RED LIGHT MAN
a novel by Erik J. Avalon
WARNING: Some sexual and violent imagery.
WARNING: Some sexual and violent imagery.
I love my brothers, but I can never forgive them.
We grew up in three houses. We had three different mothers, went to different schools, grew up in different neighborhoods, but we had one thing in common. Our father was a bastard, made bastards of us, and only tried to be a father to each of us after we had turned thirteen. James Anthony was first, then me, and finally, Dylan Mallory.
You know parts of this, Lex. You’re the first person I’m trusting with the whole story. Really, it’s three stories.
As I sit near my father’s deathbed, I can’t help seeing now how it’s always been tangled up. The headlines would spell it out as three separate stories, but it’s all just one in the end.
Blood Sorcery Exposed.
Victims of the Red Light Man.
Children of the Midnight Rapist.
You were always on the cusp of believer and skeptic. I argued constantly that you went one way or the other based on what story you thought would get more attention, and therefore put more money in your bank account. I know I drove you away for nothing. I’m sorry.
Lex, promise me that whatever you do with this, you will keep Luthor away from it. You’re raising him and I’ve let you do pretty much what you want because I know you’re going to be a good father, but please, do not let him anywhere near this until he’s old enough.
I can’t stop you, of course, if you go against my wishes. All I can do is hope.
Funny thing, hope. I’ve lost all the hope I ever had for myself now.
He slipped the robe off his shoulders. It fell to the floor, exposing his back to the air and to the eyes of his customer of the evening. It was a new room, a high-rise hotel in a city he was only visiting briefly, but the transaction was an old one. James looked expertly back over one shoulder towards the man spread eagle on the well-made bed. He winked, and the customer chuckled thickly. The man on the bed was not typically patient, but waited now.
James delicately lifted an envelope up from where the customer had placed it, on the corner of a chair. He felt a stack of small photographs inside, but did not take them out. Instead, he waved the envelope in the air and spilled its contents over his shoulder. He felt the corners and edges of the unseen pictures graze his back. He heard them scatter across the floor, followed by a hushed curse and an unamused chuckle from the man on the bed.
James turned and approached the bed.
“Pick them up.”
Bringing a knee up onto the edge of the bedding, James asked, “Is that necessary?”
“Are we absolutely sure about that?” James began to climb onto the bed, but his customer pressed him back with a foot to the chest. “All right. I’ll pick them up.”
“Wait,” the customer said, jumping from the bed and running past James. “They won’t be in the right order. You can’t see them out of order.”
James politely turned away as the customer busied his big, rough hands with the photographs. The customer was a tall, brawny man, practically the spitting image of the lumberjack on the paper towel packaging. He had a decidedly unkind face, but James took that to mean low intelligence more than a sign of a bad disposition. That was his hope.
The customer – who’d given no name when they arranged this encounter through a mobile app – returned to his position on the bed. When James turned, he found the envelope exactly where it had been before. This time, he picked it up and then sat on the chair on which it had been placed. He carefully pulled the flap up and reached inside.
James’ fingers found the stack of pictures. He tugged them up from the bottom of the deep yellow document envelope. He slid them against the inner walls of the thick paper containing them. He brought the edge of the stack back out into the air.
“Good. Take them out, but don’t look at them yet.”
James set the stack picture-side down on his naked thigh, just below the boring boxer briefs he’d been instructed to wear. He had on white socks, too, simply because there’d been no instruction for or against clothing on his feet, and he liked them. He didn’t like this.
He was beginning to get a bad feeling about this whole thing.
“Burn the envelope.”
The customer tossed a lighter into the air. It travelled over the bed and several feet above the hard, cold floor. It entered the bubble of personal space James owned, and he stopped its flight in his closing fist. He started a flame and brought it to the corner of the envelope before realizing he needed a safe place to set the thing once it caught.
“Let it burn on the floor.”
“But – “
“Do what you’re told.”
James dropped the yellow paper rectangle. He watched the flame lick up one edge as it fell toward the floor. Paper and polished, waxed wood collided with hardly a sound, but James swore he felt a tiny vibration pass up through the chair and into his leg from this little collision. The flame consumed the envelope slowly, and neither man spoke until it was a pile of smoldering ashes.
All the while, James focused twinly on watching the burning and keeping his leg from twitching. Just as the thought occurred to him that it was odd no smoke detector had gone off, his leg jumped.
“Nervous?” The customer asked this with a smile.
“I’ve been doing this a while. Not exactly this, but you know what I mean. This is kind of new to me. Wait, that’s not what I meant. Let me start over.”
“Don’t bother,” the customer commanded, waving with both hands for James to approach the bed.
James stood from the chair, careful to keep a steady hold on the stack of photographs. He sensed that dropping them again would spell trouble he did not want to see.
The gigolo sat on the corner of the folded sheets. He felt the cool comfort against his legs and breathed a little unsteady sigh. He did not want to look at the photographs. His customer clumsily climbed over behind James and wrapped his arms around him tight.
Towering on his knees behind James, he whispered, “Look at the first one.”
James obeyed. The first photograph displayed a pretty face under coiffed hair and over a puffy, multi-color striped pastel blouse. The face was smiling, the background was a sunny playground filled with blurry, playing children, but the eyes suggested a desperate fear.
“Isn’t my wife pretty?”
“Look at the next one.”
The pretty face was under the coiffed hair again, but this time the body was more exposed to the camera by a stark white bikini. Sunlight glinted off the wet fabric, beadlets of water all over the slightly tanned skin, and large silver sunglasses. The smile was almost convincing, strain making it look almost painful. A hint of a black eye appeared just below the bridge of the sunglass frames. James’ hand trembled and he barely noticed the beach, the ocean, or the beachgoers beyond the woman’s shoulders in the photograph.
The customer rested his chin on the prostitute’s shoulder. From the corner of his eye, James watched a smile spread across the rugged, neatly-trimmed bearded face so near his own. James wanted to cringe but didn’t dare let his body betray his twisting feelings.
“Three isn’t the best, objectively speaking, but it is my favorite. Look at three.”
The man behind James withdrew his chin, his hands and arms, and moved back so the prostitute could no longer tell where his client now was on the bed. The image on the third photograph twinly made him forget this concern and terrified by the ignorance.
The pretty face was twisted in agony. Her hair was an unkempt mess. Sweat beaded on her brow and throat. She was dressed in a hospital gown. She was in a hospital delivery room. The edges of the photo showed nurses gathered all around. Her belly was a proper mound of covered flesh. A dainty wedding band could just be seen on the ring finger of a hand that clutched not at her husband’s hand, but that of one of the nurses. James realized the husband was the photographer, and also that he was the man who had purchased him for the night. The pregnant woman in the process of becoming a new mother was experiencing all the ordinary pains of childbirth, but the photograph caught her in a moment of absolute honesty. She was terrified of the man holding the camera, both for herself and her baby. No one standing around her could see this in her eyes. Their work blinded them to her terror.
“I didn’t bring any pictures of my baby to show you. You don’t get to see her. No one gets to touch her the way I touch her mother. No one. She’s special.”
The gong in James’ head rang hard, as if a semi-truck had smashed into it. He stopped thinking of the other man in the room as his customer, and starting thinking of him for what he was: a wife beater. The wife beater was proud of his work, and had only just begun to show off what he was capable of doing.
“Look at the next one.”
James set the photographs neatly on the bedspread. He spread his feet and stepped away from the bed. He walked three feet across the floor before he felt a hand close on his shoulder, though not yet with as much pressure as he had been expecting.
