“You stir it like this, every few minutes for the next three hours, or it will be ruined and then everyone will hate you forever. Me most of all. Got it?” Neha glared up at Luke and passed him the large wooden spoon.
Luke accepted it together with the monstrous weight of responsibility that it represented. “Stir every few minutes, for three hours.”
“Yes.” The old woman did not look like she trusted him to remember the task five minutes from now. She glared at Luke, the spoon in his hands, then the sizable pot sitting on the stove. “Don’t mess this one up, because I will know. And I will remember.”
“Of course.” Luke nodded.
Neha glared at him one last time and headed out of the kitchen.
Luke heard her burst into insults in the corridor, and a moment later Penny appeared in the kitchen. The bald man seemed amused.
“Hi there. Lovely day, eh?” Penny rubbed his hands together and gave the spoon Luke was holding a predatory look. “And on this lovely day I happen to have a whole new assortment of merchandise outside. Would you like to trade with me? Anything in the pile caught your eye?”
Luke stirred the stew and gave him an odd look. “I was told anyone can take anything from the pile just like that.”
“Who told you this nonsense?” Penny balked.
“Ugh.” Penny grimaced. “Oh well. It was worth a try.” He glanced at the spoon again with impotent longing. “Since you’re so streetwise these days, could you at least carry the washer inside?”
“A washer? I don’t know if I could do it alone…”
“Oh, it’s a small one, but you see, my back, it’s really not doing that great ever since the last one. That one wasn’t so small.” Penny touched his mid back and made a face, but his eyes were glued to the wooden spoon.
Luke held the spoon in front of him. “Alright, you hold onto this for now, and mix the stew in a minute. Where do you want that washer?”
When Luke made it outside, the shape of the pile under the tarp looked vastly different from the day before. Whether it was Penny or not, someone must have been busy. Luke easily spotted the barrel-sized appliance and jogged over to it. He lifted the tarp and studied the dirty white washer for a moment, sizing it up.
He remembered what El had said about the pile belonging to the community. Deciding it was only fair to put something in if he was taking something out, Luke covered the washer for a moment and made a trip to his room to retrieve the compact disc. He still did not know what it did and thus had no use for it. But maybe someone else would. Luke placed the compact disc upright against a stack of old books, then, carefully he lifted the washer out from among the other items and took a few steps back. It was heavy but manageable. He set it gently down and reached for the tarp, but noticed a ragged looking person standing meekly a few steps away. The woman… or very long-haired man, Luke wasn’t entirely sure, was watching the pile with timid interest.
“Uh, go ahead, I’m done,” Luke said and bent back down to lift the washer again.
The stranger placed several worn-looking magazines beside the stack of books, idly inspected the top of the book stack, then excitedly snatched the compact disc and hurried away, leaving the pile uncovered. Luke stood there with the washer in his arms and watched the person go, feeling like he should have called out and asked the stranger to cover the pile. But that would be too confrontational, he decided, so he put the washer back down and pulled the tarp over the pile.
Then, before he got to lift the washer a third time, a familiar loud voice came from somewhere nearby.
“… dratted vagabonds, I’m sure it was one of them that snatched my prized album!”
Luke turned towards the mouth of the alley. There was no one there, but the speaker had to be rather close. He knew that angry, boisterous voice. Luke felt an instinctive urge to hide, but the memory of how poorly the loud Russian man had treated the homeless, made him also want to stand his ground. For a moment, he forgot all about the washer, Penny or the stew he had to watch over and just listened.
“Did I tell you it was compact disc? Yes, indeed, it was. Very expensive those things! I might call cops on bums, teach them good lesson.”
Luke understood it then. The man was talking about the disc. The disc the stranger had just taken. He thought about trying to catch up and try to get the disc back. But the stranger had the right to take it. As El had said everything in the pile was free for the taking — the stranger owned the disc now. To give a thing and take again, and you shall ride in Hell’s wain.
That course of action abandoned, Luke instead considered facing the angry Russian man and telling him off. But then he remembered El who had been forced to wait for him, remembered Neha who had told him to watch the stew, and Penny who still needed the washer. And finally, feeling ashamed, he remembered the Ordnung. He was not to confront evil, not to commit violence in word or deed. He was finally in a position to avoid the darkness that’s been haunting him for years. The least he could do was to steer clear of trouble. Luke turned away and hunched over, getting a grip on the washer. Then he hurried back inside, huffing with effort at the weight of the appliance. He set it down in the community laundry room and jogged to the kitchen.
Penny was standing by the stove, admiring the spoon he’d been given. The stew was much unchanged, steam was barely coiling above it, just like before. Perhaps Luke could still get that disc in exchange for something else and settle the dispute… No, he decided, it was not his place to interfere. He walked over to Penny and held out a hand.
“I carried the washer where you wanted, may I have the spoon back please?”
“Oh, you did… Already?” Penny looked surprised. “No… trouble on the way, no interruptions?”
“No.” Luke carefully took the spoon from the old man and edged in closer to the stove, making Penny give up the spot.
