Luke woke up. He felt mildly overheated, but well-rested. For the first time in days, he had managed to get a full day’s sleep without interruption. He decided to try the same alley again the next day. The stench from the seafood store next door was intense enough to keep all but the most resilient homeless away. But Luke persevered. It was hard to find a spot where he wouldn’t be disturbed like this. It was something worth returning to.
Luke stretched and put away the newspaper that was shielding his head from the sun during the day.
There was a swarthy man in a colorful poncho leaning over him.
Luke gasped and backed away, pressing his back into the brick wall. There he discovered the man wasn’t actually leaning, he was just very short.
“Please, keep away! Step back! I am a danger! I am very sick.” Luke coughed loudly into his fist. “Leave me, please! My malady is fatal and contagious.”
The small man grinned, clasped his hands together joyfully and remained firmly in place. “How beautifully said! You should be a poet. Or better yet, an actor! You’re clearly wasting away out here. I think I’d like to do something about it.” He dropped to sit down in front of Luke and pulled a small bundle out of a bag swung across his shoulder. “Sandwich?”
“No, please, you don’t understand!” Luke scrambled to his feet. He grabbed his weathered rucksack and the newspaper. The rucksack strap tore off and the newspaper slid apart, scattering the pages over the asphalt. Luke crouched, gathering the paper in a feat of panic.
Meanwhile, the short man produced another wrapped sandwich and two small orange juice boxes with straws. He lined all that up on the concrete in front of Luke as the ragged, skinny man fumbled around in a panic. “Easy there, calm down, Luke. Please sit back down. I know exactly what I’m doing. You can’t hurt me. But you sure can offend me, which wouldn’t be the best way to begin our acquaintance.”
Luke stopped collecting the papers and stared at the small man. He dropped his rucksack. His knees grew weak, and he leaned against the wall. The man knew his name. The man knew who he was, what he could do. He came here alone, but unafraid. Cold sweat ran down Luke’s spine. He stuttered. “A-are you the Man?”
The man in the poncho arched his thick black eyebrows. Then he slapped his thighs and laughed so heartily that he had to wipe a tear from one eye. Luke saw that his hands were adorned with rings. He pointed at Luke a few times as his laughter died down to a chuckle, “Oh, Luke, you are a flatterer. I know exactly who you’re mistaking me for, but no, I’m not affiliated with that particular brand. Now, sit down, really, there’s no need to run. I promise you most sincerely that dying wasn’t and still isn’t in my plans for today. And I definitely do not intend to hurt you either.”
Luke stared at the little man for a moment, coming to terms with what his words actually meant. A friendly stranger who knew of him. Someone his curse possibly would not harm. Was it even possible? The man seemed so sure about it and so far Luke’s power really remained dormant… Luke slowly slid down the wall and dropped on his newspapers. His heart, that was previously trying to pound its way up out of his chest through his throat, sunk back in place and began to slow down. Luke bit his lips. Tears formed in the corners of his eyes. For a moment he could not speak. He wanted to say so much. He had not spoken properly to anyone for almost a year. The infrequent conversations he’d had were draped in fear and mostly consisted of instructions given by cruel criminals. The few people who had tried extending a helping hand to him usually fell victim to their own kindness, unless he ran away fast enough for the events not to trigger. And yet here was this man who knew of his curse and had the confidence and good will to offer him a meal and companionship.
“Perfect. Now, let’s try this again.” The stranger smiled to him. “Guder Daag, Luke. Did I say that right?”
Luke gasped, and tears finally ran freely down his face.
“Are you… an angel of the Lord?”
The small man laughed again and passed him some tissues. He seemed to have come well prepared. “No, Luke, while I appreciate the compliment, I’m no angel. Though there are some letters in common. You can call me El. Here, take your sandwich and juice, you can’t keep running on air and water alone.” The wide array of green and gold bracelets on El’s forearms jangled as he gestured.
After Luke accepted the tissues, El extended the rest of his gifts towards him and beamed again. Luke noticed now that some of El’s teeth were decorated with small green inserts. Odd, but hardly noteworthy considering all the things people did to their bodies these days.
“You’re safe now, kid. I’m going to help you out, but the details can wait until after you eat and drink.”
“Thank you… thank you.” Luke used the tissues to wipe some of the muck off of his face with his tears. Then he felt he should keep the wet tissues for later and folded them carefully, hiding them in a pocket. “Bless you, El. Blessings on you and all your loved ones,” Luke said with feeling. Shakily he pierced the juice box with the straw. As he drank, he studied El through teary eyes.
All in all his benefactor looked like a vagrant too, just a slightly better dressed one. The bracelets, rings and earrings that he wore shone like gold, but doubtlessly were just plastic imitations. Luke took a break from his juice to mutter more words of gratitude.
“Sure, sure, you’ll thank me later,” the short man gestured amicably. He looked at Luke with a sort of fatherly care. “Eat, drink, and then I’ll take you somewhere, where you can wash. Just take this little thing first, and don’t part with it no matter what.” He extended a hand towards Luke and opened his fingers to reveal something resting in his palm.
Luke carefully lifted what looked like a polished black disk framed with wood and fur. It was a few inches in size, and looked like nothing Luke had seen before. There was a piece of string attached to it to form a necklace. Luke wondered what his new friend could have in mind. The offer of a chance to wash sounded too much like a trap — his belongings could be gone together with his benefactor, such things had happened before. But the odd gift occupied his mind.
“Thank you very much, El. What is this?”
“Oh, from now on, it is your most prized possession.”
El presented his decorated teeth in another crooked smile. “Well why indeed… Let’s say that as long as you have it, you’re just another guy again. Not too lucky, not too unlucky. Keep it around you at all times. And no worries, I’m not a walking charity, and I will want something from you in return, in fact I have a job offer for you. We’ll talk it over later today, but I think you won’t mind it.”
Luke studied the little talisman for a moment, then eagerly put the string around his neck and hid the fur charm deep under his layers of clothes. He held his breath and looked at El intently. Then he pulled out a penny from his pocket and focused all of his will on flipping it face up. He tossed the coin. It landed showing the face of the bearded man and the inscription “IN GOD WE TRUST”. Luke looked about himself for any falling bricks or incoming cars. The alley was quiet and peaceful. The desired outcome affixed in his mind’s eye, Luke flipped the coin again. The bearded man. Feeling anxious, he threw the coin one more time, waiting, focusing all his willpower on wanting to see the bearded man again, as much as he dreaded it.
