Rough Trade Bonus Content 

Warning: SPOILERS!!! (Last updated 2/26/19)


***Author Note: Some of you may remember a blog post where I talked about being concerned over how dark the beginning of Ghost’s book was. You may also remember a blog post considerably later where I admitted that the original first chapter got trashed for exactly that reason. In retrospect, the scenes were also somewhat repetitive. I wanted to show how Ghost was living at the beginning of his journey, but I might’ve done it a little too well. It was overkill for what I needed to accomplish, if that makes sense. So these first pages were removed. A few tidbits of this material made it into the book in other forms, but the vast majority of it did not.

Despite all of these pages getting trashed, I don’t feel like it was wasted effort. Looking back, I can tell that a lot of this was me trying to get in Ghost’s head, so even if the pages didn’t make it into the book, they were still incredibly useful in developing his character.

As usual, this is unedited. Dates and names may be inconsistent with the novels.

Beware, there is some definite NSFW content here. And it’s really dark. If you’re feeling a little sad at the end, just remember that eventually Ghost meets Duncan and finds his happiness.


Deleted scene—original first chapter of Rough Trade—nsfw

 

2012

“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 knees through his jeans, sharp little snags of pain. He shifted his weight. Didn’t help. Well, it’d stop in a minute.

“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 in December, 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 quite 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 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—relatively clean sweat and hidden-away skin, the small jogs of his hips probably involuntary as he let out a moan that definitely reached beyond the end of the alley to the main street.

Ghost pulled back. “Seriously? Are you trying to get us busted? You know what they’ll do to you in lockup if you get caught with someone my age?” Which was two years older than he’d told the guy, but still enough to get the asshole shanked by one of the rare criminals with standards. “Shut your fucking mouth.”

“Sorry, sorry, don’t stop, what the fuck, kid—”

Ghost rolled his eyes. He’d be earning those twenties tucked into his sock on this one. He leaned back in, took the guy deep again, and—

“Jesus. Jesus. Jeee-SUS.”

Ghost blinked. The alley wobbled around him. His mouth was wet and sour and he…he spit. That’s right. Had to spit. Alley. Chicken coops.

He got up. His knees ached. Blade in his left hand. Blade in his left hand.

The guy did up his pants. “You’ve got one hell of a mouth, kid.”

“Thanks.” Ghost wiped his lips. “Your feedback is important to us.”

Blade in his left hand, but the guy walked away and Ghost breathed again.

 

2013

Woodbury Residential Treatment Center.

Where the food was the only thing worse than all the fucking therapy.

Well, the food and all the searches. Now that they knew how much he liked knives, after that whole thing with Strickland’s testicle, he was going to have to deal with strangers touching him all the time.

He told them he wasn’t going to see Dr. Carole today. Let them make a black mark next to his name for refusing. Tomorrow, he’d pick up the act. He’d get his shit together. Work the program and get out.

But for today…today he was tired.

 

2014

“I’m, uh, looking for something a little rougher, princess.” The frat-boy smirked, but there was a tinge of uneasiness to the expression. His gaze darted around, lingering on shadowed alleys and darkened cars. His eyes weren’t bloodshot and his hands weren’t trembling. His skin was clear, his teeth all present. Not a junkie. And a cop wouldn’t have any reason to be nervous.

A rookie, then. Huh. Ghost didn’t get many of those.

“Looks aren’t everything. You won’t find rougher than me.” He pulled his blade out, cleaned under a fingernail, eyes still on frat-boy’s face.

The guy swallowed. His eyes ran up and down Ghost’s body. “Are you even eighteen?”

“Yes.” Or he would be, in about seven months. Close enough. He kept his body language languid. Relaxed. Like nothing could rattle him. Sexy, he figured, to a guy looking for someone who could handle himself.

“I, uh…”

“Or did you come all the way down here just to go back to Beta Delta Bullshit with your cherry intact?”

Frat-boy flushed, his lips parting as he sucked in a breath. “Yeah, okay.”

They walked down the sidewalk to the overpass, where the distant red-green of the streetlights disappeared into shadow. There was just the scents of oil and asphalt and damp soil carried on the soft, damp night breeze.

“Am I fucking you or sucking you?” Ghost tilted his head to one side.

