When Wyatt woke up, there was a police officer in the room. He was a broad-shouldered, bearded man. And he sat in an armchair, looking straight at Wyatt with a stern expression over the teacup in his hand.
Wyatt sat up on the couch so violently, he knocked a plate off the coffee table with his elbow. When he saw it landed safely on a rug, he looked at the policeman wide awake. “I-I haven’t done anything! I swear!”
The officer glared at him in judging silence.
Wyatt froze, holding himself from saying anything more. All his senses wanted him to burst into lying, justifying, denying, but the voice of reason screamed him into silence. He was a criminal by association now, and all he said could and would be used against him in a court of law. And so he kept his mouth shut and just stared back into the serious dark brown eyes, trying to communicate his innocence, to project it right into them. These eyes have already taken him into custody, they scrutinized and criticized him, prompted him to somehow correct his behavior. So Wyatt stumbled from the couch and picked the fallen plate up from the rug, dusted it off with his sleeve and then put it gently back on the coffee table. He looked at the policeman for approval, but the frown was still present on the man’s face, and his eyes were still fiercely judging him. So Wyatt stared into them with a haunted look, intensely wishing the officer would just get up and go away instead of arresting him for being the Man’s boyfriend.
Finally the policeman put the teacup down, and stood up just as Wyatt had wished him to.
“Exactly,” he spoke at last and with that single word and a disapproving shake of his head, he turned around and left the room.
While Wyatt sat there trying to understand whether that meant he was or was not going to jail, the police officer exchanged some words with the Rathi sisters in the corridor. Wyatt didn’t hear what was said, all he could hear was his own heartbeat pounding in his ears. Even if he was not under arrest, this was still bad. Very bad. He went up to the window and looked out shakily. His worst fear came true as he saw a police car parked in front of the building. The realization sunk in with a splash — if his two lady stalkers passed the news about the police to Hector, things could end horribly for him. Wild-eyed, with shaking hands, Ocher tried to gather his belongings. But his thoughts were so scattered and stricken with fear that he didn’t even remember what he had with him when he came here yesterday. Screw it, if he left something behind, he could always come back for it.
As soon as the police car drove away, Ocher rushed out of the sisters’ flat with a hurried ‘thanks’ and ‘bye’ and sprinted down the stairs and along the sidewalk, running to his place so fast he was sure he must have set a world record. Even as he was nearing his street, his thoughts were still a jumbled mess. He looked at his cheap watch. It was slightly past eight. He was already over two hours late for work, but surviving was more important. He had to contact Hector before Wilma and Betty did. He had to assure the Man that he hadn’t just ratted him out to the cops. Who was he kidding, though? Those two chicks were professionals. If they had still been in the area when the police car arrived, then it was already too late. He had no idea how long the policeman had even been there. Or why there had been a policeman at Hamsi’s and Abhilasha’s place at all. He was in such a hurry to leave that he hadn’t even thought to ask them, and now he didn’t know what he was going to tell Hector. But he had to tell Hector something, he had to assure him, to explain.
Had they called the police, because Wyatt had blabbered out that he’d been followed by women? Or maybe because he’d cried over having sex with a man? Had he made it sound like it wasn’t consensual? He didn’t quite remember. But the policeman didn’t seem to want to question him. What was that thing he said? He’d just confirmed that Wyatt did nothing wrong, right? It sure sounded that way. He probably wasn’t even there because of him. He was drinking tea. His tone of voice in the corridor was casual, there were no handcuffs involved, no nothing… Ocher’s mind kept racing. He had to come up with a viable excuse and fast. Maybe it wasn’t too late yet. It probably was. He had to call Hector. Not just that, he had to go see Hector, because he couldn’t really say any of those things on the phone. And then he had to call in sick at work. But did it even matter? He was too late both for work and for staying alive.
He ran up the stairs to his apartment and barged in through the door like a wrecking ball. He’d never tried to dial a number so quickly and so ineptly. Finally he heard Hector’s voice in the receiver.
“Hector Viteri speaking.” Thank goodness, he was still home.
“Hector… I-I… S-something happened. And it’s not how it looks like. I need to talk to you…”
”Calm down, darling. I’m sure the situation can be resolved, no matter what it is.”
Of course it could be resolved. Hector was known for resolving situations.
“M-may I please come see you?”
“Yes, I’m home, but I need to head out soon, please get a cab. I’ll pay.”
Hector already knew. Now Ocher was sure. He heard it, a subtle change in the tone of the now all too familiar voice.
While he waited for the cab, he called in sick at work. He’d gone down with a terrible case of… measles, which was the first thing that came to his mind when he realized calling in sick with worry would not be accepted.
Ten minutes later he was sitting paralyzed in the backseat of the cab. The thudding of his heart shook his body and made his vision swim, causing the passing streets and buildings of New Coalport to jump up and down, almost like they were breathing.
Hector was waiting for him, smoking next to his limo. When Ocher came running to him from the cab, the Man walked towards him, intercepting him mid-way. He held the thief by the shoulder gently. “Easy there. Don’t run. Let’s step inside, and you can tell me everything.”
Ocher followed him obediently, even though he was entirely sure that once inside, this time he would really end as dog food. He tried to begin explaining as soon as they were through the door, but Hector shushed him again.
They tread along the hallways of the mansion side by side, Ocher pale and terrified, the Man as confident and menacing as ever. In the living room Hector sat him down onto the couch and took the armchair opposite to him.
“And… go.” He waved with his cigar, finally allowing him to speak.
The dam of silence broke, and words rushed out.