A shield. The United States of America.
His accursed luck finally failed. He really was normal again.
Luke clutched the coin and wept with joy.
Wyatt hadn’t slept at all that night. When he got home from his worst living nightmare, it was already almost time to go to work again, so he did just that.
He arrived at the gas station fifteen minutes too late anyway, and was met with a slight glower from his fatigued colleague from the night shift. Taking Brent’s place behind the cash register, Wyatt apologized with such a blank look on his face that a few rude words curled up and died on the other guy’s lips, and he asked Wyatt if he was alright.
Of course he was alright, everything was just perfectly normal and in order, never better, what a lovely Saturday.
On any other day he would have been pissed that the guy supposed to work the gas pumps didn’t show up, but today he had no feelings about it. He sold cigarettes, chewing gum, a couple magazines and several cups of coffee to the first clients and filled out a few car tanks with petrol with the same blank stare, until somebody suggested that he should also get some coffee. But who needed caffeine, when you could run on fear alone?
An hour later exhaustion finally kicked in, and Wyatt’s thoughts began swinging between normal everyday life stuff and the most morbid scenarios. At twenty past seven he was thinking that life without his car was rather hard to get used to. It might have been a clunker, but it got him places quicker than his feet or the bus did. He wished he hadn’t had to part with it but still considered himself lucky that someone actually paid money for something that belonged in a junkyard more than in a garage. He pondered — maybe he should get himself a bicycle?
Then at a quarter to eight the pump guy finally showed up, but Wyatt hardly registered that, because he was wondering how many men in suits would be waiting for him back home, or if maybe he was going to die in an unfortunate gas station explosion later today.
Around nine he fell asleep on the counter, but was jolted awake by a pair of customers and served them in a panic remembering the camera behind his back that no doubt registered him falling asleep in as much detail as the technology could allow. He didn’t even know how to tamper with the recording, so all that was left to hope for was that viewed from behind it could be mistaken for… he wasn’t even sure what it could be mistaken for. Wyatt wondered which would come first, getting fired from this pathetic job, or meeting his untimely demise at the hand of some Citizen, walking in to leave a bullet in his head.
At eleven, he reached the stage of complete peace with the world. Let all of them come, customers, Citizens, men in suits, police, the gas station owner, and all the New Coalport’s Dobermans. Maybe dying was a way out of his predicament. He wouldn’t have to worry about money, about Hector Viteri being the Man, or how to arrange his parents coming to town without the truth about his gas station job coming up.
At noon, he was pretty sure that last night didn’t even happen.
At two o’clock he shot out of the gas station almost trampling over Curtis, who came to take over the shift. His heart was thudding in his ears again, and he ran home on foot, then suddenly changed direction and ran to the public library instead.
Out of breath, he asked the librarian if they had newspapers, and when he found out where they were, he started digging through those from ten years back. Taking them home was both against the library policy and would be literally impossible, unless he filled up an entire taxi with them, so instead he spent the rest of the day in there, scanning dozens upon dozens of old issues of The New Coalporter Daily for any mentions of Hector Viteri, or the Man. How was he supposed to be the guy’s biggest fan if he knew next to nothing about him? To mislead anyone who could be following him or checking his library record in case they put those newspapers on it, he tried to borrow several geology books, but found out that he had already exceeded his maximum quota with the previous ones that were already almost overdue. He looked around in a sudden burst of exhausted paranoia, but the library was mostly empty, except for a few teenagers and two women browsing fashion magazines.
Wyatt still felt like he was in a thriller, and the walls had eyes.
He sat there until they closed for the day, which was awfully soon. How could a public library close at six in the afternoon? He’d only managed some three hours of browsing and hardly felt well versed in either of Hector Viteri’s personas.
When he got home on his last legs, he found the cursed photo, and hid it away. Pretending that this whole fateful night and the basement episode never happened put him at ease. He slept well and next morning, with no proof in sight, he managed to convince himself that it all had really been just a nightmare. All that had been simply too strange to have ever transpired, so it never did. He found that conclusion extremely relieving and liberating. As a consequence, even though he had previously resolved to do that every day, he didn’t go to the library again. He spent the entire Sunday sleeping, and on Monday he returned to his everyday routine. Come Wednesday afternoon, he had already moved on from even thinking about that strange nightmare he had.
Then on a nice and sunny Thursday afternoon, his phone rang.
“Hello?” Wyatt picked up the receiver.
“Hello, this is Hector Viteri speaking. May I speak with Mr. Wyatt Brooks, please?” the phone rumbled.
Wyatt saw his life pass in front of his eyes. He stared across the room frozen in absolute silence, and then, before it became suspicious, he mumbled. “I… y-yes, s-speaking. I’m so glad to hear you calling, Mr. Viteri. I-I didn’t even dare to hope that you would remember me.”
“How could I forget? You’ve made quite an entrance that night.” Wyatt could hear a smile in the Man’s voice. “Are you available this Saturday?”
Wyatt dropped the receiver. He did manage to catch it though, and as his heart raced, and his hands shook, he stammered, “A-available? As in… what k-kind of a-availability, sir?”
“Available to come over for lunch. Is everything alright? I hope I am not interrupting.”
“No, n-no, it’s fine… just a bit clumsy over here… sorry… I…” Wyatt really dreamed of nothing else than to not be available on Saturday, but he didn’t suppose he had a choice. “Of course I’d love to overcome lunch… I mean to come over. Saturday? S-sounds great.”
“Half past noon then?”
“Half past noon… I-I…” Wyat panicked more. “I actually finish work at two, I’m so sorry… I’ll find a way to be-”
“No need,” rumbled the receiver. “Let’s make it a very late lunch then. How does four o’clock sound instead? Would that give you sufficient time to get home and prepare? I can send someone to pick you up at three thirty if that is good with you.”
There was no such thing as sufficient time to prepare for this. “I-I think so, y-yes. But no need to pick me up, really, I can take a walk, I love walking.” Wyatt blabbered without much thinking, as he remembered the scary night drive across the city. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to ever be back in that car.