Penny frowned and scratched the back of his wrinkly neck. “You know, if you need to step away, I’ll be hovering around the common room, my game show starts in some half hour.”
“Thank you, that won’t be necessary.” Luke mixed the stew and was pleased to find it hadn’t burnt at the bottom. “If you need any help carrying something else, though, just say.”
“Oka-a-ay…” Penny sighed and gave him an odd look before retreating from the kitchen.
Luke lifted the spoon out of the stew and scrutinized it. It was a perfectly normal wooden spoon. Penny sure was a weird fellow.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
Yen stepped inside the church. It was unusually crowded. Someone was playing the violin quietly. Everyone was wearing black. Blaise was at the altar, saying some of the routine church mumbo-jumbo. In front of him stood a coffin, covered with some white cloth and surrounded by several meticulous flower arrangements. There was a Bible and a cross lying on top of it. Yen noticed an empty spot nearby, at the back of the church, next to an older woman and dropped on the bench next to her. The woman tensed, bony hands in half-transparent black gloves tightened on her purse.
Yen looked at her with an equally judgemental expression. “What? I’m also here for the funeral. I totally knew the guy.”
“It’s a woman!” she hissed.
“Is that what he told you?”
Yen watched the old woman scoot sideways to the opposite end of the long bench. He spread his legs wide, pleased to have the space to himself.
At the opposite end of the church Blaise was reading some weird stuff out loud, stuff about juice and far sees, or maybe ferry seas, and then about Lazarus. And at least that guy Yen had heard of, though he thought it was a missed opportunity they didn’t give him laser eyes in the Bible to go along with that name. Coming back from the dead was one thing, but coming back from the dead with laser eyes was a whole different one. Yen was about to get bored, when everybody suddenly got up, and Blaise began to sing, well, sort of sing. Most of the people in the church kind of sang along to that. Yen was pleasantly surprised by how well the priest could modulate his voice. But then he must have had years of practice. At some point their eyes met, and Yen wiggled his fingers at Blaise with a sly smirk. Blaise noticed him, but didn’t do more than look back at him for a couple of seconds. Then Blaise started reading some more, only this time the collective of people chorally kept interjecting him, and it looked like it was something normal to do.
Yen patiently sat through fifteen minutes of the painfully boring mopy ceremony, then he went out for a smoke. Outside he found a few of the people from the funeral, smoking already, so he asked one of them for a light and got it. They gave him some weird looks for a minute or so, but by the time they went back in, the men in black seemed to have reconciled with the fact there was a biker at the funeral of their… grandma or whoever that was.
Yen puffed out a thick cloud of smoke and put the cigarette out on a church wall. After a moment’s deliberation he then dusted the ash off, and instead of throwing the cigarette butt into the grass as he’d intended to, put it into his pocket. His Daddy wouldn’t approve of him littering all over the place.
When he walked in, he saw two men with baskets on long sticks venture forth, fishing for money. Unable to control himself at the hilarious sight, Yen snorted, and when a few people turned to glare at him, he coughed into his fist to appease them.
“Just… choking on my tears,” he said in a restrained whisper. Actual tears were forming in his eyes from holding back laughter as he watched the basket-wielding old men play butterfly catchers with people’s wallets. What a job, he wished he could be in their place.
He took his previous spot on the bench and when one of the wallet-fishers reached him, Yen looked into the basket with curiosity. There was quite a pile of cash. He whistled a little. “All this for me? You shouldn’t have,” he said and reached for the money.
The man did not move the basket, but looked at him with a softly judging look of someone who had seen it all. Yen sighed and pulled a few crumpled banknotes from his pocket. He dropped them on the pile of money and stared back at the basket guy, who looked appeased and moved his attention to the old woman Yen had terrorized previously. Yen watched her make a show of dropping a lot of money into the basket all the while glaring back at him, as if trying to shame Yen and his meager contribution. Feeling a challenge, Yen stopped the basket as the man was withdrawing it. He grinned wide, and making sure the old woman was watching, pulled a roll of money from his pocket, undid it and began tossing bills one after another into the basket. Then he dropped the rest of the roll in too. He had to pass that money to Blaise anyway. The woman’s wrinkled face seemed to slowly implode on itself with fury.
While the mourners were preoccupied with the money collection, some people came up to Blaise at the altar, bringing him a whole lot of stuff. Yen was somewhat disappointed to see that Blaise’s altar boy was much older than the priest himself. More like an altar dinosaur. There went a perfectly good opportunity for dirty jokes. Or did it? Yen rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
Equipped with new church gear, Blaise commenced some shady maneuvers with a golden goblet and a carafe of wine he just got from the old altar boy. Blaise kept talking, presumably to the wine, but it was too quiet to hear.