Instead of a vocal response, the wife beater answered by tightening his grip. The pressure was just enough to make James turn and face his purchaser. He tried to smile, but the taller, broader-shouldered man slapped him across one cheek and then the other. He grinned to see James grimace. His eyes told that this was nothing. Nothing at all.
James returned to sitting on the bed. The wife beater stood over him, naked and semi-erect.
“Pick them up.”
James picked the stack up.
“Look at it.”
The fourth in the sequence was on top now. The wife’s beauty was marred by fingertip-sized bruises on her face and around her throat. She stood facing her husband, the photographer who cast no shadow into the image he was capturing. They were standing in a dark room, the features and dimensions of which were lost in bad lighting. She stood in the brightest part of the light, which was not very bright at all, but it highlighted her features theatrically. James would have thought this a staged picture, if not for the context.
He tried to see her as a stage player, cast in carefully sourced light and made-up to only look like the poor battered woman he could not convince himself she wasn’t.
“What’s her name?”
He looked up into a face he expected would be fuming. Instead, the wife beater was only shaking his head and rolling his eyes.
“Look at the next one.”
James imagined shoving the whole stack down the wife beater’s throat.
Instead, he flipped to the next photograph, jumped, and shrieked.
“Don’t worry,” the wife beater crooned. “This one’s the worst of the gory ones.”
The pretty face was straining to smile. She must have been terrified beyond reason. She was struggling so hard to please her husband, even after he had taken a melon baller and scooped out her eye. The socket was gaping, but the actual blood in the image was minimal. The eye was held up near the poor woman’s cheek, cupped in the melon baller and held on display like succulent fruit. Fresh bruises, deeper and darker, wreathed her throat.
The stack was so thick, James realized. Almost as thick as the wife beater’s now throbbing member, which he could see out of the corner of his eye.
“Why do I want you to see these?”
“I want you to be grateful to me.”
“Grateful?” The prostitute gulped.
“Yes. Be thankful I am not going to do to you a tenth of what I’ve done to her.”
“Because she deserved it,” James said, biting his tongue as soon as he said it, though he sensed it was what was required.
“Yes!” The wife beater grinned and goggled happily, like a good dog.
“No, you won’t do anything to deserve that kind of treatment.”
“Yes,” James squeaked. “Yes, that’s what I meant.”
“You already deserve to be punished. You won’t make it worse on yourself.”
James moved his fingers to slip to the next picture, but strong fingers gripped his wrist to stop him.
“Too soon. Now you have to study this one longer.”
James looked into the background of the picture. For the first time, he noticed the wife’s hair was pulled back in a careful, tight pony tail. He couldn’t see what held it. He could see they were outdoors, perhaps in a woods behind their house. He felt his gorge rise a little when he saw the corner of a playpen, barely visible over one naked shoulder.
“My little girl is special. She likes to watch her mother pay for her mistakes.”
James shivered to think that this kind of man was permit to breed.
He stood up, set the stack of photographs on the floor under the bed, and knelt before his customer.
“What are you doing?”
“Have you done this before?”
“I don’t mean purchasing a man for sex, or even just having sex with another man. Have you done,” James looks down to the now hidden pictures, and then back up into the wife beater’s face before finishing with, simply, “this?”
“How long have you been fantasizing about it?”
“Is it going well so far?”
“Yes,” the wife beater said, licking his lips.
“Why do it all in one night? Tonight is my first visit to your city, and you’re making me want to come back. A lot.”
“Is that so?” The wife beater smirks. “Tell me how I’m doing that.”
“This, for one,” James says, wrapping a hand around the wife beater’s penis. “And your creativity. It’s depraved, sure, but aren’t there people who’d say just us being naked in the same room together is also depraved?”
“Judgemental bastards,” the wife beater exhales roughly, eyes unfocused.
“That’s right. Why finish your whole fantasy in this one night? Let’s get to what you really want, right now, and then we can resume with the photograph foreplay next session. How’s that sound to you?”
“Fucking great,” the wife beater barked, grabbing the back of James’ head.
Two hours later, and with a few fresh bruises of his own hidden under his clothes, James left the hotel. He stepped out onto the sidewalk and almost continued between parked cars, right out into traffic. Not that there was really all that much traffic, but that’s besides the point. He shook his head, laughed at himself, smacked the cars on either side of his thighs lightly, spun on the spot, and returned to the sidewalk. He went left before remembering his own lodgings were in the other direction. He began to whistle while he walked.
He tugged the flaps of his long coat tighter together and wondered why he hadn’t replaced the damn thing since several of the zipper teeth had snapped out of place. It wasn’t really all that chilly, so he let the flaps fly open again and walked on.
Someone – James assumed a homeless beggar without looking – grabbed onto his coat flap and tugged. He pulled free and kept walking, but didn’t get more than a few sidewalk squares further along before the flap was seized again, more insistently.
The prostitute spun around and spat out, “Look, you may have seen me step out of a ritzy place, but that doesn’t mean I have cash,” before seeing this was no hopeless vagabond trying to get his attention. “Oh, sorry. Thought you were something else.”
“That’s part of your problem.”
Here was another ideal male specimen, but whereas the wife beater was so rugged you couldn’t really be surprised by his brutal, self-serving nature, this man had a refined quality that reminded James of folk rock singers. In the front, his hair covered his forehead and nearly his eyes as well, but it tapered off gradually in the back. His beard and mustache were trimmed and neat. A separate cologne emanated from the facial hair than from the rest of the man.
James offered a hand, but the artist ignored it. The prostitute had no doubt this was an artist before him, stopping him, and he was curious as hell about why the artist had stopped him, but for a moment his words were dried up in his throat.
“You want to come with me,” the artist said, turned, and began to walk back toward the hotel.
James followed. Through the mostly ponderous sidewalkers, the two men went past the street level front of the hotel, only James pausing there briefly to glance inside. The artist in the gray-and-blue pinstriped shorts and cut-off tee shirt – showing off as much of the intricate ink on his body as he could without being too naked for the evening’s climate – led the prostitute into a Starbeam’s corner coffee shop, where he proceeded to order for the two of them.
“I hate pumpkin.”
“Sure you do.”
“No one can hate pumpkin,” the barrista chimed in, smiling helpfully.
The artist and the prostitute exchanged a glance and laughed.
Their drinks were made, the fake names given were called out, and the artist graciously traded his chai latte for James’ unwanted pumpkin spice latte. The handsome pair – they received numerous size-upping glances from women and from men – took a table near the front of the shop, sitting against a window on the midnight-busy sidewalk and street.
The artist sipped his drink slowly, avoiding James’ building glare and saying nothing.
“Okay, I guess I’ll break the ice then. What the hell is this about?”
“Best to show you an example before trying to explain.”
The artist set down his drink. He waited for James to do the same. The prostitute, feeling stubborn, sipped on his own drink for a full three minutes before placing his cup on the table as well. The artist arced his left thumb and forefinger around a small tattoo on his right forearm. James chuckled to see it was the Starbeam’s logo, but done in black and red rather than the brand’s typical orange and green. He noticed then that all the artist’s ink was black and red, and he found this oddly tantalizing. Red was one of his favorite colors.
He followed the artist’s eyes, which glanced back across the store to the barrista that had served them. James’ gave a questioning look, but the artist would say nothing. He followed that glance down to the Starbeam’s piece. The artist ran his left forefinger nail around the round logo three times, and then placed his left arm on his leg under the table. He then raised his eyes back up to glare at the barrista intensely. James turned hesitantly to look.
The barrista – a young man barely out of his teens and still half-covered in acne, but otherwise good-looking enough for a casual fuck – was standing dead still. A customer on the other side of the order counter from him was getting irate that her order was currently being ignored. James looked at the artist and gasped to see blood ringed his eyes where one might expect to see tears forming before a good cry.
