Why do Nazis get the best clothes?
Nicholas Collins pulled his coat tight around himself. It was several sizes too big on him, almost a leather bathrobe, but he’d still saved up six weeks to buy it. Way he figured, its size was a problem that would resolve itself. Hopefully. The pawn shop guy told him it belonged to a German U-boat captain.
Another wave of wind broke over Carnival Park, momentarily sending flecks of silver through an iron-black pond. Ducks glided over the dark water, weaving through lily pads and red and yellow leaves. The place was almost deserted. Even the most dedicated duck-feeders had been driven indoors by the autumn bite. Besides Nick and the ducks, the only other living souls were a girl in a pink star shirt skipping stones over the water, and a gangly, turtle-necked hipster with a green beanie and a red toilet-brush beard he probably stole from someone.
Nick watched the man closely. Clive, he was called. One of Ivan’s regulars. Right now, Clive was standing next to a row of bushes, making a big show of not looking at them while he checked his phone. Nick was pretty sure it was flat.
He leaned forward on his park-bench.
Come on, he thought. We both know why we’re here, and it’s friggin cold.
Clive finally put his phone in his pocket and stepped closer to the bushes. With arthritic slowness, he slipped his hand into his saddlebag and removed a white envelope.
His eyes darted about like a frightened rabbit, and he thrust the envelope into the bushes, exchanging it for a white package he quickly stashed in his bag. A panto-director would’ve called it too showy.
Nick watched Clive march stiffly towards the gate, wishing that bush had thorns.
Once the idiot was gone, the boy strolled casually towards the bushes. He didn’t make any effort to hurry or disguise his pace. Why should he have? That would’ve looked obvious. Besides, what he was getting out of the bush was way more legal than what Clive had.
At least, he assumed it was.
After a couple of seconds of careful rifling, Nick found the slightly crumpled envelope.
A peal of laughter made him jump. Nick looked towards the pond. The girl in the star-shirt was laughing as some ducks flew quacking from the circle of ripples spreading through the water.
Nick sighed and shook his head, slumping down on the pebbled pathway with his back to the bushes.
His stomach tightened as he opened the envelope and counted the money within.
Sixteen $50s. Thank God. Or Clive.
Nick hated counting the money. What was he supposed to do if Clive came up short? Call a lawyer?
God, what a crap system. Why couldn’t Ivan use an app like a real drug dealer?
Nick slipped the envelope into his coat and headed out to the street. The beginnings of rain breathed over everything. Thin rivers ran slick with oily rainbows through the gutters. The road disappeared beneath columns of cars crawling forward at a snail’s pace. Most of the drivers and pedestrians would’ve gladly swapped places.
Nicholas tried to maintain a confident, business-like stride, even with only about a fraction of an inch on any side of him to work with. You had to walk like that in his coat, otherwise you looked like a Jawa.
The money burned against his chest. It made Nick hyper-aware of all the stores he was passing. All the things he could buy. He could’ve bought some decent shades to go with his coat, or an Xbox, or a phone. For God’s sake, everyone else in his class who wasn’t on friggin food stamps had a phone. Did his parents want him to get molested or something? Even a crap one would’ve been alright. He didn’t have to tell his dad...
Nick put the thought out of his head. The money wasn’t his. Ivan would kill him if he went and spent it.
Or worse, tell his mother.
The crowds began to fall away. Mid-range clothing shops that called themselves “boutiques” and cafes with heater tables gave way to cash for gold outlets and strip-clubs, along with an adult theatre or two traumatically reduced to plain-old cinemas by the internet. Every shop-window lay behind a metal cage.
Nick was soon in front of the Poplar Grove: a squat, depressed looking apartment block that hadn’t been sandblasted since the 90s. He pushed the front doors open and strode past the reception desk.
“Hey Saul,” he said absently.
Saul the doorman didn’t look up from his car magazine. He existed on a geological time-scale, and paid no mind to the ephemeral squeaks of passing mortals.
Nick was glad to find the elevator empty. A lot of the residents of Poplar Grove weren’t the sort of people you shared a confined space with if it could be avoided. They could be scary. Or sad. Or both.
The door of Number 347 was thrumming with bass when Nick knocked. Twenty year old nü-metal threatened to erupt from the apartment.
“Ivan? It’s me!”
Nick knocked again. “I did the thing!”
There was a cheer from behind the door, clearly not aimed at Nick.
He yelled, “It’s Nick!”
A muffled shout seeped through the door opposite Ivan’s. “Shut the fuck up, kid!”
Nick threw his middle-finger up behind him as he reluctantly fished the key Ivan gave him from his jacket pocket. As grown up as it made him feel, he also didn’t like surprising the man.
Nick entered the haze of booze fumes and multi-species smoke. The off-yellow carpet was mottled with faded stains and the odd cigarette burn.
He stepped into the front room. The whole place was covered in empty takeout containers like cardboard mushrooms. It made Nick wonder why the kitchen sink was buried in dirty dishes. The rock music rained down from the high-end speakers mounted in each corner.
