Chapter 22

The Undying

⚞ ¥ ⚟

“Get the phone, Yen!”

Yen groaned. He was just getting very comfortable on the couch after having turned on the TV.

“Do I have to? Can’t Sam do it?” he yelled back.

“No, we’re both covered in dough. Pull your weight, slacker!”

Yen rolled his eyes, got up and shambled towards the phone. If he protested, there was a chance Nana Riley would make him start paying rent or worse.

Yen pressed the receiver to his ear with his shoulder and drawled, “Nana Riley’s secretary here, how can I help you?”

A familiar sexy voice sounded right into his ear. “Hello, Yen. I happen to need your help with delivering something to my current location. Go to my house, get in however you will, go down to the basement and find my drum and the beater.”

“Beater?” Yen gave the phone a side-eye, Blaise sounded like it was urgent. “Like a kitchen beater for eggs? I think Nana’s got one right here if you need to borrow it.”

“The drumstick, Yen. It has fur and beads on the handle. It will be next to the drum. They should be in the left corner, furthest from the entrance, third shelf from the top. You will see several drums there, but I need the flattest one. It’s a translucent disk of animal hide with runes etched around the edges. I will need it at 152 Chadwick Road as soon as you can get here. Are you up for this? You once mentioned that you were underwhelmed by the lack of tambourines and well, this is as close as it gets.”

“When was I ever not up for it? See ya there!” Yen hung up.

“Who was it, Yen?” Nana Riley yelled from the kitchen.

“A guy needs me to bring him his drum, it’s urgent.” Yen went into the hall and crammed his feet into his sneakers.

A very judgemental Sam materialized in the doorway. He was wearing an apron and mixing dough in a bowl in a most intimidating fashion. 

“What?” Yen said.

“You forgot the TV.”

“Oh, please,” Yen went back and turned it off, then gave Sam an ‘are you happy now’ glare on his way out. That seemed to pacify his nanny who quietly withdrew into the kitchen. Thankfully Sam didn’t look like he was in any position to follow, even if he was suspicious.

Yen drove to the priest’s house without trouble, then walked his bike behind the building and, after making sure nobody was looking, climbed onto the roof above the back porch and pried the window open with his butterfly knife. He knew the priest’s house quite well by now, the basement not so much. He found the abstract idea of it amusing, but as soon as he set his foot in it, the bones and jars and all the other weird shit gave him the creeps. It was all bullshit and fake of course, but you had to give it its due — the place was atmospheric. One could film a nice horror flick down here. Yen hurried to the far end of the room and quickly found the large shallow drum. The drumstick took a little longer to locate, but in the end Yen was pretty confident he fished out the right fluffy stick with beads from all that hoodoo-voodoo clutter.

He tried to fit the items into his backpack, but the drum was too big.

“Wacky weirdo bullshit.”

He looked around and after some exploring found an old bag large enough to fit the drum. As soon as the items were packed, he evacuated the basement. 

The address Blaise gave him was an out of town one. Luckily, not too far out, Yen knew how to get there. He’d ridden all around the outskirts with the Pharaohs and on jobs from the priest. The particular address was unknown to him, though. 

Yen rode through town, trying to take his unusual cargo into account as he swerved between cars. Not much use of a drum if he got it torn. Thankfully he didn’t have to go through downtown to get where he needed to be, and the further out of town he went, the less packed the streets were. Soon single family homes gave way to farmland and first patches of wilderness, and Yen was relieved to speed up on the mostly empty road.

Did Blaise forget the drum on purpose? Was this some kind of test? It was unlike the priest to actually need his assistance. Yen was a facilitator, but he knew he was not essential to this whole voodoo business. But then again, maybe this here wasn’t such a big deal, and Blaise simply didn’t want to bother making the round trip himself. Whatever. As long as he was paid, Yen guessed there was no reason to complain either way.

The place wasn’t quite the haunted relic he had envisioned. The house he found after following a dirt road into the pine tree forest was rather well maintained, with bleached wooden walls and nice flower beds outside. There was a rocking chair on the porch and baskets of flowers hanging to the side of it. An old white couple’s paradise. There were two cars in the driveway. One of them white, the other black. The latter belonged to the priest. Yen left his motorbike parked next to it and entered through the front door that had been left open.

There were voices coming from upstairs. Yen heard Blaise telling some other man not to go downstairs from now on, and then the priest did the forbidden thing himself and headed down the creaky wooden steps. When Yen saw him, he realized he’d never seen Blaise on his other job. The man was dressed all in shades of brown as opposed to his usual priestly black. His clothes had bits of fur here and there. And on top of all that he sported a funny necklace with a crystal.

“Hi Daddy-o.” Yen looked around for small valuable items that wouldn’t be immediately missed, then, disappointed to find nothing of interest, focused on the priest. “Nice suit. Where’d you get Nana Riley’s number?” 

“Good afternoon, Yen. I got it from the phone book with a little help of rune casting to speed things along.”

“Ha. Roon Casting, is that another rich friend of yours? It’s so weird seeing you here, by the way. I didn’t know you could even exist outside your house and church. At this time too. It’s not even night yet.”

“Believe me, I don’t enjoy breaking the routine, but I do when it’s good for business.”

“And is it good today?” Yen lowered his voice conspiratorially. 

Blaise did the same. “Oh yes.”

“Right, speaking of which, here’s your drum.” Yen said in a normal voice again and pulled the drum and beater out of the bag, offering them to Blaise, but the priest waved the drum away. 

“Good, but hold onto it. Now, please follow me.”

“Alright…” Yen arched his eyebrows but did as told. They crossed a creaky hallway, arriving into a spacious living room of sorts. There were antlers mounted on the walls here and there, but not in a creepy way. Their tips were painted with pastel colors and he guessed the dried flowers in big stupid vases between them also helped. “So, what’s going on here exactly?” 

“The woman upstairs is suffering from a case of soul loss and is in need of simple treatment I can provide.”

Yen snorted. “The common soul loss, bah. Give her some aspirin, tell her it’s actually ground unicorn horn, she’ll be good as new. I’m surprised people still have souls to lose.”

Blaise nodded, “It’s almost like that. It’s always been rather easy to lose one’s soul. But it’s grown even more so in recent decades and professionals able of actually retrieving it are harder to come by.”

Yen blinked. “Okay… Whatever pays, I guess.”

The priest started treading back and forth across the hardwood floor of the living room. He seemed to be searching for the right place, and it looked like he was trying to accomplish that by picking the one that creaked in the most optimal fashion or something.

