The Last Place
The sun was bright as I walked across the street. It was always bright here, too bright for my taste. It made everything look faded, not tastefully like an old-time photograph, but wearily, like a shirt worn and washed too many times. My car didn't glint and shine in the sunlight like the cars in the ads - it just looked like it could stand a new paint job. I caught a glimpse of myself in the dirty glass of the swinging lobby door. I looked like I could stand a new paint job too.
I took the elevator upstairs and walked through the door with my name on it. Two of the letters were peeling off, but that was all right. I still knew who I was. The kid was sitting at his makeshift desk, feet up and the game on the radio. He didn't even look guilty when he saw me, just smiled and waved. He had all the blinds open again, and the sunlight pouring through the streaked windows made the two green chairs in the waiting room look glaringly empty. I strode over and yanked at the cord on one of the blinds until it snapped up and spun, spitting dust wildly.
"That's why I leave them open, Chris," the kid said.
"Timberlake," I said warningly.
The kid looked at me blankly for a second, then said, "I mean, Mr. Kirkpatrick."
He grinned widely as I grunted and retreated to the tiny inner office. Somehow he managed to look shiny and new despite the blinding light. Maybe the sun was kinder to natives, saving its wrath for transplants like me. Of course, the kid was a transplant too, but he had gotten here so young, I was always forgetting. Even so, he was still a Southerner, talked slow like one and thought slow too, I told him sometimes to see him scowl. Maybe that explained it. The sun recognized its own.
I flipped the little switch on the phone that let me talk to him. Justin - although I'd never tell him, the kid was right; it was impossible to think of him as Timberlake when I'd known him since he was fourteen - Justin didn't answer right away. I could hear him singing softly to himself in the outer office. He did that a lot. Sometimes I'd wait a while before calling him, or even flip the switch for no reason at all, just to hear him. Just to see how long he'd keep it up, I guess.
This time I had a question for him, so I had to cut the kid's serenade short. "Timberlake," I said, and got no answer. "Timberlake," I said again, and got the same. Finally I sighed and said, "Justin."
A bang and a rustle and, "Yeah, what?"
"I don't suppose there were any messages this morning."
"Um, yeah, actually. There was one," and I would have been insulted by the surprise in his voice if I could have kept it out of my own.
"You want to bring it in, or should I try to guess what it is?"
"No, I'll bring it in," the kid said cheerily. A minute later he offered me a dazzling smile and a less dazzling piece of - well, it was paper, I suppose.
"What did you do to this?" I said, letting the tattered scrap drop to the desk. "What is this, anyway?"
"It's part of a napkin," he said, poking at it with one finger. "I sort of spilled on it. Sorry."
"You spilled on it?"
"Well, I was eating my lunch, and I didn't expect the phone to ring."
"Of course not. This is, after all, a place of business. Why would you expect the phone to ring?"
"It usually doesn't," he said.
He had a point.
"You have a point," I said grudgingly. He smiled again and turned to leave. "Wait," I said, and he turned back. "Do you know what this says?"
He came closer and leaned over the desk. "It's hard to read. It's kind of soggy," he said, squinting as if he had nothing to do with the napkin's sorry state.
"Well, do your best."
He peered at it, then said triumphantly, "He's coming at three!"
"It says that?" I pulled the message toward me.
"No," Justin said. "But he said it on the phone, and I just remembered."
"Terrific, kid. Can you remember any other little details, like maybe who it is who's coming at three?"
He scrunched his face up, thinking hard. "No," he said.
"Oh, well. It'll just be a nice surprise for us this afternoon, won't it?"
"Sure," he said happily and trotted back to his desk, leaving my door open. I started to call him back, then sighed and got up and closed it myself. The kid was big enough these days to be handy to have around when I dealt with shady characters, who were pretty common in my line of work. He cleaned up well enough to bring along when I visited rich clients, who were a whole lot rarer, but hope springs eternal. It was useless, however, to try to teach him any kind of office practice. He listened carefully when I issued new edicts on professional behavior, nodded gravely, and I could see my words rolling right off his back when he turned to go.
He was smart, though, and biddable, and most of all cheap. And it's not like I could've gotten rid of him if he'd been none of those things. I'd inherited him, or he'd inherited me. It was hard to tell which sometimes. His father had been - well, I'd say like a father to me, but that's not saying much, considering the string of men who'd claimed to be as much during my childhood. Randy was a friend to me, though, and there's not many who'd claim to be that. I'd promised to keep an eye on his wife and his boy if something happened to him. Something happened, all right, and the deliberate haze that something left me in took a couple of years to thin. When it did, I figured I could sleep all day and drink all night in a room in Orlando just as well as in a room anywhere else, and I could ease my conscience by making nice to the wife and tossing a ball to the kid once a month. It wasn't till I'd been there a year, drying out in the Florida sun, Lynn stuffing me half to death and Justin talking me almost the rest of the way there every Sunday, that I figured out maybe they weren't the only ones Randy wanted taken care of.
The phone on my desk buzzed and I looked at it suspiciously. Justin had never used the intercom before, preferring to yell through the door he conveniently left open for that purpose. There was another buzz, and I flipped the switch. "Your three o'clock is here," Justin said, just as if he did it for a living. "Shall I send him in?"
"Go ahead," I said. It was probably just another small-time loser who found my name in the phone directory, someone getting cheated on or on the hook for trying to cheat someone else. Still, I was curious to see the man who'd managed to cow Justin into courtesy.
The door opened, and I was surprised to see Justin lead in another kid not much older than he was. Then Justin moved aside, and I got a better look at the client's face. Whatever his age, this one was no kid.
"My name is Lance Bass," he said smoothly.
"I know your name, Mr. Bass. Or rather, I know your father's. Sit down."
"Thank you," he said. He sat smoothly. He was wearing crisp white slacks and a pale open-necked shirt, as if he were expecting to play a game of squash with me. His leather briefcase stood on the floor next to his chair. It probably cost more than everything in the office, including me. Even in the sickly light that struggled through the grime on my windows, he glowed. Another one the sun couldn't touch. Maybe it was the age. But I didn't think so. This one would look cool and expensive when he was eighty.
"Can I get you anything, sir?" Justin said, and I considered asking Bass to take up permanent residence in my office. Sir. I wasn't sure I'd ever heard that word come out of Justin's mouth.
"A cup of coffee, if it's not too much trouble," Bass said. The kid threw a panicked look my way. I had no idea where he was going to come up with a cup of coffee in this office, but he'd gotten himself into this.
"I'll take one of those too," I said, and the kid glared at me before he left.
Bass smiled smoothly and crossed his legs. He seemed in no hurry to talk, so I sat back and took a look at him while I waited. On closer inspection I could see he wasn't as cool as he'd looked at first. His manicured nails beat a hectic rhythm against his knee, and his pale shirt was starting to darken at the collar and beneath the arms. Whatever he wanted, I was willing to bet daddy didn't approve.
Maybe my face said a little more than I wanted, or maybe he just got tired of stalling. Bass said suddenly, "I suppose you're wondering why I'm here."
"I can make a pretty good guess."
"Perhaps you'd enlighten me," he said.
"You're in trouble, obviously. Bad trouble to bring you to a neighborhood like this. And it's something your father wouldn't approve of, or else you'd be in an office a lot nicer than this talking to a man a lot nicer than me."
"You seem to have a strange idea about my father's business, Mr. Kirkpatrick. I can assure you, he doesn't employ legions of private investigators. He's not in - that kind of business."
"I know the kind of business he's in. The kind where he employs legions of lawyers to do what he doesn't want to know is being done. Lawyers who look respectable, all polished and pressed, and who use their nice clean hands to dial up men just like me or a lot rougher. Nobody knows better than a lawyer how to keep himself spotless and still make sure the dirty work gets done. And the pricier the lawyer, the dirtier the work."
"Perhaps you were unaware," Bass said pleasantly, "that I am myself a lawyer."
"Perhaps I wasn't," I said just as pleasantly.
Bass laughed. He threw his head back and showed his glossy white teeth. They looked sharp.
Justin walked in then, carefully carrying two cups, and Bass stopped laughing. He looked Justin up and down slowly as the kid set one cup down on my desk. Justin handed him the other cup, and his fingers brushed against Bass'. Bass caught his eye and smiled. Justin's profile was turned to me, and I watched as his lashes stole over his cheek and his lips lifted in a slow curve. My cup rattled against the desk as I picked it up, and Justin glanced at me quickly and pulled his hand away. Coffee spilled over Bass' fingers, and he hissed.
"Be careful, Justin," I said sharply, and Justin looked down and bit his lip.
"Sorry," he said.
"That's all right," Bass said smoothly. "Justin, was it?"
"Yes," Justin said.
Bass lifted the cup to his lips and smiled. "Thank you, Justin," Bass said. He didn't stop looking at the kid.
"Yes, thank you, Justin," I said. Justin looked from Bass to me uncertainly. "That means leave." Justin flushed and went out quickly. He left the door slightly open behind him. I didn't call him back to close it.
Bass put his cup down on my desk distastefully. He looked at his hand, coffee still on his fingers, and then at his white pants. He rubbed his thumb against his fingertips. For a moment I saw Justin's fingers against his again, Justin's nails dingy and bitten to the quick. Bass' nails were smooth and shone gently, as if they'd been buffed. The sight of them sent a shock of disgust through me suddenly.
"That's a good-looking boy," Bass said thoughtfully. "A little rough around the edges, perhaps, but really quite good-looking."
"Yeah, well, we don't get much call for polish around here," I said.
"No," Bass said, laughing a little. "I suppose you don't, at that."
"We were talking about your - trouble," I said, as smoothly as I could over the wave of loathing rising in my throat.
"Ah, yes," Bass said. "You were going to tell me what my trouble was."
"It's pretty easy to guess. You don't seem like the type to risk going outside the law, and if you did, you'd need one of your respectable lawyer pals a lot more than me. So all that's left is a love affair gone wrong. Something secret, and probably a little tawdry too. Someone cheating on you, maybe, or trying to hold you up. Some incriminating photos, maybe? A lover who turned out to be not quite as devoted or as discreet as she'd made you believe. Something you're afraid of daddy finding out. So you're on your own to find someone to do your dirty work."
I was pleased to see a blush spreading over Bass' cheekbones like a burn. His hands closed into fists. "You really do have some of the most ridiculous ideas about my father. I'm not afraid of him. And there's no dirty work to be done. Whatever else one might say about my 'lover,'" he said the word as if it were some street obscenity he'd heard in passing but never been forced to use, "it's absurd to think of him blackmailing anyone."
I noted the pronoun. "If you're not afraid of your father, then why are you here? Even if he's the saint you say he is, couldn't he find someone a lot fancier to help his darling son? Wouldn't one of your society lawyers be able to clean things up a lot quicker and neater than me?"