“That policeman was a total coincidence, I’ll explain everything. So after we returned from the island, I went to visit my friends, the Hindu sisters — I’m sure I mentioned at least Hamsi before, we used to study together — and then I stayed the night, and then when I woke up there was a cop, and I don’t know even why he was there, I know I should have asked, but I just woke up and panicked because your ladies were following me at night, and I thought they’d assume things… but with the policeman I figure it was a social call, he was drinking tea, I think the girls maybe know him, because he seemed — and I don’t mean to sound racist, but like — they’re all Eastern people so maybe they stick together, you know…? And I didn’t talk to that policeman, I would never, but I know how suspicious that must look from the outside, so I wanted to tell you before you drew any conclusions…“ Ocher recited until he was on the verge of asphyxiating in a room full of air.
Hector listened to him, nodding and smoking his cigar. It was painfully clear that Wilma and Betty had got to him first.
But Ocher wouldn’t give up. He took several deep breaths and continued, “I swear you don’t have anything to worry about, and I wouldn’t even be bothering you, I just wanted to clarify this because it felt like something that needs clarifying… Why were Wilma and Betty even following me anyway?” It was a question he probably shouldn’t have asked, so he fidgeted in his place nervously.
Hector puffed out a cloud of smoke towards the ceiling. “Wilma and Betty are looking after you for me. I like you, Wyatt, but you must realize that I did not get this far by being too generous with my trust. For now however, you’ve given me no cause for concern.”
The thief was so relieved to hear that, that he stumbled off of the couch and towards Hector, hugging him, “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“You’re welcome.” Hector reciprocated the hug with a dose of amusement. “As for the cop, don’t worry about that. I’d know if you tried to act against me, and so far, I hope I haven’t given you a reason to. You seemed to have enjoyed the weekend.”
“Mhm!” Wyatt stepped back and nodded several times in a row, mustering a radiant faggy grin.
“Good. So did I. But now I have to go to work. I’m sorry that the Flintstones caused you this much distress. Treat them as bodyguards.” Hector stood up. “And if you’re skipping work today, feel free to hang around while I’m gone.”
“Aaah, thank you once more and really sorry I kept you like this! Have a good day!”
“Have a good day as well, darling.”
When Hector kissed him goodbye and left him there, the thief collapsed back on the couch, unexpectedly exhausted, even though he’d just recently woken up. At the same time, all of a sudden, he felt extremely safe. It was a completely ridiculous notion. This was the very heart of New Coalport’s mob. This was the lion’s den. But the lion himself had just told Ocher that so far he had given him no cause for concern. The fact he was allowed to be here on his own meant that Hector actually trusted him. At least as much as he could afford to. Of course he had him watched — what crime boss wouldn’t keep an eye on a random guy who’d climbed into his bedroom at night and pronounced having a crush on him? It was only logical. And honestly, he shouldn’t have panicked about Wilma and Betty, at least not in front of other people like yesterday night. That was just stupid of him. He should up his game, embrace his role. Those two had been following him forever, probably since even earlier than he’d realized. Treat them like bodyguards, Hector had said. Well then, that was a brand new perspective, and Ocher could get behind it, yeah, he could roll with that. It couldn’t be bad to have bodyguards.
His situation wasn’t hopeless after all. Quite far from it. Wyatt’s multi-faceted personal horror and unpleasant sexual encounter on the island aside, it was quite clear now that Hector Viteri was not only fully buying it, but also starting to treat him like some sort of a family member. He seemed to genuinely believe that him and Wyatt were in a relationship.
Wyatt sank further into the couch, basking in sweet relief as he mulled it over in his head. He was faking being in a relationship with the most powerful man in this city. Maybe even across several states. And now he’d been left in his mansion. Where no one would want anything from him. Where he was safe, and he felt safe, especially now that Hector had other matters to attend to. This revelation began to settle in like a bizarrely peaceful conclusion of his drunken night crisis. And yet Wyatt didn’t want to linger here for too long. The memories of the weekend were still painfully alive in all sorts of ways. He hadn’t been planning on meeting Hector again so soon, not at all. In fact he’d been dreading this encounter ever since he got off the plane, and he was kind of hoping he’d get to avoid the man for at least a week or two, kind of like back when Hector had been feeling guilty for making him faint.
But now that he was already here, the meeting he feared over and done, and even his accidental rubbing shoulders with the police forgiven. It was nearly beyond comprehension, but it appeared that he simply had nothing left to fear. At least not until Hector wanted to spend another night together. But he had survived the worst night already. It was awful, but he survived, and he would continue to do so.
Then Wyatt’s stomach rumbled, and his mind was drawn down to more earthly matters. Hector could have a fridge filled with chopped up people who crossed him, but he also had a proper kitchen with a normal fridge, full of all sorts of high-end stuff that Wyatt’s own fridge had never witnessed. The thief got up from the sofa and feeling kind of brave, he traversed the residence, driven by the promise of a delicious breakfast.
Half an hour later, sated and mildly disturbed by the onslaught of a housemaid who had insisted on calling him ‘Mr Brooks’ and at least brewing him a coffee, after he’d eaten some things directly from the fridge like an uncouth savage and hadn’t allowed her to prepare anything else for him, he was strolling through the mansion, almost like he co-owned it.
After having inspected a few works of art on the walls and at least a dozen family photos of Hector and Zack, Wyatt bumped into an actual bodyguard, but the man was not one of those who had captured him that night, and just like the maid, he acted very respectful towards him. Everyone here was treating him with respect.
Marvelling at his status in the Viteri household, Wyatt grabbed an apple from one of the crystal fruit bowls that stood here and there, and wiped it on his trousers until it was even shinier than it already had been. He stopped in front of a big window overlooking the garden, and took a crisp bite. The shrubs and trees were elegantly trimmed into appealing natural shapes. Only a few hedges were strictly geometrical, which gave the overall garden a certain flair. And by one of those hedges a gardener was working — pruning the bottom of a cypress. The two Dobermans were accompanying her, one lying at her feet and the other wandering around. Uh. Wyatt wished Hector didn’t own these dogs. He forced himself to stop looking at them, and his eyes wandered back to the gardener.