Frat-boy’s gaze dropped to Ghost’s crotch. “Uh…”

God save him. Ghost rolled his eyes. “In this lifetime.”

“Um, suck me.”

Ghost considered the quality of the guy’s clothes and threw out a number that would’ve had his usual clientele laughing in his face. “Two hundred.”

“Sure. Okay.”

It must be nice to be able to shell out that kind of money for head without blinking. Ghost held his hand out. “Up front, asshole.”

“I knew that.” The guy held out four fifties, his fingers shaking, the watch on his wrist worth at least a couple grand. Ghost considered taking it, but then dismissed the idea. He’d probably have to hurt the guy to get the watch away from him, and the cops might actually investigate the claims of a guy whose education was probably costing his daddy upwards of fifty thousand a year. Not worth it. Besides, he had a feeling that if he made it good enough, this guy might turn into a regular, and Ghost wasn’t stupid enough to shoot a gift-MBA in the mouth.    

Guys with kinks always came back if they got what they needed, and if there was one thing Ghost was good at, it was becoming whatever he needed to be.

He tucked the bill away and knelt. Blade in his left hand, this time from the fold in his jeans he’d sewn at the small of his back.

After a thorough glance of the guy’s junk, he darted in, sucking one ball into his mouth and biting down. Not hard—barely a whisper of pressure—but enough to scare the shit out of the guy, to make him shout and fumble and try to push Ghost’s head back. Ghost knocked his hand away—he didn’t want to actually tear the guy’s nut off or anything—and looked up at him, drawing back in increments that took ages, finally opening his mouth with a loud slurp, letting the guy’s ball thwap against his thigh. The guy’s chest heaved, his eyes wide. His hand curled up into a fist.

“You might be able take me,” Ghost offered, fucking with him. Right. If this guy had ever been in a fight, it’d been a sloppy drunken mess at a frat party, the kind of parties Ghost had only seen on TV or movies, the ones he’d seen at no stop i avoid looking back parties that showed up in the kinds of movies the staff never let them watch at Woodbury, parties with loud music and expensive whiskey and roofied sorority girls passed out on beds upstairs. Ghost could take this guy’s liver out without blinking. Good luck at a kegger without that.

Ghost said, “You’re big. You could maybe even get your money back. But by the time we’re done, you’ll be out at least one ball, never mind what shape you leave me in. Or you can stand there and take your chances and maybe I’ll make you come your fucking brains out. Princess.”

The guy’s breath shuddered out of him. “Yeah. Yeah. Do that.”

Predictable.

Ghost took the guy in his mouth, sucking hard for a minute, listening to the guy’s soft moans until he felt a hand in his hair. He pulled off, grabbed the guy’s wrist, twisted it, used the leverage to yank him down, ignoring his cry of pain, and the blade—in his left hand, in his left hand—went to frat boy’s throat.

“If you pull on my hair again, you’re going to lose something vital,” Ghost said pleasantly. “Do you understand?”

The guy’s gaze was hazy. Yeah, he definitely had a type. He stammered out agreement, and Ghost let him go.

“Hands above your head. Pin them to the fucking cement. Don’t touch me again.”

The guy’s hands flew upwards like they’d been jerked on a string. “Yep, yeah, okay, yeah.”

“Stay there.”

“Yeah, yeah, oh—”

So fucking predictable. The way they all broke apart, logic gone, self-preservation gone, all at the thrum of a hand or a mouth on their dicks or clits. Times like this, Ghost feared for the human race. And later, when the guy’s brain crawled out of his balls, he’d still want Ghost. He’d be back.

Ghost leaned in, blade in his left hand, sucking, blade in his left hand.

Later, when the guy was gone, Ghost realized it’d been one of the tricks where he hadn’t vanished in the middle.

Huh. He wished he knew what set those off.

 

2015

Jesus. Did all police cars have to smell like piss in the back? The cuffs dug into his wrists. It was late and his head hurt and he was fucking tired. Just take him to Woodbury already and let him sleep it off. He thought of Church and Tobias and felt a pang of something sweet. Maybe Woodbury wasn’t a good idea after all.

Then the cruiser turned onto a side street, away from the nearest precinct, and Ghost knew. He sighed, tipping his head downward. Don’t say it, he reminded himself. If you don’t say it, it’s all good.

