Show and Tell
At quarter past three in the afternoon, Wyatt looked out the single window in his apartment and saw his life pass in front of his eyes again. The car from that dreadful night was parked right in front of the building. In the light of day he could see that it was a sandy shade of gold. The driver could have had the common decency of waiting for him at the round the clock laundromat, but no, he had to park right where he actually lived. It was almost like having a gold bar on wheels parked out there. If he could see it from his miniature window, it meant all his neighbors could see the car from theirs as well.
Wyatt tried to calm himself down with the reasonable argument that his neighbors did not know this car was related to him in any way whatsoever. And if only he could manage to get into it without being noticed, all should be fine. Wyatt stayed plastered to the window for a moment, trying to estimate the time needed to make his way to the car. While he was mapping out the trajectory from the front door of the building to the car, the driver’s door opened, and the chauffeur got out onto the sidewalk. Instead of sitting in the car, the man was now standing stiffly next to it. He wore a sandy uniform and a funny cap that matched the car well, and all that was even worse. He could now be identified from miles away as a chauffeur waiting for someone. Why did he even arrive early? Or was Wyatt the one late? Was his watch running slow? Was it actually already half past three? Or did he misunderstand and he was supposed to already be at Viteri mansion at three thirty?
And what now? Was he supposed to launch himself out of the window and straight into the car this very moment, or was he supposed to wait until it was three thirty sharp? Was this a test? There were so many questions and nobody to ask for answers. And there was no time to waste either, so he rushed into the washroom to make sure his hair and clothes were all in order.
By the time Wyatt sneakily ran out of the building, the driver had taken off his sunglasses and was suntanning. Wyatt looked all around, scanning the windows of his neighbors and those on the opposite side of the street for any witnesses, and finding none, he tried to get into the car as fast as he could, but the chauffeur intercepted him and thwarted his attempts at stealth by officially welcoming him and then opening the door for him in the slowest way possible.
Once he was finally in, Wyatt slid down the backseat as much as was humanly possible without actually lying down. He wanted to lie down. And not just on the backseat but in the space for feet, where nobody on the outside could see there was a passenger in this car at all. But he needed to be presentable. The whole prospect of this trip was horrifying. It was a different thing to be driven back at night and dropped off nearby, than to be taken from in front of where he actually lived in broad daylight.
The chauffeur closed the door behind Wyatt, and got back into the driver’s seat, yet again, in excruciating slow motion. Because of that, the door to his building managed to swing open and Ms Higgins, an old lady from the apartment next door stepped out with her wiener dog. Wyatt closed his eyes, hoping if he cannot see her, she will not see him either.
“Is everything alright there, Mr Brooks?”
Wyatt opened his eyes, just a little. “Yes yes, can we please go?”
The chauffeur put his sunglasses back on, but Wyatt knew that he was still looking at him in the rear view mirror. Wyatt tried to slowly shift out of the man’s range of vision, while still attempting to monitor the activity of Ms Higgins. Maybe he could lie down after all. No, no, he couldn’t. This time the sound of the engine coming on brought as much relief as it caused him panic last time.
But as soon as they started going, the relief was gone as well. There was no reason to be happy that they started moving, because each second now brought him closer to his doom.
* * *
The electric gate to the Viteri mansion opened with an ominous buzz and Wyatt sank even deeper into the backseat of the car, not eager to take in the sunlit view of the splendid garden and stylish facade of the Mediterranean style residence. Unlike during his first trespassing onto the property, this time around he was wide awake and had no doubts as to just how real everything was. Today he was welcome to be here, but the problem was, he did not want to be here at all.
The car stopped, and the chauffeur got out, suddenly no longer in slow motion. Where did he go? Wyatt couldn’t see from his strategic slumped position, but in his mind’s eye, he knew where. He must have gone to open the door for him. Wyatt considered latching the door and additionally holding onto the handle, but making the chauffeur pry him off the seat with a crowbar was probably not the best way to make a second impression on the Man. Wyatt straightened up in his seat just as the door opened. In a split second, he assumed the most confident expression of a guy who had never worried a minute in his life. He thanked the chauffeur, and casually headed off towards two bodyguards that were already waiting for him.
These men were not the same ones that cast him into the basement to become dog food last weekend, but they shared their fondness of searching for wires. At least this daylight shift just subtly patted him down instead of stripping him and putting a bag over his head. That was definitely an improvement. He was then escorted into the garden, where the host — his dreaded date — was already waiting.
Hector Viteri greeted him with a broad smile. With sunlight on his face, he looked like the genial businessman from the newspapers rather than his midnight crime boss edition, but his image from that night was still too vivid in Wyatt’s head.
Hector beckoned him to the table in the shaded outdoor dining space behind a colonnade and Wyatt walked there with him like a lamb to the slaughter. Still, Wyatt hoped that his execution wasn’t on the menu. The mobster wore a beige suit today. He wouldn’t want to get blood on that, right?
