After careful thought and consideration I have come to the conclusion that things happen to me for two reasons. First, I have a terrible habit of tuning out in the middle of a conversation. I’ll hear the beginning, start thinking about what I’m going to do later, and then come back in time to hear the end. This gets particularly dicey when I’m getting directions, because you never want to ask someone to repeat something they have already gone over in specific detail. This is why I often end up in some spooky neighborhoods after dark. I’m winging it. Second, I am not the most discriminating person on the planet. So when a friend of mine asks me to do them a favor, I’ll usually just do it without asking a lot of questions. Not that I would be listening to the whole explanation anyway, since like I said, I’m probably the poster child for ADHD, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, unless you’re my boss or a really hot guy.
The night my friend Anna called me, sobbing on the other end of the phone, I immediately went into nurture mode and walked out of the club, so I could hear her better. There is no way to hear anything over trance music, so I had her wait to spill her guts. I was happily surprised to hear that she was finally leaving her husband. She had stayed with me or her sister many times, after he’d hit her for the millionth time. It’s hard to watch your friends come to class wearing oversized sunglasses, and makeup that’s so thick it could have been applied with a putty knife. Everyone knew her husband beat her, I just never knew how bad or constant it was. I lost track of her after graduation, when she moved to the suburbs, but when she called I was right back there, instantly in that place where I was ready to help any way I could. I told her that of course, I would do whatever she needed.
In all the movies on the Lifetime channel, which I watched the last time I was home sick—hung over and hurling—the wife always has to go back to get her kid’s stuffed animal from the house of horrors she lives in. But before she can put the pedal to the metal and point the late-model station wagon with the faux-wood paneling into the sunset, she has to return for Boo-Boo Bunny or Mr. Snuggles, or a teddy bear that has been loved so hard and long it now resembles an iguana. Anna didn’t have any kids, but what she did have was her beagle, George. She couldn’t go back, but neither could she leave without her partner in crime. They had apparently executed all manner of petty crimes and misdemeanors against her husband over the years. From peeing in shoes—George’s part—to hiding miscellaneous items—Anna’s part—they had made Brian Minor’s daily existence annoying, in exchange for the abuse he had handed out with fist and word. It had given her some degree of satisfaction knowing that, one day, vengeance would be hers. She knew she’d been a coward to not just leave, but she suspected her husband was far more sinister then he let on. So Anna was finally ready to call it a day with Brian but he would have suspected something, and probably killed her, if she’d tried to take her dog. She needed me to get her puppy to make a clean break of it. Because I wanted her out of there so badly, and because I would have gone back for my own dog were he still alive, there was no way to say no.
After leaving my friends dancing at a club on Halsted, I took a cab and headed out to the suburbs. I tried never to leave the city and had only been outside of downtown Chicago on two previous occasions. On the way over there I tried to remember where in the house she had told me the dog was, but since I hadn’t heard that part it was useless to try and dredge the information from my brain. I figured when I got to the house, which I had only been to once, it wouldn’t be hard to find a beagle.
The problem turned out to be finding the house itself. I forgot the address and I didn’t want to call Anna back and look like I hadn’t been listening. Even though I hadn’t. And by then enough time had gone by that if I had called her she would have wondered why I just didn’t call her earlier, so… the cabbie and I took the tour of La Grange until I remembered the street in an energy-drink-fuelled vision after I made him stop at a gas station. It had only taken two hours to get to her huge three-story apparition. I asked the driver to wait for me and he said he’d rather drink Clorox. I understood. I can be exhausting at times. I watched him drive away before I headed toward the house.
The front door swung open when I went to ring the doorbell. I called for Brian and got no response. When I called for George, I heard muffled barking from a room to the left. It was the study, and as soon as I walked in I realized the noise was coming from behind the curtain. When I checked, there was another door behind it. If you weren’t looking for it you would have never seen it, but there was no missing the high-pitched puppy whining. When I opened the door, George was all over me, whimpering, dancing, his whole little body moving with his wagging tail, trying like mad to claw through my jeans. I bent to pet him, and when I did, without meaning to, without even thinking about it, I stepped into the office. The door was open but behind the curtain, so even though I had never intended to hide, I ended up doing just that. It was only for a second and I was ready to step back out when I heard the crash. George yelped and retreated behind my leg. I peeked around the drape and saw a man lying on top of the remains of the heavy glass coffee table that I had walked by seconds earlier. He was covered in blood and mumbling softly.