“Jump up and down,” the artist whispered, barely loud enough for James to catch.
The prostitute turned to see the barrista obey the command he couldn’t possibly have heard.
“Flip off that rude late-night bitch.”
The barrista did, and the customer cackled.
“Now beg forgiveness. Jump over the counter and get on your knees, offer to gratify her orally and give her free drinks for a month, in exchange for her not complaining to your bosses.”
The barrista did. The customer looked appalled, but not terribly offended. She waved her hands and made gross gestures suggesting she was a lesbian and had no use for a man’s tongue anywhere on her body. Then, she laughed and pulled the barrista upright.
James looked back to the artist, who circled the Starbeam’s tattoo three times again with his nail, but in the opposite direction to how he’d done it before. The blood left his eyes and he exhaled heavily, as if he’d been holding his breath underwater. He smiled.
“What in the name of sanity did I just witness?”
“Blood sorcery, inkmaster class. Are you interested?”
“Interested in what!”
“Becoming my assistant. I could use someone with your certain skill set. You have access to a spectrum of people I find intruiging, in a despicable sort of a way, but can’t get close enough to on my own without raising too many unwanted red flags.”
“What the hell do you want with them? To gain power over them, like you have over that poor, I’m gonna guess unsuspecting barrista?”
“Oh no, he volunteered. He’s a relative stranger to me, but he answered my cryptic fredslist ad and once I explained what I required, he was willing enough.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“I don’t want power over any John for myself. The man you met tonight, you found him quite distasteful, didn’t you? Disgusting and horrible, in fact. Right?”
“Yes. How do you know about him?”
“His wife answered another fredslist ad of mine. She wants to gain power in her relationship. She doesn’t want her child to be completely fatherless, but she wants to break the man and make him her slave. Sort of flip the coin of the dynamic between them.”
“That’s kind of amazing. From just the few shots I did see, I figured she’d be cowed.”
“No, quite the opposite. She may have lost one eye and most of her dignity to that beast over the years, but she hasn’t lost one ounce of her determination. While she lives, she will seek a way to take control of her life again. And she won’t be alone, which I disagree with, but that’s her choice. If she wants to own the fucker rather than kill him, that’s her choice.”
James didn’t have to think long.
“What do you need me to do?”
“Go back up to him.”
“Whoa,” James said, picking his nearly forgotten drink up and taking a long swallow of the still hot chai latte. “Can’t we just bump into him on the street somewhere?”
“If it was that easy, then why the fuck would I need you. Huh?”
“I see your point. Fuck!”
“Exactly. Use your skills to make him feel safe, empowered, overconfident. Did he leave many bruises on you tonight?”
“Not as many as he planned to, but yeah. I let him give me a few.”
“So you exerted some subtle control over the encounter. Nice.”
“Nice way of putting it. I am an experienced whore, after all.”
“And that’s why I like you. You can think on your feet. On your back too, it seems.”
“Or on my knees. In a sling. Against a wall.”
“I don’t need all those details, James Anthony Monroe.”
“How do you know my full name? No one in this city should know that.”
“I have my ways,” the artist said with a wink.
“I’ll let you keep that air of mystery, but it comes with a price.”
“Everything does with your kind.”
“And yours. I haven’t heard of any good tattoo artists giving their working hours away for free, either.”
“What’s your name?”
“That’s not really important.”
“Everyone’s name is important.”
“Not entirely true.”
“So you’re saying there are unimportant people?”
“I can’t agree with that sentiment.”
“Then you think the wife beater’s name is important?”
James chewed on the tip of his tongue for a minute. “That really depends on how we’re going to go about doing this thing. Whatever it is that you ultimately want me to do.”
“Do you still want my name before we proceed?”
“Are you going to persist in being difficult about giving it?”
“Good artists are always difficult to work with.”
“Now I just think you’re quoting some angsty rechirp junkie’s Chirpter feed. And yes, for now I’ll let it go about your fucking name.”
“So what is your game plan?”
“First, we need the wife beater’s blood.”
“Why do I get the sense you’re about to tell me that’s gonna turn out to be the easy part?”
“I’m not, but the next part won’t exactly be a cake walk, either. We have to find his wife, and you have to gain her trust. I can’t approach her on the street like I did with you.”
“More of a hope.”
“Hope? That’s all you can give me?”
“Yeah. You’d better hope she’s allowed on the Internet. And you still have to get her name or some way of finding her out of his wallet.”
“Which is why I have to go back up.” James swallowed. “To see him again.”
“You’ll also need this.”
The artist produced a small case you might expect to see a diabetic’s blood text kit to be kept in, except it was red rather than the typical black. He pushed it across the table. It touched James’ drink and he instinctively picked up the cup, though it was in no danger of falling over. He finished his chai latte before opening the case and finding it contained blood collection syringes.
“There are messier, and I’d honestly say much more interesting, ways of doing this, but for your first time, you need something quick, clean, and sure.”
“And you want me to fill all these up!” James struggled not to shout this across the table, but even his whisper did convey a sense of urgency and anger.
“No. You’ll need no more than five, but it doesn’t hurt to have spares.”
“And how do you suggest I get even the five?”
“That, I leave to your discretion and determination.”
At this point, the artist got up, left his half-finished pumpkin latte sitting across the table from James, and exited the Starbeam’s between a hipster-by-night couple and an elderly couple with just a little more bounce in their step than you’d expect to see in octogenarians. James remembered where he was and laughed. Then, he remembered why he was there, and instantly soured. He closed the red case and tucked it into a pocket of his coat.
He didn’t really hate pumpkin. He’d just gotten sick of it one year when more than half his clientele had decided – by secret caucas, it seemed, and overnight – to start giving him pumpkin-flavored treats and beverages because somehow they’d found out pumpkin was his favorite. You can love something and also grow sick to death of it, he found out that year.
James stood from the table and grabbed up both cups. He tossed his empty cup away without a thought, but held the artist’s unfinished drink under his nose, breathing in the deep, rich aroma and nodding slowly. His eyes popped open and he dropped it in the trash without taking a sip. He wanted to be proud of this little display of self-control, but really it was no more than wasted self-deprivation. No one cared if he did or didn’t drink something pumpkin.
Someone would care if he managed to draw blood from the wife beater. Namely, that dangerous broot himself, and James was afraid he’d have more than just something to say about the matter.
The prostitute left the Starbeam’s and looked both ways up and down the sidewalk, but there was no sign of his new tattooed friend.
He was alone amongst the night throngs, which were just thickening.
James finds himself back in the hotel lobby as if he blinked and missed the transition from scene to scene in a film. He focuses and can just remember taking the steps to get there, but can’t remember who he might have seen or passed along the way. None of the faces around him seem to matter. He is a weapon and his trigger has been pulled, and his target’s is the only face that can matter to him now.
He shakes his head. He notices the desk clerk and a few comers and goers giving him curious looks. He grins at their night-empty expressions, their dumb TV viewer curiosity, and goes for the elevator. He presses the button several times before the doors open and the people within pour out so he can be in the ascending cage alone.
The ride up to the thirty-seventh floor is smooth and tedious; the elevator is designed and maintained well to do its job. It bores and reflects nothing back upon its lone occupant that he does not want to see. He makes himself look his reflections in the eye, one by one.
“I’m going to do this,” he says to each of them In turn, patting the hidden red case in his coat pocket.
As he regards the reflection to his left, the one to his right smirks.
He twists his head as fast as he can to catch it, but by the time his eyes’ focus has shifted from one mirrored elevator wall to the other, its just another ordinary, non-responsive trick of the eye waiting to greet him. No one is there but his own doubt.
