Wilma snickered, then nodded to Betty and the quiet one got out of the car and walked away in the direction of the store. She didn’t even ask which one. Zack made a mental note of it. Suspicious.

“So, Zack, how’s the music thing going? You haven’t invited us to a concert since your… twelfth birthday or so.” Wilma made a sad expression.

“It’s on and off. I’ve been trying to prepare for ‘a real job’ as Dad likes to put it. Med school. I’d rather treat pets, though, maybe we can compromise.” Zack shrugged. “I’ve been poking at a few synth pieces on and off.” His voice went lower and got conspiratorial. “I’m now working on a song ‘Fly Me To The Stars on Your Motorbike Mister’. It’s an instrumental.”

“Oh?” Wilma arched an eyebrow. “That wouldn’t by any chance be related to those bikers you’ve been stalking?”

“Are you spying on me or Wyatt?” Zack looked momentarily displeased. “But yes, it’s related to them. One of them.” Zack’s expression cleared up, and he sighed dreamily, staring into the distance.

“Hope it’s not the Asian one. He was whoring himself in the seventies, that’s potentially a whole encyclopedia of STDs.”

“What? No, it’s not him…” Zack grimaced.

“Well then, can’t be the short nerd, so that leaves us with the club leader, hm?”

“Jesus, do you spy on everyone?!” Zack said in outrage, then leaned in closer. “Seriously, do you?”

She smiled, not denying. “But rest assured that we only share with your father what he absolutely needs to know.” 

“Great.” Zack said through clenched teeth.

“He’s just looking out for you, kiddo. Doesn’t want you to get involved with drug-dealers. But we checked them, they don’t deal.”

“Thanks,” Zack said without enthusiasm. 

“The club leader uses though, not a junkie, but still, careful there.”

“Sheesh. Don’t tell Dad about the song then, please. And the motorcycle in the title is not a euphemism. I’m waiting for marriage, yadda yadda. Ugh, what’s a teen gotta do to have a private life around here?”

“Defeat us in one on one combat.” Wilma grinned. “And to make that a bit easier, we’d be happy to give you some lessons again, you know.”

“And I am always eager to learn.” Zack bowed his head. “It’s always good to have-”

“Beer.” Betty materialized beside him with a four pack of beer.

Zack jumped, but managed not to drop the pizzas. “Geez, just don’t sneak up on me, please. If I ever need ninja lessons, I will know who to call. Eesh.” He took the beers from her and then added, a bit awkwardly. “Thanks. Uh, how much?”

“It’s on us.” Betty got back into the car and resumed watching the street.

Zack smiled. The two of them were messed up, but alright. He nodded to them. “Ok, ladies, I gotta go before the pizzas grow cold. You have uh… fun.”

⚞⚿⚟

One hour turned out to be far too little. All Wyatt had managed to do was to wash the dishes, air the room and tuck his clothes back into the drawers. Well, that and kick the awkward assembly of keys even deeper under the bed.

“I take that back. This is a bigger mess. Hoowee, is this a matchbox or an apartment?” Zack handed the boxes with pizza and beer bottles to Wyatt’s and dove into his humble lodgings like a child adventurer in the Amazon jungle. It took him just a few strides to cross the tiny tiled kitchen area and wind up in the bedroom that started right after without any wall or door whatsoever. The bedroom concluded the apartment with a window overlooking the street. It was the only window.

“What the fuck are all these?” Zack poked Wyatt’s collection of hourglasses. “What the fuck is that?” He pointed to the shelf with some textbooks and minerals. “Eh… please, don’t tell Dad I swore so much?”

“I won’t.” Wyatt smiled, looking worn. “And well, it’s just my stuff. I’ve warned you…” He said, following Zack into the room. “As you see this place is, well, not really suited for guests. How about we sit in my kitchen… thing?” He pointed back with his chin and went back there, setting the armful of pizzas and beers on the single square counter space next to the kitchen sink. He stacked them up, but they still took up the entire available surface.

He saw the boy standing in the kitchen area looking slightly confused. Right. There were no chairs. “Hang on a sec.” He brushed past Zack back towards the entrance and pulled two folded wooden chairs and a tiny folded table out from an awkward storage closet that neighbored the tiniest bathroom the world had ever seen. He dragged them into the kitchen. Once they were up the way to the bedroom became fully blocked.

Zack watched his struggles with amazement. “Wow, you’re lucky Dad doesn’t know you live in such a dump! He’d have you move in with him or something.”

“Oh god, please no…” Wyatt shuddered at the thought. “Here, have a seat.” He motioned proudly towards the chairs, and when Zack took his place, he went to rummage in the cupboards above the sink. He pulled out two plates and then peeked into the first pizza box. “M, pepperoni. A-a-and,” he looked into the other one and made a quizzical expression. “Whatever that is. Smells good!”

“That’s pizza with meatballs. So Italiano! Dad keeps saying I’m a growing boy, I need to have a protein-rich diet, so there it is! It’s very tasty too, but I thought you might want something less weird. Thus the pepperoni.” Zack grinned. “But treat yourself to whichever you like!”

“I thought any pizza was generally as Italian as it gets.” Wyatt got a bottle opener out of some camouflaged little drawer and opened their beers. Then he finally dropped into the other chair.

“Uh, I dunno, they advertise it as very Italian. But I’m not an expert on Italy. I mean, we’ve got the roots and all, but for the most part, Dad and me, we’re both pretty damn American.” Zack picked a slice of pizza and got right to business. “I am quite the expert on pizza, though. Especially the eating part.”

Wyatt took a slice of each. “Mhm, me too. But I think we buy different… brands.” He usually ate the cheapest pizzas he could find. “It’sh really good though,” he said with his mouth full.

“That’sh what I like to hear,” Zack replied.

The pizzas waned to the sound of delighted munching. The beer bottles were growing lighter by the minute. Wyatt liked how normal this felt. He needed a sense of normalcy after the basement episode. He needed it after the whole last two months. To think he’d suspected this kid would kill him before his father would… and now they were sitting here eating pizza. Wyatt smiled. He felt weary of his life the way it had been these days, but this was nice.

“Ah, it probably pays to tell you why I wanted to meet at your place.” Zack took a break from eating. “My apartment might be bugged. Dad lets me bring anyone I want there, throw parties and all, but I am not supposed to talk of anything even remotely shady there. His house is his fortress, but my place, well, it’s more of a public area. And I am the son of the richest man in the city.” Zack gave a small ‘I can’t help being myself’ shrug. “I don’t think anyone would’ve infiltrated your place, though.” He smiled. Then his smile faltered. He looked at the window, then pressed a finger to his lips and looked at Wyatt with a haunted expression, shaking his head. Then he continued in a light-hearted tone even though his expression was anything but. “Anyway, all that pizza and beer is getting me in the mood for dessert. How about we go get ice cream? I know an awesome place. Unless of course you got some at home already.” Zack shook his head, indicating what kind of response he needed.

Wyatt allowed himself a panicked look, but replied in a smooth and steady voice, “I don’t have any, but that sounds great. I haven’t had ice cream in forever.”

“Cool, let’s go then.”