And there was Ivan, craned forward on his plush leather couch, cheese-puff dusted fingers dancing over his controller as he slaughtered appropriately dehumanized enemies on a TV that was easily twice as expensive as all the rest of the furniture put together. He was a jolly-bodied kind of guy, living in the disputed zone between “pudgy” and “high-school football player.” Thick blond hair framed meaty, usually flushed cheeks. He was also wearing huge, green LED headphones like cyborg earmuffs, completely closed off from the world outside of him and the wall-sized screen.
Nick shook his head to himself. Why’s he got music going if he’s wearing headphones?
The child waved. “Hey, Ivan!”
Ivan caught sight of Nick and startled, before grinning broadly. “Neo returns!” he said too loudly.
Nick knew that was from a movie, but he refused to watch it out of principle.
Ivan pushed his headphones down his neck and set down the controller, motioning for Nick to sit next to him. He didn’t seem to mind that he was being torn apart by the zombie-mutant-demon-Nazis on the TV. Nick liked to think that said something nice about the man.
The boy flopped down onto the couch and passed Ivan the envelope. The drug-dealer smacked his lips while he thumbed the notes within.
“All there! Good job, buddy.”
He smacked three hundred dollars into Nick’s hand. “Don’t go spending it all in one place… seriously, people will catch on.” Ivan picked his controller back up. “Wanna play a few rounds?”
Nick gave him a small smile. “Sure.”
Nicholas had been Ivan’s gopher for about four months now, not long after he’d come home to find the guy passed out in his living room.
“Ah, Mom?” he’d asked. “Who’s this?”
“Oh, just Ivan,” she’d called from the kitchen. “Friend of mine. You know, from the old days.”
Ah, the old days. The before “Dad” times. Ivan was the only one from those days Nick’s mother kept around. Turned out there were a couple of reasons for that.
Aside from his couch, Ivan’s entertainment system was the only visible evidence of his success as a drug dealer. The man was a black hole for disposable income. Or an astute saver. Nick doubted the latter.
Ivan had shrugged when Nick pointed that out to him. “Can’t exactly put it in the bank, little buddy. Got enough to worry about without the IRS on my back.”
That of course led Nick to reading everything he could find about money-laundering:
“...It’s like how I tell my folks I mow old people’s lawns, get it?”
Ivan had hummed dubiously. “I get the idea, little man, it’s just… just sounds like the sort of thing I got into this business to avoid.” He shuddered. “Paperwork.”
“It doesn’t have to be a boring business!” Nick insisted. “It could be… a comic book shop! You could have big life-size cut-outs of Black Widow and Electra, or those super-expensive action-figures!”
Ivan nodded slowly. “Yeah… and they’re called figurines, Neo.”
Nothing had come of it. Nick didn’t seriously think it would. The future seemed to be nothing but the present plus time for Ivan.
Nick wondered if that felt nice.
“How’s your mom doing?” Ivan asked as he obliterated a random Korean boy via super-heated plasma.
Nick was pretty sure he didn’t need to ask. “She’s alright,” he answered, sniping a middle-aged woman in Hoboken, “she’s started selling her books online.”
“Books? You mean—”
“Yeah, Darren Hunter.”
“Darren Hunter” was the modern alias of Atemu Dakarai, a three thousand year old, superpowered, hunky mummy/demigod who fought shadow-demons for the Illuminati, all while courting Samantha Lapis, the feisty archeologist reincarnation of his first love. Nicholas’ mother had been writing about them since he was four.
“Ah. How many of those has she written?”
Nick found himself staring out at nothing. “Way too many.”
“...Has anyone bought them?”
“Same answer. She made a thousand bucks last month.”
“Shit, maybe I got into the wrong business. What about the Minister? He been giving you crap lately?”
It wasn’t much of a nickname. Nick’s dad actually was a minister.
Nick shrugged. “Been giving me a lot of weird books about how dating is bad and stuff lately. Reckon he thinks I’m ‘becoming a man’ or something.”
“Dating is—how’d he meet your mom?”
“Homeless shelter he was working at.”
“...I knew there was a reason I never asked Val.”
They played a few more rounds and watched a film they forgot about the second it was over: something about a heist gone wrong with a vaguely recognizable rapper in it. It was Ivan’s second pick after The Matrix.
Eventually, Nick managed to turn down Ivan’s offer of pizza and further binge-watching.
“I gotta get home, man,” the boy insisted as he opened the door. “Besides, people are gonna start asking why you had a kid here all day.”
“You sure you don’t want a ride home? It’s getting dark.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“You haven’t been… trying the product, right? It’s heavy shit, and I hate to think—”
“I haven’t, Ivan.”
Nick closed the door behind him and snorted a laugh.
Somewhere in Hell, Nancy Reagan was very confused.
That night at dinner, Nick’s mother was talking shop:
“...So he sends me the file, and the faces, good God, the faces.”
“Don’t take the Lord’s name in vain,” cut in Nick’s father.
Nick silently rolled his eyes at the other end of the table.