“You’d walk through half the city?” Hector laughed. The sound of his deep voice made Wyatt’s hair stand on end. “While after watching you scale walls, I can almost believe that, still I must insist. Now, what would you prefer for lunch?”
The fact the man saw him somehow sleepwalk over that tall fence and up the wall, while he himself had no memory of that at all, was absolutely surreal and horribly disturbing.
“I… I don’t… I mean that’s… spaghetti maybe?” he blurted out, only then realizing that being an Italian mobster, Hector could take it as a mockery and stereotyping. Because he was Italian, right? Or was it Spanish… Oh god, he should have gone back to do more research, he didn’t even have his basic facts straight, he was going to be offed on Saturday, and it was probably going to happen during that late lunch. That’s what the ‘late’ part really stood for.
“Splendid! I love spaghetti. Any allergies or religious constraints my cook should take into account?”
Yes, he was allergic to the mob, and he believed in the freedom of choice and the value of life.
“N-no sir. Thank you for your concern.”
“No need to call me ‘sir’. Hector is just fine, Wyatt.”
Wyatt shuddered, and a nasty, sinking feeling settled in his stomach for good now. So now he was on a first name basis with the Man. That happened way too soon. “S-sure… Hector. So… where should I wait? At three thirty, I mean?”
“Wherever you prefer, darling. Can be by the laundromat that you so like.”
After Hector hung up, Wyatt sat with the receiver next to his face for a while. Then he slowly lowered his hand, still holding the phone. He sat like that for a while as well.
Then he put the phone down and soon ran out of his apartment and back to the library. He had to make sure he learnt exactly just how Italian Hector was, he couldn’t afford to botch that up.
After a long and frantic search he managed to find an old interview in which somebody confronted Mr. Viteri with a similar question. It turned out he was quite Italian indeed, but his surname wasn’t. It came from a distant Spanish ancestor.
Wyatt studied newspapers for as long as he could, relieved to see the same readers as before — just a few youths and the two women with their fashion magazines.
The dilapidated tenement house at the edge of the Rat Trap did not strike one as the best place to live, but for Luke it instantly became a long-missed safe haven. The building itself looked like it had a close run in with a wrecking ball — and according to El it was approximately what had happened. El claimed it had been a misunderstanding, but as a result of it, a huge hole gaped in the wall on the second floor, currently patched up partially with bricks and partially with some sort of poorly attached insulation. El said it was unfortunate and rendered the upper floors mostly unreachable, and was causing a bit of a problem with keeping the heat in winter, but for now they were going to be fine. He assured Luke that the rest of the building was structurally sound and cosy. And it really looked that way.
El and his people had adapted all the abandoned apartments on the ground level as well as the corridor between them into their living quarters and designated the very first apartment from the foyer as something of a common space. Even though not much daylight filtered in through the half-heartedly boarded up windows, the place was sufficiently lit by mismatched floor lamps with colorful shades standing here and there, and had a cosy ambience to it.
Just like El said, only the first floor of the building turned out to still be accessible. The stairwell leading up was obstructed by mounds of rubble from the partially collapsed wall and ceiling on the upper floor. Even so, there was more than enough space for the inhabitants to live rather comfortably. As for Luke, a roof above his head was all that he could wish for. Everything beyond that felt like excessive luxury.
There were two older women in the common room when they first entered it, and Luke automatically tried to back away, worried about his curse hurting them. El stopped him with an extended arm and patiently turned him back around to the women, who didn’t even seem to care about them being there. They were sitting on opposing sofas and quarreling about whose turn it was to choose the channel on the small TV set. El interrupted them and made the introductions: the angrier old Indian lady pointing an accusing bony finger around was Neha, while her somewhat mellower, pale opposition, sitting with her arms adamantly crossed on her chest, was Alena. The old women welcomed Luke offhandedly with a shrug and a nod, and as soon as they were left to their own devices, their argument resumed. As he walked out of the room, following El deeper inside the first apartment, Luke wondered if it was perhaps the disagreement itself rather than television that was the old ladies’ entertainment.
The next room after the TV room turned out to be a large semi-makeshift kitchen, with a massive, well-stocked fridge and a bit of sitting space. El instructed him briefly on how to report when something needed to be replenished and on the basic rules of sharing the kitchen with others. The bottom line of it was that Neha was in charge of the fridge, but everyone was encouraged to do their fair share of cooking.
One of the smaller apartments they visited next turned out to house the only fully functioning bathroom, which all of the inhabitants shared. El noted that it was somewhat challenging to get a turn at using the shower in the morning but claimed it was actually not impossible to succeed — and not even run out of hot water — in the afternoon. Soon his host had to attend some business outside, and Luke was given a chance to confirm that claim, much to his pleasure.
Smelling of soap and feeling a little dreamlike, he made his way to the apartment at the far back that he was going to share with someone called Penny. Luke knocked on the apartment door, but nobody answered. He tried the door. It was unlocked. Luke opened it and, just in case, knocked again. Then he stepped in and almost tripped over a box standing in the corridor. And that was just the beginning. There were boxes everywhere. As he quickly discovered every room in that apartment, except the small shared bedroom, resembled an overcrowded warehouse — most walls were lined with shelves that held wooden and cardboard boxes filled with junk. Even in the bedroom one wall was dedicated to a massive set of shelves, which could be observed from either of the two beds at the opposite wall. Nonetheless, the apartment was relatively clean and the only pervasive smell was that of old people. The bedroom was warm, and the linen on beds appeared freshly washed if somewhat worn out. All of this was a huge improvement over most places he had slept in since he woke in this body.
Luke sat down on the bed that was his, overwhelmed by the good graces fate suddenly bestowed on him. Was this another trick his rotten luck was playing on him? Another disaster in the making? He touched the talisman hanging on the string around his neck. This small trinket was able to somehow negate his curse. He didn’t understand how, but it seemed to work. But what if it wouldn’t last?
“You want those rags of yours washed? Or do you want to stink up the place? Like that old fart Penny isn’t enough!” Neha stuck her head in the door of the bedroom and then knocked, rather as an afterthought.
Luke jumped up and turned to the old woman, about to back away as far as he could. She wanted something from him. Her goal would be achieved, but at what cost? He clutched again onto the talisman. He waited. Nothing happened.
