Excerpt from Rough Trade, by Sidney Bell, © 2018
Don’t do it. Ghost aimed the silent warning to the teenage boy sitting three spots down from him, who was currently glancing toward the bathroom with a pained expression. The kid had the nervy air of a new colt, all trusting blue eyes and tentative smiles, and at the moment, the fidgety body language of someone who needed to take a piss. Badly.
Don’t do it, Ghost thought again toward the guy. Tobias, Ghost was pretty sure his name was. A rich name for a rich boy, and both the name and the money would do exactly zip for the kid if he did something stupid now. Wait until class starts. There will be fewer of them.
The cafeteria in the Woodbury Residential Treatment Center couldn’t have been more institutional if the administration had tried—long tables with attached benches instead of chairs, plastic silverware, cinder block walls painted white, and linoleum the color of olives, dark enough to conceal suspicious stains. The windows were thick, scratched glass, warped and dirty and alarmed, lending a mediocre view of the rest of the sprawling campus: half-full parking lots, the overgrown courtyard—rarely, if ever, used by students—and the eleven cottages housing three hundred boys on the verge of manhood—if they hadn’t tipped over it already.
The boys around him began to return their lunch trays, but Ghost only sat and watched Tobias struggle to make up his mind. He was around eighteen, a good four years older than Ghost, but he clearly had the survival instincts of a toddler.
As evidenced by the purple bruises half-hidden beneath the sleeve of his T-shirt.
And the surprisingly dignified, in-chair potty dance. Which was understandable. Ghost had heard about the rule Gibson’s crew had laid down for the new guy. Hell, everyone had heard about the rule. Except the staff, but they didn’t count anyway. Normally the hazing took the form of having to stand up in class or group therapy and say something humiliating. A one-time thing with no real consequences. Tobias, with his expensive jeans and perfect posture and countless small courtesies to the staff, had a target on his back big enough to be seen from space, and the ire directed his way had risen accordingly.
It didn’t sound like much, earning a punch from every guy in the bathroom each time you pissed, but when you considered that the vast majority of the day was scheduled so that each cottage or class took bathroom breaks together—twenty guys at a time, minimum—that shit added up. While some of the guys took pity and ignored the whole mess or delivered love taps, if there was a guy in Gibson’s crew who pulled his punches, Ghost hadn’t met him.
With a last anguished, not-remotely-sneaky look around the cafeteria, Tobias got up and wound his way through the crowd to bus his tray, an apology in the flesh, darting out of the way of other boys. Ghost suspected he hadn’t made eye contact with anyone who wasn’t staff since his second day here. He couldn’t have been a victim more clearly if he’d had a neon sign above his head flashing the word in bright, glaring red. Hurt me, the sign might also say. I won’t fight back.
Oblivious too. Gibson—a big, muscle-bound skinhead in the making—got to his feet in Tobias’s wake, slapping the backs of his buddies’ heads as he passed through the crowd, dodging staff and other boys, following the smaller boy out into the hallway, and Tobias never noticed.
Don’t do it, Ghost thought, this time to himself.
It wasn’t his problem.
It wasn’t his business.
He didn’t give a shit about this kid. He’d never had a single conversation with him. This was Ghost’s second time through Woodbury; the other guys came and went with the tangibility of clouds. He’d forget Tobias soon enough.
Plus, intervening could turn into a thing if Gibson decided to take offense, and while Ghost wasn’t afraid of Gibson, he could see the situation getting physical. Having to cut someone up would stall out Ghost’s program. It’d mean more time in Woodbury before he got released, and definitely a loss of privileges.
Nothing took the starch out of a guy’s spine like using kiddie scissors in class.
Besides, there were only about three minutes before the bell would ring and cleanup staff would start searching for guys who weren’t in class as expected. Someone would check that bathroom eventually. Someone would find them.
Maybe not before Tobias lost a tooth or something, though.
Fucking fucking fuck.
He got up.
He wound his way through the crowd, considering how to play it, pretty sure he couldn’t make the first move, not when there would be five or six of them at least. The only way to manage those odds was to marshal up some legit head games, get them unsettled, make them want to cave. As long as Gibson could save face by offering Tobias up instead of being pushed into letting Tobias go, maybe it wouldn’t turn into a problem.
The halls were nearly empty as he made his way to the bathroom at the far end of the Science Corridor. Quiet enough that he could hear the sounds of the scuffle through the bathroom door. He checked to make sure no one was watching, staff or otherwise, and pulled his blade, the small paring knife he’d stolen from the kitchen three days after he’d arrived. He put his game face on—impersonal curiosity and a hint of the feral.
He opened the door. Drifted inside. Paused in the doorway to watch. Left his hand visible at his side.
He wasn’t sure who saw him first; he kept his gaze on Tobias, Tobias crying fat tears and trying desperately to muffle the sounds, Tobias with the blood from his busted nose streaking across his cheek, glinting dull maroon in the yellow light of the caged fluorescents. There were no windows in the bathroom, only cheap drains with thin, bent grates in the floor and chipped sinks and dirty mirrors reflecting the six boys looming over the one crumpled in the center of them. But eventually someone did see Ghost, and finally even Gibson fell still, his foot coming back to the ground after he landed one last kick.
Ghost let the silence vibrate for long seconds before he spoke, a nonsense story that rambled out of him without his attention, because the real conversation was happening elsewhere, between the blade in his hand and the boys watching him, the slow tap of his blade against his thigh a subtle reminder to everyone in the room about what’d happened the last time someone fucked with him.
Getting dragged to the Intervention Unit in the middle of the night while covered in someone else’s blood and your victim lay in the hallway screaming left an impression. The news that Booler had lost a testicle had spread like a cold through the cottage. The icing on the cake had been that, because Booler had been an inoffensive guy, everyone assumed the incident had been unprovoked. Ghost’s rep for being a head case had grown exponentially overnight. A useful thing.
Ghost sure as shit wasn’t going to be the one to share the fact that nothing would’ve happened if Booler had kept his dick in his own fucking bed. Ghost might be a whore from nine to five, but he didn’t get friendly until cash changed hands, no matter how much bigger the guy sliding between his sheets might be.