Yen looked at him questioningly, following him with the drum. “Don’t we need to fetch the old lady and like draw a pentagram around her with goat blood, or like red paint at least, and light up scented candles and such?”

Blaise paused in his search for the creakiest spot. “Not really. We’re not summoning the devil, we’re just retrieving her soul from a spirit’s clutches. I wouldn’t have even needed the drum to do it, but the malignant entity involved turned out to be particularly hard to deal with. It demands proper propitiation procedure. For my own reasons, I decided to humour it, and give it what it wants. And then, I will make it regret that it had me go that extra mile.”

Yen arched an eyebrow and gave the priest a very meaningful look, but that did nothing to make Blaise drop the charade, so he decided to roll with it. “So you got the drum, what do I do? Now you gotta let me know, should I stay or should I go?”

“You will stay in this world and bang it,” Blaise said and resumed walking.

“Haha, you know who I’d rather bang instead.”

“And that’s why I told them not to come downstairs.” The priest sighed. “Serious now, Yen. I decided to trust you to assist me with this, see how you would do as my apprentice. Do you think you’re up to the task?”

“Sure,” Yen said without thinking. He could bang a drum. How hard could it be? He couldn’t keep a straight face while scamming naive retirees out of their lifelong savings — it was too funny — but becoming a master hoaxer’s apprentice, this sounded like a very profitable and entertaining career choice. Perhaps the poker face would come with experience.

“Sit down then. Hold it this way, by the handle.” Blaise lifted and positioned his arm beside his head. “Your arms might grow tired, but don’t rest the drum on your knees or on the floor. Hit it like this. All you have to do is to keep up this rhythm at the beginning and at the end.”

Yen tried. The drum sounded hollow and kind of quiet. Not rock concert material. Yen hit it a dozen times, getting into the rhythm. “Ok. Got it. So, that’s the beginning and the end. What about the middle?”

“You’ll figure it out.”

“And it’s the beginning, middle and end of what exactly?”

“A shamanic journey. I will go into a trance, the beat will help me. Normally the drum would serve as my ride into the underworld and as a vessel in which to store the soul I retrieve. But don’t worry about it. Like I mentioned before, I’ve moved on from that. Today is a formality for the most part. You probably can’t do anything wrong.”

“You really shouldn’t tempt me into trying to fuck up on purpose.” Yen shook a finger at the priest, then assumed the drumming position. “Let’s do it.”

“Think of the drum beat as the beat of one’s heart.” 

“Mine or yours?”

“Both of them,” was the last thing Blaise said as he sat down, rested his palms on his knees and motioned for Yen to begin. When the first beat of the drum broke the silence, Blaise shut his eyes. His already calm face slipped into an even more tranquil expression, while the rise of his chest and shoulders betrayed the deeper breaths he took.

Yen kept the beat, nodding to the rhythm. It was a little idiotic, the whole charade, but if people wanted to pay them for a bit of sitting around and amateur drumming, refusing was off the table. What a lucrative business this whole ‘shamanism’ was. Blaise really was a brilliant conman. Yen smirked, watching the priest just sit and do nothing.

Suddenly the man held perfectly still. He seemed to have stopped breathing altogether. It lasted for a good while, and then Blaise’s eyelids began to twitch like those of a dreamer.

Yen arched an eyebrow, not sure why the priest would put on such a show for no one but him, but then again, he was a professional. Maybe it was practice or something. The lack of breathing made Yen uneasy, and without even noticing he sped up the beat.

With the rising pace of the drum, Blaise shuddered several times and then bared his teeth in a snarl. He jerked his body back and forth, and then grasped the air in front of him with both hands. He clenched his fingers, then wrenched them back towards himself. He opened his palms and small white-brown irregular rectangles began scattering on the floor around him. They kept falling and falling. Yen blinked. Once his hands were free, Blaise repeated the motion, and this time he held in his palms two larger roughly triangular objects of a similar color. Yen had no idea how he pulled them out of wherever he’d had them stashed so quickly.

Blaise dropped the triangles. And he tugged at the air one final time.

Yen slowed down the beating, bewildered by the masterful and completely unnecessary sleight of hand. He wanted to say something snarky, but had enough diligence to refrain and just keep beating the drum.

The priest opened his eyes. Looking past Yen, towards the stairs, roughly where the voices had been coming from when Yen first entered, the man opened his clenched fist. There was nothing there. Then Blaise blew over his open palm towards that point as if sending something invisible upwards.

“You can stop now,” he told Yen. “You’ve done well.”

Yen stopped drumming and gave him an honestly confused look.

Blaise motioned for him to hand over the drum and once Yen passed it to him, the man began collecting the white objects into it as if it were a bowl.

“What’s with the domino confetti or whatever that is?” Yen waved at the floor.

“It’s all that is left of the spirit that confronted me. Carpal and tarsal bones and the scapulas. I will turn them into my divining tools to spite it and to send the message across the spirit world that I am not to be trifled with. Which is something I thought we had already long established.”

Yen blinked a few times, completely unable to take any of this seriously. He grinned. “And what’s with blowing kisses at … what was it — the spirit world?”

“That was me returning the soul to the woman.”

“Aha. Sure. I mean, whatever pays…” he cut off, hearing steps from the direction of the stairs. Yen had to use up his month’s allowance of willpower not to grin like an idiot as the old white couple descended the stairs. 

Yen removed himself to the side as the two shaken patsies showered their finder of souls with gratitude. The old man was actually crying real tears, and the woman looked like she saw her home for the first time ever. Luckily they noticed Yen only after they finished writing Blaise a check. Yen made a titanic effort to not give them the finger because they were staring at him like Blaise had pulled him out of a parallel dimension. But he was part of this charade now, so he forced himself to smile at the old folks instead. It must have not come out too genuine, because they were shown the door moments after.

When they were both out, Blaise let him look at the check. There was no one written on the pay to line, and the amount was way more than decent for a few minutes of subpar musical performance, breathing exercise and littering.

Yen grinned. “You weren’t kidding. This trip really was good for business. How did they even find you, also through a phone book? Do you advertise on yellow pages?”

“I came recommended. And the money is not the primary reason.”

“Well, since money isn’t that important, you could donate some to a charitable cause. Like drumming courses for wayward youth.” Yen made a beckoning gesture with his hand.

Blaise smiled and doled out some pretty good cash he mysteriously happened to have on him, especially for a man who didn’t know he would be seeing Yen today.

Yen looked at him suspiciously. “Did you bring that from the underworld too?”

“No, but it may contain traces of spirits, so if you’re unhappy with that, you can give it back.”

“Nah, I’ll keep. I’m good with spirits.”

Blaise snorted. “That you are.”

