John Tristan © 2020
All Rights Reserved
It was a clear autumn night, with the moon low and yellow above the city. Between its fullness and the lights, only a few stars could be made out, pinpoints in the raw black silk of the night. Nick stood with his fists balled above the man breathing hard in the gutter. A trickle of spilled beer ran into his hair, foaming like shampoo. He smelled sour, of sweat and fear.
“Jesus, man!” The man’s companion—a skinny young guy with a circular Band-Aid over one eye, like a discount pirate—crouched beside him. “Somebody call an ambulance! Call the cops!”
“By all means,” Nick said. He forced himself to take a step back, unclench his fists. “Let’s call the cops and tell them the whole story.”
Discount Pirate slit his eye at him and helped his companion to his feet. The man was dazed but seemed unhurt. Still—he could easily have a concussion.
Nick hesitated. “Maybe we should call an ambulance—”
“Forget it,” the man said thickly and spat into the gutter. In the neon and moonlight, the blood in his mouth looked black. His eyes met Nick’s, and this was the worst part: they understood each other perfectly. He’d wanted to start a fight, and Nick had taken the bait. Another night, it would have fallen out differently.
“Let’s get out of here,” Discount Pirate said, putting a proprietary arm around his companion’s waist and dragging him off into the darkness.
Nick let out a shaky breath. The street was empty, now; if he was lucky, this wouldn’t get back to Merritt, who owned the Hellhole. He hadn’t hired Nick to start fights but to stop them as gently as possible—de-escalation, not macho bullshit. The Hellhole was the only gay bar in Westerley, which meant it drew both the occasional snickering asshole and its share of ex-boyfriend drama. Merrick wouldn’t thank him for bad publicity.
Fuck. This was the last thing he needed. He turned toward the familiar voice. “Hey, Alex.”
Alexander Finn—his friend, once-upon-a-time fuck-buddy, and self-appointed social worker—had come up out of the Hellhole at just the wrong time. Sweat was still beaded on his pale forehead, cooling rapidly in the night air. “What happened?”
“Didn’t know you were down here tonight,” Nick said, affecting a breezy tone. “Must have been here before my shift started.”
Alex rolled his eyes. “I know you’re not jealous, so you’re trying to deflect. What happened?” He took out his cigarette case—silver, engraved—and popped one into his bow-lipped mouth, then offered one to Nick.
He reached for it, then hesitated. “Haven’t smoked in months.”
Alex gave him a skeptical look. “Come on.”
“Vaping doesn’t count.”
He laughed softly. “I’ll give you that one.” He snapped the case closed and tucked it away. “Talk.”
“I don’t know.” Nick ran his hands through his hair. “The guy just. Got under my skin. It’s like he knew how to push my buttons.”
“You’re not supposed to have buttons while you’re on the door.”
“Fuck you. Give me a cigarette.”
He did; they smoked together in the neon-lit dark.
“This job…” Alex chewed on his thoughts for a moment. “It’s not good for you. This isn’t the first time you’ve let someone…push your buttons.”
Alex was right—he’d never let himself take it this far before, but there were more than a few times over the last few weeks when a sneer or a snicker or a muttered insult had gotten under his skin and launched him right in someone’s face, teeth bared, eyes glittering. His fuse frayed shorter every week he was out here. He took a long, slow draw from the cigarette and laughed bitterly. “Well. I still need the rent paid.”
“How long until your shift is over?”
Nick grinned sideways at Alex. “Why, you want to take me home?”
He sighed and shook his head, but it had raised a smile. “Just think you could do with a good night’s sleep. After that…” Alex hesitated a moment. “Can you take the next few days off?”
“I’m not back on shift until Monday evening.”
Alex nodded and took a card out of his pocket—his business card, Nick recognized—and then fished out a pen. “Turn around,” he said.
Nick did. Alex leaned on him, using his back as a desk to write on. He could feel the scratch of the pen through his shirt.
When Alex was done, he handed him the card. Nick frowned at it. There was an address on it, a place in the financial district, and a name: Jacob Umber. “What’s this?”
“Someone—someone I know is looking to hire. I thought…well, you already have a job, and I had someone else lined up, but—”
“You always have someone lined up for something, don’t you?” There was a slight edge of bitterness to Nick’s words. Alex networked—he always had a side hustle lined up for someone, for the washouts and burnouts, the ex-cops and ex-military, the bikers and drifters he seemed to draw into his orbit. His type: like Nick. “Is this meant to be charity? Because you can pass it on to one of your other tricks. I don’t need it.”
