Smart-Aleck (Extra-Spicy Detective Stories, Issue 38, February 28, 1935)

by Roumonte Emi (竜主天 蝦)
illustrated by neverendum


Frank Blakeley’s office was the size of my entire life. His desk was a slab of mahogany as big as a door, nothing marring the perfect mirrored darkness but a telephone and a pristine blotter. The rug was thick enough to drown in. Outside his windows most of Seattle hunkered down in the overcast darkness, like a beaten dog showing Blakeley its belly, hoping for a pat, expecting only another kick.

Even the smoke from his cigar looked rich: thick white curls eddying around his head like an ersatz halo, too heavy to rise until they had a moment to dissolve. Frank’s family was money, and more than money, power. He might have been the district attorney but he didn’t work out of the DA’s office downtown, tucked away in those concrete rat warrens making the city go. What Frank liked was this private office like a showroom, high up in Smith Tower where he could look down on the rest of us and smile. I didn’t belong here, and I knew it. His smile said he knew it too. I rested my battered fedora on my knee and waited, patiently, to find out why I’d come.

Having gotten me here, though, Frank was in no hurry to get to the point. His time was his own, and my time was his own, too, and it pleased him to waste our time for a bit. “Cigar?” he said, offering me the box.

“Never got the knack of them,” I said. “I’ll stick with my own.” I fished half a pack of Luckies out of my shirt pocket.

We smoked in silence. He leaned back in his chair and fiddled with his watch chain, probably just to get away from the unrefined smoke of my cigarette. I settled back in my chair, getting comfortable. Or trying to, anyway. For all that he didn’t give a damn about the door downtown with his name on it, Frank Blakeley was still the district attorney. Depending on who you listened to, he might or might not run this battered, staggering city. Me, I was just a private investigator two days’ pay away from starving, and while I’d never quite been crooked, it had been a long time since I’d been straight. Depending on who you asked, my name was either Marcus Immanuel or just plain mud.

“I suppose you’re wondering why I asked you to meet me here,” Frank said, finally breaking the silence.

I bit down on the end of my cigarette. “I imagine it wasn’t for my scintillating wit.”

He gave me a little smile for that one. “In point of fact, it’s your wits I’m hoping to take advantage of, Mr. Immanuel.”

“Yeah?” I wasn’t buying that one, not even on someone else’s dime. “Why me?”

“What do you mean?”

“No need to be coy.” I flapped a hand, taking in that magnificent office. “A guy like you could hire the best this city has to offer. Hell, a guy like you could hire every private eye in this city. And let’s be honest, I’ve got nothing to recommend me.”

He didn’t answer me right away. He puffed on his cigar and fussed with his watch chain and watched me. His expression was benevolent. He faked it well. “There’s one thing.”


“A name,” Frank said. He tapped a thick cylinder of ash off his cigar, making me wait for it. “McCrae.”

And there it was, out in the open, like a dirt clod to the face. I tried not to wince. I probably failed. McCrae had been dead for two years by then and he was still tangled around me, choking the life out of my still-living corpse. Assuming you called this living, anyway.

Frank Blakeley was studying the effects of his little bombshell. He looked pleased. “Let’s cut to the chase, Mr. Immanuel. You worked for the late Warren McCrae for several years, in… varying capacities.”

“I suppose it wouldn’t do me much good to deny it.”

“Not much,” Frank said, with a thin, wintry smile. “Now, Mr. McCrae was, mm, not the most law-abiding of individuals–”

“McCrae was a low-down dirty racketeer and we both know it,” I said. “Me, though, I stayed legal, and you can take that to the bank.”

“That much is true, yes.” A drawer of his desk rumbled open, and Frank produced a fat file, which he dropped onto his blotter like doom. “You never personally broke the law that I know of, but you facilitated many of McCrae’s unscrupulous grabs for power.”

“Hey, I never threw a showgirl on a man in my life,” I said. I knew it was hopeless, but I had to try. “All I did was follow the trail of breadcrumbs and see where it led me.”

“And that’s exactly why I want your help, Mr. Immanuel.” Frank Blakeley folded his hands together on top of the file and pinned me with a look. “You’re a resourceful man, and an intelligent one, and yet you’re comfortable with the, mm, grayer areas–”

“–and you think I can be bought,” I finished for him. My mouth was sour.

“Think?” Blakeley said. A thick envelope hit the desk between us, white as a searchlight against the dark surface. “I know you can be bought.”

I tried not to look at the envelope. Instead I leaned forward and stabbed out my cigarette in the ashtray, the thin white butt an insult to the cigar ends around it. “Guess there’s nothing more to say, then,” I said. I was smarting, mostly because he wasn’t wrong. Seven years ago McCrae bought me, body and soul, because I was desperate and available–now he was dead, and I was getting close to desperate again. Guess maybe I was for sale after all.

“I suppose not.” Frank Blakeley offered me another of those thin smiles. “Now, then. Shall we talk business?”

“I’m all ears.” I picked up my blood price and settled back in my chair.

Frank did the same, steepling his fingers in front of his face. “I want you to take my secretary out of town for the weekend,” he said.

I waited. Frank gave me a moment, just in case I wanted to leap on that leading statement and make uncouth remarks, then added, “You do have a driving license, don’t you?”

“Sure,” I said, toying with the corner of the envelope in my hands. “I might be a bit rusty, but rust buffs off.”

“Excellent. There’ll be a sedan at your disposal. As for where you’ll be going, I own a cabin out on Whidbey Island. I sent word to the housekeeper that you’d be coming, so the two of you ought to be quite comfortable there.”

I waited. Frank gave me another moment to rise to the bait. Finally, giving up, he raised both furry eyebrows. “Any questions, Mr. Immanuel?”

“Just waiting for the other shoe,” I said. “I hear it’ll drop any second.”

That won me a chuckle. “Of course,” Frank said. “There’s also the little matter of a few extremely incriminating documents, which will be in my secretary’s personal charge until Monday.”

“And there it is.”

“Can I rely on your discretion, Mr. Immanuel?” Without waiting for an answer he added, “What do you know about the Collacrucio family?”

“Enough to know to run the other way,” I said.

“We’ve been putting together a case for months,” Frank said. “We’ll make our first move in a matter of hours. They won’t be expecting us to crack down over the weekend–by this time on Sunday evening, I’ll have broken the back of their organization, and you can take that to the bank, as you say. However, there’ll be a few rough hours in the middle and I don’t believe in taking unnecessary risks, Mr. Immanuel. I saw my wife and daughters off on vacation this morning, and tonight I intend to put the evidence into the one pair of hands I can trust and get it out of town as well.”

“Sure,” I said.

He must have seen the skepticism written all over my face, but, like the big-time politico he was, he didn’t let it bother him. “I doubt you’ll have any trouble,” he said, flicking his fingers like he was shooing away a fly. “Still, in the event that the Collacrucios are smarter than I give them credit for, I’d like my secretary to have some protection.”

“Sure,” I said again.

“Is there anything preventing you from going tonight? Right now?”

I finally admitted to myself that I couldn’t afford to turn this job down, no matter how bad it stank. I tucked the envelope into the inside pocket of my jacket, just over my heart. “I’m your man.”

“Excellent!” Frank leaned forward and touched a button on the telephone. “Could you come in here for a moment, please?”

The door behind me opened with such alacrity that I suspected someone of listening in. I didn’t turn around right away, though, because I was more interested in what was happening to Frank Blakeley’s face as he looked towards the opening door. His expression had gone all soft and foolish. It made me feel sorry as hell for his wife.

See, powerful men aren’t so good at smiling, because normally, they don’t need to bother. Put a powerful man under the thumb of a beautiful woman, though, and his face goes all goofy, because he’s trying like hell to produce a gentle smile. Frank’s expression told me an awful lot about the real reason he wanted his secretary taken out of town and kept safe. It told me more than I think Frank would have wanted me to know. Love takes a man hard when it hits him later in life, particularly if he’s been pretending to be above it all those years. All this ran through my mind in a single flash, and then I turned around to see what kind of woman could own a man like Frank Blakeley heart, mind, gonads, and soul.

If I sound like a know-it-all, or if I sound smug, it’s only because I got a nasty little shock in the next second that probably had me looking pretty goofy myself, and I want to get in my licks where I can. I don’t know what I expected Frank Blakeley’s secretary to look like. A sullen blonde temptress with fiery eyes tucked away behind horn-rimmed glasses, maybe. What I got was sullen and blond, all right. Fiery eyes, definitely, although the glasses that tried and failed to hide them had thin gold rims. Temptress, though… not precisely. “Mr. Immanuel,” said Frank Blakeley, “this is Alec Casey, my secretary. Alec, this is Marcus Immanuel. He’ll be looking after you.”

“Pleased to meet you,” I said. I didn’t bother to rise. I figured he’d take it the wrong way.

Alec Casey stood just where he was, framed in the doorway with his arms crossed tightly over his chest, stiff as a wooden cigar-store Indian. He was one of those just-so types, even in his shirtsleeves: his freshly-clipped blond hair had been slicked back just so, his fashionably-loose trousers were pleated just so, the knot of his tie was nestled against his high collar just so, and so on, and so on. Neat and precise, the sort of meticulous little man who counts his change every morning after buying the newspaper: that was what I thought about Alec Casey, the first time I ever saw him.

“I’ve already told you that this is completely unnecessary,” Alec said. His voice was tight with anger. He dropped his arms and stalked into the room to join us, and just like that I changed my mind about him. Alec Casey was a man holding himself tightly together lest he give himself away.

He did a pretty good job of it, I thought. The average man would look at Alec Casey and just see a prissy little fellow. I wasn’t an average man, though, and I knew a thing or two about seeing as opposed to just looking. I saw right through him, or so I thought. Alec’s walk was controlled because his body wanted to sashay through life like a dime-a-dance girl. Alec’s movement was stiff because his hands wanted to punctuate his every word with a dramatic gesture. Alec’s words were tight because his voice wanted to be a sultry purr. I knew right away that I’d never hear him laugh a real laugh, although I’d probably hear a fake one at least once.

What you have to understand is that, in those days, there were men and then there were fairies, and never the two should meet. It was a stupid idea then, and it’s a stupid idea now, but back then it was an idea with legs. Alec was doing what he had to do to pass as a man–to pass as normal. Seattle would never let him be himself, so he was someone else. It was a tough row to hoe. Trust me on that.

A little over a year ago a redheaded woman entered my life. She didn’t stay a woman for very long, and by the time she–he–left my life again, he wasn’t all that pretty, either. He gave me a lot, but he tried to take even more, and in the process he wound up pretty damned dead. I didn’t kill him, although in a way I was the one who pointed that fateful gun at him. Sometimes I still think about him, and afterwards, usually, I need a drink, or a change of underwear, or both.

I’d known since the war that I liked it both ways, but I hadn’t ever planned to do anything about it. Tommy changed that. Tommy changed that but good. And once I’d had it, I couldn’t quite forget about it. It pervaded my life like cheap perfume. I learned to see things I’d never seen before. I was seeing them all over the place, tonight.

I wondered if Frank knew that he was in love with his stiff-necked little secretary. I wondered if Alec knew. The one thing I knew for sure was that Frank didn’t know the truth about that rainy night a year ago, because if he had known my little secret, he’d never in a million years have trusted me with his secretary. “Alec,” he said, “I know you don’t like it very much, but I’m afraid I’ve made up my mind.”

“This is ridiculous,” Alec snapped, his tight little mouth going tighter yet. He snapped a hand at me in a gesture that wanted to be grandiose and came off as painful. “I could understand it if you wanted me to hide out. I’d even understand if you wanted me to have a bodyguard, although that’s absurd. But you want to pack me off to the island, Frank?”

“It’s a lovely place,” Frank said, settling back in his chair and beaming foolishly at his fuming secretary. “Very safe. The two of you will have everything you need there, and I won’t have to worry about you.”

“That is not the point!” Alec threw up both hands. “The point is that I don’t want to go! You promised–”

Frank only smiled. “That’s too bad, Alec,” he said, his voice gentle.

Thwarted, Alec vibrated in place. “That’s it, then,” he finally said. “I quit. Find someone else to do your dirty work.” He spun on his heel and stalked back towards the door.

Frank caught my eye and tipped his head towards the retreating Alec, then tapped his chest, just over his heart. Message received. I caught Alec’s arm before he got out of the room. He squalled and fought me, but I was bigger and stronger than he was, and I brought him back before Frank’s desk without much trouble. “God damn it, Frank!” Alec cried.

“We’ll talk about it on Monday, Alec,” Frank said, still soft and gentle. “I hope you’ll find a way to enjoy your vacation.”

I still had my hand around Alec’s upper arm. I felt it when the fight ran out of him. He slumped in defeat. “Fine,” he said sharply, barely sparing me a glance. “Take me home first. I’ll need clothes.”