Ghost let his voice drop as he spoke, let his hand twitch occasionally so the light reflected off his blade. Remember, he told them without words, remember that I’ll jump anyone without warning, remember that the odds won’t figure in my crazy brain, remember that I’m good at breaking people, that I go for the balls, remember.
Gibson lifted his hands in a soothing movement. “Ghost, hey, hey, we wouldn’t have if you’d just said, man. All you had to do. He’s yours, fuck, have at him. Keep him off my dick, though, yeah?”
Which was fine. Let Gibson save face by pretending he was being the decent, honorable bastard he never was, respecting an ownership claim. Never mind that hardly anyone tried to pull that bullshit because there was too much supervision in Woodbury at night to make it worth the effort, or that everyone knew Ghost didn’t touch other people. They all knew what was really happening, but at least this lie came without blood.
To cement the moment, Ghost put on one of his fugue-acts. Or how he imagined he looked to others when he was in one of his fugues anyway. He kept his mouth slack and his eyes dead, staring at one fixed point no matter how much every instinct swore at him to track the hands of the boys shuffling past him, to keep Gibson in sight. But the creepy robot stillness worked; Gibson nearly dislocated his spine trying to get his big body past Ghost in the doorway without touching him, and then it was Ghost and Tobias and the soft drip of a leaking faucet in one of the sinks.
Tobias sat up, face tipped to the ground, swallowing hard, the curve of his throat vulnerable as his Adam’s apple bobbed, his hand shaking as he wiped off blood and tears, and Ghost jerked his gaze away. Witnessing it felt like an attack somehow.
He stood there while Tobias went to a sink to wash up. Not that anything could conceal the bruises on his face or the twisted angle of two of his fingers on his right hand. Broken trying to block a kick, Ghost suspected.
When some of the riotous flush had left Tobias’s cheeks and the blood had been mopped up, Ghost headed for the door. “I’ll walk you to the infirmary.”
Tobias’s gaze flicked to the clock, and suddenly it all slipped into place—Tobias’s willingness to brave the bathroom during lunch break instead of holding it for literally three more minutes to ensure safety and privacy while Gibson’s crew were in class.
“Please tell me that you didn’t risk your life because you were scared to be late,” Ghost said, his hand pausing on the doorknob, “in a school where calling the teacher a bitch only nets you an essay?”
Tobias stared at his shoes.
Ghost sighed. “You fell down the stairs.”
“I fell down the stairs,” Tobias repeated quietly, obedient as a well-trained dog as he followed Ghost out of the bathroom.
Tobias watched him like he was a rabid animal over the next few days, body tense, going still whenever Ghost moved unexpectedly. He barely said five words that first week, too busy waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the next blow to land, and it should’ve made Ghost angry. He should’ve wanted to be mean, to punish Tobias for making him have to think so much about these sorts of things, for putting him in this position, but Ghost didn’t feel angry or mean.
He understood that kind of waiting.
He found himself being gentle with Tobias, saying stupid shit he thought might be comforting, words that felt misshapen and awkward in his mouth, anything to take that flinch out of the flesh between Tobias’s hunched shoulders, the flinch that struck Ghost behind the breastbone without even trying.
What the fuck do you think I am? But asking it would take him a little too close to no stop I avoid looking back, so mostly he made Tobias help him with his homework and tested out bullshit stories on his gullible ass, timing how long it would take for Tobias to figure out he was getting played.
At first, Tobias only stared at him with confused, anxious frowns. But after a few days, those anxious stares shifted. Became curious and intent. Like Ghost was a lock he couldn’t decide how to open. He began to smile when Ghost gave him bullshit answers. He started tentatively telling stories of his own—true ones, though, about his family and friends back home, about school, about how he was going to be a doctor like his father, a complicated mixture of love and exhaustion lying heavy in his words.
One day Ghost realized he’d miscalculated. Instead of taking on a lost, broken puppy he could send to get shit from the cafeteria for him, he’d gotten stuck with a guy who thought they were friends, a guy who got Ghost snacks not because he was afraid of what Ghost might do if he refused, but because he thought it might make Ghost happy.
A bizarre turn of events.
“I think you’re stupid to spend this much time on homework,” he told Tobias once.
“I know.” Tobias settled onto the couch beside him and rolled his eyes, but with an indulgent air, as if he found it cute that Ghost said these things, as if he’d somehow figured out why Ghost said these things even though Ghost had barely any understanding of it himself.
“Hey, what’d you get for number five?” Tobias asked, holding out one of the snacks from the vending machine.
“X=tits,” he said, amused despite himself at the way Tobias flushed at his crude language. He took the chips.
He did like sour cream and onion.
“I have this vintage chicken coop in my basement,” the man said, breath already huffing as Ghost knelt in front of him. “It locks and everything. To keep foxes out.”
“Uh-huh,” Ghost said. Gravel dug into his knees through his jeans. He shifted his weight. Didn’t help. Still, it wasn’t as bad as the cramping pain in his belly where his stomach seemed intent on reminding him that it’d been almost two days now with nothing but cake mix to eat. Which was maybe most people’s ideas of a good time, but for Ghost it had more to do with getting the maximum number of calories into his body on the minimum number of dollars. Cake mix was cheap and it kept his motor running, but he’d shank Bambi for a burger at this point.
“It’s warmer there. We could go there.” The man’s breath fogged as he spoke. “The bricks are really cold, is all.”
Ghost wasn’t sure what the guy had expected from an alley by an overpass on a December morning, but he wasn’t wrong about the temperature. Still. Foxes trying to get to chickens in a basement? For fuck’s sake, how stupid did he think Ghost was?
“As much fun as your murder basement sounds,” Ghost said politely, “I’m afraid I’ll have to pass.”
“Okay. Sure. Fine.” The guy nodded in little jerks. “Can we still, um, do this?”
“If you’ll shut up.”
“Okay.” He shoved his boxers down and waited, his skinny thighs vibrating, his hands with their dirty nails twitching in the air like he wanted to grab Ghost by the hair but didn’t dare.
