It was raining and Ethan found shelter beneath the awning of a narrow, red bricked apartment building. Light glowed warmly at his back and he half heartedly tried the door, but it was locked. He did not have the time, but by the street traffic and number of lighted windows judged it couldn't be much later than eight or nine. It was difficult to tell with the weather having forced an early evening that afternoon.
He shifted gingerly where he stood, bringing his weight down on one foot, then the other, flexing his knees. He'd been walking a long time and his feet hurt because of it, his thighs going tight. With quick, practiced movements he rolled a cigarette and brought it to his lips, scraping his thumb against the serrated metal of his lighter until a small flame burst forth.
He smoked quietly and pensively for long minutes, peering at the squat, gray building across the street. He'd been there just once, six months ago or more, but had experienced little difficulty in locating it again on this wet, hazy evening.
Ethan never got lost. On his fifth birthday he received a compass and decided to become a world traveler. Blessed with an uncanny sense of direction, he learned to read maps and had no need of bread crumbs to find his way home from any point at all. At twenty four, scanning his surroundings for landmarks and street signs was now an unconscious act. He may have only resided in the city for less than a year, but he knew each winding turn and sharp incline as well as his own body, and could travel from State to the tip of the peninsula in ninety minutes.
Even that, however, was not much help to him now, standing at an utter loss in the rain, soaked to the skin, bone weary, and too shit scared to do anything about it.
Disgusted with himself, he finished the cigarette, pocketed the roach in an Altoid tin, and set off across the street. The door had a lock but opened when he pulled with force. Ethan climbed the steps slowly, gripping the rail all the way. He reached the third floor and moved down the creaky hall, counting the doors. His stomach sat tense and rigid in his belly and his face felt bloodless. He had been up at three that morning and remained on the move ever since. He had not eaten since dinner the night before and it was very possible that his cat was dead. When he held his hands out his fingers were white and trembled finely. The skin seemed to have shrunk tight around bone. He knocked quietly at number 40.
Ethan pulled in deep breaths through his nose and released them slowly out his mouth, hoping to loosen up a little before someone answered. He was nervous. He hated being nervous, but it was fast becoming the norm. A few moments passed and he was in the middle of a silent debate with himself--knock or leave--when the rattle of a chain sounded and the door swung abruptly inward. A tall, broad figure filled the open space and a pair of dark, brooding eyes glittered down at him.
Sam was lucky, Hank thought, that he was such a patient guy.
He lay sprawled across the thin cushions of the ugliest couch this side of the Bay, eyes narrowed and glaring at absolutely nothing in particular. The only sound in the room besides the ticking of the clock was the regular slide and shuffle of a worn deck of cards. He turned them over in his hands expertly, allowing his mind to wander.
It wasn't much later than nine thirty and Hank was about ready to pack things in. It had not been very long ago when that would have rankled him, but these days it did not seem of much matter. Especially days like today, when a nice guy like Sam Cobb could be forced out of his home. Termites were nothing to sneeze at and the circus tent was going up early the next morning.
The detached glower softened and Hank was just contemplating exactly what he was going home to, when a soft rap sounded at the door. He looked up sharply, quickly filing through potential visitors and discarding them all. Sam was still down the hall packing a bag, so Hank set the deck of cards aside and rose from his seat, crossing the room in two long strides. He peered through the peephole.
He didn't get much more than the top of a brown head and one quick glimpse of a white face. Hank opened the door just enough to fit his head.
The guy was soaked and looking at Hank with an odd expression, like he was surprised to see him standing there. His eyes were dark and serious and had lines underneath.
"I'm sorry," the guy said, catching himself, "but does Sam live here?" He peered somewhat distrustfully at Hank, gaze flitting downward to take in his dusty workboots, his worn jeans and simple green thermal.
Hank straightened under the searching gaze, squaring his shoulders back and closing his hand around the doorknob. "Who're you?" he asked, ready to shut the door. The guy couldn't be more than 25. He had a rough, hungry look to him and Hank experienced an instant of dislike.
The kid seemed to barely restrain himself from lunging forward. "My name is Ethan. I need to see Sam if he's here. Please."