They dressed in silence, casting uneasy glances at each other. Before Wyatt put on his jacket, he checked it for… he wasn’t even entirely sure what, but there didn’t seem to be anything there. He had absolutely no idea where the technology was at this point with bugs and these kinds of things, were they on the James Bond level? The Batcave level? Probably not yet… The quiet lasted until they were on the stairs of the apartment building, where Wyatt looked around and whispered, “Do you think my place is bugged then?”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Zack whispered back. “But we’re better off assuming it is. I don’t imagine anyone bugged the stairs. But let’s be careful until we get to the ice cream place. That one should be safe. Even if anyone tried eavesdropping on us, it’s too crowded and noisy to overhear anything. It should be safe.” The teenager sighed. “Oh man, I’m sorry. Now you’re in this too. Bugs, suits, the whole shebang.”

“I mean… I was kind of afraid of that even before. I think… I think there’s someone following me. Two ladies to be specific…”

“Oh yeah, I met them outside, Betty got us the beers. That’s what got me thinking about your place being bugged. It could be, by them.”

“Betty…?” Wyatt stared at him. It was somehow surreal to find out these people had names.

“Yeah, and Wilma.”

“Wait a second, you know them? I mean… Right… of course you know them.”

“Yeah, it’s not like I could avoid knowing them… I’ll tell you more when we get to the place. I kind of wanted to talk about it anyway…”

They entered the hall of the apartment building and fell silent, then kept quiet as they walked out and headed down the street. Zack made a show of turning and waving to the women in the car. He turned to Wyatt, who was doing his best to walk by his side like nothing was the matter.

“Don’t worry about them knowing that we left because we think the place is bugged. They’ll think it was my initiative. I just found out they were spying on some people I know, so it would make sense I would rebel at the thought of bugs,” Zack spoke casually, like this was everyday stuff for him. Which it… probably was. 

Wyatt found some relief in that. But now that they were out in the street and hopefully out of the range of listening devices, he did not fully share Zack’s calm. “But what if we said something before we got the idea they might be listening? What… what about me hating the idea of moving in with… your dad?”

“Hm, well, it’s also reasonable to freak out if things are moving too fast. Plus, with the recent events… I think you’re in the clear.”

“I hope so… and what am I supposed to do about these two next time? Pretend I don’t notice them? Also wave to them?”

“Best probably to ignore them. I kind of grew up around them. They’re always tailing people Dad wants to know about. Don’t think about it too much.” Zack shrugged.

It was hard not to think too much about Betty and Wilma who have been in his peripheral vision for the last two months. Wait a second…

“Betty and Wilma… isn’t that like from-”

“The Flintstones? Yeah. I don’t think those are actually their names, I think they were inspired by a guy called Barney who also works for Dad.”

“Yeah… unfortunately I met him, it’s basically why I’m here. He managed to tell me who your dad really was like two minutes in, which got me cast into the dungeon, I mean, basement.” Wyatt muttered, shuddering.

“Typical Barney.” Zack shook his head. 

“Typical? I mean… it doesn’t seem safe for your dad to have someone like that working for him, why is he even employed there?”

“He’s Dad’s old war buddy. He’s… kind of not the sharpest tool in the shed, but he’s very loyal. And a decent guy overall. I think Dad keeps him around more out of friendship than practicality.” Zack shrugged. “It’s a cutthroat business. Good to have a guy around you can turn your back on.”

“It is…” Wyatt admitted, and looked at Zack guiltily. “But I’m sorry you had to become mine.”

“No problem, man. So where were we before we had to skedaddle outside?”

“Uh… you were saying you wanted to meet at my place because yours could be bugged… where is your place by the way? I mean… if you don’t mind me knowing where I can run to.”

“Oh sure, actually, I should also give you my number. But if you ever call, please, try not to say anything… too literal. The suits could be listening. My place is at the corner of Oaks and Sterling. It’s the brick building with the flower shop and the fancy pet supplies store. Unit forty five, last floor. Tell the concierge you’re there to see Zack. He’ll remember you after the first time.”

“Okay, thanks so much.” Wyatt nodded, repeating the address in his head a few times until he memorized.

When they got there, the ice cream place was packed, and there was a line outside. But the moment a waitress spotted Zack at the end of the line, she darted out and chirped “Reservation for two? Zack? Please, come this way!” leading them inside before Zack had the time to respond. The waitress swerved between the tables, looking where to seat them since none were actually vacant, then rushed to a couple who was just leaving and swept their glass cups onto a tray.

“What a pleasure to have you, please, get yourselves comfortable, I will be with you in a moment!” She conjured some menus and set them fancily on the table.

Before she managed to turn away, Zack called out. “Miss, could we please get us that table in the corner as soon as it frees up?” He pointed his desired table out.

“Oh, absolutely! Can I get you something meanwhile? Drinks?”

Zack looked to Wyatt questioningly.

“Water?” Wyatt responded in a panic.

“Really? It’s on me, go for something nice, like a frappe or hot chocolate something.” Zack turned to the waitress, “I’ll have a Dr Pepper float for now,” he said and sat down.

The waitress looked at Wyatt.

“Um… In this case, a cappuccino please.”

“Perfect.” She nodded and zoomed away.

“She’ll have the table for us in a few. This one isn’t too bad, but too crowded. I like the view there better.” Zack seemed to be entirely in his element.

Wyatt was in the exact opposite of that right now as something occurred to him. “Why is she treating us this way? Does she… know who you are?” He had been afraid of the day he would be seen in public with Hector, because what if someone snapped a photo, and published it somewhere or used it for some malicious purpose? But he didn’t even think that being seen with Zack could result in that as well. Of course it could, this was Hector Viteri’s son, he felt like such an idiot… And Hector hadn’t even made up his mind about whether or not he wanted to be seen with Wyatt yet, so surely he wouldn’t be happy if a connection was drawn this way. Still, it probably wasn’t too bad to be here with Zack, but Wyatt hated himself for not thinking about the consequences.

“Don’t worry, they only know I tip well.” Zack snorted. “I mean, think about it, you probably heard about my dad before, but I bet you ten bucks, you never heard about me, outside the fact that I exist. Dad keeps it that way.”

“Right.” Wyatt felt much better at once. “I actually didn’t know you existed at all…”

Zack chuckled. “That’s what I like to hear. Now, you might want to give that menu a good look. I know what I’m ordering, and again, it’s my treat, so go wild, man.”

Wyatt spent a few minutes just reading through the list of flavors and toppings, and by the time he made up his mind, their drinks had arrived, and they’d been moved to their new table. Zack took the seat with his back to the wall and surveyed the room. When their desserts were brought to them, and the waitress left, the teen leaned in closer and gestured for Wyatt to do the same.

“The coast is clear. They won’t bother us for a while now. We can talk. Just keep it down. No one can see your face the way we’re sitting, so don’t worry about that.” Zack studied the room behind Wyatt’s back. “In fact you should not be visible from the street at all. If anyone tried to spy on us, they’d get very little out of it.” The boy’s face grew serious. “How’re you holding up, man?”