“Make you a deal,” the cop said, and Ghost met his gaze in the rearview. The cop didn’t explain what the deal was, but then, he didn’t need to.

Don’t say it don’t say it don’t say it

“Okay.”

Good. Now just keep not saying it it’s a deal if you don’t say it.

When the back door of the cruiser opened and the cop—big belly, graying hair, canny eyes gone desperate already—loomed in the open space, handcuff keys out, Ghost said, “Yeah, okay.”

He said it in his head then, too, reminding himself that he was getting something out of it, that it was a deal, he was getting paid with his freedom, that he meant it. Okay, okay, okay—

 

2016

The motel bed smelled like sweat and cheap detergent, and she reeked of cigarettes under her perfume. She was terrified—not of him, but of this, this room and what they became by coming here—her blue eyes huge behind her thick glasses. It took forever to get her wet. He hadn’t had to work this hard since—well, since the last woman he’d fucked. Like it wasn’t difficult enough to do this shit when he wasn’t trying to stay hard.

He wondered if he would’ve been gay if not for no stop I avoid looking back. He stared at a mole above the woman’s left tit for a second while he contemplated this. Eventually he shrugged. Wasn’t like it mattered. Meat was meat, and it didn’t get any sexier in a different shape.

He should probably update his site to say he didn’t fuck women, though, now that he thought about it. But there was something…it was…he found it tricky to say no when a woman said, “I picked you because you look more like a girl. I picked you because you won’t hurt me.”

He could understand that. They were really wrong, but he understood it.

She was shuddering beneath him, and he hadn’t even entered her yet.

“You want to get on top?” he asked.

She shook her head. Her skin was blotchy and red.

More gently, he asked, “You want me to stop? We could watch a movie. Or I could leave.”

She had tears coming out of her eyes. Her fingers ran up his back and he wanted to knock her hands away but he didn’t. She was one of those, apparently, one of the ones who wanted touch, not sex, and if he’d known, he’d have bailed the second he saw her, but it was too late now. Even he wasn’t bastard enough to walk out on her now.

“Let me brush your hair,” he murmured. “Yeah?”

She nodded, and started crying hard, and he slid off of her, tossing the condom in the trash and tugging her against him. It made his skin crawl, but she was outright sobbing and he understood that too, and he could handle a minute or so before he—or maybe not, maybe—

He came out of it slowly. Heard water in the bathroom. His left hand was empty, it was empty, and he sat up, this was all wrong, it was backwards and wrong and his jeans, where were his jeans, his blade went in his left hand, it WENT IN HIS LEFT HAND AND—

There was a woman holding his jeans out. She watched him pull the knife out and went very still, and he had to breathe, had to breathe, had to, it was here, blade in his left hand, and he managed a garbled, “Won’t hurt you. Just. A second.”

She plainly didn’t believe him at first, but she stayed, and eventually, when he only clung to the weapon and didn’t otherwise move, she whispered, “So it’s, um. Like a lucky rabbit’s foot?”

He jerked one shoulder. Lucky wasn’t the word. If she’d still been touching him when he came out of it without the blade, this would’ve gone in a very different direction.

She straightened the corner of the duvet, murmuring, “Don’t be embarrassed. I’m probably still more screwed up than you.”

She might have a point; a whore had pulled a knife on her and she hadn’t run. But he had his own shit to deal with, so he only shrugged again. How did anyone measure something like that anyway?

She had a hairbrush in one hand. He shimmied into his clothes and tucked the blade back in the waistband.

Instead of fucking, they ordered pizza and watched Die Hard and he brushed her hair. Halfway through the movie she started mumbling something about her kid that he couldn’t make out. He tuned her out; she wasn’t here for his opinion anyway. After a while she cried a little more, but he kept brushing her hair and eventually she stopped.

They talked a little about whether or not Alan Rickman was hot. She said yes. Ghost wasn’t sure how he was supposed to know one way or the other, but he agreed out loud. He managed a mildly-crooked French braid, and tied the fuzzy pink hair band around the tail.

She tipped him a hundred as he left. He told her to keep his number and hoped she didn’t.

He thought he’d probably rather suck a hundred dicks for free.

2016

Woodbury again.