They sat down at the table, and while Wyatt was trying to repress his fight and flight reflexes, Hector studied him with the confidence of a seasoned alpha predator. That successfully made the thief extremely self-conscious. Was his hair tidy enough? Were there too many crinkles on his clothes? Were his clothes even remotely acceptable? He dressed in the very best his wardrobe had to offer, but that happened to be the outfit he went to his exams in, three years in a row. This was the very outfit he failed his exams in. The suit he wore wasn’t even a distant relative of Hector’s suit, in fact those suits couldn’t even hope to find a common ancestor. Then again, last time the Man had seen him was half-naked in the middle of the night and probably thought he wanted his chest autographed. Wyatt really didn’t know what Hector even expected of him. He combed back his hair with his hand and tried to smile his brightest smile.
“You look even cuter in the daylight, Wyatt.” Hector nodded to him appreciatively. “I’m sorry our first meeting had gone as it did. An occupational quirk. On both our parts, I might add.” He grinned.
A maid appeared and poured some sort of iced drink into the pristine crystal glasses that were placed in front of them. Wyatt stared at her briefly but quickly recovered and focused on Hector’s words.
“I-I’m sorry about that too. But all’s well that ends well, right?” He laughed nervously, and hoped he didn’t look as pale as he felt.
“Shakespeare? I was under the impression you majored in geology,” Hector said with amusement.
Wyatt loved how he didn’t even have to tell Hector what he majored in. Of course, he’d expected the Man would live up to his grim reputation and already know everything about him, so he tried not to let that put him off his feigned balance.. “I-I… dabble. In literature I mean. And by that I mean to say… I enjoy reading. I take it so do you? A fellow fan of Greek mythology, I presume?” Wyatt sputtered, taking a gamble based on the names of Hector’s Dobermans and some things he read about Hector in the newspapers. “If your dogs are Phobos and Deimos, would you consider yourself akin to the god of war?”
“Very observant, Wyatt.” The gamble paid off. Hector’s smile grew more cordial. He looked pleasantly surprised. “War has been a big part of my life, as you might know. And I’ve had a fondness for the Greeks since I was a boy. It is a pleasure to meet another mythology aficionado. There aren’t that many in the business world, unfortunately.” He seemed to eye Wyatt with even more interest now.
Wyatt retaliated with another crafted smile. He felt some real confidence slowly building up inside him. He knew the Greek mythology and that meant he managed to find at least some sort of common ground. That was a good start. He could do this. If he’d managed to get his parents to believe that he’d graduated and was pursuing a career, then how hard could it be to pretend he was interested in a famous… infamous man? Fake it until you make it. Make it out alive, in this particular case.
Hector observed him with the languid confidence of a big cat at rest. “Is there anything else except ancient peoples and rock formations you take a strong interest in, Wyatt?”
This was his cue and Wyatt didn’t miss it. “Ah… that would be you, of course. I-I hope you don’t mind, but I actually brought along this list of questions. Of course I only wrote down those of… the legitimate kind…” he assured the Man, trying to gauge his reaction.
Hector’s eyebrows rose at the sight of an actual physical list.
Wyatt felt all the fake confidence seeping out of him. Even he was still torn on whether bringing this list had been a stroke of genius or a horrible idea. He intended to go through it, jotting down notes, to make it look like he was really excited to know more about Hector, a true fan for sure, but now he was suddenly afraid it would feel too intrusive. Or that it would look like he couldn’t actually remember what he wanted to ask Hector without having to write it down… which was partially true. Stress had that effect on him. The momentary suspense was killing him.
The suspense ended when the mobster chuckled, unperturbed. A small ripple of relief washed over Wyatt, but before they could begin, a maid arrived again, this time with their meal.
He was thankful for the interruption. It was some three minutes in, and so far he seemed to be doing alright at playing out his alleged obsession with Hector, but he hadn’t come as prepared as he should have had. He used this moment to collect his thoughts, but soon found himself struggling with a different problem. He couldn’t really muster an appetite. His own earlier mention of Hector’s dogs had now made him wonder if the sauce-spattered noodles on his plate was what his entrails would look like, in a miniature scale, if they were served to Phobos and Deimos for dinner. But that was just speculation. The real fact was that being the one who had specifically requested spaghetti, he now had to force himself to eat at least some of it. He tried his hardest to do so.
Hector didn’t seem concerned by Wyatt’s slow progress on the pasta. He made up for that with ease, finishing his meal in a few minutes, and spent the rest of the time savoring a glass of wine. Wyatt felt even more uncomfortable under his seemingly benevolent scrutiny. Feigning excited impatience, he used the fact that Hector was done eating as an excuse to set his own plate aside for the time being, and get a hold of his list of questions.
The thief drank some wine for courage, cleared his throat, and looked at Hector to make sure it was alright to start. Hector gave him a nod. And so, trying his best to get into the mindset of the truest fanboy, Ocher started his little interview. He hoped none of his questions would seem threatening or sound like he was gathering intel for a third party. Or betray his absolute lack of knowledge on his favourite man in the whole wide world. To prevent the latter, he made sure each question indicated that he did know a bit already, but was simply curious to find out even more.
This way he found out that Hector’s favorite Texan dish — he made sure to mark that he knew Hector was from Texas — was chicken fried steak with mashed potatoes and gravy. Hector liked being the batter best when playing baseball, which was his favorite sport. He had no favorite songs. As Ocher already knew from the papers, Lawrence of Arabia was one of his favorite movies, but now he found out that Hector also enjoyed Twelve Angry Men, and generally was fond of cinema. Too much reading on the job and not enough time to pick up a decent tome, Hector said. Movies were practical, bite-sized entertainment.