Wyatt felt the cheer of life caused by ordering a cup of ice cream seep out of him. They came here specifically to have a conversation they couldn’t have elsewhere — this very conversation — but he didn’t know if he wanted to have it anymore. He put his spoon back into the ice cream and looked at Zack tiredely. “I don’t really know. I just try not to think about it. I mean you said you heard what happened… but do you really know? I don’t want to freak you out if you actually don’t.”

“Oh, yeah, trust me, I know. Been there, done that.” The teenager smiled sadly.

Wyatt looked at Zack, gathering his thoughts. This boy really didn’t have to be there for him, didn’t have to be doing this to help him. But he was here, ready to listen to him and help him through this. Wyatt sighed. Alright then… “Yeah, after I said I can’t do it, he told me I’m like you, too soft. And I mean no offence, I’m glad to know you’re soft, because you sure don’t look the part…. You’re a really nice kid, Zack. But how did you manage to grow up into… a decent, normal person with him around?”

“Heh, thanks, I guess.” Zack ate a spoonful of ice cream, then just poked at his banana split as he looked at Wyatt and the room in turns. “You know, as parents go, my dad’s great. Always been. Growing up, I had no idea what he did. He always loved morbid jokes, but, you know how it is with dad jokes, and he’s a Nam vet, so I never thought twice of it.” Zack shrugged, looking at the table for a change. “We’ve always been very close, with mom gone and all… Things went downhill only when he decided I was grown up enough, and he let me in on everything, hoping I’d pick up the mantle.” Zack’s expression darkened.

“How… did that go?” Wyatt asked, not just because the morbid curiosity compelled him, but because it was comforting to know that someone had a similar experience. He wished neither of them had had that experience, but it was too late for that.

“Well, like he said, I was too soft.” Zack sighed. “He took me to the basement one day, saying he’d show me how he made a living. I thought, wow, are we smugglers? That’s hella illegal.” Zack snorted, giving Wyatt a bitter smile. “The dogs went with us, but they often just tag along, they’re guard dogs after all. And then Dad showed me that prison under our home. I still have nightmares of that place.” The teenager frowned. “He sicced the dogs on a man and had me watch. I… don’t remember much. I just stared at the floor.” Zack rubbed the back of his neck and looked away for a while. “Dad said I was going to inherit that business. And I thought he was going to kill me, cause, Hell, I could never do that. My whole life just… went crashing down. For weeks I lived in fear. Finally, I lost it and told him I couldn’t do it, that it was monstrous. He didn’t kill me, as you can very well see.” Zack gestured towards himself. “He wasn’t even angry. He tried to sweet-talk me into it, but in the end he just let it go. By now things are almost back to how they used to be… except me, well, moving out to my own place…” The teen fell silent for a longer while and got busy with his ice cream.

Meanwhile, Wyatt forgot about his ice cream altogether. It did sound familiar. Hector had even tried to sweet-talk him into this as well, though in reverse order. Generally, after what Hector had said back then, he expected Zack had a similar story to tell, but he never imagined the kid would actually open up and tell it. Before their life-changing geography lesson Wyatt had assumed that Zack lived alone because he was flaunting his wealth and status. He’d been so wrong. And now he knew. “That’s horrible… so you thought that your own dad would…”

“Yeah…” Zack frowned at the table. “For a while I thought my whole life was a lie, that he just pretended to be normal with me before. But no. This is just… how Dad is. He picks a few people that he holds dear and everyone else is fair game. After I made it clear that I would not take part in anything and only wouldn’t call the cops on him, cause he’s my dad, he respected my decision.”

“I see.” Wyatt hung his head a bit. His situation was both really similar and different entirely. He wasn’t family. Even if he currently enjoyed the status of one of those people Hector picked to hold dear at the moment, it was based on a lie. And when that lie got out, he’d be fair game at first and dead soon after.

“Hey, Wyatt.” Zack patted him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry. It’s actually for the better that he pulled the same shit on you. Now he’s guilt tripping something fierce. You should use it. I used my basement guilt trip to get out of some ridiculous career options he kept coming up with. You could try to set some ground rules.”

“You really think so?”

“Yeah!”

The thief sighed. “Well, I suppose I did already. He at least promised not to feed his dogs in front of me. I guess it’s good to know he’s not planning to off me just yet for being, uh, a wimp.” He rubbed his eyes then, as if that would help him get the image of that broken man in the basement out of his head. Then he just stared at the table.

“He fed the dogs in front of you?! Oh, man, geez!” Zack hissed and slammed a fist on the table. “Oops, sorry… I mean, the fuck? I’ll give him a piece of my mind. Fucking Romeo my ass, what the ever-loving fuck…”

Wyatt never expected that a yearly norm of swear-words would be delivered to his ears by a sixteen-year-old boy in an ice cream place. He looked at Zack guiltily. “It’s because of this ‘greatest fan’ thing. When I was trying to get out alive back in the beginning, I was so panicked I made up some really stupid shit about how I admire what he does. I hardly remember what I said, but I’m afraid he remembered it word for word. And now it’s turning out I’m not as much of a fan as he thought I was and I… I just hope he won’t figure it out or…” Wyatt swiped a finger across his neck with a sour expression.

“Oh, come on, you had no chance of knowing what things look like on the inside, pretty much nobody does, Dad keeps it that way. I was watching him since we talked, and I don’t think he’s onto you at all. And he feels like, really bad now. He even talked to me about it.”

Wyatt looked at him suddenly hopeful. “Do you think I could actually use this to… stop seeing him?”

“For a while maybe… As for the long term, it’s probably too early for now.” The boy looked at him with sympathy.

Wyatt felt his shoulders sag, but at the same time tension seeped away from them. It was a funny feeling. He nodded, all in all relieved. “Zack, I want you to know I’m really, really, really grateful for your support. Damn, I think if not for you I would have lost all hope by now. You basically saved me, and I mean it.” He looked at Zack in all seriousness.

“No worries, man.” Zack looked a little embarrassed.

“Is there anything I can do to thank you? Because I’d really like to return the favour. Seriously, anything at all, just ask me, and I’m on it.” It was safe to say that, since he already knew Zack and crime did not get along.

“No, thanks. I’ve got everything I want…” The boy thought for a moment.. “Well, there’s… Nah… Nah, there’s nothing.”

Wyatt raised his eyebrows. “Doesn’t sound like nothing to me. So…?”

“Eh… Well, there’s this motorcycle club… The Pharaohs…”

“Aha…?”

“They won’t let me join… They think I’m a rich kid, and well, fuck, I am.” Zack spread out his arms, indicating their current situation. “But… You know me a bit, I’m not a spoiled little shit, I wish they’d give me a chance. Do you maybe know someone who could introduce me to a member of their club? Anyone they wouldn’t pin as a yuppie?” Zack mumbled.

Aha. Now Wyatt finally understood why Hector would suspect his son of certain inclinations. But that didn’t matter. Zack was helping him, and he wanted to do something for him in return. “Hm, not a yuppie you say. I don’t look like one, do I?”

Zack frowned, clearly not sure where this was going. “No…”

Wyatt looked at him smugly. “You see, I actually happen to work across the street with one of them. He works in a carwash. I never really talked to him but whatever. You’ll tell me more and I’ll go to them, see what I can do. But, Zack… that is a gay biker club, you know that, right…?”

