A dog barked just once, many rooms away.
Wyatt’s eyes shot wide open as he turned around in the darkness. It felt like waking up in the middle of the night, and it sure enough was the middle of the night, only he wasn’t in his bed. He was standing, fully clothed, in a dark room, that most definitely wasn’t his either, because it was as spacious as his entire apartment. His calm heart skipped a beat and began to race. Did he somehow fall asleep while burgling someone’s house? No, the heist wasn’t until next Friday. Unless it was next Friday already. No, it couldn’t be. And there wouldn’t be a dog there for sure… Shit, there was a dog here. He had to be real quiet. The thief took a deep breath, trying not to panic.
He looked around, attempting to make out his surroundings in the faint glow from the window.
There was a large executive desk before him. On its surface sat a lamp, some scattered papers and a photo frame. He squinted at the photograph, there seemed to be two people in it, but he couldn’t make out anything beyond that. The walls of the room were lined with bookcases. A few paintings hung in the empty spaces between them, but all the details drowned in the shadows.
Wyatt shakily walked over to the window and immediately understood that he’d been wrong. This… wasn’t a house. The window opened up to a splendid view of the city. It was a view from a hill. One that only a filthy rich person could afford. He was inside a mansion. This wasn’t good. How did he get in here? He used to have a sleepwalking problem once, but that was long, long ago. This wasn’t his part of the city, could a sleepwalker even go that far? He didn’t think so, but what else could it be? Or maybe… maybe he was still dreaming? He pinched himself, but that did nothing to wake him. He had to get out of here.
There seemed to be nobody outside. The paved path over a perfectly cut lawn was empty, but the few bushes and flower patches it wound around provided little cover. He was on the second floor. If only he managed to get down, there was perhaps a hundred feet to the fence, and then he’d be out of here. It was only when Wyatt was about to open the window that he realized he was holding something in his clenched fist. With a feeling of dread he opened his fingers and looked at the small key sitting in his palm.
Great. So it was both sleepwalking and key kleptomania…
Heavy footsteps thudded from inside the house, and the door to the study slammed open. Wyatt dropped the key. It fell down to the floor with a metallic cling, but he was already too busy trying to climb out the window to care. The lights went on.
He looked back. Three stocky men in suits had guns pointed right at him, so he did, terrified.
“Drop your weapons.”
“I-I don’t have any!” he squealed.
He hardly managed to finish stuttering before they grabbed him. Two of them pulled him away from the window sill he was clutching onto, but it wasn’t until the third one pressed the barrel of a gun to his forehead that Wyatt really felt the horror sinking in.
“W-wait,” he tried to explain, “it’s not what you think it is, I’m not trying to steal-”
“Shut it and no funny business. Search him,” the guy with the gun instructed the others.
Wyatt held perfectly still as one of the men checked him for hidden weapons and ransacked all of his pockets, tossing their contents to the floor. He watched it like in a real dream, unsure what he would even see.
Chewing gum, keys to his own apartment, change…
“Looks like he’s clean,” one guy said.
Another frowned at the floor. He bowed down to pick up the little fallen key. Oh come on…
“This is from here, ain’t it?” the man asked one of the other suits.
Another guy shrugged back at him.
“T-this is just a misunderstanding,” Wyatt tried again. ”There’s no need to call the police…” God, if they called the police, he would be so screwed. If he was arrested, his life would be over. His family would hear about it, and they would find out he’d been lying to them. His university would never accept him back, the gas station owner would fire him, he would go to jail, and if he ever got out, he would never find another decent job again. This was horrible, the worst that could possibly happen.
They didn’t seem to listen to his plea, but also nobody told him to shut up again.
“Strip him, check for wires.”
What? Why wires? Where was he, what kind of security guards were these? “Please… Just let me go and you’ll never see me again. I must have got the wrong address…”
“Wrong address?” the man holding Wyatt laughed. “Oh, this is rich.”
As one of the men began to tug off his jacket, the thief’s eyes wandered around helplessly and anchored on the photo on the desk. He could see it now. A dark-skinned child with an afro grinning happily in the arms of a sharply dressed smiling white man. The child was unfamiliar to him, but he knew exactly who the man was. He’d seen that face countless times in newspapers and on TV. This was Hector Viteri’s mansion.
Of all the possible places in New Coalport he had to sleepwalk-burgle this one… Oh man.