“So, I was saying, Darren looked like a…” She caught the word halfway up her throat. “His face was completely scrunched! Darren’s eyes were so close together, he might as well have been one of those one-eyed giant things!”
“It’s called a cyclops, Mom,” Nick clarified for his mother.
“I thought that was a superhero?”
“It’s both. I told you that kid was no good, not for four hundred bucks.”
The commission had been a Mother’s Day present from Nick: a cover for one of Valerie’s Darren Hunter’s books. The one with the zombie firemen. Secretly, he’d hoped she’d just learn to use photoshop.
“No arguing there. It was like he didn’t even look at the references!” Mostly pictures of David Boreanaz and Catherine Deneuve. “It looked like Darren was going to eat Sam!”
“Must’ve thought you were writing a vampire book,” commented Nick. “You know, I bet he didn’t even read your reference sheet.”
“I think you’re right, Nick,” said Valerie. “So I emails him and says, ‘Honey, the posing’s lovely, but I think we need to step back a bit and work on the faces,’ then he tells me I shoulda told him earlier! Like I was supposed to know something was wrong when the face was just a curvy line. And I tells him, ‘Look, this is for my book, it’s a business thing.’ and he tells me he’s ‘Just a kid!’ Then why’s he charging me hundreds of dollars?”
Nick shook his head sympathetically. “Creep. I can give you back the money.”
Nick’s mother shook her head firmly. “Don’t even think about it, Nick. That’s PayPal’s job.”
Nicholas and his mother shared a smile. Quite literally so.
It wasn't hard to see why Dad Failure #2 had gone for Valerie. It was a bit creepy, really. To look at her now, she was striking. Six years ago, though, she'd looked dangerously young next to the Minister. Less than half his age, in fact.
She was better now. Healthier. That hungry sallowness removed from her cheeks, slender features that now felt natural rather than as a result of near starvation.
Nick had inherited a lot of those features. The thin face, the angular nose and brow with a feminine severity to them. The burgundy eyes. He might've held it against her, but they went well with a leather jacket, and both he and his mother knew that, much to their annoying housemate's chagrin.
“I don’t see why you’re blowing money on that trash,” said the Minister.
Nick and his mother both looked at his father. Well, Valerie looked. Nick glared.
Minister Frank Collins of Sunny Waters Congregation was currently in that unfortunate transitional state between “middle age” and “elderly.” All the puffiness and peanut skin without any venerability.
“What’s the point of it? Completely frivolous.”
Valerie spoke, “It’s a book cover, sweetie. It’ll make it stand out more. Think of it as a business investment.”
“They increase reader engagement,” Nick said quietly.
Val nodded vigorously. “The website said so.”
The corner of Frank’s lip twitched. “Can’t you find a less expensive hobby?”
“It’s not a hobby, Frank,” insisted his wife. “I make money off it.”
“My calling provides for us well enough. You could devote that time to the congregation.” He shot a look at their son. “Or Nicholas.”
Nick gripped his fork tight enough to bend it. He muttered, “You didn’t mind it when Mom got you your new razor.”
The table went quiet. Valerie looked down at her lap and rubbed her skirt. Frank’s nostrils flared subliminally. The penny spun in the air.
“...You don’t turn down a gift from your wife, Nicholas.”
It landed well for Nick. If he were as sensible as he imagined himself to be, he would’ve finished his lamb chops and contented himself with the thought of the dragon’s hoard of cash he’d amassed in a tree hollow behind the back fence.
Instead, Nick made a show of casting his eyes down at his plate and cutting his chops. “I get ya, Dad.” He looked up at the old man. “Besides, it was my money anyway.”
He might as well have renamed himself Zeus and waved a sickle at the Minister.
Frank set down his cutlery. “I suppose it was. You sure have a lot of money these days, son. Must be cleaning a lot of yards.” He looked down at his food. “Could do with some of that closer to home. Neighbourhood doesn’t look any cleaner…”
Nick went stiff. His parents didn’t know about his arrangement with Ivan. Of course they didn’t. He was pretty sure the Minister thought he was selling cigarettes or booze behind the bike racks at school, and as for his mother… she just didn’t ask those sorts of questions.
Nick couldn’t imagine what would happen if they found out. Well, he could a bit. The Minister would explode, which might’ve been worth it. But then his mom would be sad. Or scared.
In a mixed blessing, Frank turned his attention to his wife. “Those books aren’t just a waste of time, Val, they’re ungodly.”
Nick’s muscles tensed like concrete. That word had engendered a Pavlovian response in him.
Valerie sighed resignedly. “Frank, can we just have dinner?”
The Minister shook his head. “It needs to be said. Those books glorify pre-marital sex and the occult!”
“It’s fiction, dear.”
“All art should glorify God! Not some fake Egyptian pantheon! They’re practically pamphlets for paganism!”
Nick looked at her mother. She didn’t try to argue with the Minister. His words smacked into her like waves against stony cliffs.
But waves washed away cliffs eventually. And Nick’s mother was far from stone…
“The church bookstore sells Narnia books,” Nick said over the Minister’s tirade. “Those have lots of magic in them.”