Ghost reached up, giving the guy’s dick a few tugs while he did the junk check, looking for sores and crabs and other gross things, but people who raised chicken coops for prostitute murdering apparently took good care of themselves. Ghost looked up, caught the guy’s eye. He had, objectively, a not-ugly face. For a potential psycho, he appeared normal enough.
Ghost gave him a few more lazy tugs, slid one hand into the waistband of his jeans to pry the hilt of his blade up—just in case—and leaned in.
The guy tasted like he smelled—clean sweat and hidden-away skin, the small jogs of his hips probably involuntary as he let out a moan and—
Ghost blinked. The world wobbled around him. Daytime. Noises he couldn’t make sense of. His body had turned into raw meat. He couldn’t move from where he lay on his side. Where was his blade? It—he needed it. He couldn’t—his arms unlocked finally, and he fumbled at his jeans, but the pocket he’d sewn into the waistband at the small of his back was empty. Panic snarled in his chest, ran liquid through his veins.
Where was his knife?
Blade in the left hand meant he came back fast from a fugue, his thoughts instantly intact. He didn’t know why. Just was. With an empty hand it was always like this. Like swimming to the surface of a pool full of syrup.
He glanced around. In an alley. Near the overpass. Empty lot to his left. A broken crate with rotting cabbage spilling out, a sick-sweet reek. A grody Dumpster down the way. The main road about a block’s distance away. Not a lot of cover. Anyone driving by would see.
A low cry came from somewhere behind him. He lurched to his knees and turned. A guy was sprawled on the ground, struggling, cursing, getting the shit kicked out of him by— Ghost shook his head, trying to get his brain cells working. Was that— Fuck. Vasily Krayev.
He had to get up. His limbs were noodles. But he had to get up. He knew what Krayev wanted. He’d been shaking down every hustler who worked the boulevard for a few weeks now, finding the whores who didn’t have protection, offering his “services,” regardless of whether they were needed. Ghost had evaded him until now, but say what you liked about the egotistical hothead, he’d picked his moment well this time. Ghost didn’t always fugue during tricks, and there were different degrees to it anyway, but Vasily had caught him in a doozy today.
And landed a hit while Ghost was out of it, if the lump on the back of his head meant anything.
The next time he got tossed into Woodbury, he’d have to ask somebody about these little escape-pod missions his brain kept going on. They seemed like a bad thing.
Of course, then the therapists and the state would know that sometimes he broke and turned into stupid meat. That seemed like a bad thing too.
Fuck it, though. Problem for another day.
Where the fuck was his knife?
Things were coming back. Memory in snatches. He’d had his hand on his blade before, but when he’d gone space cadet he must’ve lost track of it. Maybe he’d dropped it. Maybe it’d been kicked away. Didn’t matter. Leave it. Go. While Vasily was distracted.
Ghost ran for it. Slow and unwieldy the first few steps, but his muscles were waking up, and by the time he heard Vasily curse behind him and the sound of pounding footsteps approaching fast, he had his legs under him.
Not enough of a head start to compensate, though. A hand grabbed him by the shoulder, whipping him around, and he lost his balance, went flying, scraped the shit out of his palms. He got up but Vasily was already there, grabbing him by the throat from behind, wrenching him up off his feet. Not quite choking him, but Ghost wasn’t going anywhere, that was for sure.
“Ease down, kid,” Vasily muttered, out of breath, irritated. He was huge and hot against Ghost’s back, smelling of sweat despite the cold. Must take a lot out of you, beating the hell out of someone. “I’m not going to hurt you. I want to help you. I told you, I’m not a threat if you play nice.”
“And I told you,” Ghost managed, twisting uselessly in Vasily’s arms. “No disrespect to Mama but I don’t want to be on her payroll.”
“Not hers.” Vasily shook him lightly. Probably qualified as friendly for a guy like him. “Mine. If it’s my family you’re worried about, no need. I’m in charge here.”
“Striking out on your own? Ambitious of you. Still no.” Ghost’s heart pounded.
“This isn’t a discussion,” Vasily said, and that was the crux of the problem, wasn’t it? Even if he got away now, Vasily would track him down again. One way or another, this would get violent. Ghost had never met Yelena Krayeva, better known as Mama, but her name had weight on the streets; he wanted to avoid getting on her bad side by killing her son. Of course, that would be easier if her son would stop being a fucking asshole.
“Wait,” Ghost said, wrenching sideways and nearly breaking free. He caught a glimpse of the alley beyond Vasily’s shoulder, could see the chicken coop guy clambering over the chain link fence blocking off another, smaller alley.
And in the distance beyond chicken coop guy, a good three blocks away, a white car turning into the alley, a weird ski rack on the roof. Ghost squinted. Nope, that was a light bar. Fuck. Cops.
He thought furiously—or as much as he could as Vasily yanked him around and paid him back for the near-escape by trying to squeeze him to death. For a few seconds, Ghost stopped caring about anything but the need to breathe. By the time Vasily loosened up, Ghost had spots in his vision.
The cops had been trundling along, maybe buying time to observe, but they had to be close enough by now to see that he and Vasily weren’t square dancing. Probably the only reason they hadn’t lit up the lights or sirens yet was because they didn’t want to spook them into running. Which Ghost might try if he could get Vasily’s stupid hulking body away from him. He was sixteen now. A repeat offender. Couldn’t be sure he’d get Woodbury instead of jail. Too much of a risk, maybe.
Although it did occur to him that the system had one thing in its favor: no Vasily.
But how to work it so that he wasn’t one of the bad guys here?
“All right,” Ghost gasped. “All right, I give. Fucking— I can’t breathe, asshole.”
Vasily gave him one last squeeze and then dropped him. Ghost let himself crumple to his knees, trying his damnedest not to look at the cop car, rolling closer in tiny increments in his peripheral vision, all of a hundred feet away now, for fear that Vasily would notice.
Vasily didn’t. He loomed over Ghost. “Here’s how this is going to go—”
“If you were anyone else, I’d kill you and be done with it.”
Vasily gave him a small nudge with his foot, not quite a kick, reminding him of the vulnerability of his position. “You think so?”
“Can’t imagine it’d be hard. You’re pretty stupid.”