Yen got on his motorbike and looked at the priest.

“Hm, I’d offer you a ride to town,” he said longingly and patted the seat behind himself. “But I don’t imagine you can wrangle your car’s spirit into driving home on its own, can you?”

Blaise shook his head and fetched his car keys from another mysterious pocket. Have they also been to the spirit world? Who knew.

“Unfortunately I have not yet ascended to that level of shamanic power, otherwise I would… consider. Perhaps.”

Yen laughed. “You know what, these ‘rituals’ of yours are fun, Daddy. If you ever need someone to rattle chains and howl down a hallway, call me up! I’ll even bring my own sheet. And all kinds of other props, though I see you got some covered. Those bones were a nice touch. Nice handiwork there in general, but next time you should have the dupes watch, maybe they’d add a tip on top.” 

Blaise opened the door to his car and got into the driver’s seat. Then, after what seemed to be a moment’s consideration, he rolled down the window and looked at Yen. “So you still think none of this was for real?”

“Of course it wasn’t,” Yen snickered.

“I see…” Blaise said slowly. “And do you ever wonder why nobody believes what you tell them about yourself, even when it’s not nearly as crazy as this seems to be?”

Yen’s smirk faltered. Then he snorted and shook his head unconvinced.

Blaise sighed. “Come boy, let’s see how fast that new bike of yours can go.” The priest revved the engine.

Yen grinned back at him.

Soon after, they raced each other along a country road, leaving the forest and the whole shebang in a big mean cloud of dust.

* * *

“Those cupcakes were worth picking up the phone for,” Yen said later that day as he chewed on the results of Sam’s hard work in the company of the other Pharaohs. “You should become a pastry chef, Sam.”

Sam shook his head.

“In all honesty, he’s onto something. Though sadly baking pays worse than working as a mover.” Josie took a large bite out of her own cupcake. “So just ignore us, man. And keep making these for us only, for free.” She winked.

Tamika smiled appreciatively and savoured her cupcake in silence, while Nakhti just smirked, licked his fingers and reached for another.

Sam mumbled something modestly and put up his dungeon master’s screen, shielding himself from the praise. He cleared his throat. The munching stopped as if on cue.

“Time for a recap. When last we checked up on our heroes, they had left Memphis on a quest from a priest of Ptah, to recover a stolen ceremonial scepter. Would you like to refresh the events that followed?”

“Didn’t Yen’s fighter headbutt one of our camels and kill it?” Tamika asked, rubbing her chin.

“My fighter has a name, and it is Hor, Hor the Unstoppable!” Yen corrected.

“The Unstoppable Hor!” Josie fist pumped.

The two of them made ape-like noises.

Sam winced a little bit at the name. But he had given a list of Ancient Egyptian names to Yen with his own two hands. No one else was to blame.

⚞ Z ⚟

Zack sat comfortably in a lawn chair on Nana Riley’s porch, feeling grateful for the bit of shade the porch roof provided. Even though it was mid-September, in the early afternoon the sun still packed a punch. Sam had come out some fifteen minutes earlier to provide him with a cold drink, snacks and a selection of reading materials. So even though he was stuck watching the bikes that stood peacefully in the shade to the side of the house, Zack didn’t feel too bad about his predicament.

The teenager glanced curiously in the direction of the living room of Nana Riley’s house. He wondered what the Pharaohs were doing. 

Maybe they were having sex. Zack felt his cheeks burn up. He’d be missing out so badly then. He didn’t even dream of them letting him take part, but the idea that behind that wall could be so much as a shirtless Nakhti… No, no, no, best not to go there. Zack quickly thought of the grossest thing he could, which turned out to be the memory of his own young self in a lion costume asking to go potty. Zack grimaced, the beginnings of arousal nullified entirely.

He picked up the cupcake from the plate on the windowsill beside him. He took a bite and made a noise of surprised appreciation. It was very good. It was even better with the smoothie.

Unless Sam had made this meal specifically for him, that had to be what all the Pharaohs were having at this very moment. Well, that didn’t go well with an orgy. What else could they be doing? They’d said it would be a couple of hours, and after the heat died down they would all ride until nightfall. Maybe they were catching a movie? Zack chewed thoughtfully.

The sound of two overly loud engines caught his attention. He turned his head and watched two guys on motorcycles ride up and stop in the driveway. The unfamiliar white bikers had cut-offs, just like the Pharaohs, but there was a prominent one percent patch on each one, and just under it another patch that read ‘Undying’. The men ignored Zack and headed towards the bikes he was watching.

“Hey.” Zack stood up and walked off the porch, then jogged to stand in their way. “Hey. May I help you somehow?”

“Move over, faggot.” The bearded blond at the front snarled. He was a head shorter than Zack and rather rotund, but he had an attitude. “Or we gonna hurt you.”

Zack looked at him. And then at his taller but bony buddy. They appeared to be in their thirties at least, flabby and not at the top of their game.

“No dice.” The teenager shook his head. “If you need something, we can do this the civilized way. If you want to start shit, I won’t let you.”

“Oh, yeah, you hear him, Mike? Faggot wants an ass-kickin’.”

The backup biker laughed.

Zack adjusted his footing.

* * *

“Roll for initiative,” Sam pronounced.

The Pharaohs rolled their d20s.

A shot rang out outside.

“Do those giant scorpions have guns?” Yen asked incredulously. “That’s a very realistic sound effect.”

“That wasn’t me.” Sam jumped to his feet, pale as a sheet, he looked out the window. “The Undying are here.”

“Shit!”

The bikers bolted outside.

Zack stood over two limp bodies with a gun in his hand. He slid the magazine out and tossed it aside. Then he pulled the slide, releasing the bullet still in the gun. He looked up to see the Pharaohs gathered on the porch, gaping at him.

“Uh, don’t worry, I think the bullet just went into the sky,” he said.

“This isn’t your gun, right?” Tamika asked.

“Oh, no, it’s this guy’s.” Zack nudged the skinny biker with his foot. The man on the ground groaned. “But he won’t be using it for a while. I think I injured his wrist.” The teenager sobered up. “Uh, I hope it’s not a problem, it was in self-defense…”

The Pharaohs all stared at him.

“Oh my God, Sam, you gotta give him five thousand experience points for this!” Josie shook the short Egyptian biker vigorously.

Yen scuttled over to the disarmed biker on the ground. “How much did he pay you?” he asked in a loud whisper.

Zack glared down at him.

“The fuck ‘re you talking about faggot?” the skinny guy grunted and turned to Yen with a hateful grimace of pain. His nose seemed broken.

“What did you do to them?” Tamika asked in disbelief.