Frank’s head jerked towards the boy. “Those have strong Christian themes. The only witches in those are as wicked as they should be.”
Nick was suddenly reminded of when The Wizard of Oz disappeared from his bedroom bookcase. “What about the wizard from the third one? Aslan lets him do all the magic he wants!”
Frank snapped, “Don’t get smart with me, boy,” and went right back to lecturing Valerie about how the Egyptian gods were secretly demons, his wife turning the other cheek all the while.
Nick felt stupid for thinking that would distract the Minister. C.S Lewis might as well have been a Gospel writer to Frank. Smartass critique simply wouldn’t register.
The nuclear option.
Nick affected a wry, brittle smile. “I don’t see what’s wrong with pre-marital sex anyway. Made me, didn’t it?”
Valerie stared at her son. So did Frank. White anger had replaced the blood in his face.
Nick braced himself. This was going to make the windows rattle, but better him than Mom.
But the Minister didn’t scream at Nick. To the boy’s horror, he turned back to his mother.
“You see what you’ve done?” he shrieked at Valerie.
No, no, no. He was supposed to be yelling at Nick.
“Letting him read your smut.”
“You know I don’t let him read… those parts, Frank.”
Valerie was being honest. She was always careful to skip the steamier parts of Darren Hunter’s adventures with her son. And Nick had never sought out the unredacted books. Frankly, he’d probably pick watching her have sex over seeing her write it.
That didn’t matter, though. She could’ve read Nick those Indian sex books every night. Frank was calling her a bad mom.
“...Might as well buy him a box of Hustlers.”
Nick blurted, “I think Mom’s books are way less gross than the Bible.”
The Minister glared back at Nick. “Bite your tongue, Nicholas.”
Valerie looked pleadingly at her son. “Oh, Nick, don’t…”
But Nick was already up and ranting. “At least Darren never has sex with his daughters!”
Nick ignored his mother. “And he didn’t try to let a whole gang of people have sex with them, either! And he didn’t marry his sister, or make a maid have his baby!”
The Minister’s hands were shaking. “You are not smarter than the Bible, young man.”
Nick scowled. “I don’t know, I never made sheep eat in front of some trees so their babies came out spotty.”
He was just repeating factoids from self-satisfied internet lists now, but he didn’t care.
Nick stormed over to his dad’s side and stage-whispered shakily into his ear, “Hey Dad, who was Cain’s wife? Did Adam and Eve let him take one of his sisters with him after stabbing his bro? And what did all those babies do for God to go drown them, hmm?”
Frank slammed his fist on the table. “Go to bed!”
Nick stood there, breathing heavily.
His mother nodded.
Nick turned around and stomped his way up the stairs. He slammed his door shut behind him and flopped angrily onto his bed.
For half a minute, he lay in the moon-diluted gloom, fuming. Then his shoulders shook with sobs. Cries escaped his chest in gasping bursts. His vision blurred with tears.
Nick would’ve been less ashamed if he’d wet himself. He wasn’t supposed to cry like this. He was a big kid.
Eventually, the tears tapered off. Nick’s lungs were sore. Endorphins made his bones feel soft.
His door squealed. Valerie stepped into his room with a bowl of strawberry ice-cream and a laptop under her arm. “I brought dessert,” she reported brightly. “Don’t tell your father.”
“He’s not my dad,” said Nick.
“Aww, don’t be hard on him,” said Valerie, settling at the edge of her son’s bed. “There’s not a lot of fellas who’d have taken us in. I’d know. I checked.”
Unless they wanted a maid they could sleep with, Nick thought bitterly.
Valerie raised the bowl. “You going to eat this?”
“...Yes.” Nick sat up and grabbed the ice-cream, digging into it greedily. Crying was exhausting.
“Frank’s looked after us since you were four. That’s not nothing.”
“I’m sorry I let him be mean to you.”
“Nick, I’m a grown woman. I don’t need you to fighting my battles.”
“But he’s still mean.”
Valerie stroked Nick’s hair. “I hope you never find out what ‘mean’ looks like. Let Frank kvetch. It’s not like he can take my books down.”
Then came the ritual.
“Tell me about my real dad.”
Valerie’s answer was prompt. “He was a fireman. Died saving some kittens.”
Nick couldn’t suppress a smile, as always looking holes to poke in the latest fake dad lie. “Then why didn’t you get a pension? Laflech City fire-widows get a hundred grand a year.”
Fire-widows. Sounded like a video-game monster.
“We were never married. Didn’t need no judge telling us we were legit.”
It was a different story nearly every time. Sometimes Nick’s father was a cop shot by gangsters. Sometimes he was an explorer lost in South America. When Nick was six, he was the Wiggle in the purple shirt. Valerie dropped that line pretty quick when Nick stumbled upon the concept of child-support payments.
Nick knew he shouldn’t have cared about Dad Failure #1. He left his mother alone and pregnant. At least Frank paid for his school books.
