Murder Once Seen
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In the city of Nis, things often aren’t what they seem.
Derwin is a bounty hunter gifted with the Oddity of superhuman strength and agility—perfect for hunting down fugitives and demons who roam the streets. One killed his boyfriend two years ago, and Derwin won’t stop until he finds out who. Police suspect it was someone he sent to prison, but he can’t shake the idea that they’re missing something.
Elliot is a rentboy who’s been living on the streets since his parents disowned him. He mistrusts everyone and, given his uncontrolled ability to Read Objects and a client list that includes a major gang boss, despairs of ever having a normal life.
Derwin and Elliot meet in a storm of lust. Derwin’s Oddity is fed by the pain of others, but he only wants what’s freely given. Elliot loves pain, but needs safety and a way off the streets before he can allow it. They may be able to solve each other’s problems . . . if they can survive long enough to work together.
Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.
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A Terrible Night
Derwin Bryant never quit in a chase.
A light rain was falling on the city of Nis, turning the neon lights of the porn shops and drugstores into pretty reflections on the asphalt. Derwin avoided a puddle as he ran down an alley and then swerved around an overturned trash can. He grimaced at the stench of rotting food and old beer. It’d be nice if his heightened senses blocked unpleasant things like that.
Up ahead, the alley was a dead end. No way would ol’ Jack escape this time.
The fugitive Derwin was pursuing was an Oddity—annoying because the guy could read minds. He knew exactly where Derwin was. Derwin’s own unusual abilities couldn’t compensate for such an advantage, even though he’d powered up before heading out.
Derwin slowed to a walk to check the shadows in doorways. He lifted lids of garbage containers to be sure Jack wasn’t hiding there, and kept his pepper spray in his left hand, ready to fire at the first sign of the mousy guy. Jack Rapper was short, only five foot two, with dark skin and a gold-capped tooth. He was also quick, but Derwin was quicker, thanks to his own Oddity. And with his larger size and muscles honed daily at the gym, Derwin was a match for just about any criminal in a fight.
Satisfied that Jack couldn’t be hiding nearby, Derwin broke into a run from the last garbage canister to the brick wall at the end of the alley. No Jack Rapper. He turned and cursed. Where had the guy gone?
He scanned the closed doors, wondering if Jack had managed to get one open. As he reached to try the first door, his cell phone buzzed in his pocket, the single pulse of a text. Swearing under his breath, Derwin pulled out his phone with one hand while he jiggled the doorknob with the other. The door was locked.
On a whim, he glanced up, in case his skip had suddenly developed the ability to climb walls, but there was nothing above him other than a laundry wire several stories up, where an abandoned T-shirt dripped in the rain. It appeared Jack had managed to escape. Not surprising for a guy who had managed to hide his special powers from police. Derwin probably should tell the cops about Jack’s Oddity, but he couldn’t do it. Couldn’t betray a fellow Oddity, even a low-life, criminal one like Jack.
Derwin flipped open the phone and tapped on the text, just in case it was important. In his line of work, anything could happen. He didn’t recognize the number, but he recognized the tone and the awful spelling: Lloyd Brunson, one of his past fugitives out on parole again.
You fucker. I shuld kill you and yur pretty boyfriend fur putting me away like dat.
Derwin shook his head, fuming. It wasn’t right that Lloyd had threatened Grady, who had nothing to do with Derwin’s job. Lloyd had been a good chase as well, mostly because the guy had a knack for stealing fast cars. He had a temper too, but as far as Derwin knew, he wasn’t the violent sort. Derwin shoved his phone back in his pocket; he’d warn the guy off later, once he was certain Jack was out of reach or in custody.
Cans crashed at the other end of the alley. He crouched, mentally cursing Lloyd for the interruption. Had Jack managed to trick him somehow? Maybe he hadn’t gone into this alley at all. Derwin began walking toward the noise, readying his pepper spray once more.
His phone buzzed again.
He was going to kill Lloyd for the stupid interruptions, and then shut off his phone. Yet when Derwin glanced at it this time, he recognized the number.
It was from Grady.
Come home. Hurry.
Derwin halted in alarm. He ran a hand through his wet hair, pushing the long strands out of his eyes so he could verify what he’d read. Grady wasn’t the type to send a cryptic message.
Cursing under his breath, Derwin tapped the button to call his lover. One ring, two, three, and then it went to voice mail. Coldness spread from his gut up his spine. After a text like that, he couldn’t imagine why Grady wouldn’t answer. Unless he can’t.
“Call me,” Derwin growled when the voice mail beeped, and then put his phone away. Still no sign of Jack, but he couldn’t worry about that now. With one last look at the alley’s dead end, he ran back toward his car. Grady had to be all right. Even if Derwin called the police for help, what would he tell them? Plus, working as a bail bondsman had taught him that the cops would only screw things up, and anyway, he didn’t have a lot of friends on the force.
Ten feet from his upgraded black muscle car, Derwin clicked the little key fob to turn off the alarm and start the engine. It paid to have a ride ready to go when his fugitives fled.
It took only a second to climb into the seat, strap himself in, and shift into drive, stomping on the gas to blast forward into the empty streets. Over the rain-slicked asphalt, past hookers on street corners and young men hanging out near liquor stores, Derwin headed east, away from the seafront and toward the less crime-ridden areas.
The broken-down stores and apartments soon gave way to modest condos and shops wedged between large financial buildings and parking garages. Each red light taunted Derwin, whispering to him: You’ll never make it in time if he’s in trouble.
His hands shook on the wheel, though he fought to remain calm. Maybe it wasn’t an emergency. But the fact that his phone hadn’t rung yet made him step on the gas harder, urge more speed out of the vintage car.
It took twenty-two minutes to reach his condo. It seemed like an eternity.