Then suddenly the wallet catchers were gone and everybody was sliding down their benches and kneeling with their heads bowed down in prayer, while behind the altar Blaise was folding and moving around a piece of cloth like a stage magician. Yen froze, mesmerized, waiting for the magic trick to complete, but once he was done with the cloth, Blaise moved onto a white cookie and a cup of wine, which was then watered down. Yen didn’t know if this was supposed to happen or they were just trying to save money while nobody was looking. People got up again, then knelt again. There had been absolutely no cue for that, and it made no sense, but somehow they all knew. Blaise washed his hands with the remaining water to get rid of the evidence, then dispatched the altarosaurus to go wave some incense around, while he proceeded to coax the audience into another prayer. Everyone rose from their knees and sat down again, replying to him in a monotonous drone like a bunch of aliens in a hive mind. Yen hoped Blaise didn’t expect him to at some point learn the mass and its gymnastics by heart like all those people clearly did.
Blaise waved the watered-down wine and the cookie above the altar for what seemed like at least the tenth time. According to him both of those now were parts of Jesus, who had to be ritually cannibalized by everyone present. Yen winced. Suddenly, the Ancient Egyptian stuff with their heart-weighing and feeding the bad ones to a hippo-lion-crocodile monster seemed pretty tame in comparison.
Finally the dead person was briefly mentioned for the first time, but that turned out to just be an excuse for Blaise promising everyone present that Jesus will come back and raise all the dead people as some sort of glorious zombie copies of himself.
Soon after everyone around started shaking each other’s hands until Blaise put a stop to that by dropping a piece of cookie into the wine. Then the real run on the altar began as everyone stood up queueing for a piece of Jesus, so Yen queued up too. He watched the people at the front. Some of them opened their mouths for Blaise, others just took the cookie bits from him by hand. Yen knew what he was going to do.
He stood before Blaise with his mouth wide open, grinning like a gargoyle, tongue sticking out ready for that thin white wafer. He waggled his eyebrows, but before he could add a witty comment, the priest dropped the wafer into his mouth and turned to the next person.
Yen stepped aside and chewed on the tasteless piece of what could have as well been paper. All the aerobics for nothing. What a waste. Disappointed, Yen took his place at the back of the church. There was more singing, some sprinkling of the coffin with holy water, swinging of a smoking metal vase, more mysterious rearrangement of objects, some more prayer and finally, at long last, the whole thing seemed to be over, and Blaise led the procession out of the church.
The biker hurried through the rather slow crowd and caught up to the priest as the procession entered the church cemetery.
“Why didn’t you finish that magic trick with the cloth?” Yen asked. “Are you going to finish it later or was that supposed to be a cliffhanger?”
Blaise scowled at him. “What magic trick? You’re not supposed to be here, boy. I know I told you to come to a mass, but this is a funeral mass, in case you failed to notice.”
“It’s still a mass, right? Potato, potatoh.” Yen shrugged, but had enough decency to keep his voice low. “Speaking of which, you should use potato chips or nachos instead of those flavorless cookies. At least offer a dip or something.”
Blaise gave him a long, world-weary look. “There’s wine to go with these in some churches if you care to drink from the same cup as the entire parish. Now, as much as I appreciate you finding the time for this, how about you stay at the back until the funeral is over, and let me do my job? Shoo.” Blaise waved him off and then turned to the mourners trailing behind them. “Troubled youth in dire need of advice,” he explained and some dismayed faces instantly cleared up.
“I feel very well-advised,” Yen pronounced loudly and stepped aside, letting the mourners pass him. As the procession went deeper into the cemetery, Yen sat down on a tombstone, watching them from a distance. Then, feeling a smidgen of guilt, he got up from the tombstone, walked over to a thick old tree and leaned against it instead. Blaise seemed to go on and on over the fresh grave, and after a minute, the biker completely lost interest. Yen pulled out his butterfly-knife and began cleaning under his nails. Then he moved onto checking for gum on the soles of his shoes. He studied the tombstones nearby.
Finally the violin music playing in the distance faded, and people began trickling back down the lane. Yen heroically fought the urge to flip the bird at the few mourners who made contemptuous expressions when passing him. He didn’t care about their would-be grief, but he didn’t want to cause any serious trouble for Blaise. So instead, Yen looked away from the path and began toying with the pins on his jacket. A few minutes later a familiar voice finally put an end to his boredom.
“Good boy. I know this must have been excruciating for you. Your sacrifice has not gone unnoticed.”
Yen looked up, unable to hold back a grin. “Only for you, Daddy.”
Blaise gave him an appreciative nod. “Yes, I cannot imagine you coming to church for literally anyone else.” He stood close to him, but not close enough. Yen knew the priest wouldn’t cross the distance between them, not during the day and not with witnesses around. Even so, Blaise’s air of nonchalant familiarity compensated for the lack of physical contact. It set Yen at ease, and made his grin slowly morph into a smile masquerading as a smirk.
“Funerals are perhaps my favourite service,” Blaise said, sounding melancholic. “But we are running out of the last plots to bury the dead in this cemetery. I dread the day the first procession has to drive all the way to the city limits.”
“Can’t you just dig some old-time fuckers up?” Yen asked sympathetically.
“I wish.” The priest sighed. “We used to do that back in Europe. Reusing plots is seen as normal there. In many ways, it’s a more practical continent. Americans, they love to reinvent rules just so that they can feel different and better than all the remote places they originally came from. They think it makes them independent somehow. And yet they still go to church. Which is their redeeming quality, I suppose…” the priest grumbled.