There are those moments that seem like a strobe light is going off in your head. You see pieces of things but not the whole picture. I saw the shattered glass, the burnished black leather shoes of the guys standing on the royal blue Persian rug; I saw the polished marble floors and Brian holding a gun on the guy. It doesn’t sound like it does in the movies. When a gun goes off, there’s no boom, it’s more of a firecracker pop. I saw the guy jerk, heard him scream out “no,” and watched Brian unload the gun. It was fast, like a jump cut in a movie, and it was over. All the guys took a turn spitting on him, and it was at that moment that two things happened simultaneously. First, my phone rang, which does “Karma Chameleon,” and second, George bolted through the drape. I lunged for him and caught his collar but not in time to stop my forward momentum. It was like being on stage. I came out from behind the curtain. Like ta-dah!
My eyes swept the room; I saw every face before I settled on the one I knew the best, the guy holding the empty gun.
“Jory!” Brian roared, and because I have no fight reflex whatsoever, I went immediately to flight. I yanked on George’s collar and whipped him back into the other room. As I dived after him I heard the shots and Brian screaming my name. He’d never been all that crazy about me but we were definitely in another place by that moment.
I got my legs under me and ran. I yelled for George and he was running along beside me as fast as his little legs would carry him. I saw a guy in front of me but instead of slowing down I sped up. When he pulled his gun, I dropped to my knees and slid halfway across the polished wooden floor. It would have been very cool if I weren’t running for my life at the time. He fell on top of me, but I got untangled and ran for the front door. When I threw it open, I was faced with Darth Vader.
“Get down,” he ordered me, and what sounded like a baseball hit him in the chest.
I dove for the ground and he stepped on me and then somebody else kicked me and then my arm got yanked so hard I thought my shoulder was dislocated. Outside, someone dragged me to my feet before pulling me into the street where like a hundred police cars were, lights flashing everywhere. It was cold and I registered that before anything else. There were more shots and I got shoved back down to my knees on the ground. I lost my balance because I got bumped and pushed and then somebody covered me in a jacket that weighed like a thousand pounds. I fell back and George was on me, licking my face as I tried to breathe. I was winded and when I finally grabbed the dog and hugged him so he’d stop I realized four men were standing over me. Not one looked pleased. One guy in particular looked like he wanted to strangle me right there in the middle of the street.
“Two years of undercover work blown in seconds,” he told me icily.
What to say? “Sorry?”
“Who the fuck are you?” he snarled at me. The scowl looked permanent.
I coughed twice. My ribs hurt. “Jory Keyes.”
“What are you doing here, man?” one of the others snapped at me.
I tried to take in some air. “I came to get the dog,” I told them, which was really all the explanation I had. It had seemed like such a nothing task at the time.
Their expressions were priceless and even lying there on the pavement I had to smile.
If I didn’t watch so much TV, real life wouldn’t be so disappointing. As it was, I was expecting the interrogation room from Law & Order and the reality was nothing like that. It wasn’t dark, it was really bright, and the metal table was bolted to the floor. The chairs were cold and metal without any padding, and just basically had no atmosphere or character to speak of. It was just plain anticlimactic and so I was bored. I had an ice pack on the back of my head, a Sprite for my stomach, which had gotten queasy when my adrenaline ran out, and a pen and paper so I could write down everything I remembered. I had recounted what I’d seen to a lot of different people ten different ways. When Anna had come to get George, they wouldn’t let me see her. She was being taken somewhere safe right that second. I couldn’t blame them. I didn’t want her to get hurt either. My head was down on my folded arms when the door opened. So many people had been in and out that I didn’t even look up.
I rolled my head sideways and realized that Detective Sam Kage was back. He was, I’d decided, the one that hated me the most. I had screwed up his undercover investigation with my need to be rescued. He and his fellow vice detectives had to break cover, turn their guns on Brian Minor, and save me. The only luck they had all night was that Brian had actually killed a man in cold blood and they had an eyewitness to that… me. He was going to jail for a long time. It was just as good, they said, as racketeering, bribery, blackmail, and extortion. First-degree murder had its own time frame that worked for them.
“Sit up and look at me.”