Bass sighed. "My father is no saint, but he's a good man and he's been good to me. He wouldn't be angry with me, but he would be disappointed. I don't like to disappoint him. And while there's nothing dirty in the way you're implying, I still would rather my business be kept - not secret, but private. I don't want anyone to know. Anyone at all."
"Yet you're telling me."
"I meant, not anyone that -" He hesitated. "Not anyone who people know. I meant, people who know my father and me -"
"I know what you meant," I said. "So that's why you want me to take your case. Why would I want to take it? I know you said your father wouldn't be angry, but why should I risk it? Your father's a powerful man in this city."
Bass let his eyes wander around the office. "I hardly think you're in danger of losing my father's business. Mr. Kirkpatrick."
I bristled at his tone, but he raised one hand and said smoothly, "Don't you think we've insulted each other enough now? Let's get down to business. I'd like to deal with you, Mr. Kirkpatrick, and I think you'll find dealing with me a profitable venture. I'm prepared to pay you quite handsomely. And after all, my father's a powerful man now, but he won't live forever."
"None of us do," I said. I was tempted to throw him out. But I was curious to hear what was keeping this rich boy in my office. By his lights, he was almost begging for my help. Besides, I could have used the money.
"Quite," he said. "So, shall we say we're agreed?"
"Not just yet," I said. "You haven't told me what you want me to do."
"Oh, yes," he said. "Yes." His fists clenched again against his knees. "I have a friend," he said evenly. "He's - disappeared. I'd like you to find him."
"Disappeared? Like he's been kidnapped?"
"No," Bass said. "No, he's just. He's gone. He left very suddenly. I need - I would like to speak to him again, very much. I'd like you to make that happen."
"This friend. I suppose we could say he's a - special friend?" Bass nodded shortly. "Where did you meet him?"
"Is all this really necessary?"
"If you want me to find him, I need to know as much as possible about him. Where you met him, where he lived, who his friends were, where he might have gone if he was in trouble."
"He was in no trouble," Bass said stiffly. "He hadn't lived here very long, and he didn't really have any friends. A few colleagues, acquaintances from the place he used to live, but they weren't really - he hadn't been in contact with them for several months. He lived with me. As for where we met, I keep an office at my father's firm. He was a clerk there. I saw him several times and spoke to him. Despite appearances, we had many things in common, we - hit it off, I guess you'd say." He paused. "From your look, I assume you think it wasn't very smart of me, doing something like that at my father's company."
"I don't get paid to think about things like that," I said. "But if you're asking, I think there's a wise old saying that applies. It's a bit vulgar, but maybe you'll appreciate the peasant directness." He inclined his head. "Don't shit where you eat."
He jerked back, and I almost chuckled at having so visibly disturbed his smooth surface. He recovered quickly, though. He looked pointedly at the slightly open door, then smiled, showing me all his sharp teeth. "Yes," he said, "I can see where you'd have reason to know the truth of that statement."
I put my hands on my desk and leaned toward him. I was conscious of that open door too, although for a far different reason than the one he supposed. "You don't see a damn thing. You know nothing about me. You know nothing about that kid in there. And I think you'd better take your business elsewhere before I do something that you'll regret."
Bass blinked at me for a moment, then said, in a very different voice, "I am sorry, Mr. Kirkpatrick. Really. It's just, in my circle, one gets used to playing the game. I made an assumption I had no right to make, and I really do apologize. I meant no disrespect. To either of you."
I sat back slowly in my seat. "I am very sorry," he said again, "and if you'd still like me to leave I understand completely, and of course I will. But I do hope you'll accept my apology, and let us continue on together."
"I'll hear the rest of your story," I said. "I'm making no promises."
"Of course," he said. "That's more than fair. Let's see, the rest of my story. Well, as I said, my friend lived with me for quite a while. Almost a year. Of course, he had to leave his position. Given the circumstances, it wasn't really appropriate for him to stay."
"He didn't mind losing his job?"
"I'm sure he didn't. It wasn't really a very challenging position, or an interesting one. Clearly, given the circumstances, I was happy to take care of his expenses. And we got on quite well together. There were no problems, no arguments. We were really quite happy."
"What do you mean?"
"Well, you said your friend left suddenly. So everything couldn't have been quite as happy as all that, could it? What did you fight about?"
He smiled tightly. "I wasn't lying, Mr. Kirkpatrick. We didn't fight. I had been aware, recently, that something was making him a little - dissatisfied. He had strange notions sometimes, but they always passed. I assumed this would as well. Clearly I was mistaken."
"What was it - this strange notion?"
"I can't see why you'd need to know that."
"The more you can tell me, the better chance I have of finding him."
"I can assure you, what you're asking wouldn't help you at all." I started to say something, but he cut me off. "I'm not interested in discussing it," he said. "Is there anything else you need?"
"Oh, just a few little details that may help me out. You know, things like places he might have gone, what he looked like. Oh, and his name. That helps occasionally."
Bass smiled again. "Of course. How silly of me." He opened his briefcase and took out a large envelope. He put it on the corner of my desk. I didn't reach for it. "There's some information in there that might be of use to you. Not much, I'm afraid. One or two old letters I found, a few photos. They're out of date, unfortunately, but they should give you an idea, at least." He paused and looked out the window for a moment. Again his smile stretched over his lips and he said without looking at me, "His name is JC Chasez."
I didn't say anything. His smooth surface could only cover so much, and the bright burst of pain behind that name flared obscenely in the faded office, in the unforgiving sunlight. When he turned back toward me, I said quietly, "Any idea where he's gone, Mr. Bass?"
"Oh," he said. "Oh, yes." He opened the envelope on my desk and pulled out a piece of notepaper. A few times and locations were written on it in a sharp precise hand. "That's a copy I made of some information I found. That's where he is."
"Excuse me," I said, "but if he were planning to go, would he have left this out where you could find it? He may have been trying to throw you off the track."
"No, no, he's not - he wouldn't have thought of that. Besides," he met my eyes evenly, "this wasn't exactly left out. He didn't know I was - he wouldn't have thought I'd find it."
"I see," I said. I did. "If you're so confident he's there, I don't see what you need me for. Why not take a little trip, go out there and clear up this little misunderstanding yourself? It'd be easier if you saw him face to face, told him -"
"I can't," he said, and just for a second he looked his age. It made me like him more. All his brave talk, all his smooth sting, all of that was just a front for a lovesick kid, half afraid and half dying to see his friend again.
"Look," I said, "I'll do whatever you pay me to. But the guy might be a little easier to convince if you go up there. You know, make the effort, show him what you want."
"Have you ever been in business, Mr. Kirkpatrick?" His teeth flashed in what couldn't quite be called a smile, and he didn't look like a kid any more.
"On my good days, I like to think this place isn't a figment of my imagination."
"No," he said. "I mean, real business."
"No," I said. "Not like you mean."
"I'm in business, Mr. Kirkpatrick. I'm a professional. I'm quite good at it. I was brought up in it. And one of the things I learned at my father's knee was that in a negotiation, you always make the other party come to you. The man who knocks on the door is always in the weaker position. The man who opens it is the one with the power."
"I'm sure you're right. I don't know much about business. But this type of thing - it's not so much like a business negotiation, maybe. It's not so much about power that way."
"Everything is about power that way, Mr. Kirkpatrick. Except the things that are about money. And those are about power, too, aren't they?"
I was getting tired of playing his game. "What is it you want me to do, exactly? Go up there, tell this kid you want him back -"
"I don't want you to tell him anything," Bass said. "Find him and bring him back here. That's your job. I'll take care of the rest."
"What if he won't come back?"
"He'll come back."
"He went to a lot of trouble to get away from you, Mr. Bass. What makes you so sure he'll want to come back?"
He looked at his hands, still clenched tightly and resting on his legs. "There is another matter. I keep - kept - rather a large sum of money in a safe at my house. Foolish of me, I know. The key was kept in my nightstand. Only two people besides myself have access. One is my houseman, who's been with my family since I was a child. The other. Well. The night before he left, the money was there. The day after, it was gone."
"He stole it to bankroll his little trip."
"It certainly looks that way."
"Isn't this a police matter, then?"
"I'd rather not take it to the police, Mr. Kirkpatrick, although, of course, if it comes to that " He shrugged gracefully. "But I prefer to think of it as a misunderstanding. I'm sure you can make him realize that if he comes back, just to talk to me, I'm sure we can clear up all of our misunderstandings." He glanced down at his watch. "Now, I've taken up more than enough of your time, I'm sure. Is there anything else?"
"One or two things. How long has he been gone?"
"Two months today." I raised an eyebrow. "I know that's quite some time. I. Well, at first I was rather angry, I suppose, and I wanted to see if I could. I promised myself. And then I was convinced he'd come back. We had no real falling out, you see, and. Well. As you can see, he hasn't. It's been two months. Today."
Something about his words made me study him carefully. The pain in his eyes was real, and the tension in his body, held stiffly upright, but something was off. Despite its jagged rhythms, his little speech sounded practiced. Still, he was a proud man, and just coming to me exposed a weakness. I couldn't blame him for wanting to hide his hurt as much as he could.
"Can you think of any reason why he'd go to Kadoka, South Dakota?" I said.
A private smile played at the corners of his lips. "I assume he thought it was the last place anyone would look."
He stood up and I followed suit. He pulled a small envelope from his pocket and handed it to me. "I'm sure you'll find this will cover your fees. You'll take your expenses out of that as well. Any balance will be paid on your successful return. Will that be sufficient?"
"That's fine." There was more money in the envelope than I saw in a month.
"Then we're agreed." He shook my hand, and I noticed the small fresh cuts where his nails had bitten into his skin until it broke.
"Mr. Bass," I said, and he turned at the door. "Is it worth it?"
"What?" he said, his face perfectly arranged, and I would have believed he said it absently if not for the slight red stain left on my palm.
"All the expense, all the trouble. Is he worth it?"
Bass lifted his hand to his mouth and stared for a moment. He was looking at me, but he was seeing someone else entirely. He let his hand drop. There was a faint trace of blood on his lips.
"Oh, yes," he said, and left.
I sat back down and watched the door. The air in the room was still and smooth. I didn't like it, but I couldn't bring myself to disturb it.
It was a relief when the kid bounced in, sitting on the edge of my desk and knocking the coffee cups together. "I did pretty good, huh? I didn't recognize his name on the phone, I wasn't really listening but of course when he came in I knew, so I tried really hard. I was worried about the coffee thing, but the girl in the insurance place down the hall, Lisa, you know, the redhead, she let me borrow some. She was kind of surprised when I had to borrow the cups too, but she just laughed. I said I'd bring them back today. Don't let me forget, okay? It went good though, right? He was impressed?"
"Why are you trying to impress him?" I said sharply. "You don't need to kiss his ass."
