The morning found Wyatt well rested and absolutely relaxed. He opened his eyes not fearing anything at all. If that was how having sex with Hector could look like from now on, then Wyatt’s world was suddenly a brighter, happier place.
Hector was gone, and on his side of the bed, was a note, telling Wyatt to let the staff know when he was ready to have breakfast. Hector would join him then. Wyatt sighed contentedly and stretched. He felt suddenly optimistic about things. Not only did it seem that he was going to survive this whole ordeal and live out a full life, but the whole experience itself was also becoming less terrifying and more enjoyable. And he felt he could make it even better by simply talking to Hector.
He showered and dressed in his non-Halloween clothes from yesterday that have been waiting for him perfectly clean and fresh, and then he shuffled out of the room and into the many corridors of the mansion.
He spotted a maid in one of them, and waved to her.
“Good morning. Could you please tell Mr. Viteri to meet me for breakfast?”
* * *
“Hi Dad, hi Wyatt! Oh my God! Did you see the pictures?!” Zack all but ran into the morning room, brandishing a magazine. The cover showed a blank-faced French monarch standing next to a fountain of wine, surrounded by police officers. There was blood on the floor in front of him, and the text on the magazine cover was positioned in a way that put an accent on that and the gun that one of the police officers in the foreground was bagging.
“Did Bart really kill all those people?! What the hell?” Zack gaped at Hector and the magazine in turns.
“He only shot the attackers.” Hector corrected him. “In defense of the general public.”
“Yeah, right.” Zack snorted. “How’d he know they were dangerous in the first place? Maybe they were just looking to mug you people.”
“Would you prefer if he didn’t shoot them, and we found out first-hand?” Hector raised an eyebrow.
“I guess not.” Zack winced.
“They weren’t wearing masks,” Hector said seriously. “If they were going to mug us, they would have covered their faces.”
“Hm, I suppose you’re right…”
“Did you read the actual article?” Hector asked.
“Not really. A little bit.”
“Well, if the journalists did their homework, they would know Bartholomew’s father was killed in a violent home invasion. So I am not surprised that Mr. Shaazgai would shoot first, ask questions later.” Hector shrugged. “I actually approve of that policy. He saved our lives.”
“Huh, I didn’t know about his dad.” Zack looked uneasy. “You’d think with a Shaazgai getting murdered, they’d be trumpeting that in the news for years to come.”
Wyatt felt a bit dumb, but since he resolved to communicate with Hector, he stuck to his resolution. “Who are the Shaazgais? You sound like they’re well known, but I never heard the name until I met the guy… I mean, Bartholomew…”
“The Shaazgais are a clan of world-class lawyers, and they are very private people.” Hector took the magazine from his son and flipped through it. There was a dossier on Bartholomew Shaazgai in there, and Hector pointed to an old photo of a man who looked a lot like Shaazgai but with less voluminous hair and somehow even more bitter. “This is his father, Henry. Brutally cut down in his own home by a crazed maniac who was later shot by the police. Know before you judge.”
Zack looked uncomfortable. He nodded, then took the magazine from Hector and skimmed the article. He looked back at Hector. “Did Bart really shield himself with his date?”
Hector shrugged. “He did. Like I said, he had reasons to panic.”
Zack did not look entirely convinced, but dropped the topic. Instead he turned a number of pages and pointed out a different photo. “Change of topic. Here are some proper, fun Halloween photos. You look badass, Dad, a real beast! I want these in our family photo album.” The full page photo showed Hector in wolfman makeup, snarling fiercely and gleefully at the camera, while Wyatt did a decent Dracula impression in the background, hiding the lower part of his face with his cape. The teenager beamed at Hector and then also at Ocher. “You look cool too, Wyatt.” Zack looked back at the magazine. “But not much like a real Dracula, more like the Count from Sesame Street or I Vant to Bite Your Finger, you know, the game…”
Wyatt snorted. “That’s… fair…. I guess.”
Zack dropped into the chair to Hector’s left. “How have you two been? Aside from almost getting killed, you had fun at the party, I hope?” The boy glanced towards Wyatt discreetly, while staying turned towards his dad.
Wyatt showed him a quick thumbs up.
“It was a nice evening, far fewer paparazzi than last year’s Christmas ball, hopefully this trend persists. And I’d rather avoid a commotion next year,” Hector said, adding some salad onto the plate Zack just filled mostly with bacon and ketchup. “What about you, Junior, going to any Halloween parties?”
Zack opened his mouth, but his father continued.
“… ones without alcohol or sex, not to mention drugs?”
