Chapter 17

Forging a Realistic Accident

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During the few quiet weeks that followed the basement incident, Wyatt felt like he was falling and flying at once. On some days the rational part of his mind warned him that the quiet was illusory, and that he was in fact already watching the world from the inside of a sports bag, one step away from being zipped shut and dumped into the ocean. Then on other days the hopeful part of his brain took over instead, concluding that he was finally free from Hector, free as a bird.

Despite having established with Zack that it was too early for that, it was still surprisingly easy to believe the latter. He had reasons to believe it too. After checking up on him in the first few days, the Man seemed to have understood that his calls were not helping, and he stopped calling Wyatt altogether. It could mean that he had moved on, and that just like that, everything in Wyatt’s life was back to normal. Out of sight could mean out of mind. Forever. These kinds of situations could just spontaneously resolve themselves like that. It made sense. Hector liked him, he knew that his son liked him too, and on top of that he felt guilty for forcing Wyatt to participate in the bloodshed, so he just decided it was time to simply let him go without any consequences whatsoever.

That was a nice, happy, healthy thought, and Wyatt embraced it. It let him settle back into the daily routine. Since his ties with the criminal world seemed to now be officially severed, he thought about dropping the thieving altogether, but then he remembered about his awful job, and how little it paid, and he promised himself that he would drop thieving altogether a bit later, maybe once he found a better gig. Sure, a billboard almost fell on him because of his greed, and it was literally a sign from Heaven, but then it paid off — there had been money in that wallet and no cards or IDs, a clean haul. And the way he saw it, for now being a thief was helping him feel like his old self again. So just like in the old times, he went around town and shoplifted some easy things like candy bars and cigarettes in the shops that he knew still hadn’t jumped on the monitoring bandwagon. Craig would buy the cigarettes off of him and chocolate… well, he just needed that. Especially after he almost got hit by a car on a pedestrian crossing in front of one of those stores. 

Luckily looking for pairs of women in his peripheral vision had honed his senses so much that he saw the car coming. With his confidence boosted by his loot and excellent observation and evasion skills, he met up with Hunter, because lying to Hunter was always so easy it felt relaxing. As they walked around town together, they complained about crazy drivers in New Coalport, and then in the evening the same day a truck veered out of traffic and drove into the bus stop they’d been waiting on, which only proved their point. The truck ended up narrowly missing them only because they had been already walking away, having made the last moment decision not to pay the bus fare and just walk on foot. Simply amazing how choosing to save one dollar could save one’s life. There was surely a lesson in this and a definitive argument in favor of always just walking places, they concluded, as they sped up to avoid being witnesses.

Things seemed to be getting back to normal, except that one night where he woke up in front of his gas stove with all of the burners running. Jesus, what was with the self-destructive sleepwalking? First burgling Hector, and now this? It was almost like he was trying to get himself subconsciously killed, but why would he want to die now, that he was finally free of Hector? That was a really stupid timing to off oneself. He hadn’t even seen Wilma and Betty around anymore, which was clearly another sign that he was off the hook. Things were looking up for him! He had to go see a doctor about this sleepwalking thing… at some point.

Finally he was ready to get the rest of his post-basement life back on track, so he called his parents. Having skillfully downplayed the few times he hadn’t answered or returned their calls, he performed the usual retelling of his recent weeks of exciting work as a resource geologist — a sudden work trip to the drilling site in another state had been the reason behind him not picking their calls. Of course, when he hadn’t been answering, they had called Hamsi — they always called her when they couldn’t reach him for a long time — and she had reliably covered for him and assured them that he was alright. He called her just to thank her, but of course she managed to keep him on the line under a barrage of questions, and eventually he stopped trying to end the conversation, and they just talked for a while about casual things like in just how much disrepair Wyatt’s building was, especially after the elevator fell down recently. 

Hamsi said she wanted to meet him, and he guessed this would also let him feel more like his old self, so he agreed. They met out on the town and walked around and eventually chose a café to sit down in. The meeting went rather well, and Wyatt felt he managed to convince Hamsi that he had been avoiding his parents because he needed a break from lying to them about school and his job, and absolutely not because he had been shaken by participating in an execution. She seemed sympathetic, and reminded him to call her if he needed anything. Just like that, his network of half-truths and lies was all back up and running. Surprisingly, Abhilasha joined them at the end, and the girls exchanged some interesting looks, but Wyatt had no idea what that was about and didn’t really feel comfortable asking.

He went home in a good mood and to put a cherry on top of all that going back to normal, he scribbled a little entry about the legal part of his day in his journal. Yes, his derailed life was really getting back on track. Well, on the pre-Hector track. Soon he almost forgot about the basement and his affair with the mob boss altogether.

That is, until the day a fruit basket arrived at his door, delivered by an out of breath courier.

The card attached to the basket wishing him a swift recovery was signed with a single letter ‘H’. It could have been from Hamsi. She always worried that he wasn’t eating healthy. Or maybe it was from Hunter. Hunter definitely wouldn’t buy him a fruit basket, but he was capable of stealing one from a display in a shop and then not really knowing what to do with it. Only he would never pay to have it delivered to Ocher’s door. Besides, the handwriting was not theirs. The basket contained some fancy fruits that he didn’t even know the names of, and this was clearly Hector’s way of apologizing. Moreover the ‘H’ was the same as on the back that horrible polaroid photograph that marked the beginning of Ocher’s end and that he had long misplaced somewhere on purpose. 