Wyatt frowned. He would never say that out loud, but the lady looked… weird. Her face seemed somehow deformed. Not that it was bad in any way, but it was strange to see someone like that working for the Viteris. But then he guessed he probably didn’t look much better, and Hector was still dating him. Hector was a very scary, but apparently really open-minded man. Wyatt idled for a moment longer, watching the stumpy woman work, and then ventured further.
He roamed around more, entering rooms and hoping that he’s not actually in the Bluebeard fairytale and won’t find a collection of dead boyfriends in one of them. Just to be sure, he limited himself to like three rooms, all of which had been open. He was surprised to find that the view from one of them was quite like the view he saw on his first night here. The place he had been caught in was Hector’s study and this appeared to be the room right below it. He opened the window and looked out. There were hardly any good places to grab onto on the wall between the windows and somehow he climbed two floors, at least if Hector’s version of the story was to be believed. How he could scale this wall in his sleep, was beyond him, and he hoped Hector was never going to ask him to reenact that.
After he was done doubting his climbing skills, Wyatt continued his leisure cruise through the mansion, and even outside. His feet took him behind the villa and into a huge, immaculate courtyard with the swimming pool. He stood on the pool’s edge, looking at the shimmering surface of the crystal clear water. He had sat here with Hector a few times, including that one horrible evening when he had to try to steal the Man’s wallet, but he had never actually taken a swim. He could do it now, if he wanted, he was pretty sure nobody would say a word, and Hector wouldn’t mind either. Ultimately, he decided he didn’t quite feel like it. But the knowledge that he could do it if he wanted to was nice somehow.
All this stuff, this life, it could be his if only he wanted it… no… no of course, he didn’t want it. He just wanted safely out of this. But for now he still had to play along. And yet the knowledge that he could have it all, if he only chose to… was also nice somehow.
He went back inside, and left Hector a note explaining that he couldn’t stay even though he’d love to, but thanking him for his hospitality and asking if he’d like to meet on Friday afternoon. He didn’t actually want to meet Hector on Friday, of course. But he supposed in these post-island times it would look good for the initiative to come from him, so there it was. He sighed and finished the note off with a little heart for better effect.
Now that he knew his mobster boyfriend was placated, he had to call or visit Hamsi and come up with a credible explanation for having ran out of their place like that. He was definitely going back to work tomorrow. He was sure he would get scolded for this day off and would not be paid for it, possibly he wouldn’t be paid for this entire week, but his employer would surely be glad to know his measles was really short-lived. The illness ended so quickly, because as it turned out, he had been vaccinated against it. Yes, for sure it was how this worked. Then again, the day was still young, it wasn’t even noon. Maybe he should try going back right now.
A truly miraculous recovery.
In the absence of trees in the alley, Xenia was dangling upside down from a fire escape.
Luke watched her with just a hint of worry. He was starting to get used to her whimsical, reckless ways. Even if he didn’t approve.
“Do you like my new bracelets?”
“They’re very nice,” he replied politely.
In truth, they were too large, gaudy and there were too many of them, but he wasn’t going to tell her that. Xenia had risked life and limb to keep him safe, the least he could do was humor her when it came to her favorite topic — clothes.
“Thank you, Luke,” she cooed. “And this scarf, how do you like it?”
“It’s…” — he searched for the right word — “… very colorful.” Luke frowned. “But please tell me these are not from those two awful women.”
“And what if they were?” Xenia frowned too.
Luke sighed and gestured up towards her pleadingly. “Please, you shouldn’t get close to them. They-”
“They are no match for me, Luke. I can take care of myself. In fact, I’ve been making fools of them easily!”
“You have to be vigilant, don’t let yourself get carried away. They are dangerous. Even for you.”
“Nonsense.” Xenia laughed.
Luke shook his head.
“You worry too much, Luke.”
“You worry too little.”
“You do it for me.”
He threw his hands into the air. “Well somebody has to, if you won’t. I have to go now, the unpleasant Russian man scared Mrs Fawkes’s cat up a tree, and the firemen will not come, because it is the third time this week. Would you like to help?”
“Mn, not a big fan of cats.”
As Luke thought. But he didn’t say that out loud. He wasn’t an ingrate. She was already doing so much for him, keeping those two horrid harpies away. “Very well, then, Xenia. Nice talking to you, and I hope I will see you for supper at El’s place.”
“Well, when you ask me so nicely…” She laughed melodiously and swung some more, waving her mane of copper hair.
Luke said his goodbyes and headed towards Coal Street. A few streets away, when he was almost on Bauta Avenue, a police car pulled up and stopped not far from him. Luke gave it a cautious glance. The policeman was staring at him as he got out of the car, a clipboard in hand.
Luke darted towards the nearest bystreet.
Would the policeman shoot him? He didn’t do anything wrong, he was only a missing person! Policemen didn’t shoot missing people, did they?
Luke ran a few more steps, then froze. Luke. Not David. Luke slowly turned to face the policeman.
“Thank you.” The officer stood right behind him. Luke took a few steps back in surprise. The man had to be quite a runner, and surprisingly light on his feet too. The policeman was broad and muscular with dark hair and eyes. His skin was just a little lighter than El’s.
The officer did not try to touch Luke, instead he was still holding onto the clipboard. “I only need to ask you a few questions.”
“You know my name.”
“Then, do you know I am not David Mance?” Luke asked hopefully.
“I know you are not him anymore.” The policeman frowned. “Do not worry. I know of your situation. And I understand why you wouldn’t want to go back. I am here only to collect your signature on a statement that you are in good health, sound of mind and not in duress. Feel free to read through it.” The policeman extended the clipboard to Luke.
Luke carefully accepted it and skimmed through the document.
“And if I sign, will they stop searching for me?”
“I would think so. Laura Mance is missing her husband, but when she is assured that he is sound of mind and does not wish to return, I believe she will call the reward off. And it would be a good thing too. We’re having bounty hunters from all over the country pouring into New Coalport since that photograph with the billboard got famous.” The officer crossed his arms. “They’re bothering the homeless and causing trouble. I’d rather they left empty-handed and never came back.”