“Well,” Zack began awkwardly, blushing under all the attention, “the fat guy over there tried to grab me, so I tripped him, I didn’t want to send him full-force into the concrete, so I kinda head-locked him for his own safety, then-”

“Fucking faggot, I’ll kill you!” the fat guy struggled to his feet. His face was red. He pulled a knife from his belt and on wobbly legs prepared to charge.

Zack threw the empty gun at him and hit him between the eyes. The biker dropped the knife, tripped over his own feet and fell over.

He lay on the ground muttering curses and clutching his head.

“That’s another thousand points, Sam! You’re gonna have to start him on level three!”

Zack looked at Josie and Sam in confusion.

Nakhti circled around the fallen enemies, then looked Zack right in the eyes.

“Good job,” he said.

It was the sexiest two words anyone had ever spoken.

Zack’s stomach filled with butterflies, and he fought hard to suppress a triumphant grin. He had to play it cool, or Nakhti would think he was just a lame kid. He shrugged. “Thanks.”

Yen snarled, but didn’t find anything critical to say.

The Pharaohs watched the one-percenters scramble to their feet and retreat to their bikes with their tails between their legs. Some of the neighbors were also watching, drawn to the scene by the noise of a shot.

“Everything is under control, just some irresponsible jackasses shooting into the air!” Tamika shouted towards the concerned onlookers and pointed at the leaving Undying.

“Is everything really under control?” Nana Riley appeared on the porch with a dusty shotgun.

“Nana, no,” Sam stepped up to her carefully. “Nana, put that away, the situation is resolved.”

“It sure is!” Josie proclaimed happily and waved towards the blood on the pavement. “Zack just totally beat up some assholes!”

“Oh, nice job!” Nana Riley lowered her gun. “Very good! But do hose that down before it dries.”

“Sure thing, Nana, just please, put the gun away.” Sam all but pushed the old woman back indoors, then came back and began cleaning as promised. While he stood hosing down the path, he turned to look at Zack and the celebrant Pharaohs with a serious expression. “This isn’t all fun and games, you know, Zack almost got shot. And he isn’t even an adult.”

“I had it under control,” Zack protested, terrified that he could lose his well-earned moment in the sun. “I’ve had self-defense classes since I was a kid.”

Sam shook his head. “This shouldn’t be happening. The Undying are getting unruly.”

”I’ll bring this up with the Locust if it happens again,” Nakhti said.

Sam nodded.

“I think Zack earned the right to join us indoors where it’s cool,” Josie insisted. “Show of hands, who thinks Zack should get a day off of bike watching?”

Everyone but Yen raised a hand. Yen made an unimpressed look and crossed his arms. “I’m still convinced this is a setup, and he paid them off.”

“Ok, tin foil hat’s opinion taken into account, democracy wins, come on in Zack.” Josie waved for Zack to come indoors.

“But who will watch the bikes?” the teenager asked.

“Don’t worry, boyo, I will,” Nana Riley came outside again and took his place in the chair.

Sam gave her a suspicious look, but saw no gun and did not protest.

“I’ll just yell for Zackie to come over and kick their asses if they return,” Nana Riley said contentedly.

The bikers thanked her and went back indoors. Zack followed them, excited to be included. He kicked off his sneakers and stepped into the living room. There he froze. They were playing a tabletop game with little colorful figurines on top of what looked like the world’s shallowest sand box with a bright blue plastic sink matt half-buried under the sand providing a sort of grid. Three colorful rubber scorpions lay between the figurines that appeared to be fighting them off.

Zack blinked in shock. This was as far removed from an orgy as he could imagine.

The Pharaohs sat down, the ladies on one side, Nakhti and Yen on another. Josie brought an extra chair. Sam took the place at the head of the table and pulled out a fresh character sheet from a stack of papers.

“So, Zack, what class do you want to be? We’re all playing humans, because the setting is Ancient Egypt, so I would prefer if you played a human too. But you can be a magic-user, if you like, or even a monk,” Sam offered generously. “We are not going for realism.”

Zack stared at the brightly colored scorpions. Yeah. They really weren’t.

* * *

Taylor heard the gunshot and ran towards it as fast as he could, feeling infinitely curious.

But when he reached the spot, there was nothing much to see. Only two sad excuses for bikers, riding away with their faces bloodied and their arms scraped. Life in the suburb was returning to its normal course. Nobody was panicking or weeping or dying. False advertisement.

The blond grunted in disappointment. The two riders with an image of a fist punching out of a grave on their backs soon disappeared behind a turn. And their opposition proved to be none other but the bunch of faggots that called themselves the Pharaohs. They were celebrating in front of a house with… Zack.

Taylor turned back the way the other bikers had escaped. He smirked. He ran after them.

⚞ ¥ ⚟

It was the Monday after the incident with the Undying, the sun was about to hide behind the roofs of the highrises, and Yen found himself again wandering the town with the vagrant goodie-two-shoes on an endless fetch-quest. It really was like some kind of roleplay, now that Yen thought of it — get an item here, do a chore there, exchange, rinse, repeat. Sam nailed it on the head back when he compared it to live action role playing. But Luke was taking it very seriously. Way too seriously. He was walking so fast, Yen had trouble keeping up.

It did not help that he liked to look around as they walked. And that was how he saw a familiar figure under a neon sign and fell behind completely.

“Sphinx! Long time no see!” Yen hurried over to a black man chilling by a brick wall next to an old motorbike. “Yo, Sphinx, my man, what’s up!”

The man said nothing, just looked at Yen without recognition. 

Luke noticed the lack of a biker at his side and walked over to them. He frowned as he recognized the dark-skinned man. It was the same man that had asked him a riddle on the staircase on the day he had acquired the compact disc. His eyes were red again. Luke cautiously approached Yen, who was still making a fruitless effort to rekindle a perceived acquaintance.

“Uh, Yen, I’m afraid he might be high…”

“What?! Racist Luke, shame on you!” Yen flicked a finger on Luke’s forehead, making him recoil in displeasure. “Sphinx is not a junkie. He’s allergic to pollen, you judgemental cracker.”

“I think you might have a case of mistaken identity there,” Luke said, wincing and rubbing his forehead.

“You have a case of mistaken identity! This is definitely my old buddy Sphinx. Come on, Sphinx, don’t give me the silent treatment. Hm? Hello?” Yen waved in front of the guy, who watched him with perhaps mild bewilderment now.

“Let’s go, Yen.” Luke pulled the discontent biker away and gently dragged him towards the thrift store he’d been leading them to. “We’ve got a lot of distance to cover, and it’s already late.”