“Ooh, you’ve been to Europe, Daddy?” Yen asked, but did not wait for an answer. “If you really want to get rid of some of the old burials, something can be arranged. Cause you know, here in the Wild West, people can just steal heavy machinery and go on a rampage.”
“I don’t know how you stayed out of jail for twenty years, but I would prefer if you kept that up.”
“Doesn’t have to be me. I’m just saying there are ways.” Yen fell silent for a moment. “You know my boyfriend works at a wrecking yard-”
Blaise shook his head. “Honestly, Yen, you’re forgetting this is also the country of lawsuits. I would spend the rest of my days attending court trials and never see you again. Speaking of which, boy, I will be busy tonight. So you are only coming in for the pick up.”
“Aw.” Yen pouted. “That sucks. There go my hopes and dreams of grave robbing and being manhandled by a man of the cloth.”
The priest sighed. “Truth be told, you’re not missing out. There isn’t all that much to rob nowadays. They don’t bury people like they used to. As to your other hopes and dreams, hold onto them. They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.”
“But does it make the hardon get fondled? That’s my main concern.”
Blaise looked at him with a face of a man dead on the inside. “There is only one reason why the communion wafer hasn’t burnt a hole through your stomach yet, and I am not explaining it to you.”
“You don’t need to, Daddy. I’ve been swallowing ‘communion’ for many a year, preparing for this moment!”
“Jesus Christ, Yen.”
“Did you just say jiz-”
“Begone, unclean spirit!” Blaise made an exasperated sign of the cross in the air in front of Yen’s face.
Yen giggled and vigorously patted his voluminous hair, as if it was on fire. “Argh! Not the holy cross! Oh no. But mark my word, I’ll be back for your goods, Daddy.” He laughed as he jogged away down the path towards the street.
The sun was shining, the birds were singing, sweat was rolling down Wyatt’s spine.
This was his second date with Hector, and the sunlit garden around them did nothing to disperse the sense of dread.
“So you know, I’m still determined to finish my studies. I pretty much don’t part with textbooks, and I feel I could go back to university any time, it’s just that I’ve cost my parents enough money already. So first I’ll pay back my debt to them, and well, my debts in general, and then once I save up enough to know this whole school situation won’t repeat, I’m going to enroll again.” Wyatt confessed to the very attentive crime lord sitting across the table from him. It had been a paramount decision for Wyatt to make whether or not to speak favourably about his parents. If Hector knew that he cared for them, they would suffer somewhere along the way. But if he tried to make it sound like he hated them, the Man could potentially offer to off them prematurely. Wyatt decided to stay as neutral on their topic as possible.
“Is the debt what got you into crime, then?” Hector asked.
“Y-yeah… I mean, originally. I didn’t really plan on getting seriously engaged at first, but then things happened, and well, it’s been over two years now.”
“I see you have a talent for just walking into things,” Hector noted, amused.
Only then had Ocher understood how a comparison could be drawn between his past and current situation. No, please, no. He didn’t want to date Hector for over two years. But he guessed staying alive for that long wouldn’t be so bad either.
“I… guess you could say that.” He made sure to attach a smile. He felt Hector was about to ask him another question. It seemed like a prelude to another interrogation, so to turn it into an equal dialogue instead, he blurted out, “And what got you into crime…? If I may ask, that is.”
“Sure, you may.” Hector shrugged. “And it was money. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, as you might know. My mother died when I was young, and my father struggled with keeping things together ever since. I hitchhiked a lot to the nearest non-microscopic town, and one night I realized the good Samaritans that gave me a ride were sitting ducks. I happened to know a man who dealt in used cars and parts. And that’s how it started.” Hector’s expression grew distant as he reminisced the old days. “I was fifteen at the time.”
“Used cars…? Wait, so you… stole them?” Ocher frowned, briefly failing to make a connection. He very quickly regretted opening his mouth.
“I did, and I didn’t. The cars no longer had owners, so to say. Men and women went missing. Also a few families. I normally left the families in peace, but those few were too well-off. The money was too tempting.” Hector looked Wyatt in the eyes. “You know, they never found the bodies. And probably never will.”
Wyatt blinked at him. He was screaming on the inside, but he remembered he was supposed to be fascinated by all this, so he nodded repeatedly, like he’d been waiting all his life for the Man to share these unique autobiographical details with him. “Wow.” Was about all he managed to say.
It was such a beautiful day, and they were talking about families buried in unmarked graves around the Texan countryside. He was suddenly glad that his own family had never been well off.
“Do you want to know more?” Hector asked. He smiled, and the smile could have been all canines. That or Wyatt’s imagination was running wild. Hector picked his glass of iced tea and looked eager to share some more such fond memories with him, but loud quick footsteps turned his attention away, saving Wyatt for the time being.