He left the basket on the kitchen counter and tried to ignore it, but when he went down with a cold a few days later — clearly the first telltale sign of AIDS he got from all those times making out with Hector — it proved to be the only source of vitamin C that was readily available. So he ate the familiar fruits, the pineapple and the oranges, but left the weird ones untouched.

He hadn’t called in sick at work, because he needed both the money and the distraction everyday routine offered. And so he worked through the days, tried to get back into thieving in the afternoons and in the evenings, and he finally got around to reading his geology textbooks again. Everything was back to the ordinary, and he was glad to once again be living his idyllic sucky life of a regular dropout.

The stupid basket was the only reminder of the life he’d left behind, so to deal with that he ate the unfamiliar fruits as well and threw the thing out. Now he could once again forget all about Hector, his criminal empire, his man-eating dogs and his misplaced affection. The key to one’s peace of mind was just forgetting about the bad stuff.

* * *

It was getting dark, and he was sorting his collection of keys. Laying them out neatly on his bed, he tried to arrange them in some sort of pattern. He almost got it right, but he remembered he was supposed to take a shower. When he opened the bathroom door, he saw a bruised, handcuffed man kneeling on the tiles in front of the bathtub. The man looked right up at him and Ocher looked down at his feet to avoid his eyes. He was wearing a protective coverall.

“Don’t forget to put on the gloves,” rumbled Hector’s voice behind him. “They’re in your pockets.”

Ocher turned around and ran. He needed to take a shower, but he couldn’t do it at his own apartment. He tried to lock the door, but he couldn’t find the key. He must have left it on the bed, but he couldn’t afford to go back. He ran down the stairwell and out of the apartment building. On the steps outside, there was the kneeling man again. Ocher looked at his own gloved hands just in time to see Hector putting a gun in them. “Aim for the head, darling.” He wanted this to be over, so that he could wash already, so he obliged and raised the gun. The man looked up at him. It was Hunter, and he was asking if he could borrow twenty bucks. When Ocher ran again, the thief’s voice followed him through the city. “I told you to be careful. I told you that you’d end up stealing from someone actually dangerous!”

He ran across the evening streets all the way to the Rathi sisters’ apartment, where Hector opened the door for him and pointed at his own chest. “Go on, darling.” But Ocher dove under his arm, and passing the sisters — or was that even them at all? — he reached their bathroom. Inside it, on the floor, there knelt a man again and this time, Ocher raised the gun and shot without looking. When he opened his eyes, he saw his own dead body with a bullet hole in his forehead. There was blood, and there was ringing… ringing in his ears.

He woke up from his nap to the ringing of a phone. It was getting dark outside, and a textbook slid down his chest and fell to the floor when he jumped out of the bed. 

“H-hello?” He answered the call out of breath.

“I missed you, darling.”

* * *

The restaurant was way more lavish than what Wyatt had ever been to, even than that fancy place his parents insisted on going to a year ago to celebrate his false graduation. Wyatt didn’t suppose regular people were allowed to make reservations here. Even though he’d tried to prepare for the occasion and wore his best outfit — his exam suit again — he still felt under-dressed at best. He might have imagined it, but the waiters were looking at him with scorn ever since he entered. He tried to hide his sneakers deep under the table. Those weren’t just any sneakers. They were the most elegant shoes he owned. They were all black, and he’d even been to a funeral in them before. But he felt not everyone knew how to appreciate them.

The room was massive with exquisitely set tables standing far apart from each other, covered with pristinely white tablecloths. The prices on the menu explained perfectly how the restaurant could afford to waste space, situated in the fanciest part of downtown as it was. They probably could still pay the rent with just a couple of tables. There was an actual fountain in the room and live plants. Wyatt was half-expecting to start hearing songbirds any time now.

He didn’t belong here, but Hector had stated loud and clear that he had hoped to see him again soon. He had apologized to Wyatt again back then on the phone, and all that meant one thing only. The Man was counting on him to accept the apology and meet with him again, and Wyatt would be pushing his luck too hard if he tried to refuse this invitation. He was too much of a coward to defy Hector and face the consequences. His freedom had come to an end, probably for good this time.

And so he was here now, letting the crime lord help him choose what to order from the menu where even the appetizers cost more than what he spent on food in a week. Then as they waited for their dinner, Hector asked him how he’d been these past weeks, and without much thinking, Wyatt retold him some of his boring everyday life, the premises of the books he’d read and how vitamin-C rich and nourishing the fruit basket was. Hector seemed glad to hear that.

Then their food was served, and as they ate, Ocher wondered when the Man was going to stop toying with him. Why was he being so nice and acting so normal? Was he really still not aware that the thief had been weaseling his way through this since night one? Had he really not developed any suspicion whatsoever, not even after his greatest fan had fainted at the sight of a dead body? Or after he’d clearly been avoiding him for weeks? And what about all those times Wilma and Betty were tailing him? They must have reported something suspicious to Hector. What about them seeing him read all the newspapers? It must have been those two in the library, so what was the Man still waiting for? 