I lifted my head off my arm and leaned back in my chair, staring at him. He had changed out of his Kevlar body armor and was now in a shirt and tie. He was trying to pull off mild-mannered police detective but I wasn’t buying it. I’d seen the beast inside of him already. The others, his tall but balding captain, his dark sort of eastern-European-looking partner and the two others, who looked like poster boys for the Marine Corps, all of them were nicer than Detective Kage. I wanted anyone else but him in the room with me.
“Mr. Keyes, you—”
“What kind of gun is that?” I asked, pointing to his holster.
“What kind of gun?”
I shrugged. “I was just wondering.”
“It’s a Glock 22.”
“Okay,” I yawned, letting out a deep sigh. That exchange had maybe killed a second and a half. What was next on the agenda?
“Tell me about yourself, Mr. Keyes.”
I looked back at him. “Whaddya wanna know?”
“Where are you from?”
“Kentucky,” I said flatly because I usually said LA or Miami just to make it sound more glamorous, but I figured he was looking for the truth, being a police officer and all.
“How long have you been in Chicago?”
“I moved here when I was seventeen.”
“You run away from home?”
“Nope. I graduated from high school when I was seventeen. See my birthday’s in January so I started school at four instead of—”
“Can we move on?”
“Rude much?” I said out loud instead of just thinking it in my head.
“Sorry, go on.”
“Never mind,” I snapped at him. I hated getting caught rambling on to people that didn’t give a crap. It was mortifying.
“Just talk already, sorry for interrupting.”
He wasn’t sorry, but I figured if I were waiting for actual sincerity I’d be sitting there a long time. I was better off just letting it go. What did it matter to me if he cared or didn’t? “Okay, so I got here and got a job and I’ve been here ever since.”
“Uh-huh. So what, your family’s still there in Kentucky?”
“No,” I breathed out. “There was only my grandmother and she died when I was ten.”
“Where are your folks?”
“I have no idea.”
“You have no idea where your father is.”
He said it like he didn’t believe it. “No. I don’t even know who he is. It doesn’t even say on my birth certificate, and my mother left when I was like three months old or something. Her name was… is Mandy, but that’s all I can tell you. She never came back so I’ve never met her.”
“I see. So you were raised by your grandmother, and when she died, what?”
“I went into foster care.”
He looked straight at me. “Any horror stories?”
“No, I was lucky. I lived in a group home from the time I was ten to the time when I graduated from high school.”
“You close to any of those people?”
“I dunno. You’re acting like I have a character deficit or something.”
“It was implied,” I assured him.
“It was a group home, Detective. It wasn’t the whole mother/father deal. It was like a dorm. I wasn’t close to anyone. They could have cared less if I was there or not.”
“Did that bother you?”
“I don’t need some bullshit psych eval here, all right? It was what it was, it doesn’t matter.”
He nodded. “So you graduated and what?”
“I bought a bus ticket from Lexington, Kentucky to Chicago, Illinois.”
“And so you got here and then what happened?
“Why is this important?”
“I just need some background, Mr. Keyes, if you don’t mind.”
Did I mind? “Okay, so I got here and got the job I have now. I worked all through college and when I was done I decided to stay instead of doing something else.”
“And where do you work?”
“I work at Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan,” I said proudly.
“By your tone I’m assuming I’m supposed to know what that is.”
I felt my brows draw together.
“What’s with the look?”
“Are you kidding?”
“No I’m not kidding.”
“I said I was.”
“What is whatever you said?”
“Harcourt, Brown, and Cogan… it’s one of the premier architectural firms in the city.”
“My boss, Dane Harcourt, he’s the main architect. Miles Brown does interior design and Sherman Cogan is the landscape architect.”
“What does main architect mean?”
“He designs houses.”
He stared at me a long minute. “Does he?”
“Yes. He’s very famous.”
“If he’s so famous why haven’t I ever heard of him?”
I scoffed at him. “I bet the people you haven’t heard of could fill a book, Detective.”
“You’re a punk, you know that?”
I smiled at him. “Particularly nice comeback, Detective.”
“So that’s it, no family, just you?”
“This’ll be easy then.”
“Making you disappear.”
“Protective custody, witness protection… are you starting to get it?”
I shook my head. “Just tell me when I can go home.”