A lithe blond man in an expensive navy suit strode towards them through the garden. His shoes were crocodile leather, and the man himself looked like any moment now he would flick his forked tongue at them and perhaps encourage them to try some apples. Instead of fruit, however, he brought a briefcase full of paperwork.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Viteri.” He shook hands with Hector.
“Good afternoon, Shaazgai,” Hector said. “Let me introduce Wyatt Brooks, my biggest fan.” Hector gestured towards Ocher.
“Oh,” said the blond. He stepped over to Ocher and shook his hand firmly.
“Wyatt, this is Bartholomew Shaazgai, the general of my army of lawyers.”
Relieved that the lawyer’s entrance temporarily changed the subject, Wyatt flashed another fake smile and nodded, “Hello, nice to meet you.”
“I have a brain teaser for you, Shaazgai,” Hector said.
“Yes, Mr Viteri?”
“Let’s say I were thinking of openly dating Wyatt. Tell me, as a modern religious man, how badly do you think this would affect my public image?” Hector asked.
Wyatt and the lawyer both gaped at Hector Viteri, like he just grew an extra head. Suddenly the thief felt that he would actually rather go back to the topic of Hector murdering families while hitchhiking at the tender age of fifteen.
Shaazgai cleared his throat. “That would be a bold move, sir. I doubt the media would dare to make a big scandal out of it, but your business partners wouldn’t be too thrilled…”
“And what would you think of that personally?”
“Well…” The lawyer gave Wyatt a furious look of a rich man who just lost a penny. His eyes ran up and down Ocher’s figure, taking in his subpar clothes and ruffled hair. Shaazgai sneered. “It’s not my place to judge a client’s romantic leanings.”
“Professional as ever,” Hector laughed. “Now, I suppose you came here with some good news.”
“As a matter of fact, I did.” Shaazgai walked over to Hector and opened his briefcase. He pulled out a file and offered it to Hector. “Bankruptcy discharge denied. They will be paying you back in full.”
For the moment the Man and his lawyer were engrossed in a discussion of legal matters and Wyatt had a three minute breather, which he spent replaying what he’d just heard over and over in his head. Hector Viteri was considering to start officially dating him. Wyatt was uncertain if he should be horrified or jumping for joy. He wasn’t really sure what that meant for him. If other people found out that the most respected businessman in the city was dating someone, then wouldn’t it make things inconvenient for Hector if that someone later suddenly went missing? That sounded like a good thing. Maybe it meant that Hector wouldn’t be able to just get rid of him and dump his remains in the river, and that his chances to survive would significantly increase. On the other hand, it also meant that Hector was starting to get invested in him, and the only release from this relationship would be death anyway.
He stared ahead of himself blankly, not noticing the angry indignant looks the lawyer was still sending him, while Hector studied the paperwork.
“Thank you, Shaazgai. That would be it.”
“Yes, sir.” The lawyer packed his papers. He gave Ocher one last glare, nodded to both of them and strode off.
“Now, where were we?” Hector turned all of his attention back to Wyatt.
Hector’s rumbling voice shook the young thieving would-be geologist out of his reverie, and Wyatt looked at the mobster wide-eyed. Then, very quickly, he smiled, but didn’t quite know what to say so he just sat there like an idiot, beaming up at Hector.
“Oh, right. You were being adorable,” Hector said. He gave an appreciating smile and lifted his glass in a toast. “To my bravest biggest fan… or should I say, boyfriend?”
With a hysteric grin still plastered on his face, Wyatt lifted his own glass and drank to the end of his life as he knew it. He envisioned his life in various forms, such a tower made of shabbily stacked matches, a house of cards, and so on, and watched them all fall apart in front of his eyes. He almost spilled what was left of his tea on himself while at it.
⚞ ♠ ⚟
A dark blue BMW was parked not far from the Church of the Holy Family. The car was well familiar to the devout. A proper Catholic, Bartholomew Shaazgai, never missed a Sunday mass and confessed regularly, as did many of his bloodline. The Shaazgais were an old, well-bred clan of lawyers, traders, politicians and public officials. There was the occasional oddball in their midst, who chose a different religion or path in life, but not Bartholomew. His faith compelled him to stand before the servants of God. Or at least before this particular one.
“Bless me, Father, for I’m about to sin.”
There was a moment of familiar silence on the other side of the confessional screen, followed by a somewhat tired voice. “And since when do you need a blessing for that, Shaazgai?”
“Since I’ve started working for Hector.” The lawyer sighed with faux exhaustion. “When you give me my blessings, I won’t count them. No number would be enough.”
“You poor creature, this job sounds just awful. Is it really all that bad, working for Mr. Viteri, earning more money than you know how to spend?” the voice expressed sympathy for Shaazgai’s difficult situation.
“But the risk! The danger I put myself in. And there’s more to life than just money, you know?”
“I know, of course. There are some other things. But still, you come here in a thousand dollar suit, with a snakeskin belt and crocodile shoes, and your top-shelf car is waiting for you outside.”
“It’s a three thousand dollar suit! And with my generous donations your whole church could be dressing in snake leather head to toe by now if you only wanted. But that wouldn’t sit well with your congregation, I fancy. Not like in the old days, eh?” Shaazgai snorted. “I see it now, you are just jealous that you’re stuck in those dull vestments, while I get to wear what I want.”