Zack pouted. “You’re a killjoy, Dad.”
“That’s my job as a parent.”
“Maybe you should retire.”
Zack sighed. “Ugh… what about people being naked without me interacting with them? Like what if some people were shagging, and I just happened to pass by?”
Hector turned to him slowly, staring the teenager down.
“You never know what all the legal adults might be up to. I don’t want to go to a party in a blindfold, it doesn’t sound safe.”
“If you can promise me you will not partake in alcohol, drugs or sex, you can go.”
“What about rock’n’roll?”
“Rock’n’roll is fine, as long as you mean the genre of music and not a metaphor for sex.”
Zack rolled his eyes. “Music, Dad.”
“It’s alright by me on those conditions. Are you going with those bikers of yours?”
“Are they… clean?” Hector asked seriously.
“Yeah, Dad. They are. And you know it. The Flintstones told me all about it.” Zack looked at his father judgmentally.
“Touché,” Hector sighed.
“But just so you know, they’re more well-behaved than half of my class, honestly. They don’t even speed. Within city limits. Model citizens, and I don’t mean like your goons.”
Hector nodded, satisfied. “You can go.”
“Awesome!” Zack grinned, then he turned to Ocher. “How did you like Bache’s party, Wyatt? Minus the shooting, of course.”
“Well I can’t say I remember anyone’s names, but I had a lot of fun.” Ocher flashed a genuine smile, shoved a forkful of fried eggs into his mouth and said, “You should have sheen how your dad verbally deshtroyed gay-bashing Henry the VIII.”
“Now I almost wish I’d been there. What’s that about Henry the VIII?” Zack grinned and turned to his father.
Hector shrugged. “Gideon Nichols made some rude factually incorrect remarks. I put him in his place.”
“Ha!” Zack smirked. “Good going, Dad, I knew that guy was a dick.”
“Language, Junior. I was of a higher opinion of him, but now I know better.”
“I always despised the old fart.”
“Junior!” Hector frowned.
“Alright, alright. So did you two like… dance or something? To set that guy off?”
“We did,” Ocher said. “I hope they won’t put those photos in the newspapers though…”
“They won’t, darling,” Hector reassured him. “But I requested a few for our private use.”
* * *
Wyatt was thankful that he’d only been dropped off at his apartment after he’d had dinner with the Viteris, because it turned out that his fridge was a frozen wasteland, with a touch of cemetery air. He threw out a moulded jam, a rock-solid piece of dry cheese, checked the time and resolved to get some groceries for Sunday while the shops were still open.
There was one shop really close by, but it was presided over by that rat-faced clerk who’d turned out to be one of the Citizens. The constantly sleepy looking baja-wearing guy that didn’t even bat an eyelash at that dismembered man in the sports bag. Wyatt never went to that shop anymore.
When he was coming back with the groceries purchased from what he hoped was a legitimate local business, it was already dark. Wyatt sighed. October was coming to an end, and the days were getting shorter and shorter. He frowned when a familiar voice called out his thief nickname.
“Hey, Ocher. Can you step over here for a bit?” Hunter’s voice came again from a narrow poorly lit bystreet. The older thief stood there smoking, most of his bony face drowned in shadow. The part Ocher could see looked gloomy, but then again Hunter’s most common expression was quite sour. Not that Ocher could blame him, all things considered.
“Oh, hi Hunter. Sure, but what’s the matter?”
“Come, me and the others want a word with you. Now.” Hunter walked into the alley.
That was… unusually curt. Ocher followed him, grocery bags in his hands. He felt apprehensive. It wasn’t strange to find Hunter waiting for him like this, he would often ask for money this way, but the others? What did they want with him now?
When they reached a solitary lamp hanging over the backdoor of a restaurant, the other thieves came into view. Kat stood leaning against a wall, crutch under one arm. Craig stood beside her with his arms crossed. Hunter joined them and now that they were all properly lit, Ocher saw cuts and bruises on their faces. He looked at them wide-eyed.
“What happened to you guys?”
Kat looked at him wryly. “Really, Ocher? Really?”
Ocher looked at her in absolute confusion. And then, horrified, he realized. The jewelry shop heist… it was supposed to be on Friday. That Friday. The Friday he’d spent by Hector’s side dressed as a vampire, without even letting his friends know he wouldn’t be there. He’d never forgotten anything so completely…
“Oh god, I am so sorry, guys, fuck, I am so totally extremely sorry…”
“Of course you are,” Craig said angrily. “So sorry you were munching caviar with your millionaire sugar daddy while our asses almost got busted because we were one man short!” Craig pulled a newspaper out of his pocket and shook it at Ocher. It had one of the vampire and werewolf on the stairs photos, and here somehow the photographer caught Wyatt with his face uncovered. “You’re in the news! And we were this close-” Craig gestured, showing with his fingers, “-this close to being in the criminal column or necrologue! My car will need to be towed to the junkyard when the heat dies down, Kat twisted her ankle, Two-Bits… Well, he’s more fucked than usual, we’re all gonna be behind on our dues, and it’s all your fault!”