Hector’s mouth was moving, but Ocher didn’t hear what words came out of it. He nodded and smiled and focused on Hector’s expression. He marvelled at how genuinely sad and guilty it looked. If this was for real then it was almost impossible to comprehend that he had managed to make the Man himself feel so bad and act so apologetic. With a slight frown Wyatt reached for his wineglass while Hector reached out for him. Their hands met, and Hector stroked his knuckles, effectively snapping Wyatt’s full attention back to his surroundings. Did anybody see that? Nobody seemed to have noticed, but there were other terrible things happening, he realized, as Hector’s words finally filtered through his thoughts. 

“…come home with me? I want nothing more than to hold you in my arms again.” 

Wyatt’s heart bounced inside his chest. His eyes darted from some imprecise point on the wall and back to Hector’s face. They focused there for just a second, before looking down to where Hector’s hand stapled his to the table. 

So this was it. This was where he could no longer say no, the moment when the time he’d bought finally ran out. It was going to start all over again now. Or was there still some way to postpone it? Maybe he could steal two more weeks? A week? A day at least… did Hector just say ‘come home with me?’. It was evening. It was the time when he would always be driven back already. He never stayed the night. Staying the night implied a lot of things. Crossing of lines he’d rather never cross.

Hector took Ocher’s hand into both of his now and looked into his eyes with a smile that was probably meant to be romantic. “If you feel uncomfortable with going back there, we could go to your place. I’ve missed you so much.” Hector lifted Ocher’s hand to his lips. That was it, now they were getting looks.

When Hector’s stubble brushed against the back of his hand, Wyatt repressed a shudder and forced himself not to withdraw and not to look around anxiously. He felt his stomach lurching in a way it hadn’t for a few weeks now and no, it was not butterflies. He hadn’t missed Hector at all. He didn’t want to have anything to do with Hector or to go anywhere with him. He was going to stand up to him now. Tell him that he wasn’t feeling all that well. Or that he just needed some more time to think things through.

“I-I know, I’ve also really missed you… A-and I’d just love to spend some time with you again.” Failure. Utter, stuttering failure. Wyatt took a deep breath, and tried to still save the situation. “But you know, maybe tonight we could just… go for a walk instead?”

“Sure. Why not,” Hector said and beamed at him. His fingers stroked Wyatt’s.

Wyatt automatically smiled back. He didn’t feel like he’d won that battle. Not in the slightest. But he figured that if all they did tonight was walking, then he would have a bit more time to wallow in self-pity before his short-lived freedom was over forever.

* * *

The few looks they had drawn in the restaurant were nothing compared to all the heads turning as they walked down Coal Street together. 

They strolled leisurely, Hector’s arm wrapped around Wyatt. Wyatt pondered on life, the universe and everything. He tried to convince himself that this was for the better. That it was really good all these people saw them, both back at the restaurant and here, out in the streets. If that date of theirs made the news, it would be a bit more difficult for Hector to cover up Wyatt’s disappearance when the truth finally came out, or when the Man grew bored of him. Maybe, just maybe, if by that time enough people knew that Hector Viteri was dating Wyatt Brooks, Hector would decide that killing the little lying fanboy was simply too much of a bother.

Completely unaware of the thoughts going through Wyatt’s head, the Man was in a brilliant mood. Whenever the thief glanced up at him, the man was smiling. A few times he kissed his hair and murmured something about missing him again that Wyatt tried not to focus on. For the most part Hector seemed to just be enjoying his company.

“I assume you don’t yet have plans for the first weekend of September, or do you, Wyatt?” Hector purred down at him.

Wyatt blinked up at him slowly, treating Hector to a forced smile the man so loved, “I… no, no, I mean, I don’t think I have any yet. I mean, except work on Saturday. Why?” 

A weekend? Now, that was strange. Usually Hector would make more specific queries. Like what were his plans for 3:45 PM to 6:30 PM on Thursday or from this to that hour on Sunday. Actually, the question wasn’t just strange. Its implications were sheer ominous.

And he called it.

“Would you be able to take that Saturday off, darling?”

“Um… I don’t know… maybe…?”

“Good,” Hector said, like Wyatt’s ‘maybe’ had been an ‘of course’. “I’m asking because I’d like to invite you to spend that entire weekend with me. If you would feel uncomfortable at my place, we could always go on a small trip instead.”

“R-really?” He choked out a small squeak. That was supposed to be great news, right? His dreams coming true, or something. Spending a night with Hector. He couldn’t have possibly wished for anything else. Wyatt stared at the sidewalk and fought to bring back the fake smile. Once he got it somewhat right, he quickly looked back up at the man. “That… that sounds way too dreamy.”

The answer scored him another kiss on the temple and a deep, satisfied rumble. “Aren’t you the sweetest, darling? So a trip it is then, perfect. Just imagine, the two of us going somewhere together…”

Wyatt screamed internally, realizing he just swapped what could have been a casual weekend at Hector’s house for some sort of romantic holiday. He spaced out for a moment in a panic, then tuned back in on Hector.

“…so, if you have any place you would like to visit, I’m open to suggestions.”

Wyatt tried to think hard there. He wanted to tell Hector how he’d always dreamt of attending a 48-hour long event in a crowd of people. Maybe a festival of sorts. Somewhere where they wouldn’t actually stay alone for the night, where they wouldn’t be alone ever. But nothing particular came to mind. Hector was a rich, assertive man, and he would always find a way to be alone with him, Wyatt just knew that. He stared ahead into the streetlights, trying to come up with anything as they walked, but his mind drew a blank.