“Ah, so you came here to question my sense of fashion?” the priest asked.
“No, I came to question someone else’s ideas of beauty. Hector found himself a new plaything, but God, is he ugly! I don’t suppose they tolerate his kind in the seediest thrift stores. It’s like that kind of house that stands with a ‘for sale’ sign for fifty years, only a person.”
“So now we’ve moved onto love and real estate. You should have asked me out for tea if you only wanted to gossip.” There was a moment of silence. “Hm, this is strange though. Hector taking a liking to another man?”
“Yes, well, who knew, right? But that hobo boyfriend of his, it’s like he dressed into what some charity rejected. If there’ll be a scandal, it will be over his wardrobe, not his sex! Ugh, I wish I could bleach my eyes.”
“I see. So to conclude, he was not ugly, he was just poorly dressed. And anyway, his main vice is that he’s beaten you to Hector.” The mockery in the priest’s voice was casual, and the offended silence on the other side of the screen was proof enough that he’d pinpointed the issue exactly. “No sense to deny that. I’m well familiar with the ways your mind works, Shaazgai. Anyway, what really brings you here?”
“Ahem, there’s this reporter, who’s been sticking her nose into another client’s business. I need her out of the picture for the next six months or so. Something inconspicuous. Doesn’t have to be deadly. Enough if she can’t attend court, or better still, can’t be held accountable for her actions for the next several months. Can you cook up something like that?”
“Hm,” the voice grew ponderous, “Yes, I think I might be able to help you. What would you say to a sudden case of the dementia praecox?”
“I’d say you need to go out more often. It’s called schizophrenia these last few decades.”
“Bah, nonsense. Keep your legal advice to your clients. As to dementia, visit me later today and we’ll work out the details. Anything else?”
“Yes. Since we’re meeting up anyway, I must admit I feel… strangely religious today,” the lawyer said. “Free up your schedule for the night and restock the sacramental wine.”
“Religious you say… Your employer must surely be pleased that working for Hector has that effect on you. But I must admit that I’m not quite sure how I fit into this picture? As a Catholic priest, you know,” the man teased with some amusement.
“Oh, I get it, I am too old for you.” Shaazgai snickered.
“I really don’t understand how you succeed at being a lawyer while propagating such harmful stereotypes. Besides; you old? We both know you’d never let that happen.” Brief silence again, then the tone of voice changed, softened. “But very well. I’ll be expecting you in the evening. It… has been a while.”
“It’s been too long, Blaze,” the lawyer replied. Shaazgai stood up and hovered his hand close to the latticed window between them, but on second thought did not touch it, repulsed by the thought of all the plebs who did. “See you later.” He went out. And all who looked, saw a pious man, whose soul had grown lighter indeed after this rather lengthy confession.
⚞ ¥ ⚟
The evening kicked in with all the city lights and that whole shebang.
And Yen kicked an empty soda can onto the road. Then he delighted in the juicy crunch as a truck flattened it. Sam often said you had to stop and smell the flowers. That sounded like pussy nonsense, but perhaps if not taken literally it wasn’t as dumb an idea. The night wasn’t going to be particularly fun, so Yen decided he could at least enjoy the little things about it. Like kicking trash onto the street.
He had a few deliveries to make around town, but his priest Daddy was busy with something and told him not to return for the night. Nakhti had some business of his own. So Yen sadly concluded he would have to spend the night at Sam’s and Nana Riley’s. Probably jerking off.
That wasn’t such a bad thought. And lo and behold, his bike stood where he had left it, not stolen from under his nose while he delivered the dried tiger balls or whatever Blaise sold to his weirdos around town. Yen glared suspiciously at a haunted-looking guy that shuffled past his bike and almost walked into him. Yen opened his mouth to swear, but the dude looked so troubled, the biker graciously let this one go. It didn’t look like the guy had messed with his bike or anything. Yen patted the leather seat affectionately and climbed on.
He was about to take off when he noticed two women with a stroller walk past, in the same direction as the guy who he had just narrowly avoided. Yen decided to let them pass first, not to set off the little shrieker. But as they walked past he noticed the baby in the stroller was nothing but a plastic doll. Yen tilted his head, confused. Fair enough. A plastic baby was probably better than a real one anyway. With nothing stopping him from making an obnoxious amount of noise, Yen took off, speeding into the night. These remaining few sets of tiger balls weren’t going to deliver themselves.
Ocher looked around spooked by the loud sound of the motorbike rushing past. But the coast was clear. There were only a couple of ladies walking with a baby stroller in some distance behind him, exchanging some gossip judging by their chit-chatty voices.
He breathed out. He was so jittery recently. He expected danger everywhere. Honestly though, he couldn’t blame himself. Or well, he blamed himself all the time, but that was beside the point. Ever since he’d met Hector, he had been living on the edge. But he still lived and so he had to go about his daily routine, trying to pretend like nothing ever happened. He still worked at the gas station from six to two, he still called his parents once a week, and he still tried to shoplift a thing or two and run off with people’s belongings, whenever he could afford to. His life was almost as before, except for the frequent visits to the library, and the fact he now steered clear of the grocery shop with the buck-toothed Citizen clerk.