Ocher wanted to say something, something deeply apologetic and remorseful. He failed them, and he had pretty much no excuse now, and he didn’t even feel like trying to excuse himself.
“Craig, I am really, really-”
Craig’s punch knocked the wind out of him, and he bent in half. His legs were kicked out from under him. Ocher landed on the ground among his scattering groceries. On instinct he covered his head with his arms. Thankfully Craig did not try to kick him in the head, his work boots were dangerously heavy. Dirty rainwater flew into Ocher’s shielded face as the other thief kicked him furiously in the stomach, side and legs, and Ocher curled up, trying to protect himself as best he could.
It felt fucking awful to be hurt liked that by a guy he kind of considered a friend. But he deserved this. He knew he deserved it. He did, but he was a wimp, and Craig wasn’t being too mindful about where his boots were going, so Ocher tried to plead with him.
“Craig, please, stop… c-come on guys, I-m…ouu… I’m sorry!”
It didn’t help. Craig only kicked him harder.
“Don’t just stand there, Hunter!” Kat exclaimed, frustrated. “At least kick him for me!”
A moment later Ocher felt slow half-hearted shoves of Hunter’s soft sneakers on his legs. Craig, meanwhile, kept kicking with passion and determination.
“You damn cock-sucker, Ocher! So much for all the preparation, all the planning! I spent months on this gig, I counted on you, and you went on a fucking date with a rich faggot twice your age! Too good for thieving with your friends, huh?! Too good to even warn us that you might have other plans?!” Craig’s breath was growing heavy with effort. “You sick, egoistic, ass-kissing fuck!”
“Craig, we’re all mad, but you’re gonna hur-”
“Fuck off, Two-Bits!” Craig snapped. “You have any idea how much I paid for that car? No?! Then shut up!” Craig was kicking Ocher harder and harder, seemingly not intending to stop. “And you, you sack of shit…”
Ocher didn’t register much of what was said afterwards. It could have been seconds or maybe a couple of minutes, but he was hurt and cold, muddy water soaking through his clothes on one side while pain exploded all over his torso and spread almost evenly through his lower legs. Colors and darkness exploded in front of his eyes. Then he heard gasps, cries and sounds of struggle, and he became vaguely aware that he was no longer being kicked. Someone else was crying out and muttering something.
Wyatt sat up slowly, his head still spinning from pain. He looked in mute shock at Kat lying a few feet away, her face a mask of horror. Hunter was beside her, shaking his head violently, lips moving without sound even as he covered the side of his dirty bloodied face. On instinct Ocher turned to where the other two were looking and saw Craig doing a semblance of a strange dance, his feet kicking the air in frantic bursts. His face looked weird, red and purple and somehow blurry and deformed. It took Ocher a moment to realize there was a plastic bag on Craig’s face and his arms had been wrestled behind him, held in place by two familiar-looking women.
It took Wyatt a few more seconds to fully understand what he was seeing. By then Craig stopped kicking and slumped in the arms of Wilma and Betty. The women grinned, their bright lipstick and garish clothes creating a horribly morbid contrast with the dead man. One of them pulled the plastic bag off of Craig’s head and hid it in a pocket of her jacket.
They held Craig between them as if he were just piss drunk, or passed out. But he was dead… Dead…
“No. No, no, no…” Ocher shook his head rapidly, trying to somehow undo what had already happened. He tried to form words but they came too late. “Please don’t do this, please leave him alone…”
One of the women, the taller, broader-shouldered one, Wilma, looked at him with mock pity, “Aw, but he was trying to kill you. And anyway, this ship has sailed, honey. We can leave him for you, but if you don’t mind me saying, you look in no shape to be getting rid of a body right now.”
As he stared at her in horrified disbelief, he heard Betty.
“You, rats, listen.” The other woman addressed Kat and Hunter. “Anyone tries to hurt him” — she pointed at Ocher — “or ever talks of this – dies. Kapish?”
Kat and Hunter nodded in unison.
“Now you, still on two legs, help him up.”
Two Bits scrambled back onto his feet, pale as a sheet, and without any questions helped Ocher back to his feet.