“Yeah, yeah. Catch you later alligator!” Yen waved to the red-eyed guy and reluctantly let himself be dragged off and into the shop. He looked around, momentarily curious about what the shop had to offer. But a quick survey proved most of the clothes were women’s. That did nothing to deter Luke, who got busy browsing extremely eye-scorching short skirts. Yen opened his mouth to make a witty comment, but it would have been lost on Luke anyway, and Sphinx’s presence outside nagged at him. Seeing that Luke was not paying attention to him, he hurried out.

Yen came jogging back to where he had seen Sphinx. The man was getting on the motorbike.

“Wait up, Sphinx! Come on, man, what gives?” Yen ran up to him and stood in his path. “I thought we were tight!”

“I am on a job, Yen.” The man looked at him, then smirked. “Plus I like messing with you, you little shit.”

“Asshole. A job, huh?” Yen crossed his arms.

Sphinx

Sphinx shrugged and did not elaborate. “You know, Romeo still prays to God everyday, thanking him for taking you away from us.”

“Really?” Yen laughed.

“No, but he went to a mass and donated to a church once like he said he would when you finally left.”

Yen grinned ear-to-ear. “I made a pimp go to church. Let me memorize that.”

“Memorize it off the road. I’m on a schedule.”

“You know, I’m going to church myself recently, and it’s not even Ancient Egyptian…” Yen was about to move away when he felt a lightbulb come on above his head. “Say, Sphinx, you got a bike, do you want to join the Pharaohs?”

“The Pharaohs? You mean you fairy kids on bikes?”

“The very same.”

Sphinx said nothing and just stared blankly at his motorcycle. “Sure. Why not?” He shrugged. “Romeo keeps nagging me to get a hobby. On a scale from the passive aggressive ‘I guess it’s better than nothing’ to dragging me into couples counseling, let’s see how he likes this idea.”

“Awesome. Tell me how it goes.” Yen pulled a crumpled dollar from his pocket and eyeliner from his boot and quickly wrote down a number. “Call me when you’re free.” He passed the dollar to Sphinx, then courteously moved out of the way.

Sphinx looked at the dollar suspiciously, pocketed it, then nodded and drove off. Yen watched him with a smug grin.

Luke came out of the thrift store and jogged over to Yen with a backpack on his back. “Now I need you to drive me somewhere on your bike.”

“Woah, Skywalker, I wasn’t aware my bike is part of this equation.”

Luke frowned. “It is now. I understand you are paid well for this, and we are going out of town tonight. Would you prefer to go by bus?”

Yen groaned, but did not protest further. Having to choose between his bike and a giant overcrowded cage was no choice at all.

* * *

“Wait here.” Luke left him conspicuously close to a ‘Do not trespass’ sign, then did exactly that, walking into the forest… park… or whatever that was.

“Really?” Yen laughed. “I didn’t take you for a rule-breaker.”

“Don’t follow me.”

“Oh, I wouldn’t dream of it. Not on my bike.” Yen laughed. “Don’t bring back ticks.”

Luke said nothing. Yen sat on his bike, staring at the sign for a little while. Then he moved the motorbike into the shadow of the trees and behind a bush. He could see Luke wading in a close approximation of a straight line deeper into the woods. Yen grinned and, as sneakily as he could, followed.

It proved rather hard.

A few times he stepped on a twig and had to crouch behind a bush very quick to avoid Luke discovering him. But they were making progress.

“Yen? What are you doing here?”

The biker froze, mid-step. He turned his head.

“Tamika?! Well, I gotta ask the same of you, what the fuck?”

“I asked first.”

“I’m playing taxi for a homeless weirdo. You?”

“I was visiting a friend.”

“In the forest in the middle of nowhere?” Yen crossed his arms. “Seriously?”

“Seriously.” Tamika walked over to him and looked the way Luke left. “Come, there’s nothing for you here.” She turned Yen around.

Yen looked over his shoulder. He could no longer see Luke. He shrugged and let Tamika lead him out of the woods.

⚞🌼⚟

Xenia lay immobile in a mirror-like pond. The tops of the trees on one side of the pond shone with the color of the setting sun, while the other side stood dark in stark contrast to the red sky. Xenia’s hair, much like the reflection of the sunset, floated golden red between the white waterlilies.

She watched languidly as a shadow moved between the trees.

Luke stepped out into the dim light and stared at her with his usual guilty puppy eyes. Xenia sighed.

“Watching you hurts more than my injuries. Don’t blame yourself, Luke.”

“They hurt you because of me.” Luke stood in place, wringing his sleeve in his hands.

“No, they hurt me because I got too cocky. You tried to warn me.”

“If not for me, they would have had no intere-”

“No, Luke, stop.” Xenia lifted a hand and cut him off. “Don’t argue with me. This is my own fault. And anyway, all’s well that ends well. I hear after tonight they should be off your case. Is that true?”

“Yes…” Luke walked around the pond, still bothering his clothes nervously. “I have to go with them tonight. But Neha will be there with me. She seems to be able to easily subdue them.”

Xenia smiled sadly.

Luke caught her expression and quickly added. “Like you did too. They simply haven’t had enough time to study her. They’re far too dangerous. I hope all this is resolved peacefully.”

“Don’t worry, Luke. El knows what he is doing.” Xenia rested her hands on the bank and pulled herself partially out of the water. Making sure Luke wasn’t looking, she allowed herself a wince of pain.

Luke crouched on the bank beside her and took off his backpack. “I brought you something.”

Xenia’s expression cleared. And then a bright smile bloomed on her face. “Oh, Luke! These are lovely!” She accepted the neatly folded colorful skirts and blouses and arranged them on the grass, studying each one with great interest.

Luke watched her with a smile.

“Thank you!” Xenia put on a blouse, which instantly got wet from the soaked clothes she already had on. She turned to Luke with a smile. “This is very sweet of you.” She tilted her head, letting the curtain of her red hair shift. She moved it behind her ear and moved closer to him in the water.

Luke’s eyebrows furrowed. She was very pretty. No, she was beautiful. Beautiful like a field of blooming wildflowers, like a coat of snow on trees in the winter, like the first buds in spring. Her hair shone like the dying leaves of autumn. Luke let himself be drawn in. Their faces were inches apart. She did not close her eyes, watching him from under heavy lashes. He glimpsed his reflection in her eyes and recoiled.

They stayed silent for a moment. Him — sitting heavily on the grass, her — floating gracefully in the pond. Finally, Xenia burst into a melodious laugh.

“You know, this never happens. If I want a man, they always succumb.” She gave Luke a genuine smile that turned somewhat sad. “You must have a lot on your mind.”