“Please,” he tried again as the guards left him in his socks and briefs only, checking his shoes for who knows what. “I didn’t mean to bother Mr. Viteri, I’m so terribly sorry, can we just talk this over?” It didn’t add up. Why would the local businessman superstar be checking intruders for hidden bugs? Was he afraid of industrial espionage by some other… rival businessmen? Or maybe he struggled with intrusive journalists or paparazzi? Yeah, probably. Wyatt calmed down a little. “I didn’t mean to steal anything, please let me explain…”
“You won’t be talking to us. We’re not paid to talk. Dress.”
One of the men left and returned a moment later. He waved the little key. “Like I thought, this one’s from here, it fits the boss’ bedside table.”
They shoved his shirt and trousers back into his hands. Unlike the rest of his clothes, his jacket and shoes were not returned when the search was over. One of the men held onto them, while Wyatt shakily pulled his trousers and t-shirt back on.
“Looks like there’s no wires. Let’s take him to the boss.”
The last thing Wyatt saw was one of the men pulling a hood over his head. His hands were cuffed behind his back.
All of that did nothing to silence him, though.
“Guys, is this really necessary? I-I swear I wasn’t going to take anything. I… I’m actually a huge fan, I just wanted an autograph, but Mr Viteri is so hard to get close to during the day, I just somehow thought this would be a good idea, pretty stupid I know, but it seemed like a decent one at the time at least, I’m so sorry…” He blabbered whatever came to mind. Hector Vitteri was a nice guy; who wouldn’t be a fan of someone who built schools and hospitals, cut red tapes and funded charities? Though, for a man of such high moral standards and etiquette, his security personnel was strangely unrefined… Almost like thugs in suits. Why would they put this thing on his head when he was already here anyway? They didn’t want him to see the layout? What was this, like a secret lair? “Please, let’s not bother Mr Viteri, all I wanted was that autograph, but it’s really not a big deal if he’s busy right now as well…”
“An autograph? From the man? And you climbed into his bedroom to get it? Priceless! What would you even have him put there, ‘from the man to my fan’?” The guard laughed at his own joke.
He was the only one laughing.
There was a pause. Then the same voice asked, hesitantly, “Fuck, guys, did I just say too much?”
Wyatt didn’t understand at first. And then his heart stopped. What did the guard just call Hector Viteri…? He must have heard it wrong. Two times in a row. It was probably a sign he was spending too much time stealing things and too little time studying geology. Wait, no, he didn’t mishear it, the guy must have simply meant ‘the man’ as in an important guy, or like in a male human person or something, yeah, that had to be one of those. Wyatt calmed himself down, but the man leading him apparently didn’t reach the same peace of mind, because he suddenly froze.
“Guys, seriously, did I? I mean, do we need to kill him now?”
They all stopped.
“For fuck’s sake, Barney.”
A loud sigh.
“Now that you rubbed it in like that, who knows. The boss will decide. Don’t make things even worse and just shut up. It’s hard to believe you still have this job. No fucking subtlety.”
They started walking again.
Wyatt felt dizzy. He must have been dreaming after all. It was just a nightmare. It had to be. He hadn’t sleepwalked since he was what, ten? Why would he suddenly start now? And only to discover that Hector Viteri, a known philanthropist, was actually the Man, the most wanted criminal in the state? And they just told him that he climbed into the guy’s bedroom. Of course it was a dream. He was going to wake up any minute now. But even in his sleep he still didn’t feel comfortable with the idea of dying. Suddenly calling the police didn’t seem bad at all, but he felt that option was already off the table.
“I-I’m not sure what you mean, but I really want that autograph from Mr Viteri,” he informed them in a thin voice from inside the hood, consistently playing stupid, “Please don’t kill me? Not before I get it at least. I need to have it. But please don’t kill me after that either. Anyway, you’re kidding right?”
“We have the trespasser, boss. He’s clean, well kind of clean, he had the key to your bedside table. Says he came for an autograph. But we have a problem. One of us might have said too much.”
A deep voice came rumbling through the mild static. “How unfortunate. Bring him to the basement then. I want the guilty party to join the men searching the vicinity.”
“B-basement?” Wyatt nearly choked on that word. No, this was obviously too surreal. Hector Viteri couldn’t be the Man. He didn’t just say ‘bring him to the basement’ in a scary crime boss voice. It didn’t make sense. His life wasn’t a movie. He chuckled hysterically, this was actually almost funny. “Sorry, but I got to ask — am I dreaming?”
The men fell silent for a second, then exchanged snorts. “Yeah, it’s a dream alright. And thanks to Barney here, it’s going to be over soon. For you, that is. But for us it’s going to be one hell of a night, getting rid of a body.”
“Why us? Isn’t that what the dogs are for? Oh, wait, right, they’re still eating the previous guy.”