Magnanimous in victory, Frank reached under his desk and produced a slim leather briefcase. Alec, still fuming, took it. “Make sure that both of you are on the 9:10 ferry from Port Townsend, Immanuel,” said Frank.

“Yes, sir,” I said, and I led Alec from the room.

He shook off my hand as soon as Frank’s door had closed behind us. “You don’t need to drag me,” Alec said, his voice thin. “I know when I’m beat.”

“Do you?” I asked.

His answer was a scowl and a cold, cold shoulder turned in my direction. I touched the envelope nestled over my heart and trailed him to the elevators, ready to grab him, just in case. It was late enough that the elevator boys were off duty, or maybe Frank had just sent them all home. I did the honors. Alec waited until we were heading down in the elevator, staring forward at the doors. “You enjoy being Frank’s little lapdog?” he asked. His voice was taut and bitter.

“Maybe,” I said. “Do you?”

He jerked like I’d punched him. “You’re just a God-damned bully,” he told me, baring his teeth at my reflection in the elevator’s gleaming brass door. “This is kidnapping, what he’s paying you to do. If he paid you enough, would you kill me for him, too?”

“Maybe,” I said again, although it was a lie and we both knew it. “I need the money too much to give a damn about your feelings. I’m sorry, for what that’s worth.”

“Oh, you’re sorry,” Alec said. “Well, that makes everything peachy, doesn’t it.”

The elevator purred to a stop at the ground level and the doors slid open. “I hope so,” I said.

I trailed him through the darkened lobby, listening to the sharp sound of his hurrying footsteps. The sedan that Frank Blakeley had promised was waiting at the curb, a black thing so glossy that a man could fall into his own reflection in its side. The beast’s driver touched his cap to Alec and went to open the back door for him, out of habit. I put out a hand to stop him. “He’ll sit in the front,” I informed them both.

The driver glanced at Alec, who only drew up his lip in a sneer and looked away, then stepped back and opened the front door instead. Alec betrayed himself for half a second, just long enough to flounce into the car like a spurned showgirl. I stopped the driver from closing his door just in the nick of time. “Wait until I get in,” I said. “And stand right there.”

Alec spat out a pretty unpleasant word at that, clamping his folded arms across his chest. I rounded the front of the car and settled into the driver’s seat, trying not to let on how much it affected me. I slept on a folding army cot in my office and lived off tinned soup and cheap rye–this car all by itself was a nicer apartment than any I’d ever had. I put my hands on the wheel with reverence. The driver shut the door behind Alec, leaving the two of us alone.

Alec told me where he lived and then refused to say another word. I took him there. His apartment building was ostentatiously nice, high up on one of Capitol Hill’s steepest sides, looking out over the roughed-out shape of the new university arboretum and the sullen, choppy expanse of Lake Washington beyond. I looked up at that handsome building and I tried like hell not to think about what Alec Casey must do for Frank Blakeley in order to afford a place like that. It was pretty difficult to keep my mind off the subject, but I tried.

Alec stormed past the doorman and the nice lady at the front desk without a word to either one. Disdaining the elevator Alec swept up the stairs, leading me to the back of the third floor and a door with ‘3D’ on the number plate. He let himself in. I followed and tried like hell not to think about it all over again.

It was an attractive place, that apartment. Luxurious space and cozy little groupings of furniture, all chosen with an eye towards the intimate sort of comfort that a powerful man might like to come home to, after a long day at the office–I jerked my thoughts away from the subject again. “Stay here,” Alec said, dropping the briefcase onto the little table by the door. “I’ll be back in a minute.”

“Make it quick,” I told his retreating back. The stiffening of his shoulders was the only answer I got, and then he vanished into the back and left me alone with my impure thoughts. I wound up in front of the windows, taking in the view. From up here I could see the little cluster of yellow lights that was Bellevue, on the other side of the lake. Mt. Rainier was out there somewhere. Alec could probably see the old man from his bedroom windows, whenever the mountain bothered to come out and see us–

I caught the flicker of motion in the window’s reflection and winced aside, just in time. The stoneware vase that had been meant for the back of my head crashed heavily off my shoulder, instead. The blow made my arm go numb all the way down to my fingers, and I knew there’d be pain like nobody’s business in a second, but I had enough time to wrench the blunt weapon out of Alec’s hand before it set in.

Alec danced back a couple of steps, his teeth bared in frustration, his hands raised like a prize-fighter’s. My collarbones woke up and started screaming for their lives. I gritted my teeth against the pain and set the vase awkwardly on the mantel. “Well,” I said, forcing the fingers of my left hand to flex despite the ache that bolted up my arm. “You about ready to go?”

“What’s he paying you?” Alec said, nearly shouting the words. “I’ll double it–if you’ll just leave me the hell alone!”

“I wish you’d tried that angle first,” I said. I tested my shoulder and wished I hadn’t. “I can’t say I think much of the one with the vase.”


“I don’t know,” I said. I stuck my good hand into my jacket and pulled out the envelope. “Let’s find out.” The envelope’s flap wasn’t sealed. Good thing, because all things considered, I didn’t feel safe asking Alec for his letter opener. I fumbled open the flap and fanned out the bills: ten fifties, shiny and new. A chorus of angels all dressed up like Ulysses S. Grant. “Five hundred dollars,” I said. I felt a bit light-headed, for a lot of reasons. “Plus use of a car and room and board out on Whidbey at someone else’s expense. Not bad.”

Alec sidled closer, which didn’t make me feel all that safe either. “I’ll give you a thousand,” he said, pitching his voice low. “Another thousand dollars, right now, to add to that pile, and all you have to do is walk out that door with it.”

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about it. I thought about it pretty hard. “No can do, kid,” I concluded, with some regret. “The beans would be nice, but not nice enough to cross Frank Blakeley for.”

Alec’s shoulders drooped, the crazy-hopeful light in his eyes dimming. “God damn it.”

“Go back and pack your bag, kid,” I said, tucking that envelope away again. I was pretty sure that nothing was broken, but my shoulder still hurt like hell. “On second thought, I’ll come with you.”

He gave up, at least for the time being. I followed him to his bedroom, as nice or nicer than the rest of the apartment, and leaned in the doorway, watching him throw clothes into a valise while I dug my fingers into the meat of my left shoulder. It hurt like crazy, but it hurt a little less for every minute that I spent working on it. “I could use an aspirin,” I said.

“Medicine cabinet in the bathroom,” he said, not quite snapping it.

I thought about leaving him alone long enough to go take some aspirin. I thought about the vase. “It can wait,” I said.

“Oh, for–” Alec flung his handful of clothes at the valise and shoved past me. Being prudent, for once, I followed him to the bathroom. He banged around for a couple of seconds and then pushed a bottle of aspirin at me. I managed not to drop it, despite my handicap. He turned his back on me with a little more drama than was warranted and fetched a Dopp kit from under the sink. I checked to make sure that what I had in my hand really was aspirin, just in case, and then I took four.

Even with me trailing after him like a lovesick puppy, Alec managed to finish packing his valise in ten minutes. I checked my watch. Not quite seven. We’d make the ferry with no problem. We’d probably make it even if I stopped by the office to grab my toothbrush, but I’d already decided not to bother. Every extra stop that we made would be another hundred chances for Alec to fight, bribe, or bust his way free, and with five hundred clams in my pocket I could afford to pick up whatever I needed on the island anyway. “You need anything else?”

Alec scowled at me. “No.”

“Good,” I said. “Let’s get one thing straight before we go: you only get one more chance to straighten up and fly right. If you pull any more smart tricks like that one with the vase, you’re going out to Whidbey stuffed in the trunk.” He was already puffing up to snarl at me, so I raised my voice and rode right over him: “I don’t know what your problem is, and I don’t care. I took this job and I intend to do it, even if it means handcuffing you to a bed all weekend. Got me?”

“You’re a son of a bitch and a God-damned fool to boot,” Alec informed me.

“I can’t argue with that,” I said. “But one thing I’m not is a goldbrick. So hop to.”

He hopped. Well, he stormed. Close enough. We hit the lobby in a fury, worrying the lady behind the desk, whose hands fumbled nervously over the guest-book. “Going to Whidbey Island in February!” Alec bitterly informed her. “Won’t this be fun?”

“Ma’am,” I added, to be polite. I caught Alec’s arm just before he could hit the front door. I earned myself a glare that could have melted glass.

The valise and briefcase went in the car’s trunk. Alec slammed into the passenger seat. Aching shoulder or not, I put the car back into gear and pointed it south, towards Tacoma, God help us. Alec collapsed into a sullen huddle against the door, with his arms tight across his chest.

We spent the first twenty minutes or so of that drive in silence. The mist swirled against the windshield, making it hard to see, but the car handled like a dream. The aspirin was kicking in, making me feel a little better, if not about this crooked job. “How’d you get tangled up with a man like Frank Blakeley, anyway?” I asked, mostly to fill the silence.

“None of your business,” said Alec.

“No, I guess not,” I said. “Just trying to make conversation.”

Alec hunched up like a turtle in the seat next to me. “Well, don’t.”

“Fine,” I said, and fell silent.

Alec stewed in his own juices for a minute or so, but he couldn’t keep it up. “You have a problem with that?”

“Not really, no. A job’s a job, and that seems like it ought to be a pretty good one.”

“Ha,” said Alec, turning his glare out the window. “My job’s terrific, sure. That’s why my own boss hired some thug to snatch me, because my job’s the bee’s knees.”

I thought about mentioning the real reason that his boss had wanted to get him out of the city, but I didn’t know if it would make things better or worse. “Seems like you’re putting up way too much of a fuss about it,” I said instead. “I mean, I get that it’s high-handed of him, but the way you’re acting you’d think I was planning to sell you into slavery.”

“I have my reasons.”

“Guess you must.”

We pulled into the ferry dock just before nine PM. I shut off the engine and shifted about in my seat so that I could keep an eye on my passenger.

Even the handsomest automobile ferries in the Sound are ugly, squat, wallowing things. Still, I thought it was beautiful, that ferry. Once it pulled out of the dock with us on it, my job was pretty much done for me. Frank had chosen our hideout well: once Alec got to Whidbey Island he’d have a hell of a time getting away again, no matter how much he wanted to go.

He seemed aware of it, too. He was starting to stir. “Don’t try it,” I said, just in case. “I don’t want to have to cuff you.”

Alec rolled his eyes. “Where the hell would I go? It’s Port Townsend.”

“Sightseeing?” I said. “Still. Don’t try it.”

Right about then the dockworkers started shuffling cars onto the waiting ferry. I slotted the car onto the lower level and shut it off again. “I think we’ll sit here until the ferry takes off,” I said. “After we’re out in the water, we can go upstairs if you want.”

“What if I stow away and catch a ride back across?” Alec bared his teeth at me in a bitter grin. “Maybe you better cuff me and stash me in the trunk, shamus, since you seem to be so eager to do it.”

“I guess you could try that,” I said, ignoring the second bit. “But this is the last run of the night, and I doubt you could hide from me for nine hours straight.”

He slumped back against his door and glittered at me in the low light from the ferry. I say ‘glittered’ and I mean it: his teeth gleamed inside his little sneer, his eyes snapped like sparklers, and light sheened off his glasses. “What if I go up and tell the captain that you abducted me?” Alec said, trying the idea on for size. “You don’t even have a contract with Frank, let alone the authority to transport me against my will, and officials tend to sit up straight when someone mentions the Mann Act.”

“Maybe we’d better just stay in the car, then,” I concluded.

“Maybe we’d better.” His voice was sharp with disdain.

Suddenly I was exhausted. “This would probably be easier on both of us if you’d stop with the needling,” I said.

“I don’t care,” Alec said. “You want to know what I think, I think you’re a God-damned weak sister, the way you knuckle under to Frank–”

“You’ve got a foul mouth on you, you know that?” I groped in my jacket for my Luckies and my lighter.

“Yeah, well, you’re a coward, Immanuel,” Alec concluded with some triumph.

I dropped my cigarettes onto the bench seat between us and backhanded him, knocking him into a defensive huddle. His head bounced off the car window with a hollow thunking sound and his glasses popped up, landing crookedly back on the bridge of his nose. “I’m not yellow and I’m tired of your lip, kid,” I said. “I don’t enjoy this any more than you do, but you keep that up and I’m going to start.”

Alec lowered his arms again, then snatched his glasses off his face and put them back on, straight. “I knew you were just a thug,” he said, his voice shaking. His cheeks were both stained pink, one more than the other.

“That’s me all over,” I said. He didn’t say anything else, and after a moment, I shook out a Lucky and lit it.

We ended up staying in the car for the whole ride. I passed the time with a couple of cigarettes. I offered Alec one, but he barely bothered to look at it, let alone turn it down.

By the time the ferry docked, it was officially late. We left behind the faint lights of the ferry dock in short order and plunged into a world so dark that the sedan’s headlights looked like solid things cut into the misting rain.