“Collect his stuff. Help him get home.”
“Also tidy him up, wash and dry his clothes, wrap him in a blanket.” Wilma elaborated. “The poor dear looks drenched. And if he needs painkillers or a visit to the doctor, you pay and make accommodations. Understood?”
The scrawny thief nodded vigorously, watching the two women with open horror.
Betty tossed Kat her crutch. It hit Kat on the shoulder. She just stared back at them with a mix of pain and disbelief as the crutch cluttered to the wet asphalt beside her.
The Man’s agents passed her and the two shaken thieves by, holding Craig between them with his arms over their shoulders. They dragged him towards a car parked right outside the alley, chatting in loud cheerful voices about how trashed the guy was and how he was soon going to be home in his warm bed. They shoved Craig’s body in the backseat of the car and got inside. Wilma took the driver’s seat, while Betty sat down beside the corpse.
The car drove off.
Kat struggled to her feet, leaning heavily on her crutch. She swore quietly, choking on pain and emotion.
Hunter stared miserably at the space where the car had been, even as he dusted some of the muck off of Ocher in clumsy half-conscious motions. Tears rolled down the older thief’s cheeks and fell into the dirt.
“Fuck all of you. Both of you. You in particular, Ocher.” Kat grunted. She wasn’t crying, but hurt was plain to see in her features as well, and not all of it was physical pain. “I’m out of here. Don’t ever talk to me again. I’m done. I’m leaving Coalport as soon as I can.”
Ocher just looked at her helplessly. She spat in his general direction and turned away, shambling off into darkness. He watched her go, unable to utter a word, on the verge of tears, hurt and betrayed, not by his friends, but by Hector and his lady goons. He couldn’t believe that Craig was dead. But at the same time he had no doubts about that.
Meanwhile, Hunter was zealously collecting his scattered groceries and wiping them against his own clothes. When he was finished with that, he quietly helped Ocher walk back home, all the way to his door and then inside. Both of them were silent, and by the time he helped Ocher out of his wet dirty clothes, Hunter was no longer crying. Instead his expression was that of forlorn resignation.
“I’m dead,” he muttered quietly. “Those two were from the Citizens. They’re going to brand me a second time. And then I’ll mess up and die. Maybe… maybe at least they’ll make it quick, like Craig…” Hunter looked about himself with a vacant expression, like he was searching for an escape that didn’t exist, and he knew it, but checked just in case.
Ocher, who’d stayed quiet all this time, with his jaw clenched in pain and silent fury, tossed his wet shirt to the floor and looked at Hunter with an angry, determined expression. “No fucking way, Hunter. You’re not going to be branded, and you’re not going to die.”
Hunter looked at him in confusion. “Why not?”
“Because you just aren’t, Hunter.” Was all he said. He stormed across the room, ignoring the jolts of pain shooting through his legs and stomach. He nearly tore a drawer out, slammed the door of the wardrobe shut so hard it almost fell off its hinges and then tossed some clean clothes at Hunter. “You’re wet, change and then take our stuff to the laundromat. Wash and dry it. I’m too hurt to go anywhere.”
Hunter just stared at him.
“I need you to do this, Hunter. Right now.”
“O-okay.” Hunter looked at the dry clothes and then, after a quick fruitless search for a surface to drop them on, hung them on a door handle and started stripping. “I’m just gonna need some cash, I’m completely broke.”
“Okay, give me a sec.” Ocher searched through the pockets of his old wet trousers. “Here, this should be enough.”
As soon as the door clicked closed behind Hunter, Ocher stormed over to the phone. While Hunter had been crying, he was boiling on the inside. Hector let these rabid stalker women kill his friend. He’d never dialed anyone’s number so violently.
“Hector Viteri speaking, how-”
“How could you let them do this?! He was my friend. Why would you ever let them do this? Do you really think this is how relationships work? That I’m going to love you after this?” It seemed like his voice could crack any second now, but it didn’t. Instead Ocher felt a rush of incredible authority. Hector owed him way, way more than just an explanation or an apology.
“Darling… I don’t know what you are talking about.” Hector sounded genuinely confused and concerned. “It sounds urgent. Should I have someone pick you up?”
“No. I’m not going anywhere. I’m in no state to go anywhere. If those monsters haven’t reported back to you yet, and you want to hear my opinion without me screaming it to you over the phone, then I guess you’ll have to come over.”
“I’ll be there soon.”
Ocher hung up.