Hank's expression turned stony. "Why." He had long since mastered the art of turning the simplest question to nothing less than a demand for information. He could thank the army for that, at least.
The guy looked at him uncertainly. "What, are you his keeper? I need to ask him something." Then the dark eyes changed, and he looked at Hank with renewed interest. "Are you Hank?" he asked.
Hank gave him a hard stare. "Ethan what."
"Banks." The kid didn't miss a beat.
"How do you know Sam."
"We had a class together once. Six months ago, maybe seven now."
Some of the tension eased from the hard line of Hank's shoulders. He looked the guy over once more, taking in the pale, pinched expression, the way his fists punched into the front pockets of his sweatshirt, which hung wet and dark from his frame. The hall was always drafty. He stepped back.
"C'mon in. Sam's here, but only for a minute." He shut and locked the door after Ethan Banks and called, "Sam? Visitor."
"Who? Just a sec." Sam's voice was muffled. He was still in his bedroom, packing.
Hank watched their visitor stand awkwardly on the rug, and said, "I'm Hank. Never heard of you, though."
The corners of Ethan's mouth twitched wryly. He shrugged, and took a slow turn about the room. "Doesn't matter," he said, and pinned Hank with a sudden, intense look. "I'm actually looking for you."
Hank lowered himself back onto the couch, feigning ease. There was something about this punk that he did not like, and a small part of him wondered why Sam had never mentioned him before. The guy knew where Sam lived, after all. He had obviously been here at some point. And six months ago had seen Hank and Sam together in one way or another. Feeling things out. Seeing where they fit. Sam had just about fully recovered and decided to get an education. He got his GED and applied for financial aide and enrolled into classes at State. He'd made a complete turn around, sniffing at new things and discovering a sense of capability about himself, and Hank had been happy to be a part of it. Sam had too, or so it seemed.
"Really," he replied. The guy had a wiry look to him, long limbed with a determined set to his jaw, but Hank had no doubt that he could take the little punk.
Suddenly the kid came forward. He was not so much lean and hungry now as he seemed bone weary and bewildered. "Yes," he said earnestly, "You're the private detective, right? He told me about you. He said you helped him."
Hank was caught off guard. He searched the kid's gaze, but found nothing duplicitous. Reluctantly, he said, "I look into things sometimes, for people. I get paid for it." He said this slowly, as if Ethan Banks might not understand. He'd never been approached in this way before, and it was highly disconcerting.
Hank saw Ethan's eyes flick upward, and he turned around. "Sam," Hank said, grateful.
Sam came around the couch, looking at Ethan like he had just crawled out of the heating vent. He looked back and forth quickly between Ethan and Hank, and finally settled his gaze on Ethan. He scratched the top of his head, the dark blonde hair sticking up in the back. "Hey," he said. "What, um. What are you doing here, man?" Hank did not miss the stiffness in Sam's tone, and began to regret letting the guy inside in the first place.
Ethan looked at Sam apologetically. He offered a small smile and gesture at Hank. "Actually, I came to ask about this guy."
Sam looked back at Hank briefly, a strange, blank expression on his face, and turned back around. "I see," he said slowly, although clearly he did not.
Ethan held both hands up. "I know this is weird, and I'm really sorry to bother you with it. Really. But I don't know what else to do about this. I just got--I mean I'm sort of, I guess you could say involved, in this thing, and I can't really go to the cops about it because, well. I mean, I know this is like, a job for you and you need to make a living but I was hoping that you could, um. Shit. I don't know. Point me in the right direction. Or any direction, actually. I'm kind of desperate here. And my bike got stolen. And my cat might be, uh. Well, never mind that."
Hank stared at Ethan Banks for a long moment, picking apart the disjointed explanation, wishing Beau were around. Beau Baker struck just the right note of empathic professionalism, giving the client loose reign but remaining in control of the situation at all times, that he usually handled the people portion of the business.
Sam said, "Your bike got stolen?"
"Yes," Ethan returned, still clearly bitter about it.
A bike, Hank thought. But in as overcrowded a city as this, a bike was a valuable commodity. Able to weave through even the worst of traffic, a cyclist traveled somewhere between pedestrian and motorist. Their thefts were not uncommon, and by now the thing was probably in about a hundred different pieces, being fitted to new bicycles.
