TROUBLE CAME walking by on two long legs.
Rye pegged the guy as an outsider before he’d gotten ten steps past the bus stop. Cupping his hands around his cigarette—the pack had been part payment from an acquaintance of his who’d wanted a little help keeping warm—Rye watched the man, a stranger to him, walk with his head up, his eyes wide, and his attention distracted.
This guy stood out on Bleeker Street. Tall and straight shouldered, with hair cropped short and neat. He wore a leather coat and old shoes that were well kept, and had a pair of sunglasses hooked to his hip pocket. He held a smartphone in one hand, listening to a digital female voice chirping out directions, and kept the other hand out to the side, brushing his fingers against everything he passed without paying any real attention to what they might be.
Not a smart move in this neighborhood.
Rye glanced up at the edifices of the buildings across the street from him. Once upon a time this neighborhood had been richer than the gilding on a lily, but not anymore. No wealthy families lived in the fancy houses. Only the dregs of polite society were left, the people who didn’t have any other choice about where they lived or squatted. What was bad for homes was good for business. His manager, Pardloe—No, he’s a pimp, call him what he is, for God’s sake—had arranged for Rye to be there, waiting on a client he’d started to suspect wasn’t going to show.
Trouble came closer, nearly abreast now, looking neither to the left nor the right.
Rye didn’t budge from the place he’d chosen beside an old row house’s front stairs. No one lived in the building now, but they’d left half a dozen clay pots on the steps when they’d moved. Most were broken. The one that’d survived made a decent ashtray, and there were enough shards left within arm’s reach for makeshift defense if need be. When Rye turned his head, he caught sight of a skinny mutt curled up in a tight circle, eyes open and warily fixed on him. He made a clicking noise and reached out with one hand. He liked dogs, but Rover wasn’t having any of it.
At least the mutt wouldn’t freeze out here by himself. It never got as frigid in the heart of the city as it did in the more open places, but the cold-weather winds cut sharper than any clay shard or sharpened knife. Especially for a guy like Rye, who didn’t often wear a coat unless he needed to cover up bruises. Sometimes it could be hard to tell which guys liked things a little rougher than Rye’s fair skin could take without getting marked up.
Which, if they’d paid fairly for it, would have been fine. Mostly they didn’t.
Rye inhaled bitter tobacco and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully at the walking man. The guy wouldn’t get much farther. Rye knew how to pick up the warning signs without so much as a word spoken out loud. Something in the air made the back of his neck prickle. Tension warned of the calm before a storm. The kind of quiet that made bad things more likely to happen. Rye caught the shuffle of feet in a crumbling doorway, and a faint murmur of voices from a derelict stoop. A cigarette lighter flashed as someone lit up. The point of light on the end of their smoke followed the stranger as he walked.
The guy turned his head briefly toward Rye to scan him as he passed, though he seemed troubled and thoughtful and a good thousand miles away. Goddamn, those were pretty eyes. Blue as violets, with a fan of chocolate lashes. He was so clearly not local and not wary that he nearly begged to be jumped for his shoes and his phone.
Rye knew to leave well enough alone. Doing anything would only get his ass kicked in payback. And yet….
Fuck it. Rye made up his mind. Muggings were bad for business. No one wanted to show their faces when the cops were around. Rye stubbed out his cigarette and tucked the dog-end into his pocket.
Me and my soft heart, anyway.
Five steps brought Rye side to side with Trouble and made it easy to slip his arm around the man’s elbow and lean his head briefly against a warm, sturdy shoulder. The man smelled clean, freshly washed with herbal-scented soap, and either the coat was heavier than it looked or the man put off as much body heat as a perambulating furnace.
He hesitated when Rye touched him. Not much, but he missed half a step and a shock of color jumped to his cheeks. What he didn’t do was stop, or push Rye away, or take a swing at him. He clearly had no clue what was going on but he minded his manners about it. A real gentleman. How about that?