Whidbey’s an island, all right, but it’s a big one, big enough to support several little towns along its length. In between those towns there are farms, and rich people’s vacation homes, and plenty of undeveloped land, and not a single God-damned light, not anywhere. The only roads are winding little single-lane jobs that do the over-hill under-dale routine, throwing in a bit of by-the-water just for fun. We had a ways to go yet and there was no way to hurry.

Alec was quiet and still beside me, either cowed or just tired. A lot of the fight had gone out of him after I hit him, and the rest had gone when we got to Whidbey. He only spoke to give directions, and then as little as he could.

Frank’s vacation home was down near Freeland, at the southern end of the island. Not that far as the crow flies, but far enough. By the time Alec said that we were getting close I was getting pretty tired myself, looking forward to a late meal, a hot bath, and a real bed with a real mattress on it–all those things that I never got enough of any more. I was trying to anticipate what kind of tricks Alec might pull to take my reward away from me when I caught the brief flare of red light in the rearview mirror.

Whoever it was, they were smart, but not smart enough. They were running without their headlights, but the genius in the driver’s seat had stepped on the brake long enough to throw a long red smear across the trees at the side of the road. I sat up straight. “Company,” I said. “Hold on.”

“What?” said Alec, twisting around in his seat.

I put my hand on the back of his neck and shoved him down. “Stay down,” I said, and I goosed the accelerator. The car leapt forward, roaring past the mouth of the long drive that would have led to Frank’s vacation cabin. Behind us headlights popped into existence, nearly blinding me–and a second pair of headlights burst out of the darkness, headed right for us. I cursed and hauled the wheel right, narrowly missing the second car as Frank’s sedan crunched through the gravel on the side of the road. Undergrowth whipped at the car’s flanks, marring that mirror finish.

We roared off into the night. The first car was still hard on our heels and behind it the second car jerked around in a circle and labored to catch up. Alec was hunkered down by my side, his head damned near in my lap, his breath coming hot and fast against my leg. “Where’s the nearest town?” I said.

“Langley, head for Langley,” Alec said. He gave me directions in a voice that was entirely too cool. I headed in that direction. I wasn’t in any hurry to take on two carloads of thugs by myself, and it seemed to me that what I needed right now was either a hiding place or a crowded area with a police presence. If I could get far enough ahead of our pursuers, I’d look for a hiding place, but until then I’d take the police–

–the popping sounds were small and faint, but I didn’t fool myself that they were harmless. I kept the car slewing back and forth to make sure that they didn’t get a clear target, and for a while, it worked–then, like a one-two punch, a slug took out the rear window and a second burst one of our tires. The shattering window deafened me and the blowout sent Frank’s sedan skidding out of control across the wet tarmac. A second tire blew out and the sedan skidded off the road and jounced out across the field.

We’d barely come to a stop before I dragged Alec out of the car by his collar. “Get behind the tire, stay down,” I told him. I drew my gun. As the two pursuing cars closed in on us, I said a prayer to a God that I barely believed in any more and sighted down on the lead car’s windshield.

I got luckier than I had any right to be. The first bullet took out the windshield and probably winged the driver, given how the car went wild. I don’t know where my second bullet went, but the first bullet had caused a drama that was still playing out: the second car, all too eager to get to us, plowed into the back of the faltering lead car hard enough to jounce its wheels up off the road. Our pursuers screeched to a piled-up stop about fifty feet away.

The car’s back door chunked open and Alec scrambled in, sticking one arm under the front seat like he was planning to crawl under there and hide. It wasn’t a safe place to be but I didn’t have time to drag him back out. Our pursuers sorted themselves out, settled in behind their own cars for cover, and started plinking at us. This comedy of errors wasn’t how they’d wanted it to happen, but they’d take it. The occasional shot thunked into the side of Frank’s car hard enough to set it rocking on its springs.

I took stock as best I could: I had eight more shots. After that, we were sitting ducks. We had to get away from the dead car, but the field we’d ended up in was bare dirt and stubby dead plants as far as the eye could see. No cover but the car. We were outnumbered and definitely outgunned, and out here in the middle of nowhere we couldn’t count on the police, or on anyone noticing us at all.

I was down to five bullets by the time Alec scrambled backwards out of the car, clutching something in either hand. I barely had time to recognize the bigger object for what it was before Alec stood up, pointed the sawed-off shotgun over the roof of the car, and pulled one of its triggers.

The shotgun roared, spitting flame from its muzzle and giving me a glimpse of Alec’s serene, focused face. The load of buckshot punched a thousand tiny holes in the pile of cars opposite, making our opponents yell in sudden confusion and pain. Alec stroked the other trigger and the shotgun roared again. He broke the gun open over his arm, shucked out the empty cartridges, thumbed in two more, and snapped it closed one-handed, all in the time it took the sound of the last shot to die away.

I had to put my free hand over one ear. I couldn’t stand it otherwise. Alec worked the shotgun, never letting up. In the light of the muzzle blast his expression was now purely sexual, his eyes heavy-lidded, his mouth open, his tongue curled over his upper lip. The recoil propelled him away from the car with every blast and he let it, absorbing the shock with the loose-limbed sprawl of his body. Every shot pushed his shoulders back and pushed his hips forward against the side of the car, and even underneath the roar of the shotgun I could still hear those shuddering breaths of approbation.

One of the thugs broke away from the cars at a dead run, bolting for cover. I fired at him and missed. Alec dropped the shotgun onto the roof of the sedan and snatched a pistol from his belt. The pistol snapped with a sound like elastic, thin after the full-throated bellow of the shotgun, and the thug jerked and sprawled face-first in the dirt. Alec dropped the pistol on the back seat of the car, picked up the shotgun, and resumed his barrage.

I snapped out of it. With our pursuers pinned down and demoralized by the shotgun, we had a chance to get out of here. I threw myself across the front seat and grabbed for the steering wheel. I revved the engine and Alec woke up. “Get in!” I yelled, and Alec threw himself into the back seat, kneeling backwards on the seat with the shotgun’s muzzle poking out of the gaping hole where the rear window had been five minutes ago. He fired again and I threw the car into gear.

Our retreat was a limping, thudding, comical thing, on two flat tires across the uneven ground. The shotgun made it a lot less funny, though, and our pursuers didn’t seem enthused about following us and getting caught in the blast. We left them behind one lurching yard at a time. Alec kept firing until the cars were out of sight, then dropped the shotgun onto the floorboards and collapsed. I didn’t have time to make sure he was all right. With my hands white-knuckled on the wheel I limped us on out of there, disdaining the first few turn-offs, looking for somewhere to hole up.

“This is the worst part,” Alec said. His voice was small and shocked. “I hate what it does to me.”

I risked a glance at him in the rear-view mirror. He was huddled in one corner of the back seat, his shoulders hunched, his hands knotted tightly together in his lap. Every time the flat tire dropped the car’s back end, he winced. Anyone else would have taken it for a belated case of nerves–but I’d seen that face in the light of the muzzle blast and I thought I knew his case for what it was.

An endless two minutes later I spotted a broken-down barn, huddled a few hundred feet off the road. Our pursuers were nowhere in sight. I took the chance and trundled the lurching, groaning wreck towards the barn. I got out long enough to wrestle the crooked doors open, parked the car in that dusty, echoing space, and got out again to pull the doors shut behind us.

illustrated by neverendum

Silence fell. I crouched in front of the ruins of the doors and watched the road through a wood-rot hole, looking for pursuit and finding none. I knelt there for five more minutes, remembering how to breathe, and then I put my gun away and went to look at the car.

Long scratches and pockmarks marred the paint job on all sides. The rear windshield was out, as was one of the side windows. Spent slugs rattled inside the car’s door panels. Two of the tires were shredded and a third was starting to go low. And, just to top it all off, the paint on the car’s roof was blistered and scorched from the muzzle blast of the shotgun. Frank Blakeley would never trust me with his nice things again. On the bright side, if Frank had any hard questions about why we never made it to his cabin, we had a hell of an answer.

An errant noise from outside brought me back to the barn doors, gun in my hand, heart in my throat. I’d just managed to catch my breath again when a car door opened and shut behind me. “Any sign?” Alec asked, quiet, but cool.

I straightened up and put my gun away again. “No sign,” I said, and then I shoved him back against the car’s battered, shot-up trunk.

He took it the wrong way for about a second. He summoned up that sneer from somewhere and started to jaw that same tired old kidnap-victim routine, but I worked one thigh between both of his–he got it, then, and he climbed me like a God-damned tree.

I pinned him back against the ruin of the car and I let him buck up against me and work himself through those last few steps. Alec finished what he had started with a shudder and a throaty cry, his fists knotted in my coat, his legs wrapped around one of mine. When he was done he collapsed against me and went quiet, his glasses askew, his hair falling across his forehead in spikes. I left him sitting on the car’s rear bumper long enough to recline the front seat–it fell neatly against the lip of the back seat and turned the entire passenger compartment into a bed big enough for two, or for three, if they were friendly–and then I half-carried him around to the back door and laid him down. After rolling down the remaining windows I joined him in the ersatz bed and gave him something to lay next to. He curled up beside me without a word, temporarily docile but keeping just the smallest bit of distance between us.

The dusty, moldy barn-smell got in the car and aggravated my nose. The air was damp, which was no surprise, and water was dripping through the holes in the roof and plopping onto the floor. The bed was comfortable, though, even if the upholstery had a few brand-new holes in it, and Alec’s huddled form gave off heat like a radiator.

I lay there and tried to figure out how the Collacrucios had found us. The DA’s office probably leaked like a sieve, no matter how much clout Frank had. Hell, Alec had all but shouted our destination to the lady in the lobby of his apartment building, and anyone with access to the records office or a nice way with the locals could have found Frank’s vacation cabin. They could have found us in any number of ways. What was important right now was that they not find us again.

I didn’t think they would. The shotgun would have put both those cars out of commission, and probably a couple of the hoods, too. It’d take them an hour or two to get word to the mainland, and they’d have to wait until morning to bring more cars to the island. Any search they could mount would have to wait until daylight. I hoped.

“Told you you were a God-damned fool,” Alec grated against my chest.

“I didn’t argue with you,” I said. I flicked a bit of hair out of his eyes. “So, you going to come clean with me?”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you?” He pushed himself away from me and sat up, smoothing a hand back over his hair until it was as sleek as ever. “If you’d had the balls you could have had your answers from Frank before you ever accepted this ridiculous job.”

I rolled over onto my back and tucked my hands behind my head, looking up at the car’s roof. It was mostly intact, although a stray bullet had burned a path across the upholstery. “You could give me some answers now.”

“Dry up.” Alec pulled off his glasses and put them back on again.

“Might save your life,” I pointed out. I waited a moment, then added, “Might convince me to take you back to Seattle a little early.”

“Yeah, on the handlebars of your bicycle,” he said, but a hungry look crossed his face at that, and I knew I had my lever.

I gave it a little time. I gave it enough time for us both to get used to the silence, and for his aggravation to leach away. Once he pulled off his glasses to clean them on his shirt-tail, I shut my eyes and said, “Frank’s in love with you, isn’t he?” The little sounds next to me ceased. I didn’t peek. “You can see it in his face, if you know how to look.”

“I know,” Alec said, his voice low and miserable.

“If you really want to know why he wanted to send you somewhere safe, I don’t think you have to look much farther than that.”

“Oh, you don’t think so,” he said. “Must be nice to have all the answers.”

“Seems to me that you’re the one with all the answers here,” I said, glancing over at him. “So tell me, is it nice to be you?”

“You really are a son of a bitch, you know that?” He bared his teeth at me in a gesture that was starting to look awfully familiar.

“No,” I said. “No, I’m not. I’m a hell of a guy, you want to know the truth. I’m no angel, but I’m a nice guy, and that’s going to get me killed some day. Probably by you. And that’s why I’m being a jerk to you: because you could fill me in and maybe save both our lives, but all you want to do is take your little digs at me and feel superior.”

He didn’t have much to say to that. I shut my eyes again and let him wrestle with it. “I don’t know where to start,” he finally admitted.

“Start at the beginning,” I said. “Where’d you learn to shoot like that?”

Alec looked away, his shoulders tightening. “My stepfather taught me,” he said.

There was a lot of nastiness packed into that simple sentence. Kids learn to shoot every day, all over the world, and some of them even get to be pretty good at it, but not one in a million develops that panting, gasping lust for a bullet that Alec had. Something like that had to be specially taught, I thought–had to be hammered into a child until he bent around it. “Your stepfather,” I said, sitting up.

“Yes.” Alec looked down at his interlaced fingers. “Anthony Collacrucio.”

Once Alec had admitted to that, the rest of the story spilled out in bits and pieces. How his own father had died when he was four and his mother had remarried within the year. How the rising star of the Collacrucio family took an interest in his new son and decided on a whim to raise him in the family tradition. How much he’d hated the man, and the life, and the family, and the silent spiritless thing that his mother had become. How he hated himself for still living on Collacrucio money but couldn’t bring himself to give it up. How he’d broken away as soon as he could and retaken his father’s name–how his stepfather had laughed and dismissed it as childish rebellion. How that was the worst thing of all. It was a lousy story, and he told it in an off-key monotone that hurt my ears, all the while staring down at his hands.