He swerved around another car, ignoring the blare of horns as he pulled into an open space in front of the brownstone building he called home. It wasn’t a huge place, just one bedroom and a moderate-sized kitchen and living room, but it was his. Theirs, actually. Grady had moved in a year ago, after they’d been dating for almost three years. Grady, with his open smile and his hair like sunshine. He was one of the best things that had ever happened to Derwin.
Derwin fumbled his car door open and got out, grasping for the gun at his hip—no bothering with pepper spray this time. The little window beside the entrance was broken. Glittering shards of glass littered the ground. The front door hung slightly open.
He ran to the door and took the steps two at a time. His hand touched the doorknob, then he stopped. Should he call out for Grady? Or would that warn the intruder? The seconds ticked by while he stood undecided.
Better to call out, on the chance that Grady was hurt or in a hostage situation.
“Grady!” He shoved the door open and pressed his back to its solid surface as he scanned the hallway, where a potted plant had been knocked over, its soil spread across the carpet. He couldn’t hear anything from the living room beyond. To his right, the kitchen was undisturbed.
Gun raised and ready, Derwin crept down the hall. “Are you okay?” There was a small click and then a hiss—the slide of a window, perhaps. He rushed around the corner to find the living room empty, though in disarray. A chair lay overturned, next to a bowl of popcorn that had been spilled onto the floor. And something was missing from the entertainment center—Grady’s gaming system had vanished, the cords left hanging loose. There was still no response from Grady. Derwin’s heart pounded in his ears.
He quickly crossed the room to put his back to the wall and check the stairs, but the silence continued. The little downstairs toilet was empty as well, but its window was open. Should he check to see if a possible burglar had escaped? Or find his lover?
There was no choice really, although frustration tore at him. Derwin glanced out the window, but there was no one there. He hurried up the stairs, keeping his gun ready in case it should turn out that the intruder had tricked him. The bedroom door was closed. He didn’t bother shouting this time, but kicked it in.
It took a second to process the sight: blood on the carpet, a ransacked room, papers littering the floor from the computer desk. And finally, slumped in the desk chair in front of the bed, his boyfriend, throat slashed, with a knife stuck in his chest.
Derwin’s vision darkened; he couldn’t breathe. A moan escaped him, a painful sound, like a wounded animal. “Grady . . . No. No!” He pounded his fist against the doorframe, closing and then reopening his eyes, but the sight in front of him remained the same. Too late. I got here too late.
He approached the chair slowly, forcing himself to hold back and not touch the knife, even though he longed to gather up Grady into his arms and pull out that knife. Gently, even tenderly, he placed two fingers at Grady’s carotid artery, checking for the pulse he knew he wouldn’t find. What tore him the most was that Grady’s skin still felt warm. He counted the seconds, waiting, hoping despite the evidence of his eyes. Rage and anguish combated inside him, making his vision blur. Not even a hint of life.
Grady—he’d been alive this afternoon! He’d been alive to send that text. And now Derwin would never hear him laugh again, never look into those intelligent blue eyes. Never hold his willowy frame in his arms once more.
With a shaking hand, he trailed his fingertips over Grady’s cheek. Grady’s eyes were already closed, thankfully. Derwin clenched his hand into a fist, backing away so that he didn’t disturb anything, stepping over the slowly spreading red stain. He dropped to his knees on the soft carpet, shuddering with sobs. He’d been too late. His special strength, his speed, so good for catching bad guys, hadn’t helped him at all. Had Grady called out for him? Had he suffered, hoping to be rescued in time?
Blinking away tears, Derwin grabbed his phone. The silence in the room was deafening. He’d be alone tonight. Alone, for many, many nights.
He even laughed at my stupid margaritas joke. Tears choked Derwin, but he couldn’t mourn just yet; he had to function a little while longer. Hands shaking, he dialed the emergency services.
Whoever had done this was going to pay.
The Return of Jack
Derwin parked on Twelfth Street, being careful to remain inconspicuous as he left the car. Today was the day. A fugitive could run. He could even hide. But eventually, Derwin would find him.
Two years had passed since Grady’s murder; two fucking years, and he was still dealing with the same shit. The cops had caught Jack Rapper days after Grady’s death. Then they had chased their tails for six months looking for Grady’s killer, before pursuing Lloyd Brunson, whose shoe size matched prints found at the scene. But all for nothing. There hadn’t been enough evidence to take him to trial. The case had gone cold, and while Lloyd Brunson had gone to jail eventually, it had been on an auto-theft charge, not for murder.
During that time, Jack had served six months for burglary, been released, been arrested again for grand larceny, and returned to Bob’s to post bond. Which he’d promptly jumped bail on a few weeks ago. Why old Bob’s Bonds had given the guy another chance, Derwin didn’t know, nor did he care. This time, Jack wasn’t getting away.
Scanning the expensive cars along the street, Derwin kept an eye out for Jack. This was a wealthy part of the city, close to a three-story mall for the elite. People strolled the streets dressed in designer fashion, their woolen coats and furs wrapped tight against the cold ocean wind.
The city of Nis was one of the largest ports on the west coast of the United Federation of America. The country wasn’t like it had been eighty years ago, before the demons and monsters started appearing, and the damn wars. The United States had crumbled to dust sixty years ago. Out here in the West, the capital Los Fuegos (formerly Los Angeles) ran the show now, with a lot of military might and not a lot of civil liberties. That was probably why car theft was so popular here. Thieves could load up the cars on the dock and sell them overseas in Asia.
Derwin walked, aware that people were staring at him. Dressed in jeans, a T-shirt, and an army vest, he didn’t really blend in with the higher fashion styles. A woman wearing a floral silk skirt and walking a Pomeranian stopped short and glared at him. He gave her a nod. She’d thank him when her car was where she’d parked it—if she even drove herself.