His eyes narrowed more than they already were. “Are you stupid?”
I just waited, staring at him.
“Mr. Keyes, you are never going home again. You are going into the witness protection program. Federal marshals will be here in the morning to transport you to—”
“Yeah, right,” I got up. I was tired of being treated like I did something wrong. “I’m going now. I’m beat and I gotta go to work in the morning.”
“Mr. Keyes, people want to kill you. Do you understand that? Brian Minor is very well connected and—”
“I gotta go,” I said as I got up and headed for the door.
“Mr. Keyes, you are going into protective custody.”
“Uh-huh,” I scoffed at him, stopping at the door only as long as it took to open it and go through. At the end of the hall, Brian was being walked to wherever he was being taken by two uniformed police officers.
“Jory!” he yelled at me. “You’re a dead man! Do you understand me? Dead!”
I smirked at him and flipped him off. He yanked free and came charging down the hall toward me. I had no idea what he thought he was going to do to me, handcuffed like he was, but he came anyway. He’d always been so big and brutish, one of those bull in a china shop kind of guys. A lot of big men were still fluid when they moved, like their size was perfect for them, but Brian had always seemed unaware of how strong he was or the confines of his own shoulders and legs. Plodding like an animal was what had forever come to mind. So when he got to me I ducked and crouched and swept my leg underneath him. He went down with a hard face-plant into the tile floor at my feet. I stood there a second and then very theatrically stepped over him.
“You sonofabitch!” he shrieked at me.
“Shut the hell up,” I said irritably.
“Jory!” he screamed at me as I jumped over his thrashing legs before he was buried under five policemen. “I’m gonna fuckin’ kill you… you fuckin’ faggot! You hear me! Jory! You goddamn cocksucker!”
“Oh, go to hell, Brian,” I groaned, turning to walk away from him. “And that whole faggot crap is so old. Who even uses that word anymore?”
“Jory!” he screamed after me.
“People with pickup trucks and gun racks, that’s who,” I chuckled, my own laughter sounding a little unhinged. I was ready to pass out.
“Jory!” His voice had lost some of its power but he was still shrieking.
I headed toward the stairs.
I pivoted around and Detective Kage was there with his nice captain that I’d met earlier and another of the square-cut jaw/square-cut hair guys who had been on the street with him. He did the two-fingered poke into my collarbone like he was trying to drill through my skin.
“Where the hell do you think—”
“Sam,” the captain cautioned him, putting up his hand. “Let’s not—”
“He’s an idiot,” he gestured at me, “and he’ll be dead this time tomorrow.”
“And who would do that? Brian?” I smirked at him. “Gimme a break.”
He gestured at me again but said nothing.
“Mr. Keyes,” the other detective began, his voice gentle, soothing. “Even though you think of Mr. Minor as simply the sonofabitch husband of one of your girlfriends, you must believe us when we tell you the man is not that benign. He’s a drug dealer, a murderer, and someone you don’t want to cross. There are a lot of people that don’t want him in the position of choosing between jail time or talking about them. You alone have the power to put him behind bars. Without you, he walks. Do you understand that?”
“I get it,” I told him. “I do. I will testify. I will do whatever you need so he never sees Anna again as long as he lives. I promise, but seriously—I have a life. I mean, I get from being here for the last five hours that you guys don’t think being someone’s assistant is important. But I promise you that, to my boss, I actually matter. I’ve got so much shit to do, you have no idea.” I let out a quick breath, finally shaking my head. “Call me and tell me what day I need to appear in court.” I said, heading down the stairs to the exit.
I sighed and turned around, looking up at the captain.
“They’ll come after people you love.”
I shrugged. “Good luck finding any.” I said, before I turned back away from him.
Outside the air was cold. I had forgotten I was still in my dancing clothes, which consisted that night of a black spandex T-shirt, tight, brown, distressed boot-cut jeans and motorcycle boots. So because it was November, I was freezing. It smelled like it was going to rain and the breeze was icy. My teeth started to chatter as I looked for a cab.
A car slowed down beside me and I heard the sound of the automatic window going down. When I turned, a guy was smiling at me from the driver’s side.
I waited for the come-on line.
“Hey, man, you need a lift?”
The whole ick factor of some middle-aged man in a van trying to pick me up in the same ride that he took his kids to school in made my skin crawl.