Wyatt squealed. He’s heard the urban legend about the man-eating dogs, it was one of those things Hunter and others spooked him with for fun when he’d first joined them.
“Shut up, Barney, really. Don’t you see he can barely walk as is? You shouldn’t even be here. Go already.”
Suddenly the floor ended. Wyatt began falling, proving the guy’s earlier statement true. Then someone caught him. “Right… he can’t see shit. Fine, I’m leaving, you handle him.”
The man called Barney left.
“There’s stairs,” one of the two remaining guys informed Wyatt helpfully.
* * *
The trip down to the ground floor and then down again was a nightmare-like sequence. The steps seemed to never end and he fumbled down them, prodded by his captors. Something one of them advised about begging the Man for mercy and a quick bullet to the head didn’t console Wyatt in the slightest. When he tried asking questions, they told him to shut up. He stubbornly wished it to be a dream, but all his senses screamed that it was a harsh, murderous reality. At the end of the way down his handcuffs and hood were removed, and he was all but thrown into the basement he’d been promised.
He landed on a rough concrete floor, hurting his knee. Bright light shone directly at him from the opposite wall and he had to squint to see anything. There were no windows here. The walls and ceiling were concrete like the floor. He looked down, but when his eyes darted towards the rust colored stains and drain grill in the center of the floor, he looked up again in sheer horror.
And that’s when he saw him.
A man was sitting in a chair by the lamp with two large Dobermans at his side.
Wyatt could not make out his face against the light, but he already knew who he was. Hector Viteri, one of the richest men in New Coalport. And as he had the misfortune of just finding out, also the Man, and the unarguable master of the city’s underworld. Wyatt shuddered as he heard the door shut behind him, but instead of looking back he stared at the Man and his Dobermans like a deer caught in headlights. The thudding roar of his own heartbeat almost drowned out the quiet snarling of dogs.
The Man was smoking a cigar. The smell of tobacco smoke in the small windowless room was at least as intrusive as the bright light.
Wyatt knew he had to speak up as soon as possible and fight to get out alive, but no words came when he opened his mouth. He didn’t even have the guts to try to get up from the floor.
One thought only got stuck on repeat in his mind.
Oh god, he really was going to die.
“So you claim you wanted an autograph.” The Man said calmly. “Was there no easier way to go about it?”
Wyatt finally turned his head away from the light. He was terrified. He knew he had to answer but pure, smothering fear finally got to him, clawing at his throat, lungs and stomach. That was some really bad timing. If he didn’t come up with something to say, he was going to die right here, right now, in this basement. He was probably going to die here anyway even if he did manage to say something. Just a few minutes ago, he didn’t even know where he was. Now it looked like he knew too much to live. The police and the FBI would kill to have the info he just stumbled on. Did they even suspect that the man they were looking for all these years was hiding in plain sight, right under their noses, building the schools their children attended and throwing fundraisers?
Did anyone who ever found out what he just had even survive? Did members of the Citizens even know this? Surely just the select few, but it didn’t matter now. The Man was waiting and he had to think fast and focus or he was going to take this revelation to his grave.
“T-there would be an easier way, if I only wanted an autograph from Hector Viteri…” he choked out at last, struggling to form some sort of credible line of defense for this audacious statement. He lied to his friends and parents for the last three years of his life. Why not lie to the Man as well?
“So you’re telling me my men didn’t say too much after all? You knew this all along?” The man sounded amused. He took a drag on his cigar. The dogs fell quiet by now. Their master’s deep, scary voice seemed to soothe them.
Despite his wild pulse, and the feeling he was rapidly drowning, Wyatt grit his teeth and tried to calm down. It was just another lie, he could do this, he did it all the time. “Y-yes. That’s why I came here.” He tried to come across as confident, but the stutter wouldn’t go away. Suddenly he understood why they were checking him for wires, and searching the ‘vicinity’. “I-I’m not with the police, secret intelligence or a-anything like that. I came here alone, it was my own stupid idea. I’m one of your thieves. I go by ‘Ocher’, and always pay my dues on time. My fence at 68 Jasmine street can confirm all that. I-I know I gambled with my life coming here but… Mr. Viteri, you’ve always been an inspiration. I admire both of your personas, and I-I just… just always wanted to see you like this, not a businessman but the Man… to be with you face to face.”
Wyatt ran out of breath. He mustered all his courage and looked up at the Man, squinting through the bright light. He tried to look awestruck, instead of scared. Not a victim but a true fan.