Eventually, he went quiet. I gave him a moment, out of respect, and then asked, “Does Frank know?”

“Of course Frank knows,” Alec said with that bitter little laugh of his. “Why do you think I went to him in the first place?”

It cleared up a couple of things like magic. “They’re not after the briefcase at all, are they?”

“No, they need the briefcase to disappear, too,” Alec said. “But you’re right. It’s mostly me they’re after. I’m ninety percent of the state’s case.”

“And that’s why Frank wanted you out of town so badly,” I said. “Well, that’s one reason.”

Alec’s laugh that time was high-pitched and ragged. He grabbed two handfuls of his hair. “I wasn’t counting on that–I never expected that,” he said unevenly. “I never would have guessed that he was like that–”

“Some men can fool you that way,” I said.

Alec hitched in a breath that sounded even worse than the laugh, and he stole a glance at me. “I guess so,” he said. “My God, I guess so!” Something inside him cracked and he brayed with hysterical laughter until I grabbed his shoulders and shook him out of it. Halfway through it he went boneless. When I let him go he swayed forward and fell on me, putting his head against my shoulder and shutting his calculating eyes. He took off his glasses and tucked them in his vest pocket. “Take me back to Seattle, Immanuel,” he said, softly. “There’s no point in staying on this island if they know we’re here.”

He was so transparent that I could have read the paper right through him. Still, I thought about it. He belonged to someone else whether he liked it or not. Still, I thought about it. This sort of sleazy bargaining made us both into lesser creatures, though, and that I couldn’t get past. “Take you back to Seattle?” I said. “So, what, do you think you’re going to make it worth my while?”

“Maybe,” Alec breathed, and he put his hand high up on my thigh, near the fork of my crotch.

I looked at him. I looked at his hand. I took his wrist and plucked that hand away. “Forget it,” I said. “I’m not interested in whores.”

His eyes flew open wide and he reared back, his mouth twisting into a horrible shape. “You son of a bitch,” he spat, clawing for my eyes with his free hand. I caught that one, too. He fought against my grip for a few seconds, rising up onto his knees to get more leverage, for all the good that it would do him–it was child’s play to jerk him off-balance and make him fall down against me again.

I pulled his arms down, pinning him there. He writhed against my chest like a snake, and only some vestigial fastidiousness kept him from tearing my throat out with his teeth. I held on, and I waited, and soon enough the quality of his breathing changed. “God, I,” he said. “You… you!”

“Your call,” I said, and I let go of his wrists. He slapped me. I let him. He grabbed my face in both hands and kissed me so hard that he knocked us both over onto the waiting seats.

After that he was a mad little thing on top of me, with no chance of stopping himself. His fashionable little two-tone shoes scuffed at the car’s once-pristine seats as he worked himself against me, trying to force himself between my legs. I didn’t let him get anywhere with that. He spat out a hair-raising curse and straddled me instead, the fabric of his loose trousers draped over both of us, his cock like a bar of red-hot iron against mine. He’d take it this way. He’d take it any way he could get it, right now. So would I.

Maybe I should have felt bad about that hypocrisy. It was all bravado and lies on my part, after all. Bravado, and lies, and lust, and memory, and the aching, nagging sense that I should take it no matter how or when it came, because I might never get another shot at it–I caught his hips in both hands and ground him down against me, and he made a high-pitched squalling sound and helped. If he pressed down against me any harder I’d be able to count the change in his pockets.

He didn’t have any of that tight-lipped control left. Every move he made was a thing of grace. Every expression that crossed his face was beautiful. It should have been an awkward, squirming thing, but it wasn’t. It was something to see, in those last few moments in which I had any control over myself at all.

Finally, in the depths of it, he called me ‘Marcus’. I called him ‘Tommy’. I don’t think either of us noticed, right then.

His cock jumped and battered itself against mine, spilling its life’s blood as it dragged us both over the edge. He came with another one of those throbbing, throaty cries, and I came with a hitch and a tearing grunt. He worked himself down against me for a few more luxurious seconds, getting the rest of his present, and then he fell off me and curled up again, breathing hard. His tie wasn’t even loose.

“Tell me the rest,” I said, once I’d caught my breath.

He didn’t need any additional prompting. “I want to be in on it when Collacrucio goes down,” Alec said, staring at his hands, balled into fists in front of his face. “More than anything I want to see that rat-bastard go down with my own eyes. What I really want to look him in the eye and put two in his gut and watch him go green and squirm and sweat and cry, and maybe then I’ll put another in his head, not because he deserves the mercy but because it’ll put him out of my misery. But I’ll take what I can get. When I went to Frank and laid it all out for him, I told him that that was my only condition, that I get to be in on the kill–and–he–sent–me–away–” He broke off there with a choking sob that was more rage than anything else. “Because Frank loves me,” Alec grated out. “I went to him for revenge and look what I got instead. Look what I God-damned well got.”

“I’ll think about it,” I said. “We can’t get off this island until daylight in any case. Might as well try and get some rest.”

“If that’s the best you can do, I guess I’ll have to take it,” Alec said. His eyes were flat and black like two jet buttons. “You going to tell me who Tommy is?”

I froze up. I admit it. I couldn’t for the life of me figure out where he’d conjured up that name from–then I came up with the hazy memory of staring up at the little blond demon astride me and gritting out Tommy’s name. I shut my eyes. “Just a guy I used to know,” I said.

“I gathered,” said Alec. “Tell me the rest.”

“That’s my line, kid. And it’s personal.”

“I gathered that, too.” Alec shifted beside me, getting comfortable. “The thing is, I think by now we’re pretty personal, too.”

Even if I’d wanted to, I had no idea how to go about explaining Tommy. I tried going quiet, to see if Alec would give up, or change the subject, or fall asleep. Instead he put his hand on mine. “Go on,” he said. “Tell me a bedtime story, shamus. Who else are you going to tell?”

“What you have to understand is that Tommy was a lady who lived on the wrong side of town,” I said, and somehow, despite everything, I told Alec the whole sordid story from beginning to end. I vomited it out like so much bad rye, like the kind of morning-after emesis that threatens to bring your guts up through your mouth. I forgot that Alec was there after a while, just stared off at the car’s broken side window and got all that poison out.

I finished the story feeling fragile, like a word might shatter me into a million pieces. Alec opened his eyes, and he looked at me. He patted my hand and then drew his hand back to curl into its loose fist in front of his face. He closed his eyes again. Eventually he slept.

Emptied out, I lay awake, still listening for sounds from outside.

The next memory I have is of early-morning gray outside the hole in the barn’s roof. My mouth tasted like death and my shorts were clammy and unpleasant to be inside of. Beside me Alec was still asleep, small and fragile-looking in the light. He woke when I opened the car door, though, and by the time I’d finished stretching out the kinks in my muscles, he was upright, alert, and waiting. “Here’s how it’s going to go, kid,” I told him.

“Tell me,” he said.

I took a deep breath. “Let’s get you back to Seattle.” He went quiveringly still with anticipation. I rubbed at my chin with one hand, felt stubble, and plunged on. “They’ll be looking for you on the island, and it’s a hell of a lot easier to get lost in Seattle than it is to stay lost out here.”

“That’s true,” he said, a little too eagerly.

“The problem is getting you off the island without being spotted,” I went on. “I’ve got some ideas about that. If you want off the island, you’ll do what I say.”

Alec’s upper lip flickered in the ghost of that sneer, but eventually he jerked his head down. “All right.”

“Once we get back to Seattle, we’ll get in touch with Frank and tell him what happened.” He started to protest, but I cut him off. “It ought to be pretty easy to convince Frank that the safest place for you to be is somewhere he can keep his eyes on you.”

The sneer flickered again. “That’s sure as hell true,” Alec said. “I’ve just got one suggestion.”

“Let’s hear it.”

“I want to find out what’s going on before we fall in with Frank.” It was his turn to cut me off. “We don’t know anything about what’s going on out there,” he said. “I’m not going to heap more trouble on him if he’s got enough. I want him in a reasonable mood.”

“For you, I think he’d be in any mood you wanted.”

Alec sneered at me for real. “You think it’s that easy? You’re a damned fool.”

“I know, kid.” I smoothed back my hair and put on my hat. “I know.”

I fetched his bags from the trunk while Alec wriggled onto the car’s floorboards once more and emptied everything out of the clever steel-sided box that Frank had had built underneath the front seat, for emergencies just like last night’s. We had the sawed-off shotgun plus a over-the-shoulders cross-draw speed rig that had been cut down to handle it. We had a full box of cartridges and the dregs of a second box. We had the nickel-plated pistol that Alec had used last night, plus its twin brother, plus plenty of ammo for both of them. We had a nice all-purpose cleaning kit. There was even a dull green combat knife in a battered leather sheath, for what kind of occasions, I didn’t want to know.

I took off my coat long enough to shrug into that rig and slot the shotgun away. I filled my pockets with cartridges. One pistol and the knife Alec tucked away in his valise, burying them underneath his shirts. The other pistol he stuck into the waistband of his pants, half-hidden underneath the swing of his jacket. I couldn’t argue with that, but I tried anyway: “I’d hate to be you, if you get the front sight hung up on your belt when you go to draw that thing.”

I didn’t actually see him draw it. All I remember–and I still play this memory back on cold and lonely nights–is a jump like a splice in a broken piece of film. Before the jump Alec was standing there, flicking a bit of dust off his sleeve–after the jump his arm was fully extended, the pistol in his hand pointed at the far wall. He bared his teeth in that familiar not-a-grin-at-all and showed me the gun’s front sight, filed down to a rounded nubbin. “I told you Frank knew all about me,” Alec said. His outstretched arm vanished. The gun reappeared in his belt.

I felt like I should applaud, or possibly scream like a girl. Instead I turned to look over the wreck of the car. “Anything else we need?”

“I think that’s it.” He handed me the valise. The briefcase he kept close, and in his off hand, just in case. I shuffled the valise into my own off hand, and then we turned our backs on the car and left it to its fate.

Whidbey Island seemed calm, but we still played it as safe as we could. We stayed off the road and hunkered down whenever we heard a vehicle coming, and we kept our ears pricked for voices. Half an hour of that was all I could stand–I’ve always been a city boy at heart–and we took a risk, flagging down a farmer’s rackety truck as it went by. We rode the rest of the way into Langley sitting in the back of a jouncing slat-sided truck that smelled like hay and manure, getting our kidneys pummeled. I made Alec stay down, out of sight. He didn’t thank me for it.

The farmer dropped us off in front of a place that he knew, let me buy his silence with a convenient fifty-dollar bill, and went jolting off. The widow lady who ran the boarding-house looked like she hadn’t cared about anything since her husband died, and she definitely stopped giving a damn about anything once I passed her a second fifty from my stash. We got a couple of good rooms, with good locks. She handed us the keys and then forgot she’d ever seen us.

An hour later we were clean, clothed, and fed, our dirty things safe in the landlady’s capable hands. My fifty had bought me access to a dead man’s clothes, and while they smelled of cedar and mothballs, they were clean and didn’t even fit all that badly. I looked sloppy, but that wasn’t anything new.

Alec, on the other hand, looked like a million dollars. By the time he joined me in my room he was as crisp and as clean as if he’d gone to bed early and spent the night sleeping between freshly-ironed sheets. There was a canary-yellow silk handkerchief in the pocket of his tailored midnight-blue suit, and a tie to match it, and it pretty much broke my heart to tell him what our next move was going to be. He cursed me for that one. He cursed me long and hard.

I left him there, locked away in a room with a pile of guns to clean. They’d keep him safe and entertained. Me, I trekked out through the gray morning to the nearest feed store. It was a nerve-wracking trip, but I figured that no one had gotten a good look at my forgettable mug last night and no one was going to look at me twice if I didn’t have Alec in tow. I saw a couple of too-sleek cars and lived to tell about it, so I guess I was right.

The feed store was a popular watering hole for old farmers with nowhere else to go. They were discussing the rain. I went inside, pulled up a bale of hay, and sat. No one cared enough to roust me, and I dozed in peace and relative quiet, only waking whenever someone came in.

It took me a couple of hours to find the man I was looking for. The problem was that I didn’t know exactly who I was looking for, only that I’d know him when I saw him. I was pretty close to despair by the time the guy showed up.

He had bright little bird’s eyes, a reddened nose, and a permanent cynical smile, all set in a seamed, lined face. The overalls he was wearing were a little too big for him, and his knuckles stood out like pine knots when he paid his bill, scrupling over every penny as he slid it over. “See you next week, Charley,” said the feed-store owner, with a touch of lingering respect in his tone.

“See you, Ed,” said Charley, and he ambled for the front of the store. I slid down off my bale of hay and followed.