“Take your time, think on it. As long as you don’t want to go to another country, everything can be arranged on short notice.” Hector did not fail to note how hard Wyatt was thinking. He rubbed his shoulder through the jacket. 

Wyatt rejoiced. He had time. He would come up with something.

“I want it to be special, just the two of us,” Hector went on. “Maybe a cabin in the woods. Or some private beach. A getaway from the big city would do us both good.”

Oh god no. Wyatt shuddered but only on the inside. He noticed he began internalizing not just screams but also shudders recently — yet another of the little defenses kicking in. He imagined he would probably make for a curious psychological case study. That thought was so surreal it actually cheered him up. 

“Yeah, a getaway would be great.” Wyatt agreed, speaking his heart out. “I… I’ll think on it at home.”

Spending a night with Hector in a cabin in the woods sounded like a cheap horror movie. The private beach, meanwhile, sounded like good material for another installment in the ‘Jaws’ franchise. 

Stuck at the seaside with a man-eating shark in a suit. 

Hector smiled down at him, only making Wyatt further realize just how accurate a comparison it continued to be.

Jaws by lysidas

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“Where are you going this early on a weekend morning? Again?” Sam watched Yen from his bed with his eyes narrowed. “Normally I can’t drag you out of bed till noon on a Saturday. What’s going on, Yen?”

Yen stood grimacing at his band posters, reluctant to face Sam and explain himself. He was sure his nanny wouldn’t believe the truth and would instead accuse him of selling drugs or some other mundane bullshit like that. He had enough of that. He turned around and put his hands on his hips, standing proudly in his bright red briefs.

“So, you wanna know where I’m going? You wanna know how I make money? Very well then, break out your fanciest bandages, Sammy, it’s take your mummy to work day!”

“Ugh, Yen, please, be serious.”

“I am serious, get dressed, let’s eat and go. I’ll show you exactly what I’m paid for, will you then get off my case?”

Sam looked at him doubtfully. Then he shrugged, got out from under the covers and began dressing. 

Yen picked up one of the socks from the floor and sniffed it. He dropped it and blinked violently. Sam glared at him.

“If you’re not going to wear it again at least throw it into the hamper.”

“I think at this point it should go into an incinerator instead.”

“And where’s the other sock?”

Yen looked under his bed. “Not here. But hey, I think I got something of yours.” 

He produced from under his bed a page from a magazine with a large picture of the sphinx on it. Sam looked at the wall above his own bed with worry. There was a gap up there, between the photos of pyramids and a framed papyrus reproduction of an Ancient Egyptian mural. Sam took the page from Yen and set to restoring it to its place. Yen rolled his eyes. Sam’s half of the room was painfully lame. Not only was the wall plastered with Egypt stuff — under his bed were boxes full of books about all sorts of nerdy crap. The space under Yen’s bed was much more interesting. There were old clothes, even older food, gay magazines, tapes and even rolls of cash.

Yen pulled one of his own magazines out. The pages were stuck shut, it wouldn’t open. Yen sighed. They should really get that incinerator. He put the magazine back under the bed and went to search for a clean pair of socks.

* * *

Yen bit his lips, smirking with anticipation as he led Sam to the rendezvous point. He could see Luke waiting for him already, standing in the shade of a narrow side alley. The homeless guy was watching them, his expression growing troubled as Sam did not leave Yen’s side. Finally all three of them stood together.

“Good morning, Yen,” Luke said politely, while looking intensely uncomfortable. “Who might your friend be?”

“This is Sam. And he’s like my nanny.” Yen made the introductions. “And this is Mother Teresa undercover, she goes by the name of Luke.” 

Luke and Sam cast frustrated looks at him and formally exchanged pleasantries. The mutual civility seemed to instantly predispose the two towards each other, though Yen could see Sam still had his doubts about Luke’s trustworthiness.

“So, L-man, what are we going to do today?”

Luke blinked in confusion, then cleared his throat. “Right, so I already got some things done, I spent most of the morning helping Claude. Claude the baker,” he clarified.

“Right, Claude, the baker,” Yen said confidently, even though he had no memory of a Claude and only a vague memory of a baker, but the look Sam was giving them was priceless. Let the poor sod think Yen was already at the center of some mysterious network of people. After all, he had no idea this was the second time he was doing this.

“How’s Little Sophie?” Yen asked, relishing the look on Sam’s face.

“She’s feeling better actually. And I hear you made quite an impression on her,” Luke babbled. “She keeps talking about you.”

“Good, good,” Yen said seriously. “And what about the pigeon woman?”

“Well, she’s doing fine too.” Luke shifted restlessly. “Uh, I guess we should go, and you can ask me about the others on the way, if you don’t mind.”

“Of course,” Yen said and draped an arm around Luke’s shoulder. “Lead the way!”

Luke frowned, but did not try to withdraw from Yen’s grip. He glanced back to see Sam following them, and they exchanged equally unsure looks. Yen meanwhile radiated enough confidence for all three of them. He was full of questions on the fates of all the people who he remembered from their previous venture together.

“And did you get the old guy his fritters?”