Ocher nodded along, gave Hector a lot of monosyllabic, but enthusiastic feedback and wrote down all those suddenly crucial facts, lest he would forget. He figured the more information he actually had, the more confident he would become, and the less cracks would be showing through his makeshift disguise.
His boosted confidence dropped back into sub zero values when the tables turned, and Hector began his own round of harmless questions, which coming from the mobster turned the idle chatter into a blood-freezing interrogation. What was Wyatt doing for a living? Why? Where was he originally from? Did his parents still live there? Why did he come to the city? Did he enjoy studying geology? Why did he drop out? Did he enjoy being a thief?
Brought out in cold sweat, Wyatt meandered the thin line between the truth and lies, on the one hand knowing that he couldn’t afford to misinform Hector on things that the Man already knew or could easily verify, but on the other feeling pressured to make his life story sound more inspired than it was, to keep Hector interested. In order to make the right impression, Wyatt was prepared to confabulate and fabricate, but out of sheer fear that Hector had the means to verify every single thing he said, by the end of their late lunch he ended up telling a lot of solid facts instead. It felt strange to be more honest with the city’s crime boss he knew for about an hour than with his own parents. Before too long a light drizzle started outside, and gusts of wind eventually tried to blow some of it at them. Given the possibility of Wyatt’s notes getting wet, Hector proposed that they moved their conversation indoors and Wyatt, of course, agreed to that. Only to regret it the instant they walked inside to find the two Dobermans laying in wait in two matching dog beds.
Ever since then, the dogs were following them everywhere they went. Ocher tried his very best to ignore them, but these dogs had been on his mind for so long now, that it was nearly impossible to do that. Hector must have noticed his unease because he said, in what he must have thought to be a comforting tone, “Don’t worry. They are well-trained.”
And Ocher didn’t know what he was more worried about after that, the dogs, or the fact that Hector clearly sensed his fear. He decided not to show any of it, not the slightest hint. And he managed for a while. Until that moment in Hector’s study, when he saw his host take from the mini-fridge and give to the Dobermans a piece of meat, that did not look like anything he’d seen in the supermarket. Luckily, while feeding the dogs, Hector was with his back on him most of the time.
Soon after that the Man sat down behind a large executive desk and gestured for Wyatt to rest in one of the armchairs in front of it, and as his guest was having flashbacks of being caught in this very same room, next to that very desk, the mobster smiled and rumbled, “Now, I think we didn’t actually make it through the second page of your list. Is there more you would like to know about me? Maybe something that should only be discussed behind closed doors?”
“Oh… oh, yes, absolutely!” Wyatt snapped out of his trip down the all too freshly paved memory lane. He was prepared for that part of the interview as well, even though he hadn’t dared trust those questions to paper. He didn’t even want to know the answers to any of them, but he had made the mistake of confessing he was the Man’s fan in particular so the lack of enthusiasm and curiosity in how Hector ran his criminal empire would likely mean nothing short of a death sentence. “I-I have a whole lot of those kind of questions… But of course I know all of this is top secret, so feel free to answer only what you don’t mind sharing with a lowly thief such as myself…”
Wyatt looked at the Man for the green light, and when Hector gestured for him to go on, he dared ask the first innocuous question to test the waters. “So… I always wondered… why are the Citizens called that way?”
“Why indeed…” Hector leaned back in his chair and grew pensive. His gaze drifted off the thief and focused on something on a far wall. “You see, Wyatt, when I started this enterprise, almost twenty years ago, New Coalport was on a downwards spiral, balancing on the edge of collapse. I had the choice to either bleed the city dry and move on or to invest in the long-term and try my hand at running the place responsibly.” The Man looked distant, possibly reliving those early days of his criminal career. “I had recently returned from the war, and my disappointment with the establishment was at its peak. I thought I could do better than them. But I couldn’t do it alone. I needed capable, skilled, dedicated followers. Thankfully a man is not without friends, particularly after a war. As we set out to destroy and absorb the other gangs of New Coalport, together we chose a moniker both emblematic and inconspicuous, the Citizens.”
Ocher sat there with his mouth slightly ajar. He guessed he didn’t expect such a thought out reply, and suddenly he felt as if he was receiving a lecture at some sort of museum of crime, which made the whole situation even more unreal. Then he realized Hector was looking at him, expecting a reaction. “That… that’s very inspiring. And the name goes so nicely with the American flag thing…” He uttered, feeling idiotic as soon as he said it.
“Why thank you, I think so too. The Fourth of July is always a blast.”
Hector looked amused, so the thief tried smiling too. Suddenly a new question formed in his head. “Speaking of blasts… the recent explosion at the police station… was that somehow related to the Citizens?”
“Yes and no,” Hector said. “It had to do with us, but it wasn’t our doing. It was a gas leak from what I’ve heard. An unfortunate turn of events, it killed one of my people on the job.” The mobster steepled his fingers and rested his chin on his hands. “Still it might do us a favor. Most of the city blames that one on us, maybe now they’ll be properly afraid again. For a while at least. With the low profile we’ve been keeping in recent years, some people have started to get ideas.”