Justin looked at me with hurt eyes. "I wasn't - I didn't. I did it for you. I wanted to make us look professional. So we'd get the job. Didn't we get it? Did he think I was -"
I held up a hand, and he shut up. "Yeah, we got it," I said. He smiled. "You did a good job, kid."
He grinned wider. "So what are we doing for him?"
"Go pack a bag and kiss your mother," I said. "We're going on a trip."
"Where?" he said, jumping up.
I said, "The last place you'd ever guess."
I spent the afternoon packing my own bag, digging up a map, making a few calls and going through the envelope Bass had left. If this guy was still in Kadoka, this was going to be the easiest money I'd ever made.
Lynn insisted on feeding us before the trip, and I spent the night on their couch so we'd get an early start. It was a long trip, but with two of us we could drive straight through. It wouldn't take more than two days. The train made for an easier trip, maybe, but if I was going to bring back a reluctant passenger, better to do it in a car. Fewer people to witness any fuss, fewer chances for him to slip away. Besides, I wasn't a big fan of trains. Someone else picked the route, someone else drove and delivered you there like a sack of beans. All you had to do was sit back and enjoy the ride. I wasn't much good at enjoying the ride.
This trip, though, I enjoyed more than I'd thought I would. I had planned to drive straight through not just to save time, but because I figured the less time Justin and I spent confined in a small enclosed space, the longer our friendship would last. But I'd misjudged the kid. He was a good traveler, quiet and content. He slid behind the wheel for the first shift without complaining, and just smiled when I warned him I was planning on sleeping. When I woke, I was shocked to find several hours had passed.
"Listen, kid, when I said I'd leave you by the side of the road if you talked my ear off, you knew I was kidding, right?"
He laughed, and I was relieved. I'd begun to worry he'd been struck dumb in the night. "I was just thinking," he said.
"You better start talking, then. I told your mama I wouldn't let you pick up any bad habits. No smoking, no swearing, no thinking."
"I promise I'll stop," he said, and smiled at me sunnily. He did start to talk then, telling stories about living with his mom as a kid, before I'd made my way down to Orlando. Funny stories, most of them, but even as I laughed I could hear the signs of strain hidden inside the words. It hadn't been easy on them either, those first years after.
When he started to stretch and yawn we swapped seats. He kept talking, though, his head tipped against the window, watching the trees and houses rushing by. His voice got lower and his finger traced not quite idly over the edge of the door as he told stories from even further back. His stories dwindled as night fell. He didn't have so many. Finally he grew silent and looked at me expectantly.
"Sorry, kiddo," I said, keeping my eyes on the road. "I don't have any pretty stories for you."
He started to say something, then stopped. In the evening stillness I could almost hear him thinking.
"They don't have to be pretty," he said at last. He kept his eyes on his lap. "I'm not a little kid anymore."
"I know," I said. "Justin. That's not why."
"Okay," he said. He closed his eyes and leaned his head against the window. We drove for a while in silence.
"I will tell you," I said. "One day."
He opened his eyes and looked at me. "Okay," he said.
I drove through the darkest part of the night. I didn't sleep so well anyway, and Justin was always bright and cheerful in the mornings. Around four I started blinking hard and swerving. Justin had been sound asleep for a couple hours. I pulled over onto the shoulder of the road, but once I turned the engine off I got restless. I still didn't trust myself to drive, so I got out of the car for a smoke.
I eased the door shut so as not to wake the kid. By my calculations we were roughly in the middle of nowhere. It was dark, much darker than my city eyes liked, and we hadn't passed another car in over an hour. I'd left the headlights on, but somehow the bright arc they cut only made the rest of the darkness more threatening, as if it were held at bay by the thinnest of chains. I knew I was being stupid. I was in more danger every day from my fellow man in Orlando than I was from any stray bear or wolf or platypus here. Still, I didn't like the countryside. Even in daylight I found it fairy-tale false, the rolling green hills, the patchwork fields, the picture perfect houses. I'd read my fairy tales. I knew what lurked in those lush corners.
In the car Justin stirred and mumbled. I'd left my window open, and the night was cool. He'd tucked his arms up inside his sleeves and crossed them over his chest. I'd tossed my coat over him earlier, and now he pulled his legs up, curling tightly beneath it. I sat on the hood of the car and watched the moon move slowly across the sky. I lit cigarette after cigarette against the darkness.
Justin rose with the sun, yawning and demanding his breakfast. After I got him fed, I tossed him the keys and stretched out in the back seat. When I woke, the air felt different somehow. A little cooler, sure, but clearer, too. Tighter. The sky seemed larger and closer to the ground. I knew we were getting close.
I made Justin pull over and I took the wheel. I wanted to drive us into town. Justin kicked his heels against the dashboard and opened the envelope Bass had given me. He slid the pictures out and studied them. I didn't need to look - I'd studied them enough myself. Chasez was handsome enough, I supposed, if you liked that type. He was tall, slender, dark hair brushed straight back and a large nose, his profile stark and sharply cut, like something you'd see on a coin. He looked a little cold, serious, though that could be the photo. His best features were his mouth and his eyes, his lips red and pretty enough to make all his words sound sweet and his eyes eager and warm enough to make you want to believe every word. He didn't look worth fifty dollars a day to me, but I wasn't complaining.
Justin followed the line of Chasez's profile with his finger. In the photo he was holding, Chasez had been caught with a faraway look in his eye, something wild and hungry in his face. I was willing to bet he hadn't been looking at my client.
"He doesn't," Justin said, and stopped.
"I know," I said. "Doesn't look like he could get a guy like Bass all worked up, does he?"
"No," Justin said. "I didn't mean that. I mean, I could see it." I looked at him. He flushed and said hurriedly, "Not that I see it, you know, personally. I don't. Of course I don't. I just mean, I can understand it. I guess."
I grinned. "You better be careful, kid. That's more trouble than you're looking for there. Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am." He looked at me blankly. "You never heard that poem?" He shook his head. "What are they teaching in the schools these days?"
He shrugged. "What does it mean?" he said. "Noli me -"
"Touch me not," I said.
"What does it mean?" he said again. "I mean, I know. But what's the poem about?"
"It's about a deer that this guy wants to hunt, but it keeps getting away from him. And he knows he should let it, because it doesn't belong to him, and he'll never get to keep it. And that's what's written on the deer's collar: Noli me tangere, for Caesar's I am, and wild for to hold, though I seem tame."
"It's a poem about a deer," the kid said flatly.
I laughed. "Well, that's what it's about, but it's not what it's really about, if you know what I mean." The kid eyed me skeptically. "The poet was in love with this woman, but the king was in love with her too. She was the deer. And he knew he shouldn't touch her, because she belonged to the king, and it'd mean a whole lot of trouble."
"A whole lot of trouble," I said. "The lady lost her pretty head, because the king thought she'd been playing around on him. And a lot of other people lost their heads too."
"Was she?" Justin said.
"Was she what?"
"Playing around on him? Did she do it?"
"It's hard to tell. It was a long time ago. But mostly people say no. She didn't do it."
"That's not fair," Justin said. I looked at him. "Yeah, yeah, yeah, I know life isn't fair, but that doesn't mean you still can't say it. And that really wasn't fair."
"Maybe not. But you know, she knew what she was getting into. Or she should have, at least. You want to play for high stakes, you better be prepared to lose."
Justin didn't say anything for a minute, just looked down at the picture in his lap. "What happened to him?" he said.
"The king? He died fat and old in his bed."
"No," Justin said. "The poet. Did he lose his head too?"
"No," I said. "Oddly enough. He took his own advice. Left her alone, got over her and even ended up working for the king. He outlived her. He died in his bed, too."
"Oh, you don't approve?"
"It just doesn't seem very - poetic."
"No," I said, "it doesn't. It was practical, though. And honorable."
"Huh," he said again.
"Practical I get. I don't see honorable, though."
"Why not? You think he should have mooned after her his whole life, or run away with her, gotten them both killed a lot sooner? That would have been more honorable? It would have made a prettier story, sure, but that's all."
"Well, he didn't have to do that, but he could have done -"
"What? What could he have done?"
"He did. He did his best not to want what he couldn't have. He took what he could get, and he did the work he was given to do, and he did it well. That's what most people do. It doesn't matter so much what the job is, what matters is that you give your word and you do it. Whether it's sweeping the street or writing poetry or running errands for the king. You do what you say you'll do, and you make the work honorable by doing it honorably."
Justin was quiet a minute, then said, "It just seems kind of. Small. Shabby."
"You ever take a look at the world, kid? They say it's a small world, and that's truer than they mean. It's small, and it's shabby, and there's nothing wrong with trying to live in it. The alternative's not so attractive." He started to say something, but I cut him off. "Shut up a while. We're almost there. I want to think about how I'm gonna do this."
He bit his lip and slid the pictures back into the envelope, turned to the window. He didn't say anything for a long time. When he did, he pointed at a weathered sign on the side of the road. "Kadoka," he said.
"Kadoka," I said. He smiled at me.
Kadoka lived up to its billing. It was the last place you'd ever look for anyone.
We cruised down the main drag, which was the only drag. It wouldn't take long to look for anyone in this place. Justin spotted a lodging sign hanging in front of one of the small houses that lined the street. The old woman who opened the door looked at us like we were crazy. I didn't blame her. She had one room and one bed. We didn't need a reservation.
Justin took our bags out of the car and I leaned against it and smoked. The light was still clear and crisp, and the sky still hovered close to the ground. It made me anxious. There was a brittle chill in the air, and the wind kicked around me restlessly, blowing first one way and then the other, as if it had broken apart against the rocky ground.
We walked down the street, passing a butcher shop, a post office, a deserted five and dime. In some small towns the shops all look the same, painted in matching colors and outfitted with tasteful signs, and the neatly dressed clerks smirk and shake their heads at any question that doesn't concern the price of their merchandise. In others, lone cans of carrots and cheap fountain pens gather dust on dingy shelves, and the dull-eyed tight-lipped youths behind the counters only grow sharp and talkative when you wave a bill or two under their noses. Kadoka didn't fit into either of those molds. The stores were clean and bright, but they didn't look alike. The only similarities they shared were the bells that jangled above each door to announce our arrival, and the curious eyes and guarded smiles of the shopkeepers those bells summoned. I let the kid loose on them while I hung back and kept an eye on the street.
We found what we were looking for coming out of the small grocery. He looked smaller than in his pictures, slighter, more fragile. His hair had grown out a little and curled delicately over his collar. The photo hadn't been very good. He didn't look serious or severe as he drifted across the road. We strolled behind him. He never looked back.
Chasez turned down a smaller street. He walked up a long winding driveway to a battered looking two-story house set far back on its lot. I grabbed Justin's arm as he started to follow him up to the door. "Wait," I said, and we watched as the door shut and the lights went on inside. "Go check the name on the bell," I said. He ran lightly up the drive. I stood next to the white wooden fence and looked down the street.