“Keep walking.” Rye led by example, careful to maintain a look of two-thirds boredom and one-third possessiveness that said it was just another night on the job for him. “If you have to talk, do it with a smile, and for God’s sake don’t pull away from me.”
“Shh. You’re about to get mugged, at best. If you don’t want that to happen, keep hold of my arm and act like we’re making a deal. Got it?”
He heard and felt the man swallow hard, and detected a mix of frustration, embarrassment, and—amusement?—in his response. “I can take care of myself.”
The man almost laughed. “What are you, my knight in shining blue jeans?”
“If that’s what floats your boat, sure. I’m not picky.” Rye figured he’d take that as a “yes” and get on with the job. He waited a moment to make sure the guy wasn’t going to pull his arm back and make a run for it, then nodded once and looked back up at the man’s face. Those eyes were even prettier up close, the lashes thicker.
No, wait. Rye tugged hard on the man’s arm to make him stand still and peered narrowly at his face. His pupils weren’t quite the same size, and when Rye waved his hand experimentally they didn’t track the movement right. He was too steady to be high, which left only one explanation. “Jesus Christ. Are you blind?”
The man’s shoulders went as stiff as boards. “No.”
The man held out for a good fifteen seconds before exhaling a heavy breath. “Not completely. I can see light and shadow. Sometimes shapes and colors. I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, sure you can. That’s why you went for a stroll down Bleeker Street on your own. Do you have a death wish or something?”
“I wanted to go for a walk.”
Rye shook his head in amazement. “I’m guessing you’re not from around here.”
“You’d be wrong. I grew up not far away. I’ve been gone for a while, that’s all.” The man touched his short hair. “Army.”
No kidding? Huh. He couldn’t have been much of a soldier if he didn’t watch out for himself any better than that, but Rye kept the observation to himself. He started walking again, guiding his new pal at a steady pace. Not too fast, not too slow. The man let him do it. Grudgingly, but Rye would take what he could get, and they weren’t in the clear yet. “What’s your name?”
It probably was the man’s real name. He didn’t seem the type to be a good liar. “I’m Rye.”
“Pleasure to meet you.”
“More like luckier than you know.” Rye half turned his head to make sure no one was following. Didn’t look like it for the moment. The prickling sense of trepidation had faded too. Good. “Get off at the wrong bus stop, Marcus?”
Marcus readjusted Rye’s hold on his arm. Nothing dramatic, but it pulled him a couple inches closer. Rye approved. God, Marcus was warm. He stood a few inches taller than Rye, and though he looked long and lean, he still had the solid military muscles. Rye upped his estimate of the guy’s age by two or three years, closer to his own. He had a jaw hard enough to break bricks against and thighs he could crack walnuts with. Nice tight ass too.
Rye reined himself in. Good-looking didn’t matter much if he wasn’t well-heeled and willing to share. Pardloe’s idea of punishment for mouthing off meant that it’d been over a week since Rye had had a paying customer, and his pockets were empty. He’d lose his apartment, shithole though it might be, if he didn’t get some work before the first of the month. “Well?”
“No, I meant to get off here. I was restless, and I’d rather be moving than sitting still.” Marcus gave Rye a deeply wry smile. “Two for two. Do you want to try a third? I think I’m supposed to get a wish or something if you guess the third question wrong.”
Rye snorted quietly. “Smartass.”
“Guilty.” Marcus’s brief grin flashed out brighter. The man clearly had no sense of self-preservation. “Are you going to walk me all the way to the next bus stop?”
“Got somewhere else to be?”
“Not really.” Marcus rubbed lightly at the back of his head, against the grain of his hair. “Just one of those days where you’ve got to run before the walls close in around you, and you go looking for something better. You know?”
Rye knew the feeling. He tugged at the guy’s arm. “Maybe look smarter next time before you get off the bus. Next stop’s down here.”
“I’d say thank you, but I don’t know that that’s enough,” Marcus said after two beats of silence became three and then four. “I don’t have much money on me.”