Hector’s pose reminded Ocher of his first meeting with the Man in the basement and with the crime lord looking at him like that, he started getting properly afraid on behalf of the city. But he was Hector’s biggest fan. He knew he had to keep going.
“That burnt police van was your doing though, right?”
“Yes, it was.” Hector nodded.
“How about that Olivier guy who disappeared? What did he do to cross you? I-I mean if you don’t mind me asking, feel free to skip questions or stop me anytime…” Ocher hoped he was still coming across as genuinely curious and not prying. At this point it was hard to tell which questions he was expected to ask, and which ones were completely off the table. But at least he wasn’t worried that he was supposed to know all the answers here in advance to pass for Hector’s fan, these weren’t things anyone was supposed to know.
“I don’t mind.” Hector appeared relaxed and amused. “Olivier was one of my men. He was caught red-handed by the police.”
“That… doesn’t happen often…” Ocher wanted to add ‘right?’ but stopped himself, guessing it was still better to assume something rather than to demonstrate his lack of knowledge. Plus it seemed like a safe thing to assume while talking to the man who ran a clockwork criminal empire and a booming construction business side by side, and didn’t get caught for the last two decades. “So what do you normally do in such a situation? I mean, to prevent your people from talking. Do you offer them some… incentives?”
“Yes, plenty.” Hector sighed and frowned. “Olivier proved to be a selfish fool. If he had kept his mouth shut, his family would have needed for nothing, and he would have been treated as royalty behind bars. He would have served a fraction of his time and come out into a well-provided retirement.” Hector’s frown deepened. “I look after my people, I can forgive even a very major slip-up after years of loyal service. But I have no tolerance for backstabbers.” After a moment the darkness in Hector’s features dissolved, and he offered Ocher a playful shark-like grin. “So stay on my good side, darling.”
Wyatt wanted to squeal. Instead he smiled back the best he could. “F-from my perspective each side is your best one…”
Hector grinned again and encouraged him to ask more questions. He seemed entertained and Ocher suspected he knew why. Hector Viteri was extremely popular with New Coalport’s media. He gave many interviews for the newspapers, the TV and the radio. So many, that even Wyatt had randomly bumped into some of them in the past, way before that fateful night. But the thief supposed this shadier kind of interview must have been a first for him. Hector was clearly having fun. He was the only one though. Knowing more about the backstage of a criminal empire was never a good thing, and Ocher had a sinking feeling that with each question asked, he was digging his own grave. But then again, the truth was that his grave had already been dug, in one go, on the night he learnt the Man’s real identity. In a way, that was a comforting thought. It meant that none of this even mattered anymore.
And so he asked more questions he didn’t want to ask and received more answers he didn’t want to hear.
The rumors had it right — the Man did feed people to his dogs. But the word on the street was wrong on the account of how often. Human flesh, Hector said, just wasn’t all that. Besides, it was a ridiculously inefficient and risky way to get rid of bodies. Even in the good old days, when the Doberman duo was called Damon and Pythias, it was more of a scare tactic than a practical thing. Hector proceeded to explain to Ocher that incinerating people — on occasion while they still lived — was in fact a much more convenient and prevalent solution. Following that train of thought, the Man then admitted to an occasional fondness for little old-fashioned eccentricities, like medieval execution techniques. He only performed those on deserving parties of course. Adequate punishment was important to keep discipline, and without fear there could be no discipline.
Ocher nodded and recoined his wide-eyed fear into enthusiasm to the best of his ability.
After almost two hours, Hector looked at his watch and remarked that it was getting late. Ocher almost breathed out a sigh of relief, but instead voiced his surprise and assured his host that he hardly noticed the time go by.
“That’s great to hear,” Hector said with a brilliant grin. “You display such keen interest in my operations, I think I’ll take you to a business meeting with me tonight. A bit of show and tell to sate your curiosity.”
Wyatt’s heart sank. Just as he thought he was almost out of the day’s predicament, he somehow managed to get himself into an even deeper hole. ”S-sure, thank you so much for the opportunity,” he mumbled. “I would absolutely love to know more.”
“Wonderful. Bringing you along will help spice up the routine!”
Hector, who had previously begun to wander the room, now came back to the desk and leaned against it. He gave Ocher an appreciative look and the thief immediately filled the dangerous silence with another question.
“Have you ever spared anyone?” After the torture techniques, he was really hoping, this one would lift the mood.
“No. Just you, darling.” Hector flashed a toothy smile.
If Wyatt was supposed to feel lucky, he didn’t. It only meant that as soon as he got caught up in his lies, that was it, the end.
“Or wait.” The Man seemed to remember. “There was one more person.”
“It was a two-year-old.”
That… did not sound any more reassuring.
* * *
It was the first time Wyatt observed the sunset from the water. A smaller yacht had taken him, Hector and the Man’s bodyguards out onto the bay and towards a much larger yacht drifting on the gentle gold-trimmed waves. Now as they approached the bigger boat, its gargantuan dark shape and the shadow it cast awoke an almost primal fear of the dark in Wyatt. It looked like a giant tombstone, towering over an open grave. And they were going right into its gaping maw.
