SCOTT TROTTED down the steps of the homeless shelter, pulled up the collar of his threadbare windbreaker, and headed down St. Joseph Street to Magazine Street. At four in the morning, the street was deserted; all the action would be over on Canal Street, just bordering the French Quarter. Heswiveled his head back and forth as he checked the shadows of the buildings for signs of life.
Even though he didn’t have more than five dollars on him, he knew there were addicts who would try to take it from him, beat him for it, leave him bleeding and hurt, just to get their next fix.
As he turned the corner onto Magazine Street and made his way toward the Quarter, he relaxed. The closer he got to it, the better he felt. In the Quarter, with its around-the-clock nightlife, bars, restaurants and tourists, he’d be safe, or at least safer than here in the deserted business district where the shelter he lived at was located. He hated being there, but the only other place to live would be on the streets. He’d tried that when he first came to the city, but after a few times some men had pushed him against a concrete pillar, robbed, and raped him, he figured the shelter was better.
The shelter might smell, and the food sucked, but none of the other men bothered him there. None of them assumed they could take his ass whenever they felt like it. Like him, all these men only wanted to keep to themselves, to lie on a warm cot with a blanket, and to sleep in safety.
Up ahead, the traffic light on the corner of Canal and Magazine shone like a beacon in the darkness. His shoulders eased from riding his ears.
Only three blocks to go.
TONY STOOD in the shadows of the alley between the two buildings and watched the skinny white kid walk down the street. Head down, jacket zipped up to his chin, and collar up against the dampness of the early morning, the guy bustled down the street, in and out of the halos cast from streetlights placed just too far apart to make the illumination continuous.
In and out of pockets of darkness. Coming closer. Fading to dark. Closer. Fading.
Inhaling, Tony pulled farther back into his hiding spot. His stomach rumbled. Fuck, he hadn’t had a thing to eat in two days, and if he didn’t get some cash soon, he’d have to go back to selling his ass on the street. Jobs, much less for people like him, were few and far between.
He’d already promised the memory of his grandmother, embodied in her silver cross around his neck, that he’d never sell his body again. And no selling drugs. Uh-huh. He was clean, and he was gonna stay that way.
Running out of choices, he’d turned to thieving. Grandmama would forgive him that, Tony was sure of it. Which was why he now found himself on the outskirts of the Quarter, looking for someone stupid enough to be walking around down here.
Like this fool kid.
He had to be about eighteen, maybe twenty, but damn, the boy was skinny. Hair so black it looked blue in the lamplights, skin so white it nearly glowed. Skin so white that, next to Tony’s ebony skin, the contrast between them would burn his eyes.
Somewhere a car horn blared, and the kid’s head snapped up.
Shit, his eyes were pale too. Almost without color. For a momenthe stared into the spot where Tony hid, but his steps never faltered. Then he dropped his head, dug his hands deeper into the jacket’s pockets, and kept going.
Booking for the Quarter.
Maybe one of those rent boys on his way to earn a little cash in the clubs.
Maybe he had a little cash on him right now.
Maybe if Tony moved fast when the kid passed him, he could just reach out, grab him, and drag him into the alley. Tony easily had size and muscles over him. It’d be no problem.
Tony held his breath.
The kid passed him.
The scent of soap and something else filled Tony’s nose, stirring a memory from long ago deep inside him. When he had a home, a momma who gave a shit, and two little brothers and a baby sister to care about.
Everything he’d lost in Katrina.
Tony struggled with the wave of grief washing over him, making his knees buckle and his gut ache even harder.
The guy continued on down the block.
A SOFT sniff broke the silence.
Scott swallowed and his ears pricked up. It had come from behind him, he was sure of it. He pulled his hands out of his jacket, fisted them, ready, just in case. He strained to hear any sound other than his own footfalls, and never saw the hand reach out from the alley he’d passed, grab him by the neck, and yank him to the side.
He cried out, his own fists flying blindly, but another harder, bigger fist smashed into the side of his head, shooting pain, along with a harsh warning to shut the fuck up or he’d get worse.
Strong hands cupped under his armpits, dragged him into the darkness of a narrow space between buildings, and dumped him like a bag of garbage on the cold, damp concrete.
Fuck. He’d almost made it to Canal.
Dark, feral eyes surrounded by yellowed whites stared into his face.
“Gimme yo money, muthafucka.”
Scott nodded and reached into the pocket of his jeans. His ear stung from the blow, and a warm trickle ran down his neck. The back of his earring must have cut him. Lucky his attacker hadn’t seen it and tried to rip it out of his ear. He leaned closer to the brick wall to hide it. No sense losing everything.
The black man, so much bigger than Scott, pushed his hands out of the way and dug around for the cash, bruising Scott’s hip, crushing against Scott’s cock, ignoring the gasp of pain from his victim.
He pulled out the money and looked at the few carefully folded ones Scott had, then straightened as he went through it. “Shit, man, you ain’t got shit.” He sounded so disappointed. Disappointment was bad. Disappointment could get him killed.
Scott looked up from the ground and prayed the guy would just go away, not get any ideas, or get pissed and kick the living shit out of him. Or worse.
“Fuck you, you little faggoty cocksucker.”
The man put his hand on the wall, leaned against it, and drew back his foot, aiming for a hard kick in Scott’s ribs.
Scott curled into a ball, waiting for the first of many blows that would rain on him until he mercifully lost consciousness. Over the last few years, this wouldn’t be the first time or the last. Nothing to do but duck and cover.
“What the—” The man’s voice abruptly ended, cut off.
Scott peeked from behind his arms as they covered his face, protecting it.
A huge man, bigger than his attacker, had his hand around the guy’s throat, and his other hand, a tight black mallet of a fist, landed a punch in the guy’s gut.
“Arggh!” The man’s legs pulled up toward his belly, his hands spasmed open, and Scott’s money fluttered to the ground.
The other man opened his hand and Scott’s attacker fell into a heap, curling around his belly and retching.
A rush of relief followed by disbelief swept over Scott. He’d been saved by a total stranger.
Scott stared through the darkness at his rescuer. Barely discernable, the man had to be the blackest guy Scott had ever seen. His skin, what Scott could see of it, seemed to gleam in the dim light, as if covered in a fine coating of oil, like a bodybuilder.
“Thanks.” Scott pushed against the wall, trying to get to his feet.
Without a word the man leaned over, picked up the money the guy had dropped, and shoved it into his own pocket. Scott frowned. So much for his rescue.
He swallowed down the urge to declare that was his money, when a warm chocolate brown gaze, interested but cautious, cast up and down his body.
Then the guy backed out of the alley and left.
What the fuck?
He’d been robbed. Then his robber had been robbed.
He scrambled to the street and looked up and down it, but it was deserted.
Hoarse coughing brought his attention back to the alley.
Scott turned, fighting the urge to add his own kick to the bastard on the ground. But what good would that do? He’d only be waiting tomorrow night for Scott, and Scott might get the worse part. He shivered at that thought.
Maybe if he just left, the guy would think he had a protector and leave him alone. Scott didn’t want to rely on anyone but himself; he’d learned that lesson the hard way. Still, even a pretend protector would be worth losing the five bucks.
He straightened his clothes, brushed off his jeans, and wiped the blood from his neck with his hand. Giving the alley a last look, he spotted a single dollar bill caught in the trash on the ground. He jumped over the man, grabbed the one, and then ran.
He didn’t stop until he’d crossed Canal Street and entered the French Quarter.