Rye shrugged. “If that was what I wanted, I could have lifted your wallet before you made the offer. I didn’t do anything I’d have charged for. Yet.”
Yet. Rye stopped to look up at Marcus, assessing him. Marcus was both clean and hot, a pretty rare combination. He didn’t give off any “no homo” signals or pull away from Rye’s touch. Straight guys usually radiated the one, and as for the other, most wouldn’t let another man lay hands on them for any reason short of bleeding to death.
He needed the money. Might as well give it a try.
Rye stopped and turned to face Marcus. He took Marcus’s lapels in both hands and ran his thumbs up the smooth leather, then brought his hips into alignment with Marcus’s, barely making contact. He could hear the slight catch in Marcus’s breath, which had potential. He decided to push his luck and pressed closer. “Look, I like you. Doesn’t have to be the end of the road if you don’t want. I’ll throw you a welcome-home discount. Seventy-five for a blow job. Jacket like this, I think you could afford that.”
Marcus’s eyebrows shot up. He dropped Rye’s arm and stepped back. “The hell?”
Damn. Rye held both hands up with his palms facing out. “Take it easy, man. It was just a suggestion.”
“You’re a sex worker?”
Rye’s temper prickled. “Got a problem with that?”
Marcus had gone a deep, dull red. “No, I just—I didn’t realize.”
Rye opened his mouth, then shut it. His face grew hot. He’d gotten so used to people ID’ing him at first glance that he hadn’t thought Marcus might not be able to. “Sorry.”
Marcus shrugged abashedly. “I don’t know what to say.”
“Then don’t say anything.” At least he hadn’t thrown a punch, and the blush was almost adorable. Besides, it’d bite to get this far and blow their cover. Rye faced them forward. “Do us both a favor and look frustrated when I walk away, like we almost made a deal, but it fell through. Okay? And watch where you get off the bus. I doubt I’ll be right on hand if your ass needs saving again.”
“Duly noted.” Marcus offered Rye one more hint of that smile, but it faded fast into a frown. “What about you? I could repay you in kind. Go with you wherever you need to be. One thing I do have plenty of is time.”
Rye pulled out his cockiest smirk and aimed it Marcus’s direction. “I am where I need to be.” He’d made his peace with that a few years ago. If he had any other choices, he’d jump on them, but so far wishes were the only horses he could ride away on. “Take care of yourself, Marcus. If you ever change your mind, you come see me.”
THE GARAGE was quiet, cool, and dark. Despite the stink of oil and engine grease, Marcus found it weirdly peaceful compared to the outside world.
Marcus closed his eyes and put out his hands.
His palms rested on the surface of a footlocker. He knew it like the shape of his own nose, and he could picture every detail. His identifying information here. A deep gouge in the upper right-hand corner there. One of the hinges was broken. Marcus had done that himself by kicking it good and hard one day.
At the time he’d thought he had cause. That it would have made him feel better. It hadn’t really. Just bruised his toes.
A high, girlish giggle made Marcus jump even though he recognized it as coming from his cousin’s daughter. “There you are. Dad’s gonna skin you alive.”
Marcus opened his eyes. The world swam back into as much focus as it ever did these days. Shapes and colors, lights and shadows. In other words, FUBAR. He hadn’t seen clearly since his convoy ran afoul of an IED. He’d come home from the war needing a plate in his skull to keep the rest of his brains safely inside.
“What’d I do to your dad to deserve killing this time, Jessie?” Marcus asked his visitor. He reached up to touch around his scar, careful to go lightly. Aches like hell.
Jessie sat perched on the packing boxes loaded in the garage. She’d be about eleven now, all arms and legs and braces, starting to shoot up like a weed. She kicked her feet when she answered him. “Wandered off by yourself. You know it freaks Dad out.”
“I didn’t wander off. I knew exactly where I was going. I brought you back empanadas.” Homemade masa and fiery peppers that Marcus could still feel tingling on his tongue. He’d bought them at a corner bodega at the right stop off the bus Rye had put him on.