Wyatt looked at the darkness ahead and entertained the possibility that he could be sent to the bottom of the bay with a weight tied to his ankles this very night. That thought made him clutch the railings to keep himself upright. Maybe he shouldn’t wait that long? Maybe it wasn’t such a bad idea to just fall overboard now and hope to drown. A stupid accident. At least then his family and friends wouldn’t have to suffer and he wouldn’t be incinerated alive.
Contemplating whether death by water would beat other kinds of deaths, Wyatt hardly noticed when they arrived. It took Hector shaking him gently by the shoulder for him to finally get up and follow the Man and his bodyguards up onto the larger vessel.
“Are you feeling alright, darling?”
“Y-yes… No… I mean I’m a little sea-sick, I think,” Wyatt lied quickly. Now, that was a perfect explanation for the ghostly pallor, which he guessed he must have been displaying. “But also really, really excited.” He made sure to add as he grinned.
“It should be better once you’re onboard the Dreki,” Hector said reassuringly. Somehow Wyatt didn’t believe him, but he nodded in agreement anyway.
A few burly men met them on the deck. They were much like Hector’s own goons, but nautically dressed. Greetings were exchanged, but Wyatt kept zoning out into dark thoughts and didn’t catch anyone’s names. It was all too surreal and terrifying. He never wanted to tangle with the Citizens in the first place, and now he was about to dive into the very center of their criminal web and hope the spider presiding over it found him entertaining enough not to kill him right after or maybe even during.
As he missed most of the words being said, Wyatt took in the sights. The orange sunset in the distance, the black and gold of the bay reflecting it. A lonely lean figure in a baja smoking at the edge of the deck, apart from the rest of the welcoming party. The smoker nodded to them, but stayed where he was. Wyatt found himself staring at him. He didn’t fit with all the bodybuilder types around them. And there was something familiar about him too…
“Come now, darling, are you feeling any better? If you need some more fresh air that’s fine, but our host might start wondering what’s taking us so long.”
“No, no, I think I’m fine now.” Ocher lied again, tearing his eyes off of the smoker and smiling up at Hector the best he could right now. He felt like he was pushing his luck. He needed to seem more enthusiastic. He was supposed to be the Man’s fan and that meant he was expected to be immensely into all this. So he had to be. “Let’s go!”
Hector patted him on the back affectionately and led him down the steps into the saloon. The polished wood reflecting numerous electric lights, the cream carpet and navy blue leather couches, the sheer size of the space made Wyatt’s stomach turn. He wasn’t supposed to be in a place like this. It was like a strange dream, in which you sampled luxuries reserved for the people on the TV screen, a dream that should be gone by morning. Instead he knew his opulent surroundings were real, and they were there to stay, it was him that could be gone by morning if he failed to play this right.
Their host rose from a leather armchair in the far end of the saloon and walked over to shake Viteri’s hand. He was perhaps a decade older than Hector, a similar height and build, but while his hair retained most of its original blond, his beard was white. His eyes were light too, a cold grey-blue. If not for the fact that both of them were wearing light-colored suits, him and Hector would have been near perfect opposites.
“Good evening, Hector.”
“Good evening, Siggy. Meet Wyatt Brooks, my biggest fan.” Hector presented Wyatt with a smirk. “Wyatt, this is Sigmund Whalesong, an old friend of mine.”
“A pleasure to m-meet you,” Wyatt stuttered and extended his hand towards him.
“Same,” Sigmund said. He shook Wyatt’s hand. Looking into the man’s eyes, Wyatt felt it was only politeness. Whalesong’s grip on his hand was painful. If it was a test of some sort, Wyatt seemed to be failing it, and it made his panic rise.
Thankfully the moment passed, and Whalesong’s attention turned to Hector.
“At this hour of night?” Hector laughed. “No, thank you.”
“Well, you know me, I’ll drink coffee to sleep.” Whalesong shrugged. “May I offer you chamomile tea then?”
“I wouldn’t refuse that. If you have any.” Hector said with humor. “And perhaps something for Wyatt here, he is suffering from sea sickness.”
“I’ll see what I can do.” Whalesong waved one of his own men over and gave him instructions.
“T-thank you, but I think I’ll be alright, I am feeling much better already,” Wyatt protested. He didn’t want whatever home remedy or drug they could offer him. Taking unfamiliar substances on a boat filled with the city’s most wanted was not an appealing idea. “I’ll also have the chamomile if you don’t mind.” That could possibly help him calm his nerves at least a little.
They took their places around a low wooden table. Wyatt beside Hector on the couch, Whalesong back in his chair at the head of the table. The skinny smoker in the baja came inside and took an armchair closer to the exit. Wyatt glanced at him anxiously. In the well-lit saloon he finally knew why the man had seemed familiar. He was the buck-toothed clerk from a grocery shop not far from where Wyatt lived. He had paid that guy for his groceries like a hundred times, never thinking twice about him. Back in his shop he’d always seemed like an average hillbilly. But there he was, on the boat with the city’s criminal authority…
The clerk caught Wyatt’s stare and stared back with the same blank, bored look with which he usually took his money. Wyatt turned away disturbed.
How many of the people he dealt with everyday were affiliated with the Citizens? Was the mailman a Citizen too? What about his landlord? Or the gas station owner?