“Are you dense? Or deaf? Or do you like the smell of your own sweat?”
“I… Thank you kindly. But I have no other clothes,” Luke said and felt instantly self-conscious.
“You can have some of Penny’s. And if the pants don’t fit quite right, he must have a belt lying around here somewhere.”
“I’m very grateful, but I wouldn’t want to trouble-”
“I’m not going through any trouble, it’s Alena’s turn to do the washing. Go on, strip, I’ll find you something to wear.” With that the woman approached one of the shelves and began digging through a box full of clothes. “Damn Penny, cursed hoarder. Worse than the dripping Slavic brat. Awful, awful, pale-faced fools.”
Luke stood in place and did nothing about his clothes. Neha noticed and turned to glare at him.
“What’s the matter? Are you grown into that jacket? Is it stuck?”
“I would prefer to change when I am alone, if that is alright.”
“Ugh.” The woman rolled her eyes. “Suit yourself.” She tossed a pair of jeans, a sweater, undershirt and briefs onto the bed. After some more digging, she also threw mismatched socks on top of the clothes. “Now change and leave the dirty clothes in the corridor. The old hag will pick them up.”
“Aha, whatever.” Neha went out of the room.
Luke could hear her grumbling as she waded through the corridor away from him.
He was alone. But for the first time in over a year he didn’t feel alone.
He was among people again. He was no longer a threat to anyone. Luke teared up and rubbed his eyes dry with the new undershirt. Then he changed and left his old clothes folded neatly outside. The jeans he was given were so loose they could hardly stay in place, but he felt uncomfortable digging through another man’s things without asking, so he picked up the piece of hempen cord he’d used as a belt before and slipped it through the loops of his borrowed jeans. He would have preferred suspenders, but the cord he used was as humble an accessory as could be, so he did not feel like he broke the Ordnung by wearing it. When he felt as presentable as was possible, Luke ventured out into the apartment building.
After the kindness shown to him, he felt it was imperative that he made himself useful, so he headed for the kitchen, hoping to help with the preparation of a meal that he could share with his new community.
The common room was empty this time, but he could hear the sounds of someone chopping vegetables from the kitchen. Luke hurried inside.
“Hello, may I be of any assistance? I’d like to help you cook…”
Luke trailed off. Before him, on top of a wooden step stool stood a light haired girl no older than six, busily chopping carrots with a knife as long as her forearm. She glanced at him calmly and went back to work.
“You can wash the greens.” She swept the chopped carrots into a slowly cooking stew and offered Luke a faint but earnest smile. “You must be Luke. I’m Amalka. Nice to meet you.”
Luke could hardly muster a response, his eyes were glued to the knife in Amalka’s hands.
Her movements were quick and confident, but that did little to alleviate Luke’s unease.
“Uh, nice to meet you too… Perhaps I could do the cutting?”
“No, thank you. Please, wash the greens.”
“But you’re so young…”
“And you, I hear, are cursed with ill fortune. So out of the two of us, I’m far more qualified to handle sharp objects, don’t you think?”
And so Luke found himself washing celery and an assortment of herbs, while the child behind his back turned to cutting potatoes. A moment passed in silence, as Luke focused on his task, letting the ambience of the kitchen envelope him. It wasn’t the same as back home — the electric light buzzed, the stove hissed with burning natural gas, and the sounds of the city, along with some sunlight, filtered in through the boarded-up windows — but it was still a very pleasant place to be in. Luke shook the water off the plants and laid them out on a towel.
“Is there anything else I can help with?”
“You can stir the stew if you like.”
Luke looked into the pot with some interest. The smell that rose from the stew was intense and spicy but pleasant. He took up the wooden spoon and began mixing gently. Amalka lifted and tipped the cutting board, letting potato cubes fall into the stew.
“Those are very neat cubes,” Luke praised.
“Thank you.” The little girl smiled. “Now you see why I’m the one doing the cutting?”
“I suppose.” Luke smiled back.
Amalka stepped off of her stool and went to pick up the washed celery. Then she was back, chopping it as she addressed Luke again.
“El said you are one of those… Mennonites or something. Is that true?”
“I’m Amish,” Luke corrected softly. “But it’s a common mix-up.”
“Amish, I see. It’s mostly all the same to me. Aren’t you supposed to wear a funny hat though?” The girl stared at him judgingly.
“I would, but in the big city a straw hat would draw too much attention.”
“Well, that’s too bad. You should consider it. Hats are fun. El wears one too.”
“Does he? I have not seen it yet.”
“He puts it on in the late afternoon. You’ll see. Your straw hat would have nothing on that one. One way or another… I always thought your kind made a point of staying out of trouble. How did you get yourself cursed?”
Luke stopped stirring the pot. For a moment the warmth of the kitchen seemed to drain away, and his heart sank in his chest. The sparks dancing on the surface of the stew — reflections of the electric lights above — were suddenly stars swaying and blinking beyond the ether, stars that were threatening to fall and strike him, smite him for his hubris and his curiosity.
“I strayed off the path. I ignored the righteous way, and was drawn to my doom by my curiosity.”
The little girl shrugged. “You say that like you’re quoting from the Bible. But what really happened?”
“I’ll tell you some other time. If you don’t mind.” Luke averted his gaze and went back to stirring the stew. Despite the rich aroma of the cooking food, his appetite was gone.
Soon after that they were done with the cooking. Amalka covered the pot with a lid and told Luke she no longer needed his help. He was to return in an hour to dine with the rest of them. Luke nodded his agreement and left.
He knew it was foolish to get so emotional over the innocent questions of a child, but he couldn’t easily shake off the dreadful impression of that fateful night and the memory of the price his loved ones and countless others had paid for it. Luke touched the talisman around his neck and breathed a sigh of relief. As he passed a window, through the crack between the boards he noticed a small gathering in the street outside. Luke paused and pressed his face to the gap, studying the odd group. Could those be the other inhabitants of the tenement? If so he wanted to meet them. In fact, he wanted to meet them even if they weren’t. For the first time in years he was beginning to feel safe, no longer a danger to others. Finally he could be around people. He wanted to be around them. Luke hurried towards the door outside almost with a bounce in his step.
When he went out, he realized the gathering had its focal point around his benefactor. El laughed, shook hands with someone that looked like an elegant vagrant, passed a small packet to a woman in a blue dress, who nodded, stole a glance at Luke and quickly walked away.