The elevator stops so smoothly James almost can’t tell its stopped moving, and it reminds him of the state of his life. He swore once that he would never be the visiting kind of whore. Look at me now, he thought. Just look at me now, and I don’t even know what I’m going to become after this.
The hallway opens to him as he’s opened himself to so many men, including the one he is on his way to see again now, and he feels like a thief in the night. He wonders what the wife beater’s reaction will be to his return. Still, he goes down the hallway, leaving the relative safety of the elevator – and its benefit of an easy escape route – behind him.
The artist’s little red case weighs heavy in his pocket, as if it has gained mass specifically to taunt him. He knows it is a trick his mind is playing on him. He tries to ignore it. As he gets to the proper door and knocks, he suddenly fears the added bulge in the side of his coat will be too obvious and somehow give away his true intent in returning.
The wife beater opens the door wearing nothing but socks and a big, cocky grin, and James’ worries evaporate as he returns an easy, overconfident smile.
“Knew you’d be back before you left town. One go’s never enough.”
“You call that one go?” James walks into the room, brushing his upper arm against the wife beater’s torso in passing. “You’re a little whore’s dream.”
“You aren’t what I’d call little,” the larger man says, looking his prize over appreciatively before slamming the door, lifting James into the air, rushing across the room, and dropping the prostitute on the bed. “You’ll do just fine.”
James hopes the game won’t resume for one miserably hopeful instant, but then the wife beater’s face creases and he remembers what is missing, and what must soon go missing from this bed.
“Strip,” the wife beater commands as he darts to the mini-bar and picks up the familiar stack. “Now,” he adds with just a hint of annoyance building.
James quickly makes a wadded pile of his clothing, careful to bury the coat’s extra content deep at the heart of the folded clothes.
With his clothes tucked under the corner of the bed, James sits as calmly as he can on the edge of the ruffled covers. He notices his hands shaking and folds them together, hoping this will hide the little tremble. He looks up, and the wife beater is holding the stack out to him, a look of demented expectation on his rugged, almost handsome face.
James takes the stack and turns it over to see what his client wants him to see.
“Oh my,” he whispers, shaking more out of anticipation than dread.
The rest of the photographs weren’t as progressively terrifying as he’d expected. Once the wife had been properly shown her place, the wife beater had relaxed in terms of the severity of the punishments he dealt out to her. She had still suffered, but she had lost no more pieces of her body after the eye. James was a little glad of that, then mollified that that was a thing he could actually be glad over. He got through the stack without vomiting.
He did not get through it all at once, though. About halfway through, the stack was taken away and James was bound to the bed with soft rope. He wondered why it was soft, until he saw the whip. His legs were thrashed to redness, then he was unbound long enough to be turned over, and his back and buttocks received the same treatment.
All the while, the wife beater said nothing and barely even seemed to breathe.
Then, James was permit to sit back up and resume purusing the evidence of the wife beater’s marriage. There were no more sightings or even hints of the child in the pictures, so no real way to gauge passing time. They could have been taken within the past few months, or over many years. The wife’s hair always appeared to be the exact same length and in the exact same style. If James had had a better understanding of human anatomy and bruises and scars, he could have figured out from those signs the relative length of the poor woman’s torment.
Finally, he turned over the last picture, and the most horrible thing of all was there waiting for him. The wife was giving the photographer, her ghastly husband, a genuine smile. She was nude, supine on a dirty mattress, bound there by nothing but her own submission to his will, and she was smiling as she waited for him to do it to her again.
“No, we won’t have anywhere near enough time to get you to that lovely state,” the wife beater whispered over his whore, “but you’ll do your best to pretend, won’t you?”
The question was not meant to be answered, and James held his tongue. The stack was taken away and he was tied down again, face down, ass up. He took all the punishment the wife beater wanted to give, and then surprised the spent wife beater an hour later by demanding more. He almost begged for it, but calculated a demand would be better.
He suffered a little more for it. He endured further bruising and choking and wallops, but in the end the wife beater’s energy gave out first. James was untied and told in an exhausted burst that he could go or stay on the floor for more in the morning, but that he was not getting paid for any more than this, at which point the wife beater’s wallet was handed over and in the last words he uttered before passing out, the client gave a monstrous grin and said, “Empty out my wallet the way you emptied out my balls. All I brought was cash; no cards.”
James dropped the wallet on the bed beside the sleeping man. He stood there holding his payment. He shook in misery, in agony, and in rage. He wanted to find a blunt instrument and bash the wife beater’s skull in, but he shook his head firmly against that sweet thought.
Murder was not the crime he came here to commit.
He had been sent here for blood, so he dug out the tools to collect it. He shoved the cash into his pants pocket after quickly tugging them on. He opened the red case on the bed and slowly drew blood into five of the vials. He enjoyed watching the blood leave the wife beater, who slept through the process undisturbed and utterly unaware.
With the task done, all his clothes back on his body, and the red case hidden in his coat pocket again, James stood facing away from the bed, but only inches from it. He struggled with his murderous desire, his animal impulse to rid the world of this lowly beast. In the end, he walked away from that bed, out of that room, and out of that hotel.
I am proud my brother was able to do that. I don’t know if I could have walked away.
The moment he stepped out of the hotel lobby, though, he realized something he had forgotten. He had been supposed to find a way to reach the wife, but he hadn’t even collected the wife beater’s name, let alone any way of tracking down where he kept his little family.
He turned around and gazed slowly straight up at the front of the hotel, rising higher and higher until the top floors seemed to disappear into the sky itself. James knew this was a trick of the angle and the night, but he shivered to even think about going back up there.
“Nothing for it,” he said to no one, and no one passing by paid him any mind.
He rode the elevator back up to the thirty-seventh floor. He went back to the wife beater’s room door. He almost knocked, but realized he hadn’t bothered locking the door. He tried the handle. It was still unlocked. He slipped in as quietly as he could, and was grateful the hotel’s door hinges were regularly oiled so as not to sqeak and bother the guests.
The wife beater had rolled over and was now facing the ceiling, but he was still deep asleep atop the rumpled covers. His wallet was halfway under one knee. James counted one second for each floor he had risen in that elevator car, and then grabbed the wallet.
He ran from the room, pulling the door shut with his foot in passing so he would not have to stop long enough to even be tempted to take one more look back at the figure on the bed. If he looked at him again that night, he would have killed him. He did not want any more blood on his hands than was absolutely necessary to accomplish this little task the artist had set him on.
He calmed himself in the elevator ride down, so as to appear normal. He played with his expression in the mirrored doors until he got the right combination of annoyance and self-deprecation; anyone who noticed him would realize he had now left twice in the space of minutes. He had to look like he was mentally chiding himself for being forgetful.
He had to pass for just another guest’s visitor. He couldn’t afford to be clocked for what he truly was, which at this point was still nothing more than a prostitute. When your kid sister’s a cop, that’s a very dangerous label to have fastened to your chest. He walked through the hotel lobby feeling like it was a fast food nametag hanging off one side of his shirt.
No one turned a single eye upon him, and the third time he came out onto the sidewalk before that hotel, he exhaled with such relief he had to check to make sure he hadn’t had another orgasm. He hadn’t.
Some old whores had told him orgasms were easy to fake because most clients just don’t give a damn if you have one, but James had never had to worry about that. He was easy to get off. He prided himself on how well trained he’d made himself in holding off an orgasm, and it had been hard work training his body to do that.
He bit his lip and looked both ways. Patting the red case in his coat pocket, he chose to walk away from the coffee shop, not toward it. He walked for several blocks, intermittently stuffing his hands in his pockets or rubbing them together as if it was much colder out.