“I couldn’t agree more…” Luke nodded and focused again on the document.
This was the ticket out of his predicament. It was cruel towards poor Mrs Mance. But wouldn’t it be better for her to think her husband had run off, than that he was dead or in danger? Luke wasn’t sure. What would he have felt? He decided he would have probably been relieved. He remembered the woman from the television. Her tired eyes, her hands so tense, fingers tangled.
She deserved to know he was alive.
Only David Mance wasn’t.
Luke felt terrible.
“I think you should sign this,” the policeman said softly. “It will at least give her an answer.”
“She will not like that answer.”
“No, but uncertainty is torturous in its own right.”
Luke read the document once more. He glanced at the policeman. The officer was watching him calmly with a sympathetic look. It said ‘take your time, I understand your hesitation’, and Luke felt profound gratitude. He was sure the policeman had better things to do, so his patience was appreciated.
Luke gave the document one last look, then took the pen from the clipboard and signed in David Mance’s hand.
“Thank you.” He passed the clipboard and pen back to the policeman.
“Thank you as well, Luke.” The officer nodded. “I will have someone call Laura Mance and inform her. Your location will be kept private, but just in case, until the search truly dies down, you should stay careful. Best of all stay indoors for a few days.”
“Thank you, officer.”
The policeman walked over to his car, got in and drove off.
When Luke arrived at Mrs Fawkes’, it turned out the same police officer had got there first and retrieved the cat. Luke was free for the day.
He felt freer than ever before.
Zack hurried off the school grounds, trying not to run. Taylor could be anywhere. It was a blessing and a curse that they were not in the same year. But even without Taylor he was not going to have any peace today.
“Faggot!” someone hollered. Zack looked subtly behind his shoulder and saw Daniels and a few of the guys from the baseball team gesturing rudely at him. “Cocksucker!”
“I wish,” Zack grumbled and walked faster.
He would have loved to ride to school on a motorcycle, that would have possibly given him some cool points and allowed a quicker getaway, but then he would have no motorcycle a few days later. Some of these rich kids weren’t half as wimpy as they looked.
“There he is!”
That was Taylor. Oh, this was bad. Zack rushed towards the nearest bus stop. He could not outrun Taylor, but the blond asshole would probably not bother chasing a bus. Maybe.
Zack could see the bus stop, there was a bus coming slowly towards it. Zack sped up further, putting his all into it, his legs and lungs burning up with effort.
He was yanked back mid-stride and slammed into the wall. Taylor’s leering face appeared inches away from his. Disoriented, Zack quickly struggled to regain his footing and stand as tall as he could. Taylor would still be taller, but he would not give the asshole the pleasure of seeing him cower.
“Fuck off, Taylor.”
“Or what, your fairy god faggots will come and turn me into a pumpkin? Did you really think you can show your face around here?” Taylor grabbed a handful of Zack’s t-shirt together with a strap of his backpack and slammed him again into the wall. “School’s in, and the janitor needs a hand I hear, so let’s go help him clean the toilets. You should be more prosocial tomorrow and ditch the corn-rows, so we can take full advantage of your overgrown hair.”
Zack kicked him in the shin, but as always that had no effect. Taylor didn’t even flinch.
“With that scrubber brush on your head, you can manage without my help!” Zack tried his best to tear free, but no amount of force was going to do it. And now he saw four more guys pop up behind Taylor. They were completely out of breath, but just as smug as their leader.
Zack thought of the school bathroom. He’d seen it from an upside down perspective too many times already. He wasn’t going to just take this. Not again. Better to get beaten. Then he realized Taylor could tear a toilet right off the floor and beat him with it. That sobering thought left him limp and hopeless as the bastards dragged him back towards the school. Struggling would just entertain them more.
* * *
Rose was waiting for him under the usual tree in a small park not far from her own highschool. They had agreed to meet up there on their first day back to school, they did that every year, in fact they did that throughout the year too, at least once a week. Zack barely made it on time, since he’d had to do a round-trip home and back, but tried to act as nonchalant as he could.
“He-e-ey,” he drawled and dropped on the grass next to the girl. “How’s it going?”
“Not bad, and it was over quick too, so I took a little walk around town. It’s nice weather today, almost like back on the island.” Rose smiled at him. “And how…” her smile faded into a look of concern mid-question, as she seemed to notice something about him, “… are you?”
Zack was painfully aware he smelled like he’d used an entire bottle of shampoo, and his hair was still wet. Rose was squinting at him searchingly, but he didn’t want to worry her.
“I’m good. Our coach just got way too into it on the first day, I had to take a massive shower.”
The girl frowned. “Um, hello, we don’t keep stuff from each other. Just tell me…”
He said nothing even though he knew that Rose wouldn’t give up quickly. She never did. Judging by her thoughtful expression she was silently connecting all the dots already.
“Were people at school mean to you because you’re with the Pharaohs now?”
Zack sighed, surrendering. “Yeah… but it’s fine. It was mostly just the usual welcoming committee.”
“Fitela and his cronies, huh?” Rose nailed it with a sympathetic wince.
“Yeah.” Zack looked down at his sneakers. He didn’t dare call Taylor that to his face, but that was what Rose and him always called the oversized blond bastard between themselves — his childhood pet name. The one time Zack had slipped and used it in public, years back, Taylor pummelled him in front of both their fathers — something he generally smartly avoided. Zack frowned. Taylor was too clever for a bully, and yet there they were.
Rose looked down too. “Dang. One would think he’d grow up at last, or at least get bored. Are you sure you shouldn’t talk to your dad about this? I mean it might get worse, and he could-”
“Leave my dad out of it,” Zack barked. Then his expression softened, and he turned to the girl with a kicked puppy look. “Uh, I’m sorry, Rose, I shouldn’t snap at you… I’ll just figure this out on my own, ok? I don’t want Dad to know, he already thinks I’m a pansy.”