For the first time, getting out of the social worker’s car in the parking lot, looking at those institutional brick buildings and the long cracked sidewalks, Ghost’s heartbeat slowed instead of sped. He liked being on his own. It wasn’t safer. Easier, though. Definitely easier. This was—he shouldn’t be feeling this. Shouldn’t be feeling his step lighten, shouldn’t be passing familiar and unfamiliar faces with an utter lack of interest only to feel everything in him go warm and soft and stupid as two guys in the big group room looked up from where they were sitting on the couch doing homework.

At the sight of him, they wore identical expressions of relief, and it cracked Ghost open.

Edgar-Allen Church and Tobias Benton, the closest Ghost had ever come to friendship in his life.

He couldn’t stop to talk; he had to go with the staff member to get searched and checked in. He tossed them a wink hello, though, and against his best instincts, he liked the way they both grinned in response, Church wry and shaking his head, Tobias flushed and sweetly pleased.

Later, in the free hours after dinner, they met in the front room again to catch up. Ghost had eaten his full portion in the cafeteria, and his stomach must’ve shrunk or something over the months since he’d last been in Woodbury, because all it’d take was half a cup of corn and some Salisbury steak to make him feel logy and bloated. Maybe that was why his guard was down when Church and Tobias exchanged a loaded glance before Church tentatively asked, “So…what’s new with you?”

“Same garbage as ever,” he said, unthinking, and only realized he’d sounded downright honest—that he’d been downright honest—when they both went still. He added, “Good times, kids. Nothing but fun.”

“You sound tired,” Tobias said quietly.

Ghost had to nip this in the bud right now, so he said, “Shift work will do that for you.”

Church’s expression twisted into frustrated sadness, and Tobias stared at the carpeted floor, his mouth pursed in misery.

Ghost sighed. He always seemed to get it wrong with these two. No matter what he said or did, they never just accepted it. They always wanted more. And no matter what he said or did to keep them from getting it, they kept making room for him.

Confusing. Frustrating.

He put his head back on the arm of the couch.

Whatever. In a few weeks’ time he’d have convinced yet another underpaid county therapist that he’d seen the error of his ways and he could go back to his real life. He could stop pretending he bought into the idea that if he just worked the state-sponsored program, he too could attain a Real Future. It wouldn’t do him any good to get used to this.  At some point after he turned eighteen, they’d start putting him in jail instead of juvenile residential treatment, and he didn’t fool himself about how long a guy like him would last in lockup. He’d have to kill to keep himself to himself, and then he’d have to kill more to keep any of his victims’ friends away, and at some point, he’d look up and realize he was sixty and talking to a parole board about how he could contribute to society, never mind that he hadn’t seen it in almost half a century.

No, he couldn’t afford to get used to this. Everything about Woodbury conspired to take him out at the knees.

“Still hustling, huh?” Church asked, his gaze direct. It made Ghost want to fidget. He didn’t, because that would only make Church think he was onto something, and then he’d push. Church had a propensity for violence—one of Ghost’s favorite things about him, actually—but he had a good heart and for some godforsaken reason he cared about Ghost, and that meant he’d push, even if he knew the ensuing conversation would suck balls.

“Why wouldn’t I be?”

Tobias didn’t say anything, but his brow creased, and Ghost felt unaccountably shitty at the sight of it. Which in turn pissed him off. “I’m going to go to bed. I’m tired.”

“You don’t have to do that,” Church said in a low voice.

“Do what?”

“Pretend you’re cool with all of this. That it’s okay. Not with us.”

Tobias still didn’t look up, but he nodded.

Ghost could’ve answered with a dozen different things, but he didn’t think Church would buy any of them. And as it was, they’d already dug too deep, reached for too much. If they kept this up, he’d have to…he’d have to do something, have to argue or fight or kick them loose, and none of that was good, none of it would…he needed…fuck them both for doing this.

“I’m going to bed,” he said again, as evenly as he could, and got up and left.

He heard Church curse behind him, heard Tobias say softly, “We had to try.”

Then he was past the staff desk and alone in the long hallway that led to his room and he could breathe again.  