He marched into the washroom, opened the medicine cabinet behind the mirror and scooped several handfuls of items, dropping them into the sink. Most of these medicines were at least three years old, bought when he’d first moved into the apartment. Some were even older, inherited after some previous tenants. Most of the painkillers were already expired, but he still swallowed a bunch. He closed the mirror door of the cabinet and looked at his reflection. His face was scratched from the fall, arms covered in bruises, his whole abdomen looked like one huge bruise too, and felt like it. He didn’t think anything was broken, he hoped it wasn’t. But he was too pissed to care for now.
Hunter returned some ten minutes later with stolen medical supplies. He joined Ocher in the bathroom, and they helped each other disinfect the bloody scrapes on their heads and hands. Once all the band-aids and bandages were in place, Ocher gently, but urgently pushed Hunter back out of the apartment and told him to go watch the clothes in the laundromat and not return until they were all clean and dry.
There was a certain understanding in Hunter’s eyes, but he said nothing. Ocher felt the other thief wouldn’t return until the time was up. Hunter was always quite agreeable.
Only a few minutes passed before Hector knocked on the door of the apartment.
Ocher opened the door, let Hector in without a word, then locked the door behind him. He was wearing clean clothes now, but his bruised arms and the band-aids on his face were still clearly visible. He stormed a few paces away, and faced Hector, openly furious. He had been stoking his anger for the last twenty minutes to unleash it upon the Man in this very moment.
“They killed him. They just killed him, right in front of us all, all merry like. Is that the plan, are you going to let them kill all my friends now? And for what? It was all justified, it was my fault, nobody would have died, nobody had to.” Ocher assumed that Hector had already caught up with Wilma and Betty. “Craig had all the right to be mad at me, you know. I was the one who failed them. I promised to be there, and I forgot. And he was my friend, you know. My friend. And they just killed him.” He felt he was about to start crying if he continued so he just fell silent and stared at Hector in hurt defiance.
Hector stood before him, silent and serious, with a plastic bag from a pharmacy in one hand. When Ocher finished, the Man sighed. “I am sorry about what happened, Wyatt. I truly am. If I could undo that, I would. Your friends won’t be harmed any further, I promise.” Hector studied him. His eyebrows furrowed. “Do you want to go to a doctor?”
Ocher ignored the question. “Really? Won’t they? Hunter tells me he’s going to be branded a second time now, and he’s preparing to die. Kat wants to leave town, but won’t the Citizens come after her, because she also failed to pay her dues? Even if she gets away, she will spend her whole life looking over her shoulder.”
“I can fix both of those. Kat will be informed she is allowed to leave in peace. Hunter…” Hector hesitated, as if that name was perhaps familiar to him. “Well, of course the branding can also be cancelled.”
“You know what else can be cancelled? That guy Rance who is harassing Hunter can be cancelled. Hunter deserves to have a normal life, without people mopping the floor with him.”
“Of course,” Hector agreed.
“But don’t kill him either. Don’t kill anyone. Please.”
“I wasn’t planning to. What happened was… tragic. I will look into it, and don’t worry, Kat and Hunter will be safe and sound, and assured of no further trouble coming their way.” Hector looked around for a place to put the bag he brought, but found no empty surfaces. He blinked in confusion, for the first time taking in Ocher’s apartment in its full two hundred square feet glory. He looked at Wyatt in bewilderment and just handed the bag to him.
“Yes, I live like this. Many people live like this. Student debt isn’t the greatest thing ever.” He said as he grudgingly took the bag from Hector.
“I see.” Hector looked around one more time and said, “Let’s take you to a doctor.”
“No.” He shook his head. “I’m not going anywhere. I’ll stay here, I’m tired, and I need to lie down. Thank you for coming, but you can go now.”
“This is serious, Wyatt. You could have internal bleeding. You can lie down in the car. Please, come with me.”
“I don’t have internal bleeding. Craig might have been pissed, but he didn’t mean to actually send me to a hospital, he wouldn’t do that. But you don’t care about that, because what is one life to you people, nothing much. They didn’t even bother saying anything before they killed him, you know? Craig was mean sometimes, but he was alright. And now he’s dead. And let me guess, his body will not be found, he is not getting a proper burial, and his parents will never find out what happened to him?” There were tears in Wyatt’s eyes now, and he could hardly fight them back.
Hector said nothing.
“I thought so. Just leave me be.”
“Rest. I will send someone to do the shopping for you tomorrow-”
“…and if you need anything, give me a call.” Hector regarded him gravely, then nodded and left.
* * *
When Hunter returned with the laundry, there was a pizza waiting in the kitchen. Ocher had ordered it with some of the money Hector turned out to have added to the medicine bag and was now sitting gloomily on the unfolded chair, next to the unfolded table, staring into space. He turned to Hunter. “Thanks, just dump these wherever.”