Their drinks were brought and set on the table. Whalesong and Viteri went over what seemed to be the usual pleasantries of exchanging trivial family and business news.
“This is unlike you, Hector.” Whalesong said over his coffee. “Bringing strangers in like this. I thought we were running a secretive enterprise.”
“Wyatt is no stranger. He’s one of our thieves. He pays his dues on time. No convictions, no ties to the police or any of the agencies. Just a hard-working little guy with big dreams, hm?” Hector grinned and ruffled Wyatt’s hair.
Wyatt tried not to flinch. For a moment he kind of wished he really was an FBI agent or whoever they were afraid he could be, because at least then he would count infiltrating the Citizens as some sort of success, and most importantly, he would know what to do next. His current survival strategy consisted mostly of nodding and smiling. So he nodded and smiled up at the Man.
He knew he was supposed to be reassured by the fact that Hector was the boss of all these people. But there was no reassurance to be had being trapped between a seasoned mobster seawolf and a… he looked up at Hector again, at his strangely small eyes, and his dangerous smile, and suddenly knew what the man was — a sharply dressed shark. It was the Scylla and Charybdis kind of situation, only they were both on the boat with him.
“That’s all good and well,” Whalesong said. “But what is he doing here? On my ship. In the middle of our business meeting?”
Whalesong’s greying eyebrows went up. His thin lips stretched into a line.
“He already knows too much, I figured why not let him know even more.” Hector turned to Wyatt. “After all, Wyatt is my biggest fan. He wouldn’t even think of doing anything that would harm my business. Would you, Wyatt?”
Wyatt shook his head dramatically and proceeded to assure them verbally as well. “Never!”
“See?” Hector smirked. “There’s nothing to be concerned about, Siggy. Wyatt wouldn’t rat us out. That would be suicide. Painful, nightmarish, gruesome assisted suicide. A terrible way to go.” Hector produced a cigar and lit it. “Speaking of which, Siggy, is that fink Olivier still alive?”
“He is for now.”
Hector nodded and puffed out a cloud of smoke. “Do you have him here?”
“What’s left of him, yes.”
“I’d like a final word.”
Whalesong nodded to one of his goons, and the man vanished upstairs. He did not return, instead of him the biggest man Wyatt had ever seen entered the saloon. He was easily seven feet tall. Blond and blue-eyed like Whalesong, wearing a wife-beater and jeans. There was a large sports bag on his shoulder. He dropped it unceremoniously on the floor and grinned an unnervingly toothy grin at Hector.
Wyatt stared at the newcomer in confusion. He was shaken at the idea that the very snitch he had been asking about was going to be brought down to them, but he didn’t imagine the guy would be so big and so cheery, considering his situation. Or that he would be walking around freely like that.
“I assume that’s Olivier?” Hector nodded at the bag. “Can he still hear us?”
“I didn’t cut off his ears.” Taylor dropped on the couch opposite to Hector’s. He nudged the sports bag with his boot. It moved. “The doc did something to his throat though. So don’t expect a reply.”
“That’s fine by me,” Hector said, then snorted. “But were you not paying attention in school, kid? That’s not how ears work.”
“Does it mean I can still cut those off?” Taylor lit up. “Nice!”
Hector shook his head. He apologized as he passed Wyatt and went to crouch beside the bag. He unzipped it a little and looked inside. His amused expression did not change.
“Raphael Olivier, you thought you wouldn’t be comfortable in jail. Well, are you comfortable now?” Hector studied the man in the bag. “Looks like a snug fit to me.”
A few quick thuds on the carpet probably meant what was left of a man in the bag was shaking its head.
“Oh no, so you’re uncomfortable after all? What a shame. I hope it’s still better than doing time to you, otherwise you would be filled with regret. Not to mention how let down your wife and children must be, I don’t imagine they’re much more comfortable six feet under. Speaking of which, did they go any quicker?” Hector addressed the question to Taylor.
The blond arched an eyebrow, then turned his hand in the air, indecisive. “The kids went rather quick.”
“I see.” Hector nodded seriously and turned to the snitch in the bag. He watched the man quietly for a moment. “No reaction at all?” He stood up straight and kicked the bag. It twitched. This brought a satisfied smirk to Hector’s face. “Figures, you didn’t care much for them, did you? I hear, you were ready to sell the Citizens for a ticket out of jail and a fresh start under a new identity. Abandoning your family to my mercy, as you made a deal with the feds…” Hector shook his head. “What kind of pathetic, selfish weasel does that?”
The man in the bag did not move or make a sound. Hector studied him for a moment longer, then rolled his eyes, annoyed. “Bah, no point moralizing in front of a corpse. Your family is actually safe and sound, and they will stay that way. Who knows, I might help put your kids through college, but you won’t be there to see it.”
Hector zipped the bag back up. The man inside it squirmed for a while in protest, but his strength soon ran out, and he was still again. Hector sat back down next to Wyatt.
The conversation resumed and moved onto other matters. Late payments from a captain in the south of town, an acquisition opportunity among the smaller construction-related businesses.
Wyatt however did not move on. Clutching onto his cup of still untouched chamomile tea, he stared paralyzed and unblinking at the bag, in which a rectangular chunk of a human being was living out what was probably its final hours. There was no escape from that situation. With arms, legs, and all earthly ties cut off, the man was packed and ready to go to the bottom of the ocean. Or wherever the Citizens chose to end him. Maybe the incinerator that Hector so liked.