James stopped before a coin-operated, twenty-four hour laundromat. Fingering the pilfered wallet in his pocket, he went inside. Two women were attending to their loads at opposite sides of the back of the place, so James took a seat at a greasy table near the windows. He took the wife beater’s wallet out and played with it like a spinning top.
The artist walked up from the back of the laundromat and sat down across from James at the little table. James’ arms folded over his chest, the wallet left on the table where anyone could run by and snatch it, and his eyes bored an unimpressed stare right into the artist’s temple.
“That didn’t take you as long as I thought it might.”
“Were you doubting my whorely powers?”
“No. Maybe I just overestimated the bastard’s stamina.”
“Oh, he could have gone much longer. If I’d let him.”
The artist reached across the table for the wallet, but James snatched it up before his carefully inscribed fingers could touch the folded leather. The inked hand simply turned over, expressing in gesture what the artist desired – and James was tempted to give in, and to do more than that – but the wallet remained in the prostitute’s hand.
James narrowed his gaze as the artist looked to the ceiling and folded his hands into fists on the table. James wondered if he had chosen a different location to tuck into and relax his ass, if the artist would have come in the front door there or also have been waiting in the back. He imagined the hand of a young girl in a book opening doors in unexpected places.
“Well, are you going to open it then?”
James obeyed, smiling because this felt more like answering the request of a friend than following the command of someone that temporarily owned him, which was the more familiar sensation and the more typical way things went. Typical is so boring, he thought.
He riffled through the contents of the wallet after spilling them untidily onto the dirty table top. He found the perfect thing tucked neatly into the middle of the wife beater’s credit cards, personal identifications, and inexplicably between library cards for two counties. James couldn’t bring himself to believe the wife beater had ever opened a book, let alone desired to read anything on a regular basis. In the middle of all this, the beast had stuck his wife’s driver’s license. Apparently he didn’t want her able to go anywhere while he was away.
James shivered to think how else she might be bound to her home at this very moment.
“She won’t be tied down,” the artist mused, shuffling the wallet’s contents back into its thin pockets, but leaving the wife’s license out for James. “He’ll want to leave her free to keep up the housework, won’t he?”
“That makes sense.”
“He’s probably letting her keep a cell phone, too, for a semblance of normality when she does get to leave the house on errands. He trusts she’s in the right mental state, as far as he’s concerned anyway, so she won’t on her own attempt to use the phone to get help for herself.”
“That’s where I come in.”
The artist nodded.
James looked into the picture on the license. He inspected some of the details in their tiny print. The license had been issued two years prior. In the bad picture on the left of the card, the wife wore an eye patch, so she’d been missing the eye for at least two years.
“Probably closer to three,” James said, and then looked up, but while the wallet was waiting across the table from him, the artist was not.
James hailed a cab and asked to be taken back to his motel, which was two blocks from the bus station. The cabbie was friendly and inquisitive to the point James suspected a hidden camera was somewhere in the taxi, so he stopped talking altogether.
He scanned the sidewalks they passed. He didn’t have any hope of spotting the artist, but he had to look somewhere. He saw drunken shambles, exhausted shuffling, paranoid and frantic glances, desperate and greedy hands, and more than a few cocky dagger glares thrown back and forth between whores competing for the attention of passing men and women that looked like they had money. Nobody paid the slightest attention to James riding past.
He rather liked being ignored, even if the cabbie still occasionally tried to pry little gemstones of information out of his silent fare.
James paid, got out still without speaking another word, and returned to his cheap little room. He switched on the free cable for noise, stripped slowly for the benefit of no one but himself – he watched his own display in the dull mirror over the battered dresser, checking his technique as he often did, a way of keeping in practice – and then took a long shower.
He stepped out of the steaming waters, dripping and red. He shook off like a dog, not caring where water splashed off him; it was only a motel bathroom, and he still intended never to return to this city. He reached in to shut off the shower, and then stepped out into the dark, lonely, drab little room that so perfectly encapsulated his life. I will die alone in a place just exactly like this, he thought. A whore’s fate is the future for me.
My brothers both, in their different ways, accepted this a long time ago. They might have come to the conclusion while we were still kids. I’d like to think that couldn’t be the case, but it probably was.
Without toweling off, James flopped back on the untidily-made bed, with corners askew and an unsettling lump toward one foot of the bed. He wondered why a place like this bothered with housekeeping at all. He toyed with the thought of switching careers, lips curling up and eyes sparkling in the dismal TV glow that barely penetrated the room’s despair, but would much rather be responsible for the messes on the sheets than having to clean them.
He tried to laugh. He couldn’t muster the strength. He was weighted too heavily to the seriousness of his present situation.
He had never really had a pimp. James was a self-made whore, and rather too proud of that little factoid. He didn’t honestly know if many male prostitutes in fact had pimps, though he knew our brother was among the possible few who definitely did. James’ payments went in nobody’s pockets but his own, and then of course to his debters. We all have those.
His thoughts tried to run away with him, tried to carry him mentally far away from where he needed to be, but time was growing short and he couldn’t afford to let late night daydreaming distract him any further. He sat up and looked around the room.
“Damn,” he said. “Damn it.”
He had not brought his Peach laptop or Portholes tablet with him. All he had was his cyborg smartphone, which he reached for now. He swiped his security pattern into the screen and went right into his Doodle search app. He picked up the wife’s license and read the name aloud, softly though he was alone in the room.
He still hadn’t read the wife beater’s ID. He enjoyed extending the period of his ignorance on that brute’s name, so he could continue, for a little while, to think of the man as less than a man, more of a beast; hell, less even than a beast, for at least animals had the wonderful excuse of not possibly knowing any better.
He got up, walked over to where he’d placed the wallet beside the TV, and fished out the license card it still contained. He realized he would need this name. Evan, he thought, because he could not bring himself to speak the wife beater’s name aloud. He felt afraid if he said it once, he’d have to worry about saying it twice more and summoning the bastard.
Smacking Evan’s license down on the dresser top, he glared at his reflection in the mirror and truly laughed. It was a dry sort of sound, with a tinge of sourness to the expression he caught himself making in the mirror. He thought it the laugh and smile of a killer.
He sat on the bed and entered Marlena’s full married name into the Doodle search bar. In seconds, he saw links to her profiles on Lookbook and Chirpter. He was a little surprised to see that Evan had let her have access to anything online, but the prostitute supposed the wife beater’s confidence in Marlena’s absolute submission was great enough he didn’t worry she would use those channels to ever seek help.
He had beaten the concept of any help coming right out of her head.
That was the implication, anyway.
He laid out on the bed, curled up in a fetal ball, laid out again, rolled over onto his belly, and though he wanted desperately to sleep, he knew that he couldn’t. If he was going to do what the artist asked him to do – and what Marlena unknowingly needed – he would have to act tonight, this one night, this impossible night.
He grabbed his phone.
What am I getting myself involved with?
He opened the lock screen.
I should call the cops, tell them what I know.
He clicked on the link to Marlena on Chirpter, then went to the screen where he could compose a direct chirp, a message only she would be able to open and read. Chirpter was limited, though, to messages of 140 characters or less, so he would have to type carefully.
“I know what Evan has done to you. I have a friend that can help you gain power over him. If you want to meet, reply Yes and I’ll send details.”
James read the message aloud and felt both embarrassed and a little terrified. The walls felt especially paper thin. Though he knew Evan Travers had to still be asleep up in his undeserved, high-rise, luxury suite, he felt paranoid the bastard was just in the other room.