Up ahead on the other side of the street, he spotted Jack strolling with his head down, wearing a leather jacket and slacks. His dark hair stuck out at odd angles under his woolen cap, and his hands were shoved into his pockets. His stride was casual, but he was clearly nervous, looking over his shoulder repeatedly. He didn’t seem to have spotted Derwin.
Derwin couldn’t waste time; any second now Jack would sense him with that damned psychic gift of his. He crossed against traffic, narrowly avoiding a delivery truck. Fortunately, the driver didn’t honk.
With a burst of speed, Derwin ran to the sidewalk and ducked behind a group of women standing with open shopping bags, comparing their purchases. He tried to think of nothing other than how one of them reminded him of his mom. The woman wore her dark hair plaited with a mother-of-pearl comb in the back. Mother-of-pearl . . . mother-of-pearl . . . he used that image as a shield against a foreign mind that might be sensitive to his focus.
He peeked around the women to see if Jack was running yet.
Jack wasn’t, but as Derwin prepared to sneak up behind him, Jack glanced back once more. His eyes widened, and his mouth made a horrified O.
Inside Derwin’s head, someone screamed, the sound reverberating between his ears. He stumbled, vision darkening, and was just able to see Jack taking off. Around him, people walked on, oblivious. Derwin rushed after him, trying to focus past Jack’s mental attack.
Even though he wasn’t charged up enough to use his own power, Derwin was still faster. He dodged an elderly man with a silver cane and a couple pushing a stroller, then grabbed Jack by the arm. With an almost savage fury, he slammed the fugitive face-first against the brick wall of a nearby bookstore. Jack cried out, and the mental scream stopped.
“You failed to appear for your court date, Jack—for the second fucking time!” Derwin snarled, clamping on the cuffs. Once the cuffs were on, he readied the pepper spray. People stared and gave them a wide berth.
“I was hungover,” Jack said, throwing Derwin a glare over his shoulder. One look at the pepper spray, and he submitted, holding still with a hangdog expression. He might have been forty, or he might have been half that age and just weathered from street life. Three days of scruff on his cheeks showed he hadn’t been taking care of himself lately.
“Of course you were.” Derwin took him by the arm and led him back to the car. The last thing he needed right now was for a cop to show up and steal the arrest from him. Funny how in the good parts of town, cops were everywhere.
Derwin opened the car’s rear door and helped Jack climb in, leaving him cuffed and not bothering with the seat belt. He needed to deliver Jack quickly; the local police station was a few miles away, but he was worried about getting him there. Not because of Jack’s agility or strength, but because the guy was likely to try to fuck with his mind.
You hear me? Stay out. Derwin growled as he sat in the driver’s seat and turned on the engine, listening to the sputter of the muffler as the engine struggled to find its pace. He’d neglected the poor car over the last couple of years. Maybe with today’s check he could give her a tune-up.
“You don’t seem to ever learn, do you? Bob’s been good to you.” He pulled into traffic.
“Better than most,” Jack agreed, voice raspy, probably from years of smoking. The guy had been in and out of prison much of his life, but while he was a pain to catch, once he was in custody, he always seemed polite. Maybe that was why Bob kept helping him.
Derwin headed downtown, the wide tree-lined lanes and flashy shops transforming to shiny financial skyscrapers and then to apartments and public offices. The streets narrowed, became dirtier and less cared for. The buildings grew shabbier as well, red brick crumbling at the corners from the salty ocean air, vacant lots ringed by chain-link fences, concrete split by encroaching weeds. No fancy fashions here; those who walked the streets wore faded, threadbare clothes from several seasons ago.
He checked on Jack regularly through the rear-view mirror, expecting at any moment a remark about some deeply buried secret of his, or a mental assault. Jack seemed worn out, possibly from making his earlier mental assault. He was staring out the window, a lost look on his face. Derwin almost asked what he was thinking, then decided it didn’t matter.
At the back of the police station, near the general lockup, Derwin pulled into a parking space. “Don’t fuck him over again, or I’m going to bring you here in pieces next time. And don’t miss your court date or you won’t have a bond company left to work with.”
“Yeah, got it,” Jack murmured, as Derwin climbed out and opened the car door to pull him out. “You know, you were a lot more fun when you were getting laid.”
He smirked and a shiver went through Derwin. Was the telepath rifling through his thoughts?
It was best not to rise to the bait. Silently, Derwin led the man inside.
* * * * * * *
It took far too long to get Jack booked and for Derwin to return to Bob’s Bail Bonds to get his cut of the money. Most fast-food joints were closed by the time he got back to his little brownstone and parked on the street. It was going to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for dinner. Again.
From force of habit, Derwin checked out the condo as he walked up the steps. The door was locked, lights were off, just as they should be. Derwin opened the door and sighed when a plaintive meow came from behind the potted palm. His mother had suggested that a cat would help with the loneliness. She’d been partly right. But it was like feeding crackers to a man starving for steak. Having a pet was nice, but he needed a real connection. Human companionship.
“Hey, Colonel Bickering. Find yourself a lady yet?” He closed the door and crouched down to scratch at the cat’s ears. The name was a play on words from a character in a musical, one of his favorites. It fit the feline well. Often when Bickering mewled, he sounded like he was complaining.
At the moment, however, Bickering was all purrs, rubbing against Derwin’s hand, his flattened Persian face ecstatic. Derwin scratched the thick black and gray fur, earning an especially blissful purr from the usually grumpy cat. He had to admit that tonight, having Bickering helped. After catching Jack, the last thing he needed was to sit in a silent townhouse and remember that night.
After attending to Bickering, Derwin made himself a sandwich and sat down in the living room, turning on the television to the local news. Most of the stories aired were propaganda; if he wanted real news, he’d search the internet. But the noise made the place less oppressive. He ate slowly, trying to focus on the prattling newsreaders.