“Call it what you will. And you’re not a trick, Nicholas.” Alex leaned in to kiss him on the cheek, chastely. “You’re my friend.”
Nick swallowed a sudden lump in his throat and stuffed the card in the back pocket of his jeans. “Yeah, all right, fine. There’s no number on the card—am I meant to just show up?”
“I wrote hours on there,” Alex said. “Nine to three. Weekdays.”
“Nick…” He seemed to be struggling with his words. “This isn’t a guaranteed job. I can get you a way in, but you’ll have to impress.”
“Come on, Alex.” Nick flashed a smile. “Don’t you think I can pull out the stops when I need to?”
He laughed and shook his head. “I know you can. Good luck, Nick.”
“Thanks. No, really…thank you.”
He nodded and left him on the empty street. Nick took his vape out of his pocket and sucked down a nicotine cloud; he noticed his hands were shaking. There was a subtle ache in his knuckles, where they’d collided with the man’s cheekbone. He felt a tiredness deeper than exhaustion, something like lead in his bones, and on top of that, a thin hot skin of queasy arousal. He didn’t know if he wanted to sleep for a year or get fucked up against the wall of the nearest alley. Well, he told himself, right now it’s going to be neither. He smoked until his hands stopped shaking and then waited for the sky to lighten—for his shift to be over—so he could go home.
Nick woke up after four hours of sleep, with the sun noon-high and streaming through his thin curtains. It gave his apartment an almost cinematic look, gauzy and warm. Then a cloud passed over the sun, and the apartment looked like what it actually was—half a step up from a shitty motel, with peeling wallpaper and mismatched furniture.
He got up, showered, and bothered to shave too. The face that looked back from his small bathroom mirror seemed suddenly younger, if equally tired. You’ll have to impress, Alex had said, but even with his best suit on, Nick didn’t see anything too impressive. A low-ranking yakuza in a bad action movie, maybe.
He snorted to himself and shook his head. It’d have to do. He made himself a strong, sweet coffee and called it breakfast, then went on his way.
The address on the card was in the financial district, but past the banks and high-rise offices, in an older part of the city. The buildings had the look of being grand, once upon a time, but were now slightly faded and ragged around the edges, the facades gray with ages of dirt. Most of them seemed to be houses, but every now and then, Nick spotted a discreet plaque near the doors: law firms, accountants, and other, vaguer businesses. One, with a leering gargoyle over the door, was a “wealth consultant.”
Nick expected he would find Jacob Umber in one of those offices. When he reached his destination, though, he realized it was actually either a store, or the display of someone’s collection of knick-knacks. The place was small, glass-fronted, the windows crammed with what looked to him to be various antiques and curiosities. There was an ancient pistol, a carved wooden idol, a set of scrimshaw. The card Alex had given him seemed to burn in his fingers. Most likely, it was just that he’d been rubbing it, again and again, between his thumb and first two fingers, thinning the paper to a silky texture. He tucked it in his pocket—no need for it anymore—and went inside.
There was no name or sign on the door, but a small sign proclaimed the same hours Alex had written on the card, handwritten in jade-green ink. A bell over the door jangled atonally. Nick had the instant sensation of being watched, though he saw nobody, only a shadowy depth of shelves and bric-a-brac, crowded to the ceiling. Hanging from the ceiling, in a few cases. A cow skull leered at him eyelessly. A curved silver sword hung suspended in sisal. A brown trunk, tucked in a hammock of crossed leather straps.
At first sight, the shop looked empty, an abandoned warren. Even when he turned the corner and came face to face with the desk, Nick didn’t see anyone for a moment. Then the shadows shifted, ever so slightly, and he saw him—a man in a high-backed chair just beside the desk, watching him.
He seemed…average, at a first glance. White, probably, and neither small nor large, forty-something, indistinct brownish hair. But there was something about him, some poised alertness, that raised gooseflesh on the back of Nick’s neck.
Nick cleared his throat. “Sorry to bother you. I’m looking for Jacob Umber?”
“I am Mr. Umber,” the man corrected. He wore a gray worsted suit with a plain black tie, and well-polished black Oxfords. One knee was fixed in a hinged, carbon-black brace.
Nick raised his eyebrows. This one was a stickler for formal manners. “My apologies. Mr. Umber. My name is Nick Kurosawa. Alexander Finn said you might have work for me?”
Some flicker of expression passed over Umber’s impassive features. “I know. Mr. Finn passed on your details.”
