“I don’t know, man. . .”
Cal’s argument began feebly, drunk-supple, and continued only to weaken like a fruit’s bruise underneath a steadily pressing thumb. He tongued the coral baby fat of his bottom lip with an indecision which served only to delay his surrender.
“Look, it’s really simple.” Mack Banner tugged a wooden chair closer to Cal and sat on it backwards. He moved crisply, classically assured and so traditionally villainous that it was disarming. Unrealistic. His approach, manipulatively patient, suggested that success was only a matter of explaining the situation correctly. Until Cal understood properly. He pulled his hands slowly together, slowly apart, in painstaking illustration. “We handle the stuff. Okay? That’s our responsibility. When we give it to you, all you do is make the exchange. It’s just, that’s the sensitive part, all right? We need you for that ‘cause your record’s clean.”
He knew he would give in when he rolled his head to the side in exasperation, when he exhaled heavily and gave them a pained and harried look, when he buried his hands in his jacket pockets, when he pled quietly to four faces demonstrating impatience in four ways: a stiff sniff, a tongue fishing inside a cheek, a tightening of jaw, a vicious scrub of forefinger on lips.
"Look, do you want Kane to fuck up his probation? He's trying to get straight. He's got two kids. Not one, but two baby-mamas breathing down his neck. You want him to get busted again? If you can't do this, we don't have to be here, man. We can leave you alone. Just say the word. We'll back off."
When he agreed, they drew him into their posturing, rustling nest. It was its own kind of tenderness. Their watchful glances, criminally protective, waited for a clear path for distribution. He was as new and precious as his cargo. The hand slipping into his jacket pocket was deft and caretaking. It petted his ribs briefly, rousing and rewarding at the same time—as good as a “good dog.”
He tasted the cold, bright sting of his tongue crushed between his molars. Hold. Still. He waited against the yellow-gray wall, facing the tile partially outlined in mold and various hostile, semi-coherent messages scribbled on the plaster. Be cool, they'd told him, and had no less cliché advice than that.
He saw him first at the mouth of the narrow dead-end in no man's land, entering that secluded space without the right to fill it. The gods of prescience whispered coded warnings in his ears.
The weight against his leg increased by a fraction, the head of a young boy, thirteen at most, rested on it. He sighed quietly and continued his stilted reading. "He's so j-joll... Jolly?" The head tilted up in search of approval, but Michael was facing the other way, staring across the street at the mouth of the alley, narrowing his eyes and searching. He nodded gently, hand cupping the back of the young boy's neck, index finger tracing the scar running down its side. "Jolly," the boy repeated, and monotonously went on, "Inn... Inno-cent..."
It had been a man. Was it a man? Was it a beast? A threat, no doubt, dark and looming. A stranger.
"...that if you was-" Michael tapped the scar lightly, corrected him, "Were," and looked down at the mop of dark hair that spilled onto his knee, "Read the words." The boy nodded, went on, "Were to p-put your t..." and paused to shape his mouth around the letters.
Was it a familiar stranger? He found himself staring away from the warmth of his assembly. An impostor.
"Thumb," smiling, pausing for the pat against the side of his neck, an unspoken 'well done' that had him continuing despite the desire to stop. "To your nose and w-wave your...fingers...at-him-he-would-only..."
The mouth of the alley beckoned him. The voices hissed ecstatically into his ear. There. There. There's something there. They sunk their talons into his back. His shoulders tensed.
"W-won... Won-der, gr...gr...gra..." The two standing huddled at the bottom of the steps snickered, glancing with amusement over their shoulders at the makeshift student on the bottom step, and the boy lifted his head suddenly, leaned against the wall instead, sulked. "Ain't no one fucking talks like that anyway."
The alley beckoned him.
Quietly, Michael stood and drew alert glances from the other four that surrounded him. He shook his head, noticing their attempt to follow his gaze. "Gravely to himself what got into you," he stated, his voice level, his eyes fixed on the mouth of the passageway where he knew the shape was waiting. For him? For someone else? For how long? "Wait here."
He heard the beginnings of an argument, but ignored the growls of his abandoned cubs. The stilted reading began anew as he walked, crossed the street and warily moved to the mouth of the narrow dead-end. He peered into it, traced the longest shadows until his eyes landed on the figure that lurked there against the wall.
His eyes narrowed. No man at all, but a boy. He looked like a boy with that posture, that newness, the roundness of his edges. Predatorily assertive all of a sudden, he drew nearer, watched him with a snarl tugging at his lip and a steely edge to his eyes. "How does someone with lips as plump as yours find himself in this position?" He stood in the centre of the passage, demanding all the space he could soak up, slipping into the darkness and closer to him. "Hm? With purpose, no doubt. Intent."
He stopped a few steps away and watched him, eyes trailing from foot to waist, from waist to shoulders to arms and fingers. "But what intent?"