Two Bits produced four cans of beer out of seemingly nowhere and put them on the table. He dropped Ocher’s clean clothes on the bed and then sat down beside them, changing from the borrowed clothes into his own. Neither set really fit him. Ocher’s clothes were too short, Hunter’s own too wide. But a belt took care of the latter well enough.
Hunter chewed on his one pizza slice for a ridiculously long while, staring at the table between them. He sighed. “So that’s it. That’s the end of our little gang.”
Ocher looked at him blankly. “Yeah, that’s it,” he said eventually.
“I guess… I guess, for you it’s for the better. You’ll have a good life now with that nice rich guy.” Hunter sighed again. “You weren’t made for this life anyway. No offense. It’s more of a compliment I guess…”
“I wasn’t made for this other life either.” Ocher shook his head, feeling tears stinging their way through again. “I don’t think I was made for anything I’ve ever tried doing, everything I touch just falls to dust. All of this is my fault. It’s my fault that Craig is dead.”
“It’s not your fault. It’s how it is with crime.” Hunter didn’t look up, instead cradling his beer and looking at the can. “People always die sooner or later.”
“Nobody else will die.” Ocher said. Nobody except for me, if I keep being this ballsy with Hector, he thought grimly. He didn’t regret yelling at the Man for now, but he knew he was going to have second thoughts tomorrow.
“Even if we do, you should just forget about us. You’ve got a good thing going finally, you should just stick with it. Get some new friends that aren’t crooks.”
Ocher sighed. The thing he had going wasn’t what Hunter thought it to be, but he didn’t think it prudent to explain it to the other thief. “You know, maybe you should get some of those friends too.”
Hunter looked down. “Nah… Who would want to be friends with someone like me?”
“Duh, plenty of people I bet. Me, for once. I’m not sure if I’ll be doing more thieving, but we are still friends.”
Hunter looked up and smiled at Ocher, and the silence between them became a little less miserable.
Zack tapped the handlebars with his fingers impatiently. The Pharaohs were refueling at the same gas station where Taylor had beaten him unconscious a little over a month ago. Zack was at the back again and if Taylor turned up, he would once more readily stand between the blond and his friends. Even Yen.
Because what the Pharaohs didn’t know, was that Taylor was a Citizen. Zack couldn’t himself list the full implications of that, but he had no doubts the bastard would have no problem seriously injuring his friends just for laughs. Taylor reigned himself in at school, so Zack never saw him hurt anyone too badly, but he also had a reputation with Barney and the rest of that crowd. A reputation Zack knew his dad could only dream of for him. Taylor was probably on the way of inheriting the underworld part of the Viteri family business. Good on him. Zack didn’t want it anyway.
The sound of multiple revving engines brought him violently back to reality. Zack looked over his shoulder to see the Undying roll into the gas station lot. His eyes darted among the bikers’ ranks, looking for a blond mullet.
“Seriously?!” Josie threw her hands into the air. “We stopped visiting the diner, so you lads fucking bugger off, now you want us to pump elsewhere too?!”
“The bitch got brains!” The leader of the Undying laughed. His cronies echoed his laughter.
Zack got off his bike and tiptoed, studying the group of bikers with growing boldness.
“What’s your damage, monkey boy, looking for another beating?” the bearded guy stopped laughing and grinned nastily at Zack.
“Taylor isn’t with you.”
“That’s none of your business, cocksucker.”
“He hasn’t been with you last week either. Ever since we saw you at the diner, he’s been skipping out on you.” And school too. Weird. Where was Taylor, anyway? But it didn’t really matter. What mattered was — he wasn’t here tonight. Zack smirked. “You guys are fucked. There’s what, eight of you here tonight? You think you can order us around without ‘T-man’ to hide behind?” It was Zack’s turn to laugh.
The Undying were mostly still smirking, but some of those smirks were turning into scowls.
“We’re not looking for a fight, Zack, step down,” Sam called out softly from behind him.
“Oh, yes, we are!” Yen materialized by Zack’s side with a chain in his hands. “If you old farts think you can squeeze us out of this gas station, you better think again.”
Nakhti walked slowly between the Pharaohs, until he was standing eye to eye with the club leader of the Undying. “If you want us to leave, let’s fight it out. No weapons, though, Yen put away that chain.”
“Ok… Wouldn’t want to hurt the old codgers too badly.” Yen tossed the chain aside.
“Ah, fuck it.” Josie walked up to stand beside Yen and Zack.