“He doesn’t think you’re a pansy.” The girl protested. “Your dad’s like a business shark, and it’s hard to be like him, but even if he thinks you’re kind of on the softer side, he loves you very much and-”
“You just don’t get it, Rose!” Zack shook his hands in the air. “My dad was always proud of you, you’re the tough and assertive one. I’m the wimp who can’t take over the family business or follow his footsteps in any way, because business people and the military would all eat me up alive, and he knows that! And if he finds out that I can’t even fend for myself at school, he’s going to lose all respect for me.” He gripped his hair and curled up into a ball.
Rose put a hand on his shoulder. ”You’re not a wimp, Zack. Fitela is just some kind of… umm white evil Mr. T, and your dad knows that too. I’m sure you could mop the floor with anyone else in your school, and the only reason you’re not doing it, is because you’re a really nice guy.”
Zack just stared at his bare knees, sticking through the holes in his torn jeans. He wasn’t so sure about what Rose said anymore. Was he really capable of fighting back properly? With Taylor around it was impossible to tell. Fitela could take a brick to the head and shrug it off.
“Whatever.” Zack forced himself to sit like a normal person. He really didn’t want to have this meltdown in front of Rose, but he could still see Taylor’s smug grin, and his blood boiled, but there was nothing he could do. Nothing at all. “Let’s talk about something else. How was your first day of school?”
“Oh, it was alright. My mom wouldn’t have it any other way, you know. She might be retired from teaching now, but she’s on the school board, and she was making sure nobody’s stirring any trouble, and if someone is, she’s right on it!” She looked smugly at Zack, and he didn’t fail to notice the parent engagement topic was still on. He scowled at her pointedly.
“What?” Rose laughed. “Some of us are not wusses afraid of their parents helping them!” She stuck her tongue out at him.
“Alright, you win, I’ll think about it,” Zack surrendered.
“That’s fair, please do.”
Zack offered her a faint smile. Just being around Rose made Zack feel better. Unfortunately, Rose went to a public highschool, while his dad sent him to a fancy private one. The teachers were as great as advertised, but it also meant he ended up studying with Taylor after spending elementary and middle school blissfully separate from him, in the same class with Rose. Now he was not just the only black student, but also the only openly gay one, and he didn’t even have Rose to back him up, not that it would have helped against Taylor. Taylor… Zack forced himself to stop thinking about that jerk.
“Alright, now we can really change the topic. How would you like to go and get some ice cream?” Rose attempted to lighten the mood. “I got quite some cash stashed from painting fences and mowing grass over the summer, and we can buy as many scoops as we can carry away!”
Zack briefly wondered why Rose’s parents were so averse to his dad giving Rose pocket money. Was it to build character? Spending hard-earned cash on something so fleeting as ice cream seemed wasteful. That was what his pocket money was for.
“You know what, nice idea, but I’ll pitch in. Or rather — I’m buying.”
“Pfft, no you’re not. But since I’m mighty thrifty, I won’t say no to pooling resources. Off we go!”
Wyatt knew he only had himself to blame for this impending Friday fiasco. He had proposed this meeting personally via that sweet post-it note he’d left for Hector. Too bad that Hector put so much meaning into the little heart at the end of it that he greeted him with a smug rumble of “Couldn’t live a week without me, could you, my heartsick darling?”
And just like that the little heart had pre-set the mood of today’s rendezvous in all kinds of wrong ways. For one, they were alone. And as they shared a candle-lit dinner — another ill omen — Hector was watching him with that meaningful appreciating look that made Ocher attempt to stretch out the consumption of his meal into infinity. He made sure to chew everything extra thoroughly and make lots of conversation between each bite, in hopes it would get so late he would be able to go back home right after dinner. That plan failed miserably of course, and as the dinner came to an inevitable end, they moved to the living room. There, just as he feared, Hector approached him with a clear intent of showing his heartsick darling some proper affection.
Ocher watched him go right in for the kill in slow motion. He did not want any of that. No kissing, no embracing, no ending up in Hector’s lap, no intimacy of any sort. He had survived the island. And he had survived the police officer. At this point he knew he would live, and that Hector really liked him and cared for him. But this was way too soon. He needed a break to gather his wits, or he would go crazy. He wished he were a crime scene, so that he could set a police-line-do-not-cross tape around himself to keep Hector out. Ah, who was he kidding? Hector wouldn’t have any problems crossing that line. Besides, he specialized in cutting tapes.
Hector brushed his lip with his thumb and all the residual existential chill that Ocher had managed to accumulate back when he was left alone here on Monday, was instantly dispersed. There was no running from Hector. This here was a man who pulled his enemies out of police vans, federal jails and possibly even witness protection. There was no escape. He was doomed, his fate was sealed, written in the stars, and he was going to be stuck re-enacting this forever, at least for as long as he valued his life.
And yet hope died last.
Now, Wyatt already knew that dispensing random geological facts could never save him in the long run, but in desperate moments such as this, he simply had nothing to lose.
“Did you know that sapphires and rubies are actually the same mineral?” he asked Hector suddenly as the Man cupped his face with his hand and leaned in closer.
Hector smiled, not changing his trajectory. “I didn’t.”
“It’s called corundum.” Ocher pressed on, entirely invested. “Rubies are red because of the chromium they contain, and sapphires can have many colors, depending on the type of transition metal present in them. There are actually sapphires out there that are not blue but pink-orange!”
Hector’s face stopped inches from his own. “How recondite. Aw, you’re my sweet erudite of a jewel thief.”
No, help, he didn’t want Hector’s jewels, not again, not ever. He tried to broadcast an SOS signal, but it fell on deaf ears. There was nobody there to save him.