“I’m talking to you, pretty boy.”
“No thanks,” I said quickly, hoping he’d just drive away. “I don’t need a ride.”
“C’mon,” he persisted, “how much?”
“I’m not hustling, man, I’m just walkin’,” I said, moving faster.
“Sure you are,” he leered at me. “Get in.”
And I thought, it’s the club clothes outside of the club, downtown, walking the streets alone at two in the morning. I couldn’t fault his logic. I had rent boy written all over me. “I.…”
The horn scared us both. I jumped, and the guy was so startled that he gunned the motor and drove away. It would have been funny if my heart weren’t pounding so hard. I shivered in spite of myself and looked up when someone shouted my name.
I saw the enormous SUV then, named after something nautical, black and shiny, and through the lowered window was Detective Kage. He was motioning me over. I shoved my hands down in my pockets as I walked over to see what he wanted.
“Get in,” he snapped at me as soon as I peered in the window.
“Mr. Keyes,” he said sharply, and the exasperation was not lost on me. “You’re this close to being put in the vehicle whether you like it or not.”
The way he said the word vehicle, so clinical, so like the cop that he was. Step away from the vehicle, put your hands on top of the vehicle, get in the vehicle.… it was funny. “Oh yeah?” I baited him because I figured I could move before he got a hold of me. “You think so?”
“Yeah,” he warned me, his gaze level and dark. “I think so.”
And it wasn’t so much the ominous tone or the way he was looking at me as the muscle that flexed in his jaw. I realized I was closer to jeopardy than I realized. He was bigger than me, so the chances that he could hurt me were pretty good.
I opened the door and climbed up into the seat, swinging the heavy door shut hard.
He grunted at me. “Put on your goddamn seat belt.”
“Do you know where I live?” I asked him.
“Yes,” he almost growled. He had one of those voices that was low and husky, the kind that under other circumstances I would have found sexy as hell.
“I don’t live in the city.” I wanted to make sure he knew where he was going. “I live just on the other side of Austin Avenue in Oak Park.”
He didn’t respond so I gave up. There was some cowboy crap playing on the radio but it was low so I didn’t complain.
“Did you hear me?” I asked him, checking.
“I know where you live,” he said fast, clearly exasperated. “It was one of the many questions you answered for me, as you may recall.”
I rolled my eyes as my phone rang. “Hello?” I answered.
“Where the hell did you go?” Taylor Grant asked me irritably.
“To get a friend out of a jam,” I smiled, slouching down in the seat.
“Were you gonna come back or call?”
I chuckled. “I thought that wasn’t our deal. Either one of us could split at any time. It’s your rule,” I reminded him cheerfully.
“Yeah, right,” he said, the annoyance clear in his voice. “So where are you?”
“On my way home.”
“Tell me where that is.”
“Nah. I’ll call you,” I told him.
“Jory,” he said softly. “Please lemme see—”
“Later,” I yawned and hung up. I wasn’t in the mood for company. I just wanted to go home, shower off the night, and pass out in my bed.
“Friend of yours?”
“Not really,” I told him, “just a guy.”
“You got a lot of guys?”
I turned slowly to look at him.
“What?” he asked gruffly.
“What kind of question is that?”
“Fair, I would say.”
I went back to staring out the window.
“How old are you?”
“Twenty-two.” I clipped my answer, trying not to snap.
“Twenty-two,” he repeated.
“How can you afford to live alone?”
It was a weird question. “I told you already, I have a good job.”
“And what else?”
I turned again to look at him. “What is that supposed to mean?”
“I think you know.”
“I don’t think I do, Detective. You need to spell it out for me.”
“Fine. Does some guy help you out with your rent in exchange for fucking you?”
That was definitely clear. “No,” I barely got out through my clenched jaw.
“How do you know I’m even gay, Detective?”
He glanced at me, scoffing. “Dressed like that?”
“You know what, just lemme out.”
“Knock it off. Don’t be so dramatic.” He was annoyed and his voice was dripping with it. “All you guys are so goddamn dramatic.”
All you guys? “You mean gay guys?”
“Just drop it, all right? I’m tired and I don’t feel like getting into a pissing contest with you. I’m driving you ’cause if I don’t, you’re gonna freeze to death. You don’t even have a jacket.”
“I’ll take my chances.”