Zack’s face grew red. “I know.”

“And you want to join them because…?” Wyatt raised his eyebrows and made a forward motion with his hand in gentle encouragement.

The teenager shifted nervously. “Ok, yes, I’m a faggot,” he blurted out very quietly.

The thief crossed his arms on his chest and pouted. “Well thanks for all the gay bashing then, hypocrite much?”

Zack smiled at him guiltily.

Wyatt smirked and drank his melted ice cream.

* * *

Finding the Pharaohs was going to be the easiest part, or so Wyatt thought. After work, the skinny carwash guy from across the street always put on his cut-off and hopped on his bike, and most of the time he took the same route back downtown, heading — presumably — to some meeting place of his club. Wyatt plotted to use that knowledge to his advantage. He finished his shift earlier than the other guy, so by the time the biker headed out, Wyatt was already lying in wait. Or well, sitting in wait. And not just anywhere — he waited inside a cab and cunningly, he had the driver tail the biker through the city. It felt like he was in a gangster movie. But why the heck not? His life had already turned into one of those.

And yet it turned out that not everyone was ready to be starring in an action movie. The carwash guy maneuvered between the cars, and the taxi driver lost sight of him several minutes in. As a result they spent the next quarter of an hour driving around the area, searching for the more or less familiar bike. It was probably sheer luck that they finally found it, standing in front of a diner, parked next to four others. Wyatt paid up — he was still ‘rich’ after Hector’s generous handout — and got out of the cab. 

He stood on the sidewalk in front of the diner for a while, watching the bikers through the window and mustering courage. They looked to be around his age. Yeah, he could do it. He dated the Man. He saw a person getting shot in the head. He also pretended to be gay for over two months, so by now he probably subconsciously internalized some of the moral values the Pharaohs represented. Yeah, he could talk to those guys. 

Wyatt entered the diner, heading straight for the bikers. He strolled down the aisle between the booths on his right and the line of bar stools on the left like a sheriff ready for the final showdown with the bandit menace. He opened his mouth, ready to speak words loud and clear, but suddenly found himself sitting in one of the booths, with his back on the bikers. It was a strategic place, his mind advised. A perfect spot to overhear what they were talking about. Which in turn would allow him to… choose the right moment? Yeah. He was lucky that the booth was empty. That no one else seemed to want to sit there. Back to back with the angry, Egyptian-themed gay motorbikers. 

“Me and Sam were standing at the lights on the crossing of Coal and Eastvale, when those Undying fucks pop out of nowhere, guns blazing! And I mean it literally, actual guns! I thought, that’s it, that’s the end of the road, we’re both gonna die. When suddenly, this cop just pulls up, sticks outta the window and goes, ‘Morning gentlemen, why are you standing in the wrong lane, got papers for those guns? And what is that white powder on your jacket?’ You should have seen those assholes’ faces! We rode away feeling like some damsels in distress saved by a knight-errant or some shit. I mean, seriously, cops in this city! Motherfucking respect to them. Next time a cop comes to get his car washed, it’ll be on me!”

Well, that sounded rather reassuring. The biker behind Wyatt’s back finished his story and resumed wolfing down his food. It was the carwash guy. Wyatt braced himself. It was his moment now. He was going to get up and talk to them. 

He didn’t move from place.

“Damsels and knights errant, eh? Sam, looks like your noble literary ways are rubbing off on someone,” one of the two biker ladies commented with a chuckle.

No answer followed.

“Damn those Undying thugs,” the other female biker slammed her glass on the table. “I say The Locust should know about this. We may not be associated with them, but they let us form a chapter. The Undying ganging up on us is a show of disrespect towards them.”

A gloomier, broad-shouldered man snorted. “We’re not going to inform The Locust.” It was more of a statement than something to be discussed.

“Yeah, I guess them letting us form doesn’t mean they like being reminded we exist, eh?” the first woman sighed. 

“No, it’s not that. There’s simply no need for it. We will sort this out locally.”

There was a bit of silence. Wyatt took a deep breath. Yeah. Now. This was his time. He was really going to get up and talk to them. 

Any moment now.

“Yeah! Let’s beat those assholes! Are we bikers or are we just a bunch of faggots?!” the carwash guy behind Wyatt’s back exclaimed excitedly.

“Well, excuse me dear, but I, for one, am surely not a faggot. Are you a faggot, Josie?” one of the women turned to the other, in suspicion.

“Welp, you got me. It looks like I have a confession to make,” the other woman laughed. “I am, and have always been, a bundle of firewood.”

“No, no, the point is, we can totally take on them, listen…” The carwash guy stopped mid-sentence and frowned, turning his head. “You got a problem, dude? Can’t stomach your dinner in the same room with us, fairies, or something? I will gladly show you the exit.”

The rest of the bikers turned to look at Ocher, who now stood in front of their table. Pierced by the accusing gaze of five pairs of eyes, the thief blindly slumped down onto one of the barstools.

“I… I, n-no, not at all! I’m actually kinda like you myself, I mean… eh. I just want to talk to you guys, sorry if this came out weird, I don’t really know how to approach… biker clubs.”

The tension eased. Only the gloomy guy who seemed to be the leader of the club kept looking at him with skepticism.

“Uh, go on then, spill the beans.” The previously aggressive carwash guy relaxed, giving Wyatt a more neutral look. Then his eyes narrowed. “Wait… you look familiar. Do I know you from somewhere?”

Wyatt scratched his chin. “You probably do. We work across the street from each other. My name’s Wyatt.”

“Ah. You’re from the gas station.” The biker’s eyebrows rose. “I’m Yen,” he extended a hand.

Wyatt shook it. “Hi.” He took a breath, feeling somewhat more confident. “So… sorry to interrupt your meeting, but I’ve heard a lot of great stuff about you from a certain guy you might or might not know, and I was wondering if-”

“Could you get to the point, Wyatt?” The leader motioned with his hand. “What’s your business with us?”

“I… sure thing. Just please promise you’ll hear me out before you kick me out, ok?” Wyatt tried to look the biker in the eyes. They were cold, and the furrow of the man’s brow spoke volumes about his attitude. He was sure now that this was Nakhti, the leader of the Pharaohs. Zack had mentioned that guy quite a few times while briefing Ocher before his valiant mission.

“We don’t make promises to outsiders. Now go on.”

“Right. So there’s this friend of mine, who really digs you, guys. And he’d do anything to be one of you, strike for the Pharaohs, you know, but you keep turning him down…”

“Oh no, did he pay you to do this?” Josie hid her face in her hands.

“… and he’d just really want to know why?” Wyatt made sure to speak louder than the woman. Well, at least they instantly knew who he was talking about. That had to be a good thing… right? “No, he didn’t pay me.”

“Well,” Yen said, lifting his index finger. “First of all, you should’ve asked for a lot of money, he’s a rich spoiled brat, gotta milk ‘em dry, second of all… Yeah, well… that kind of sums it up, actually. We’re not some freakshow he can pay to attend when he gets bored of his preppy high-end life. We’re living on the edge! We’re rebels! We’re friends. And we’re not interested in rubbing shoulders with some silver spoon sucking dork.”