Ocher’s eyes darted around the room and grasped onto the nearest distraction. Right next to him, perfectly on his eye level, he saw a row of VHS tapes sitting on a shelf of an aged cherry wood bookcase. “Oh wow! What are these?” He voiced maximum curiosity and made sure to turn his face fully away from Hector and begin reading out all the marker-written titles on the tapes with extreme enthusiasm. “‘Wizard of Oz, 1972’, ‘Christmas, 1973’, oh, are these your home videos?”
“Indeed they are.” Hector followed his gaze and stepped away, focusing on the tapes. “Ah, these take me back. I don’t remember the last time I rewatched any of these.”
”Oh, maybe we could watch them together?” Wyatt asked with excitement. This here could be his salvation.
“Would you like to?” Hector arched an eyebrow in surprise.
“Of course I would!” He gestured to the tapes with such excitement, as if they were the greatest cinematic hits of this century. “These are a part of your family life from before I had a chance to meet you. I’d love to peek into the past if you let me… I mean… it would feel special, almost as if I could go back in time and be there.” Well, he was like twelve years old then and pretty busy playing with Tonka trucks and Lego knock-offs, but he didn’t want to bring that up. Or should he? Reminding Hector of how old he was could be quite a turn off, which was exactly what he was looking for.
“Sure.” Hector shrugged. “If you won’t be bored to death, I’d love to revisit the past.”
And just like that, he was saved. He could hardly believe it.
So instead of making out, they settled down on the couch for a wholesome bit of family entertainment. Or at least Wyatt was hoping that was all it was going to be, but come on, home videos were certainly not going to get Hector in the mood for anything inappropriate, and if things started getting anywhere, he was going to make a point of reminding Hector that he, Wyatt, was a little baby once.
The ‘Wizard of Oz, 1972’ recording started, and a stage appeared on the screen. A voice of an adult woman announced that this was a farm in Kansas, where a little girl called Dorothy lived with her aunt and uncle. Three small children stood on the stage awkwardly, looking a little lost. The only little boy present was wearing a fake beard, which must have been very itchy, because the child kept scratching his face and neck as he struggled with his few lines.
The chubby little girl chosen to play Dorothy seemed far less intimidated by being on the stage than her would-be aunt and uncle, and delivered her lines clearly and with gusto. When the time came for her to be blown away with the house, she did a very good job twirling with the cardboard cutout of the house and earned a well-deserved bout of applause. Wyatt opened his mouth to comment on it, but instead found himself chuckling at the confused herd of children playing the Munchkins, dressed fully in blue. He remembered how he himself was this age and playing in the school performances, like Pinocchio or Tom Thumb. He decided that if Hector tried to take things romantic anytime this evening, he was going to instantly start telling him about that exact time, forcing the mobster to think of him as an eight year old in a butterfly outfit.
The play went on much in the same manner, with most of the children mumbling and forgetting their lines or wandering to the wrong end of the stage. But watching that was rather cute and somehow calming. As minutes passed, Wyatt found himself calculating the probability of Hector pulling him into his lap less, and enjoying the kiddy play more. The main cast seemed to have been chosen well. The Scarecrow played by a blond little boy in thick glasses recited his lines loud and clear and even managed a bit of acting here and there. The Tin Woodman was also quite good, though the actor turned out to be a little girl instead of a boy.
“That’s Rose,” Hector said, pointing out the Woodman. “I think she played quite well.”
“She did,” Ocher agreed and meant it. “Is Zack also in this?”
“Yes, of course, Junior is in this.” Hector frowned and after a moment of consideration added “He’s quite good too.” His expression slowly cleared. “I helped make both their costumes.”
Right… Hector insisted on calling his son Hector as well. Wyatt’s jump in relationship with the teen had been quite a sudden one, and it was easy for him to leave the murderous image of spoilt and angry ‘Junior’ behind, and switch right over to ‘Zack’, a good helpful kid he’d misjudged. But to Hector that name, Zack, seemed to mean more than just a teenage whim. As Wyatt already knew, Hector’s son didn’t want to follow in his footsteps. On some level that had to hurt Hector as a parent, and his expression at Wyatt’s slip of the tongue only confirmed that. The thief didn’t feel a part of this household enough to engage in this kind of family drama, so he was thankful when Hector quickly moved on from that. He picked up the new topic eagerly. “Whoah, that’s cool! Their costumes do look professional, way more so than others.”
The children on the stage now stood in front of a large simplistic painting of a wood — Hector pointed out most of the props except the costumes had been made by the children themselves. Ocher noticed a hand and a foot sticking out from behind the forest. An impatient little actor had to be hiding behind it.
“Here comes the best part,” Hector said with a grin.
With a loud yell, Zack jumped out from behind the picture of trees. His hair was in a large afro, with little lion ears sticking out of it. His nose was painted black and his cheeks were lined with whiskers. The boy roared as loudly as he could. Standing almost half a head taller than the rest of the cast in his dark brown lion onesie, he looked as intimidating as a dressed-up preschooler possibly could. Zack proceeded to very convincingly threaten the rest of the cast, but completely lost character and started grinning the moment he set his eyes on the Tin Woodman Rose. Sitting on the floor, and supposedly scared, she was grinning back at him. After a quick exchange and a threat to Toto — played by another little girl — Dorothy smacked the lion into submission, and Zack made a great job of acting the coward instead.
Ocher couldn’t help but think of how well this reflected the Zack he knew. The boy put on an appearance of danger, but was actually a good-hearted, nice kid. Ocher wouldn’t call him a coward, but… perhaps Hector would, for not wishing to inherit his bloody criminal empire, or even his place in New Coalport’s business world. Maybe there was even more to it. Wyatt glanced at the mobster. The Man was hard to read, but there seemed to be a very slight crease to his eyebrows, like watching his son growel was not an entirely unfamiliar thing for him. As soon as the children sorted their situation out and pranced off the stage, Hector was smiling again.