 ***Author’s Note: It became pretty clear to me fast that I wasn’t going to be able to use the above pages as my first chapter, but that didn’t mean I knew what to replace them with. I toyed with a bunch of different things, made a bunch of attempts that never got longer than a page. The best of these attempts is below, but although there were things I really liked about it, I eventually realized that it would be better to have the book open with Ghost saving Tobias rather than having him save a complete stranger who never came back into the story. Once I decided to go that route—a flashback to the moment where Ghost intervenes on Tobias’s behalf in Woodbury—the rest of the scenes fell into place. All the key scenes that had been hidden because readers hadn’t had access to Ghost’s POV were suddenly fair game, and I knew that was the way to go.

So here’s the initial Ghost-as-hero scene. I’m a little sad that the conversation in the McDonald’s never made it into the book, because I feel like Ghost’s dialogue here captures everything that made him intriguing and fun to write. I’m pleased you’ll all finally get to see it.

There’s some foul language and references to violence and prostitution. I would deem it NSFW, but your mileage may vary.


Deleted Scene - Unused Alternate Opening #1

Don’t do it, Ghost thought, aiming the silent warning to the teenage girl on the opposite corner, watching her contemplate a car she had no business contemplating.

She had the look of a young, nervous wolf, all long, skinny limbs and hands and feet too big for her body, nervy and insecure as she hovered under the overpass, biting her lip. She’d been here for the last three days, watching the rest of them, trying to work up the nerve to take a trick, and it figured, it just fucking figured that she’d picked this particular piece of shit with which to break her cherry.

They called him Green Mercedes, and he tended to rope in the newbies because he looked like your middle-school best friend’s dorky, harmless dad, but he’d never brought a girl back. Sometimes they wandered down to the overpass on their own when they healed up, but mostly they didn’t. A few would never hustle again. Scars were only sexy to a very limited clientele.

The girl had no way of knowing this. No way beyond watching the rest of the whores under the overpass avoid Green Mercedes as he idled at the curb.

Ghost would’ve thought she’d be too smart to fall for Green Mercedes, what with the way she’d been observing the rest of them, trying to work out what they were doing and why, but she had the suburbs stamped all over her expensive jeans, and the baby-fat-round cheeks of someone who’d barely tipped fourteen, fifteen tops, and there were some lessons that could only be learned the hard way if you didn’t have someone wiser to lead the way. And hunger could turn anyone into a fool.

Don’t do it, Ghost told the girl silently.

 Don’t do it, he told himself.

Hadn’t he figured out by now what happened when you helped vulnerable idiots? Look what’d happened with Tobias—Ghost bailed him out of a beating in Woodbury, and now, months later, Tobias was still trailing after him, getting his sticky friendship all over Ghost, worrying about him, giving him big, worried blue eyes. Ghost didn’t have the time or energy for another leech. He couldn’t save this girl with the sad, chipped glitter nail polish and the pink streak in her hair and he shouldn’t have to. He wasn’t going to. He wasn’t.

Then she squared her shoulders and stepped out of the shadows, and Ghost thought fucking fucking fuck and broke into a light jog, crossing the asphalt and catching up with the girl just as she bent to stick her head through the passenger’s side window.

“Nope,” he said, grabbing her arm in an unbreakable grip and hauling her nearly off her feet before she recovered and caught up to his momentum. “Walk. Keep walking.”

“What the hell,” she snarled, stumbling, wrenching at her arm so that he was forced to stop or leave her alone.

Behind them, Green Mercedes opened his door.

“If you want to get in a car with a guy who gets his jollies using his fists on pretty little things like you, be my guest,” Ghost said, throwing the girl a blindingly insincere smile before letting it soften into something more real—or what she would interpret as real, anyway. “Or you can keep your skin intact and come with me.”

Green Mercedes—bearded, with father-type eyeglasses from the seventies, in an orange puffy jacket—began walking toward them. “What’s the problem?” 

Ghost ignored him and lifted an eyebrow at the girl. “Your choice.”

The man was still approaching. In just a few more steps, he’d be within reaching distance. His voice took on a stern, fatherly tone. “I think you should take your hands off the girl, young man.”

“I agree,” Ghost said, and took his hands off the girl, but only to slide one to the waistband of his jeans, where he kept his blade in the horizontal pocket along the small of his back. It was a butterfly knife, the blade concealed within the hilt until Ghost swung it open with a practiced flick of his wrist.

The girl’s mouth dropped open; she stepped away from Ghost, which—understandable. But Ghost only looked at Green Mercedes and said pleasantly, “Stop there or lose a ball.”