Valerie opened her laptop. “Now move over. I’ve got more Darren to run by ya.”
She lay down beside her son and started reading:
“Samantha caressed Darren's muscular bicep. ‘Are you sure we'll be safe here?’
He shook his head darkly.
‘You don't understand,’ he brooded. ‘Nowhere's safe anymore. Nowhere.’"
Nick couldn’t help but wonder, was his dad anything like Darren?
Tabitha had expected to make a meal of Ivan Jones. The man used a child to sell drugs. But then she’d watched him for a while, and he seemed nice. Dumb, but nice. It wasn’t that he was manipulating his gopher, as he thought drug dealing was like running a lemonade stand. He was too dense to realize he was a Charles Dickens villain. Honestly, the kid seemed more aware of it than him.
So Tabitha let Ivan live. It was good to let nice people live. It made the human race more pleasant to be around. It was also good to let dumb people live. Dumb people bred, and made life much easier for her sort of people.
Tabitha did stick around, though. Ivan had a spare bedroom, spent a lot of time down the local games bar, and lived in an area where the odd frightening noise was to be expected. Plus, he had a great gaming setup.
She overwrote a few of his save files, just to confuse him.
Tabitha also figured Ivan might lead her to some more deserving prey. The day after she’d followed the Collins boy to the apartment, she was proven right.
Ivan’s usual liquid joviality froze like ice when he answered the door.
The cadaverous man in the hallway reeked from the angry chemicals in his blood, a mix of barbiturates and steroids, if Tabby had to guess. His left eyelid was covered by a runic tattoo that wasn’t quite a swastika, and his bone-white face was as pocked and scarred as the lunar surface. A quick sniff couldn’t tell Tabby if he was nineteen or thirty-nine. But his knuckles had the telltale stiffness of a man who punched far too hard, far too often. He also had a large cardboard box over his shoulder.
The man grinned like a deathshead, revealing a set of enamel-stripped teeth. He reminded Tabby of how some films liked to depict her kind. Or used to anyway.
“Made your quota, Ivan?”
The drug dealer forced a smile like he was trying to show he wasn’t hiding weapons behind his lips. “Marcus! I didn’t know it’d been a fortnight already.”
Marcus’ grin stayed fixed. “You got my money?”
Ivan threw his hands up. “Oh yeah, for sure.” He gestured towards his living room couch. “Why don’t you put your feet up while I get it?” Quickly, he added, “And a cold one.”
“Now you’re talking.”
Tabitha listened, crouching behind the kitchen counter as Ivan lay a lock-box and a frosty bottle of beer in front of Marcus. It was amazing how close you could get to human beings without them noticing. Blind and deaf, the lot of them.
Tabby could hear Ivan holding his breath watching Marcus count out his take.
“...Twenty five… three grand.” He flashed his yellow teeth again and plucked a few more notes out of the box. “Plus finder’s fee.”
Ivan’s blood raced to his muscles, but all he said was, “Fair enough, buddy.”
Marcus put his feet up on Ivan’s coffee (or more usually, chips and dip) table and opened his beer with his teeth. “You know, this neighbourhood’s gone to shit.”
An almost silent sigh, probably imperceptible to human ears. “Yeah,” Ivan said noncommittally.
Tabby was amazed. She’d found the one person in this town less self-aware than Ivan Jones.
“It’s the immigrants. The elites bus ‘em in, make good folk have to lock their doors at night.”
Tabby could literally hear Ivan wincing. It spoke well of him.
“Fucking Christianity, man. You know they invented Christianity to make us weak? All that ‘love your neighbour’ shit. Letting filth flood into the west.” He pointed at his eye tattoo. “Made us forget our gods. Fuck, man, they made Heimdall black! You can’t tell me that’s not pandering to arseholes.”
“I hadn’t heard that,” said Ivan.
Neither had Tabby. She wasn’t a great student of history, but she was a great student of arseholes. If Marcus was talking about who Tabby thought he was, the plan didn’t seem to be working out for them. She didn’t get human racism. They all tasted the same to her, unless they ate a lot of spicy food.
Or were on drugs, for that matter.
Marcus waved his finger between him and Ivan. “You and me, Jones, we’re doing the gods’ work.”
“I never thought about it that way.”
“We let the the orcs poison themselves—”
Wait, he actually called people orcs. For real? Suddenly, Tabitha’s world was a much more amusing place. She also was pretty sure most of the people she saw Nick drop off product for were some shade of vanilla. Half of them looked like they drank latte.
“—And us Sons of Hel stomp them down.”
Tabby was beginning to suspect Marcus and his friends had gotten gods confused.
“Weed and E aren’t that bad,” said Ivan cautiously. “I’m partial to a bit of remedy myself.”
A shrill witch-giggle. “You don’t use my stuff, though.” Marcus leaned forward. “I add a little extra something. Rat-poison, bits of shit, lead paint, that kinda thing.”
Ivan’s eyes went wide. “What.”