The Man turned the lamp away, illuminating the wall behind him and bathing the rest of the room in a duller reflected light. Wyatt could finally see him properly. Hector Viteri was the same in this nightmare basement as he was on the covers of newspapers and magazines: tall, muscular and incredibly photogenic. The million dollar smile, however, was missing and without it, Viteri’s small deep set glinting eyes gave him a feral look. The man looked like he could easily break Wyatt’s spine with bare hands. Maybe he intended to, judging by how he only wore an undershirt and slacks instead of a full power suit he usually appeared in.
Wyatt felt all his staged bravery seep away instantly. It was hard to control the shaking. Something about Hector’s face had always disturbed him. Now he knew the general impression was justified. The man the whole city loved, turned out to be the man the whole city feared. A man who left no witnesses, and as the rumour in the criminal world had it and as his guards had just confirmed, fed his dogs with human flesh. Wyatt felt his stomach turn and knot. He knew his life hadn’t been going too well, but he really didn’t want to go as far as becoming dog food.
As if sensing that fear, the Dobermans left their places and slowly started circling Wyatt. They did not growl anymore, just skulked like shadows at the edge of his vision, before passing between him and their master. Wyatt looked left and right, trying to see where they went. Suddenly all he could think about were those bloody stains on the floor and being eaten alive.
Viteri leaned forward in the chair, studying the thief. “So, Ocher… What betrayed me?”
Wyatt’s eyes fixed back on the alpha predator. He felt really small under his gaze. The panic was back and his eyes grew wide. Cold sweat was rolling down his back. He lied to the Man, bet it all on one card like an idiot, and now he had to roll with it.
“N-nothing did. That part was really just my crazy hunch, a lucky guess until I got to confirm it tonight… one day I was just thinking to myself that Hector Viteri is such a great man, probably the greatest man in New Coalport, deeply affecting the city. A-and then it just clicked. The idea haunted me… ever since. I wasn’t totally sure, I needed to know, had to check no matter how crazy it seemed… I wanted to meet you so badly. I-I was ready to risk arrest… or worse! But I was right, sir…” He kept looking at Hector, as he blabbered on, simply because something in the man’s small spooky eyes made him unable to look away. “I-I am absolutely honoured to be here… I-I mean… to know this for sure, to be talking to you! The head of the Citizens… it’s just so perfect. I never imagined… It’s like a dream come true and I… I just made one horrible mistake…”
“And what would that be?”
“I-I didn’t prepare a speech…” the thief admitted, shakily, trying to justify his pathetic blather. “And now I am completely overwhelmed, seeing you in person, sir, a-and I’m all s-stuttering and nervous, making a fool of myself. But I just wanted you to know… that I’m your biggest fan.”
“My biggest fan?” Viteri puffed out a cloud of vicious smoke.
The question hung in the air, clouded in smoke like a sky-high apotheosis of this multilayered implausible lie. This was it. There was no way Viteri would believe him. Ocher’s blood ran cold, he could swear the Dobermans were preparing to lunge, and that the Man was going to let them.
Viteri remained silent for a longer moment, studying Wyatt.
“Is that why you climbed into my bedroom window? Where did you want that autograph exactly?” The Man said finally, smirking.
The thief stared at him in mild shock. It was the second time tonight he heard this. That he climbed into Hector Viteri’s bedroom first. Really? How? Why? He didn’t remember. And he couldn’t afford to ask. Something told him that going back on his lie and telling Hector that actually no, he just randomly sleepwalked all the way here and all of this was simply a bizarre misunderstanding, was not a good idea.
“I… I didn’t exactly think this through,” Wyatt looked away, a bit lost. “I-I thought maybe you’d have a preference.”
The silence stretched out painfully long, and it became obvious that his lies weren’t coming together. He screwed up, and he was about to die. He could almost see his whole life starting to flash before his eyes.
And then the Man spoke.
“I also thought I had a preference.” There was another momentary silence. “Now I’m not so sure.”
When Wyatt gathered the courage to raise his eyes, he saw the Man looking at him in a whole new way.
“Phobos, Deimos, sit,” Viteri said. The dogs returned to their places at the sides of his chair. The Man tilted his head studying Wyatt’s kneeling form. “Let’s say I am interested, Ocher. Are you generally into men? Or should I feel special?”
Wyatt gaped at him in shock. He never intended for any part of his pleading for mercy to come off that way. What Hector just seemed to have assumed was the misinterpretation of the century. “N-no…” he bit his tongue, suddenly realizing that the Man might have actually considered that a valid explanation. Yep, it sure looked like that was exactly the case. Denying it was probably the most idiotic thing he could do right now. “That is… you are special, sir… I… I’ve just never… not yet, at least. I mean, so far I haven’t… i-it was just a fantasy of mine…” Oh god, what a horrible night…
“Well-well, we may catch up on that yet. What is your real name, Ocher?” Hector smiled. Amusement was playing in his features now. It was a good sign. Hopefully.