“Wait till they melt the Wicked Witch. The girl playing her deserves an award in my opinion. But Oz is also pretty good. When he remembers his lines.” Hector grinned, and Wyatt thought that this would surely beat watching those Nazis melting in Indiana Jones a while back. All in all, he felt so much more relaxed watching things with Hector now, at least he knew exactly what to expect.
On the screen a couple of teachers were quickly setting up the children’s rendition of the Emerald City. To say it was simplistic, would be an understatement. But it was the right color at least. Mostly. Hector’s grin became a softer smile as he watched little Zack and Rose enter the Emerald City in search for courage and a heart.
The play continued, but ever since the lion’s entrance, every now and then, Wyatt would sneakily glance at the man sitting beside him. He was never going to forget who Hector was, but that he could see emotions playing on this man’s face even when Hector thought nobody was watching him, was somehow reassuring. It made him seem less like a crime boss and more like a human being, a parent. Zack’s dad, a dad with some regrets, but still a proud parent. Hector was in a safe distance from him for a change, but even if he hadn’t been, the thief felt that he wouldn’t mind the proximity as badly as an hour ago. This Hector, moved by watching his little son playing the Cowardly Lion, seemed less like a man who could find Wyatt in a witness protection program, and more of a man to whose presence in his life Wyatt could grow used to. No. No, that was an absolutely horrible thought. He tried to instantly forget it by hyperfocusing on the home video.
A few minutes later the play came to an end, and the little actors took their bows in a completely disorganized manner. The little girl playing Toto bowed in the opposite direction and was gently rotated by one of the teachers. Together with their equally graceful peers, Zack and Rose almost rolled off the stage and ran to the group of adults waiting for them in one of the front rows. Rose stopped at a middle-aged white couple, while Zack ran closer to the camera and jumped into Hector’s arms. Hector on screen looked noticeably younger, but also more worn-out, like he wasn’t getting enough rest. Which he probably hadn’t been, running a criminal empire and a number of legitimate businesses and raising a child.
Now that Hector was onscreen, Ocher realized something.
“Wait… who’s filming this?”
“Barney,” the real-life Hector rumbled. “The guy who said too much when you got caught.”
“Oh…“ Ocher honestly didn’t know what to make of that.
“Quite the slip up, but look where it got us,” Hector said with some humor. He gave Wyatt a meaningful look, then went on. “I owe Barney for this and from before. He’s always been by my side. During the war and in my struggles as a single father. He helped me with Junior a whole lot, when I couldn’t always be there. He’s a good friend. And even his mistakes can be a blessing in disguise.” The Man looked at Ocher fondly.
The thief nodded slowly and gave a little smile, perhaps somewhat less dishonest than usual. He was not as enthusiastic about Barney, especially since he knew the guy was somehow connected to Wilma and Betty, but he guessed it was good Hector had people he could always rely on.
On screen, the children were excitedly reenacting parts of the play, much to the delight of their parents. Barney proved quite the capable cameraman, following the kids’ exploits.
Rose’s parents came into view again and with an unpleasant pang in his stomach, Ocher remembered what Hector said about her being the only other person he decided to spare. That meant that there had been a moment in time when he was about to kill her. This girl, a baby back then. Judging by how she was still unaware, she had to be too little to remember whatever had transpired. Wyatt didn’t know how that story from the past played out, and he didn’t want to know. Just thinking about it served as a rude awakening from this little family moment. Hector was an almost ruthless killer. He either killed Rose’s real parents, or he had them killed. And the girl didn’t even know that the man she called her uncle, was her parents’ murderer. It was absolutely horrifying, and Wyatt stared back at the TV, all warm feelings extinguished in a flash.
On the screen little Zack shuffled closer to Hector and awkwardly tugged on his lion onesie, then asked in a loud whisper. “Daddy, help me, I need to go potty, and I can’t reach the buttons.”
He proceeded to demonstrate by waving his little arms around, trying to reach the middle of his back.
“Ugh, Dad, what the hell is this?” The teenager’s voice came from behind them. Wyatt turned around wide-eyed but had to turn back towards the television set, because genuine, real-life Zack was decisively marching across the room. Just a moment later, he stood before them, effectively blocking the screen. “No, just, no. Don’t embarrass me in front of Wyatt, Dad! I did nothing to deserve this!”
Little Zack on the recording began to sing happily about going to the potty. Real-life Zack groaned.
Hector smiled. Like most parents, he clearly delighted in embarrassing his offspring. “Wyatt saw the tapes on the shelf and got curious, and I simply couldn’t say no.”
“Oh yes you could have, but you didn’t. Ugh.” Zack turned around and pressed the button stopping the video. “You could have at least skipped the most humiliating parts, you know!”
“There’s nothing humiliating about normal bodily functions.” Hector rose from the couch and stretched. “Speaking of which, I am going to the washroom, you have three minutes to restore your injured dignity in front of Wyatt.”
Hector ruffled Zack’s hair even though the teenager tried to dodge his hand, then left the room. When his steps died out deeper in the house, Zack gave Ocher an accusing look.
The thief made a guilty expression and apologized in a whisper. ”Real sorry about this… it’s just the evening was about to go south, you know how, and then I saw those tapes… and I kind of used them as a distraction.”
Zack sighed and relaxed. “In that case I guess that’s a fall I am willing to take,” he replied quietly. “You doing ok otherwise?”
Zack looked at the thief and felt a sort of kinship. Both of them were suffering in silence in a predicament they could not overcome.
“So, Junior, what brings you here on a Friday?” Hector returned and draped an arm around Zack’s shoulder. “I thought Saturday was our usual father-son day.”
Zack looked at his dad. He heard his own childhood voice ring out in his mind, fresh from the record. Daddy, help me.
“I, uh…” Zack hesitated. “I just wanted to hang out tonight, cause I’m going on a roadtrip with the Pharaohs on the weekend again. We’ve been riding all around the state, one of those weekends we even stayed at a motel.”