Luke watched her for a moment as his heartbeat slowed, and his thoughts went back to an orderly, measured pace. He knew exactly why he couldn’t do this. And it wasn’t just the Ordnung. “The kisses from these lips are not mine to give,” he said and covered his mouth with a hand. “I stole enough from the Mances.”

Xenia watched him sadly. “You are too harsh on yourself.”

“I’ve hurt too many people…” Luke sighed, then shook his head. “I won’t hurt any more. Hopefully the Citizens will finally leave me alone after tonight. Come what may.”

“Don’t worry, Neha will look after you.”

Luke frowned, looking bitter. “I truly hope she can. Those two vipers nearly killed you.”

Xenia snorted, but it wasn’t a happy laugh. She looked away and traced a circle on the water of the pond. He was never going to fall for her. She could as well be honest. “They couldn’t kill me, Luke.” She looked into his eyes. “I’ve been dead for a long, long time.”

⚞ ¥ ⚟

Nakhti pulled the levers inside the massive clawed machine, and it gored the front of an old van, brutally wrenching the engine out of it. 

Back from his weird trip out of town and rid of Luke, Yen rode to the junkyard and was now watching his boyfriend work with solemn respect. All of the bikers despised cars, but Nakhti hated them so much he killed dozens everyday.

If that wasn’t badass, what was?

Yen grinned and made faces as cars were brutalized and mercilessly crushed. He wanted to boo at them and yell slogans, but he had been kicked out of the junkyard before, and right now was not the time to get Nakhti in trouble at work. He needed the guy in a good mood.

After the last batch of cages was sent to auto-heaven, the Egyptian Mr. Universe was done for the day. Yen left his observation spot on top of a stack of scrap metal to saunter towards Nakhti.

“Hey, gorgeous man machine.” He grabbed a handful of black hair and pulled Nakhti into a kiss.

Nakhti reciprocated, then pulled away and arched one dark eyebrow. “So, what’s going on?”

Yen grinned at him. “I have some ass-kickin’ news. I scored the Pharaohs an actual, genuine prospect, not some snot-nosed million dollar baby. This guy’s an actual biker. And, take this in… he’s called Sphinx! We don’t even need to give him a new nickname or anything.”

“Oh really now?” Nakhti marvelled. “I don’t recall announcing a recruiting contest.” He tugged off his regulatory working vest and headed for the squat little building where his colors were stored safely in his locker.

“Well, lucky for Sam you didn’t, because I would totally win this one. However!” Yen lifted a finger into the air. “We only have five full-time members in our MC, that’s borderline. We should have more, and who better to start with than someone called Sphinx? I mean, really.” Yen followed Nakhti inside and exchanged greetings with another junkyard worker, who just shook his head at the bikers and left.

Nakhti drank some water from a bottle, pulled on his club-patched leather jacket and gathered his personal belongings, which mostly consisted of a pack of cigarettes. He took one out, offered another to Yen and tucked the pack into the front pocket of his jacket. “I’m gonna need to know more than just a name,” he said as he lit both their cigarettes. 

“He’s an old acquaintance from when I lived on the streets. Black, adult, spoken for. He’s on the quiet side, so you’re gonna love him. Think Sam, but instead of short and stout, skinny and tall and doesn’t act like everyone’s mom,” Yen described as they stepped outside. “Also he can kick ass. Or could, he’s kind of trying to retire from what I gather.”

Nakhi headed for his bike. “I don’t know, Yen. Somehow seems ever shadier now. I don’t exactly feel like this club needs expanding right now.”

“But you accepted the stupid kid! He rides a Harley for fuck’s sake, Sphinx has a normal bike, like the rest of us. If we’re letting fucking babies on tricycles in, why in hell not a guy called ‘Sphinx’?!”

“I have the impression we’ve had this conversation at least three times already. You know the exact circumstances under which we recruited Zack. The kid is a special case.”

“Oh wow, the gas station dude recommended him, what credentials!” Yen threw his hands into the air. “I’m sure the gas station dude knows best who makes a good biker, I mean that’s why he doesn’t have a bike. He doesn’t need one, he propels himself with sheer willpower or gas-”

“You know well that we recruited Zack because Sam wouldn’t have it any other way. But you know what? I’m glad it happened. He’s pulled his weight yesterday, and I’ve got a feeling he’ll continue to do so. And what about you? Recently you’re gone off to who the Hell knows where more often than not.”

Yen gaped at him. “I thought we had an open relationship. Who do you think you are?! Samut Senior?! I go wherever the fuck I want!” Yen pointed a finger into Nakhti’s face. “I haven’t missed any significant club gatherings! I killed that giant scorpion in one round!” Yen shook his finger in front of Nakhti’s nose. “It was two natural twenties in a row! I fucking did maintenance on your bike last week, I let you shine it with the stuff I stole from work! Now I found us a fucking awesome Egyptian-themed prospect!” Yen inhaled loudly. “And I am not pulling my weight?!”

Nakhti looked at him with complete calm, then smirked. “Are you really waiting for me to say that stealing is fine? Besides, sphinxes are also a part of the Greek mythos, and they are also a breed of hairless cats. So did you pull your weight in doing the research?” 

“He got the nickname because he had a broken nose. And that’s the right kind of sphinx, smartass.” Yen lowered his hand. “And don’t pull the goodie-two-shoes on me, mister. I am not Sam. We both know him and the kid are the only reason we don’t drink and drive.”

“We also both know that were it not for Sam, you would still be eating from a trash can, maybe you wouldn’t even be alive.” Nakhti got on his bike, which was indeed quite shiny. “Anyway stop raging. If you get everyone else to agree, then maybe we can audition that Sphinx of yours.”

“Everyone doesn’t include the kid, right?” Yen got onto his own bike, but kept his eyes on Nakhti.

The club leader shrugged. “He’s got a character sheet now, you know, you better be careful.” With that, he started his bike and drove off.

Yen glared behind him and followed.

⚞☆⚟

Luke was waiting stiffly in the agreed place at the mouth of the alley. But he wasn’t alone. Two old women were standing with him, one at each side. Wilma and Betty were both thinking the same thing but neither of them said a word. Betty pulled up in front of Luke and the two hags in deadly silence. Wilma sighed and rolled down the window of the shotgun seat. “Are you all… coming together?”

“Yes,” their Indian nemesis in pink said with a frown. “Is that somehow a problem?”

“No, not at all.” Wilma did not sound like she meant it. She looked at the three of them searchingly, probably puzzling over what the new, taller crone could be capable of.