Luke frowned, a bit confused, but he didn’t have time to dwell on it, because El has already turned towards him with a bright smile. “Ah, there you are. Looking better already.” El took a couple sniffs as he came closer. “And all acquainted with the shower facilities, I see. Good, good. How are you finding the lodgings and the lodgers?”
The small man was indeed wearing a hat now, and it one impossible to disregard. And at the very center of it, among multiple layers of plumes, folds of different fabrics, gems and plants — once again Luke guessed they had to be plastic — sat a huge stuffed bird the likes of which Luke had never seen. Its shimmering feathers of green, blue and brown reflected the afternoon sun, making the browns seem almost orange. The bird’s head was featherless and its skin was mostly light blue, but there were small round yellow growths scattered around its forehead and beak, and its dark glassy eyes were rimmed with red. Luke found himself almost face to face with the bird, and it captivated his attention to such an extent, that he froze with his mouth ajar, forgetting that El asked him a question. He managed to tear his eyes away only because the hat travelled away after a while as El bade his final goodbyes to the slowly dissipating crowd.
Luke attempted to gather his thoughts and when the small man in the huge hat turned back to him, he was ready to ignore the bird and to speak again. “I… I’d like to thank you again for letting me stay with you. For giving me your protection.” Luke uttered at last and touched the talisman under his shirt.
El waved his hand dismissively. “Welcome, welcome, but really no need. We’re all helping each other out here, it’s what we do.”
Luke noticed that none of the people leaving went inside the building. “Who were these people if it’s alright to ask?”
“But of course it is!” El laughed and the green inlays in his teeth sparkled in the sun rays. “I welcome all questions, though I may not always choose to answer them as clearly as one would wish for. Those were our various business partners, friends, applicants, supplicants, you name it! You will see a lot of them come by, especially whenever they find out I’m here. Many of them you will learn to recognize. Some others come specifically to deal with me, and you may have nothing to do with them.” El gestured abundantly as he spoke, pointing from Luke to himself. Then he froze with his finger in the air.” Which brings us to something I’d like you to be aware of. As you will soon learn, I am a man of business and that means I’m not always around. So whenever you do see me, and I am not being besieged, do make sure to seize the opportunity to ask questions and tell me what’s on your mind. Now come, let’s not stand around. Those chairs aren’t out here to be avoided.”
El heartily patted Luke on the mid back where he could reach and herded him towards the cheap green plastic chairs that stood under the wall of the tenement building. Behind those chairs, all around them, and even between them, under the equally cheap plastic table of a roughly matching color, lay items that looked partially like garbage and partially like usable household appliances. They seemed to have spilled over from the tall mound that stretched alongside the part of the building. Luke had seen it before when they first arrived here, but had no clue what it was, so now he timidly inquired about it.
The small man in the big hat smiled. “Ah, the pile. The key things you should know about it are that it is to be covered with a tarp when it rains, and that everything in it is free for the taking should you need it. Likewise if you ever find yourself in possession of something you don’t need, put it there, maybe someone else will find a use for it.” El sat down in one of the chairs.
“That… is a very nice idea.” Luke still felt out of his depth, but sharing was virtuous, and a community that practiced it had to be good company. Luke followed his host’s example and also sat down in a plastic chair.
“We’re hospitable like that. So if you see people coming up to leave an item, or taking some, just let them do it. Though of course if you see someone just bagging everything, they’re probably stealing to sell for scrap, so it might be a good idea to stop them,” El said and began rummaging in one of his satchels.
“Of course.” Luke nodded sternly.
El lifted his gaze up at him for a moment. “Don’t make it your mission though. Your roommate is already invested in watching over that one.”
“You must mean Penny… when will I meet him?”
El shrugged. “He’ll pop up back here sooner or later. The sooner the more we talk about him.” He pulled out a long cigar and a box of matches from his satchel and got busy with them.
Luke took that time to look around. The chairs were facing another brick building on the opposite side of the street. Unlike the building he was going to be living in, this one seemed to be properly inhabited, as indicated by the lack of boards in the windows and the presence of curtains and lights in some of them. His eyes travelled up, moving from one window to the other.
El followed Luke’s gaze. “It’s not much of a view, one thinks at first. Until one sees all these stories.”
Luke looked at his benefactor and then again at the building before them. Everything he saw or heard posed new questions, but even though El encouraged him to do that, he still felt hesitant to ask them. Excessive curiosity had done him and others nothing but harm in the past. And yet, despite his desire to avoid immoderate inquiry, he had to question his good fortune. His experience with the Citizens had made him more suspicious than he liked, but he couldn’t shake off the impression there had to be a catch. There was always a catch with the Englishmen, not that the moniker suited El very well, he clearly wasn’t English… On the other hand, earnest charity was too rare and precious to insult by voicing his doubts. Luke looked down at his feet.
He heard El light his cigar and felt the smell of smoke. After a moment, his host cleared his throat expectantly. “Well? I can feel you’re not done asking. So keep those questions coming. I want you feeling at peace here and you won’t feel that way until we get at least some more of these out of the way.”
Luke furrowed his eyebrows, feeling guilty the moment the words started leaving his lips. He kept staring at the ground. “You said there is something I can do for you, something to repay your kindness, a job of some sort. What will it be?”
“Ah, good, straight to the point!” More than anything, El seemed amused. “Like I mentioned, we like to help others here. As you can imagine, across this entire city, there are various people who need help with all sorts of things.” He gestured widely with his cigar, and then he pointed it right at Luke. “Now, I know a kind soul when I see one, and you must be eager to meet people now that you cannot harm them, so I thought you would be just perfect for the role.” He winked.
“You want me to… help people?” Luke looked at El in disbelief.
“Why, yes! See? I told you that you wouldn’t mind.” El released a puff of smoke and flashed his green-inlaid smile at him. “I am unable to let you know how exactly you will be helping simply because, as you know best from personal experience, there are just so many different hardships people face everyday. Those hardships are something you will have to learn to look out for day to day. But from the simpler requests I am able to predict right now, except for helping other lodgers take care of this household, I will ask you sometimes to deliver or receive a message or a parcel. In fact, there will be one package that you can accept today, a very easy one, just to show you how it is. As far as I’ve been told, that particular courier will come to us on a motorcycle.”