"Hey." A big dark-haired guy was standing at the foot of the driveway. Mid-twenties, dark eyes, olive skin. He looked like a city boy. Not the kind of guy you'd expect to find in Kadoka. Of course, between him, Chasez, me and the kid, we could have had a convention of guys you wouldn't think to find in Kadoka. "What are you doing here?"
"Minding my own business. You should try it sometime."
"What are you doing here?" the guy said again, less pleasantly this time. He reached into his pocket and flipped a badge at me. State trooper. Just my luck.
"That's one of the benefits of small town life, I guess. In the city, we don't get this kind of personal service from the cops. I thought I saw someone I was looking for."
"Who were you looking for?"
"The man who lives in this house."
"I live in this house."
I looked him over. "Then I was mistaken, I guess. You're not who I was looking for."
"I said, who were you looking for?"
"Like I said, I was looking for the man who lives in this house. Obviously I made a mistake."
The cop looked at me stolidly, then said reluctantly, "I live on the second floor."
"Then I guess I'm looking for the man who lives on the first."
"What do you want with him?"
"Why do you care?" He reached for his pocket again, and I said, "I saw the badge the first time. But as far as I know, it's no crime to knock on a man's door. I think we have a friend in common, your neighbor and I."
He watched me skeptically. He had the cop's trick of making you feel like everything you were saying was a lie. The effect was magnified when you were actually playing a little fast and loose with the truth.
"You don't look like a friend of C's," he said.
"I said friend of a friend. Why are you so interested anyway?"
"C's a friend of mine."
"A friend, huh?" I said. "You laying him?"
"That's none of your business," he said hotly. "And you watch your mouth when you talk about him."
"Yeah, I thought not."
His arm pulled back, and I just had time to brace for the blow. It never came. Instead the cop staggered a few steps, his hand clutching his jaw. Blood leaked from his lip. Justin shook out his hand. He'd thrown a beautiful punch, a strong clean roundhouse just the way they taught them at the Y. He had at least an inch on the cop, and while he was smaller built, he was lean and quick. The cop was slower and carried a few extra pounds around his waist. There was no doubt in my mind that he could take Justin apart in five minutes.
He didn't, not right away. He didn't have to. He wiped his mouth on his shirt and stared at Justin. The kid glared back. Without looking away Justin said to me, "You okay?"
"Congratulations, kid," I said. "You just clocked a cop."
The kid had guts, I'll say that for him. He blinked a few times and I saw him swallow hard, but he stood his ground. The cop stared at him, rubbing his jaw. His eyes seemed weary, as if he were envisioning all the paperwork he'd have to fill out after he beat Justin senseless.
The kid met that look evenly. He was breathing a little hard, and his hands were still clenched at his sides. The cop dropped his eyes, and Justin flushed and opened his hands quickly, running them up and down his thighs. "What's your name?" the cop said. His mouth worked carefully and his voice was a little thick.
Justin told him and the cop nodded and rubbed his jaw again. "He your friend?" he said, jerking his head toward me.
"Yes," Justin said.
The cop paused for another moment. "Go on, kid," he said finally. "Keep your friend here out of trouble."
Justin grinned suddenly, then bit it back. "Okay," he said.
"Don't let me hear you've been bothering. Anyone." The cop turned to go.
"That's it?" I said. Both Justin and the cop looked at me like I'd lost my mind. I had some sympathy for them. Still, my mouth kept moving. "That's all you're gonna do."
"What would you like me to do?" the cop said. His voice sounded cramped and tight. For the first time it didn't speak of farmland and wide open spaces, and there was a subtle menace in it that was nothing like a cop's blunt threat. There was something about it I found - not comforting, exactly. But familiar.
"Back where I come from, you hit a cop, you don't walk away." I heard the kid groan next to me. He was right, I knew. This was an unexpected piece of luck. I should have picked it up meekly and run away.
The thing about luck, though, was that it made me want to push it.
"I don't know where you come from." The cop's tone said that he had a few guesses but wouldn't mention them in polite company. "But here in Kadoka, we obey the law. I'm off duty, the kid didn't know I was a cop. He thought he was defending his friend. He made a mistake. He won't make it again, right, kid?" His eyes didn't move from me as Justin promised faithfully that he wouldn't.
"You're not even running us out of town. They do run a clean force here in Kadoka," I said.
"We obey the law," he said heavily. "Although, since you bring it up, when did you say you were leaving?"
"I didn't," I said.
He looked at me with his cop eyes that said he'd seen a thousand men like me, and they'd all come to bad ends. "Watch your step," he said. He looked at Justin. "Watch his step, kid."
When he'd left, Justin grabbed my arm and said, "What was that all about?"
"Nothing," I said, and yanked my arm away.
"That was really lucky, huh? I didn't know, when I hit him. We were lucky he was an honest cop."
I laughed. Something about the thin clear air made it sound brittle. "Yeah, honest is one word for it."
"What?" Justin said. "What's wrong? He didn't have to do that. He could've - you know what he could've done. It was good for us he was honest." I laughed again. "What, he should have beat me up, or run us in?"
"Yeah," I said. "Yeah, he should've." I was angry, and I didn't quite know why. Or rather, I knew why but I didn't want to.
"Why - I don't understand. Why would you want him to do that?"
"I didn't want him to do that. And sure, you're right, it worked out for us. That doesn't mean I don't see what he is."
"What is he?"
"He's a goddamn patsy."
"Why?" Justin said.
"He thinks the law's what men say up in big white buildings and write down on clean white sheets of paper."
"What is it?"
"It's what men do in the dark and whisper to empty rooms. It's power. I may not like it, but I understand it. I respect it. And so should he. He's too old to still believe in Santa Claus."
"Maybe he doesn't," Justin said. "Maybe he's just - it's like what you said before. He's doing his job honorably and so even if it doesn't start out an honorable job -"
"He's a goddamn patsy," I said harshly.
Justin chewed his lip for a moment, then said softly, "I still don't see. Why?"
I looked at him, his face still and solemn, head canted eagerly toward me. His eyes were wide, as wide and clear as the sky that hung over us. "You make me tired," I said, and turned away. "Both of you. The lot of you."
I walked past his protests, past the end of the road, out onto the empty plains. I kept walking until the wind bit into my bones and the sharp pain brought me back to myself. Back from myself. That bitter mouthy man who snapped at strangers and confused kindness with contempt was someone I thought I'd shed long ago. That man belonged with the bars and the bottles and a day I never thought about. I'd walked out of the bars and put down the bottles and I never thought about that day, but I couldn't leave that man behind. The constant commotion of the city, the press of people drove him back, deep inside me, but this hard empty country called to him, like to like.
I walked back to the room wondering how I'd explain things to Justin. I opened the door to see him wrapping a strip of white cotton awkwardly around his knuckles. When he looked up at me, I knew I wouldn't be able to explain, and that I wouldn't have to.
I unwrapped the makeshift bandage and looked at his hand. "C'mere," I said, and he followed me obediently to the window. I sat him on the sill and went to get soap and water. He hissed as I cleaned his swollen knuckles properly. As I wound the cotton loosely around his fingers again, he said, "I'm sorry."
"For what?" I said. I didn't look at him.
"For making you. Back there. For making you tired."
"That's okay, kiddo."
"No, I am. I mean, I was thinking about what you said. I don't want to be like that guy, that cop. I don't want to be a patsy. I want to be smart." He paused. "I want to be like you are."
I glanced at him quickly, then looked away. "You're fine as you are."
"I want you to stay the way you are."
Justin's lips parted, but he didn't answer. He tilted his head against the window and looked out over the wide gray yard. His hand was still resting in mine, a warm weight. His skin was smooth and his palm was turned up. I could see the faint blue veins and the lines that told his future. I couldn't read them.
He didn't turn away from the window. I closed my fingers lightly over his hand and said, "What, you waiting for me to kiss it better?" I ruffled his hair when he blushed and snatched his hand away.
We went back up to the gray house just before nightfall. I wasn't thrilled about our chances - the cop had probably put the word out. But the house looked the same as it had before. The lights were still on downstairs. I walked up the long winding path, Justin right at my heels. I knocked on the door.
"JC Chasez," I said when the door opened.
"Yes," he said. "I've been expecting you."
"I guess that cop talked to you."
"Joey? Yes," he said. "But I was expecting you before."
He opened the door wider and let us in. I looked around. One room took up most of the first floor, bright white walls stretching to a high ceiling crossed with dark beams. Windows taller than I was sliced long streaks of gray and green and brown into two of the walls. All of the walls were dotted with smaller squares of gray and green and brown - half finished paintings. There was nothing I could recognize on the canvases, just dark lines cutting through splashes of dull color.
"Would you like something to drink?" Chasez said. "A cup of tea?"
Justin said yes at the same time I said no. Chasez walked out of the room. I gave Justin a dirty look, but he was staring at the paintings. He moved up close to them and put a hand out toward the largest canvas. Before I could warn him not to touch it, Chasez came back. He stood next to Justin. The kid dropped his hand quickly to his side and said, "I wasn't going to - I wouldn't hurt it."
Chasez looked at him and smiled. "Go ahead," he said. "You can't hurt it." Justin glanced at him, eyes shadowed by his lashes, and then let his hand dart out to skim across the canvas. Chasez laughed, and Justin pulled his hand back and studied his fingers.
"Do you like it?" Chasez said.
"Is it yours?" Justin said. "I mean, did you paint it?"
"Do you like it?" Chasez said again. He smiled. Now that I had a good look at him, he really didn't look anything like his pictures. Those pictures had been of a kid, a boy, pressed and proper in his city suit. The man in front of me was just that, a man. He had on worn-looking khaki colored pants and a soft white shirt open at the neck. His hair curled loosely over his forehead and his collar. He fit this large open room, this wide open country, in a way that severe serious boy couldn't have. He fit in so completely that for a moment I wondered absurdly if he were the right man, even though I knew his name, even though he'd said he'd been waiting for me. Then he shifted, and I got a better look at his eyes. There was something sharp in his face as he watched the kid, something wild, but it wasn't a wildness this country had ever seen. It was a wildness that wasn't of nature but of men.
I knew I had the right man.
"Yes," Justin said, tilting his head judiciously, as if he were considering buying the painting. "Yes, I do."
"Good," Chasez said. "It's mine."
"I knew it was."
"Do you know what it is?"
"It's - it's here, isn't it? I mean, outside. Like the countryside. Here."
"Yes," Chasez said. "Yes, you're observant."
"But - it's not finished." Justin gestured vaguely at the unpainted half of the canvas. "Why didn't you finish it?"
"But - it's only half done. You didn't paint the other half. On all of these, you only painted half."