It didn’t work; it never did. His body ached with something that wasn’t fatigue or strain. Since Grady, he hadn’t had a lover, and every night he felt the same. His Oddity was sexual in nature; while he wasn’t like the Enticers who fed off lust, he wasn’t that far off. Pain was his elixir, his steroid. Dad got his fix roughing up unruly prisoners and participating in a local boxing ring. For Derwin, trouncing the skips helped the craving a little, like a piece of candy. However, his main meal had always come from sadism in the bedroom.
Leaning back against the buttery leather of the sofa, he closed his eyes and tried to push down the electric tingles creeping up and down his body. He’d been able to hold the hunger off for a few months now, but he was paying for it; the emptiness churned in his stomach. Before Grady, he’d always had a steady stream of guys to fuck. Why couldn’t he go back to a casual lifestyle?
Derwin knew the answer. After love, after a relationship, one-night stands didn’t compare. Which wouldn’t have been a problem, except he couldn’t consider dating anyone seriously again. Everything was too raw. Even thinking about the love they’d shared made his heart ache with the void, the loss. Grady. It was all my fault. I wasn’t fast enough.
After a half hour of trying to watch TV, Derwin gave up. His body burned from the inside, taut and demanding. He craved touch. He craved a hell of a lot more, like a lover who was also a masochist, but that wasn’t likely to happen. Still, he’d held back the need for too long to continue functioning. He’d pay for sex tonight just to shove down the urges to do something worse to feed his power. All he had to do was pick up a rentboy, let him know there would be some kink and pain play, then shove him out before dawn. It was what Derwin’d been reduced to.
Derwin headed up to the bedroom to change into a black T-shirt. He laid aside most his bond enforcement gear, save for one knife hidden in an ankle sheath. A quick comb through his hair, and he was ready, if not enthusiastic. Perhaps he’d go over to Club Demon, one of the darker gothic hotspots in town. Maybe he’d even find a date, and not just a drug-addicted whore.
He hopped into his car and drove off into the deepening night.
Elliot Leed stared into a cracked mirror, carefully applying black eyeliner to accentuate his blue eyes. Somewhere else in the building, a factory machine was pounding and a stray cat let out a yowl. He smirked. One could almost make a heavy metal song out of that. The noises might be annoying, but he’d grown used to them.
This room had once been a storage closet, but part of a wall had caved in, rendering it useless to the factory owners. At the moment it served as his home sweet home.
His stomach growled rudely; he’d only eaten a breakfast bar today. He’d planned to use a dramatic yet wide-eyed look to bring him customers tonight at Club Demon. Dressed in black leather pants and a pale-blue silk shirt that had cost him a week’s earnings, he hoped the clothing would attract a richer clientele and hide his thinness. Maybe he could even earn enough from such patrons to get him out of this hellhole.
He closed his eyes. How would I survive if I stopped selling myself? I don’t know a fucking thing about how to live like a normal day-jobber.
Elliot took a moment to check his wallet—no ID, because he didn’t drive and hadn’t been in the system since freshman year of high school. Instead, he had few dollars that he was saving for the bar, a handful of condoms and packets of lube, and a business card or two of clients he could count on if he couldn’t find anyone tonight. Those clients gave him the creeps, however, and they were cheap. He needed to find new options. His other pocket contained what he hated but needed the most: his gloves. His Oddity was one of the worst ones a rentboy could have, but since his parents had kicked him out, he hadn’t had much choice in careers. At least he wasn’t dead. And the government hadn’t found him yet.
After locking the door to his room, Elliot headed out to retrieve his bicycle from the warehouse’s main room. He longed to have a real bike—a motorcycle. His good friend Stefan, a retired rentboy, had started to teach him how to ride one, but there was that whole problem of having no ID and not existing in the system. Elliot laughed to himself. Face it. You’re just scared to live a normal life like everybody else. Having wheels would be a big step in that direction, and the idea of a regular job and life terrified him. Still, it was good to have a goal.
It was drizzling outside as he pedaled past factories and warehouses out to the main road. He darted between parked cars and through the light traffic, scanning the area for any dangerous yokai from the docks. Nothing would end his night sooner than a smoke spirit or sea dragon looking for prey.
Few of the streetlights worked near the docks, but as soon as he passed into the lower-income residential sections, Elliot encountered more traffic, and more people. His nerves settled a bit. Theresa’s little apartment was one street down—Theresa, his Madame, and best protector. She had plucked him from the streets when he was fourteen.
It had been raining that night as well.
And it had all started with a kiss.
* * * * * * *
Jake Townsend had been the school heartthrob, with adorable scruffy blond hair, brown eyes, and perfectly defined brows. Their eyes had met during Biology, across the classroom. He’d had not one girlfriend but three already during their freshman year. That was why Elliot hadn’t thought much of the look at first. But then he’d caught Jake staring again. There had been weight to his gaze. Heat. Each time he’d glanced Jake’s way after that, he’d found the young man staring at him with an intensity that conjured butterflies in his stomach. When Jake eyed him like that, Elliot felt like he could fly.
During lunch Elliot tried to convince himself that he shouldn’t get his hopes up, that a stupid glimpse shouldn’t affect him so much. Yeah, he found guys attractive, and his fantasies were often filled with scenarios of this boy or that boy shoving him up against a wall and taking him, right in front of everybody. But those were just fantasies.
The reality was that he had to be careful around others, because his Oddity could get him in real trouble if discovered. Why he was the only one in his family with one, he didn’t know; his sister liked to tease him that he was the milkman’s son. Sometimes he wondered if something like that was true.
He always wore protection against the visions that had started when he was eight. These days that meant fingerless gloves, which he liked to say were his fashion statement against the majority. Since he needed full hand contact to read objects, the gloves protected him but didn’t look as strange in warm weather. Luckily, most objects didn’t hold psychic imprints, and flesh didn’t hold them at all.