Alena chuckled merrily. “Oh, it’s been awhile since I got a ride to anywhere! This is going to be so lovely, I just feel it in my bones.”

“It’s your arthritis, honey,” Neha clarified helpfully.

Luke hesitated before the car. He did not share Alena’s cheer or Neha’s confidence.

“Get on in, we haven’t got all night,” Wilma barked and rolled the window back up.

Luke opened the car door for Neha and Alena. Neha got in, grumbling something about awful cars, and began fidgeting in her seat.

“Probably better if you sat between us.” Alena said and knowing their love for conflict, Luke nodded, climbing in before her. 

As soon as Alena got in and closed the door, the car jerked into motion. Luke tried to give the old ladies as much space as possible, but they were both quite small, and in the end he did not need to shrink for all three of them to fit comfortably. At least it seemed so at first. On his right, Alena was sitting nice and straight, with her seatbelt buckled in and smiling at the passersby, but on his left, Neha was still writhing and folding in half, trying to find the perfect position. She was holding the head of the seatbelt as if it was a poisonous snake. She then tried to jam it into the buckle as if she was stabbing an assailant. Luke helped her buckle up and made even more space. But he yielded too much room perhaps, because after a while she settled across the backseat, with her back against him and with the soles of her shoes against the side door.

“So, where are we going?” Luke broke the awkward silence a few minutes into the ride. “Nowhere dangerous I hope because, like El said, my powers are no longer there.”

“It’s nothing you have to worry about, Lucky. Better tell us, how exactly did your powers go missing?” Wilma answered with a question of her own.

“They… they just did.”

“Yes, but how? How does one make powers like that disappear? We would love to know.”

“I… Why would I tell you? And I don’t really know how things work. Don’t ask me.”

Wilma looked back at him predatorily, as if sensing his struggle to tell lies.

“It doesn’t matter how they went away,” Neha saved him. “You really want to know how? I took them, mine now, you want them out? Try and get them.”

“Poor Luke, the helpful sweetheart, is truly powerless, and that’s why we are here to protect him,” Alena voiced her concern. “From nasty girls such as you.”

Wilma snorted.

“Don’t you snort at us. Not after what you did to Xenia, that poor dear.”

Wilma pursed her lips and turned back to watching the road. She knew when to pick her battles.

Neha undid her seatbelt, took her shoes off and opened the window. Then she leaned on Luke comfortably and stuck her feet outside. She sighed with contentement. “Now, Luke asked you something first, how do you expect us to tell you anything when you yourself don’t answer.”

“Fine.” Wilma said without looking back. “We’re going to visit an acquaintance and test Luke’s power in a game of chance. Correct me if I’m wrong Lucky, but as far as we know, you don’t have to be on board with whatever goal we have in mind. It’s enough if you’re with us when we need something to happen.” 

“Yes…” Luke said carefully.

“Pff, and how will you tell.” Neha interrupted again. “Is it card games? Bet it is. Everyone wants to win in a card game.”

“Exactly. And that’s where stuff should start exploding. Isn’t that right, Lucky Luke?”

Luke was looking at Wilma wide-eyed. “Yes… But why would you want that to happen?”

Wilma shrugged. “We’re not going to our place. We don’t care.”

“What about the person who owns the place?”

“He’s resourceful, he’ll find a way to profit from it somehow.”

Then her own eyes opened wide as she finally took in the sight of Neha’s feet sticking out of the window. “Oh, you gotta be fucking kidding me. Get those feet back down, or I’ll shoot you.”

“Language, girl.” Neha threatened Wilma with a finger, then saw the apprehension in Luke’s face. “Neh, she won’t shoot me, she knows better now,” she said calmingly. “Varicose, old age, got to keep the feet up. I could put them on your friend’s seat instead if that’s preferable.”

“No,” Betty said.

“Well then. Alenka sweetheart, you should try this too, it’s refreshing.”

“Well don’t mind if I do!”

Wilma’s expression turned as dead-eyed as Betty’s was everyday.

With two pairs of calloused old lady feet sticking out of the windows, they drove for a while through the dark streets, until the tenements and neon-lit high-rises gave way to smaller residential homes. Their destination proved to be a small house at the edge of town where the city began to slowly turn into farmland. The lights were on, and as Betty parked, their host appeared on the porch.

He was a buck toothed blond in a stained t-shirt and jeans overalls. 

“Leland, good to see you.” Wilma got out of the car like it was on fire. “Meet Luke and whoever these people are.”

“Alena,” the white haired lady introduced herself as soon as she was out of the car. “Nice to meet you.”

“Floyd Leland. Mah pleasure, m’am.” The blond nodded.  

“What a nice lad you are. And handsome too.” Alena smiled to him. “But you have some rude friends, young man.” She added in a conspiratorial whisper.

Handsome wasn’t probably the right word to describe Leland, but he did look young. He shrugged. “One takes what friends one can get.”

Meanwhile, the Indian lady scoffed at Luke’s attempt to help her out of the car. “I’ve already introduced myself once this year, that’s enough.” Neha grumbled when she finally got out. Luke made sure to introduce her nonetheless.

Then Leland led them onto the porch and held the door open for them. “Come on in, it’s airish outside. And no need to remove the shoes, folks.” When everyone went in, the host followed them inside and then led the way into a tidy though old-fashioned kitchen. There were four matching chairs around the turquoise painted table, and noting the number of visitors, Leland stepped out of the kitchen and swiftly came back bringing two more.

“Would you, ladies, like beer or dope? And by dope ah mean sodey pop.”

“Nothing for me,” Neha said in her usual angry manner.

“Oh, I would love some pop.” Alena took a seat at the table, and when Leland went to the fridge to get her a drink, she whispered to Luke loudly. “What a lovely, lovely young man.”

Luke looked a little uncomfortable, then called out to their host. “I would like a glass of water, please. No ice.”

“Beers for us,” Wilma said and sat down too.

Leland set down their drinks and a box with poker chips. Wilma and Betty found themselves face to face with Neha and Alena in the turquoise chairs, while Leland sat down in one of the mismatched chairs from another set, these ones unpainted.

Luke flinched, standing next to his chair. “I would rather not sit at a gambling table.”

“Feel free to move the cheer over yander then.” Leland nodded towards the corner and produced a deck of cards from his breast pocket. He started trick shuffling them.

“No funny business, Leland.” Wilma shook a finger at him.

“What, you want me to shuffle them all plain-like?”

“Yes, please.”

“Deal us in.”

Wilma and Leland turned towards Neha. The blond’s face was just as blank as before, but Wilma frowned. “What?”