“A motel? I hope you are still following the ground rules I set,” Hector took the bait and did not seem to have noticed his initial hesitation.
“Yes, yes.” Zack rolled his eyes. “Don’t worry, Dad, these bikers are probably more lawful than my school’s book club.”
“Speaking of which, how’s school?”
“Uh, the usual,” Zack lied. “I’d much rather be on the island instead.”
“Wouldn’t we all?” Hector laughed.
Zack snorted, then excused himself to go grab a snack from the kitchen, saying that if he were to suffer through home videos, he would at least drown his sorrows in food.
Alone in the kitchen Zack stared at his reflection in the window. He was a grown man, and he had almost asked his father for help with some bullies. In his school. Like a toddler. Damn. No surprise the bikers couldn’t take him seriously. Who would?
He had to just swallow his pride and get used to it. Maybe after several weeks Taylor would get bored of trying to — unsuccessfully — stuff him into a locker and giving him daily swirlies. How long could a teenager even find that shit entertaining? Not much longer, Zack hoped.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen flopped down on the sofa with the phone he dragged from its rightful place in the hall, and dialed a number. He waited.
“Father Ivers speaking, how may I help you?”
“Mm, what are you wearing?”
There was a long pause. Then Blaise’s serious voice said with a note of sadism. “It is what you would call ‘a Grinch outfit’.”
“Gah! Are you trying to give me erectile dysfunction?! I haven’t shrunk this bad since that time hot water just cut out mid-shower last winter.” Yen groaned. “It’s like being blinded but by words.” He rubbed his eyes trying to erase the image.
“You asked, and thus you received,” the priest said mercilessly. “Let this teach you that this really is not a sex phone line, Yen.”
“But maybe it should be!” Yen insisted heatedly. “It would unburden the confessionals where people are already lining up to hear your sexy voice. This way it would be accessible even to the cripples and what not, very Christian, you know. But you gotta use your imagination, Daddy. You cannot tell your clients something like that, or this sex phone line will tank worse than the Titanic. Or if you can’t lie for religious reasons, I can get you some sexy sleepwear for Christmas. You pay me well, I owe you that much.”
Blaise withstood the argumentation patiently, though Yen could almost hear him rolling his eyes. “Better tell me how you got this number.”
“I looked it up in the phone book. You should advertise it more, though. Want me to write it on some restroom walls? I know a few high traffic places.”
“No, thank you. In fact I would appreciate it if you kept this line as private as possible.”
“All to myself? Ohoho, my private sex phone line.” Yen bit his lip and snickered. “You spoil me, Daddy. Now get out of that Grinch outfit and tell me all about it.”
There was a long moment of silence, and Yen fully expected Blaise to hang up.
“Very well. But forget the Grinch outfit. We will do it my way.”
“Close your eyes and imagine I am there with you.”
“Ooh, Daddy, did you break into Nana’s house?” Yen asked giddily. They were doing it. They were launching Blaise’s sex over the phone line.
“Silence. Sit up.” The priest’s strict voice was not to be argued with. “You shouldn’t be wearing the cut-off indoors. Let’s get you out of it. I run my hands over your shoulders and tug the colors off.”
Yen followed the instructions, smirking as he got his arms out of the Pharaohs’ cut-off one at a time, passing the receiver from one hand to another as he did. Some noise must have betrayed him, because as if on cue Blaise smoothly continued, “With that out of the way, I push you slowly back down on the couch. You can leave the shirt on.”
Yen slowly lay down.
“I sit down beside you now. Make space for me.”
Yen shifted, imagining the weight of the man sinking down into the couch beside him. Somehow, even though he knew there was nobody there, he was tempted to open his eyes and look.
“A-a, no peeking.”
Yen snorted, of course, Blaise knew best that he always did what he was told not to. Well, he was going to surprise him for once. He shut his eyes tighter.
“Good boy.” He could hear the smile in Blaise’s voice. “Now my hands return. They run from the inside of your knee and up your inner thigh. I stroke you through the fabric, but I do not linger there. I reach up again, under your shirt, and I rest my palm flat on your stomach…”
Yen bit his lip and pressed the phone into his ear with his shoulder, while his hands got busy undoing his fly.
“No, don’t rush it, boy.” The priest scolded. “Let me guide you instead. I put my hand on yours now…”
“Mhm,” Yen purred. He followed the priest’s instructions and lo and behold his jeans were undone and his hand, guided by Blaise’s, got busy with his dick, while his other hand caressed his torso.
“You know, Daddy,” Yen whispered huskily. “I think this sex phone line business is going to be a hit.”
“I hope not. Moreover I am afraid that’s about it for now.”
“What?” Yen frowned. “No, but we are just getting started…”
“It was a free sample. Goodnight, Yen. And good luck.”
Yen was lucky that he didn’t open his eyes when the broom landed on his face.
“I don’t let you stay in my house so you can jack off on the living room couch, you savage!”
“Argh! Nana Riley, come on!”
“Get out, get out! If you have to wave that dick around, go do so in the shower!”
Yen scrambled off the couch and got hit on his butt for a change. “Come on, Nana, I am cooperating. This is excessive force, they’re going to take your badge!”
“If I see you jerking off on that couch one more time, I will kick you all the way into the dumpster Sam found you in, you filthy animal! You could have at least put a towel or a blanket down first!” Nana Riley chased him up the stairs, then hissed after him. “Quiet now. Sammy might be sleeping.”
“I’m not the one yelling and chasing people around with a broom.”
“If I find any jizz on that couch in the morning, you will be cleaning it off with your toothbrush.”
“Very scary, Nana. So scary.”
“Then one day, I will add that dried spunk into your cereal, and you won’t even know.”
“Scarier now. Ok. Respect, Nana. Peace.” Yen held up two fingers and retreated into the shower. The hardon could still be salvaged.