Green Mercedes stopped, gaze on the knife. He swiveled slightly, back toward his car and the stretch of filthy pavement where the other whores stood smoking, waiting for tricks, as if considering cutting his losses. But nobody back there would give him the time of day anymore and he knew it. He faced the girl. “Two hundred.”

Ghost snorted. As if that kind of outlandish price wasn’t suspicious enough.

The girl swallowed.

Green Mercedes added, “Going once…”

The girl peered up at Ghost, torn.

“He will carve you into pieces,” Ghost warned, and jerked a shoulder, frustrated, before heading off down the sidewalk. He’d done what he could; the rest was up to her.  

“Going twice,” Green Mercedes called.

“All right, fine,” the girl said from behind him, and he could hear her light approaching footfalls as she hurried to catch up with Ghost.

“All right,” Ghost agreed.

“Fucking cocksucker,” Green Mercedes yelled, making the girl flinch. Ghost glanced over his shoulder, but Green Mercedes was stomping back to his car.

“Smart choice,” Ghost told her.

“Yeah, whatever,” the girl mumbled. “Not going to get me fed, is it?”

Ghost sighed and gestured down the street in the general direction of the nearest fast food joint. “I’ll buy you a burger if you promise not to cry.”

She eyed him doubtfully—she wasn’t a complete idiot after all, good for her. In the distance, Green Mercedes slammed his door and revved his engine, yelling another crude comment out his window, and she edged a tiny bit closer to Ghost as the guy peeled off, his fury leaving tire treads on the asphalt. They both watched warily, but the car headed for the boulevard in the opposite direction, and Ghost let his tension begin to drain. He put his knife away. The girl watched him, exhaling hard when the blade disappeared.

“Okay,” she said. “A burger.”

In the McDonalds, they bought food and sat in a booth near the kiddie play place, the noise of the hordes of screeching children more than enough to cover what Ghost suspected would be the less-than-legal parts of their conversation.

“I guess I should say thank you,” she said around a mouthful of fries.

“I guess,” Ghost said dryly. “But don’t sprain anything with the effort.”

“It’s not like you saved my life or anything.”

Ghost wasn’t so sure about that, but he didn’t correct her. They had bigger fish to fry. “Let’s get the basics out of the way. What’s your name?”

“Maggie.”

“All right, Maggie. I’m Ghost.”

She sneered. “Like Casper? The friendly one?”

He laughed. “Do I strike you as the friendly sort?”

She surveyed him for a moment, her gaze flickering down to her waist, and he knew she was remembering his knife. The sneer dropped off her face and she shifted uncomfortably on her plastic bench. “No. I guess you don’t.”

“I guess you’d be right. How old are you? Fourteen? Fifteen?”

“I’m fourteen.”

“Did you run or get kicked out? Not that I can’t picture people crawling over themselves to experience your lovely personality.”

She gave him a dirty look. “Kicked out.”

“Any chance you can go back?”

She laughed, bitter and low. “I told my evangelical mom I kissed a girl. What do you think?”

No, then, Ghost figured. “Family you can stay with? Friends?”

“No family that’ll take in an enormous lesbo with a smart mouth,” she said, sullen. “I was staying with my friend Leslie for a while but her parents turned out to be assholes. So here I am.”

Ghost considered this while he chewed a bite of his burger. “The way I see it, you’ve got two options. You can go to the cops. They’ll try to force you to go home, and they’ll probably charge your mom with abandonment, which’ll only piss her off more. You’ll eventually end up in foster care, but it’ll be really fucking ugly in the meantime. Or you can stay out here, where your underdeveloped survival instincts will probably land you with a fuckton of abuse and a meth habit.” He took a slurp of his soda, watched her fidget as anger bloomed behind her dark eyes.

“What the hell do you know? You’re like, what, two years older than me?”

“They’ve been a long two years,” Ghost said, amused. “And no one has ever bought me a pair of jeans from the Gap, if that helps you put it together.”

She flushed. “So you’re saying I can’t hack it. I’m too spoiled or stupid, right?”

“I’m saying if you want to hack it, you need to get smarter and tougher fast. That guy, Green Mercedes? What the fuck were you thinking?”

“I was thinking that I was hungry.