Out front, a couple of rough-looking farmhand types were stacking hay bales in the back of Charley’s truck. Charley leaned himself up against a wall to watch. I made a show of patting down my pockets, then fished my nearly-empty pack of Luckies from a pocket and joined him. “Hey,” I said. “Got a light?”

Those bird’s eyes flicked to me, and the smirk deepened. “Maybe,” he said. “Depends.”

Without a word I offered him the pack. His eyes went so narrow with amusement that they disappeared entirely. He shook a Lucky from the pack and stuck it in his mouth. A quick rustle through his pockets turned up a box of ordinary kitchen matches and he popped one alight and lit us both. “Thanks,” I said.

“Thanks goes both ways,” he replied.

We smoked in silence for a while. “I’m looking for someone,” I eventually said.

“Yeah? Lot of that going around.”

I went cold all over. “Yeah?”

“Yeah. Bunch of guys in sharp suits over here this morning, asking everyone, have you seen this blond kid?” Charley shook his head, slowly. “Makes you wonder, don’t it.”

“It does,” I said. “Wonder if they’ve found him.”

He snorted at that. “We don’t really cotton to sharp-suited fellows from the big city coming over here and nosing around in our business,” he said. He glanced at me. “No offense.”

“None taken,” I said, touching my battered lapel. “After all, this isn’t the sharpest suit in the drawer.”

Charley’s laugh was a sudden, cawing, coughing thing. “That it ain’t,” he said. “So, if you’re not looking for the blond kid, who you looking for?”

“Local fellow, actually. Course, the rest of the story might be considered nosing around in your business.”

He gestured lazily at me with his half-burnt cigarette. “Reckon you’ve bought yourself a Lucky’s worth of tolerance.”

“Good to know,” I said. “See, I figure that somewhere on this island, there’s got to be a couple of guys who used to run the stuff down from Canada in their spare time, back in the bad old days. I’d make it worth their while to talk to me, maybe do me a favor.”

He grunted and we both went quiet. Eventually he’d smoked his cigarette down to the nub, and he stubbed it out and tucked the butt end away for later. “I might know an old rumrunner or two,” Charley admitted, his eyes flicking to the hard boys loading his truck. “What’s the favor?”

“Tell you what,” I said, glancing over my shoulder. “Let me buy you a drink, and I’ll lay it all out.”

Long story short, that’s how we came to return to Seattle stuffed into a secret compartment built in the front end of a two-horse trailer.

The trailer smelled like manure, which I was starting to get used to. The compartment smelled like ancient, spilled alcohol, which I’ve been used to for longer than I’d care to admit. Alec’s face was pinched and unhappy, but still he condescended to crush himself up against me when Charley swung the secret door shut.

It wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t exactly uncomfortable, either. I had a crate to sit on. Alec only had my lap, and that little detail kept me from sweating the small stuff. He was stiff and unhappy against me, swaddled in my too-large coat to hopefully prevent the aroma of farm from spoiling his handsome suit. His blond head was a bright thing in the darkness, resting against my shoulder, smelling of expensive pomade.

Charley started his truck and pulled out of the yard behind the boardinghouse, jostling us around. Alec’s valise thumped against my leg and slid away again. Alec grumbled out a little sound and rearranged himself in my lap. “You take me to the nicest places, Immanuel,” he said, voice raised against the rattling of the trailer.

I laced my fingers together across his hip and settled back against the trailer’s wall. “Stick with me, kid, and I’ll show you the worst that Seattle has to offer.”

“I’m almost afraid you mean that,” he said, and then he went quiet–talking over the racket was too hard.

With little else to do and almost no light in which to do it, I dozed in fits and starts while the truck and trailer bounced over the island’s one-lane roads. Charley had said that it would be about an hour back to the Keystone ferry docks, but it seemed like most of forever before the truck pulled up and its engine shut off. I was one giant bruise. Alec had fared a little better just by using me as padding.

“Hiya, Charley,” one of the dockies said, his voice clear through the tiny ventilation shaft. Light sheened off Alec’s glasses as he turned his head towards the sound.

One of them hawked and spat. Based on past experience, I’d guess Charley. “Luke,” he said. “What’s the holdup?”

“Manhunt or something,” Luke said. “Don’t tell me you’re hauling that rank old stallion out again.”

“Naw, going to take a look at a mare down in Enumclaw–” Charley broke off there. “Hey,” he called, raising his voice. “Help you?”

“No, sir,” said a new voice, smooth and city-bred, far too close. “Just wanted to take a gander at your horse.” Alec went tense enough to quiver against me. I put a hand over his mouth. He caught my wrist in both hands and went still again.

“Sorry to disappoint,” Charley said. Alec mauled my wrist pretty good in the ensuing moment of silence. “What’s with him?” said Charley.

Luke snorted. “Says he’s law from Seattle, been making people open their trunks all day. I hear they’re looking for some bigshot racketeer or something on the island.”

“Law, huh.” Charley coughed out that cawing laugh of his. “Ain’t rightly sure I cotton to the law checkin’ out my trailer.” The two of them shared a knowing chuckle, and in the moment of covering noise, Alec bit my fingers. I strangled a yelp and reclaimed my hand.

The time we spent waiting to get on the ferry felt even longer than the time it had taken us to get here. Sometimes I could hear that city-bred voice, making other cars open up, and I kept waiting for him to come back around and notice that the inside of the horse trailer didn’t exactly match the outside. In my lap Alec was still taut enough to shake–he buried his face against the side of my neck, his mouth open against my skin to muffle his scream of frustration. I felt the vibrations of that scream all the way down my spine, but I couldn’t hear a thing.

We both went limp with relief when Charley started the truck again. Alec’s mouth was still pressed to my throat, working against it like he was struggling to say something, and I tried to make out what it was while Charley put the truck in gear and rumbled off to board the ferry. The trailer’s wheels bounced over the loading ramp and the sound of the engine echoed off the ferry’s cavernous roof, and Alec jerked up and fastened onto my mouth, instead. There wasn’t room to do much in that narrow space, but for a moment, we did it anyway–then Alec let me go, panting, and collapsed back into my lap.

A couple of hours later Charley let us out of our little coffin built for two. I stumbled out of that horse trailer like a drunk trying to stay upright. Alec followed me, so full of wary grace that it hurt me to look at him. Good old Seattle rain slapped me in the face in welcome. “Last stop, all out,” Charley said, and he cawed with laughter at his own joke.

“You’re a prince,” I said, shaking his hand. Two fifties from my rapidly-dwindling stash stuck to his palm when he pulled it back, but neither of us mentioned it.

Bracing myself against the side of the trailer, I attempted to stretch some of the bruise from my aching muscles. Alec sneered at me and stalked away from us both with supple, feline grace, the tail of my coat flaring out behind him. I watched him go. I couldn’t help it. A glance at Charley proved that he was doing the same. “Sorry about the cramped conditions,” Charley added, grinning on one side of his mouth.

“Eh, he didn’t mind,” I said, already hating myself for it, and hating myself worse when it made Charley guffaw. Alec was all the way across the street, hanging off a pay phone–he hadn’t heard it, and what he hadn’t heard wouldn’t hurt him, but it still made me feel pretty God-damned small.

“Bet he didn’t,” Charley said, slapping my shoulder. “Bet he didn’t at that. Pleasure doing business, son.”

I watched as Charley got back in his truck and started it up again with a roar. “I didn’t mind it much either,” I said, not bothering to raise my voice.

“Eh?” Charley yelled over the engine noise.

“I said, pleasure meeting you!” I called back. Damn me for a coward, anyway. The truck rattled off, dragging its trailer, and I watched him go, mostly relieved.

Alec hung up the phone with a bang and loped back across the street, shucking out of my coat along the way. How he could look so crisp after three hours of that, I’d never know. “Cab’s coming,” Alec said, drifting back to my side. I thought I saw the faintest glitter in his eyes as he held out my coat, but it was probably just excitement.

I nodded, accepting my coat and sliding back into it. My neck twanged like a bowstring and I winced. “Do me a favor,” I said.


“Hit me,” I said. Alec fixed me with a fish-eyed stare. I shrugged. “Hit me,” I said again. “Just take my word for it that I deserve it.”

“Trust me,” he said, picking up the briefcase, “it’s not that I don’t believe you.”

I’d managed to shake off most of the residual soreness by the time the cab came hissing down the street, throwing up sheets of water in both directions. Alec had been prowling around, too wound up to sit still, and he flagged down the cab almost before I saw it. We both piled in. “Where to?” the cabbie said, glancing at us in the rearview mirror.

I held up a fifty and let him get a good look at it. “You see this?”

He saw it. The toothpick in his mouth rolled slowly back and forth. “Yeah,” he said. “That for me?”

“Eventually,” I said, and I tore the bill right down the middle, giving President Grant a mortal wound in the process. The cabbie yelped in protest. I sort of felt like screaming myself. Instead, I let half the bill flutter down onto the front seat. The cabbie eyed it sidelong like it might bite him, then snapped it up and stuffed it into his shirt pocket. I tucked the other half away. “Let me cut to the chase,” I said. “I’ve got a lot of places to go tonight and a lot of things to do, and I don’t have the time to wait for a cab in between each one. You help me with my problem and you’ll earn the other half by midnight. Deal?”

I could see the greed in his eyes, but he made me wait on his answer anyway, shifting his toothpick while he pretended to think. “You got it,” he finally said. “So, where to first?”

“Take me to the worst hotel you know of that you’d still stay at yourself,” I said. He thought about it, then grunted and put the cab back into gear.

The hotel was lousy, all right. Possibly literally. Long strips of the faded wallpaper had been torn from the walls of our room to reveal what looked like cardboard underneath, and the mattress was so hard and saggy that it could have doubled as a sink. On the other hand, the sleepy night clerk had let me sign the register as Andrew Jackson and no one gave a damn when I opened the back door and let Alec in.

I stripped off my coat and shrugged back into the shotgun’s speed rig. Alec tucked both pistols into his belt and slung the knife in the small of his back, then stashed his valise in the closet with the briefcase. While I fidgeted with the rig and got it settled just right Alec sat down and wrote Frank Blakeley a terse letter, telling him where he might find the precious briefcase, just in case. Just in case what, I didn’t like to think.

I made a quick detour to pop the envelope into a corner mailbox, then joined Alec in the wet alleyway behind the hotel. The cabbie was parked opposite the back door, a racing form propped against the steering wheel. He quickly shuffled it away as we got in. “Where to now, bub?”

“P-I building,” I said.

The ride was long and uneventful. The rain blatted down against the cab’s windows, a nice, lulling sound. It nearly put me to sleep. It probably would have, except that Alec was jittering on the seat beside me, wound so tight that he couldn’t sit still. It wasn’t gun-lust. Not yet, anyway.

It was close to nine by the time that we got to the Post-Intelligencer. Personally I consider myself a Times man, but the P-I had a few things going for it and one of those things was the man we’d come here to see. The press room was jumping pretty good for this late on a Saturday. I wasn’t surprised. “Ames!” I bellowed across the din. A skinny hand shot up on the other side of the newsroom. I made my way over, Alec prowling in my wake.

Jack Ames was gnawing on the soggy end of an unlit cigar and jabbing at his typewriter with two yellowed fingers, turning out tomorrow’s edition one careless letter at a time. He was just about the only man in Seattle who could make me look well put together: his too-thin, creased face was blue-gray along the jaw and all around the eyes, and his prematurely-graying black hair straggled greasily across his forehead. He was swimming inside his battered shirt like he’d bought it intending to grow into it, his sleeves rolled up to bare his knobby wrists. “Immanuel,” he said around the stub of his cigar. “Am I ever going to see that eighty cents you owe me?”

“Probably not,” I said. “It’s been six years. Maybe it’s time to write off the debt.”

“You’d like that, wouldn’t you,” Jack said. He slapped at the carriage return and made the whole typewriter shudder. “So what do you want this time?”

“Can’t I just drop by to see an old friend?”

Jack snorted. “No.”

“What can I say, when you’re right, you’re right,” I said. “Tell me about the Collacrucio family.”

“What’s left of them, you mean.” Jack hunched his shoulders and clattered out another deathless line. “Jesus Christ, Immanuel, why do you think this place is such a madhouse? Blakeley’s boys have been in a running gunfight with the Collacrucios since late last night, the body-count’s in the double digits already, they’re telling people to stay off the streets unless they’ve got no choice but to be out–so of course the square in front of the God-damned Times is jammed with looky-loos while those bastards post the broadsheets every hour, and if I don’t steal a march on them somewhere William Randolph Hearst himself is going to come to Seattle just to slap my face and call me ‘Betty’, and every second you stand there makes ‘Betty’ just that much more likely. Why don’t you make like a tree and blow?”

I leaned against Jack’s desk and ignored his raspy squawk of protest. “Tell me what’s going on right now.”

“Right now? Right now, you’re ticking me off.”