He took a swig from his beer. “Not enough to kill em’ all at once. They’d catch on too quick. Hell, a lot of the other Sons would be on my ass, too.” Marcus shook his head. “Too many people in it just for the money. Do it slow enough, though, and nobody’s going to notice a bunch of druggies dropping off, are they?”
Ivan didn’t speak. His heart was almost vibrating in his chest.
Marcus glanced at his subordinate’s entertainment system. “Mind giving me a go?”
Ivan played a few rounds of some shooter with his boss, silent all the while. Marcus wasn’t very good, but for some reason, neither was Ivan all of a sudden. To paraphrase a proverb from a long time ago and far away, he let the Nazi win.
“Right,” said Marcus, heading towards the door. “Get that all sold, and we’ll be sitting pretty.”
“Yes, Marcus,” said Ivan, staring blankly at the game over screen on his TV.
Once his master’s steps had faded from human hearing, Ivan broke into helpless, wailing tears.
Tabby felt bad for the dunce. Hurting people was harder when you didn’t mean it.
On the bright side, she had prey.
Tabitha sped out the apartment, dancing out the door along Ivan’s blindspot. She imagined he’d think it was the wind.
They had an assembly at Nick’s school Tuesday morning. One of the middle-school boys had nearly overdosed on painkillers. It was a long, sombre affair with a slide-show about the dangers of drugs. Nick was pretty sure if Ivan was here, he would’ve pointed out you can’t overdose on weed, but then, Ivan also thought Stonehenge was built by actual wizards.
Nick couldn’t help but feel a bit under siege. He hadn’t sold Jerry Phillips the stuff, of course. The one time he’d suggested selling to his schoolmates, Ivan had looked at him like he wanted to give them lit dynamite. Still, the universe had a crap sense of humour.
The rest of the school day was easy enough. Nick sometimes worried about being too book-smart. He was put in mind of some of his “cousins” on the Minister’s side of the family: those amazing maths and spelling savants who had memorized scores of psalms but didn’t know what sex was yet.
When the bell rang and most of the children scattered to the wind, Nick made his way to the bike-racks and began his other vocation: selling filled out worksheets and standardized answer keys to his lazier peers. Sometimes it pays to buy the temp coffee.
Harry Burges held the math sheet in front of him. He was a big kid. One of those January birthdays whose good timing ensured his success in school sports and beyond. For now, though, he needed some help getting through every other subject:
“So all the answers are right?”
“Not all,” said Nick. “I got three questions wrong on purpose.” He grinned proudly. “Looks less suspicious, but you’ll still get an A.”
Harry frowned. “Wait, you want me to pay twenty bucks for wrong answers?
“No,” said Nick patiently, “you’re paying twenty bucks for an A.”
“Bull,” said Harry. “I’m not paying.”
Nick extended his hand. “Fine. I’ll find another customer.”
Harry snatched the sheet back against his chest. “No way.” He grinned smugly. “Not letting you rip off another kid.” He started walking away.
“Heh-h-hey!” Nick ran after the other boy. “You can’t just steal my stuff!”
“Whatcha gonna do? Tell the teachers?”
Nick stood there on the asphalt, fists shaking at his sides. Flashes of Saturday dinner invaded his brain.
He found himself running at Harry, yelling at the top of his lungs. He leapt forward, wrapping his arms around Harry’s neck.
The boys toppled hard to the ground. It didn’t take Harry long to pin Nick and start clumsily striking him.
“You. Little. Twerp!”
Nick flinched from the blows, spotting the math sheet lying beside them. He violently flexed his leg, kneeing Harry in the groin.
Nick rolled out from under his foe, grabbing the worksheet just in time for Harry’s shadow to fall over him.
The other boy was limping, but he was also still quite large. “Your dad better pray for you…”
Before Nick could react, a voice cut across the yard:
“Hey, kid, leave him alone!”
Ivan was standing behind the school fence with a bag over his arm. He looked… manic.
Harry tilted his head at the man. “...Who are you talking to?”
Ivan pointed savagely at the boy. “You! The one who looks like you tore your mom on the way out!”
Ivan looked at Nick. “Why’s he fucking with you?”
Still on the ground, Nick cried, “He tried to steal my worksheet!”
“For fuck’s sake… kid, leave my friend alone.”
Harry folded his arms. “Make me, weirdo.”
“Fine!” Ivan picked up a branch and swung his leg over the fence, only to topple off and land with a thud on his side.
Harry laughed and looked back down at Nick. “This your bodyguard?
He changed his tune when Ivan picked himself up and started running headlong towards him.
Harry fled. Ivan helped Nick up, but didn’t look him in the eye.
“Thanks, Ivan.” Nick looked up at his friend. “What are you doing here? Is it about…” He searched for a word he was comfortable using out in the open. “...My paper-route?”
Ivan didn’t answer with words. Instead, he pulled out two thick, rubber-banded bundles of $100 notes. He slapped them both into Nick’s hands.
They rested like leaden gold in the child’s hands. He’d never seen that much money once, not even on the job. “...Did I do a bunch of drops and forget?”