“I said, ‘deal us in’, deaf-ears. Alena and I will play as well. We didn’t come here to be bored.”

Leland shrugged and went on shuffling. “Fine by me.”

Luke meanwhile migrated to the indicated corner and put his glass of water on a counter.

The others were about to begin, when the floor in another room creaked. Everyone turned their heads, alert. Except for Leland. A skimpily dressed woman came in. She looked like she came off the pages of a playboy magazine, and she headed right for Leland, with a generous bounce to her full hips. She hugged the buck-toothed man from behind.

Leland turned his head and planted a kiss on the woman’s cheek, then got up. “Meet my current babe, Candy. I’ll go fetch another cheer for ya hun.”

“Thank you, Floyd, sugar, you’re so kind!” The woman cooed with exaggerated affection.

Wilma stared at the newcomer in mild disbelief. Neither she nor Betty believed Leland could land anyone good-looking, and this woman was as good-looking as could be. She was currently leaning back against the kitchen sink and combing her luscious brown hair back with her fingers. Wilma and Betty exchanged a look and agreed in silence that Candy must have been hired specifically for this evening. There was just no way Leland was tapping that free of charge.

“Oh, isn’t she pretty?” Alena whispered loudly to Neha. “Almost as pretty as Xenia.”

The woman smiled, delighted.

Neha grunted. It came out sounding kind of like ‘yeah right’.

Leland came back with another chair. He set it down and turned to his gorgeous girlfriend. “Will you be playing with us hun?”

“No baby, I don’t know these funny games. When can we go and mmmm again?”

“I’ll learn you to play.” Leland offered. “Or give me one ahr, babe. Then I’m all yours.”

“Aw baby, I don’t know how I’ll survive this long without you.”

“Then lollygag a while, maybe you’ll catch on.”

“Okay, but please win quick…” Candy whined. She started to go around the table. 

Wilma and Betty moved their cards closer to their chests.

Leland snorted. “Dun worry. She ain’t much of a fool for cards. Best she’ll do is look at them purty pictures.”

“They are pretty, all the kings and queens,” she sighed dreamily. “Gets me in the mood just thinking about them.”

Candy sounded like a woman with simple needs. Leland had to give her another smooch before she finally left them alone. She settled on the window sill and pulled her skirt up, looking at something high up on her leg. Luke averted his eyes instantly.

At the table, the game continued.

* * *

Luke watched them play. He did not understand the game or have any desire to try. What he was watching for were signs that bad things were about to start happening. Any creak of the old house, the fridge noises or an unexpectedly cleared throat made him sit straight at attention during the first fifteen minutes or so. Then slowly he relaxed. Just a little bit.

He couldn’t believe this would be the last time he would ever see Wilma and Betty. He truly hoped so. He caught Wilma looking at him a few times, but he made sure to control himself and not reach for the talisman. It was hidden deep under his clothes and before coming over, he had asked Penny to check that the cord was impossible to see. So as long as he didn’t betray it, the women would never know.

Suddenly something in his peripheral vision changed. Luke looked to the right and noted that Leland’s underdressed lady friend was no longer on the window sill. When he looked back, it turned out she was standing to his left instead. And somehow, without a sound, she had moved uncomfortably close to him.

Luke backed away sideways together with his chair, but that did not stop her. 

“You look smart so you gotta know… are the queens getting it on with the kings… or with the jacks? I just can’t stop thinking about it, makes me all restless…”

“Uhm uh…”

“It’s both, right? I was thinking the same. You’re smart and cute!” 

She reached out and stroked his face with a pretty pink fingernail.

Luke jerked away as if he’d been burned. But that did nothing to deter Candy. Instead her finger slid down and rested on his jacket. She pressed down and ran her fingertip exactly down the leather cord his talisman hung on.

Luke nearly jumped out of his skin. He grabbed the seat of the chair under him and backed off so violently he slammed into the wall and almost fell over.

The group at the table turned to look at them.

“Please, don’t touch me…” Luke stared at the woman in terror, praying in his mind that it was just an accident, and that Wilma and Betty saw nothing.

“Dun worry on my account, I’m not the jealous type,” Leland said calmly, moving a small pile of won chips towards himself. “Enjoy it while it lasts. Hun’s bit impatient, is all. She might straddle ya, give ya a close cuddle, don’t mean no harm.”

“No, please, none of that.” Luke felt like running away, but he didn’t want to make a scene or give Wilma and Betty food for thought. He lifted his arms in a defensive manner and frowned at the woman, trying to show her advances were unwanted while also blocking further access to his jacket and the talisman hidden under his clothes.

The woman gave him a long sexy look and lifted her finger from the air where it was no longer touching Luke, putting it into her mouth instead.

Luke winced and looked down at the floor in intense displeasure.

“Do you need protection there?” Neha looked over her cards.

“No…” Luke managed faintly, his ears burning with embarrassment.

“Neh. I think you do… Lady, listen here!” Neha barked to get the woman’s attention. “This boy’s only attracted to helping folks. So maybe if you were starving, cold and homeless, he’d give you a hug. But you aren’t. And you don’t need help. So just wait half-an-hour.”

* * *

Leland surveyed his mountain of chips.

“Obliged to you’ns for coming. It was a pleasure.”

“No it wasn’t,” Neha grumbled. “Let’s go, Alena. Luke.”

Wilma stayed in place, glaring at the mostly empty table. Betty was just unperturbed as usual.

“You won all this? I knew you would, baby” Candy cheered for Leland.

He raised his can of beer to her.

“Let’s go, Betty.” Wilma stood up and stormed out of the house before Luke and the two old ladies made it out the door. Betty followed. Then the remaining three watched the car pull out of the driveway and speed away.

Luke looked at the old ladies uneasily. It was the dead of night, and they were quite far from the tenement.

“No worries, folks, I’ll carry you’ns where you’ns need to be.” Leland got up and walked over to his woman. He gave her a kiss, then headed outside. “I’ll go get the truck.”

“What a lovely young man,” Alena said again. This time Luke and Neha grudgingly agreed.

* * *

Back at the tenement Luke swiftly retired to the room he shared with Penny.

Alena lingered in the common room, studying a small rectangular card. Neha frowned and walked over, disapproving but curious.

“What is this trash?”

Alena pressed the card to her chest. “Nothing for your eyes.”

“Looks like a business card.”

“It is,” Alena crooned. “But that’s not all.” She tilted the card showing Neha a hand-written phone number initialled ‘F.L.’.

Neha’s eyebrows rose for once. “Huh… Good job. I guess.”

Alena smiled and smugly hid it under the shawl she was wearing and deep in her saggy cleavage.