Standing in line at lunch later that day, he felt a hand on his shoulder and turned to find Jake standing behind him. Soft brown eyes regarded him with curiosity, and a shock went through him.
“Jake?” He held his empty tray almost as a shield between them. What could Jake want with him?
Jake said nothing. His eyes narrowed, not in anger, but in interest, the pupils widening. A hot flush started from the back of Elliot’s neck, then spread to his cheeks. His dick hardened. It was tempting to lower the lunch tray to cover his crotch, yet he seemed unable to move, unable to speak. He swallowed, and Jake’s eyes flickered to catch the movement. Jake was seriously too gorgeous. And too near.
Elliot’s heart pounded in his ears, even as Jake’s arm stretched toward him. I’m going to pass out if he— Then Jake reached past him and retrieved a salt shaker from the counter behind him. Elliot released the breath he’d been holding, as Jake turned and walked away.
I’m such an idiot. Trying to hide his discomfort, Elliot quietly took his plate of food and headed to an empty table.
He thought what had happened at lunch had just been another trip by his overactive imagination, but when he encountered Jake after school that day, it became clear that he was wrong. Elliot emerged from the bathroom, shaking his hands dry, to find Jake putting books into his locker and shutting it. Elliot stepped up beside him, intent on putting away his own books before catching the bus, when Jake grabbed his arm with surprising force. Elliot stared up at the taller boy. Was he about to be punched for what had happened earlier? Maybe Jake had seen his blush—or worse.
Elliot opened his mouth to ask what was the matter, to beg Jake to let him go, but again, he froze.
With a flash of movement, Jake pulled Elliot close and slammed his back up against the lockers, the bang echoing down the empty hallway. Elliot gasped, but the impact almost felt good. His thoughts were too scattered to question why.
This is it. He’s going to hit me.
Instead, Jake kissed him.
Heat filled Elliot. He could smell the clean, herbal scent of Jake’s cologne. A little moan escaped him as Jake pressed a thigh to his groin, rubbing the erection that had appeared. He likes boys too, Elliot thought, light-headed even as they paused for a breath.
Jake leaned in for another kiss, moving slowly this time, his fingers clenching on Elliot’s arm. It started out tentative, but then he began exploring deeper, using his tongue. Elliot could die right there, and it would be a good death. He kissed back, nerves on fire, certain that he’d fly apart if Jake let go now.
He placed his hand on Jake’s shoulder as Jake nipped at his bottom lip. Elliot’s hands brushed the cotton of Jake’s T-shirt. Instantly, he realized his mistake.
Images bombarded him—Jake’s father shouting, “You’d better win this basketball game!” A fist struck him in the gut. He looked at himself in the mirror, only to find Jake’s face staring back, a bruise under one cheek.
Elliot heard himself babbling, but the sound was far away. It was like when Elliot’s own father beat him. Then more images: Jake’s younger sister crying, a stash of porn under his bed. Then echoes of something dark and secretive, something Jake’s father demanded. Something to make Jake a man—
“Steroids. Steroids.” Elliot couldn’t stop saying the word, couldn’t break free from the visions. He was Jake, and then abruptly he was himself again, aware that Jake had moved away. A female voice was shouting down the hall. He blinked, trying to get his bearings, and found he was slumped on the ground. It hadn’t happened at school like this. Not ever. Elliot stared up at Jake dumbly, still feeling the sensation of Jake nibbling his lower lip.
“You bastard,” Jake hissed, and kicked him in the side. Elliot cried out, curling in to protect himself.
“Jake Townsend! Elliot Leed! Both of you in my office, now!”
Jake swore under his breath as he turned to Ms. Fenwick, the vice principal. Elliot groaned and struggled to regain his feet, hot and cold running through him. How much had she seen? The kiss? The vision? Both?
Jake feinted a punch, but then he walked over to where Ms. Fenwick stood. Elliot grabbed his gloves from his pockets and his backpack from his locker, then followed behind. Together, they headed for the admin offices, while Elliot’s stomach churned in fear as he pulled his gloves back on. How many times had his mother warned him? He couldn’t let people know about his Oddity. People with Oddities tended to get drafted into the military. Or worse.
Once they reached Ms. Fenwick’s cramped little office, Elliot and Jake had to wait while she sat down and began typing something on the computer. Five, maybe ten minutes later, she paused and looked at them over the top of her steel-frame glasses. “Care to explain yourselves?”
Elliot opened his mouth, but Jake answered before he could utter a word. “He hit on me—he tried to kiss me. That’s why I kicked him. He was acting all crazy. I think he’s been stalking me.”
Elliot glared at Jake, his astonishment turning into anger. “I did not! You kissed me!” How would his father react if word got out about this?
Ms. Fenwick shushed them. “I don’t care who started what. There is no fraternizing or fighting in the halls. Now sit down, you two, while I call your parents.” She glanced at Elliot. “Did he hurt you?”
Worse and worse. He shook his head—the last thing he needed was for her to call the nurse, or send him to a hospital. “I’m fine. It won’t happen again. Can we just go home?” They’d both missed the bus by now, and it wasn’t safe to walk, but Elliot dreaded the idea of asking for a ride. Putting his mom out would only make his punishment worse.
Jake ran a hand through his hair, pushing it out of his eyes. “Yeah. This was only a stupid prank. You don’t need to call anyone. We’ve learned our lesson.” He sounded as scared as Elliot, which wasn’t surprising, given what Elliot had just seen of his home life. They’d probably both get beatings tonight.
Ms. Fenwick ignored their pleas, and pointed to the two chairs by the wall. Sick to his stomach, Elliot sat down and didn’t even glance at Jake.
She did the calling from the principal’s adjoining office, which meant that Elliot couldn’t hear what was said. By the expression on her face when she returned, however, he knew that his parents’ response hadn’t been good. She instructed them to wait at the front of the school for their mothers. Dejectedly, he headed there and did so, aware only that his secrets had been laid bare—Jake had seen him having a vision, on top of the kiss. Would he tell people?