Miles away and at the foot of the bed Marlena begrudgingly shared with the monster who had once been the boy she couldn’t stop looking at in high school, the artist tapped her foot through the covers. Just once, and then he was gone, and she never knew he was there or just what had woken her up. She looked over at the nightstand and noticed the flashing light that indicated she had a new message. She read the chirp in the dark, the bright little screen washing the years of terror off her face, and her eye went wide in uneasy speculation.
Not one moment later, the artist stepped out of the corner of James’ motel room. Now the prostitute was impressed, because there wasn’t enough shadow or any large enough piece of furniture in that corner to conceal a human body, and yet somehow the artist had entered without making a sound and reached that point, standing unseen right in front of him.
“How did you do that?”
“I’ve told you already. Wait, no, that isn’t right. Will tell you. Someday. Nevermind.”
All these contradictory things should have been spoken out of an unsure, moving face, but all the time the artist simply stared directly at James as if he was relaying the most ordinary snippets of absolutely certain mathematical data.
“Why are you here? It’s fucking late.”
“Coming from you, that’s rich.”
“What?” At this point, James was trying to seem more exhausted than he was, because actually he was feeling extra alert and energied by the mystery and tension of the night. Yawning, he repeated, “What?”
“Isn’t it never too late for a fuck, in the book of someone like you?”
James took that as anything but an insult and dropped the tired façade, smiling widely as he sat up, threw his legs over the side of the bed with a flourish, and stood to face the artist eye to eye across the room that was really only little in comparison to Evan’s suite.
Anger stole over the whore’s face as he thought of Evan Travers. He hated even knowing the name now. He directed his anger toward the artist.
“Why did you drag me into this?”
“You would have met the man tonight no matter what. I simply decided to take advantage of the situation.”
“Well, I’ve had plenty of men take advantage of the situation with me, but I never felt this dirty over it. What the hell are we even doing?”
“You have the blood.”
“Yes, I know I do.”
“That wasn’t a question. Show it to me.”
James brought out the red case and laid the five vials of bastard’s blood on the dresser top next to the outdated box television set. He wondered fleetingly how a thing like that could still operate in the age of digital transmission. He supposed a converter box was secreted away somewhere behind the dresser. He realized he was reaching; thinking about totally unimportant things just to distract himself from what he was doing. He looked at the blood.
“Bastard’s blood is right,” the artist said.
James hoped he had accidentally uttered his thoughts aloud, because the alternative – though no more strange really than anything else he’d seen with this stranger in his room – was too alienating and invasive to consider.
James’ phone shot a sharp, chirping squawk around the room. He sat nude upon the bed and opened the message, a reply from Marlena. The artist sat beside him, suddenly nude as well. James checked out the stranger’s body, and didn’t try to conceal his annoyed bemusement that the artist’s hands were crossed over his crotch.
“I thought you’d be more comfortable in your present state if I wasn’t wearing clothes anymore, either. I’m not proposing anything physical.”
“I didn’t really think you were.”
“She says, ‘I can meet you in one hour at Falcon Street 24/7 Market.’ Doesn’t take direction very well. I just asked her to reply with the word Yes.”
“Would you take direction from a strange man, being in her position?”
“No, I guess I wouldn’t.”
“I know this Market.”
“Wait,” James barked, turning with a flare to aim a piercing glare right through the artist. “Who are you calling strange?”
The artist’s right hand clenched into a fist and flew up through the air in less time than it takes for an eyelid to blink. One moment, it was helping cover the artist’s cock and balls; the next, it was a fist less than half an inch from James’ nose. He couldn’t look away from it.
“Sorry,” the artist said in something between a cough and a laugh. He slowly lowered the fist, its fingers opening as if they were unhappy about unfolding from their position of strength and yet unreleased violence. “Can we stay focused?”
James answered with a wink and raised his left hand to pinch the artist’s left nipple. When he was not pushed away, he continued rubbing the nipple, circling the areola with gentle pressure from his nails. His fingers traced drifting paths down the artist’s body. His hand came to rest on the other man’s thigh, and James brought his lips down to the nipple he’d been teasing. The tip of his tongue circled it, his teeth nibbled on it, and he looked down.
The artist’s fingers were splayed, revealing hints and teases of his now erect cock. James slid his fingers over underneath the other man’s crossed hands, pushed them away, and rubbed down between thigh and scrotum on each side. The stiff cock throbbed, longing to be touched. James slid smoothly off the bed and onto his knees before the other man.
“You were saying, about staying focused?”
“You are definitely strange,” the artist said through a tight grin.
James brought his fingertips down along both sides of the artist’s erection. He traced his tongue up from the base to the head, moving his hands back under the other man’s ass as he licked. He opened his mouth and took the artist’s penis in, swallowing the shaft completely.
The artist’s hands dug into James’ hair, clenched the whore’s head as it slowly bobbed up and down, and then moved to James Anthony’s shoulders to gently push him away.
“As enjoyable as this is, we have to stop.”
“Okay,” James said, returning to his seat on the bed without the slightest hint of embarrassment or disappointment.
The artist didn’t bother covering himself with his hands again. Instead, he sat silently staring forward until his cock had dropped soft. Then, he turned his face to the prostitute and shook his head, but he smiled as he did so. They both stood and put their clothes on.
Falcon Street was a bisected thoroughfare. Rather than simply having two sides, like most any other respectable avenue or boulevard would have, Falcon had what its residents and passers-through still called two and a half. When the street had been laid, its lanes coming and going had been divided by a median of ten ugly concrete feet. No plans for a long stretch of green space had ever come to fruition, and after a few decades, the people on either side just tried to get themselves used to the fat gray streak that separated them. No one ever really could.
Eventually, a developer associated with a successful but small chain of international, bizarrely themed “anti-super-markets” came across the odd state of Falcon Street and contacted his corporate superiors with a radical proposition.
When the artist brought James to one end of Falcon Street, where it terminated against another wide road, James was baffled by the thin four-story structure that seemed to go on forever along the median space. Overtop the underelaborate entranceway was a simple hand-painted sign proclaiming the place to be the 24/7 Market. There was no brand association here, though the artist had mentioned the place was backed and run on a corporate level by the owners of the famous Jungle Jill’s. On the outside, James saw none of their flare.
The building was built in dull brick. Aside from its specific location or odd dimensions, nothing about it suggested much more than an office or cheap apartment building.
Inside was where they found the influence of the 24/7 Market’s owners. Rather than the super-market structure of aisles and aisles and aisles of shelved product where one perused endlessly until you simply gave up and shuffled through little hordes of other shoppers to get in line at a check-out lane or tried in slight bewilderment to check yourself out at one of the more modern self-scan units, here you found tables and bins of attractively displayed goods. The tables were worked by specialized workers who maintained and sold their specific goods, each with their own brand of genuine, welcoming smile as you went past or stopped to look.
To get to the market stalls, you had to pass through an inside cart corral of a design James found remarkable as well as oddly futuristic. Due to the shape and limitations of the 24/7 Market, there could be no traditional cart pushers because there was no parking lot to have room for outside cart corrals. Instead, here, mechanisms slightly reminiscent of bowling alley innards brought new, freshly cleaned carts down from the second story. James imagined a similar apparatus in reverse existed at the far end of the Market to gently take your cart and carry it aloft.
As they wandered between the stalls, they were not accosted by gaudy advertisements or the barks of desperate sellers. Indeed, none of the stall workers would approach you verbally or physically unless and until you came up to their own space. Most of them wouldn’t even bother you until you picked something up. They would simply smile and let you pass.
Along the wall every few stalls stood large, animatronic beasts that were definitely familiar from what James knew about Jungle Jill’s. Children sometimes found them to be scary if not downright terrifying, but here James saw them as quaint. A little out of place, but not threatening, menacing, or even really startling. They moved slowly, played cheerful acoustic or vocal-only music, and never lowered their eyes to look directly at the customers.