"I don't understand."
"I paint what I see."
Justin looked past the canvases, out the window, as if he expected to see the dark rocks and clear sky cut off into blankness. Chasez's lips lifted as he watched the kid, and I bristled and took a step forward. Then I caught sight of his eyes again, and stepped back.
"I paint what I see," Chasez said slowly. He wasn't smiling anymore. "The world around me. And I leave each one half blank as, well, as a reminder, I guess, of what the world around me is really like. It's easy to forget, out here, surrounded by all this. It's easy to forget what the rest of the world is like. And so I have my painting to remind me. On half of it, I paint what I see here. And on the other half, I put what I've seen in the rest of the world."
"But - there's nothing there."
Justin's forehead creased in thought. "I just. I don't understand," he said finally.
"Good," Chasez said softly. "Good." Justin looked back at him, and he smiled and put a light hand on Justin's shoulder. Justin smiled at him.
"I hate to break up this little art class," I said. They both looked back at me in surprise. I guess they had forgotten I was there. "Justin, I need you to go keep a lookout. Let me know if you see that cop coming back."
"It's cold out," Justin said.
"Joey won't bother us," Chasez said.
"Justin. Go." He gave me an injured look and left.
Chasez watched him leave. "He's a nice boy," he said.
"Yes, he is." I looked at him hard. "And I aim to see he stays that way."
He said smoothly, "I'm sure you do."
"You'll want to stay away from him, then. I was told to bring you back. Nothing was said about the condition you were to arrive in."
Chasez ran a hand through his hair. He looked tired suddenly. "Look, Mr. -"
"Kirkpatrick," I said.
"Mr. Kirkpatrick. I don't know what it is you've been told. But I don't have any designs on that boy there. I don't have any designs on anyone. I just want to be left alone. I don't want any trouble." I snorted. "Look, I don't know what it is you think I do, or am, but -"
"Oh, I have a pretty good idea what you do. What you are."
"Then you should know I'm no threat."
"Oh, I don't know about that," I said. "I've seen two men hung up on you so far. And both of them were bleeding."
"Some men want to bleed, Mr. Kirkpatrick," he said. His voice was cold. "They can't wait to."
"You really believe that?"
"I didn't, once. Lately I do."
"So you're just doing these guys a favor, making them bleed. Helping them get what they want. You're a real altruist, I see."
"You don't understand me, Mr. Kirkpatrick."
"I understand you a lot better than you think. If you really believe what you just said, I understand you a lot better than you understand yourself."
"Trust me, Mr. Kirkpatrick," he said. I'd say he was smiling, but only because I couldn't think of another word for it. It was like no smile I'd ever seen. "That wouldn't be hard."
The teakettle whistled, a high insistent sound. He kept watching me for a minute, then turned and went into the other room. The sound cut off. I put my hands in my pockets and stared at the empty half of a canvas.
"Do you like it?" Chasez said. His voice was soft again. I turned to see him leaning against the doorway, his brow furrowed, his lips pressed together. He stood straight and squared his shoulders when he saw me looking, as if I'd caught him indulging a private weakness.
I didn't answer. Chasez inclined his head toward a small table where he'd set out three teacups. "I made you a cup, in case you changed your mind. Shall I call your friend? The tea is ready."
"He can wait for it, or do without. And like I told you, I don't want any," I said, brusquely enough to give offense.
Chasez didn't take any. He shrugged delicately, then smiled at me. "Do you like the painting?" he said.
"I'm not much of an art lover," I said.
"Your friend seemed to be."
"Yeah, well, Justin and me, we're different."
Chasez's smile tightened. "Yes, I can see that."
"Not that different," I said, and he laughed - a short musical lilt. It didn't sound like he was laughing at me.
"You're a funny pair," he said. "Do you mind if I ask how you met?"
"The kid works for me," I said shortly. "Some of us have to work for a living."
"Yes," he said. He wasn't laughing anymore. "I do, too."
"Oh, right," I said. "If you want to call it that. Although I guess, from all the fuss, you must be good at your job."
Chasez looked at me for a moment, not angrily, as I'd expected. He just looked. Then he sat down gracefully, crossing his legs, pulling his body into a taut line. He rested his hands against each other, like a child praying, and raised them to his lips. Then he dropped his hands and folded them neatly in his lap.
"So," he said. His voice was smoother than it had been before, smoother and tighter. "How is Lance?"
"He wants you back," I said.
"Yes," Chasez said. I waited. He didn't say anything else.
"I'm here to take you back," I said.
Chasez looked down at his hands. Although his neck dipped gracefully, his back and shoulders didn't bend. He didn't seem to be avoiding my eyes, but simply to have found something of infinitely more interest in his own skin. I followed his gaze, just to see what the attraction was. His hands were folded prettily in his lap, perfectly still. His fingers were long and thin, curved lightly around each other. As I looked at them, I noticed his nails, cut short, blunt, daubed here and there with paint as dingy and drab as mud. His knuckles were chapped and bony. There were calluses on his index and middle fingers, from a paintbrush, I supposed. Chasez looked up and caught me staring. He shoved his hands into his pockets. "And if I don't want to go?"
"That doesn't really matter," I said. "I'm here to take you back. What you do once you're there is your business, but I agreed to do a job and I'm going to do it."
"And if I won't go with you?" he asked without much interest. I took a step toward him, and smiled down at him when he looked up.
"Joey - he'd help me if I said I didn't want to go. I'm sure he would."
"I'm sure he'd like to," I said. "But he's a state trooper - he's bound to uphold the law."
"What do you mean?" Now he was interested. "I'm not bound by law to go back to Lance."
"There was some money missing from Mr. Bass' house the day after you left," I said. "Maybe you don't know about that."
"I don't," he said. I looked at him. "I don't," he said again. He pulled his hands out of his pockets and twisted them in his lap. I shrugged. "I'm sure you don't believe me."
"It doesn't matter what I believe. What matters is that it looks pretty bad for you. However, Mr. Bass is sure that there's been some sort of misunderstanding. I guess there's been a lot of misunderstandings lately. This one here, and the misunderstanding you and Mr. Bass had before you - left. He just wants you to go on back, and the two of you can talk, and then you'll both understand each other."
"I understand Lance perfectly," he said. I watched his hands fold and unfold themselves over and over again. I looked up and watched his face, set as serenely as a mask. "You must despise me," he said suddenly, softly. His face didn't change. His hands twined anxiously in his lap.
"I don't think about you at all," I said, and he laughed, a short twist of sound as harsh as a cough, and his hands stilled for a moment. Then his fingers starting working again, and the laugh shrank into a smile as smooth and hard as bone.
"Thank you," he said gently. "For reminding me of my place in things."
He said it easily, but I had looked above that smile to his eyes, and something in them made me say, "I'm here to bring you back, that's all. I'm not here to despise you, or judge you, or think about you. I'm just doing my job."
"And you want to bring me back to do mine. Even if I don't want to go."
"Look, you had to know when you started. That's not the kind of job you just quit. That's not the kind of thing you just walk away from."
"It wasn't -" he said, then stopped. We both watched his hands move for a moment. Then he stood and walked toward the windows. He stood looking in front of him, as if he were looking out, but I could tell that he was studying one of his paintings. Without turning to me, he said quietly, "I was in love with him, when it started."
I didn't say anything. I was used to people confessing their secrets in corners like this. At first it had confused me. I didn't think I came off as particularly sympathetic or trustworthy. Then I thought that maybe people thought of me like a priest or a doctor, someone whose job it was to hear people's secrets and then deliver them to their fates. Now I knew it had nothing to do with me at all. I was just a bystander. These stories people told when they were caught up in the consequences, these alibis, they weren't for me to hear or believe or carry back to my clients. People only told them to convince themselves - of their innocence, of their goodness, of the unfairness of life. I usually shut up and let them talk to themselves. It didn't cost me anything.
"I thought I was in love with him, when it started," Chasez said. The change surprised me. I'd listened to stories like this so many times that I could have told it to him, but I'd never heard a revision like that before. People usually tried to make themselves look better, not worse. "I thought I was in love with him and I knew he wasn't in love with me. He wanted me, quite a bit, and I think he liked me, as much as you can like anyone you know almost nothing about, but he wasn't in love with me. I wished he was."
Chasez was quiet, and then he said again, almost in a whisper, "I wished he was."
"What happened?" I said into the hush of the room. He scrutinized his painting.
"I got my wish," he said. He turned to me and smiled his hard smooth smile. "When do we leave?"
"My car's back in town," I said. "We can leave tonight."
"I'll need a few days, to wrap things up here," Chasez said. When I started to protest, he said, "I know I'm not coming back."
"I don't know that," I said, but it sounded hollow to my ears. "And I don't have a few days to give you. I said we'd be back as soon as possible. I can give you until tomorrow morning."
He opened his mouth to argue, then stopped. That surprised me too. He ran a hand through his hair. "All right," he said.
I was suspicious of his sudden surrender. "Don't try to run," I said. "I'll be watching, and I'll find you, and I won't be happy when I do."
He looked at me sharply. "Are you ever happy?" he said.
"Sweetheart," I said, "this is my sunny side."
Chasez's smile faded. He ran a hand through his hair again. "Don't worry, Mr. Kirkpatrick," he said. "I've run as far as I can go."
He let me out and stood watching at the door. The kid was lounging against the front porch, the cop standing next to him, grinning at something Justin was saying, his smile lopsided and swollen. Apparently he'd forgotten how his jaw had gotten that way. Then the cop looked at me and stopped grinning. He hadn't forgotten.
"Justin," I said, and tossed him the keys. He caught them easily. "Go get the car and bring it here."
"We're leaving?" he said.
Chasez made a soft sound, but when I glanced back at him he didn't say anything.
"No," I said.
"Then why -"
"Do as I say," I said, and the kid took off reluctantly down the lawn.
"You're leaving?" the cop said.
"Tomorrow morning," I said. "But I'll be out here in the car tonight." I glanced behind me. "I have to keep an eye on some things."
"It's not necessary, really," Chasez said.
"Maybe not," I said. "But I'll be doing it anyway. Make sure to get some sleep. We'll be leaving bright and early."
"C?" the cop said, walking up the front steps. "You're leaving? You're leaving with him?"
"Joey," Chasez said, low, looking at the ground. "Joey, I'll explain later, okay?"
"He's leaving with me," I said.
"JC," the cop said, "look at me." He put a hand gently under Chasez's chin and lifted his face. "Are you in some kind of trouble? Do you need help?"
"Later," Chasez said, and went inside and shut the door.
The cop stood looking at the closed door for a moment. I turned and started to walk down the driveway. "Hey!" he yelled, and chased after me. I stopped. "Are you giving him trouble?"
"He's got plenty of trouble of his own," I said. "He doesn't need me to give him any."