Ms. Fenwick stood a few steps from where they waited, watching Elliot and Jake carefully, though they maintained several feet of distance from each other and kept their eyes on the parent drop-off point.
Elliot’s mother was the first to arrive, which spared him from having to watch a confrontation between Jake and either of his parents. It was just her—Dad was still at work, then. Hopefully Mom hadn’t called him yet.
He climbed into the four-door sedan’s front passenger seat and buckled up, shame turning his stomach sour. His mom waited until they pulled onto the street before she cuffed him on the side of the head. He winced.
“Idiot!” she swore.
He nodded, but stayed silent. It was better to let his parents take out their anger in silence first. Talking back only made things worse.
Her breath hissed between her teeth, and her knuckles were white where she clutched the steering wheel. “So now you like boys.” It wasn’t a question.
Elliot considered lying, but what was the use? If he ever wanted to live his own life, they’d find out sooner or later. “I swear he approached me.” It was his only defense.
She slapped him again, this time on the cheek, and the car swerved a little. Elliot bit his lip. “I don’t give a damn what he did! That’s in your record now, you know—that you’re a sexual deviant! Do you realize what this means for your future?”
He wanted to keep quiet, he really did. But he couldn’t stop the rage, or the words that spilled out. “It’s not like that anymore, Mom. More people are coming out. It’s not going to change anything like colleges or jobs.”
Like his dad, Elliot had a head for numbers and computers. Unlike his dad, however, he wanted to go into something fun, like software development—games, maybe. Not be a boring analyst for some financial firm.
His mother made a hard right onto their street, passing by the security guard at the gates of the walled community with a quick wave. Her tone dropped to ice-cold. “It changes everything. You don’t know about how the world works, Elliot. You’re supposed to hide your sexuality, just like you hide your ability. Those who don’t hide things don’t make it far.”
“Because some consider homosexuals to be expendable. As for your Oddity, there are powerful people out there, corporations, who keep the rest of us safe. They’d snatch you up in a heartbeat for the war against the demons. You’ve never been in the wilderness before, beyond our neighborhood walls. You’ve never seen a yokai.”
Elliot shivered. He’d heard tales about the demons and spirits and the way they fed on humans. The gate and the wall around their neighborhood weren’t just for show. His family lived on the outskirts of Nis, in the suburbs. Other fortified neighborhoods surrounded them, but beyond those was the city wall, and then the great forests. Few dared to venture out there without a guard escort or combat training. Few without that expertise or escort came back.
She pulled into the driveway and shut off the car, turning again to look at him, but Elliot stared straight ahead. He was probably in for the beating of his life once Dad got home.
Abruptly, his mother opened the car door and got out. She slammed the door behind her, and Elliot blinked in surprise. No lecture? No more ranting? He wasn’t sure whether to be grateful or worried, as he watched her stalk toward the front door.
Elliot hesitated for a moment. Would he be better off waiting outside until supper? It would give her time to cool off. On the other hand, he’d rather get the lecture now. Get it over with. Groaning, he opened his door and grabbed his backpack, then walked to the front door, entering slowly. He paused when he heard his mother’s voice in a heated argument.
“Yes, that’s what Ms. Fenwick said she saw. I don’t know. I don’t know.” Her voice grew more and more agitated as she spoke. Elliot shut the door behind him and crept across the living room to his room, keeping clear of the kitchen, where pots and pans were being slammed about. “He’s your son!”
Elliot winced at her words as he hurried the last few steps and closed his door. For the next half hour, he tried to do his homework, but his concentration kept slipping away. How was he supposed to focus? Tomorrow will be another day, he reminded himself. Nobody at school would know what had happened, outside of Jake, himself, and the vice principal. Things could go back to normal.
He’d just assured himself of that for the hundredth time, when his mother opened the door. Her eyes looked dead, and her face was expressionless, even slack. Elliot shivered.
“Pack your things. You can’t stay here anymore.”
“What?” He stared at her, dumbfounded. He’d expected a beating. A lecture. Cold silence for a week. Not this.
His mother crossed her arms over her chest, not meeting his gaze. He’d always thought she was beautiful with her raven hair, her azure eyes—features he’d inherited. Right now, though, she could have been a statue. “Your father said to get out. If you’re here when he gets home . . .” She took a deep breath. “He’s getting the shotgun.”
Elliot’s legs felt like water, and he was thankful he was sitting. “Where am I supposed to go?”
She shook her head. “A friend. The military. Wherever you people congregate—it’s your problem now.” She swallowed. “It’s too much. Your Oddity . . . and now this. I won’t risk Clara and Bobby over you. You figure it out. Your father wants nothing to do with you anymore.” With that, she turned and walked away, leaving the door half-open behind her.
You people . . . did she mean Oddities? Or gay people? He waited several minutes for her to return, for Clara to come in and ask what was going on. He could hear his mom in the kitchen again, hear her snap at Clara. Shotgun . . . was that for real? The room spun, out of control.
She didn’t return, and Elliot realized he was losing time. He pulled out his backpack and emptied his school things. Would he need them? He settled for keeping a few of his books and some paper and pens, then stuffed in two pairs of jeans, three T-shirts, a jacket, underwear, and socks. It was too bad he wouldn’t be able to take his desktop computer, and he didn’t know how long his phone would work before they shut off the service. The only other stuff he could think of was food and money. Did he dare enter the pantry?
“Ten minutes!” His mother shouted from the kitchen. Elliot’s heart raced, and he couldn’t help double-checking the clock.