Vasily went still. His voice went slow and soft. “Keep it up.”
“Surprised someone hasn’t managed it already.”
“Not many try,” Vasily said, walking right into it like a beauty.
“It’s got to be embarrassing to know that the only reason anyone respects you is because they’re scared of your mommy.”
Too easy. Vasily’s fist flew, and Ghost didn’t fight it. He hit the concrete with the force of a sledgehammer, and his brain rattled in his skull, leaving his ears ringing and his body limp. A siren bleeped, lights started flashing, car doors opened and closed, followed by shouts and curses and the scratchy blurt of a cop’s radio. Ghost took his dear old sweet time getting back to his knees, milking it hard.
“Take a moment if you need it.” A cultured voice. Reassuring.
“Sorry,” Ghost muttered, steeling himself so he wouldn’t cringe away from the man’s hands as they landed on his arm. He was tired of people touching him today, but it wouldn’t help his case here. He glanced up at the cop, tall and narrow in a brown suit, with windswept dark hair and a thin mouth with a cut lower lip. Something elegant about him despite the blood on his mouth. Not a uniform. A detective, maybe.
Several feet away, a uniformed officer was hauling a handcuffed Vasily to his feet. Vasily paid him no attention; he was too busy yelling curses at Ghost, even as the cop stuffed his writhing, furious body into the back seat and slammed the door.
There was no sign of Ghost’s john.
“Are you all right?” the suited man asked. “Shall I call an ambulance? Is there someone to take care of you?”
Ghost blinked up at him, legitimately disconcerted for a second by this windblown man with the bleeding lip and straight shoulders who looked like a lawyer and sounded like a priest. Gentle but firm. Like he might call Ghost my child. Ghost couldn’t trust it, had known better than to trust cops since well before no stop I avoid looking back, but he could use this.
Child he would be, then.
When Vasily screamed again through the window of the back seat of the car, Ghost took a tiny step closer to the cop. See, I’m vulnerable. I need shelter.
“You’re safe,” the cop murmured. “My name is Benjamin Spratt. I’m a police officer. And I’m not going to let anyone hurt you.”
If Ghost hadn’t been aiming toward a goal here, he might’ve snorted. Cops did the hurting more often than not. Instead he only nodded, a weary gesture laden with doubt.
“You’re safe,” Spratt said again.
“It’s a nice idea.” Ghost tipped his face down as if ashamed. “But people like me don’t really get that sort of thing.”
Spratt cupped Ghost’s chin and tugged upward, forcing Ghost to look at him.
Spratt’s eyes were hazel and stern. Incisive like scissors, and Ghost worried that Spratt could cut through the layers of his game, get to the stuff underneath. He wanted to fidget or run, but he couldn’t, held in place by that gaze. Not the soft stare of a priest at all, unless the priest was of the fire-and-brimstone variety. “You’re what…fourteen?”
“Sixteen.” Although fourteen would’ve sold the act a little better, Spratt would know soon enough when they fingerprinted him anyway.
“Still a child,” Spratt said, and at the echo of his earlier thought, Ghost couldn’t stop the laugh this time, though he managed to shift it to a rueful one, almost bitter.
“I’m not a kid,” he muttered.
“Stop.” Spratt’s tone left no room for discussion. There was no room for anything, actually, because Spratt’s voice was filled to overflowing already, filled with a million notes and thoughts and weights that Ghost would never be able to parse. “Whatever it may feel like, you are young yet. There is much ahead of you. Here, we’ll let Officer Prill take that thug to the station for processing. We’ll wait for another vehicle. We’ll talk. There are ways out, for innocents like you.”
That was such a fundamental misreading of the text that Ghost almost laughed for real. He stayed in character by the skin of his teeth. “You think I’m innocent?”
Spratt tilted his head, thoughtful. “No matter what you’ve been through, at this age you’re still malleable. It can be undone.”
“How?” Ghost asked, honestly curious as to what this odd man in the nice suit with the priest voice thought should come next.
Spratt considered the question for several long moments. “In my experience, we surround ourselves with people who pull us and shape us. They’re a mirror of who we really are, good or bad.”
Ghost glanced at Vasily without meaning to, and Spratt’s hand tightened on Ghost’s jaw once more, directing him again to meet that stern gaze that cut through Ghost like a pickax through ore.
“Ah.” Spratt’s lips curved upward into a thin smile. “But I’m here now too.”
Tobias had already graduated from his program when Ghost returned for his fourth trip to Woodbury, but their old roommate Church was still there.
Edgar-Allen Church, with his mobile face and long arms constantly gesturing as he spoke. Church, who had an excellent right hook and was willing to use it. Church, who threw socks at Ghost when he had nightmares, and somehow knew not to get too close while the room was dark and Ghost’s chest still heaved.
Back when it’d been the three of them, Church had slipped into the space between Ghost and Tobias as if there’d been a spot there molded for him. He’d absorbed some of Ghost’s inexplicable sense of responsibility for Tobias, for which Ghost would always be grateful.
They were more edged without Tobias there to soften them, more inclined to trouble, but that had charms of its own. Although, if Ghost were pressed to honesty, he’d have to admit that Church had a strange ability to make Ghost feel more like a kid than a criminal.
“Dude, I’m telling you, Attack of the Killer Clowns has to be on the list of scariest movies,” Church said one day while they were ranking horror films when they should’ve been doing homework.
“You are high,” Ghost pointed out. “That movie is a comedy.”
“You’re a comedy,” Church said nonsensically. “Besides, I was, like, six. The cotton-candy cocoons of death screwed me up for months.”
Picturing baby Church—big brown eyes scared, his little chest puffed up because Church didn’t know how to be scared without pretending not to be—made Ghost feel pinched inside, warm and uncomfortable. He shifted his thoughts away, irritated for the thousandth time by the hooks Tobias and Church had somehow dug into him.
In a rare, lucky bit of distraction, a staff member called from the desk, “Ghost. Visitor time. Come get your off-campus pass.”
Church’s mouth literally dropped open, and Ghost snickered. “Chill. I’m not getting adopted. There’s a do-gooder who wants to reform me.”