“With the Collacrucios, Jack.”

Jack threw up his hands. “Last big news we got was about half an hour ago. Victor Collacrucio got dragged out of a Skid Road saloon by his ankles. Four bullets in him, a lot more in his bodyguards.”

“What about Anthony?”

“Oh, you want to know about the big cheese,” Jack said, biting his cigar and making it squelch. “You and everybody else in this Godforsaken town. If I knew what had happened to Anthony, you think I’d be bothering to write about Victor?”

“Right,” I said. “He’s still out there, then. I’d have thought Blakeley would have taken the head of the organization down first.” Behind me Alec stiffened with such force that I felt it like a shove against my back.

“Oh, he tried,” Jack said. “Anthony strolled right out of the unlocked back seat of a police car ten minutes later and disappeared into the night. Got to love this town, Immanuel. You’ve just got to.”

“So he’s holed up somewhere.”

“That’s the theory. As to where, I don’t know, and neither does anyone else. Sorry to waste your time.” Jack attacked a few more keys, ripped the page out of the typewriter, and scrawled a big ’33’ at the bottom. “Copy!” he shouted, leaning past me.

I got up and dusted off my coat, producing a shower of cigar ashes that fell to the floor. “Thanks for nothing, Jack.”

“Sure, sure, take a hike,” Jack said, rolling a fresh piece of paper into his typewriter. A harassed copy-boy edged past me, picked up the finished article, and trotted off with it. “So who’s the kid?”

“This?” I jerked a thumb over my shoulder at Alec. “This is Alec Casey.”

Jack’s newshound’s nose twitched. His stained fingers came to a halt on the keys. “Frank Blakeley’s secretary?”

Turning around, I caught Alec’s arm in one hand and got him moving. “Nah,” I said. “Anthony Collacrucio’s step-son.”

Alec jerked against my grip, but by that time we were moving at a good clip and it was easy enough to propel him along. We left Jack Ames shocked into silence behind us–for about a second. “Immanuel!

I didn’t stop. I was one up on him, finally, and it felt pretty good. “Some other time, Betty,” I called back over my shoulder.

“God damn it, Immanuel!”

We’d barely gotten out into the darkened hallway before Alec yanked his arm free and took a pretty serious swing at me. I jerked aside and took the blow on my cheek instead of my nose. It didn’t hurt much. Alec might have been some kind of freakish prodigy with guns, but he was pretty soft in all the ways that mattered. “You son of a bitch,” Alec raged, his hands in fists. “I didn’t tell you that to see it smeared all over the P-I–”

“Knock it off,” I said. Grabbing his arm again, I steered him into a broom closet and yanked the door shut behind us. Just in time, too: I heard Jack go steaming past the closet not a moment later, calling my name. Alec fought against my grip. I didn’t have to try too hard to keep hold, this time. “Some day you’ll realize I did you a favor,” I said, pitching my voice low. “The next time Frank double-crosses you because he’s too blinded by love to play it straight, you’ll find that there are worse people to have in your corner than Jack Ames.”

“A favor? A favor!” Alec snarled. “You and Frank are just the same–you both think you can decide what’s good for me and to hell with what I think about it!” His fist looped out of the darkness and caught me under the eye, purely by luck.

It hit at just the right angle to smart like hell. Eye watering, I grabbed for his wrist and managed to catch it. He flung himself bodily against me and crowded me back against the wall. Somehow I managed to hold on, throwing my arms around the fighting body against mine and getting him pinned in an awkward bearhug. “Take it easy,” I said, tightening both arms. “We don’t have time to fight about this now. Collacrucio’s still out there.”

A lot of the fight went out of Alec at that. A lot, but not all of it. “All right,” he said. “All right. But you keep this in mind, Immanuel. You want to keep spilling my secrets, you better remember that I know a lot of yours, too.”

I stood there, eye smarting, clutching Alec like a talisman, and discovered that I didn’t have much to say to that. After a minute or so Alec fought his way free of my arms. “Yeah,” I croaked, then recovered. “Guess I owe you an apology, kid.”

“I know,” Alec said. I heard fabric snap in the darkness as he yanked his jacket straight. “And stop calling me ‘kid’.”

“Alec,” I said. I slumped back against the wall. “So… any ideas where Collacrucio might have holed up? If Blakeley’s been looking for him for twenty-four hours and hasn’t found him yet, it’s gotta be somewhere pretty low to the ground.”

The closet door clicked quietly open, spilling in a line of dim gray light that caught on Alec’s glasses. He checked the hallway, left and right. “I don’t know,” he said. “I know where a lot of his boltholes are, but I gave them all up already, and you can bet Frank’s checked every one.”

“And if he’d found Anthony Collacrucio he’d have trumpeted it off the rooftops by now,” I said. “So Collacrucio’s got to be holed up somewhere Frank wouldn’t think of looking for him–”

“–but he’s got to still be in the city,” Alec said. He stepped out into the hallway, smoothing a hand back over his hair. He looked good–sleek–but his shoulders were tight underneath his suit jacket. “He can’t just cut and run, not if he wants to keep the family’s respect–and he must be in contact with people. This kind of resistance doesn’t organize itself.”

We hurried down the hallway towards the stairs. Behind us the noise of the press room was a constant clattering thing. Beside me Alec was mumbling through a list of Collacrucio properties like an Italian grandmother reading her beads, an unbroken, spilling litany that ended with a cry of “I don’t know!” Alec clutched at his head. “I can’t find him, and neither can Frank–did I rat for nothing?”

I grabbed both of his shoulders. “Think, kid,” I said, then corrected myself: “Alec. There’s got to be somewhere. He needs shelter, he needs a phone, he needs to stay out of sight in some place that he knows you can’t or wouldn’t give up to Frank–”

I think we both got the idea at the same moment. Alec’s eyes went round behind his glasses and his mouth fell open in a soundless croak, and even as he clutched at my sleeve the answer dawned on me, as well. “And he wants revenge,” Alec rasped. “That cocky bastard–he’s in my apartment!”

In the heat of the moment I said something a little uncouth. “That’s got to be it,” I added, stunned. “We’ve got to get hold of Frank–”

“No,” Alec croaked, his fingers tightening on my sleeve. “No.”

“Kid–Alec–I don’t know what you’re thinking, but I can tell you right now that it’s a lousy idea,” I said. “One phone call and we can go over there and watch Anthony Collacrucio get led off in chains. You’ll be in on it, just like you wanted. Anything else was not the deal.”

Alec thought about it, staring blindly off at the far wall. He shivered and licked his lips and fought with himself. I held on to his shoulders and I hoped. I’m a God-damned fool. Alec’s eyes clicked back to mine. “A man’s home is his castle, Marcus,” he said.

I slapped his cheek, not hard, just hard enough to hopefully wake him up a little. “He could have any number of goons in there with him, assuming that he’s there at all.”

“Frank wouldn’t even prefer charges against me,” he said, barely noticing the little love-tap.

We weren’t having the same conversation at all. I couldn’t give up. I squeezed his shoulders. “I can’t let you do it, kid–”

I’m being paid to keep your hide intact, I’d meant to say, but the world jumped a couple of seconds to the left without me and something metallic and blood-warm jammed itself up against the underside of my jaw. “Don’t try and stop me, Marcus,” Alec said softly, nudging my chin up with the muzzle of the pistol. I could already hear the beginnings of that thickness that the gun-lust brought to his voice.

I tried not to swallow. I failed. All of a sudden I was sorry that I’d hit him. “Going to shoot me?” I said. “Right here? Over this?”

Alec shuddered, so hard that the gun’s muzzle scraped back and forth against my skin. It was a couple of seconds before his eyes winced shut and he turned his head away, the gun vanishing as suddenly as it had appeared. “No,” Alec grated out. “God damn it, I’m not.”

I rubbed my jaw, scrubbing away the feel of metal against my skin. “Kid–Alec–you’re a hell of a gunman, I’ll give you that, but you’re no more bulletproof than any other mook out there. And you’re just going to walk into his trap like a sheep into a slaughterhouse?”

“You don’t have the first God-damned idea of just how good a gunman I am,” Alec said. “And even if they do kill me, it’ll all be worth it if I can just take that rat-bastard down first.”

“Frank’s paying me to keep you alive,” I said. “Not to let you get gunned down like a dog.”

“Then help me,” Alec said, grabbing my wrists in both hands. There were two hectic, feverish spots of red on his cheeks, like he was a Skid Road showgirl wearing too much rouge. “I’ve been waiting to kill that bastard since I was five years old, Marcus, waiting and biding my time, and here a God-given opportunity has fallen right into my lap–and you think you can just stand there and hold it out of my reach? Make me jump for it? Because someone paid you to?” His lips peeled back from his teeth in a snarl. “So help me God, if you deny me my revenge because of money–”

“You think this is about money?” I said. I nearly shouted it. Only knowing that it would bring Jack Ames down on our heads kept my voice down. “Well, you’re right. It’s about money. It’s also about what little professional pride I’ve got left, because I took this job and I intend to see it through–and it’s about keeping you alive, because one of us has to do it, and kid, I can already see that it’s not going to be you.”

The look on Alec’s face was just about the most painful expression I’ve ever seen on a human being without a bullet in his gut. “Do you want me to beg?” he spat. “Is that it? Is that what it’s going to take?”

“Have you heard a word I’ve said?”

I didn’t get much further than that. His face still twisted up, Alec dropped to his knees right there in the hallway and clasped his hands together around a fold of my coat. “Please,” he said, choking the word out like it hurt. It probably did. “This is what you wanted, right? Well, here you go. Here you God-damned well go. I’m begging you, Marcus. Don’t take this away from me.”

I fell back a step, automatically checking up and down along the hallway for prying eyes. “Get up,” I said. It came out sounding more like begging than the vicious little act that Alec was putting on down there. Suddenly I couldn’t stand it any more and I grabbed Alec by the shirtfront, hauling him back to his feet. “This is suicide,” I said.

“Suicide?” Alec barked out a laugh. “I’m already dead, Marcus! Anthony Collacrucio killed me by the time I was five!”

I tried to tell myself that he was young enough to think that kind of penny-ante melodrama was worth a damn. It just made me tired. “Spare me the theatrics, kid,” I said, letting him go. “Let’s go drive by your place and see if there are any lights on.”

He stared at me, the sneer on his face an uncertain thing that vanished once he understood what I was saying. He lit up then, fiery glee distorting his features. If believing in himself was enough to guarantee success, Alec Casey was going to bring us both through this just fine–but no matter what Alec believed, I, at least, was old enough to know better.

We left the P-I and headed for Capitol Hill. It’d been years since I’d had the luxury of believing in God, but I tried to make my peace with him on that drive up anyway, just in case.

On the off-chance that Collacrucio had a couple of unfriendly eyes on lookout I made Alec lay down across the back seat, out of sight. It wasn’t the brightest idea I’ve ever had. He lay there with his head in my lap and his hand clutching at my knee, constantly hissing demands for information that I didn’t have to give him. The cabbie kept giving us odd looks but greed, or something, kept him quiet about it.

The building looked the same as it had the last time I’d seen it, last night when I was on my way to a rendezvous with a heavy stoneware vase. It was still a handsome building, a great big brick pile with an outthrust portico, well-lit and undaunted by the constant rain. The doorman was still in his place, and I could see the nice lady at the front desk through the glass double doors–then the cab went by and showed me the side of the building, complete with a couple of lighted windows where they weren’t supposed to be. I’d hoped this was going to be a wild goose chase. I’d hoped wrong. “Find a place to park,” I told the cabbie.

“Are they there?” Alec demanded to know, lifting his head an inch or so from my lap.

I chewed on it for a second. “They’re there,” I finally admitted. I felt Alec shudder against me.

The cabbie found a place to stash the car, a block away. The moment he came to a stop Alec was out of the cab, stalking back and forth on the sidewalk like a hunting wolf, his eyes riveted to the lit-up windows that he could only barely see through the trees. I leaned forward and dropped the second half of the fifty onto the front seat. “I figure you’ve earned it,” I said, trying not to sound as dull as I felt. “I hope to God you’ll still be here when we get back. Might be a tip in it for you.”

The other half of the fifty vanished into the cabbie’s pocket. “Buddy, for that kind of dough I’d wait here all night,” he said. “‘Less there’s shooting. I don’t like shooting.”

I tried to answer that. I really did. Instead I croaked out a laugh and crawled out of the cab, joining Alec on the sidewalk. “It’s your show,” I said. “So what’s the plan?” I regretted asking even before I was done.

He told me, in fifty words or less. I called him a filthy name. He said that he knew. Then the pleasantries were done and we headed up the hill, along the alley that ran past the back of his apartment building.

The fire-escape ladder was up, unsurprisingly, but Alec was a lightweight and it was easy for me to boost him up high enough to grab onto it. We’d picked the fire escape on the other side of the building, plenty far away from Alec’s apartment, but I couldn’t shake the idea that Collacrucio eyes were on me as I struggled up that wet metal ladder, that a Collacrucio gun was going to bark any second and knock me off the landing. Nothing happened, though, and after a moment, I followed Alec on up the stairs.