“But you don’t actually know him, right?” Wyatt persevered. “You never really let him even talk to you.”

“There was no need for that,” the leader of the bikers stated coldly. “There still isn’t. I believe Yen just explained some of the reasons.”

“Ok, so you’ve clearly never talked to him. You know I’ve been in the same situation, but once you get to know him, Zack is a really great kid, nothing like his rich father, he’s really helpful and-”

“Okay so he didn’t pay you, but did he write the script? Are you a theater major?” the other biker lady inquired with vivid interest.

“No he didn’t! And I’m a geology dropout. Please, just listen to me. If you just hear me out, I promise I will go away and never come back again. Alright?”

“The kid came to us on a goddamn Harley Davidson!” Yen threw his hands into the air. “I bet his jeans were ripped by some supermodels, and his hairspray costs more than our dinner! So yeah, he’s totally not like his limo-riding dad!”

“My parents are rich, Yen,” a new voice chimed in calmly. It was the boxy guy seated by the club leader. This was the first thing that came out of him in Wyatt’s presence.

“Well, we all know what your parents did-”

“Don’t blame the kid for having an accepting family. He didn’t choose to be better off than us. Please, continue, Wyatt.”

Wyatt was ready to protest and try to fight to be heard, so instead of encouraging him to go on, the last statement gave him a momentary pause. 

“Thank you…” 

“Sam.”

“Thanks, Sam.” Wyatt looked gratefully at the biker who just helped him out. Everyone was looking at him in surprisingly respectful silence, so he started speaking quickly, to say as much as he could before he was interrupted again. “Listen guys, Zack just didn’t know how to approach you. He wanted to make a good impression, so well, he tried to impress you and failed miserably. Because of that, and because of his father, you didn’t let him even come near ever since. Or well, you probably did, just to laugh at him. He would have come here himself, but at this point he’s pretty sure you wouldn’t even try to listen. He didn’t pay me, he didn’t even ask me to do this. But I’m his friend, and I wanted to try and help him. I’m not asking you to let him join. I’m just asking you to give him a chance to talk to you, maybe hang around for a bit. If you do, you’ll see that he’s a really cool guy. And unexpectedly, he actually does have the… qualities you might be looking for. Just hear him out, that’s all. If you really don’t accept any new members, just tell him why, and he’ll understand. But if it’s only because of whose son he is, and the fact he made some stupid mistakes while trying to communicate with you, then please give him another chance.”

“You could work in court, buddy,” Yen said. “But he’s still like underage and rich and-”

“And when I first met you, Yen, you were eating from a dumpster,” Sam said quietly. “We were awkward teenagers with one bike for the two of us, but Josie and Tamika were courteous enough to let us ride with them. This whole club came to be because we gave each other a chance. I say we give the boy a chance, too. Talk to him, see if he fits in or not.” Sam finished and withdrew back into his corner beside the club leader.

There was another moment of silence. Yen grimaced, playing with a piece of bread. The women exchanged a few hushed phrases.

The club leader, who was watching Wyatt with the same unimpressed expression all the time, now turned to look at the smaller man at his side. “Is that really how you feel about it, Sam?”

“Yes.”

Nakhti turned back to the others. “Well, you heard it. If that’s how Samut feels about it, then I wouldn’t dare question his decision. But you all get to have a say. So how is it gonna be? Do you want us to talk to the silver spoon sucking dork?”

“Meh.” Yen shrugged. “Let Zack humiliate himself one more time.”

The ladies whispered between themselves. “The queendom of Josie and Tamika is gallantly inclined to agree with court advisor Samut’s opinion,” the smaller one announced.

Nakhti gave a token spread of hands. “Well, in this case, it cannot be any other way. But we need to lay down some ground rules here. Come with me, Wyatt.” The man got up and went past the thief towards the exit.

Even though their leader never told them to stay put, none of the bikers got up from their seats. It seemed like it was a normal situation, or so Wyatt cheered himself up when he nodded and followed the man out.

Outside, Nakhti lit a cigarette, and he blew out smoke in his face.

“So, Wyatt. For some inexplicable reason you took it upon yourself to come here with this nonsense, and who knew, things actually worked out according to your plan. But as you bring the happy news to your Zacky boy, make sure to let him know that it’s just one chance. Tell him that there will be multiple challenges, and that if he screws them up, he will stop plaguing us. Are you paying attention?”

Wyatt nodded.

“Great. Now listen.”

Ocher took note of every word he was supposed to pass to Zack. A meeting place and time had been established and were non-negotiable. If for any reason Zack couldn’t show up, that was his loss.

When Wyatt confirmed that he’d understood what to tell Zack, the biker blew out another puff of smoke, this time to the side, and turned on his heel, heading back towards the diner without another word.

Wyatt turned to stare after him. “I… Thank you! For giving him that chance!”

The man turned back to him briefly, just before going through the door. There was something unsettling in his look.

“It’s just for the old times’ sake, Ocher.

With that, he went back in, leaving Wyatt wide-eyed and more than just a bit alarmed.

Who was this guy to know his thief name?

Did they ever work together in the past? No way. Ocher wasn’t a big time thief, he could count others he worked with on one hand. Perhaps this was some friend of Craig’s who heard about him. Craig had so many weird friends. But what if he was a Citizen, and that’s how he knew? Well, in that case Zack was safe because he was the Citizen boss’ son… right?

Either way, this was shady. He was going to warn Zack about this.

⚞☆⚟

Luke subconsciously shrunk, pulling his neck in and lowering his eyes, as he stepped out of the side alley and onto Coal Street. He only needed to walk for a few blocks until he reached another convenient alley. But as he bowed his head, he noticed something in the corner of his eye. A woman rushing by dropped her wallet as she was rummaging through her purse.

Luke spun around and tried to call after her, but she was so quick all he saw was her turning around the corner.

“Miss!” Luke chased after her, but when he made it to the corner, the woman was gone.

Luke turned his head quickly scanning the side-street she had entered, but there were no closing doors, no sign of movement and no other obvious leads. He needed to get that wallet before he went searching, so he turned around, and then he saw the wallet wasn’t where he’d left it. It was in the hands of a copper-haired young man who was looking around just as wildly as Luke had, but not for the owner, Luke realized, as the man began to hide the wallet in his jacket.

“Hey!” Luke exclaimed. “Hey, that’s not yours! Thief!”

The young man dashed in the opposite direction. Luke ran after him, but before he could reach him with a shriek of deforming metal a huge billboard fell crashing down on the sidewalk where the thief had been standing just a moment ago. Luke stopped abruptly, a few feet away from the wreckage. The thief on the other side tossed a frightened look over his shoulder, but did not stop running.

The other people on the street had all stopped what they were doing and were now looking at the fallen billboard. And at Luke.

He turned around and quickly walked into the nearest side alley. There he ran. He didn’t care that he was going in the wrong direction. He did not stop running until he was several blocks away. Then he leaned against a wall behind some dumpsters and stood there breathing heavily.

Was the billboard his fault? Luke pulled the amulet out from under his shirt and looked at it incredulously. He looked up to make sure there was nothing falling on him right now. There wasn’t. And the thief got away unscathed. It did not feel like his curse. But just in case, Luke decided to play it safe for the rest of the day.