“No.” Luke gave Yen a stern look. “He did not want fritters anymore. I had to get Mrs Maple to knit him socks out of a very particular kind of yarn, getting which was in itself a few days of work. I picked them up earlier today and got the item from the old man. Before coming to meet you. I’ve learned my lesson.” 

“Oh yeah?” Yen smirked. “What did the old man give you anyway?”

“I don’t know. It’s wrapped.”

“And you didn’t look? Oh, come on, your name is Luke, and you didn’t look?! What’s wrong with you?”

Luke finally had enough and removed Yen’s arm from his shoulder. He turned to face the biker. “No. I did not look. And I would like to ask that you also kindly refrain from eating, destroying or generally interacting with things this time. Please, just observe for today, alright?”

Yen offered a lopsided sardonic grin. “Roger that.”

Luke arched a brow, but didn’t say anything and instead led them on. It appeared the blond knew the side streets like the back of his hand, the alleys they went through were almost completely devoid of both people and cars. It was almost as if somewhere out there on the main streets aliens invaded and beamed everyone else up, and they were left wandering an empty city. Yen’s mind instantly went to looting shops and destroying public property with no retribution in sight. What a way to spend the weekend that could have been!

“Ah, I found you at last,” a deep voice with a heavy Eastern European accent resounded in the narrow alley.

Luke stopped abruptly, and Yen almost walked into him. In front of them, next to an intersection, stood a stout man in an old plaid suit and a stained yellowed turtleneck. He was balding, with a patchy beard and sideburns. He looked to be in his late forties. His hands were on his belt like he owned the place, and Luke shrunk under his scrutiny. The plaid man walked up to them slowly, until he stood within arm’s reach of Luke, and Yen had to give the fatso one thing — he was a head taller than either of them.

“You have something that is mine, something that vagrants stole from me. You give it back to me now, and there be peace between us. Maybe.” The man sneered at Luke with a haughty look.

“Uh. Do you mean the compact disc? It’s a misunderstanding, really, I don’t think anyone meant to steal that, it must have been lost. And I don’t have it, I’d give it to you if I did!” 

“Lies, I know you have it, dirty hobo!”

“I had it at one point, but I gave it away…” Luke took a step back and ended up pressed against Yen. “Unless…” Luke gripped his bag where the still wrapped item sat, unchecked.

Yen grabbed Luke and gently shoved him to the side. He did not know what this was about, but he wasn’t going to take flak from a fatass in a moth-eaten suit. “Why don’t you go back to the retirement home, old man?”

The fat guy looked at Yen like he was a piece of trash lying on the pavement. “And who are you supposed to be? Another dirty hobo?”

Yen felt Sam touch his arm, but he ignored it. “Use your eyes gramps, who do I look like to you? Do I look like someone you can mess with?” He snarled. “Someone you can push around?”

“This is really unnecessary, please, this is all a giant misunderstanding. I think I might actually have the disc, let me-” Luke tried to get between them, but Yen moved him aside and stepped closer.

The plaid man also ignored Luke, he stared Yen down. “You look like back alley punk, street rat. Move along-”

“Or you’ll what?” In a blink Yen had his butterfly knife open and pointed at the man.

Everyone froze. Yen stood grinning madly, watching a drop of sweat run down the side of the fat guy’s face and disappear in the turtleneck. Then Sam was pulling him back while Luke rushed in between the man and him, waving a brown paper package around and spouting more desperate apologies. Yen struggled against Sam’s pull, but the shorter guy lifted him by the waist and carried him backwards.

“Son of a- Let me at ‘im, Sam!”

The plaid man took a step back. He seemed not to see Luke, his eyes were fixed on Yen. His expression did not betray fear, but the fact he lost ground told Yen he had won.

“Please, please, he didn’t mean it, he’s just an unruly child!” Luke pleaded with the man, then ripped apart the paper package and held a compact disc out to the guy in the suit.

“Don’t give him the CD, Luke, or I will find him and shank him!” Yen barked, still struggling with Sam. He had closed his blade for Sam’s sake, but he still held it at the ready.

“This is outrage. You will pay for this!” The plaid man grew very red on the face, his thick eyebrows knotted in fury. He kept backing away. “I will not be treated like this by scum like you!”

“Come here and say that to my face!” Yen yelled.

The man turned around and, casting angry glares at them, hurried the way he came, disappearing behind a corner.

Yen stopped struggling. He grunted. “You can let me down, Mom, I am not going to chase after him.” Sam still held him. “Seriously, I promise.” Sam set him down. “Jeez,” Yen said and rubbed his side, “some death grip you got there.”

“What did you think you were doing?!” Luke stepped up to Yen, shaking the compact disc in front of his face. “This really is his disc! And what if he calls the police?!”

“Meh,” Yen said in his defense.

Sam stood beside Luke and stared Yen down, letting Yen know the blond spoke for him as well.

“You cannot just go around threatening people,” Luke gushed. “It’s illegal, and- and- and just plain terrible!”

Yen began flipping his butterfly knife, letting the sunlight play on the blade as it flew rotating in the air from one of his hands to the other. He made a point of not paying any attention to Luke.

“And stop doing that, please, you could get hurt!” The blond whined.

Yen gave him a cold look and said nothing.

“I specifically asked you not to do anything, to just watch,” Luke said desperately.

“Yeah, yeah, would you prefer if I let Dirty But Not Very Hairy rub you into the dirt?”