“Are those parcels… legal?” Luke asked cautiously. He doubted he could refuse even if they weren’t, but he needed to know.
“Oh yes, quite so.” El reassured him. “They might seem unusual sometimes, but you will be seeing unusual things around here every day. After a while you’ll grow used to it. You really needn’t worry.”
And indeed somehow Luke was less worried already. The afternoon slowly turned into evening rich with the sounds and signs of nightlife. Somewhere above them more lights went on, doors were shut, dishes clanked, voices were raised in laughter, then hushed down again. Some people passed through the alley as they conversed, and while Luke watched them all with apprehension, El seemed to pay no heed, he just kept talking. He told Luke a bit more about the other tenants he would be living with — it turned out that Amalka was Alena’s granddaughter and that Amalka’s mother, Anezka, was also living with them, although she was gone today. The three of them came here all the way from Czechoslovakia. Neha was originally from India, and she made sure everyone knew she would rather still be there, but she couldn’t be persuaded to go on a plane ever again. El went on and on, spinning the tale about the lodgers and their daily routine, though as he claimed, Luke would get the hang of everything and everyone soon enough anyway.
Luke eagerly soaked up all that information. He felt almost at peace sitting there. El seemed to have answers for everything, and he never paused or hesitated, unlike a man who would have something to hide. Sometimes however, like he had warned, he remained a bit mysterious. And so when Luke asked him how come there was running water, gas and electricity in what seemed to be a condemned building, the small man only smiled and tapped the rim of his enormous hat. “I have my ways,” was the only thing he said.
It was then that Luke knew he had to ask one more thing. “What is this bird? I have never seen anything like it.”
“Oh and you won’t see it unless you visit Yucatán!” El grinned again, clearly pleased about the question. “It’s an ocellated turkey. My crown jewel,” he added, sounding sentimental.
“It’s beautiful…” Luke marvelled at the hat.
“Are you two coming to eat or not? The dinner curled up and died thrice over.” An already familiar displeased voice reached their ears.
“If you do so politely invite us, we’re on our way, my dear!” El shouted back to Neha.
She groaned so loudly that the whole street must have heard her.
Luke felt home at last.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen walked his bike through the dark street, up a driveway, and behind a Victorian home. The house was mostly dark with only dim light coming from the bedroom window upstairs. Yen smirked, biting down on his lower lip.
He left his bike by the back porch and walked up the steps. He tried the doorknob gently. It wasn’t locked. But that was boring. Yen stepped off of the porch, looking for an open window. There was one upstairs. It was possible to reach it from the roof above the porch, but now that he knew the door was open, it seemed superfluous to actually do the climbing. Yen shrugged and went inside through the door.
Once in the dark house, he listened for any signs of activity. He heard none. So stepping lightly, Yen snuck upstairs, heading towards that one open window. Once he reached it, he stuck one leg outside and pretended to be climbing in.
“Oh shit!” he proclaimed loudly in fake surprise and fumbled aimlessly for a moment making all appropriate noises of a person climbing in through a window.
He heard a sigh in the distance, and moments later a dark figure exited the bedroom at the end of the corridor, and beheld his fictional struggle.
“I left the door open for you, Yen.”
“The door? Who do you think I am, an invalid?” Yen climbed out of the window and dusted himself off. “How’s the nighttime been treating you, Daddy?”
“Why, it’s been quite tolerable so far. I’ve been waiting for you, my boy.” The priest came up to him, faint moonlight caught in the silvering hair. “Because there is a lot of work to be done.”
“Oh? But I bet you have a few moments to spare before you burden me with packaged oddities.” Yen stepped up to him and wrapped his arms around the priest’s neck, pulling Blaise towards himself. “Don’t you, Daddy?”
The priest inhaled slowly, as he embraced the biker, and then let out a slightly exasperated sigh right next to Yen’s ear. “For you, always, my unruly boy.” His lips touched the young man’s earlobe as the priest’s hands gripped the leather of biker’s colors, tugging Yen closer still. “Approximately one and a half minute and then we do business.”
“I can work with that,” Yen purred. His hands slid down Blaise’s front. They almost made it into the priest’s trousers, but Blaise caught and restrained them, glowering at the biker.
“Oh for crying out loud, Yen… ”
Yen puckered his lips and pouted. “Well you don’t need to cry out loud if you don’t wanna.”
“That was not a challenge, boy. I know that you’re capable of being rash,” father Ivers said as he pressed him against the wall next to the window, pinning Yen’s wrists above his head with one hand and gripping his chin with the other. “But the finer things in life come with patience.”
“Well, I’m mighty fine and I come-”
Blaise kissed him, and the biker’s protest was instantly forgotten. Yen’s tongue lapped at the priest’s lips hungrily even as the older man began withdrawing mere moments later.
“Well, the time’s up.”
“That wasn’t even a minute,” Yen protested.
“It was all that you needed right now.”
“A raging boner?”
“Incentive. Come now, Yen.” Blaise beckoned and switched on the light on the stairs as he descended.
“‘Come now, Yen’, I can’t come on command. Incentive, more like insensitive,” Yen grumbled. “And all this talk of coming. False advertisement.”
“If you had ever bothered to attend a mass, you would have known what to expect. First coming, second coming… and a lot of false promises as well.” Blaise led him down the stairs, across the hallway and into the kitchen where neatly packaged items were already waiting for a courier to deliver them into the right hands at the right time.
“Seriously, what the fuck,” Yen complained. “That Ancient Egyptian gig of ours now seems more reliable, at least nobody tells you someone is coming when nobody is.”
Before Blaise managed to react, Yen had already finished unwrapping and opening a small case. He was frowning at three opalescent roughly egg-shaped stones that lay inside it.
“Something that would have rendered you infertile and possibly dead if you were a woman.” Blaise confiscated the case, closed it, and wrapped it back up. “How many times do I have to tell you, Yen. Do not open the packages.”
“Ok. What’s this?” Yen pointed to an unopened package, but made no move to open it this time. When he received no reply from Blaise, he lifted it to his ear, rattled it and listened to the softly rustling contents.