He quickly threw in a few electronic items—calculator, watch, a music player. He looked around his room. Would he ever see it again? Taking a deep breath, he slung the backpack over his shoulder and exited. In the living room, he found Clara reading a book. She didn’t glance up at him. Bobby was probably at a friend’s house, which was good. He loved his little brother. Saying good-bye would be another wound.
He headed for the door, but before he could open it, his mother cleared her throat from the kitchen doorway. She held out a twenty.
Elliot swallowed. There was so much he wanted to say, so much emotion trying to burst out of his chest. But he said nothing. She’d made her choice. He snatched the money, turned, and walked out of the house.
* * * * * * *
For a week after his parents kicked him out, Elliot had stayed close to home. He slept in a neighbor’s doghouse the first night with a mutt who adored him. The next day, he visited his friends’ houses to see if anybody would take him in, but gossip had spread not only about the kiss, but about his Oddity as well. He suspected Clara. She’d always been jealous of his visions, though he’d told her they were a curse, not a gift. Besides making his current predicament harder, this meant he couldn’t go back, even if Dad allowed it—no way was he taking the chance of a government recruiter “visiting” him and hauling him off to the military.
The second night, he ventured past the subdivision’s security gates to sleep on his school’s grounds, but had to flee when someone called the cops. By the end of the week, he’d taken to digging in restaurant dumpsters and sleeping under bushes. The threat of police constantly plagued him, and it wasn’t long before he left the gated suburbs and headed downtown.
That was where he met Theresa.
He’d been trying to pull the remnants of a burger out of the dumpster when four teenage boys approached him.
“Loser!” one hollered, as another yanked on his backpack.
Elliot snarled, holding on tight to it. He wasn’t letting go without a fight. He’d already sold off his electronics, but there were still some items of worth in there, including his high school math book, his favorite subject.
“He’s not even that,” another boy said. As Elliot faced him, they shoved him hard against a wooden bench, knocking him down. They started kicking him, and he yelped, curling in on himself. The blows continued, hard and fast, as it began to drizzle.
Then a shadowy figure materialized out of nowhere. It— She gave a shriek, and whacked one of the boys with a cane. The rain shower became a torrential downpour, as she rounded on another boy, swinging. Cursing, they backed off, shielding their faces from the rain and her fury.
“Not fucking worth it,” one boy whined. He took off running. The rest followed close behind.
He could never recall later what she’d said. All Elliot remembered was her face as she’d bent down to examine him in the gutter of the street. Her eyes were almost as blue as his, though her hair was steel gray. She was beautiful, despite her age.
Theresa took him to her apartment where she kept beds for others just like himself, young boys and girls lost to the streets of Nis. She told him he could stay two weeks for free, but then he’d have to find a way to contribute: by joining a gang and running or selling drugs, by becoming a thief, or by becoming a whore. If he chose the last, she could be his Madame and set up safe contracts.
He chose whore.
It actually wasn’t as simple as that. He tried his hand at thievery for a while, but the danger of arrest proved too great for him, and his Oddity made him a liability. As a rentboy, he could wear latex gloves in the name of hygiene and nobody thought twice about it. The cops used Theresa’s services, so they left her boys and girls alone. It was a decent arrangement, all things considered.
So when he turned fifteen, he’d started selling sex, and he’d learned more than he cared to know both about himself and other people. She’d set up his clients for the first few months. After that, it had been up to him.
Now, at nineteen, he was an old pro, but still young enough to attract the good clients—ones who wouldn’t try to kill him. If he continued on this path, he might expect to become like Theresa and take younger boys and girls under his wing.
He hoped to quit the streets before that happened. His friend Stefan had done it—at least mostly. He was an erotic dancer now, no Madame, no debts to Theresa. For Elliot, it was more about fighting his own insecurities than simply finding other work.
I’ve lost out on so much in life. How do I overcome that?
Elliot reached Club Demon as the rain let up, and chained his bicycle to a light post a few buildings down. No point in advertising his lack of wheels. He waved to the bouncer and got in without charge—another perk of being one of Theresa’s boys—before heading to the restrooms to do damage control on his wet hair. Thank the gods his eyeliner was waterproof.
Once he’d perfected the “wet, sexy look,” Elliot went to the bar and sat down, giving Neil, a jovial bear of a man, a smile. The place was busy, the dance floor crowded. Just the way he liked it.
Neil returned the smile and came over. He leaned in close, his smile turning to concern. “Haven’t seen you in a bit, E. Take care—the Tatsu boys are here tonight.” He glanced over at one of the pool tables, where a few men stood around, wearing leather jackets with water dragons emblazoned on them.
Elliot’s heart sank. He’d entertained the Tatsu boss before, but preferred to keep his distance from gangs in general. Each time he’d entertained the boss, he’d been in fear for his life, though he trusted the higher-ups more than their lower thugs, like the ones playing pool here. They had something to prove.
“Thanks. I’ll try to stay clear.”
Neil nodded and left to wait on another customer. Expelling a breath to calm his nerves, Elliot scanned the place for past clients or possible new customers. It was difficult to tell who was paired with whom on the dance floor, but as soon as he got out there, the guys seeking his type of fun would find him.
Sitting alone at a bar without a drink in his hand was a cue for the buyers. Elliot stretched a little, catlike, and gave one fellow a lazy smile. He got a wink back, but that was all. Pity. He enjoyed being pursued.
A brief rise in the noise level by the pool table caught Elliot’s attention. But as he turned to look, a hand gripped his arm. He tensed up. The guy holding him had a crew cut and wore the water-dragon leather jacket with black denim jeans.
Pushing aside his nerves, Elliot managed to conjure up a sweet and innocent smile.
It wasn’t returned. “I’ve seen you around before. Looking for a little rough play?” Dark eyes swept over him, measuring, and the guy smirked. The tough ones often liked Elliot. They figured since he was small, he’d be easy to shove down and take advantage of. He’d had to break a few bones before to prove such types wrong. Noses were easy to break, for example.