Nick had never heard Alex referred to as Mr. Finn before.
Umber rose from his chair, his knee giving him a moment’s difficulty. He was shorter than he seemed sitting down—just about a head shorter than Nick—but broader, too, with unexpected muscle beneath the neat lines of his suit jacket. He looked Nick up and down with clinical interest. His eyes were gray bordering on green. For a brief, wild moment as Umber approached him, Nick wondered if Alex had sent him here to be pimped out, but Umber’s flat, assessing look wiped out any thought of that possibility.
“I assume you’re hiring for close-protection work?” It was a guess, but Nick’s instincts weren’t usually off base. Umber somehow had the air of a man who got into trouble.
Umber smiled. It had an odd effect on his face, not quite a pleasant one. “I’m actually looking for something more…all-round.”
Fuck. Maybe Alex had pimped him out. Nick shifted from foot to foot. There was something unsettling about Umber’s flat regard—something that made the tips of Nick’s ears burn. “All-round,” he echoed, trying for a tone as flat as Umber’s.
“I am looking to hire a personal assistant.”
Nick blinked. “You mean a secretary?”
“I may need my PA to make appointments for me occasionally, but, no.” He sighed and tapped his knee brace. “This was a bad fall, but I fell because of muscle fatigue. I have fibromyalgia—do you know what that is?”
Nick had a vague idea. “A chronic illness?”
Again, that unsettling smile played over Umber’s face. “Yes. Chronic and variable. It means that some days I’m fine, and some days I can barely manage to get out of bed.
“And…this would include occasional close-protection work?”
Umber held his gaze, the smile dropping away and leaving his face as flat and neutral as before. “You would be fully briefed, should I decide you’re right for the job. And if you decide to take it.”
Nick had the sudden urge to stand at attention. He fought it down, internally squirming under Umber’s eyes. “I’ll be honest, I’ve never worked as a personal assistant. I don’t know much about helping disabled people.”
“I don’t want someone trained to ‘help disabled people,’” Umber said, with a faint hint of distaste around the words. “I want someone without preconceived notions—someone adaptable, who takes instruction easily.”
Nick raised his eyebrows. “Well. That I can do.”
“We shall see.” There was a thread of humor in Umber’s voice now, cool and razor-thin. “Do you have references besides Mr. Finn?”
There weren’t many, but Nick had come prepared, here, at least—a letter from his old CO and from his last close-protection job. Nothing from Merritt, yet. Umber sat back down—this time in a chair by an old-fashioned desk—and read through them, quickly but thoroughly. Usually Nick hated watching someone read his reference letters, but it was almost a relief having Umber’s assessing eyes off of him.
“Thank you, Mr. Kurosawa,” he said after a minute or two. “Do you mind if I keep these?”
“No, go ahead. They’re copies.”
Umber nodded and put them away in one of the desk drawers. “And do you have a résumé with you as well?”
He didn’t bother reading through that, but put it facedown on top of the desk after giving it a cursory glance. If having the Hellhole on his résumé was a deal-breaker for him, he didn’t seem to show it—not that Nick thought it would be if Alex recommended him for the job. There was an awkward moment—or at least, it seemed awkward to Nick—where they were both silent. Then Nick cleared his throat, just to fill the emptiness with some kind of noise.
Umber looked up. “That’s all. I’ll be in touch.”
Nick took a breath and restrained his first impulse. What that was, he wasn’t sure, but there was something about Umber’s response that needled him, and he knew he wasn’t rational when he was needled. He nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Umber.”
God, had the man trained to keep his voice that flat and expressionless?
Nick turned around—there was no temptation to mill around Umber’s strange little store—and headed out the door. Once in the open air, he took a few shaky breaths. He realized his heart had been hammering at double speed for the last five minutes, at least. He glanced at his phone. He’d been in there for ten minutes total. It felt like more. It felt exhausting.
Some impulse spurred him to take out his wallet and slide the picture from behind his driver’s license—him and Lily, the last time they’d been photographed together. She’d been a toddler, and he’d been in uniform. They were smiling in the sun. Their mom had taken the picture. She’s been so proud, their mom, and Lily starstruck by his khaki. It was a mercy they never saw him slide off the rails of his promising military career and into…well. Into taking whatever hustles his fuck-buddy managed to slide his way.
That’s not true. He made himself think it. This job could be something, a real opportunity. Alex might have gotten him through the door, but it was up to him to make something of it.
If Umber chose him, that was.