The rational part of Wyatt’s mind still tried to convince him that there was actually no man in that bag. He hadn’t seen a man there. He didn’t hear any sound, not really. And maybe he just imagined the bag moving. Maybe they put an animal in there to spook him. All this could be just a practical joke.
But that was the same part of him that still denied that Hector Viteri was the Man or that he had sleep-climbed into his mansion last weekend. He couldn’t afford to listen to that voice of reason anymore. The truth was simple. All this had somehow really happened to him. These people did not do elaborate pranks and nobody here cared about making fun of him or scaring him. Nobody here cared about him at all. He was merely a crime lord’s passing plaything, his survival dependent on how convincingly he would play that role.
But even that didn’t matter now, because Wyatt was having a revelation. Until very recently, with all his everyday life problems he’d always thought his future unclear, but now the hazy shapes of many what-ifs, uncertainties and maybes clarified into a solid shape.
It was the shape of his own torso in a sports bag.
When he felt Hector’s hand on his back, he wasn’t sure whether his heart stopped beating or beat so hard it just exploded. The Man patted him on the shoulder, grinned, and said clearly amused, “What do you think Wyatt? Would we manage to get him through airport border control?”
“Ah… I don’t- I-I mean, yes, certainly! I’m sure you of all people would export him with ease!”
As Hector laughed heartily, the thief’s eyes darted around the room, meeting an indifferent stare of the shopkeeper, the scornful gaze of their host and young gleeful blue eyes under raised blonde eyebrows. He got stuck on those eyes. The huge blonde guy was beaming at him, as if he was already imagining ears of Wyatt’s entire family dangling on a necklace around his neck.
Wyatt’s eyes went right back to the body bag.
When the meeting was over, it was already completely dark outside. On one side of the boat, the city was a mosaic of lights, while on the other the bay reflected the moonless night sky, creating an impression of a bottomless pitch black abyss, ready to swallow the boat and the city beyond.
Hector led his overwhelmed date up onto the deck. He was keeping a hand on Wyatt’s back to steer him. It appeared the young thief had had quite enough of impressions for one day. There was a tired blankness to his expression. Hector couldn’t blame him, the meeting had drawn out longer than he had anticipated. But now they were finally heading back towards the shore.
“Hector, if I may have a word with you in private before you leave.” Whalesong came up onto the deck and gestured for them to step aside.
“Sure.” Hector told Wyatt and his men to go ahead and get down into the smaller boat. Then he went to join his host at the bow. “What is this about, Siggy?”
“No, what is this about, Hector?” Whalesong asked, nodding towards the group Viteri had just left. “Normally your private life is none of my business. But when you start mixing it with work like this, is it strange for me to be displeased? You never insisted on dragging your wife into our dealings, and now all of a sudden you bring this boy?”
“He was curious about how I operate.”
“And you indulge him? Must I enumerate all the things that are wrong with this?”
Hector leaned against the railing. “Relax, Sig. Do you really think I would bring him here if I suspected even for a moment than he could squeal? My people watch his every move, my coppers are sniffing around for agency involvement, I had his entire biography verified.”
“Hmph.” Siggy did not look convinced, but did not argue further. “If the next time we meet you bring a bus of Japanese tourists with you, I will capsize the lot of you.”
Hector laughed. “That’s the spirit.”
Siggy nodded, looking out onto the dark waters.
Hector wished him goodnight and followed Wyatt and the rest of his men down onto the smaller yacht. The thief was staring into space, lost in thought. Hector sat down next to him and hugged him by the shoulder.
“Hold on, Ocher. You’ll be home soon enough. The meeting proved longer than I had anticipated. I hope you weren’t too bored.”
The thief livened up instantly. “Oh no, no, I’m just tired because today was a regular work day for me. The meeting was exciting! And very educating. Thanks so much for bringing me along.”
Hector smiled. “I’m glad you had a good time. I noticed you were really glued to the body bag, did you want to have a look? Sorry, I should have asked earlier.”
“I-ah… I… well, it was really fascinating, for sure, but I think I was good just observing from the side. Thanks for asking, though.”
“No problem.” Hector noted the reluctance. It was to be expected. Ocher was just a thief, seeing dismembered people wasn’t a daily occurrence for him. “Don’t take Siggy’s begrudged hospitality to heart. He takes things a little too seriously sometimes.”
“Ah, no worries, I kind of get it. I mean, why he could have been displeased. And I’m even more grateful that you still let me be there with you. It was… the most memorable first date…” The thief looked up at him with a smile and then looked down and hesitantly reached out to touch the back of his hand.
Hector took his hand and stroked Wyatt’s knuckles with his thumb. The thief’s shyness was endearing. Hector couldn’t hold back a smile. “That’s good to hear, darling.” He leaned over and kissed his charming but sheepish fanboy on the temple.
He held Ocher steady, as the yacht began to move, taking them back to the shore.
Wyatt could barely hold the glass of water in his shaking hand. Ever since Hector’s chauffeur dropped him off, he felt like a ghost. All he saw in front of him, as he went through the usual evening routine, was that bag. All he could think about, was that he was going to sooner or later end up inside it.