As he walked back towards the tenement, nothing more happened, good or bad, even when he passed other people, and Luke finally breathed a sigh of relief. That had been just a coincidence.

And he had saved that thief’s life.

He kept seeing more and more what El meant when he said he would find people to help. Luke felt timidly proud — for once he prevented someone from being hurt in an accident instead of causing it. This was definitely a change for the better. Luke only hoped his unwitting rescue could move the thief to repentance, and that the woman would get her wallet back.

Still, beggars weren’t choosers. Luke smiled and patted the talisman through his shirt.

⚞ ¥ ⚟

Several days later.

Yen yawned. It was the ungodly hour of 9 AM on a Saturday. He had no idea how he had managed to crawl out of bed and haul his arse downtown, and yet there he was, sitting on top of a dumpster by a drugstore, feeling like the old days. He played with the folding mirror in his hands. Blaise had given it to him to deliver to some sort of bum. It had been wrapped back then, but that never stopped Yen in the past. And now that he knew he was supposed to stick around with the bum afterwards, he felt unpacking the delivery was just the advance part of his payment, which in this case was going to be by-the-hour. Why a bum would need a compact mirror was beyond Yen. He was starting to think maybe he should keep it.

The sound of footsteps came from the alley, followed by a skinny blond man with a very sad face.

“Skywalker!” Yen waved in greeting.

The man recoiled as if slapped.

“Why do you call me that?”

“Because your father is Darth Vader!”

“Who?”

“You know…” Yen breathed in and out heavily through his mouth several times.

Luke was looking at him in mild horror, probably thinking he was having a stroke or something. This one was not up to date on pop culture. Yen shook his head. “I find your lack of faith disturbing.”

The man seemed to give up on trying to understand him and instead pointed at the item in Yen’s hands with a bony finger. “May I have the, uh, mirror, please? I believe you brought it for me.”

“Sure.” Yen tossed the mirror in an arch and jumped off the dumpster.

The blond looked distressed as he scrambled and caught it, but he did not complain. Without a word he put the mirror into a worn messenger bag slung across his body. Despite the summer heat, he was wearing at least three layers, which wasn’t that surprising for a hobo, Yen concluded. At least his clothes seemed mostly clean, and he did not smell.

“Lead the way, Skywalker, I ain’t got all day!”

“Please, don’t call me that, just call me Luke.”

“Whatever.”

Yen followed the hobo onto the street and along a line of shops and cafés. The street was still mostly empty, normal people, it appeared, preferred to spend their Saturday mornings in bed. Yen concurred. But he was being paid handsomely for this.

“What should I call you?” the hobo asked tactfully.

Yen was going to say something stupid, but the guy was looking at him like a kicked dog, and the biker just grunted instead. “You can call me Yen.”

“L-like the currency?”

“Yes.”

There was a moment of awkward silence. “Nice to formally meet you, Yen.”

“Aha.”

“We will be working together, I was told. It’s going to take a bit of getting used to. The tasks I get around town can be quite… unusual.”

“Trust me, your unusual is probably my mundane.” Yen rolled his eyes. “That El guy you’re working for, is he another miracle cure hoodoo-voodoo crook or what?”

“No.” Luke frowned. “El is…” He hesitated. “I am not entirely sure what he does, but he is not a crook. He is a good and… trustworthy man.”

Yen studied his companion more closely. He looked like a dupe, a total patsy. He almost had it written on his forehead in big red letters. It made Yen’s hands itch with the desire to stick a ‘kick me’ sign to the guy’s back when he wasn’t looking. How he could have survived on the streets was a mystery, and yet his weathered skin told the story of spending a lot of time exposed to the elements.

Yen did not get to wonder for much longer, because they reached their destination, and Luke held the door of the bakery open for him. It closed behind them with a chime of a bell, and with it a smiling red-faced man appeared behind the counter.

“Luke! Good morning! Nice to see you!”

“Good morning, Claude, it’s nice to see you too,” Luke replied politely.

“Hey, the loaves are still warm, fresh from the oven. Would you like one?”

“That’s what I’m here for actually, but I don’t have any money, so-”

“Nevermind that.” The baker dismissed his concerns with a wave of a hand. “This one’s on me.” He turned around and quickly slipped a fresh loaf of bread into a paper bag and passed it to Luke.

Yen watched them with his mouth agape. Maybe appearances were deceiving. When they left the bakery, Luke hugging the loaf to his body, Yen rubbed his hands together. “Nicely done! Free freshly baked bread!”

“Well,” Luke muttered shyly, “I did help Claude clean up after a mishap in the store-room and that other time when they had an incident with one of the customers, so I am not just taking alms…”

“So you actually worked for it?!” Yen’s smile turned upside down in chagrin. “Aw, man, lame. Anyway, are we going to eat this bread or what?”

“No,” Luke said. “I need to give this loaf to Mrs Balodis who lives two streets West from here and owns a pigeon coop. In return she will make her pigeons fly in a circle above the tenements, so that little Sophie can watch them from her window. And then Sophie’s mother, Mrs Fawkes, will hopefully fulfill her end of the bargain and give me some homemade fritters…”

Yen gaped at him, speechless.

“… which I will then trade with the old man living under the bridge close to the old tannery.”

“But that’s half-way across town,” Yen protested. Why wasn’t he supposed to bring his bike if they were going to be bouncing around town like this?!

“Yes, so we should be very vigilant as we walk there. There could be plenty of people who need our help on the way.”

“What are we, superheroes now?”

“Well, no. I wouldn’t call us heroes.” Luke frowned. “We just help people. Or, well, that’s what I normally do, and now, I suppose, you do too.”

“Ok, you’re right, this is unusual,” Yen admitted. “Me. Helping people. I hope we don’t bump into anyone who knows me, it would be pretty damn hard to explain.”

Luke perked up. “I was hoping we could stick to the bystreets.”

“Right, you’re the antisocial hobo.”

“I’m not antisocial,” Luke sounded frustrated. Then he seemed to reconsider. “Or I guess, you are right, in a way I am indeed antisocial. But not by choice.”

“Sure, sure.” Yen hurried to close the matter before the guy could launch into recounting his mopey backstory that Yen couldn’t care less about.

Thankfully, Luke did no such thing. They walked to the pigeon-owner grandma in companionable silence. She was glad to receive the bread and seemed just as familiar with Luke as the baker had been. Slowly, terribly slowly, she took them to the roof, and there Luke spent a while waving a rag on a stick for her, which somehow made the pigeons fly in circles above. Yen did not care how or why, he was being paid by the hour, and as long as the birds did not shit on him, he was fine with the proceedings.

After the old lady they went to the single mom with a sick daughter, who was coughing but in good spirits after watching the trained birds from their apartment window. Again, the family seemed to be on familiar terms with Luke, while Yen got the usual mix of silent hostility and curiosity he had grown used to. It came with the cut-off, torn jeans, crop-top and makeup. At least for today he had ditched his heavy black leather boots for a pair of comfortable sneakers. In hindsight, that was a genius idea with that ridiculous track across town ahead of them. As Luke made polite conversation with the woman while she was finishing cooking their prize, Yen began to wonder if it wouldn’t have been better to leave his colors at Nakhti’s where he’d left his bike. Was walking around on foot like a pleb a disrespect to his colors? 