The priest passed a list to him. Father Ivers trusted nothing to Yen’s memory. As always, the symbols on the paper next to the specified drop points coincided with the labels on the parcels and boxes. There were times of delivery given next to some of the entries, sometimes very precise. Prices or sometimes items that Yen was supposed to get in exchange were listed as well, together with information on whether or not Yen was supposed to inspect the package. No names of the clients were specified, they almost never were. Blaise gave Yen concise verbal instructions, and when he was sure everything was understood, they packed the items into Yen’s spacious backpack.
When they were done, the priest told the biker to stand still, and he hung a piece of something on a leather cord around his neck.
“Wear this close to your heart tonight, preferably under your shirt. Then return it to me.”
“A-alright… But what is it?” Yen inspected the thing under different angles. It looked like a piece of bone with some feathers on.
Blaise extricated it from Yen’s fingers and tucked it under his shirt, ending the examination session. “It’s a fetish,” he answered tiredly.
“Ooh, Daddy! It kind of tickles by the way.”
“I think you’re ready to go.” Blaise’s patience was running thin, and he all but pushed the young man out of the door.
Yen stood on the doorstep. Reluctant to go do his courier duty, he instead pointed towards the plants growing in the small garden outside. “What’s gotta go is this vegetation. Your garden’s outta control. What’s that mutated dandelion that’s all over the place?”
“Pf, no way, now you’re just tormenting me.”
“Otherwise known as tormentilla.”
“Oh come on! Quit making shit up.”
“Go, Yen, just go. Come back when you’re done.”
The biker shrugged. “Fine.”
He walked down the stairs and towards his bike. As he rolled the motorcycle back out onto the street he wistfully looked up at the lit windows of father Ivers’ bedroom. For almost five weeks he had worked for the priest doing these bizarre deliveries. Herbs, parts of dead animals, chunks of crystals, sticks and stones, seashells, little figurines that Blaise probably imported from China, charms made of wood and bone, and other superstitious nonsense. Yen couldn’t believe the junk sold as well as it did. What he could believe just fine though was a Catholic priest swindling people. Bullshitting people into believing things that didn’t exist and conning money out of them was the essence of the job. And Blaise Ivers was ridiculously good at it. Respectable clergyman by day, peddler of exotic rubbish by night. Yen could only aspire to that level of crooked. Still, he got his share of the proceeds, in fact he’d bought this rad motorbike with it, so there was nothing to complain about.
Yen cringed as a ray of a flashlight blinded him.
“Is that your bike?”
“Duh, it is my bike,” Yen snapped at the dark figure on the opposite side of the street.
“Then why the heck are you rolling it around instead of riding it?!”
Yen turned away, blinking furiously. “Because I was trying to be fucking mindful! But I see politeness and goodwill are not appreciated in this neighborhood!” He got onto his bike and started it. “And if that’s the case, then you can fuck the hell off, and go shine that flashlight up your asshole!” Yen yelled and rode off, accelerating sharply. The man swore after him, but Yen hardly heard him over the roar of the engine.
As he turned onto another street, he slowed down to make less noise. And hopefully stay out of trouble. The backpack with Blaise’s goods had covered his colors. So the flashlight-waving dickhead shouldn’t be able to identify the club he belonged to. He was one of the few East Asian bikers in town, but heck, Yen could bet twenty bucks the guy wouldn’t have been able to tell that with all the squinting and cringing Yen did under that bright light.
It was annoying how he now had to think of these things. Life had been ridiculously simple when he had nothing to lose. But Sam and his improved quality of life had made Yen more aware of the consequences of his brash actions. He would pick a fight any day as long as the only things that could get hurt were his body and pride. But now that expensive bikes, club rep, and other things had entered the equation, Yen found himself more and more often conscious — if only post-factum — of the possible ramifications.
At least the flashlight guy wasn’t a cop. He didn’t sound like one.
Yen shook his head, getting rid of the responsible mature thoughts. The night was cool and quiet, and the streets were his. Easy money was going to rain on him soon. All he had to do was ride around town and hand out junk to sleepless weirdos.
The first delivery point of the night was downtown, namely, in the Rat Trap.
Even this late at night, the tiny neighborhood on the edge of the docks was buzzing with activity. Round the clock adult movie theaters were advertising a plethora of ridiculously named flicks, hookers posed in the lights of lamps and neon signs, while hobos slumped against buildings.
Yen snorted at some of the more ludicrous porn titles. Most of them were well familiar to him. Even so, they were still funny. He didn’t frequent the place as much as he’d used to until six years ago, still he had no problem finding his way around. The Trap was much bigger back then, but the city’s been trying hard to expunge the seedy neighborhood. What Yen rode through now was a small island of filth off the flow of the city’s main street, slowly bled dry by the decreased influx of clients and cash. Give the cops and city council several years to continue the pressure, and the place would likely be gone for good.
Yen’s drop-off was on the quieter dock-side edge of the Trap. And he was glad for it because some of the prostitutes were eyeing him, and the last thing he wanted was being accosted by a pair of badly covered sweaty boobs.
“No, nope, ladies, not interested, thank you very much, very gay over here. All into ballsacks and meat popsicles, and not even into drag at all, so no future for us whatsoever!” Yen spoke the magic words of protection when one of the women of the night began walking in his direction as he waited for a swaying group of friends to escort their really high comrade across the street.
“You can’t afford me even if you sell that bike, Yen.” The hooker crossed her arms, glaring at him. She was older than most of the skimpily dressed women on the sidewalk. Her clothes were cheap and kitsch, but her hair and makeup were flawless.
“Oh. Monica!” The biker brightened up. “Haven’t seen you in a million years. How’s business?” He walked the bike to the side of the street to talk to the woman, no longer avoidant.
“Not what it used to be.”
“What, old man Romeo’s losing his touch? Marketing department lagging behind?”
“Oh, no, if anything Romeo’s shed at least twenty years since you left. He’s like a young man again.” Monica laughed. “Speaking of which, I haven’t seen you here in years!”
“Yeah, I’ve grown out of this place.” Yen shrugged. “I couldn’t do these one-time gigs for the rest of my life. A time comes when a man has to settle down and put down roots. So I found myself a sucker to squat with, a boyfriend to boast about and a silver fox sugar daddy to shower me with money, as evidenced by this sweet ride.” Yen gestured towards his bike.