Funny. All he’d done was walk down a street with the man, but Marcus couldn’t get Rye out of his head. Not his kindness, or his rudeness either.
“Dad’s bringing garlic bread home.” Marcus didn’t need to see Jessie to know she’d wrinkled her nose when she added, “And there’s something in the Crock-Pot too.”
“Your loss.” Marcus raised one shoulder as he hoisted the lid of the footlocker. Uniform odds and ends. Boots. Sand. He shut the lid again and flipped the catch. “They’re good. Better than your dad’s cooking.”
Jessie giggled. “If I had a dog, I could feed the Crock-Pot stuff to him.”
“You could try.” Marcus winked in her direction. He reached up to the top of the stack and lifted down the footlocker he’d just opened and shut, to get it out of the way. If memory served, there would be one more waiting for him beneath it, and a medium-sized stack of cardboard packing boxes off to the side as well. Behind those, the truck he’d left behind when he went overseas, a beat-up Ford that’d seen more than its share of miles but still ran. All his worldly belongings. They had a couple years’ worth of dust on their tops.
About time he went through them, then. Or at least that was the excuse he’d used for getting out that afternoon, when the truth was that another minute stuck at home would have driven him clear out of his mind.
He could have waited for Chad—Jessie’s father, his cousin—to come and pick him up at the weekly rent motel where he preferred to stay. Only practical. Chad’s house was a one bedroom, and that belonged to Jessie. Chad already slept on the couch. He swore he didn’t mind chauffeuring Marcus wherever he needed to go. Marcus didn’t see why Chad felt he had to, even if everyone else did. Especially if everyone else did, because they were wrong. Legally blind wasn’t legally helpless.
Pissed him off that more people didn’t see it that way.
Rye hadn’t been so bad about it. Once he’d figured it out, he’d adjusted and not mentioned it again. That’d been… good. Surprisingly so. Marcus almost wished he’d stayed longer on Bleeker. He wouldn’t have paid the guy for sex—he wasn’t gay, and he hadn’t been horny in a damn long time—but maybe they could have talked some more.
“Jessie? Is he in the garage?” his cousin called from inside the house. Chad sounded harried as hell.
Jessie leaned so far sideways off the boxes she’d perched on that Marcus thought for sure she’d topple off. “Yup. I already told him you were gonna skin him.”
“Scalp him,” Chad corrected. The dark blur of his shape filled up the doorway that allowed access between the house and garage. “Fuck you, Marcus. You scared the shit out of me.”
“Dad’s got a potty mouth,” Jessie said with absolute nonchalance.
Neither of which was news to Marcus. “I left you a message.”
“Saying that you were going to take the bus all the way across town.” Chad made a growling noise. “Jessie, go on in and start setting out plates, would you? Dinner’s almost done, and you’re too young to watch what I’m going to do to him.”
Jessie giggled at that, but she also scooted on her way. Marcus held out his fist for a knuckle bump in passing, then held up that hand to try and stop Chad before he could start. “I got here in one piece, didn’t I?”
“Marcus, for God’s sake. You don’t know the town. You don’t know the streets. You could get yourself in serious trouble if you accidentally pick the wrong stop.”
“I can take care of myself.” Marcus bent over the stack of smaller cardboard boxes, shaking each one experimentally. Most of them were light enough to contain only clothes and household junk. “This isn’t everything, is it?”
“There wasn’t room for everything.” Chad sounded less annoyed and more plain old tired. “You were in the hospital for months, Marcus. I didn’t know when you’d be here to collect the stuff, or where you’d take it when you left. I had to prioritize.”
“The penny jars?” Marcus’s heart sank. He’d collected those since he was ten years old, dropping every handful of spare change into whatever bottles he could find. Not a fortune by anyone’s definition, but they were his, and some of them had been worth a little more than face value. “What did you do with them?”
“Rolled them up in wrappers and exchanged them at the bank.” Chad was as stubborn as Marcus, and there wasn’t a hint of apology in there. “I didn’t spend any of it, if that’s what you’re thinking. I’ve got the check put aside for you. I figured you’d need cash more than you’d need forty jars of pennies.”