The trick with the Tatsu, though, was to be polite and tread carefully. Elliot shrugged nonchalantly. “Maybe a tearoom set or two,” he drawled, nodding toward the bathroom. “Nothing too heavy tonight; I’m just browsing.” That was true enough. He didn’t know if Mr. Crew Cut knew the boss Elliot had visited, but it was best not to admit to someone as disrespectful as this that yes, he did enjoy pain play—emphasis on the word play. A trip to the hospital afterward cut the fun out of it.
Crew Cut leered, sliding a hand down Elliot’s side to rub his thigh through the soft black leather. “Nah—not one for baring my dick in public. You’ll come with me instead, to my place. Give me a freebie for your security, whaddya say?”
Elliot leaned back, shaking his head. “You’d have to talk to Theresa.” In his peripheral vision, Crew Cut’s friends were still shooting pool, but they’d be over in one word if their gang pal called them.
“Come on. A freebie. No one has to know about it.” Crew Cut’s fingers were digging in. Elliot tried to think of something diplomatic to say, some way to refuse without pissing the guy off.
Before he could open his mouth, however, another hand—this one large and attached to a bare muscular arm—knocked Crew Cut’s away from his thigh. A deep voice cut in. “Is this guy bothering you?”
Crew Cut scowled, baring his teeth. Elliot craned his neck to peer back at his rescuer.
A handsome, chiseled face. Light-brown eyes that had a sparkle of amber to them, medium-length brown hair tousled like the guy had just gotten out of bed, and the kind of physique that reminded Elliot of a soldier. The man’s manner instantly warmed Elliot, reassured him. The combination of good looks, broad chest, and muscular arms was devastating. Plus the guy smelled good. Like soap. He didn’t even seem stoned or drunk.
“I— Yeah,” Elliot fumbled, trying to recall what the guy had asked him.
Crew Cut hesitated, his eyes narrowing.
Some confidence crept back into Elliot as he smiled at the newcomer. “Yeah. A little.”
This was probably going to get him into trouble later, but fuck that. Right now, he was taking a gamble on Mr. Rescuer.
“Who the fuck are you?” Crew Cut let go of Elliot’s arm to take a step forward. Elliot had to push back the urge to leave the place to let the two of them fight. He scooted to the side instead, so that he could see both of them without having to turn.
Mr. Rescuer crossed his arms and stared down the less-muscular gang member. “Your worst nightmare if you ever become a fugitive.”
Elliot’s blood went cold, but it was Crew Cut who asked, “You a cop?” He didn’t look scared. Not yet, anyway.
Mr. Rescuer shook his head. “Bounty hunter. However, I’m real friendly with the cops. Want me to call them and have them bust your ass?” He brought out his phone and tapped on the contacts icon. Elliot’s eyes flicked up to meet Crew Cut’s. Cops would pretty much wreck the evening for both of them.
“Asshole,” Crew Cut muttered, but he stepped back. He pointed a finger at Elliot. “We’re not done. I’ll see you later.” With that, he turned and walked over to his friends.
That might be a messy meeting. Still, Elliot was relieved. Maybe Theresa could apply pressure to the gang lords, keep his skin safe. He flashed Mr. Rescuer a smile. “Thanks.”
The guy chuckled. He had a nice laugh. “No problem.” He arched an eyebrow, his eyes traveling down Elliot’s body. “You even old enough to be in here?”
Ouch. While his young appearance helped score some clients, it hindered him with others. Elliot shrugged, trying not to feel deflated. “I’m old enough. Ask Neil.” He nodded at the bartender, who gave Mr. Rescuer a thumbs-up. They had an understanding that Elliot could drink what he liked here despite his age. Theresa’s boys were a popular attraction in clubs like these.
“Uh-huh.” Mr. Rescuer gave Elliot another appraising look, then shrugged, holding out a hand. “Derwin Bryant.” He glanced at Elliot’s gloved hands before they made contact. Probably thought he was a biker. Well, a wannabe, anyway.
Elliot shook hands with him, and melted inside at the sheer strength in that grip. “Elliot Leed. New here?” Surely a body like that would have stuck in his memory.
Derwin shook his head sheepishly. “I’ve been here before, but it’s been a while. I don’t get out much.” He chuckled, nodding at a group of young men wearing makeup and dressed in black. “I think it may have changed a bit since the last time.” Derwin’s eyes flicked down, and Elliot realized with horror he wore a gold ring on his left hand. Aw shit. The guy was married?
Before Elliot could think of something to say to cover up his surprise, Derwin seemed to notice Elliot’s attention and stuck his hand in his pocket sheepishly. “Whoa—sorry. I still wear it. He, um. He died two years ago.” Derwin laughed bitterly. “That’s why I haven’t been out much. Figured I should, though.”
Derwin was actually blushing. It was cute, particularly from someone so physically imposing. Elliot suspected that under other circumstances Derwin could be lethal. He had that feel to him.
“Well anyways, guess I’m lucky you picked tonight.” Elliot turned on the charm again, smiling in a manner that was both innocent and inviting. It usually did the trick with sensitive johns like this. The fact Derwin was both easy on the eyes and seemingly a nice guy could make for a lucrative and enjoyable evening.
“Are you trying to pick me up?” Derwin sounded more amused than interested, but his eyes drifted over Elliot’s body. Too soon to reel him in, but it wouldn’t take much.
Languidly, Elliot rose from the stool, leaning closer. “Maybe. Want to dance?” If Derwin didn’t want to buy him a drink, then perhaps he’d at least indulge Elliot in that—and then enjoy it.
Derwin’s eyes narrowed. “You’re legal?”
Elliot smiled and took his hand. Morality. Wasn’t that a refreshing change? “I’m legal. Definitely legal—I’m nineteen.” As he pulled Derwin over to the dance floor, the guy offered no resistance.