“It can take weeks to die from hunger,” Ghost replied, unsympathetic. “It takes fifteen minutes to die in the backseat of a car belonging to the wrong trick. Go stand in line at the foodbank and look pathetic. Con stupid tourists at the bus station. Grab shit from the 7-11 and then run for it, dumbass. But there’s no such thing as good luck if you’re whoring, you get it?”

He finished his burger while he let that sink in. She kicked the post under the table a few times, staring out at the screaming kids in the ball pit.

“I don’t know how to con people,” she said eventually.

“Go to the library and read a book about it. Read books about your legal rights as a minor while you’re at it. Go to shelters at night if you can, and if you manage to get in, stick close to the female staff. But even then, don’t get comfortable. No one does anything selfless.”

“You did.” She shoved the last of her fries into her mouth, chewing and swallowing pointedly. “You bought me a burger. You could teach me other stuff too. We could be friends, maybe.”

Ghost sighed internally. “If you’re looking for a precious moment, kiddo, you’re barking up the wrong Hallmark Store.”

She scowled. “If that’s true, why are you helping me?”

“I’m not,” he said. “I helped. Past tense. As in, it’s done.” He stood, balled his trash up, and grabbed his cup to get a refill.

“Wait,” she said, halfway to panic. “I don’t—I don’t know what to do next.”

He shrugged, ignoring the little ball of guilt in his gut. “You’ve got food in your belly and some newfound avenues for self-improvement. If you can’t make it from here on your own, you should go to the cops pronto, because it’s never going to get easier than it is at this moment.”

He left her there in the McDonalds, staring around at bright yellow and red plastic with a hollow expression, and headed back down to the overpass. He’d spent his last ten bucks on those damn burgers, and if he wanted to eat again today, he had work to do.

Back in the shadows, he stripped off his jacket, dumped it on the sidewalk beside him. It was too cold for the black mesh shirt, but then, hypothermia was an occupational hazard that they all had to learn to deal with. He lit a cigarette—three left in the pack—and leaned against the cold cement.

He didn’t have to wait long.

The guy in the old Buick had nervous eyes and fluttering hands; he followed Ghost’s directions on where to park, but blabbed the whole time about the reno he was doing on his house. Ghost tuned most of it out until the car stopped, when the guy said, “This is sort of cramped. We could go to my place. There’s the game room. And I have this vintage chicken coop in my basement that I could show you. It locks and everything. To keep foxes out.”

Foxes trying to get to chickens in a basement? For fuck’s sake, how stupid did he think Ghost was? For a second he thought of Maggie, still sitting in the McDonalds, maybe. She probably wouldn’t be able to see the difference between this asshole and Green Mercedes.

It’s because this guy is too stupid to know how to hide what he is, Ghost told her in his head. It’s because I could open his throat and he’d never see it coming. It’s because I’m not you. I know what to do if he crosses the line, and besides, part of me wants him to, just so I have an excuse to get some of this mean out of my system.

“As much fun as your murder basement sounds,” Ghost said politely, “That’s not going to fucking happen.”

“Okay. Sure. Fine.” The guy nodded in little jerks. “Can we still, um, do this?”

“If you’ll shut up.”

“Okay.” He shoved his seat back as far as it could go, shimmied 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 quite dare.

Ghost reached over, 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 with his right hand and slid his left back, 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—relatively clean sweat and hidden-away skin, the small jogs of his hips probably involuntary as he let out a moan.

Ghost rolled his eyes. He’d be earning those twenties tucked into his sock on this one. He leaned back in, took the guy deep again, and—

“Jesus. Jesus. Jeee-SUS.”

Ghost blinked.

Blade in his left hand. Blade in his left hand.

The world wobbled around him, coming back into focus. His mouth was wet and sour and he…he needed to…chicken coops. A Buick. He shoved the door open and spit onto the asphalt.

The guy did up his pants. “You’ve got one hell of a mouth, kid.”

“Thanks.” Ghost wiped his lips. “Your feedback is important to us.”

Blade in his left hand, but the guy let Ghost climb out of the car without trying anything.

He took his time heading back to the overpass, keeping an eye out for cops and assholes. One of the Russians had been shaking down the younger hustlers lately, trying to pull them into “protection” and Ghost had zero interest in turning over his hard-earned cash to someone for the shallow promise of aid during a fight.

He could take care of himself just fine.