"Leave him alone," he said.
"Or what? I haven't done anything illegal. What are you going to do? Beat me up, run me in? I thought you obeyed the law in Kadoka."
"Leave him alone," he said again. His voice was heavy with a simple belief and a simpler anger. "I'm not telling you as a cop, I'm just telling you. He never hurt anybody in his life."
"Do you know what he did before he got here?" The cop shook his head. "He lived with a rich man and stole his money to pay his way up here."
"No," the cop said. "No, he's not like that. He wouldn't do that."
"Go ahead. And then after he tells you his sob story, ask him why he's coming back with me so easily." I walked down to the street and leaned against the fence. I looked back up the driveway. The cop was still standing there. When he saw me looking, he turned and climbed the stairs to the second floor. He went inside. The lights didn't go on.
When Justin drove up in the car, I opened the driver's side door and motioned for him to get out. "Sorry, kid," I said. "You're going to have to walk back."
"Can't I stay with you?" he asked.
"No, we're leaving early tomorrow. I'm going to keep an eye on Chasez all night, but you should get a good night's sleep."
"What about you?" he said. "Do you want me to come back later? I could sleep a couple hours, then keep watch while you sleep."
"No," I said. "I'll do it myself."
"Why? I want to help."
"Did you hear me? I said go on back."
"I heard what you said." The kid poked his chin out defiantly. "But I want to help. I've done it before."
"Yeah, well, I don't want you to."
"I just - I just don't want you to." He crossed his arms and looked at me challengingly. Clearly I wasn't going to be able to get away with that this time. "Look, this guy, he's a real smooth operator. I don't want you out here alone with him."
Justin looked down and bit his lip. He didn't say anything for a minute. Then he looked up at me. "You don't trust me?" he said.
"No," I said. "No, no, Justin, no." I put my hand on his shoulder. He kept looking at me. "It's not you I don't trust."
"Well then - I mean, if you trust me, then why can't I? I mean, what can he do to me?"
I shut my eyes briefly. "Look, it's just - it'd make me feel better if you went back to the room. All right? It'd just make me feel better."
"Okay," he said slowly. He stepped back, and my hand slipped from his shoulder. "Okay."
"I trust you," I said. "Like nobody else. I do."
"Okay," he said. He smiled. "Okay. I'll go back."
"Thanks, kid," I said. "Justin. Thanks, Justin."
"You're welcome," he said. His smile sparked again, then he turned and walked down the street. I watched him leave. When he was out of sight, I got into the car and sat back, waiting for the night to come and go.
I watched the night sweep across the broken land, a thick relentless sheet of darkness. Night in the city is thin, cracked in a thousand places, warm amber lamplight seeping through its edges, neon cutting through it as neatly as a blade, men's rough voices and women's high laughter slicing it to tatters. In the country the night is unbroken, unbreakable. Even the soft rustle of wind, the quiet animal noises don't tear through the darkness but melt into it, as if the night itself is speaking with those sounds.
I lit a cigarette, a quick flare like a challenge that dwindled into a small dull bud of flame. Two cigarettes in and the door to Chasez's house swung open and then closed. I watched as he climbed the stairs to the second floor. I finished half a pack before he climbed back down. He didn't go back into his place. Instead, he walked down the long driveway to me.
The passenger door opened and Chasez slid gracefully inside and eased the door shut. He was wearing the same clothes from earlier, although they were considerably more rumpled, and a riot of loose curls hung over his collar and in his eyes. He was barefoot. Chasez reached for the pack of cigarettes on the dashboard and tapped one out. He licked his lips before he put it in his mouth. He leaned toward me and I lit it for him. He cupped a hand around the flame. The light flickered briefly over the high fine arch of his cheekbones. It didn't reach his eyes.
"Hello, Mr. Kirkpatrick," he said. His voice was slower than it had been before, coated in a rich dark languor that seemed to fill the car. I could taste it on my own lips, ripe and sweet.
"Did you kiss him goodbye?" I said sharply, spitting out the taste with the words. "Tell him a lot of pretty lies?"
"I don't tell lies in bed," he said.
"So you told him everything?"
"No," he said. "But that's not the same as lying."
"Oh," I said. "So that's how you get around it. It amounts to the same thing, in my book, but if it makes you feel better." I shrugged.
"And you tell your friend - you tell Justin everything?"
"That's different," I said shortly. I didn't like the shape of Justin's name in Chasez's mouth.
"If it makes you feel better," he said.
"I don't lie to him. But he's young yet. Some things, some ugliness, he doesn't need to know about yet. Time enough when he finds it himself."
"You think so?" Chasez looked over at me. "That's how my mother brought me up. Everything was sweet and pretty and good, and anything that wasn't was covered up or hustled away. The first time I saw something ugly, truly ugly, I thought it was the worst thing in the world. I thought I was the first person to see something like that. I thought there was something about me that brought that ugliness out." A gray trail of smoke snaked from his mouth. "I'm not sure I'm grateful to her for that."
"Maybe it was," I said.
"Maybe it was you. Maybe you were right. Maybe you brought that ugliness out." I watched him carefully. His face was serene, lips curled in the remains of a smile, but the hand that held his cigarette trembled slightly.
"Maybe," he said after a pause. His voice was even, but the tremor hadn't left his fingers. "But I know one thing. It wasn't the worst thing in the world. I've seen worse since." He leaned his head against the window and looked out at the darkness. "Besides," he said, his gaze flickering back to me, "he's not that young."
"I will tell him," I said. "One day."
"Sure," he said, and looked back out the window. "Sure."
"I will. That's the difference between me and you. One of many."
"You think?" he said.
"Yes," I said. "I'm nothing like you. I'm not a liar, and I'm not a thief."
Chasez sat up and looked over at me. "I'm not a thief," he said, "and I'm trying not to be a liar. That's why I left. I thought maybe if I were - somewhere else, I wouldn't have to lie anymore."
"No one has to lie."
"You really believe that?" he said.
"Yes," I said. "That's another difference between me and you."
"Maybe you're right," he said. "I hope you are. I don't like to lie. I tried not to, but I couldn't figure out how. I don't tell lies in bed, though. Not anymore. Not since I left."
"Why are you going back?" I asked. I'd been wondering all night.
"Couldn't you make me?"
"I could, but I'm not, am I?"
"No," he said. "No." He took another drag on his cigarette, then opened his mouth to let a shadow of smoke escape. "I'm going back because - I came here to see something, and I saw, and now I'm going."
"What did you see?"
"I thought when I came out here I could leave everything behind, change everything, and I did. Everything but one thing."
"You can change everything but yourself."
"I don't believe that," I said.
"I did. I changed myself."
"Yes," I said. "I did."
"You really believe that?"
"Yes," I said. "Because it's true."
He looked at me again, meeting my eyes. "I hope so," he said. "I hope it is."
I looked away, out into the night. There was nothing out there as dark and wild as his eyes. "What did you," I said. "Why were you trying to change?"
"I told myself, before, that it was just - I had bad luck, I thought. With Lance, with men, with everything. I wanted to see if I could get away from it, find some good luck for a change."
"You make your luck," he said. "I made my luck." His voice wasn't sweet anymore.
"I don't know what you mean," I said.
He was quiet a minute. "You know that man up there?"
"The cop, yeah."
"Yes. Joey. He's a good man. No, no, he is, really good. Really good, and he loves me, or he thinks he does."
"Well, I guess your luck has changed, then."
"No," he said. "I'm not in love with him. That's why I'm leaving."
"Why? Because you're afraid he'll find out?" Chasez shrugged carelessly. "Or because you're afraid you'll fall in love with him?"
He laughed, that same bitter twist. When it ended, his hard pale smile was in place. "No," he said. "Because I'm afraid I'll change him into the kind of man I'd fall in love with."
"You really think you could do that?"
"You can change anything, Mr. Kirkpatrick, but yourself. You just can't control what you change it into." His voice was tinged with a reckless desperation I recognized.
"See, that's your problem right there," I said. "You tell yourself that, and you just set yourself up. You can change yourself. It's not easy, but you can do it."
He looked me up and down carefully. "You really believe that," he said, and this time it wasn't a question. I nodded. He reached over and stubbed his cigarette out in the ashtray. "I'm tired," he said, and opened the door. "I'll see you in the morning."
I watched him melt into the night.
I was startled out of a daze by a rap on the windshield. "Morning," Justin said as he leaned into the car. I blinked helplessly against the bright morning light and his smile. "I brought you breakfast," he said, and handed me a paper bag and a cup of coffee. "And for him," he said. "I didn't know what he wanted, but I thought -"
"Thanks, kid," I said, and got out of the car. I tossed him the keys. "I'll be right back."
I walked up the drive and knocked on the door. Chasez answered it looking pale and worn out. I guessed he hadn't gotten much sleep either. "You ready?" I said.
"I'm packed," he said. He walked out carrying a small bag and one of his half-finished paintings. He headed for the car, holding his body straight and tight, taking brisk precise steps. He didn't lock the door behind him.
"Hey," I said, taking the bag from him. "What about the rest of your stuff?"
"Leave it," he said harshly, not looking at me. "I'm sure Lance will buy me what I need."
He got into the back seat and I shut the door behind him. The kid greeted him brightly, but Chasez just grunted and turned toward the window. Fatigue carved hard lines into his face. I could see the boy in Bass' photographs. Justin bit his lip and looked at me. "Rough night," I said. "Let's take off."
As we began to move, a door on the second floor opened and the cop tore down the stairs. "Wait!" he called, and Justin braked obediently and rolled down his window. I glanced over my shoulder. Chasez didn't move.
The cop stopped breathlessly next to the car. "Hey," he said, and then paused awkwardly. "I just wanted to say, have a good trip." He put a hand over the side of the car and looked at Justin. "Drive carefully, kid," he said. Then he looked into the back seat. "I'll see you when you get back, C," he said.
"Goodbye, Joey," Chasez said. The cop took a step back. Justin pulled out smoothly. I put an arm over the seat and looked back, past Chasez, and watched as the cop grew smaller and smaller. Just before we turned a corner, he put a hand up and waved. Something about that pathetic gesture made me angry. Not at him.
"Thought you didn't lie," I said to Chasez.
He looked at me. "Not in bed," he said. "I let him fuck me against the wall." Justin made a small sound in his throat and looked at me quickly. Chasez pulled his legs up against his chest and wrapped an arm around them tightly. He pressed his face into the seat.
There was a silence. Finally Justin said tentatively, "There's - if you want it. I brought you breakfast."
"Thanks, kid," Chasez said. He didn't look up.
We drove in silence for a long time. I watched the road unspool in front of us. I was so tired it was an actual pain, an ache in my joints, a bad taste in my mouth. I looked behind me. Chasez was still curled up into himself, his eyes closed. He looked like he'd be out for a while. I tipped my head back against the seat and went to sleep.