“It would have been the lesser evil for sure!”

“Not from where I’m standing.”

“Yen, this isn’t just about you,” Sam said quietly. “You might have gotten Luke in serious trouble. And our club too.”

Yen frowned and said nothing, continuing to play with his knife.

“And since you’re talking Clint Eastwood, might I remind you about concealed carry? He could have shot you,” Sam insisted.

“He didn’t have a gun.”

“Are you sure?”

Yen groaned. “Whatever, let’s go rescue some cats from trees or something.” He closed his blade and slipped it into his vest. Behind his back Sam apologized to Luke and assured him he would keep an eye on Yen for the rest of the day. Yen grimaced in dread. Mary Poppins was on the job.

* * *

The man in the plaid suit sat down on a bench and pulled a handkerchief from a pocket to wipe the profuse sweat from his face and neck. Seeing that he was alone in the little garden he also reached into his turtleneck to dry the sweat under it too. Then he pulled a little flask from the suit jacket’s inner pocket and took a swig. He shook his head.

“What’s up, Arty? That was quick.”

The man almost jumped out of his skin. He turned around to find Penny standing behind the bench, grinning. “Damn it, don’t sneak up on me like that.”

“Did you get the CD?”

“No! This biker child pulled a knife on me! He’s a real basket case if I’ve ever seen one! Thankfully there was another fellow with them who seemed to share that opinion and held him at bay while I escaped.” 

Penny barked a dry husky laugh. “I like this kid already.”

Arthur gave him a dirty look and took another swig from his flask. “I need a raise. Tell El that.”

“I will. And he’ll surely give you one, now that you risk falling in the line of duty.”

“Haha, very funny, Penny. Get lost.” Arthur put his flask back inside his pocket. When he turned around, the bald old man was gone. Arthur shook his head and on second thought reached for his flask again.

⚞⛐⚟

Two women in flowery blowses and skirts walked into a grocery store. One asked the buck-toothed clerk for two cokes and made casual conversation. The other used sign language to ask the same clerk who had told him about Luke.

The clerk mumbled a half-intelligible reply about the weather and set two cokes on the counter. He signed back: ‘old doc’. 

Money was exchanged, and in a minute Wilma and Betty were out of the store. They got into a car together and drove off.

“So, what kind of sick pet do we have?” Wilma asked, sipping her coke.

“A boa constrictor.”

“Well, that would explain why we didn’t bring it with us, but how about something more sympathetic?”

“A boa constrictor with a bow.”

“Aw,” Wilma crooned. “What do we call her? How about Princess? Or… Squiggle?”

“Hm.” Betty did not appear convinced. After a moment she said “Pretzel?”

“Oh, that’s a good one.” Wilma nodded.

The small veterinary clinic at the edge of town was almost empty when they arrived. There was only an older Asian woman with a cat in a basket in the waiting room. She was idly leafing through a newspaper. The arrival of the two women shook her out of a reverie. She said nothing, only made space for them on the bench. But Wilma had other plans.

She rushed to the door of the doctor’s office and knocked desperately. “Doctor, please, help, this is urgent!”

Betty stood beside her and wrung her hands, but her face, hidden from the only spectator’s view, was as blank as usual.

“Excuse me a moment,” came a cordial voice from the other side of the door, and an white-haired black man stepped out into the waiting room. “How may I help you?”

“Doctor, it’s Pretzel, the boa constrictor, remember, the big girl with the pink bow and the spot above her nose?” Wilma all but grabbed the vet in a show of emotion. “She’s really ill!”

“My,” the doctor said, affected by the dramatic display. “That’s terrible to hear. But do you have Pretzel with you?”

The old woman behind them put her basket into her lap and hugged it close.

“No, doctor, she’s at home, we were too afraid to move her!”

The cat lady visibly relaxed.

“Well, in that case I think I have a spot right after Mrs Tanaka.” He nodded towards the waiting woman. “Momo is only here for one little shot. It won’t take long.”

Mrs Tanaka nodded, very eager to get Momo out of the way before a boa constrictor was brought in.

Wilma turned to her with an apologetic smile. “Don’t worry, Pretzel is a good girl. She only eats mice, and a cat smells entirely different, there is nothing to worry about.”

The doctor nodded, then stepped back to the door. “Please, come back in ten to fifteen minutes, I will see you right away.”

Wilma and Betty left and went to wait in a small café across the street. Five minutes later a family with a golden retriever left the veterinary clinic, and merely two minutes after that the Japanese old woman rushed out with her cat basket. She trotted away in a hurry.

* * *

“How may I help you, ladies?”

There were just the three of them in the exam room. Betty stepped over to the door leading deeper into the clinic and listened to make sure they were alone.

“Please, there is no need. The nurse stepped out for a smoke. She won’t be back for a while.” Dr Oldman smiled placatingly. 

Betty gave him a cold look and went back to stand beside Wilma.

“We’re here, Doc, because one little birdy told us you’re the one who brought us Lucky Luke.” Wilma crossed her arms and leaned against a wall.

“That is so.” The man nodded.

“Then maybe you will be able to help us with our little problem. You see, Luke found more weirdos like himself. Most importantly, this chick: ridiculously long reddish blond hair, mismatched clothes, seems to always be wet, can dodge bullets and tickles the breath out of you. Even if you’re not ticklish.”