“Are you a boy or a girl?” the little girl appeared in front of him all of a sudden, hugging a plushie rabbit almost as big as her.

“What’s I look like to you?” Yen asked and crossed his arms.

She tilted her head. “You look like a girl.”

Yen’s face grew long.

“Like a big strong girl. I’m going to be a big strong girl when I grow up.” She demonstrated her point by lifting the bunny above her head. Then she coughed so hard she almost lost balance.

“Sophie, honey, don’t disturb the motorbiker, please.”

The little girl pranced away with her bunny, leaving Yen feeling violated.

Thankfully soon they headed out again, Luke held the door for him as Yen marched out with a new paper bag in his hands. It was, as a matter of fact, many bags one inside another. The fritters were too oily to go into just one. Yen lifted the bag and gave it a sniff as they hurried through the sunlit main street and into one of the shadowy bystreets. Those fritters smelled nice. The Fawkes woman had sprinkled shredded cheddar on them too. Yen felt a rumble in his stomach. He gave Luke a sidelong glance, but the hobo was busy studying the windows of a nearby building as they walked past it. Yen rustled tentatively with the bag, then, content that the noise was mostly drowned out by the city around them, opened the bag and popped one of the bite-sized fritters into his mouth. It was too hot. He opened his mouth and breathed heavily for a moment, rolling the snack around on his burning tongue.

“Everything alright there?” Luke asked without turning, seemingly transfixed by the windows.

“Mhm!”

Luke paused, but did not turn to him, instead he stared sideways at the windows and appeared to be counting them. Yen popped another fritter into his mouth, this time after shaking it to cool it down. These were pretty good.

They walked for a while, then turned into an even narrower side-street, more of a corridor between buildings than anything else. When they came out of that and into another more normally-sized street Luke stopped. Yen almost bumped into him.

“What gives?”

“Look!” Luke pointed ahead, where a woman lay on the ground, sprawled, hand clasped to her ankle, grimacing in pain. Luke hurried towards her.

Yen looked around, but it appeared there was no one else nearby. Just the three of them. The street was almost eerily empty. But then again there was nothing of interest there, just some brick tenements and a little parking lot to the side. It looked like a set-up, but of what kind? Yen slowly approached Luke who was already helping the woman up. Her ankle looked perfectly normal to Yen. Moreover she looked somehow familiar, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.

“Thank you so much.” The woman leaned heavily on Luke, and to Yen’s surprise, did not try to go through his pockets.

“How did it happen?” Luke asked. 

“I tripped over there, and as I tried to balance myself, I must have stepped on a stone…”

Yen watched skeptically as Luke nodded with a sympathetic look on his face. The bleeding heart was eating it up by the truckload, he didn’t seem to be even slightly suspicious. The chick was now spinning some tale of her unrelated woes, seemingly about to send them both on another wild pigeon chase.

“That’s sure fascinating, doll,” Yen interrupted. “But my buddy and I are in a bit of a hurry, so like maybe another time.”

The woman and Luke turned to him.

“Yen, can you not see that she needs our help?”

“No.” Yen crossed his arms on his chest. “Her ankle looks just fine. It’s not swollen or anything.”

“Are you a doctor, young man?” the woman asked blandly.

“No. But I’m also not a sucker. Let’s go Luke.”

Luke still stood clutching onto the would-be invalid who watched Yen with a very cold, emotionless look, so unfitting for someone injured and hurting.

“Pah-lease, lady, just steal whatever you need off of him and let’s move on.” Yen grunted. “I’m gonna grow old here.”

“I’m so sorry, my friend has a strange sense of humor.” Luke tried to appease the woman and then, ignoring Yen’s warnings, led her down the street towards a basketball court. There in the shadow of a cluster of trees, much to Yen’s relief, was a bench. That meant they could abandon the woman there and get on with their lives.

Yen stood by the chain link fence and ate another fritter as Luke fussed over the woman whose only injury must have been her pride. Yen knew he had read her right. He just didn’t see why she needed to bullshit them.

“I don’t understand,” Luke said when he stepped back into the street, “why you had to be so rude to that poor woman. She was really hurt, you know.”

“Sure.”

Luke gave him a soft glare that reminded Yen of Sam. But even Sam wasn’t that much of a sucker. He was soft-hearted, sure, but not actually gullible. Yen shook his head and followed Luke further down the street, popping another fritter into his mouth. They walked past the basketball court, a tenement, a shabby bookstore. Luke seemed to be not paying attention to him again, so Yen mischievously backpedalled and on light feet hurried towards the basketball court. When he got to the edge of the building and looked out from behind it, the woman was already on the opposite end of the court, walking out into another sidestreet, her twisted ankle forgotten. Yen smirked. Then, deciding to play along with the ruse for the time being, he hurried after Luke.

* * *

Their march through the town was more of the same: people falling over themselves and losing things, needing help getting a cat out of a tree, asking them — complete strangers! — to watch their things while they did something else. It was a farce. Yen decided to refrain from commenting on it for now, waiting for a critical mass of this bullshit to accumulate. What did Luke think life looked like in New Coalport — just one cartoonish mishap after another? What a stooge!

They reached their destination already in the afternoon. The old man was sitting in the shade under the bridge, a baseball cap over his eyes, long greasy greying hair streaming from under it, merging with an equally gross-looking beard. He smelled appropriately. Yen stayed at a respectable distance. Luke appeared unperturbed.

He took the paper bag from Yen, took a few steps towards the bridge and froze. He weighed the bag in his hand and slowly he turned to the biker with the beginnings of outrage in his expression.

“Where are the fritters, Yen? There was a full bag!” he hissed, overcome with emotion, but mindful not to disturb the old man they’d come to see. “What happened to all those fritters?!”

“We took too long getting here.” Yen shrugged. “I left like half.”

Luke looked inside the bag. “There’s six of them left. There were at least twenty.”

“Well, whaddayaknow they were actually really good.”

Luke glared at him. His nostrils flared. For a moment he looked like a completely different person. Like he actually had brains and balls and maybe even self-respect. “You ate all of them!”

“Oops,” Yen said noncommittally.

Luke began to pace, the mostly empty bag in his hand. “How could you do this?!”

“Well, see, I made sure you weren’t looking-”

“It was rhetorical!” Luke threw his hands into the air, exasperated. “What are we going to do?!”

“I can regurgitate the last three or so, that will take us up to half. Almost. The old guy won’t know any better. Just throw more cheddar on ‘em.”

Luke stared at him, speechless.

“Are you considering-” Yen started.

“No,” Luke cut off. “No, I don’t want any more brilliant ideas from you.”

“And yet I have another one! Why don’t we just offer the guy money in exchange for that thingamajig, like normal crazy people? Instead of running about town saving kittens and injured women and herding sheep or whatever that was?”

“He wanted specifically those fritters. And Penny said that the item the old man has for me will turn out to be very important later. And even if he did take money, I don’t have any!” Luke pulled on his hair in frustration, tilting his head back to look at the sky in askance. “Why couldn’t you have just said that you were hungry, we could have found something else for you to sate your hunger!”