I woke up to sunlight and singing. Chasez was leaning over the seat, his arms hanging loosely between me and Justin. He was smiling. Justin was, too, both of them singing some song I recognized but couldn't remember the name of. They sounded good together.
Justin stopped suddenly. "Hey," he said, "did we wake you up? Sorry, Chris. We were trying to be -"
"No," I said. "I was about ready to wake up anyway."
"Oh," he said. "Well, good."
"Keep on singing, if you want. Don't let me stop you."
"No," Chasez said. He sat back. His smile shrank and hardened, and his face fell into the same lines as the morning, sharp and still as a cameo. "We were about done anyway." He squirmed and shrugged, then yawned delicately, his mouth barely open and hidden by his hand. "When do we stop for the night?"
"We're driving straight through," I said. "It's not that long, considering, and with two of us driving -"
"Oh, no," Chasez said. He crossed his arms over his chest. "I am not sleeping in this car tonight. I'm sure you're getting paid enough for us to stay somewhere."
I looked back at him and sighed. I was sure he was capable of making us all miserable if he didn't get his way. And even if we stopped overnight, we'd still make it back tomorrow. "All right," I said. "When it gets dark, we'll stop for the night."
I was as good as my word. When night fell, I pulled into the first motel I saw, the Pinehurst, a small two-story built around a courtyard. Chasez turned up his nose at it, but I'd slept in a lot worse in my day. I rented two rooms and gave one key to Justin. Chasez held out his hand. "I'll hold onto it," I said.
"You're going to lock me in?" he said. "What if I need something? What if there's a fire? I could die."
"I'm not locking you in," I said. "Or rather, I'm locking myself in with you. It's a double."
There was a silence.
"Oh," he said.
"Oh," the kid said.
"Look, I got you this far, I'm not going to let you out of my sight." I picked up his bag and headed for room 204. I let him in and locked the door behind him, then headed down to 210. The kid opened the door before I could knock.
"I thought you and me would -"
"I can't leave him alone," I said. "He might run."
"I don't think - he doesn't seem like the type," Justin said.
"He did it once already," I said. "I don't want to risk it."
"Okay," Justin said. He looked at the floor.
"Justin," I said, and waited till he looked at me. "It's not you I don't trust."
"I know," he said. "I know." He smiled at me. "I'll bring you breakfast in the morning."
"Good," I said. "Get some sleep. We're leaving early."
When I let myself back in the room Chasez was already in the bed closest to the window. He was curled up on his side with his eyes closed, but I could tell from his breathing that he wasn't asleep. I sat on the other bed, but I had slept for a long time that day, and I wasn't really tired. I picked up the key and left.
I stood out in the courtyard and smoked. From where I was standing I had a good view of the entrance and all the doors on our side of the building. No one came in or out. It was a quiet night. I paced restlessly. We had left the hard broken land of Dakota. The air here was thicker and the landscape softer, not yet the lush green country of my childhood, but closer, closer. It made me edgy. I leaned against the wall and watched the sky. Large clouds swarmed across the horizon, moving toward me slowly. I could see the rain falling a long way out. Thunder bellowed and lightning splintered the clouds. I smoked. By the time the rain reached me, it was a full-fledged storm. I threw my cigarette down and walked up the stairs. I was soaked when I made it to the dubious protection of the awning.
The rain was beating down, sharp and rapid as gunfire on the roof. I walked quickly, the relentless pounding conjuring up an answering rhythm in my veins. I paused outside Justin's room. I laid my hand flat against the door and listened. I could hear him inside, just barely above the sound of the rain, singing to himself as he moved around in the room. I lifted my hand up to knock, then thought better of it. He sounded like he was settling down for the night. I wouldn't disturb him. I listened for another moment, then moved on.
I knocked briefly on my own door to let Chasez know I was coming, then unlocked it. The glass doors to the balcony were wide open, dingy beige curtains blowing wildly in the wind. Rain swirled through the gaping doorway. Chasez's bed was empty.
I swore viciously. I hadn't thought he'd try to jump from the second floor. I guessed he was more desperate than I had thought. I ran to the balcony, letting the door swing shut behind me. The rain stung my skin and blinded me. I brought my hands up to my eyes. When I pulled them away, Chasez was standing in front of me.
He was soaked, too, from the rain, clothes plastered to his body. He was standing at the edge of the balcony, hands gripping the railing, his face turned up to the storm. Water poured over his face, over his closed eyes, into his open mouth. His teeth were bared.
I stood watching him, my breath coming quickly. A hard demanding rhythm still beat in my veins, although I didn't know why. I should have been relieved, to know he hadn't escaped, hadn't tried to jump from that height. To know he wasn't that desperate.
I said his name, and he turned to me slowly, shaking the rain from his hair. It was a futile gesture; the rain still beat down on us. He opened his eyes and looked at me. Water clung to his lashes and shimmered over his skin. He looked that desperate.
I said his name again, helplessly, and he looked at me. I didn't know what else to say. "You'll catch your death," I said finally, stupidly, the words drawn up from some well of uselessness hidden deep inside me.
His laugh twisted bitterly. "I'm not that lucky," he said, and turned back toward the storm. I took a step toward him. I didn't know why. The railing came up to his waist, and his fingers clutched it tightly. He wasn't going anywhere. Still I took another step toward him, then another. I put my hand out and touched his wrist. His skin was cold. He spun toward me and looked down at my hand. I dropped it to my side. He looked down at me, panting a little, the water streaking down his face. I caught my breath. He kissed me.
His lips were cold, cold, and they tasted of nothing, of almost nothing, just the bitter coppery tinge of rainwater. His mouth opened against mine, and still his lips were cold, his hands cold against my face, my throat, so cold that I was burning, burning, and I pushed him away and brushed the rain from my mouth. It was pointless. The rain kept beating down. I kissed him.
I kissed him, and the wind battered us, and we let it toss us around the room as recklessly as the rain blowing around us. We washed up in front of the bed. Chasez pulled away from me and smiled, not his hard pale smile but something else, something I'd never seen before, something tight and knowing and wanting, wanting so much that I couldn't bear to look at it, and I reached for him to cover it with my mouth. He pushed me away and stripped off his shirt, his pants. He fell back onto the bed. Water ran over his body like a river. There was nothing as dark and wild as his eyes.
"JC," I said, as much to let my voice anchor me as for any other reason, and he smiled at me again. I had to stop and swallow. My mouth was filled with rain. "This won't change anything," I said. "Tomorrow morning I'm still going to do my job. Nothing will change."
He looked at me and he wasn't smiling anymore. He studied me for a moment, as if he were weighing his words. "I want you," he said, and reached out and pulled me down onto the bed.
If I had thought he looked soft once, I was mistaken. His body was hard, as hard as mine, and his hands were rough as they moved over my body, sparking hard sharp splinters of pleasure from my skin. His body was hard under my mouth, bruising my lips, and when I raised my head I was shocked to see the dark marks I had left on him. He didn't seem like something that could be bruised, or broken. He pushed my head back down, and my teeth slid over his skin as I sank into him. "Chris," he said, hard sharp sound in my ears, and his fingers dug into my hips. He threw his head back hard against the pillow and shuddered. Rain trailed down his face like tears.
He turned away from me after. He didn't say a word but he rolled out from under my hand. I looked at the hard muscles moving beneath his white back, the sharp curve of his waist. He took the cigarette I offered without looking at me. He lit it himself. I lay on my back and watched the thin gray spirals of smoke melt into my own. I listened as his breath came slower and slower, then reached over and plucked the smoldering cigarette from his fingers. He didn't stir. I threw it out into the storm.
He turned away from me when he was awake, but he must have moved toward me as he slept, because I woke with his legs tangled in mine, his arm thrown across my chest. The bright sunlight hurt my eyes and my head was pounding. It took me a moment to realize that the pounding wasn't only in my head. I rolled over in time to see the doorknob turning. I remembered suddenly that I hadn't locked the door the night before, and why I should have. The door swung open.
"It's getting really late," Justin said. "I brought your breakfast -"
He stopped. His hands fell to his sides. A paper bag dropped to the floor with a dull thud. A doughnut rolled out of it, circling on the floor for an absurdly long time. There was something obscenely banal about the sight, the coffee splattered over his shoes, the paper bag crumpled on its side. I kept looking at it, though, because anything was better than his face, drained of color, like a painting too painful to be finished.
"Justin," I said, and he flinched at the sound, then turned and ran out. I sat up and grabbed my pants.
"What?" Chasez said, rolling toward the door. "What is it?" He blinked lazily and sat up, his skin glowing in the warm sunlight. He smiled at me.
I backhanded him, hard, and felt his lip split, felt his teeth against my knuckles. His head hit the wall and he blinked again, not lazily this time, and looked up at me. Blood trickled from the corner of his mouth. He didn't lift a hand to it. "I told you to stay away from him," I said.
"It's not me," he snarled at me. "It's not me he cares about -" and something in my face must have frightened him, because he slumped against the wall and put his hands in front of him. "I never said anything to him. I never touched him."
I left him cowering there and ran after Justin. I found him crossing the parking lot, the small canvas bag his mother had packed for him dragging behind him in the dirt. I called his name but he didn't answer. I caught up with him and grabbed his arm. He jerked away, but stopped walking and stood looking at the ground.
"Kid," I said, and stopped. I tried to think of something to say that was both comforting and true. "I didn't know that was going to happen."
He looked at me. He had gotten his color back; his face was blotched, dark red over his cheekbones, at the corner of his jaw. His lip was trembling and he bit it hard. Then he said, quietly, "You lied to me."
"No," I said. "No, I didn't."
"You said," he said, and bit his lip again. "You said, about him, all those things you said about not wanting me around him, and it was a lie. It was all a lie. You just wanted - you just wanted to -"
"No," I said. "No, I didn't, I didn't know, I swear -"
"You lied to me," he said again.
"I never did. Never."
"You did. You said -"
"I said it wasn't you I didn't trust," I said, and it was true, for all the good that did him. Or me.
He looked at me, then turned to walk away. "Kid," I said, "kid, come on, please, just come on back. Let's just - let's just go home, and we'll sort it all out there, I promise, just please -"
He turned on me. "You want me to just, just get in the car, with you, and with - like nothing happened?"
"Not like nothing happened, no, but -" He started walking away. "Where do you think you're going?"
"Nowhere with you," he said without looking back.
I ran in front of him and stopped him again. "Look, look, kid, maybe you're right." I took out my wallet and pulled out a handful of bills - the money Bass had given me. "Get on the train, go home, and once we're back we can talk all this over -"
"I don't want your money," he said.
"I know you don't have any," I said. "Go on, take it, get yourself home." He shook his head, and I reached out to shove it into his pocket. He knocked my hand away. The bills fluttered across the parking lot.