The veterinarian nodded as he listened. “I might have heard of creatures like that in passing.”

“How can we kill her?” Betty asked bluntly.

“Yes, doc, is there some sort of silver bullet, holy water, stake through the heart solution for our supernaturally quick well-hydrated hippie?”

“What you’re describing sounds like a water spirit from Eastern European folklore. Slavs are not my strongest suit. Let me consult my notes.” Dr Oldman opened a drawer and took a notebook from under a box of rubber gloves. He leafed through it for a while murmuring to himself. “Well, well, I don’t think I have anything specific on killing rusalkas, if that’s indeed what your enemy is… she should be extremely interested in clothes.”

“We got that part already,” Wilma confirmed. “Anything else?”

“Well, like I said I don’t have anything on killing them. But you should also know that water gives them strength, they can tickle you to death. And they are afraid of wormwood.”

“Wormwood?” Wilma gave him an incredulous look. “How do we kill her with a weed?”

“Not kill. But it can be used to repel her. Like garlic for vampires, using your analogy.”

“Does she need to always be wet?” Betty asked sternly.

“That might be so. Even if that is not the case, rusalkas are strongly attracted to water. They are water spirits after all.” The doctor shrugged. “I don’t know any more than that.” He closed his notebook. “But I’m sure you’ll make do.”

“That we will, doctor,” Wilma said, smiling darkly. “That we will.”

⚞ ¥ ⚟

Yen had the most boring several hours of his life. Sam, despite saying almost nothing, had become best friends with Luke, and together they effectively thwarted all of Yen’s attempts to alleviate his boredom by sabotaging the whole bizarre enterprise. Only at one point when Sam and Luke were distracted Yen managed to rotate an arrow sign on a wall after a local explicitly told them not to touch it because it was loose and could rotate causing confusion. Yen spitefully hoped at least a few people would fall victim to the rotated sign.

When their good deeds for the day were done, Sam and Yen said their goodbyes and headed back to Nana Riley’s to get their motorbikes and spend the rest of the day hanging out with the other Pharaohs.

Yen was not very pleased with his day so far. But now was the time to find out if the sacrifice was worth it. He looked at Sam as they walked to the bus. “So, what’s the verdict, King Samolon?”

Sam gave Yen a skeptical look, then shrugged. “I don’t know what that was all about, but it doesn’t seem criminal. It’s more like live action role-playing or improv theater. Why are you paid to do this again?”

“Beats me. But then again why do some people go into debt just to have old white dudes rant at them about boring shit?”

Sam looked at him questioningly, then winced. “College education has its uses.”

“Tell that to the English Majors.”

“Touché.”

“Does this mean you are off my case? Can I frolic with the theatrical hobos in peace, acting out scenes of selfless aid to the needy and misfortunate?” Yen felt a halo pop up above his head and folded his hands in imaginary prayer to match.

“I guess.” Sam looked troubled, but didn’t have any counter-arguments to offer.

“Wonderful.” Yen grinned.

“Where did you even get this job?”

“From a prospective sex phone line operator.”

Sam grimaced in surprise, then gave him an exceptionally disbelieving look.

Yen said nothing.

“Fine,” Sam said. “Don’t tell me. Just don’t threaten anyone. And stop carrying that knife around. Is that even legal?”

Yen groaned and rolled his eyes. “Yes, mommy. It’s not a switchblade, just a butterfly knife.”

Sam shook his head. “Remember, Yen, you are part of the Pharaohs. If you don’t care about your own reputation, think of ours.”

“Fine, fine, I won’t threaten that old fart again. Are you appeased?”

“Yes.”

Yen put his hands into the pockets of his vest and toyed with this folded blade. Some bikers they were. Not breaking laws, not even being a public nuisance and now accepting yappie boy scouts. Sad. Just sad.

⚞ Z ⚟

“Hey Dad! What’s up?” Zack said happily into the receiver. “Wyatt told me you’re going on a trip!”

“Hi, Junior. Yes, we are,” Hector rumbled. “You two seem to be hanging out a lot lately.”

“Yeah, well, we’re actually close in age, you know. Wyatt’s been telling me about college, it’s useful stuff!” Zack turned to look at Wyatt as he talked. 

Wyatt sat in an armchair, very close to Zack and the phone. Zack’s two cats, Socks and Mittens, were in his lap, both flattened like pancakes and purring intensely but luckily not loud enough to cover up Hector’s voice. Wyatt was stroking them compulsively as he eavesdropped on the conversation. He showed Zack a thumbs-up for the good save, as the teen continued talking. 

“So did you decide where you wanna go yet?” Zack asked Hector.

“No. Any ideas?”

“Well, you keep taking him places with all the rich people, he’s been complaining to me that he feels like his cheap threads are an embarrassment to you and so on. And please, don’t offer to take him to your tailor. What I’m getting at is you should take him to the island! And bring me along! We can have quality family time together!”

Hector was silent for a moment. “That’s before school starts for you, correct?”

“Yep, just before.”

“Sounds like a plan.”

Zack fist pumped and silently high-fived Wyatt. “Can I also bring Rose along? It’d be just like old times!”

“Sure.”

Zack grinned.

“On one condition.”

Zack’s grin faltered, but his voice remained smug and confident. “Oh yeah?”