“Reform you,” Church repeated, the curve of his mouth going suspicious and a little mean. Ghost reminded himself not to be flattered that Church cared enough to get mean on his behalf. Church would get mean on behalf of a suffering kitten.
“Yeah, he’s all about helping me overcome the hardships I’ve faced in my youth.” Ghost began collecting his books. “Lame, but at least he springs for nice restaurants. There are only so many chicken nuggets a man can eat, right?”
“So he takes you to eat and then what?”
“It’s not what you’re thinking, you pervert. He asks about my homework. He lectures me about ethics. He tells me I’m—” He broke off, forced out a casual shrug. “It’s standard do-gooder shit, Churchy. I’m not falling for it. Relax.”
Church’s gaze narrowed. “What does he tell you?”
Ghost batted his eyes. “He tells me that if I haven’t fucked anyone that week, I can have a gold star.”
Undeterred, Church demanded, “Does Tobias know about this?”
“Why would Tobias know about this?” Ghost shook his head. Church’s mind made no sense to him sometimes. “There’s nothing to know.”
“We should tell him.”
“Why?” Ghost could already picture Tobias’s worried, judgy face and it made him want to shift uncomfortably. “There’s nothing to tell. It’s just a cop doing some civil service in his off-hours. I’m playing along for the perks, that’s all. Shit.”
Church bit his lip. “This seems weird, man.”
“Look, give it a few more weeks and ten bucks says he finds an easier target. It’s not doing anything for me anyway.”
He made sure his voice carried a wealth of dismissal, but his last point couldn’t have been further from the truth. He would never know for sure if Spratt had deduced his weak spot and exploited it mercilessly or if he’d blindly stumbled across a weapon and used it unknowingly. Either way, there hadn’t been a single off-campus visit when Spratt hadn’t given him access to all the food he could eat. Even that first day almost a year ago when Vasily had come after him, once they’d gone to the station and taken Ghost’s statement, Spratt had taken him to a local restaurant and fed him until he was sick.
During that time, Spratt took him to the mall for clothes, talked to a judge on his behalf, took him to a movie, gave him a lecture about homework, and Ghost didn’t care about any of it. Not compared to the way Spratt took him to restaurants and ordered plate after plate of roast beef and mashed potatoes and steak and salmon, of herbs and sauces and side dishes with cheese. Spratt watched Ghost eat with a quiet approval that did nothing to erase Ghost’s shame at being seen, so obviously, as needy.
Spratt had put down a credit card each time with an air of habitual disregard. Pounds of food, countless meals, and no sign of worry for how it would be paid for. Maybe cops made more than he’d have thought they did. Regardless, Spratt ate whenever he was hungry.
Ghost had never had that: not just food enough to be full, but food enough to have no fear. Hunger wasn’t a temporary state of his being but a condition of his existence. He was Ghost, he was male, he was blond, he was hungry. Even when he had plenty in front of him, he was aware of his existence of hungriness all the same: that what was enough for the moment might not be enough for tomorrow, that the contents of the cabinets couldn’t be relied upon, either, because when they ran out, the stomach would be dependent on the notoriously fickle whims of the wallet, and everyone who lived hungry knew that food banks and homeless shelters might run out before you got there.
Ghost kept waiting for Spratt to make a move at one of these dinners. Assumed Spratt would think his kindnesses meant he was entitled. He’d ask. Maybe he’d ask nicely because he was a classy guy. Maybe he’d ask mean, irritated that Ghost hadn’t offered despite everything Spratt had done for him. Either way, though, the question-that-wasn’t-a-question was inevitable.
Ghost was certain of it. Since the beginning, Ghost had been certain. He would’ve said yes. He wouldn’t have hesitated. Ghost paid his debts.
But through it all, Spratt never did.
And after months of this, Ghost did the stupidest thing he could’ve possibly done.
When Ghost came out of the fugue, his laptop still sat where it’d been before on the little desk, the screen glowing, the surveillance program running, the video paused so that he could’ve been staring at a photograph.
Even from where he’d fallen onto the bed when the world had faded earlier, he could see the damning evidence: Spratt caught on camera with three lackeys, a corpse at their feet. One of Spratt’s own men dead because of those fine, elegant hands. Hands that’d touched Ghost a thousand times by now, brushes of his shoulder, a finger to his cheek, a gentle press against his own fingers.
Ghost could feel the distance grabbing at him, that robot-emptiness that made everything better and worse at once, and he fought it. He didn’t have much time. He needed his brain here and functioning. But all he could think of right now was how pissed off he was at Church for putting him here, however indirectly.
Ghost had spent so much time avoiding Vasily Krayev’s offer of protection that he’d been grateful when Spratt had bailed him out that day under the overpass. He hadn’t realized at the time that it’d been the beginning of the end, that Vasily would bitch about that humiliating little moment to his mother, Yelena Krayeva. Mama, who would take note of Ghost’s sudden connection to Benjamin Spratt, the Deputy Police Chief of Denver. She’d paid attention to that connection, had haunted Ghost’s steps, making little overtures, sending her sons or her favorite flunky, Kellen, to come and offer promises or benefits. All he had to do to earn them was talk about Spratt. Tell Mama what he knew. What did Spratt talk about at dinner? What manner of man was Spratt? What did he do in the evenings? What did he value? What were his weak spots?
Ghost had managed to dodge her and her questions initially. Until Church had gotten in trouble with Vasily Krayev and Ghost hadn’t had any choice. Agreeing to do a favor for Mama had been the only way to bail Church out. Yeah, it was partly Ghost’s bad planning that had gotten them there, but still.
This kind of shit was why smart people didn’t have friends.
As far as favors went, this one had been pretty cushy until now. Stay close to Spratt, get him to let Ghost stay with him, get the information Mama wanted.
Ghost hadn’t liked it, but he’d agreed. He hadn’t had any other options.
He hadn’t thought there’d be dirt to find.
That was the worst part. Realizing he’d believed.