"I said I didn't want it," he said. He lifted his head defiantly.
"What're you going to do?" I said. "How do you think you're going to get home?" He shrugged, his chin still raised. He looked past me as if I were beneath his notice. "Gonna go out to the highway, see if anybody'll pick you up? I'm sure you won't have a problem. Of course, nothing comes free. You ready for that, kid? You ready to do whatever you have to do to pay for that ride? You think it's gonna be all clean and pretty? You think -"
"Cleaner than this!" he said, his arm swinging to include the money in the dirt, the motel, me. "Prettier than this!"
"You don't know what you're talking about," I said. "You've never seen anything dirty or ugly in your life."
He looked me over, his eyes suddenly hard. "I have now," he said.
I looked down, then looked back at him. "Look, kid," I said, more gently than before, "don't be stupid."
He took a quick step and loomed over me, breathing hard, his lips trembling and his fist pulled back. His eyes weren't hard anymore. I met his gaze evenly. It was the hardest thing I'd ever done. He spun on his heel and started running across the parking lot. He ran clumsily, his arms flailing out. I had known him since he was a kid, through all the awkward years of his adolescence, and I had never seen him graceless.
"Justin," I called, and he fell, hard, sprawling in the gravel, his hands skidding out in front of him. He sat up on his heels slowly and rubbed his hands across his chest. As he stood up, I called out to him again, and he turned back to me briefly. His shirt was smeared with dirt and blood. He turned away from me again and ran. There was a faint imprint in the gravel where he'd fallen.
I stood watching until he was out of sight. There was a bitter taste in my mouth.
When I walked back into the room Chasez was dressed, sitting on the edge of the bed with his legs crossed. Blood cut a sharp curve down his chin. It suited him. He stood up when he saw me and said nervously, "Is he all right?" I didn't answer, just strode past him into the bathroom and got a washcloth. He sat back down on the bed. I took his face in my hand and he didn't flinch, but his eyes closed. I wiped the blood away carefully, then went back into the bathroom and washed my hands. I picked up the wooden desk chair and took it out to the balcony. I sat there and watched the parking lot, looking down at the gray gravel and the shadow of a body in the ash.
It was a quiet motel on a quiet day. No one passed through. I sat out there all day watching. I heard Chasez moving in the room, but he didn't say anything to me. I wouldn't have answered. When night fell, I stared into the darkness for a while, then walked back into the room. I brushed past Chasez and went down to the parking lot. The money was gone. As I walked back up the stairs, I told myself that the kid had snuck back for it once it got dark. He just didn't want me to know he'd come for it, that was all. No one else had picked it up. The wind hadn't blown it away.
Nothing sounds as hollow as the lies you tell yourself.
I knocked on the door and Chasez opened it. I looked at him standing there, hard and beautiful. I swayed a little, and put a hand out to brace myself. "Chris," he said, and stopped. I didn't say anything. "Chris," he said, and I fell into him. I fell into him the way I fell into a bottle in the last days, when I fell knowing that it was bad for me, poison, that I'd be worse for it in the end, that I'd regret it. When I knew I wouldn't find an answer there, or even a question, nothing but a few hours of oblivion, and that I'd pay for those hours with more than I could afford to lose.
I knew all that, and still I fell.
He caught me.
He put his arms around me and murmured to me, his lips close to my ear. "It'll be okay," he said as he walked me toward the bed, "it's all right, it'll be okay. Everything's okay." I fell back onto the bed and pulled him down with me. He didn't say another word. We stayed in that room for several days, and I shouted things, and whispered, said things that I'll never forget and things I'm grateful I can't recall. He was there the whole time, hard beautiful face floating before me, hard beautiful body sparking against mine, but I don't remember him saying another word.
When I finally woke from my daze, I had a hangover as vicious as any whiskey had ever left behind. He was sitting next to me, naked, knees pulled up to his chest. His hand moved softly over my side. He was looking out over the balcony, squinting a little in the sunlight. His face was soft and unguarded in the morning light. I caught his hand and held it still. He looked down at me. "I'm sorry," he said, and pulled his hand away.
I got up and went into the bathroom. I bent my head down to the faucet and drank. The water was warm and clear and tasted of nothing at all. I stared at the pale face and shadowed eyes in the mirror. I recognized that man.
When I walked back out, Chasez was getting dressed. He sat on the bed to tie his shoes. "Look," I said, and he looked up at me. He smiled loosely, easily. "Why don't you just take off? I'll give Bass his money back and tell him you weren't there. As long as you don't go back to Kadoka, he probably won't be able to track you. And soon enough I'm sure he'll forget."
Chasez studied me, then shook his head.
"Is it - do you need money? I don't have much left, but I have a little, and I could -"
"No," he said.
"But then - why? Why go back?"
"I belong there," he said.
"But - you don't want to go back, do you?"
"No," he said. "No, I don't. But that doesn't change things."
"I don't understand," I said wearily.
He finished tying his shoes, then folded his hands in his lap and looked at me. "There are men who are made to break things, Mr. Kirkpatrick, and there are men who are made to be broken."
"Oh, and I'm born to break things, I guess?" I said. "I guess I'm the one who broke you."
"No," he said quietly. "No, not me."
I looked down. "I didn't want to -"
"It doesn't matter," he said. "There are men who break things, and there are men who get broken, and the only thing you can do is know which you are. I used to think I was made to be broken, but I was lying to myself. I break things too, Mr. Kirkpatrick, and all I can do is go where I'll do the least damage."
"Back to Bass?"
He smiled his hard pale smile. "Lance is already broken."
"You don't have to," I said desperately. He watched me patiently. "You don't. Maybe - if I'm like - what you say I'm like, and you are, maybe we could go somewhere. We could -"
"No," he said.
"If you're hard like me, then maybe we could -"
"No," he said again. "We'd break each other apart. And I don't want to be broken."
"Maybe not," I said. "Maybe not."
Chasez closed his eyes. "You can change anything, Chris, but yourself." He stood and picked up his bag. "I'll be waiting in the car."
He was waiting for me there. When I slid behind the wheel, he said, "Let's go back where we belong." Then he turned his head to the window and didn't say anything else.
We drove through the day in silence and arrived in Orlando in the deepest part of the night. I pulled up in front of Bass' house. It was a large, looming place, darker than the night. There were no lights on. We sat in the car for a while, then Chasez reached over and opened his door.
"It's not too late," I said without looking at him.
"No," he said. "No, of course it's not." He got out of the car and started up the walk.
"What about your things?" I called to him, gesturing toward his bag and the half-finished painting in the back seat.
"I don't need them anymore," he said.
"Oh," I said. "Well. Take care of yourself."
"Of course I will," he said, and walked up to the house. I watched him melt into the shadows.
I drove to my office. I gave Chasez's bag and ten bucks to a bum sitting out front in exchange for his bottle of whiskey, and took the painting upstairs with me. I propped it on the chair opposite me and opened the bottle. I looked at it. There was nothing inside it but forgetfulness, and I'd had enough of that. I dropped it into the garbage. Then I picked up the phone.
I dialed a number I knew by heart. I knew the voice that answered that well, too.
"Hello?" Justin said, "hello?" He paused. There were many things I wanted to say. None of them were true. Any of them would have made him come back. I could have said, "I'm sorry it happened," and he would have said, "It's okay. I understand," and we would have smiled at each other every day and lied without saying another word. I could have called him, and he would have come, and all we would have lost was the truth.
"Hello?" he said. I held the receiver to my ear and listened to him talk to himself until he hung up.
I sat in the dark office and stared at the empty half of Chasez's painting.
Bass walked in the next morning. "I took the liberty of letting myself in," he said. His voice was louder than it had been before, filling the office with its smooth smug cadence. He was rocking a little on his feet. "You seem to have misplaced your handsome assistant," he said lightly.
I knew there was something I was supposed to say, some pleasantry to answer his, but I couldn't think of anything, and it seemed like too much trouble to try. I shrugged dully. It didn't put him off. Bass was in a good mood. "You're alone today, then?" he said.
I didn't answer. Bass looked at me expectantly. I shrugged again. Bass kept looking. "Yes," I said finally. "I'm alone."
"Well," Bass said. He cleared his throat. He let his eyes wander over my rumpled attire, the bottle in the garbage, the painting on the chair. "I came to thank you for a job well done," he said.
"All right," I said.
"I appreciate it," he said, smiling his smooth smile at me, "although I realize now that it was a little unnecessary."
"What do you mean?" I said sharply.
"Nothing," he said, looking at me strangely, "just that, well, perhaps calling in someone like you was a little hasty. I'm sure JC would have come back to me by now anyway." I didn't say anything. Lots of people liked to convince themselves that they hadn't needed me, once I'd done the job they needed done. It didn't matter to me. I knew what the job was worth, even if they didn't.
Bass laughed shortly and showed me all his sharp teeth. "After all, he would have run out of money soon, if nothing else." He turned to go.
"Wait," I said, and he turned back. "Why would he have run out of money? He was only gone two months, and he had your stash."
Bass looked at me. "That was a misunderstanding, Mr. Kirkpatrick."
"But you said -"
"I said it was a misunderstanding, and it was. It turns out that the money wasn't taken."
"Oh," I said.
"I'm sure a smart man like you realized that."
"No," I said. "No, I didn't."
"Well," Bass said. He paused. "Thank you for your hard work. I'll be sure to send any business I can your way."
"You do that," I said. I watched him leave. I didn't expect to see him again.
I didn't. Not in person, anyway. I saw him many, many times in magazines and newspapers, attending benefits or parties, sometimes with a beautiful young debutante, sometimes alone. I tore those pictures out and studied them at night, looking not at him but at the empty space beside him. I studied them, and then I sat back in my chair and looked at the painting hanging on the wall.
I didn't see Bass again, but he was as good as his word. He did send business my way, friends of his, I suppose, or business associates, people who looked skeptically at the grime on the windows and the dust on the furniture, but who walked into the office anyway. Desperate people. There were a lot of them. Enough that I could have moved to a better address. But I knew that people like that liked the dirt, the faded walls, the filth on the street. They liked to think that there was something uglier than what was inside them. I let them. It was good for business.
I hired a secretary after a while to deal with these new clients, got her straight from an agency or a factory or whatever the places are called that produce women like her. She had pale long hair and a pale long face. She was very good at her job. She typed seventy words a minute and took legible phone messages and spoke firmly and courteously to clients and always called me Mr. Kirkpatrick. She was punctual and industrious and when I flipped the switch on my phone, I heard nothing but the clack of the typewriter keys or her slightly nasal voice saying, "Mr. Kirkpatrick's office."
She was a professional.
So was I.
This story was written for the Slash Across America challenge (South Dakota). The rest of the SAA stories can be found [here].