It wouldn’t be so bad. If not for the constant horror of the next appointment with Hector that already loomed in his calendar like a black noose.
Luke was in the kitchen, washing the dishes with Anezka, who made a sudden reappearance after being mostly away during his first days, when he heard El’s cheery voice in another room. It seemed to be El’s habit to converse briefly with everyone each time he returned after being gone for a while. Luke thought he heard his own name come up at least once.
He also overheard something like ‘I’ll have a talk with him’, though he couldn’t be sure over the sound of the running water and the clanking of dishes that Anezka wiped and put away.
His premonitions proved correct, as El showed up in the kitchen soon after — the gigantic hat on his head again — and asked Luke to join him outside when he was done. Nothing was different about El’s manner, but Luke couldn’t shake off the feeling he had done something wrong. He quickly went through the remaining plates, wiped his hands on the apron and hung it on a peg on the wall. Like a criminal heading for judgement, Luke crossed the rooms with a heavy heart, threw on a light baggy jacket and headed out, half-expecting to be sentenced and cast out.
El sat in one of the plastic chairs, smoking his cigar. He gestured towards another seat invitingly.
Luke sat down.
“So, it’s been over a week now since you’ve joined us. How are you liking it here so far, Luke?”
“It’s wonderful. Thank you for letting me stay.” Luke sat hunched over, his arms and legs pressed close, like a frightened stray animal expecting a kick to come any moment. He really meant what he said, living under El’s protection was the best thing that had happened to him since the previous life when the hippies took him in.
“So, do you think you’d like to stay here for now?” The small man inquired.
“Yes, very much so, if you don’t mind having me.” Luke stared back at El, preparing for the worst.
“Well, that’s some happy news!” So far El exuded nothing but smoke and enthusiasm. “I’m hearing everyone took quite a liking to you. You’re really helpful around here. I’ve even heard good things from around the neighbourhood.”
“T-thank you…” Luke felt no relief, only growing concern. Had his activities in the neighborhood caused his benefactor some troubles? Was this all a soft prelude to a severe dressing down?
“Now, you’ve been doing great so far. I’d just like to emphasize that if you ever feel like your heart or even just your gut tells you to go and carry out some selfless adventurous deed, like helping others in need for instance, then you should by all means go ahead and follow that intuition. Even if there’s something else you thought you ought to be doing. Like I said before, I believe in helping people. Even if you have to go out of your way to do it. Sometimes, especially if you have to go out of your way.” El regarded him with a friendly, though a bit intent expression. “Do you think you get what I’m saying?”
Luke frowned. This was not at all what he had expected. Afraid that El would misinterpret his expression, he didn’t let the frown linger and nodded instead. “I think I do… Did the owner of the missing compact disc come to you? I would have been glad to return it, especially if that will ensure peace between him and the homeless that stay under his windows. But I cannot. I left it in the pile, and someone already took it…”
El blinked in apparent confusion. “Pardon? A compact disc? Now, I can’t say I know anything about that, but I feel this illustrates exactly what I’m saying — if your intuition tells you that there is some action you could take, some clue that you should follow, it probably means the world will become a better place if you do. There are very many such little occurrences that people normally miss because they are too busy to notice. Things that seem like coincidences, but aren’t really. I always tell those under my protection to keep their eyes open for such things.” El smiled and pointed at one of his eyes to illustrate. “I myself followed such a feeling recently, and it let me find you and help you. Now, it’s perfectly normal for you to feel apprehensive about looking into such situations because of what you’ve been through with your curse. I mean, I imagine for as long as you remember you had to stay away from people rather than seek them out. But it’s different now. So by all means, once you get over your reservations, try to keep your ears and eyes open to the world around you. Do you think you can do that?”
“Um, sure…” Luke finally relaxed.
“Fantastic.” El grinned, satisfied. “I will soon introduce you to someone who will show you around and teach you how to look for those little things, see those barely visible threads. Eventually you’ll see that it’s all connected, really, and yo-”
“Fucking finally,” a gruff voice came from the side, drawing Luke’s attention away from El. There was a stocky man striding towards them. In his new leather jacket and nice shoes he looked very much out of place. There were such types to be found in other parts of the Rat Trap, but not here near El’s. The man stopped about a dozen feet away and pointed at Luke. “You! Come with me, and no one gets hurt.”
Luke sunk deeper into the plastic chair, instantly aware the man had to be one of the Citizens. They found him after all. He glanced back at El, concerned. He had to comply and go or else someone would get hurt. But his curse had been mitigated. How would he explain that to the crook?
El cleared his throat, looking at the newcomer. “Are you really sure this is how one starts a polite conversation?”
“Are you really sure you wanna tell me how to start conversations?” The guy pulled out a gun and cocked it menacingly. “Because I can show you how to start and end them in one go. You, come over here!” He rushed Luke with a wave of his weapon.