The town house—Spratt’s town house, where Ghost lived in Spratt’s spare bedroom in the basement, where Ghost slept in Spratt’s guest bed and used Spratt’s furniture and Spratt’s bathroom and ate Spratt’s food—lay still and silent around him. They’d passed midnight a while ago. Spratt would be out cold in the master suite two floors up, oblivious to the fact that there was a recording of the murder he’d committed yesterday while Ghost was out with one of Spratt’s lackeys buying clothes that, as Spratt had put it, “actually covered Ghost’s bottom.”
Spratt wouldn’t say anything as uncouth as “ass.”
Ghost pressed a shaking hand to his mouth. Spratt wouldn’t say “ass” but he’d break a man’s larynx and watch him suffocate.
When his legs felt sturdier, Ghost got up and went back to the desk, slumped into the chair. Made himself stare at the picture on the screen. This was real. Not the Spratt who’d kept Ghost out of jail or taken a bullet to save a little girl a couple years back or who would be getting promoted to Chief of Police any day now.
It wasn’t betrayal to take the next step, he told himself.
It couldn’t be, not when Spratt had betrayed Ghost first. By being everything he’d pretended not to be.
But maybe it was possible to lie about a thing and still have it be true? Perhaps the two sides of Spratt coexisted. Maybe there was cause or a plan. And even if there hadn’t been, maybe it was possible to be two things at once—a killer and the good guy. Did doing bad things eliminate all the good a person did?
Ghost hoped not, or he was almost as karmically fucked as Spratt was.
He put his head on the desk and breathed.
The finish line was in sight. All he had to do was download the video from the surveillance program, attach it to an email, and send it to Mama. He hated the idea of sending something like that via Wi-Fi or email. He knew all too well how easy it was for shitty people to find shady things on the internet. There was no such thing as secrets these days.
But even as his hand hovered over his touchpad, he already knew he wouldn’t. He couldn’t. Spratt…there had to be more to it. He couldn’t make sense of it. He’d never known how to track Spratt’s motivations, never been able to follow the windy path of Spratt’s reasons. If Ghost was a puzzle, Spratt was a damn enigma.
For a long second, he let the cursor hover over the delete button.
If he clicked it, this video could be just another one of the things he avoided thinking about. It could join the no stop I avoid looking back things that’d happened way back when. He could stay here. He could tell Mama the reason he hadn’t found any dirt was that there wasn’t any.
He could run.
He glanced at his black lace-up boots. Then he turned back to the computer and moved the cursor away from the delete button. He wasn’t entirely sure why. His fingers simply developed a will of their own. He downloaded the video, but not to the hard drive, not for an email to Mama.
He saved it to a USB.
Then he deleted the file.
He shut his laptop and dressed as silently as possible. He’d have to leave the computer and his other things; he needed to be able to move quickly, and if he got busted trying to take off, he’d never be able to sell the excuse of sneaking out to hustle if he was taking a bunch of shit with him. All he grabbed was his phone and the USB, which he shoved into his jeans pocket.
He opened his bedroom door and stuck his head out to listen. No noise. Dark hallway, dark stairwell leading up to the main floor. He placed his feet carefully and made his way to the front door without making a sound.
He took off the chain, turned the dead bolt, and then froze as a delicate cough sounded behind him.
“Shit,” he muttered.
“I suppose you’ll tell me that you were sneaking out to get something to eat?”
Ghost rested his forehead against the doorjamb for a moment. “You know I wasn’t.”
“Yes, I do. My God, Ghost, I thought we were past this. You’ve been living here with me for more than a month. How can you still feel the need to prostitute yourself when your every other need is taken care of?” Spratt’s voice approached, and a moment later his hand came to rest on Ghost’s shoulder. He flinched, something he hadn’t done with Spratt in a long time, and Spratt went still behind him. “Ah. This is about the other situation.”
Ghost’s heart raced at an almost painful clip. “What other situation?”
“Do you really think me that stupid? Do you think I don’t pay attention to your whereabouts and circumstances when you’re not with me?”
Ghost didn’t say anything; a single wrong word might tip this rickety ship over.
“I know she sent you.” Spratt sounded tired. “Why do you think I’ve been so careful with you?”
Not careful enough. But then, Spratt had every reason to think he was safe; Ghost hadn’t been home during the murder, and there’d been no logical way for Ghost to find out. Spratt had gone through his things when he first arrived and found nothing suspicious, after all. Ghost had acquired the camera from Kellen afterward, in a handoff during a rare trip out into the world with one of Spratt’s lackeys.
But he’d clearly known something was up. He’d been paying more attention than Ghost had thought. Enough to keep an eye on him in the middle of the freaking night, though?
“Wait. How did you know I was sneaking out?” Ghost asked.
“Your bedroom door is alarmed, of course. I knew you would try something like this sooner or later. Now come along. I’m tired. It’s very late.”
If he’d alarmed Ghost’s room without his knowledge, what else had he done? Ghost had to work hard not to let his eyes fly to the top shelf of the living room built-in bookcase, where he’d hidden a tiny camera among the decorative pottery. Had Spratt somehow gotten his password? If he hadn’t before, he might try now. How long did Ghost have before Spratt figured out what Ghost was looking for?
Before he realized Ghost had found it?
And what would he do once he knew?
Suddenly, Ghost wasn’t sure.
Without thinking, he lunged for the door. He struggled against the hands that snatched at him, shoving rather than hitting, trying to get away rather than harm. He could’ve hurt Spratt—he was good at violence—but he didn’t want to, so he didn’t go for the soft spots that would guarantee a win, and he’d regret that later, because Spratt apparently felt no such compunction. He yanked Ghost around and hit him hard enough that his feet flew out from under him. His head cracked on the hardwood floor when he crashed to the ground. His teeth clacked down on his tongue, and blood filled his mouth.
The room tilted. Spratt must’ve hauled him up. His legs held him, but barely, and as Spratt yanked him forward, back toward the stairs, he became aware of Spratt’s words: “—have to be more cautious, clearly. I thought I’d made enough headway that you might soon trust me enough to let me help you escape from her. But she has her talons in you too deep. I’ll have to be more drastic. The laptop will have to go, of course. And the bed. That window is a problem. And the clothing. Who knows what you might try to hide on your person?”