“No,” answered Ivan. “It’s your severance pay.”
“We’re done, Nick.”
Nick’s rolled the words over in his mouth. “You’re firing me? What did I do?”
Ivan’s face was harder than Nick had ever seen it. “It’s not—I need you to stay away from me now. It’s nothing you did, buddy. It’s just the way it is.”
“What am I supposed to do?”
Ivan walked away, saying over his shoulder, “Be a kid, man. Just be a kid. And stay away from people like me.”
Nick stood in the school yard, watching Ivan stalking up to the fence, glare at it for a moment, before walking down to the gate.
What did I do?
Eventually, Nick started walking home. Halfway there, he had to slip into a toilet block and cry for a couple minutes. Punching the wall helped.
His house was alive with shouting when he reached the front door. Something about separate bank accounts and separate spheres.
Nick reached for the doorknob, but stopped just short. Why should he go inside? What could he do?
Instead he slipped through the side-door into the garage and got his Neo coat.
Ivan couldn’t fire him from being his friend.
Nick didn’t head directly to Poplar Grove. First he stopped by the strip-mall and picked up enough snacks to sate the munchies of Ivan’s entire client base. He also swung by a DVD store that was still clinging to life and finally bit the bullet:
Nick stood in front of Ivan’s door, looking down at the Blu-Ray in his hand. The cover was crowded by people wearing enough leather to render cows an endangered species, being rained on by lines of code.
Did this ever look cool?
Nick shook his head. He was hesitating. Stupid.
He knocked on the door.
No answer. Nick could hear rock music thrumming behind the door.
Probably got his stupid headphones on again.
You know what? Good. Nick wasn’t going to give Ivan a chance to ignore him.
It took Nick three goes to get the doorknob to unlatch when he marched into the apartment. “Listen Ivan, I know—”
Nick suddenly noticed the lyrics to the song playing:
“Muds are raping, looting, stealing, mugging, robbing, shooting, killing,
Breeding more infesting cities spreading drugs with all their deals…”
Nick stopped still. That didn’t sound like Ivan’s music. Ivan’s music sounded like it belonged in the DVD bonus features of old superhero movies. This sounded… mean.
Nick heard Ivan wheeze, “Nick…”
Oh, God. Had Ivan taken something bad? He’d been acting so weird…
Nick ran into the living room. “Ivan, what’s—”
Ivan was breathing slowly on the couch. He had two black eyes, and his throat was blotched with bruises. A man with a vaguely menacing tattoo over his eye was looming behind him, a hand on Ivan’s shoulder.
Nick froze to the spot. The man looked like a spider wrapping up a fly for later. The gun tucked into his waistband didn’t help.
The man smiled sourly at Nick. “Hey, kid. Name’s Marcus. I work with Ivan here.”
Ivan looked sorrowfully at the boy. It looked like it hurt to open his eyes.
Every cell of Nick wanted to run. But how fast was this guy with that gun?
And what would he do to Ivan if Nick left him behind?
Marcus’ smile withered. “Sit down.”
Ivan moaned, “Don’t—”
Marcus whipped up the gun and shoved it in Ivan’s face. “I’m telling the kid to sit down.”
Ivan let out a gurgling yelp. Nick screamed.
Marcus turned his gun on Nick. “Shut up and sit down!”
Nick obeyed, sitting down slowly beside Ivan.
Ivan took his hand. Nick gripped back like he was clutching a rope over an abyss.
Marcus dropped onto the coffee-table. “I can’t believe you, Ivan.” He gestured at Nick. “I knew you used a kid, but I at least thought you’d have the common sense and basic fucking decency to use a goddamn orc.”
Confusion broke through the terror. Nick looked at Ivan. “Orc? Is this a roleplaying thing?”
Marcus shrieked, “Ignorant fucking children!” He sighed and waved the gun oratorally at Nick. “Christ, Jones, this kid could be a Greek statue, and you… debase him.”
Nick was starting to suspect now wasn’t a good time to mention his grandfather was Jewish.
“And if the news caught wind… fuck, all the mud-riots in the world wouldn’t distract them!” He growled at Ivan. “Especially not when he’s selling to other kids. Good kids! White kids.”
“We don’t sell to kids,” said Nick. “I tried, but Ivan said no!”
“Don’t play dumb! I heard about the Phillips kid!”
“Phillips—we didn’t sell to Jerry Phillips!” Nick protested. “Jerry Phillips sucks! He just stole his mom’s oxycontin—”
The butt of the gun snapped his head to the side.
Marcus picked up Ivan’s universal remote and turned up his vile music. It hurt Nick’s ears. The boy started crying.
Marcus raised his gun. “Always sucks having to kill kin…”
Ivan pulled Nick close, trying to shield the child.
The air became ice.
Marcus pulled the trigger. Nick buried himself in Ivan’s side.
Marcus examined the gun quizzically. “The fuck?”
Impulsively, he aimed it back at Nick and Ivan and squeezed the trigger again. Again Nick screwed his eyes shut.
The gun still didn’t fire. A few more clicks.