His public persona was long, long gone. Alec stalked up those stairs on feet like a cat’s, the graceful roll of his body putting me in mind not of dancers but of the very best bare-knuckle fighters. I labored up after him, trying to be quiet, trying not to slip on the wet iron underfoot, trying not to stare too openly, and failing at all three. I caught a fragment of Alec’s little smirk every time he rounded a corner ahead of me and doubled back. He knew I was watching. He didn’t care. He wanted me to. If it took making me sick with lust to get me to help him, he’d make me as sick as he could. By the time we stepped off onto the tarpaper roof I was breathing hard for a number of reasons.

If I’d sounded leadfooted climbing the fire escape, I sounded like a whole herd of buffalo crossing the roof. Alec led me over to the rooftop door and we huddled there in the rain while I sweet-talked the lock with the blade of a broken butter knife, six inches of celluloid, and a prayer. My skills were rusty–it had been a while–but the door was new and well-oiled and had been installed by the kind of people who thought that locks kept burglars out. I had it open in minutes.

I eased the door open, jaw gritted against creaking hinges. I needn’t have bothered. The door swung open with only a breathless whine of complaint. Alec slipped through and lit on the stairs, trembling, like a butterfly momentarily at rest. I followed him and eased the door shut again, leaving the strip of celluloid wedged between the catch and the door frame.

Every little sound we made echoed along that dim, enclosed back stairway. Alec’s breath was fast and shallow, flung around by the walls as he darted down the stairs ahead of me. I went down a single tread at a time, slower than molasses.

I stepped out at the fifth floor and took a look around, even though I knew there’d be nothing to see. I did it at the fourth floor, too. By the time we hit the third floor my heart was pounding in my ears and Alec’s little gasping breaths had taken on a strange, fluting edge. I touched his chest, stilling him. I caught my heart in both hands. I opened the door and walked out like I had every right to be there, turning down the hallway away from Alec’s apartment, just in case.

I needn’t have bothered. The hallway was empty, free of prying eyes. I went back to the stairs. “Coast is clear,” I breathed, shutting the door behind me.

“Good,” Alec purred, his voice as thick as tar. The twin pistols were tucked in the front of his waistband, gleaming in the dim light that seeped in under the door. Alec dipped both hands into my coat and withdrew the shotgun with tender, loving care, cradling it in his cupped hands like a saner man might hold an infant, or a cocktail shaker. I shuddered with the force of the memory that those creeping, stealing hands summoned.

I touched Alec’s lower lip. It was soft and damp, slightly indented in the middle, an unexpected cupid’s bow in an unexpected face. Above it his eyes glittered with what I could not help but recognize as a killing lust. I looked at him for a while, trying to think of something to say, then I gave up. “Five minutes,” I said hoarsely, checking my watch.

“Five minutes,” Alec agreed, after a glance at his own. He didn’t bother to kiss me goodbye before I went on down the stairs. He had other things on his mind.

I hurried down the stairs to the basement, hoping that I wouldn’t run into a janitor or worse. I was in luck. The basement was empty. In one corner a furnace roared, throwing bars of fire across the floor. The walls were a mess of pipes and wires strung along ceramic knobs, and it was by following those to the end that I found the fuse boxes. I eased off the metal cover marked ‘3’, revealing the long row of glass tubes underneath. I leaned against the wall, drew my gun, looked at my watch, and waited. A minute and a half, more or less, until the end of the world. Ninety seconds had never been so long. The second hand on my watch crawled muddily along. I shook it and checked again. Still crawling. I swallowed my heart and waited.

The last ten seconds jumped past me in a single heartbeat. I reversed my grip on my gun, catching it by the barrel and lifting it over my head–a shotgun thundered from somewhere upstairs even as I brought the wooden grip down on the fuse box. Glass blew out everywhere, as loud as the shotgun’s second barrel firing. I hammered at the fuse box twice more, just to be safe, then ran for the stairs.

I could hear the pop-popping of smaller-caliber weapons by the time I hit the second floor. Doors were slamming open all over the building as its residents babbled in consternation. Somewhere a woman screamed, a piercing sound. “Call the police!” someone bellowed. Someone else answered him: “Murder, it’s murder!”

The third floor was as black as night and smelled like smoke from somewhere. I could sense people running by me in the blackness. I hugged the left-hand wall and I bucked the tide, heading towards the popping sounds. A woman ran into me in the darkness, shrieked in panic, clawed at my eyes, and then bolted past me. I felt bad for scaring her. “Police!” someone screamed behind me. “Police!

The door to Alec’s apartment gaped open. I blew through it before the rational part of my mind could notice what I was doing. I had just enough time to be grateful for the tiny amount of light that filtered in through the windows before I tripped over something on the floor. It was heavy, soft, and warm, and when my hand came down on the carpet beside it, it came away sticky.

I scrambled through that dark apartment on my hands and knees, choking on the thick burnt-gunpowder smell, expecting a bullet at any moment. My scrabbling hands lit on two more of those warm, wet things. One of them heaved a foul breath in my face and then expired with a horrible rattle. I hadn’t heard a shot in a few seconds, but I couldn’t tell if anyone had survived to be declared the winner–a dim light flared at the back of the apartment, and I drew my gun and made for it.

Alec was standing just inside the cave of his bathroom, a guttering lighter in one hand and one of the nickel-plated pistols in the other. His eyes were mad, staring, black things; his face and chest were bloody, although none of it seemed to be his own. His reflection in the mirror was the same, but somehow worse, twisted and backwards. The pistol menaced something at the far end of the bathroom. I edged close enough to see what it was.

The sprawled shape of Anthony Collacrucio sagged back against the bathtub, one arm thrown drunkenly over the toilet. His other hand was missing a few fingers, but he still clutched at his belly with those bloody stumps, trying to keep the ragged edges of his gut together. He was failing. He’d gone green, all right, and if he was past squirming, well, he was sweating and crying both. Collacrucio’s chest hitched and he said something too softly for me to hear, with blood standing bright on his lips–one foot juddered helplessly against the floor, and as if that were the sign that he’d been waiting for Alec Casey lifted his pistol one final inch and shot Anthony Collacrucio in the face.

The crack of the shot rang off the walls. Alec made a thick, soft, shuddering sound, then licked his lips. “Marcus,” he husked.

“Yeah,” I managed to say. I put an arm around his shoulders and steered him away, then went in search of a telephone.

Frank Blakeley blew into Alec’s apartment not five minutes after the police had arrived. He was disheveled and drawn, his fancy suit rumpled, but as soon as he stepped in, the world snapped to attention and fell into step around him. He hadn’t been quick enough to prevent the police from cuffing us both, but he was Frank enough to get those cuffs off us posthaste. He escorted Alec into the bedroom and firmly shut the door behind them. Me, I went to wash my hands.

The apartment was a shambles. The lights were still out–the police had locked everything down and wouldn’t let the janitor back into the building to fix them–but someone had come up with an old gas lamp from somewhere and its flickering light played off the half-destroyed walls. Buckshot had torn through plaster and upholstery alike, as well as through a fair amount of flesh. Anthony Collacrucio had started his evening here with four cronies. He’d ended it with none.

Looking at it now, it was easy enough to see how things had fallen out. Alec had opened the front door and led right off with the shotgun. It was my guess that he’d been charging forward even as the lights went out, and he’d loosed the second barrel at the height of the confusion, then tossed the shotgun away. It still lay in one corner. The rest of the carnage was some scarily accurate pistol-work and the sure knowledge that everyone in this apartment was his enemy. I guess Alec was right. I really hadn’t had the first God-damned idea of just how good a gunman he was. I had an idea now, though. I had a hell of an idea.

Half an hour after Frank closed himself up with Alec he opened the bedroom door again. “Immanuel, Sergeant,” he said, beckoning to us both.

The bedroom was, in contrast, nearly untouched. Unfamiliar suitcases sat along one wall, and the bed had been slept in and sloppily remade, but the fog of bloody death that filled the rest of the apartment was only a smell in here. Alec sat on the edge of the bed, huddled up and fidgeting. Someone had made a sloppy go of cleaning him up with a handkerchief, smearing blood everywhere. His hands were folded tightly in his lap and he was radiating a miasma of sex and desperation and lip-smacking horror. The gun-lust had him, and bad.

Every one of us in the room could feel it, battering against us, but I was probably the only one there who knew it for what it was. The police sergeant kept shifting uncomfortably and looking down at his feet. As for Frank–I doubt Frank knew just why he was so compelled to keep putting his hands on Alec. Every minute in that bedroom was punctuated by Frank putting an arm around Alec’s shoulders, or patting his hand, or squeezing his leg. For all that Alec reacted, Frank might as well have been on the moon.

Frank led Alec through his story. Alec told it with all the emotion of a dead trout. It was a pretty piece of fiction, just close enough to the truth to sound real. Whatever flaws it had, Frank’s presence–Frank’s tacit approval–papered them over nicely enough. Frank’s eyes were flat and assessing, though, and I guessed that the story he’d gotten had been a lot closer to the truth. How close, I wondered. How close?

“My secretary will be more than happy to make a full statement as soon as he’s recovered enough to do so,” Frank said, once Alec had tapered off into silence. “For right now, however, I think it would be best if Alec got some rest while we deal with things here. Immanuel, take him to a hotel, won’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” I said, coming upright.

The police sergeant protested a little, for form’s sake, and then gave in and went out to supervise things. Frank hooked one pudgy hand under Alec’s arm and brought Alec sleep-walking to his feet, then guided Alec to a place where I could catch his other arm. “Anything else, Immanuel?”

“Better send someone you trust down to look at the fuse box,” I said. Frank nodded tightly. I nodded back and steered Alec out of the room, then out of the apartment, then out of the building.

The rain hit us both like a thousand tiny fists and Alec lifted his face into it, letting the raindrops wash his blood-smeared face halfway clean. Neither Frank nor I had thought to stop long enough to let Alec change clothes, or grab a coat. All we’d thought of was getting Alec out of there as quickly as we could. Still, I didn’t have to be an ass about it. I shrugged out of my coat and wrapped it around Alec’s shoulders, then steered him towards the place where we’d left the cab.

The cabbie woke with a snort when I rapped on the window, then twisted around to unlock the back door. His eyes went wide at Alec’s condition, and wider at the shotgun rig I was still wearing. “I know,” I said, before he could say anything. I fumbled out a second fifty and dropped it onto the front seat. “Just take us back to the hotel. If you’ve got a problem, take it up with the DA.”

“Right,” said the cabbie. The taxi started with a choking wheeze.

Alec didn’t say a word during the trip. He’d gone somewhere beyond fidgeting now, into a deep stillness that I didn’t like much. His hands were folded neatly in his lap and his eyes were fixed on the back of the front seat. I ducked in front of them once, to see what would happen. I got the impression of two holes burnt in a bedsheet before I couldn’t stand it any more.

My borrowed suit was sodden and uncomfortable. It had never been a good-looking suit, and on me it looked worse, and the drenching hadn’t helped it at all. Still, as bad as I looked, I looked like a million bucks next to Alec, huddled in the ruins of his handsome clothes and swaddled in my battered old trenchcoat.

Alec followed me out of the cab docilely enough. The cabbie barely waited for me to shut the door before pulling away, swamping my legs in ditchwater to the knee. “Yeah, thanks for nothing,” I called after him, and then I led Alec around to the back door and let us in. We both left puddles behind. His were tinged ever so slightly with red.

The hotel room was just as we’d left it: terrible. It might have been a flea-trap, but our bags were right where we’d left them, and we had something that might pass for a bathroom, if you squinted. I locked the door behind us, turned around, and winced. “Damn, kid,” I said.

Alec’s apartment had been dark, and the night had been worse, but in here there was enough yellowish light to show me the blood that covered Alec from head to toe. He couldn’t stay like that, and he wasn’t in any condition to help himself. I plucked his battered hat off his head and put it on the chipped dresser, then lifted his bloodied glasses off his nose. He dipped his head slightly to help me get them off. I took it as a good sign.

I peeled my trenchcoat off him. I was immediately sorry: without the trenchcoat to hide it, the extent of the damage was clear. Once his sharp suit had been navy blue, his handkerchief and tie yellow, and his shirt a buff so pale as to be almost white–now they were all the same shade of dull reddish-brown, mottled with black.

Confronted with this specter of ruin I did what I had to: I spread my ruined trenchcoat on the thin hotel carpet and picked him out of his suit one piece at a time. The handkerchief was the first to go, falling onto the trenchcoat. Then the tie. Then the jacket. By the time I started picking at the buttons of his vest he was making vague motions towards helping me, fumbling at his clothes with the slow hands of a man stuck in a dream. I pushed them aside when they got in the way and stripped him straight down, the heap of bloodied clothes growing on my coat.