Sphinx had lowered his sunglasses and was looking at the unfolding scene with relaxed entertainment. Then he casually strolled towards the frontline and whispered something into Nakhti’s ear. Nakthi shook his head. Sphinx shrugged and leaned on Yen’s bike.
The Undying were exchanging gloomy glances. Some of them looked ready to fight, others less so. Zack recognised the two guys he had beaten before. One of them kept his hand dangerously close to the holster under his cut-off. Zack pointed a finger at him.
“No guns. It’s a gas station for fuck’s sake. You’ll blow us all sky high. If you want to dance, leave the guns behind. Or are you so scared of a bunch of fairies you need a gun to feel safe?”
To Zack’s relief, the gun-toting biker caved in under the judging glares of his peers, and took his gun out, placing it into the leather bag on his bike. The Undying began getting off their bikes and stretching.
Zack stole a glance to see if Wyatt was inside the gas station. He wasn’t. Good.
The Pharaohs stood in a line. Sam joined last, looking just as non-enthusiastic as the two guys Zack previously beat. Those two now stood as far from Zack as possible. The guy who chose to stand opposite to the teenager was greying and kind of overgrown. He lifted his fists, taking on an approximation of a boxing stance. His thumb nails were neatly trimmed and his knuckles unscarred. Zack suddenly felt bad for what was about to happen.
“You can still walk away,” Nakhti said quietly.
That started it. With an angry yell, the leader of the Undying lurched at Nakhti, and the fight began.
The grandpa facing off Zack struck. The years of training with Wilma and Betty kicked in, and before Zack knew it, he’d stepped aside, avoiding the poorly aimed blow, and punched the old man twice in quick succession. The man stumbled back and careened over, landing on his arse, then his back. Zack left him and focused on the guy to his right, who looked slightly more capable and seemed to be giving Tamika a hard time. She’d lost a bit of ground, moving back, but that drew the Undying biker in and left him with his back on Zack. The boy stepped up and gripped the guy’s face with both hands, jerking him back, then securing his fall to avoid hurting him lethally. Falling onto the asphalt left the guy groaning and cradling his head.
That taken care of, Zack turned to see how Yen was doing, only to see the Asian biker kick his opponent in the jaw. Another Undying landed squirming on the ground right behind the kicked guy. That was the leader, his beard stained with blood from his broken nose. Nakhti stepped over him and went to assist Josie and Sam. Zack hurried after him, eager to help. Beyond Sam and Josie he could see the two guys he’d previously beaten, now being smacked around by Sphinx. The man did not seem to need any help.
Within a minute the asphalt was strewn with groaning, bleeding and bruised, but still conscious Undying. The Pharaohs exchanged looks. Except for some scraped knuckles, they seemed to be doing just fine.
Tamika stepped up to Zack wide-eyed with awe, she pointed him out to the rest of him. “Guys, did you see that? He’s like some kind of ninja. Karate kid!”
“What? No…” Zack laughed, embarrassed. “If anything, it’s Yen who’s the karate dude. Did you see how he karate-kicked that guy?”
“That was a wrestling move, you racist. I breathe freedom and bleed Coca Cola, I’m more American than you are,” Yen quipped half-heartedly. “Just cause the Japanese have their own Yen doesn’t make me Japanese.”
“Peace!” Zack laughed. “Wrestling it is. It was awesome anyway.”
“You weren’t so bad yourself. Though honestly, Santa over there should have sat this one out.” Yen cast a derisive look at the old man Zack knocked down first.
“Yeah…” Zack hoped the old guy didn’t have grandkids. He didn’t want to think he beat up somebody’s grandpa.
Nakhti secured the frontline between the still standing Pharaohs and the fallen Undying. “Kindly stay away from us. Foaming at the mouth like rabid dogs won’t get you anywhere. Trust me, I know.”
The Pharaohs went back to their bikes, finished tanking up and rode off into the night.
Something told Zack he wasn’t going to see Taylor for a while.
Seven were meant to gather, but there were only six.
Without the brute among them, they sat in silence for a while. The doctor and the hero were both frowning as they looked at the temptress and then back at each other. The servant and the crone kept their habitual quiet. The heretic appeared preoccupied with his own thoughts.
Finally, the doctor cleared his throat and asked the hero, “Where is your son?”
The hero looked indignant. “In trouble is where he is. When he shows up.”
“If he shows up,” the doctor remarked. “So much for claiming he could have taken care of things any better. He isn’t even here when we could finally use him.”
“Only I get to berate my son!” The hero slammed his fist on the table.