If Spratt searched him, he was as good as dead. He stuck his hand into his pocket and cupped the USB in his palm, covering the movement by stumbling, making Spratt have to take more of his weight, particularly as they started down the stairs to the basement.
Spratt kept walking, implacable as a Terminator, hauling Ghost along despite his attempts to break loose.
“This is for your own good,” Spratt said, out of breath but unyielding.
There were four rooms in the basement: the two guest rooms, only one of which was furnished, the laundry room and the bathroom. Ghost’s room and the bathroom were to the right of the stairs. The other guest room and the laundry lay to the left.
Spratt yanked him left.
“Wait,” Ghost gasped. He sent an elbow back, caught Spratt in the side, and found himself rammed into the wall hard enough to lose his breath, though he had the presence of mind not to drop the USB. “I wasn’t going to do anything. That’s why I was leaving. Because you helped me.”
“Lies will get you nowhere.” Spratt yanked Ghost back only to shove him into the wall a second time, making him cry out. “Your betrayal stings, but I’m unsurprised, all the same. You’ve been played, Ghost. She’s made you into her fool, and you’re so caught up in your belief of your own hopelessness that you didn’t even struggle.”
Ghost was struggling now, as hard as he could, but not to get away. He just wanted a moment, one tiny moment with his right arm free…
When the chance came, he hurled the USB into the laundry room and then rounded on Spratt with a shout, hoping to cover the sound of the plastic landing on the dryer and bouncing into the shadows out of sight. He fought to distract, not to cause pain, throwing a punch, kicking, biting, yelling, wishing he had his knife, though he wasn’t sure he’d have found the will to use it, and Spratt was startled enough that Ghost almost got the upper hand.
Then that fist was back, ringing his bells, and the next thing he knew he’d been pulled completely off his feet. Spratt dragged him into the second guest room, empty of furniture entirely. The closet door stood open, and—not for the first time—Ghost noticed the heavy-duty silver padlock on the frame. It’d been there since Ghost arrived, and now he knew why. This had always been an option. Spratt had simply been waiting for Ghost to hang himself with the rope he’d been given.
Spratt hauled him toward the closet, where Ghost found his feet again, found the strength to really struggle, but it was too late. Spratt had the muscle and the momentum, and Ghost hit the far wall with enough force that he slid down to the floor, stunned.
Those familiar hands, so elegant and gentle, rooted roughly through Ghost’s pockets, finding his phone but nothing else.
“You’ll get a meal when you’ve removed your clothing,” Spratt said, panting and furious. “I’ve tried so hard with you, and you’ve thrown it all aside. Now it’s your turn to do some of the work to redeem yourself.”
He slammed the door, shutting Ghost in perfect darkness.
A second later, he heard the click of the padlock.
[August 2017—Present Day]
The ancient Winnebago lumbered along I-25, a smelly, noisy, bloated whale on wheels with a butt-ugly sand-and-tan color scheme. A hula girl bobbed away on the dash, the air-conditioning was piss-poor, and they were being passed on the left and right alike by drivers going the speed limit. Behind the wheel, Walter Wathers was muttering about all the things he would do to those careless drivers if he still had a badge, calling the Winnebago “old girl,” as he urged her to speed up.
Ghost inexplicably loved it.
Or maybe he loved the space that the Winnebago was putting between himself and Spratt and Mama with each trundling mile. Every inch of asphalt covered was another deep breath, a heartbeat of delay before they caught up and made him pay. Not yet, the Winnebago promised. Yes, they might catch you eventually, break you eventually, but not yet.
The days since he escaped Spratt’s closet had been hard enough that Ghost might’ve loved anything offering promises like that. At least a Winnebago didn’t expect anything in return.
The grizzled gray bastard behind the wheel seemed to love the RV too, judging from the tender way he patted the console when the hog finally lurched to the summit of the hill. Ghost knew it was stupid to get attached to material things—that was asking to get robbed—and you’d think an ex-cop would know that, but Ghost couldn’t blame him in this case. If he could have a thing, a Winnebago wouldn’t be a bad one.
They stopped south of Denver for breakfast and what Wathers called “a man-to-man chat.” Ghost fiddled with the sugar packets while they waited for their pancakes, and listened with half an ear to Wathers’s rough voice as he went on and on about Doing the Right Thing, despite Ghost’s not-infrequent eye-rolling. If he didn’t escape from Wathers’s incessant moralizing, he’d end up carving the guy a Glasgow.
He decided to go to the bathroom instead. Never let it be said he wasn’t a humanitarian.
When he came back out, Wathers was at the register, talking on the restaurant’s landline, his body language aggressively casual, and Ghost hesitated, suspicion bubbling inside him, wondering who the old guy could be talking to. As he stood there, a waitress came out of the kitchen, almost bumping into him, and he stepped aside. He caught a glimpse of stainless steel and a griddle and a guy in a white T-shirt flipping eggs with half his attention, the other half on the small television bolted to the wall playing sports highlights.
The waitress gave him a dirty look for hovering, and Ghost went back to the table, not wanting to attract more attention. He passed the time watching the doors and windows, trying not to imagine Spratt or Mama walking in, finding him, ending it.
“A landline?” Ghost asked when Walt rejoined him. “Really?”
Wathers scowled. “Cell phones give you cancer.”
“Sure they do.” Ghost shook his head. Stodgy, stubborn bastard. “Who was that?”
“A contact. Not really the time or place to pass on too many details to him, but at least now he knows something’s up. Now, about your decision to do this. I think it’s good that you’re going to stand up to them, son.”
Like he had much choice. Ever since Tobias and his PI boyfriend, Sullivan, had rescued him from that damn closet, he’d heard nothing but reasons why running wasn’t an option. Use the USB to take Spratt down, they’d said. You can’t take him and Mama on at the same time. We know a guy who can help you bust Spratt, and then at least you only have to worry about Mama.
As if he stood a chance against Mama anyway, even with Wathers helping him.
He was starting to feel sick thinking about it, so he tuned out the rest of Wathers’s chat—lecture really, but at least it didn’t include blowing smoke up Jesus’s ass—long enough to eat pancakes. Wathers paid, no doubt aware that Ghost didn’t have a cent to his name. He tipped well and then hauled his bulk out of the seat and led the way back to the Winnebago. The seats burned the backs of Ghost’s thighs through his jeans; August in Colorado could transform leather into the surface of the sun.