Together–sort of–we got him down to his shorts. It wasn’t much of an improvement. Reddish lacework patterns were splotched over his too-pale skin, like someone had slapped him around with a bloody sponge. He needed to get cleaned up and I was pretty sure I’d have to put him into the shower myself. I was debating the best way to do that when his hands drifted across the gap between us and picked up my tie, gently sliding it free of its knot.

The expression on my face must have been priceless. “Kid,” I said.

“Don’t call me that,” Alec said, his voice dreamy and faraway. He smoothed out my wet tie between two fingers and then laid it over the back of the chair.

“You need to get into the shower,” I said, trying not to croak.

He picked open the buttons of my jacket, one at a time, his fingers tracing easy little paths down my chest. I caught his hands before they could get anywhere near my gun in its holster. For a moment, despite everything, despite the blood, I wished that I hadn’t had to stop him. “You’re soaked,” Alec noted. The faintest hint of a sneer flashed across his face. “With that suit, it’s almost an improvement.”

“Shower,” I said, nodding at the door.

He looked down at himself. He looked at the heap of bloody fabric on my trenchcoat. His eyes came a little further into the present. “What–”

“Don’t,” I said. I threw one wet arm around his shoulders and hustled him past the pile of clothing, more or less shoving him into the bath. His little bare feet pattered across the worn white tiles until he caught himself against the sink. “Get in the shower,” I said. I plucked the valise from its spot and leaned in to put it on the counter. “There. Clean up, get dressed.” He opened his mouth to say something and I closed the door in his face.

The shower went on eventually, which I took as a good sign. I peeled myself out of the clammy suit, dropping it onto the trenchcoat with Alec’s stuff. My shorts were damp but they’d have to do, because my own suit was still in Alec’s valise. I waffled about my gun for a while, then stuck it into the chipped dresser along with the empty shotgun rig.

Shivering, I wrapped myself in the threadbare blanket off the bed. I pulled up the edges of the trenchcoat and wrapped them over the pile of bloody clothing, hiding the mess from sight but producing something that looked a little too much like a fat, dismembered torso for my comfort–I stuffed the bundle into the closet rather than keep looking at it. I was still shivering. Once Alec was done in there I’d go throw myself under the hot water. For now, I just had to keep moving.

I kept moving. I’d damned near worn a path in the carpet by the time the water went off again, but I’d forced a little heat back into my extremities. I sat down on the foot of the bed and waited for him to come out.

The bathroom door clicked open, spilling dirty yellow light across the threadbare carpet. The light went off. “Let me get in there,” I started to say.

Alec came around the corner like a runaway freight train. I barely had a moment to notice the crazy light in his eyes before he piled into me shoulder-first, knocking me back onto that sagging mattress and landing on top of me. He was wearing a towel around his waist and then he wasn’t. He was a healthy pink all over, so hot from the shower that I could feel it against my skin, giving off steam like a radiator. He’d come back from wherever it was he had gone, all right.

I grabbed his arms and went half-hard in the same desperate moment. I opened my mouth to protest and then I dragged him down instead. All I could think was that we were both still alive, and that he wanted me–or wanted something from me–more than anyone had ever wanted me before, and some of that same old bugbear that always dogged my thoughts: that I should take it wherever and however it came, because it might never come for me again. He was a shuddering wiry thing atop me, his mouth gulping at mine for a spartan moment.

He ripped himself away from me a second later, groaning like it hurt, and propped himself up on his hands so that he could look down at me. He had something caught in the fingers of his left hand, but I couldn’t see what it was, not from here. “I’m gonna do you a favor,” Alec gritted out.

I’d gotten that impression. “Yeah?”

“I’m gonna make you forget that this Tommy guy ever existed,” Alec said, baring his teeth in an exultant grin. The madness in his eyes made him look carnivorous. “I’m gonna make you pay for calling me by that bastard’s name.”

Tommy’s name was a dash of cold water to the face. It put a little distance between us, a distance filled with Tommy. Alec dropped back on top of me and helped me fumble off my shorts, and still, there I was, feeling Tommy’s phantom hands on me. I didn’t stop thinking about Tommy even when Alec gave me a good long stroke, slick with a thick layer of melting stuff, nor when he scrambled up on top of me–

Tommy always called it ‘the Greek’. Tommy sneered at men who liked it like that, even as he let them do it to him. It never came up between us. It hadn’t had time. Truth be told, I hadn’t cared, because it sounded like a disgusting business. Truth be told, it was–my stomach still rolls when I think about some of the awful wet sounds that Alec and I made as he forced himself down on me–but as long as I’m telling the truth, when I get right down to it, some nasty little part of me has always craved the gutter.

The Greek was everything I’d expected and a few things I hadn’t. I’d expected it to be nasty. It was. I’d never thought it was something that could be done to me, though, and there I was wrong: Alec was in charge, on top of me, pinning me to the bed. I didn’t have a thing to do with it. It was all I could do to grab those narrow hips in both hands. He had me in a vise grip. I could barely breathe. Alec leaned in, the pupils of his eyes dilating to swallow the color. His sneer was vicious. “What’s my name?” he asked. His voice was thick.

“Alec,” I said, thinking of Tommy. I didn’t want to think about Tommy. I needed to make Alec stop throwing Tommy in my face, so I dragged him down into a kiss that he didn’t want.

Alec fought me like a wildcat, clawing my hands away from his face. “Knock it off,” he spat. “You think I give a damn about you?”

I knew that he didn’t and I opened my mouth to say so, but he moved then and whatever I’d meant to say came out as a groan instead.

Even now I don’t remember much about the first few minutes. I know I was making some noise, and I remember that every little thing hit me like a shot to the chops, but it was too much to take in. I do remember that I was nowhere near done when Alec stiffened and got what he’d been after all along, leaving my stomach slick with come that wasn’t my own. He gasped out something like a laugh and swayed forward, catching himself on his free hand, still playing with himself with the other. “What’s my name?” he asked.

All I wanted was for him to move again. “Alec,” I wheezed, after a moment of groping for it.

“So far, so good,” he said. He did move again, then, far too slow for my tastes, but at least it was something.

He kept that up until my brain went to mush. He gentled himself down and back up, using me like a prop, making himself hard again. It had nothing to do with the gun-lust, this time. His eyes said as much, clear and cynical. Alec said he was doing me a favor, but this was about revenge, an old and complicated revenge, and we both knew that. Finally we were both gasping again. “Do it,” he ordered, his voice a hoarse and broken thing, and I grabbed his hips in both hands and bucked up and off the bed, as we used each other in ways that nature never intended. To hell with nature, anyway.

He was beautiful. He was disgusting. Every movement he made was as graceful as a dancer’s, bent towards these filthy ends. His cheeks flushed and his mouth fell open and his eyes fluttered shut, a face like a fallen angel’s, and he favored me with a stream of wheezing grunts and language as foul as any sailor’s. I wasn’t any better, but I hadn’t been anything special to start with. Alec, though: it was like watching someone throw a drunken debutante in the mud while she shrieked with laughter. It was something that no one ought to see, but I couldn’t take my eyes off it as he dragged us both down towards something indescribable.

illustrated by neverendum

I couldn’t let it end like that. In the end I couldn’t let this be just about hate and payback and revenge. He deserved better. He’d never had a single God-damned break in his whole life and he deserved something. Somehow I got my wits about me and I dragged him down again, breaking into his hard-won rhythm to crush my lips to his. He screamed against my mouth in frustration and punched me in the ribs with the hand that wasn’t tight around his cock. It didn’t hurt, so I didn’t let it stop me, and eventually he sobbed and gave in to the kiss. It was O.K. then. I put my hands back on his hips and let him take us both where he wanted to go.

The world fell on its ear when I came. For a minute or so I didn’t know a God-damned thing, and in that minute I missed Alec’s repeat performance. I came to in the aftermath, with Alec still atop me, his head bowed. I could barely see his eyes underneath his lowered brows, but the twin glints told me that he was watching me. I didn’t know what to say. Neither did he. He huffed out a breath, looked away, and pulled himself up and off me.

The loss of pressure made me wheeze like a leaky kettle. Alec picked up his discarded towel and did what he had to to make us both presentable again. I groped around by my ear and came up with the tube he’d been playing with earlier. Hair pomade. It made me chuckle, although I was too tired for laughter. “Little dab’ll do ya,” I croaked.

Alec just snorted and slapped my chest. “What’s my name?” he asked, as an afterthought.

“Alec,” I said. I didn’t think of Tommy at all.

“There.” Alec collapsed next to me on that terrible bed, closing his eyes. After a minute he put his hand on mine, like an apology.

Less than twenty-four hours later, Alec and I were in the King Street station, waiting for the train to San Francisco.

We’d spent a good part of the day closed up in Frank Blakeley’s office, getting some things straight and some things wrong. I didn’t enjoy watching Alec twist Frank around his finger like a piece of string, but he was doing it for my sake as well as for his, so I kept my trap shut and put up with it. It was a long, dull afternoon, interspersed with moments of purest nerve on his part and on mine.

Long story short, I got my five hundred dollars back. Frank was never going to slap me on the back and congratulate me on a job well done, but he was willing to let bygones be bygones. Alec oversaw the reimbursement with his typical purse-mouthed demeanor, once again tightened up against the display of his real self. “Would you excuse us, Mr. Immanuel?” he said, once that was done. “I’d like to have a word with Frank in private.”

“Sure,” I said. I tucked my new envelope away and let myself out of the office, closing the door behind me.

It was Sunday, and the building echoed emptily around me. The elevators were unmanned–no monkey suits in evidence–so I took it on myself to go down to the echoing lobby. I found myself a place to sit and I waited.

It took Alec fifteen minutes to extricate himself and join me. He was as controlled as ever, but his face was a little flushed, and a faint smirk kept tugging at the corner of his mouth. I knew that he’d never tell me what went on behind Frank’s closed doors after I left. I knew that I didn’t want to know. “Mr. Immanuel,” he called, all fussy propriety. “Thank you for waiting.”

“No problem,” I said, standing up. “What did you need?”

“Come with me,” Alec said. I nodded, and we went.

Once we were out of the building, Alec’s stride lengthened. I sped up to match him. He hit three stores in rapid succession, picking up the things he’d called ahead to order. Once he had everything and a suitcase to put it in, we went straight to the station in the gathering dark.

We didn’t talk much. I don’t know that there was anything to be said. Alec seemed to be in a world of his own and for the most part I was glad to let him stay there.

It was only when the train was in the station, puffing, that Alec turned to me. “You could come with me,” he said, his voice abrupt.

It didn’t surprise me. “No,” I said. “I couldn’t.”

“I know,” he said, with a little twitch of a smile. “I’m only saying that I wouldn’t mind.” I didn’t have anything to say about that, so I shrugged. Alec’s expression didn’t change, but his gaze sharpened, his eyes going hot and black on my face. “You won’t forget,” he said.

“I won’t forget,” I said.

“About Tommy.”

“Tommy who?”

“Good.” Alec reached into his jacket and slipped out a train ticket in its yellow folder. I thought it was his until he handed it to me. “In case you change your mind,” he said.

I flicked open the folder. An open-ended fare from Seattle to San Francisco, good for any train between now and the end of forever. I knew I’d never use it. I tucked it into my jacket anyway. “I’ll keep it in mind.”

“No, you won’t,” Alec said. “But you should.”

“I should,” I agreed. “But I won’t. I might like it.”

“And we can’t have that.” Alec looked away. “Why do you stay here? It’s a terrible place.”

I smiled and looked down at the train platform. It was wet in a broad stripe from the passing of ten thousand rain-soaked shoes. “It is,” I agreed. “Terrible. But it’s home.”

“Home,” Alec said, baring his teeth in scorn. “It’s clinging to what’s familiar that’ll kill you some day.”

“Maybe.” I couldn’t explain it to him any better than that. It was something that shouldn’t have to be explained. If he didn’t get it, he never would. I touched my chest, just over my heart, and listened to the ticket shift in its folder. “Maybe I just don’t want to run away,” I said. He stiffened, preparing to take it the wrong way. I put a hand on his shoulder before he could. “You’ve already won, kid. You’re not running away. If I left… I would be. That’s the difference.”

Alec shrugged off my hand. “You’re splitting hairs.”

I knew I couldn’t explain that to him either, so we went quiet again. “Let me know if you come back for the trials,” I finally said, glancing at the train.

“I will,” he said. He was probably lying. I think we both knew that.

He didn’t say goodbye. He just picked up his suitcase and boarded the train. I watched him. He never looked back. He was as stiff as a wooden cigar-store Indian and he wore his sharp suit like armor; his controlled poise only slipped when he raced up the three steps into the train, his body unconsciously flowing like water. I touched the ticket in my pocket and watched as the train pulled out, thinking about how he’d looked when he left, and hoping that some day he found a way to be happy, if not to be himself–that was what I thought about Alec Casey, the last time I ever saw him.

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