“Wow, easy, Shakespeare.” Yen snickered. “It’s gonna be fine.”

“How is it going to be fine when we have only six fritters?!”

“Watch this.” Yen stepped up to Luke, snatched the bag from him and walked over to the smelly old man. “Hey gramps! We’re here for the thing! Here’s your snack!” He thrust the bag into the man’s face.

The old man started, but then took the bag and cast a quick glance at the two of them. He opened the paper bag and looked inside.

“There’s only six of them fritters!”

“Only six! How many did you want? Those things are huge!”

“No, they ain’t.” The old man shook the bag, making the fritters rustle inside it. “The bag’s almost empty.”

“Oh, darn, well, they must have deflated then!” Yen made a pensive expression, shifting his weight to one leg. “Maybe if we hadn’t helped every fucking incompetent person in this city on the way here, they would have still been just as huge and steaming as when they came off that frying pan. Thanks a lot, Luke!” he added sarcastically.

Luke stood there his mouth slightly ajar, reduced to a passive member of the audience, just watching things unfold. 

“Them fritters sure are cold,” the old man remarked.

“Ain’t that right? Well, maybe if someone wasn’t such a restless good samaritan…” Yen gave Luke a judging look. “Too bad.”

The old man weighed the bag in one hand. “I can’t accept this as payment. This is not fair.”

Yen rummaged through his pockets and then held a one dollar bill between his fingers, showing it off to the smelly hobo. “How about the fritters and this?”

“I wanted fritters!”

“Well, you got them!”

“I wanted more!”

“Don’t we all?”

The man harrumphed.

Luke stepped up towards them, ready to start offering apologies, but Yen stopped him with an outstretched arm.

The guy under the bridge hesitated. “I’ll give you the thing, but you must do me a different favor first!”

“But we brought you these fritters!” Yen pointed at the bag in outrage.

“Yes, six of them. That’s not enough. Hrmph.” The old man stroked his beard. “To make up for these cold fritters, you must bring something that will keep me warm always!”

Yen opened his mouth to protest, but Luke stepped around him with a most apologetic expression. “Of course. We will.”

“Well, speak for yourself,” Yen grumbled. But then again all these hours he had spent eating free food and watching Luke play the city messiah had been entertaining. And they were well-paid hours too. “I mean, I’ve got a job, you know,” Yen added. “I can’t be running errands for hobos every single day.”

“I wouldn’t dream of having your assistance everyday either,” Luke said honestly.

Yen just grinned.

⚞☆⚟

“He ate almost all of the fritters! I don’t know how I didn’t notice, I guess I didn’t expect him to be that careless. I am so sorry, El, it is all my fault!” Luke clasped his head in his hands, as he sat hunched over in the plastic chair outside the tenement.

El listened attentively, thoughtful and utterly sympathetic.

“I’m so sorry…” Luke went on muttering in desperation. “I promise I will get the item as soon as I can. And I will watch Yen very closely if we ever have to go together again. He is a rascal and a menace.”

“It’s not your fault, Luke, it really isn’t.” El shook his head. “Yen is very new to this, I mean, it was his first day. He’s young and seems a bit reckless from what you say, but I am sure you will be a good influence on him. You will have to work with him every now and then, so all I ask of you, is to be patient with him. He will come around. And I am certain that next time the old man will be satisfied with what you bring him.”

“I… Yes, of course. I will be patient. And I’ll do my best.” Luke looked up at El and offered a bleak but heartfelt smile. “Thank you.”

⚞ ¥ ⚟

“And that chick all but cartwheeled out of the court, ‘cause of course, of course, there was nothing wrong with her!” Yen laughed and smirked at Blaise from the doorway of the priest’s living room. “And then we did the fire department’s yearly norm of rescuing kittens from tree branches. It’s a freaking circus. Who are those clowns and why do you pay me to hang around them?”

Blaise counted out the dollar bills and turned to face him. “What can I say Yen… Some people are more gullible than others, but look at it that way — money is money. It’s easy money for you too, so quit complaining. You said it was five hours, so here.” He tucked the cash into the front pocket of Yen’s jeans and then put an arm around the biker’s shoulders turning them both around towards the foyer. “If it’s a circus, then just enjoy the show. I’ve known El for a long time, and if his people set out to do something, then it surely must serve some higher purpose. God works in mysterious ways…”

Yen walked with the priest, nodding with an expression of poorly faked deep thought. He could hear Blaise wasn’t being serious either. “Higher purpose is nicely put, it was quite the trip, I’ll tell you that. Anyway, the more suckers the merrier, I guess.” They reached the front door, and Yen leaned with his back against it, crossing his arms challengingly. “Now the real question is — when will you work me in some mysterious ways, padre?”

Blaise sighed. “Unfortunately I am busy with work again tonight. But I promise I will find the time soon. Very soon.”

Yen forced a laugh, “It’s almost like you’re avoiding me Daddy.”

“No.” Blaise reached out and stroked his cheek. “I would never do that, my boy.” His stern gray eyes gazed into Yen’s.

Yen winced a little, but did not withdraw. “You know, you’re not making it better, Daddy. Now it’s almost like that time with the donation box. Are you going to tell me to go haunt a different church?”

Blaise’s brow furrowed, and he shook his head. “I wouldn’t dream of telling you that again. In fact, I think you belong here.” His fingers caressed Yen’s face, and Blaise crossed the distance between them. He kissed Yen, and it was too good to keep arguing about. Yen uncrossed his arms and rested his hands on Blaise’s sides. He pulled the man closer and the priest let him. But before the kiss could turn into something more, Blaise withdrew. Yen pouted.

“Well. Damn. Thanks for another ride home with a boner. I hope the traffic’s good, cause I gotta take care of this one. Or you know, can I use your phone? Maybe Nakhti’s available.”

“I’m sorry, but no. I am expecting a call any moment now.”

“Are you moonlighting as a sex over the phone operator, Daddy? Is this why you’re so busy at night recently? I thought the swindling business was going swimmingly. But sure, I’d love to support this venture as well, wouldn’t mind jerking off to the sound of your voice.”

“You know what, Yen I take back what I said, go haunt a different church. Especially during the funeral masses.” He held the door open for the biker with a half-hearted glower.

Yen stuck his tongue out at him. “Too late, Daddy, can’t back out now. Have good phone sex, goodnight!” Yen walked out, snickering. But after a moment’s thought he had to admit to himself, Blaise could have rocked a sex phone line. 

⚞♗⚟

As soon as the door behind Yen closed, the phone rang.

“Blaise Ivers speaking. How may I be of help?”

“Good evening, Blaze. I’m calling about the wayward contrarian youth you sent our way.”

“El? What a surprise! I did not know you have a phone there. Jewel is truly spoiling you.”

Laughter. “I wish. He does spoil us rotten, but we’re operating without the phone still. There’s plenty of payphones here though, should someone run out of other means to make a call. Anyway, I figured you would be home at this time, sorry it is late, but I am quite excited by the results of the free trial. I say, let us talk business.”

Blaise smiled. “And I say, let us talk business indeed.”