Standing against the wall next to the third fire escape door they passed, Marlena Travers almost didn’t catch James’ eye. She was dressed in a frilly, flowery frock, her hair was large in curls like a country singer’s most diehard, wannabe fan, and her large sunglasses almost successfully hid the fact that she was wearing an eye patch.
A magazine served to mask her continuous, faux-casual observation of the late night market dwellers, but her pretense at reading it wasn’t very convincing. She held it too close to her face and kept flipping back and forth among the same four or six pages.
The artist kept walking. He stopped under a giant, mechanical, singing, cartoonish bear to chat up a stall holder working a table covered in pocket knives and pocket watches. When James got himself to stop staring after his companion in consternation, he realized he’d been made. Marlena was staring over the top of her magazine and directly at him.
It took a lot for James to remain standing still as if he was just another stranger shopping the Market. His whore’s mind wandered to what he had been doing earlier in the night. He ran through the positions and noises of his encounters with Mr. Travers. He remembered the bruises he’d let the brute put on him, and ran through a mental checklist to make sure they were all covered by his clothes. He then pictured that horrible stack of photographs, the one giving away so much about this poor woman’s marriage, and he wondered if he was truly the first person the wife beater had let see them.
He walked up to her. She rolled the magazine up, slowly, tightly, and held it like a policeman’s baton. James didn’t mind the defensive gesture; he rather liked the fierce defiance he saw in her eyes. He wondered why she hadn’t turned this look upon her husband. Remembering the size of that man, he stopped wondering.
“I contacted you on Chirpter tonight.”
“I figured that out. What do you want?”
“Just to talk.”
“Follow me, then.”
She smacked his wrist with the rolled-up magazine and then darted around him, leading him halfway down the corridor of the Market. James Anthony looked back after the artist, once, but his companion was busy occupying his cover of having nothing to do with them. Where Marlena stopped, there was a wide service elevator. She waited for a stall holder to finish pushing her cartload out into the aisle before entering the elevator. James moved to follow, but the stall holder caught his eye and raised her blouse to show the muzzle of a gun tucked into her waistband. Marlena reached out, grabbed James’ arm to pull him in, and waved off the concerned Market worker.
“What the hell?”
“They’re all armed here.”
James gaped, but Marlena ignored him and pushed a button to close the doors and make the elevator carry them up. He saw there was no button for the second floor, so James figured that must be where the cart-moving mechanisms were housed.
The doors opened on the third floor, which looked like a warehouse that had been squeezed, flattened, and stretched out by some giggling demon spirit. The lights in the ceiling were bright enough, but the atmosphere of the place was chilled, hollow, and dark. The light did not dispel the dark so much as seem to swim through it. James followed Marlena hesitantly out of the elevator, which promptly shut behind them and left them there.
“I have friends, you know. You aren’t the first person to know something about my marriage. There are a few of us that get together a few nights a month. There isn’t anything we can do, you have to understand. We’re all weak. Even the men in our number – be they with an abusive man or woman – are just as weak as I am. That’s kind of comforting.”
She rambled on softly as she led him to a break room that would have overlooked the entrance to the 24/7 Market, if it had had windows. James found himself deeply wishing for a window. The air in the break room was abysmal, perfumed with the smoke of countless people who were not here now, but had left their presense behind them on the air, on the walls, and in the numerous overflowing ashtrays. He went over to one of the refrigerators where stall holders and other Market workers could store their lunches, breakfasts, and dinners, hoping for a breath of if not fresh air, at least smoke-free air, but no, the tobacco aroma had permeated even into that colder, brighter space. He shut the fridge and sighed. She waved him over to sit.
“So your friends work here?”
“A few of them. And most of the Market people are sympathetic. Understanding. They respect our choices and choose not to meddle. Why are you meddling? How do you know?”
“I sell myself. Sex for money.”
“Okay,” Marlena said, nodding her head and waiting for some more pertinent information.
James would not speak. He let her think for a minute about what he’d said, and her own question. When she connected the dots, her eyes went wide and she cursed.
“There is no fucking way. My Evan may be a bastard, but he’s no fag.”
“Wow. There it is, huh? Are you acting like a bigoted bitch to drive me away from trying to help you? Because let me tell you something, you white trash abused woman, I am much harder to scare off than that. Your husband fucked me tonight. That should tell you what I can take.”
“Shit,” she barked, jumping out of her chair and turning so abruptly away that the little folding chair tumbled a few feet to the left. “Shit. But gay? A gay whore? I can’t see him doing that! Doing one. Doing you, sorry.”
“I don’t think your husband cares where his dick goes, as long as it goes into someone he can dominate and control.”
Marlena turned to look at the prostitute her husband had chosen that night, who’d discovered her secrets and saught her out. She grabbed the chair she had knocked askew, righted it, and sat back down across from James Anthony.
“What do you want me to do?”
“I don’t really know. None of this was really my idea.”
Marlena stared over James’ shoulder, and he knew before he turned that the artist was there with them. The door to the break room hadn’t opened. They hadn’t heard the elevator admit anyone else to this floor since their arrival. Yet, still, the artist was there.
“I can give you the power you don’t believe you deserve.”
Marlena was mystified by the artist’s words. He seemed to glide over the floor rather than walk. In moments, he was kneeling before her like a better suitor than the one she’d taken.
“Why do you care what happens to me?”
“Because you are a fellow human, and that is enough. But your suffering is unequal to any pain you might actually deserve, by such a wretched proportion that the universe itself pushed me toward you. More things than you or I can see love us. They love you.”
James was beginning to feel mystified himself, but he tried to keep his jaw from dropping too much.
Shaking off the spell of the artist’s eyes upon her, Marlena stood, paced, and looked down at the kneeling man to shout, “Sure, I’m loved, great, but what can you do about it! What can you do about my fucking hell of a marriage?”
“I already told you.”
“You can give me power. What, power over Evan?”
She sat back down.
The artist rose and produced the red case, though neither Marlena nor James could quite tell from where he had plucked the thing. He opened it on the table between the whore and the battered wife. James knew what to expect within it, but Marlena née Smith gasped.
“Is this his blood?”
“How did you get it?”
“You have him to thank,” the artist said, popping a thumb toward James.
Marlena smiled gratefully over the table and the vials at James Anthony.
“How will this work?”, she asked, wrinkling her nose. “Please tell me I won’t have to drink his blood.”
“No,” the artist laughed. “No, nothing as arcane as that.”
He pointed at another table, and though James could swear all the tables had been empty when they came in that smoke-clouded little room, now that one was covered in the tools of a tattoo artist. There was the needle gun, little cups of inks of various colors, gloves, alcohol wipes, a small trash can, and more besides. James turned to catch Marlena biting her lip, but also nodding in appreciative contemplation.
The artist stepped over to his supplies, bringing the vials of Evan’s blood with him. He opened them and placed a signle drop from each into each of the ink cups. Once this was done, he took a small metal rod and stirred the blood into all the colors.
“Have you ever thought about getting a tattoo?” He said this over his shoulder, not bothering to look back to indicate to whom he was speaking. “What would you like?”
“No,” Marlena said. “I don’t know if I can do this. What will he say when he sees it?”
“That is the beauty of all this, Mrs. Travers. He will not be able to see this piece until and unless you decide that he is allowed to see it. You can stand before him nude, make him examine every little inch of your body, and he still won’t see it if you don’t want him to.”
“What, the inks become invisible, respond to my thoughts or something?”
“No, but that isn’t really all that far off.”