The Winnebago growled its way awake. Wathers turned on country music, and the twang followed them down I-25 past Colorado Springs. They eventually turned onto the 115, a two-lane highway that wound through summer-choked underbrush and alongside deep, endlessly brown gorges of rock and dirt. Other than the occasional bit of barbed wire and rusted street sign identifying a gravel turnoff, there were few signs of civilization.
When the radio station got staticky, Wathers switched it off. “You don’t fool me, you know.”
“Oh, God. Can’t people sit in awkward silence anymore?”
“You’re doing a good thing.”
“I’m in hell,” Ghost told the little dancing hula girl on the dash. “Also, I think you’re culturally appropriative.”
“No, your nudie girl.”
“She’s not nudie!”
“The only thing covering her tits is her lei.”
Wathers exhaled like he was trying not to lose his patience. “It’s all right to be scared.”
Ghost tipped his head to one side, studying him. Wathers had jowls and needed to shave his gray-and-brown stubble, and the lines on his face were deep enough to be called ravines. He didn’t seem particularly stupid or smart. He seemed ordinary. Ghost had fucked a hundred old bastards like him, and there should be nothing unexpected about him, and yet…
He wasn’t wrong. Ghost was scared.
The syrupy, twitchy, ugly feeling made him think of flies stuck in honey, their sticklike legs and thin wings straining. Ghost’s prevailing memory of childhood was a constant, humming fear underlying everything, like a low-grade fever that took all the color out of a day without ever actually knocking you on your ass. At a certain point, though, the fear had simply stopped. Something inside had broken, he’d supposed.
After going so long without it, he’d lost his tolerance. He felt exposed in a way he never had before.
Curious, Ghost asked, “Do I look scared to you?”
“No. But I pegged you for a con artist with that first smile you aimed my way, kid. The only time you’ll look scared is if you think it bails you out of something. Nah, it’s nothing I can see.”
“That’s the cataracts,” Ghost said kindly. “Because you’re really old.”
Wathers ignored that, instead shifting his weight, making his seat creak. “You’re scared because you’re smart.”
“Is this the part where you swear you’ll protect me? Forgive me if I don’t have a lot of faith.” Ghost aimed for a healthy dose of bitter cynicism, and nailed it; that tone usually worked to invoke pity in people who thought they were noble.
It didn’t work on Wathers. He snorted.
“You disagree?” Ghost asked.
“You’re 95% bullshit, aren’t you? You’re going to drive him crazy.”
“Told you that you’d need a good cop on your side to get through this. That’s my contact. I let him know we were coming while we were at the restaurant.”
Ghost glanced out the window, pulse picking up, noting terrain, wondering about locations and distances. “Where are you taking me?”
“His place. Same place I was before,” Wathers said, gaze flitting back and forth between Ghost and the road. Then, with a sigh, Wathers turned the Winnebago to the side of the road and killed the engine. He held his hands out, pacifying. “Not gonna hurt you.”
“I would love to see you try,” Ghost said, and in that second he meant it. His heart pounded and his fingers twitched toward the small of his back and that stolen knife. He wanted Wathers to make a move, because then it could start. It could start and Ghost could get it out and then it would be done.
And he would be back where he started. He forced himself to breathe.
Carefully, Wathers held out his cell. “Do you want to call one of your buddies? One of the folks who vouched for me? Get some reassurance?”
“I’m not going to throw you under a bus, son.” Wathers dragged a hand over the loose skin of his jaw. “But I can’t help you, not the way you need. I mean, I can, and I will, but I’m not enough. I have a blip or two on my record—small stuff,” he interjected defensively, “and these days most cops do, but that’s not even the biggest problem. I’m retired and I’m old. Too easy for people to prompt questions about my word. You need someone unimpeachable. You need Duncan.”
“Who?” Ghost stared hard at the older man, searching for cues. But if Wathers was lying, he was better at it than anyone else Ghost had ever met.
“Duncan Rook. He’s staying outside of Cañon City at the moment. His rep’s golden. He’ll do right by you.”
Still no sign of bullshit. Ghost reached out for the cell phone. Wathers let him take it, which was reassurance of its own sort right there. “Tobias said you don’t carry a cell phone. And you used a landline at the restaurant.”
“Of course I have a cell phone,” Wathers said, looking a little hunted. “I just don’t turn it on very much.”
“Because people keep calling me, and part of the reason I retired was so I wouldn’t have to talk to them.” He hesitated. “Don’t tell my daughter I said that.”
Ghost sighed. “He’s better for this than you? This Rook guy?”
“He is. That’s why we’re going. No other reason, son.”
“The mythical unicorn that is The Good Cop.” Ghost looked skyward for help. “Have mercy.”
Wathers laughed. “Oh, I don’t know that I’d call him a good cop, but he’s a good man. Bit of an acquired taste. If the two of you make it past the first few days without killing each other, he might be able to bail your ass out.”
“We’ll probably fall in love and get married,” Ghost said, batting his eyes. “You’re basically Cupid.”
“I wouldn’t wish you on anyone.” Wathers started the engine and aimed back onto the road, beginning the hour-long process of getting the Winnebago back up to thirty-five miles per hour. “You know, back when he was just a rookie—six or seven years ago, must be—we got a call and ended up listening to an old lady go on about her dear, beloved Ernest, who’d gone missing. By the time Duncan was done getting the dirt for the missing person report, he’d actually gotten a confession out of her. She’d baked her husband a pie full of poison and marionberries. Got her son to move the body. I guess dear, beloved Ernest had been a bit of a reprobate.” He sighed, faintly wistful. “Those were the days.”
“I cannot stress enough how much I don’t care,” Ghost said, and that was when the impact came, the Winnebago rattling hard enough to lock his seat belt.
“What the hell?” Wathers said, and then the second impact came and glass imploded and the world tipped and went over and over and over.
Excerpted from Rough Trade by Sidney Bell © 2018, published by Carina Press, TM