Damn it. Marcus worked his jaw until he calmed down. He couldn’t yell at Chad. Hadn’t he gone above and beyond, letting Marcus stow everything at his place while he was overseas, and then again until he got out of the hospital? “Okay. I hear you.”
“I saved the rare coins,” Chad said, offering him that as an olive branch. “They’re in that one jar you told me was an apothecary bottle. The blue glass one with the stopper.”
It’d been Marcus’s favorite. He’d kept it on his dresser purely for looking at, once upon a time. He made himself nod his thanks. “Where is it?”
“You’re almost touching it with the tip of your shoe. On the left side. No, your left, not mine.”
Marcus’s hands closed around the cool glass. The soothing chink of metal on metal brushed oil over the troubled waters in his heart. He lifted it, held it to his chest like a baby, and searched for words that wouldn’t come.
Chad didn’t speak either. Not for a while. Marcus could hear the clink and clank of Jessie rummaging around inside.
“She’s a good kid,” Marcus said at last. “Even if she is yours.”
That broke the ice. Chad snorted, tension flowing away from him. “God, don’t I know it. At least she looks more like her mom than she does me.”
“Lucky for her,” Marcus agreed, laughing at the arm movements that suggested Chad had just flipped him off. That felt better. “I’ll take the apothecary bottle with me, and I’ll figure out what to do with the rest. Deal?”
“You know you don’t have to do that. It’s getting late. You could stay the night. I’ll sleep on the floor.”
“And wake up with knots in your neck to go with the ones in your knucklehead? Not gonna happen.” Marcus tried to soften that by crossing to Chad and thumping his arm. “Chad?”
Marcus started to speak—then stopped, trying to figure out the right way to ask. “If a guy came up to you on Bleeker Street and took your arm, what would you think he wanted?”
“Jesus Christ, what were you doing on Bleeker?”
“Chad, come on.”
Chad made a harrumphing sound. “I wouldn’t go to Bleeker in the first place, but if I did? I’d get away from him as fast as I could. He would have wanted your wallet or your ass. Maybe both. Nobody does anything for free down there.”
But Rye had. That was something to think about. Along with the way the press of his lean, hot body had made Marcus feel. Only for a second, but it’d been a feeling that went bone-deep even now.
He drew his knuckles along the opposite forearm where Rye had laid his hand, frowning to himself. Why was that staying with him so clearly?
“Stay the night,” Chad insisted. “I’ll drive you back to that fleabag motel in the morning.”
“Don’t worry about it. I’ll take the bus.”
“Look, I appreciate what you’re trying to do.” Marcus held up a hand to stop Chad. “I do. Okay? But I’ve got to do things my own way. Find my own way. You know that as well as anyone.”
Chad drew in a breath, only to be cut off by Jessie shouting from the kitchen. “Hey, Dad! Is Marcus staying for dinner?”
“At least stick around long enough to eat. You can do that.” Chad put a hand on Marcus’s shoulder. “Okay?”
Marcus hesitated. Part of him wanted to, sure, but Jessie would have homework, and Chad had just done ten hours at the auto shop. He needed some rest before he fell over. Not to spend his evening playing host. He’d have done it, no complaints, and that was what decided Marcus against it.
Besides, he didn’t belong there. Let them have their peace, hard won as it’d been. “I already ate.” It was even the truth. He touched his tongue to the roof of his mouth, imagining he could still taste a hint of spices. “Chad, I’ll be fine. Trust me. Would you?”
Chad sighed in resignation. “Do you have any idea what you’re doing, or are you that good at faking it?”
Faking it, Marcus thought. He gave Chad another friendly slap on the back and a half smile instead of an answer. But that was okay.
Everybody needed a place to start. And if he didn’t belong, didn’t fit in, then it was up to him to find out where in the world he did. Where there was more for him than waiting, watching, and wondering.
That was all. That was everything.