“Ah, Yen, full of shit as always. Next thing you’ll tell me, this bike wasn’t bought with drug money. Keep boasting and someone will knock you off of it and steal it.” The woman snorted.
“It wasn’t bought with drug money.”
“Say, Monny, do you know who operates in the North East corner of the Trap?”
“A few people. Why do you ask?”
“Killed the cat.”
“I’m more of a bat out of hell if I do say so myself.” Yen leered.
Monica shook her head. “There used to be a few gambling spots near there, but they’ve moved a few years ago. Now it’s almost all empty. But there’s this guy, goes by El, squatting with his few girls in one of the condemned buildings there. El’s alright, treats us all like princesses.” The hooker held her head up proudly, suddenly self-important. “But the rest of them are a bunch of weirdos. There’s this one old hag, in particular, that gives me the hibbie-jibbies.”
“Huh,” Yen said. “Sounds like my clientele alright.”
“So it is drugs?”
Yen rolled his eyes. “What are you, working with NCPD now?”
“Pf, whatever. Don’t tell me you brat.” Monica waved a hand. “Anyway, it was nice to see you.”
“Same here. Stay safe.” Yen waved and rode off.
It took him a minute or so to reach the derelict apartment building where he was supposed to deliver the first package. The boarded-up windows and shabby walls were off-putting enough, but the sheer quiet and emptiness of the area gave him the creeps. This was a perfect place for someone to ambush him, just as Monica had said. And not even the lively noises of the Trap trickling in from just a street away helped alleviate this impression.
Yen rode up to the front stoop and almost jumped when something moved on the dark stairs.
“For fuck’s sake, a hello would be nice!” Yen barked angrily.
The shadowy figure emerged into the muddy light of the single functioning street lamp. The man had seemed large in the dark, but now Yen could see the size was all clothes. The guy’s face was bony and his neck thin, the oversized sweater was hanging loosely on his narrow shoulders.
“H-hello.” The man said hesitantly.
Yen looked at him doubtfully. “And you are?”
“I’m… Luke. I was told to pick up a package.”
“Oh, really?” Yen squinted. “Hey… I know you. You’re that bum, that’s been working lawns for folks on Eastfield. Nana Riley’s left food out for you every other day, and I saw you running in horror from some little kids just two weeks ago.”
Luke nodded seriously. “Yes. That was me.”
“And now what, I am supposed to hand over valuable goods to some crazy antisocial hobo?”
“I uh… I’m not… Please, I would like to receive the package. I am employed now. I have the money from El.” Luke pulled out a roll of banknotes from his pocket. “You can count it.” He offered it to Yen.
The biker’s eyebrows rose. He recognized the twenty dollar bill on the outside. If the insides of the roll weren’t all ones, that was a lot of money. He leaned over and snatched the cash from Luke, flipping through the edges of the banknotes. All twenties.
Yen whistled softly. “Looks paid for. Ok, let me get your stuff.” He consulted the list and pulled the backpack off his shoulders. He made sure to keep an eye on his surroundings even more now. Not only did he have a nice bike, but also quite a bit of green. But it appeared except for the familiar hobo and him there was no one else in the by-street. Yen finally fished out the right package and shook it gently, listening.
“W-what are you doing?” Luke asked anxiously.
“I’m trying to understand what costs so freaking much. It sounds like something fuzzy.” Yen tried to delicately rip the package open to see inside.
“I don’t think you should be opening it!”
“Me neither, pal, but you got me intrigued.” Yen tilted the slightly opened paper bag to shed some light inside. “Bah. Looks like roadkill. Why are you people buying roadkill?”
“You shouldn’t open these!” Luke protested. “Please, just give me the package.”
“Sure.” Yen handed him the paper bag. “Have your possum. Or whatever. It was dead when I got it so you know, no fault of mine.”
Luke took the package and sealed it closed to the best of his ability. He looked at it and at Yen in turns with a troubled frown on his face.
“Ok, you say hi to your boss or something. Night-night, Skywalker.”
The hobo stared back at him like he had seen a ghost. And maybe he did, but Yen didn’t care, he just rode off into the night.
Did the biker actually know more about him than he put on? Luke shook his head, uneasy, then winced at the paper bag. He hoped it was alright that the courier had opened it. His first assignment from El on his very first day, such a simple one too, and he had already managed to botch it. He turned around and went back inside to face the consequences.
He found El in the common room in the company of Neha and Alena. Anezka, Alena’s daughter had shown up earlier in the evening, but they didn’t get to really talk, she just grabbed something to eat and disappeared into the apartment that she shared with the other two women from her family. Now Anezka and her daughter must have already gone to sleep. El and the two old ladies were watching a nature documentary about pelicans, so it looked like there was at least one program the women managed to agree on. El was still wearing his hat with the giant bird on it, in fact, it was the only part of the man sticking out from behind the backrest of the couch. Luke waited for several minutes not to disturb them and then during a commercial break, cleared his throat and approached them with an air of defeat.
“I have the package delivered by a young man on a motorcycle. I gave him the payment as instructed, but I’m afraid I have still failed you. He opened the package and looked inside it, I did not manage to stop him.” Luke presented the slightly damaged brown paper bag to El who turned around to him.
The small man took the package from him and gave its contents a cursory glance. “You did very well, Luke, and rest assured that you’re not at fault. As a rule of thumb, if a courier ruins a good he ought to deliver, then his employer is the one responsible for covering the damages. But please don’t let that scare you when you’ll be making some deliveries yourself.” El added as he saw an apprehensive expression readily shaping up on Luke’s face. “I’m sure you’ll prove very reliable.”
“You can trust me not to let my curiosity get the best of me, I promise,” Luke said and meant it. “I won’t let you down.”
“Hm, that’s not at all what I meant.” El sighed. “Just don’t worry too much. Even if something goes wrong, I’m known to be pretty forgiving.”
“He’s forgiving alright, but I’m not.” Neha glowered at them. “So either take this elsewhere or shut up, are we watching these birds, or are we yapping like dogs?”
El flashed her a charming smile. “We’re almost done here, sweetheart.” Then he turned back to Luke and whispered loudly, “Anyway, just be spontaneous and everything will be alright.”
Luke felt a burden of responsibility settle on his shoulders. Spontaneity was not one of his fortes.