“You kids will do some diving off of my shoulders, like when you were little. I can still bench press both of you, you know.”

“Oh, geez, that’s a steep price…” Zack glanced at Wyatt, then sighed. “But I accept.”

“Great. I’ll make the arrangements then.”

“Cool. I guess it’s goodnigh-”

“What about Taylor? Do you want to invite him too?” Hector asked.

Zack blanched. “No, Dad! Jeez, no Taylor! Which part of ‘I hate his guts’ can you not get?!”

Hector’s chuckle rumbled from the receiver. “Oh you kids. Well, it was worth a try. Anything else you wanted, Junior?”

“No. No Taylor. Otherwise I’m all good. Goodnight, Dad.”

“Goodnight, son.”

Zack hung up, his expression clearing up a little bit. He turned to Wyatt and gave him a pale smile and a thumbs-up.

Wyatt looked at him with a slight frown. That name sounded somehow familiar.

“Who is Taylor…?”

⚞⚿⚟

Later that evening, Wyatt sat on his bed over a wide array of gay magazines Zack had mysteriously procured for him when he visited the teen. While the unspoken truth had been that there was no saving Wyatt from Hector, the kid was still trying to help out any way he could. He already managed to ensure him and Hector would not be all alone where they were going, and also that Taylor, the thug from the boat with the body in the sports bag and an affinity for cutting people’s ears off, was not tagging along for a romantic weekend. 

And then, Zack also gave him these.

Wyatt’s eyes ran over the covers of the magazines. Some guys out there would probably look at these shapely bodies of male models, at their well defined, glistening muscles, and feel something positive. He didn’t know what, maybe excitement? But that wasn’t him. All he felt while looking at them was the fear of the future. Every man reminded him of the Man and their upcoming weekend together. Sure, sleeping with any man was a scary notion. But there was just something absolutely terrifying about the idea of sleeping with Hector in particular. It was wrong on so many levels that he couldn’t even put most of them into words or even into thoughts.

Wyatt shook his head and looked at the magazines again. While handing these to him, the teen had told him to ‘maybe try to look at dudes a different way’. And then, when he’d seen Wyatt’s reaction to that suggestion, he proposed an alternate strategy, ‘Or… maybe learn to look at dudes and think about ladies instead?’ 

They had both laughed at it back then. But now that Wyatt thought about it, maybe it wasn’t such a stupid idea after all… 

⚞7⚟

“The Rakshasa and Yakshini are onto me. I cannot approach him anymore. Forging a realistic accident is no longer an option.” The servant humbly finished her report and walked to stand by the side of her mistress.

The remaining six mulled on this in grim silence.

“I could still make him disappear the old-fashioned way,” the brute offered. Seeing the lack of enthusiasm from his peers, he reluctantly turned to the temptress. “Or you can make some thug do it, so we have a dupe to take the fall.”

The heretic shook his head. “A violent end would make Hector suspicious. He could start digging for clues. We don’t want that.”

“Criminals die at each other’s hands in the city all the time. Hector would know — he’s personally responsible for many of the bodies. If you really think this a big deal, let’s go all out and get the job done.” The brute rolled his eyes. “And if you don’t think it warrants taking a risk, then why are we even here?”

“Maybe we are blowing it out of proportion…” The doctor considered.

“No, we’re not!” The hero snarled. “It’s disgusting and potentially disruptive for our way of life!”

The temptress chuckled. “Ah, as much as I love watching you bicker, I feel gracious today, so I will put you out of your misery. I have already made a new move on our behalf. I encouraged Hector to take our little problem on a getaway holiday!” With a grin on her face and narrowed eyes, she was clearly relishing her evil plot. “Left alone with Hector, he won’t be able to keep his little game up for long, and then I am sure Hector will finally be inclined to do the dirty work for us.”

“You should not have done this without consulting us! This is both revolting and way too risky.” The heretic hissed. “They are already too close for comfort and you’re driving them even closer.”

“I agree, this is revolting, but this could be exactly what we need. Hector isn’t a fag, he must snap out of it soon! This could be it!” The hero smirked. “And then we can forget about this unpleasantness entirely and move on with our lives. Some of us have better things to do than this.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” the brute snarled. “Either let me kill him or leave me out of this.”

“Shut your mouth, boy,” the hero snapped at him. “And don’t meddle without permission. We do it her way.” The hero bowed his head to the temptress and smiled. She smiled back, charmingly.

As the meeting of the seven came to an end, the temptress followed outside in the heretic’s wake. He tried to ignore her, but she would not be ignored.

“Ah, I cannot wait! Can you?”

He stopped walking and turned to face her with a glare.

“What is it? I am not deaf. You already spoke your mind.”

“That boring Hector thing? Oh please! I’m talking about your big day. I’m so excited. It’s… ahh, I can’t stop myself, it’s going to be tomorrow!” She clasped a hand over her heart, grinning at the heretic in delight, completely not put off by his disgusted expression.

“I don’t know what you are talking about. Stop pestering me and be gone!”

“Ah, you will know, you will more than know.” The temptress cooed. “And once you do, you will want to thank me for my thoughtful gift. Both of you. And there are so many ways in which you can thank me…”

The heretic turned his back on her and started walking.

“…but of course I am doing it out of sheer friendship! Enjoy your last grumpy night!”

He kept walking, relieved when he finally left her behind.