As he listened to them speak, James noticed a change in the air. They had not moved, yet the atmosphere around them was suddenly smoke-free. The ashtrays had vanished from the tables. The walls were whiter, the dull lights shone a little brighter, and the tabletops themselves were less dirty as well.
He looked to the artist, his eyes demanding explanation, but the other man waved off his observation and concern.
He looked to Marlena and knew why she didn’t notice the change. She was mulling over the artist’s words and the implications of them. She was deciding what she was going to do with power over her husband. She was licking her lips and seemed to be inflating, as if the years of Evan’s tormenting of her had let out some of what made her whole, but even the possibility of reversing their positions in the marriage was enough to start filling her up again.
“Yes. One just going into winter. Most of its leaves have fallen. What remain are all stark autumn red. The branches and trunk are all black. I want it on my back. The trunk twists up the left, the branches mostly facing up toward my neck and over toward my spine. The highest and thickest branches snake over to my right side, dropping a few leaves.”
James Anthony looked at the artist’s tools again and shivered. He remembered when our brother went to get his first tattoo, how the waiting parlor had felt warm and cool at the same time, how the pictures on the walls all seemed to stare at him from their various directions and angles and sizes, how it had all felt like the waiting room to a morgue even when they were taken back to the little curtained off partition of a room where the actual tattooing would be done, and how he had not been able to stop vomiting for a quarter of an hour afterward.
He remembered how deep his nails had dug into his palms watching our brother let it be done to him, and he realized his nails were beginning to bite into his palms now.
“Your friend okay?”, Marlena asked the artist, as if they were old pals and James was the third wheel to their after-midnight party.
The artist looked over his shoulder at James Anthony in a way that made my brother feel colder than the city morgue had done when he had to go down and identify his mother’s body, a little more terrified than any trick including Marlena’s husband had ever made him feel, and at least half as queasy as when we had to testify at our father’s trial.
I realize I may be mixing up the timeline of when some of these events took place. You’ll forgive me if I’m not really all that concerned about it.
James composed himself, swallowing his feelings with an audible noise, or at least he felt like they could hear him swallow. He tried to focus on wondering how a swallow could be heard, aside from the groans of a man whose load was currently being swallowed.
The corners of his mouth went up in a smile. He nodded to them, and Marlena and the artist looked back to each other. As they resumed talking, James Anthony got up and searched through cheap cabinets for napkins or paper towels. Finding a single, unused paper towel roll under the break room sink, he tore off a sheet, ripped it in half, and clutched each half in one of his palms to absorb the little bit of blood he’d drawn out of himself.
“You want to do this today?”
“I want to start right now, if it’s all the same to you.”
“Shouldn’t I go home and shower first?”
“Didn’t you shower before you left your husband’s house?”
“How do you know that?”
“Your hair does kind of give it away.”
“Does your dress unzip in the back?”
“James, would you mind?”
The prostitute looked up from where he’d been leaning against the counter next to the sink, blinked, and walked over behind the wife. He put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed, trying uselessly to be reassuring. She shrugged off his touch.
“Just do it so we can begin.”
“You sound like him.”
She looked over her shoulder, up into his eyes, expressionless.
He unzipped the back of her dress down to the base of her spine and stepped away.
She wore no bra and had no qualms about dropping the top portion of her dress down to her waist in front of the two men she had only just met. They hadn’t mentioned the photographs, but James realized she must know her husband had showed the stack to him. After all, she had posed – albeit unwillingly, and in a few unconsciously – for them all.
The artist took an alcohol wipe to Marlena’s back, checked and primed his tools, arranged the color cups in a particular way that only made sense to him, pulled on a pair of strong but thin-materialed gloves, and began.
James Anthony sat down a few tables away, thinking he would not watch, but he could not take his eyes off the tree as it took form.
First, there was the outline of the trunk and most prominent branches. This was the only point at which Marlena flinched.
The artist’s hand moved faster and with more confidence than James expected. He was far from an expert in how tattoos should be done, but he knew designs were typically copied into a form where they could be temporarily placed as a pattern right on someone’s skin, a roadmap for where to lay lines and swatches of color. Here, the artist worked freehand.
Soon, extraneous, gripping, reaching, grasping little branches began to appear. The trunk started to fill in. Leaves popped up here, there, far, near, and life began to fill the piece. The tree seemed to have a soul, as if it had been growing there unseen on Marlena’s back for years, rather than merely coming to exist only now on this very strange night.
The artist never took a break. Marlena never asked for one, either. James Anthony several times had to get up to stretch, or to drink a little water, and once even left the break room to seek out the bathroom on the other end of the warehouse floor, but when he was there, he was watching. His typical sympathetic aversion to needles did not seem to factor in here.
He was captivated. The tree was beautiful. The tree was done.
The artist got up and waved James over, and the whore waited until Marlena had pulled the dress back up over her arms so he could zip up the back.
“Don’t you need to cover this?”, he turned to ask the artist, but the artist, his tools, and even the little trash can were gone.
The ashtrays, the stained walls, and the grimy air were back.
James and Marlena coughed together, then laughed.
“Your friend does like his air of mystery,” Marlena said, getting up slowly from her folding chair. She stretched her arms and turned to face James Anthony. She smiled. “Thank you. I know you probably aren’t any more involved than I am. You don’t know why he picked you any more than I can guess how he was turned on to my plight to even want to help me, let alone how any of what he did tonight, here, was possible. I don’t know a lot about tats either, but shouldn’t a big back piece like mine take more than one session?”
James Anthony could only nod.
“You were nervous before he started. You don’t like tats, do you.”
“I’m actually weirdly attracted to ink on a man, and even think it can look good on a woman’s body, but something about watching the process used to turn me off. I watched my brother getting his first ink done, and I threw up after it was over.”
“Maybe because it was your brother.”
“Yeah,” James Anthony mused, looking through her face into history. “Maybe.”
She snapped her fingers in his face and laughed. He jumped and flashed an embarrassed grin.
“What do you think he wants you to do now?”
“I’m gonna take a guess and say I am going to have to figure that out for myself. Might just be that it doesn’t work in exactly the same way for every case. The way every relationship works just a little bit differently, operating under its own rules as concocted by the idiots bonding themselves to one another through the holy vows of matrimony, the solution to a bad marriage is gonna be a different animal to the solution to someone else’s bad marriage.”
She walked past him and toward the door. He saw the top edges of her back piece until she tossed her hair, which had been hanging forward over her shoulders, and it fell down her back to cover the skin of her neck and most of her shoulders. James knew it was there, and he knew most anyone else could easily spot a glimpse of the fresh ink there, but would Even miss it entirely the way that the artist had promised? James Anthony thought about the artist’s wordings of things and guessed he had to amend that thought to “claimed.” No specific promise had been made.
James Anthony snapped to, glanced around the break room to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything, darted over to the counter to replace the paper towel roll under the sink, and followed Marlena née Smith along the warehouse hall and back to the freight elevator.
As they walked along the single Market aisle, stall holders here and there would turn their eyes to Marlena in passing and notice something in her had been changed. None of them had noticed the artist to realize it was odd they now didn’t see him exiting alongside Marlena and her husband’s whore of earlier in the night. None of them now seemed to notice James Anthony at all. He didn’t mind. He liked how they seemed concerned but proud of the change in Marlena’s demeanor. She walked with a new confidence and self-assurance. She walked with purpose. She walked like a woman on a mission that would not be deterred.
Outside the 24/7 Market, she hugged him tight and close like they were old friends parting ways for an indeterminate span of time, but when she pulled back from him, there was hope on her face that they would see each other again.
Without a word, she turned and walked away.
-END OF CHAPTER ONE-
Live excellently. Forgive freely. Admit your faults. Embrace weirdness. Hate no one.