Luke started to rise, but El slowly gestured for him to stay in place. He didn’t seem at all concerned. “Now, I’m afraid Luke here is under my protection and will not be forced to go anywhere with you or any of your cronies. You would be wise to tell your superiors about it so that they stop wasting their resources.”
The criminal barked a laugh. “Says who? A circus midget with some retarded fucking chicken on his head?”
El frowned. “Do you even know who you’ve just insulted? What kind of a citizen are you, really?”
“I don’t care who you are or what you say. I don’t have time for this. Here!” He pointed with the gun again. “Move. Now. Or the chicken man dies.”
“One, it’s a turkey, two, we don’t have the time for this either, and three, firearms were last impressive some five centuries ago. But this should still feel rather fresh.” El gestured with his cigar at the man, and the wisps of smoke that rose from it billowed and coiled in the air, rapidly turning thick and green until they became a cloud of serpents that rushed at the armed man with open maws. The whole alley filled up with different shades of green, and the Citizen disappeared from sight. Luke gaped, first at the snakes, then at El. He knew his host was no ordinary man. Otherwise, how could he have contained his curse? But he never expected to see something like this. Luke sunk even deeper into the chair, afraid of the cloud of snakes as much as its victim. He tried to see what happened to the man, but all he saw were geometric serpentine shadows moving through the smoke. Ell sat in the plastic chair beside him, smoking his cigar like nothing was the matter.
Several shots rang out from the smoke, sounding strangely muffled, but making Luke jump nonetheless. The shots did nothing to the smoke snakes and were followed by swearing, indistinct, but as panicked as Luke would have expected.
El took off his hat. He delicately brushed some dust off of the big bird in the center and began carefully rearranging the flowers around it. Luke felt a whiff of sweet scent — maybe those flowers were real after all? But he couldn’t think about it now. There were more shots. El finished redecorating and put the hat back on, fixing it on his head until it sat perfectly again.
Finally, they heard hurried footsteps as the criminal chose to flee. The smoke serpents chased after the Citizen until the end of the alley and then returned into the burning tip of El’s cigar in smooth angular motions.
When they disappeared, the alley grew dark again and everything seemed just like it’s been before.
Only nothing really was like it has been.
Luke sat motionless, having almost forgotten how to breathe and blink, until El turned to him and flashed his jade-inlaid teeth, breaking the silence. “Now, when I said you’re under my protection, I really meant it.”
Luke stared at him with a mix of gratitude and fear. Many things over the years had seemed to him like black magic, be it electricity or television. But he knew well, those were mundane things now. This, however, was true black magic. And he owed this black magician very, very much. Luke gulped. “Thank you. But… what kind of power is this?”
“Oh, it’s a divine one,” El answered casually. “Nothing to be concerned about. You’re a believer in the Christian god, so it should not be such a shocker to you that gods do in fact exist, and little miracles like this one can happen. And honestly, sometimes they have to happen because some people need visual aid to understand they are unwelcome.” El chuckled and went back to smoking.
“I always thought there was only one god,” Luke admitted honestly. “But there are so many things I had no idea about…” He shifted uncomfortably, but then smiled. Some surprises were good ones, for a change. It appeared he really was going to be safe here. “Thank you so much for making the Citizen leave without hurting him. As far as I can tell his compatriots will hurt him anyway for failing this. But… what if more of them come? What if they try to hurt you?”
El waved his cigar in a dismissive gesture. “Ah, don’t worry about me. Or anyone here really. They can all protect themselves in their own way if need be. And they will protect you too. In fact, this man was lucky it was me out here.” He laughed. “Trust me, never give good ol’ Neha a reason to be angry with you. Ah, I’m joking of course, she knows her own. Anyway, don’t fret, we are not afraid of the Citizens here. If more of them decide to come, then well, that’s their problem.” El grew pensive. “You know what, actually, please do look after Penny. He probably shouldn’t be allowed to poke his nose in the Citizen business.”
Luke imagined Penny trying to trade him to the Citizens in exchange for a nice tie or a shoe and nodded in agreement.
“Oh, and also don’t tell him you’re worth a million dollars. He’d be sorely tempted. The later he finds out about it the better.”
The image in Luke’s head changed for the worse, and he gave El a wide-eyed look.
El blew out some smoke, but this time, it was just that. “Yeah, kid, I know. You’re probably worth more than this whole street. That family is looking for you, but it’s not really you they are looking for, is it? You’ve got a lot going on. It’s complicated. Well, let me tell you something, everyone here is plenty complicated. This place will be your home for as long as you call it one. And if it gets a little weird like this sometimes, then sorry about that, but when I was taking you in I figured you must be somewhat used to weird by now. I’m glad to have you here, and I really think you’re fitting right in. I hope you still want to stay.”
“I do!” Luke assured him readily. “And I couldn’t be more in your debt. If you want packages delivered or people helped anytime, anyhow — just say so, I am ever at your service.”
El grinned at him. “And that’s what I love to hear.”