Marcus swore and waved the glock about like he was trying to shake some sense into it. “Piece of shit!”
The room grew colder still, even as the smell of barbecue filled the apartment.
Something sizzled. Marcus screamed and dropped the gun, clutching at his hand. It was turning red and bubbling with white boils.
Nick stared. He was watching a miracle. A horrible, ugly miracle.
Marcus stared down in aghast confusion at his fallen weapon. Its handle was wrapped in his own burnt skin.
He looked back up at Ivan and Nick, face distorted with confused rage. “What did—”
Something fast, white, and sharp smacked into Marcus’ side. He flew across the room, smashing through an alley-facing window.
He didn’t even scream.
Nick and Ivan sat there in stunned silence. Both of them knew how that situation was meant to play out. Things had gone off-script.
Slowly, Nick disentangled himself from his friend and walked over to the shattered window.
Far below, Marcus was laying in a spreading pool of his own blood. Something was crouching on him like a pale mushroom.
It looked up.
Nick yelped and recoiled from the window.
It’d seen him.
“For God’s sake, Nick,” wheezed Ivan. “Run.”
And Nick did. He ran like he never had before. He didn’t take the elevator. Right then, being enclosed without a way out was anathema. He didn’t notice when Poplar Grove fell away to the streets. Time both elongated and contracted for the child.
This wasn’t like running from bullies, or even angry customers. This was how his ancestors had run, back when they were just another animal. This was running from tigers.
It was the edge of night when Nick staggered into his garage.
By then, he was half-sure he’d dreamed the thing in the alley. He had to have.
But what had pushed Marcus out the window? And how did he burn his hand?
Ivan. Ivan was hurt. Nick didn’t know how hurt, either. He couldn’t call the police…
Nick started scouring the garage for the family first-aid kit. They had one of those, right?
It turned out they did, sandwiched between a box of creationist magazines and a pile of tools.
“Wow, you run fast for a human.”
Nick froze. That didn’t sound like his mom, or the Minister.
“Sorry about your friend’s window. But hey, got rid of the Hitler guy, so it evens out, right?”
Nick turned around.
There was a girl standing in front of him, dressed in a layer of red gore over a pink star shirt, dark hair plastered to her head like she’d been swimming. She was his age, or maybe a year younger.
She also had fangs.
“You need to make better friends.”
In an eyeblink, she was standing an inch in front of Nick. She ran a hand along his cheek:
“Yeah, you’d make—”
Nick swung a pipe-wrench at the girl’s head. Blood splattered in his face, into Nick’s open mouth. He gagged on the cold, salt taste.
Nick didn’t stick around to see if he’d knocked the girl-thing down. He was too busy running.
He ran back towards Poplar Grove. After a few blocks, a kind of cold started seeping through his legs. He started to stumble.
Nick panted. Adrenaline must’ve been failing him. He tried to breathe through it, but it was as though there was a catch in his chest.
Bad time to get asthma…
Nick’s legs gave away. The first-aid kid went flying onto a lawn.
Nick crawled towards the carry-case. He had to manually wrap his fingers around the handle. He could barely feel his right hand.
He forced himself to his feet and staggered on. He had to get to Ivan.
Ivan tried to scrub the skin and dried blood off Marcus’ gun in the kitchen sink. He didn’t know if that was what he ought to do. The closest thing to cleaning up a crime scene he’d ever done was flushing shit.
There wasn’t much of a crime scene, to be honest. Just a broken window and some shitty, broken, Nazi CDs. It didn’t sound like anyone had called the cops yet, at least not for the body no doubt laying in the alley. Sometimes, there were advantages to living in Poplar Grove.
Oh, God. He’d told Nick to run. What if he’d run into whatever had done Marcus in.
He was a shit grown-up. He was an even shittier friend.
There was a knock at the door. It might as well have been cannon-fire to Ivan’s ears.
He took a deep breath and dropped the gun into the soapy water.
Be cool, man.
Nick fell through the door when Ivan opened it. He barely managed to catch the child.
Ivan smiled desperately. “Shit, Nick, I thought—”
Nick felt wrong in his arms. Cold and drenched in sweat. The boy was shaking. His face and lips were covered in red-brown stains.
“She was—the thing that…” Nick trailed off. “...I don’t feel well.”
“Fuck, I—” Ivan layed Nick down gently. “It’s gonna be alright, man.”
Ivan rushed over to the couch and fished out his phone. The one he used for legit calls:
“Hi, ambulance, my—this kid’s fallen in front of my door. He looks real sick. Poplar Grove, I’ll be waiting in reception.” His voice shook. “Please hurry.”
He didn’t bother to hang up before gathering Nick back up into his arms.
“Hold on buddy.”
Nick was only dimly aware of the elevator trip down to the lobby, or being carried into the ambulance. His muscles were like burning stone. His lungs were turgid. No matter how much he tried to breathe, he couldn’t get a full breath. Darkness flooded the edge of his vision.
He wanted his mommy.
Nicholas Collins’ heart stopped halfway to the hospital.