He’d known that the meeting was going to be terrifying, but he’d never imagined just how much.
Had Hector brought him along because he thought Wyatt would enjoy himself there, or had he taken him there specifically to visualise what was going to happen to him if he talked? Wyatt had no idea. He also didn’t know how to extricate himself from this situation. Until he found a safe way out, he had to prolong his lifespan any way he could. Keep Hector interested, survive. There was no shame in survival. That’s why he’d done it all. He would have never touched another man’s hand like that if not for the fear of death. He hoped it had worked. It seemed so, because he was still alive, with a perspective of a second date. He had no idea how he’d come across with all his fake smiles, forced cheer, and his very real stuttering and looking away, but he hoped Hector thought he was shy and cute or something. This had been the worst first date ever. It was more like being on death row.
But there was light in this darkness. He had been truthful with the Man so far on everything that could be verified, and he hoped that made him seem credible. Meanwhile, the most important things, the real lies that his survival hinged on, were the ones that the Man could not check. Of course, Hector could test his knowledge or enthusiasm, but he couldn’t read his mind and find out that Wyatt had never been interested in him or any of his enterprises. Not if ‘his biggest fan’ embraced his role.
So that was what he had to do. Pretend that he was into this, seem eager and smile at all — or at least some — of the horrors that Hector decided to share with him. If he could live long enough, he would find a way out in the end.
The villa was quiet after midnight. The live-in staff had gone to sleep, the night shift security guards kept their vigil in silence. Even the Dobermans were asleep.
Hector was about to retire upstairs, when the faint echoes of a conversation got his attention. He stalked through the empty corridors, curiosity stoked. Just a week ago a night’s disturbance brought him a most lovely diversion. As he came closer, he recognized the voices and was once more pleasantly surprised.
Barney stood behind the pool table, eyes wide like a deer in headlights. Wilma and Betty were also there in the game room. They stood with their backs on Hector, busily chalking their cue sticks.
“Why, it’s the Flintstones!” Hector grinned and loosened his tie. “Yabadabadoo.” He stepped over to the women and hugged the two of them by the shoulders.
Betty smiled crookedly and said nothing.
Wilma leered and tilted her head, looking Hector in the eyes. “Did you have a gay old time, boss?”
“As a matter of fact, I did.”
“See Barney, you worried for nothing.” Wilma laughed. When Hector quirked a brow at that, she said, “Barney here put too little faith in his matchmaking skills. He thought you’d be mad at him if the date went badly.”
Hector shrugged. “It went fine. Brooks is skittish and shy, but it’s charming in its own way.”
“I still can’t believe you’re dating a dude, boss,” Barney blurted out and appeared to instantly regret it. “Not that it’s any of my business.”
“I’m surprised you let him live,” Betty said.
Hector looked at each of them in turn. Wilma was still leering, openly amused. Barney did not meet Hector’s eyes and instead was chalking his cue stick with an apprehensive look. Betty stared back at Hector, her expression alert and serious, waiting for an answer.
Viteri smiled at her. “I am surprised myself. But the setup was too bizarre to off him right away. It’s not everyday someone marches across my lawn and climbs into my bedroom like they own the place — and all that just to steal the key to my bedside table?” Hector chuckled in bewilderment. “Since then Wyatt’s been nothing but sweet and amusing, though somewhat timid, I suppose the initial entrance drained most of his courage. But then again, who wouldn’t be a little frightened in his position? I rather like him.”
“So you buy his story?” Betty asked.
“To some extent.” Hector let her and Wilma go and picked a cue stick from the stand. “I wouldn’t bet my life on his every word. But I can always tell when someone wants to cross me. And Wyatt Brooks is innocent of that.” Hector bowed, aimed and struck the cue ball. The break sent the colorful billiard balls rolling in all directions. In the span of a breath they were all pocketed. All but the cue ball.
Barney stared at the pool table, nonplussed.
Betty nodded, satisfied with the answer.
“How nice. I was just looking forward to arranging the balls all over again!” Wilma laughed.
“My bad.” Hector snorted.
“No, boss, that was awesome!” Barney shook his cue stick with emotion. “How do you do these things?! It’s like magic.”
Hector shrugged. “I just believe in myself. You should too.”
“Oh! I believe in you, boss!” Barney said with emotion, clutching the cue stick.
“He meant you should believe in yourself, Barney.” Wilma mocked him.
“Well, yes. But I am flattered,” Hector said with a smile. “I believe in all three of you for that matter. Particularly the ladies. No offense, Barney.”
“Now…” Hector put away his cue stick and stretched. “Any more questions? If not, I’m going to call this a day.”
“All clear,” Betty said.
“Yeah. We’re happy for you boss. We like it when you’re having fun.”
“Goodnight, boss.” Barney gave a small salute.
“Goodnight, my modern prehistoric employees.” Hector turned to leave. He stopped at the door, half-turned and added, “Oh, and ladies, great job on bringing Olivier in alive. He said ‘hi’. In Morse code.”
That night Wyatt dreamt that it was Christmas already. There were a lot of gifts under the Christmas tree. Big boxes wrapped in festive paper caught his attention.
They were signed Dad, Mom and Wyatt.
They moved just a little.