The doctor and the hero glared at each other.
“Allow me to translate, Mistress,” the servant offered. “What they are trying to say is that both your main plan and your backup plan have failed.”
The temptress let out a melodious chuckle. She had not seemed concerned at all until a moment ago, but now her beautiful dark eyes narrowed. She turned to them, looking between one and the other. “Are you really trying to say that, gentlemen?”
The two men did not dare insult her by agreeing.
She smirked. “That’s good. It was a nice ball, you know. And they did get quite close. Who knew that certain Persians are so trigger happy.”
“It’s all that damned lawyer’s fault!” The hero hit the table again. “We should kill him too!”
“Need I remind you,” the doctor said, “that we are failing to kill a barely conscious, sluggish enemy, and you want us to take on one of Ahriman’s more formidable servants? And why, just because he was in the wrong place at the wrong time?”
The hero looked even more displeased. “He might prove a problem later. He’s setting a bad example, working for Hector and surviving. Others could get the same idea. We can’t let that happen.”
With a smirk on her face, the temptress twirled a lock of her hair between her fingers. She was clearly having fun watching how they grasped at straws to avoid accusing her of anything. The heretic watched her watch them.
“Fine, we can deal with him later if we have to,” the doctor concluded the argument. “But what do we do now?”
The temptress shrugged. “Wish we could have sent some girls over instead. They’d get the job done. Oh! I have an idea! Maybe we should get Bacchus to join us, m? So many maenads there at that party, just imagine siccing them on the poor bastard. Torn into little pieces, tada!”
“Oh yes, let’s invite Bacchus. But why stop there? Let’s invite the whole Greek Pantheon, and the Romans too.” The heretic mocked, then scowled at the lot of them. “Luckily maybe we won’t need to resort to such new bright ideas. I drove Hector to the nuisance today, and it looks like the meeting didn’t go so well. The second failed assassination attempt might still bring results. At the very least, it has put a rift between them, so who knows, they might just drift apart all on their own. ”
The temptress lit up. “Thank you!” She turned to the other men. “See? It’s all working out. Just sit back and enjoy the show.”
Luke sat in an armchair in the corner of the common room. Alena was snoring, having fallen asleep on the sofa. Neha was sitting on the other sofa, slowly nodding off as well. Everyone else seemed to have gone to sleep. It was very late.
Luke couldn’t sleep.
He’d thought with this newfound peace, he should sleep like a log. But ever since that policeman took his signature and set him free, Luke felt just as restless as he had been when he was still on the run.
The late night talk show host prattled on, asking meaningless questions to a celebrity Luke did not recognize, or care to remember. For over a month now the news anchors and talk show hosts had all collectively forgotten about David Mance. The case went from a tragic mystery to a mundane case of a wayward husband, and the media swept the whole nasty business under the rug and moved on.
Luke wished he could do that too, but whenever he closed his eyes, he saw Laura Mance watching him accusingly from a dozen TVs at once. He saw the children’s drawing on the fridge of the happy family that he had upended.
Yes, he got his peace, but did he deserve it? How many more people did he need to help before he felt like he did?
What else could he do?
He could go back to the Mances. His curse was mitigated. Surely El would let him go if he asked for it and worked off what debt he still owed for the talisman. Luke fished out the pendant from under his shirt and looked at it. This piece of polished black stone rimmed with fluff was his ultimate salvation. In this life at least.
So why wasn’t he asking El to let him go? If he really cared so much about the Mances, why was he still here?
It would be dishonest to go back to them and pretend he was David Mance. But it would be a lie that would turn their lives back on track. They didn’t need a man who could earn a living, they had the lottery money. But they needed a husband and father. Their husband and father. The best Luke could offer was himself. And it would not be the same. Even if Laura Mance accepted his excuses about why he couldn’t remember anything, and acted nothing like her husband, could she be happy with him? Would the children not feel like their father was stolen from them and replaced with a stranger?
Luke sighed heavily. He could not fix what he had destroyed simply by going back.
Luke closed his eyes and imagined a field. A dirt road. Lonely farms with barns and silos. A horse and buggy alone on a road. Above it spread a blue open sky free of wires and electric lamps. He tried to remember the smell of the earth, the scratchy sensation of countless ears of wheat brushing against his open palm, the sound of birds singing before sunrise.
He had dreamed for so long of returning home.
But he did not deserve it. He was a sinner and a thief. He lived in the body of another man.
If David Mance and his family could not be happy, Luke had no right to be happy either.
At least if he stayed here with El, under his benefactor’s protection and with his wise guidance, he could help other people in need.