The thief shut his eyes. He wished he could lie about his name too. He knew he couldn’t. “W-wyatt. Wyatt Brooks,” he said, feeling like he’d just sold his soul to the devil.
“If you admire me, Wyatt, you know what I do to people, who try to get in my way. What you heard and saw tonight will stay in here only.” Hector leaned forward and touched Wyatt’s forehead with his index finger. “If you try to sell me out, there will be hell to pay. For all your friends, your family, and you. In that order. Can I trust your common sense?” Viteri asked.
The thief didn’t trust either his common sense or his voice, but he really wanted Hector to trust everything about him, so he nodded quite zealously.
“Good.” Hector stood up and offered him a hand.
Wyatt blinked at it without understanding.
“Up, Mr Brooks. I don’t have a pen with me here.”
When the thief complied, Hector effortlessly pulled him up. He lifted Wyatt’s face by the chin and looked into his scared amber eyes. “You are quite cute,” he said and took his hand away.
The thief felt his stomach make a nauseating lurch at the compliment spoken in a deep, terrifying voice and the gentle touch on his face. He thought he was going to faint, but he didn’t. Instead he felt his knees were shaking.
Hector tilted his head noticing that as well. “Don’t worry, I know I have this effect on people,” he said. “Now, let’s go see about that autograph, darling.”
* * *
The car drove quietly through the streets washed in turns by the white lights of old mercury vapor street lamps and the orange warm glow of new sodium ones. Shadows flicked across Wyatt’s face, but he didn’t notice. He just stared ahead, mostly unblinking, holding onto the signed polaroid photograph of Hector Viteri and him, frozen with a terrified fake grin on his face.
He didn’t pay attention to the buildings they passed. Didn’t hear the driver ask him a question the first time. Or the second time, or the third. He hardly even registered there was a driver at all.
Blood pulsed in his ears, and all he could think about was that he’d given his real name, his address and his phone number to the infamous crime lord who had originally planned to feed him to the dogs in the basement of his mansion. Wyatt wasn’t sure if the final outcome was much better. He didn’t exactly feel thrilled to still be alive. It was too surreal. A part of him still thought it was a nightmare. Detailed and weird, but definitely unreal. The sleepwalking he’d done a couple of times in childhood was the ‘walk from one end of the room to another’ kind of thing. There was no way he could have unconsciously scaled that tall fence and climbed up the wall into anyone’s window at night. He probably wouldn’t have been able to climb it even while wide awake.
Plus there was also no way in hell that Viteri and the Man could actually be the same person. This was just crazy, right? The car pulled to a stop, but Wyatt didn’t notice that either. He heard once that you couldn’t read in dreams, so he flipped the photograph over and attempted to read the inscription. “To my biggest fan”, signed, H.V. He felt a surge of panic, somewhat subdued by the realization that the car was no longer moving.
“We’ve reached your specified destination, Mr. Brooks,” the driver repeated, a hint of impatience in his voice. It scored him a panicked wide-eyed look from the passenger, who almost jumped up in his seat.
Wyatt collected himself quickly. “T-thanks. So, I can go now, right?” He would have sprung out of the car instantly, but he felt it wouldn’t hurt to ask for extra permission, even though his hand was already on the door handle.
Wyatt could see the driver’s tired, irked face in the rear view mirror. He suddenly realized the chauffeur must have been woken up in the middle of the night specifically to drive him.
“Yes, Mr. Brooks, you can go now, but if you get out here, I will have to report to Mr. Viteri that you had me pull up in front of a round-the-clock laundromat. Are you really sure this is where you live?”
Wyatt looked at him pleadingly, his hand still on the door handle, “M-mister Viteri already knows where I live. I just don’t want my neighbours to see me dropped off at night in fancy cars… that’s all.”
The driver looked skeptical, but nodded in the end. Wyatt really hoped that nod meant that he wasn’t going to tell Mr. Viteri about how his passenger had been freaking out on his way back home. He didn’t have the guts to ask and make sure. All his courage had been used up to tell the Man just how essential it was for him to have his autograph.
When he got out of the car, he immediately tripped while trying to get on the sidewalk but collected himself and walked away stiffly with his hands in the pockets of his jacket, as if nothing ever happened. Unfortunately, as soon as the car’s engine went back on, he jumped up and shot a scared look over his shoulder, which probably ruined the whole impression.
On the way back home Wyatt pondered on just how screwed he was.
He almost teared up as a conclusion.