"Can you help me?" Ethan asked, looking right at Hank. "Please?"
Hank felt like he was on candid camera or something. "Are you serious?" he growled. "You want me to go find your bicycle? Why can't you report that to the police?"
Ethan's eyes squeezed shut momentarily and opened again. He appeared strained beyond all possible measure. "No," he said quietly, but reconsidered. "I mean, yes, I would like my bike back. But that isn't the big thing."
"And what is that," Hank said, getting tired.
"That is the brick of heroin in my bag here."
Sam actually smacked his palm against his face, and quickly exited the room. "I'm just gonna get my bag," he called, and added, "Not the one with heroin in it."
Hank unfolded himself from his seat on the couch, and took a warning step toward Ethan Banks. "It's time for you to go now," he said quietly.
To his satisfaction the kid actually looked scared for a minute. "Tell me what to do with it," he whispered, eyes going big.
"Go to the fucking cops," Hank managed through gritted teeth, "Or shove it up your ass. I don't care." He closed his fist around the guy's arm, and started propelling him towards the door. "Just get it the fuck out of here." Sam reappeared behind him, backpack in hand and ready to go.
Ethan struggled, trying to push him off. "No," he protested, "I can't go to the police. Please, I need your help. Do you understand?" He got louder the closer they got to the door. "Sam, you owe me! I helped you! You said--"
Hank immediately went still, yanking Ethan back against him. The punk stumbled and tripped, but Hank held him upright. He looked over his shoulder at Sam, not releasing Ethan just yet. "What does he mean," he bit out, giving Sam exactly five seconds to provide an honest reply.
Sam stared at him helplessly, affecting a look Hank was all too familiar with. It was a look he thought they had left far behind them, yet here it was. Feeling the exhaustion of the past year catch up with him, Hank released Ethan and opened the door. He gave the kid his card and said, "Walk-in hours are printed on the back. See you." Then he shut the door on the kid, who gaped at him with nothing short of astonishment, and leaned his back against it. He bent his head, studying the thin brown carpet at his feet.
For a long, tense moment, silence reigned. Sam drew in a breath to speak, and Hank looked up at him sharply.
"Don't," he said, "Not yet."
Sam closed his mouth. Another moment passed.
"God damn it," Hank said quietly. He sent an unreadable look Sam's way and yanked the door open. "I'm going to bring the car around. Meet me out front."
Ethan knew enough to realize that he had left more than a little turmoil in his wake, and hoped to make it up to Sam some day soon. For now he passed his time on a corner stool of The Caravan. He fingered the card Hank Rawlinss had given him, turning it over in his hands. Already, the corners were bent and the edges had a frayed look to them. He held his bag in his lap, the strap secured over one arm. Just in case. He took a long sip of PBR, not really enjoying the beverage but grateful to be out of the rain. It was just too cold outside, and he had a long journey home ahead of him.
Only a few buses ran this late, and his apartment was far enough away from the BART that Ethan had a good hour's walk in his very near future.
The card read: B/R Investigations, Hank Rawlins, with an address listed below. He recognized the street, and guessed by the number that it was near 19th. He pocketed the card and finished his beer and stood, leaving a few bills on the countertop. Pushing through the warmth of the crowd, Ethan stepped gingerly back out onto the street. The rain had let up some, having eased into a drizzle, and several figures milled near the bar's entrance, busily smoking and conversing in low tones. Ethan rolled a cigarette and lit up, then started down the sidewalk.
He thought back to his behavior earlier that evening, felt slightly guilty for it, but would have done it all over again if needed. It was true that he knew Sam from school. Last Fall, gripped with a sudden agonizing urgency over his future, Ethan enrolled into a couple classes at State. He had a high school education, but these days that did not seem to count for much at all. At some point he had allowed himself to be discouraged from any attempt at higher learning, and found himself tackling a series of low end jobs, just to make ends meet. Then he received word that his father was dead and everything went to shit.
Jax contacted him. Ethan learned the meaning of the phrase 'between a rock and a hard place.' He learned to do what he was told and keep his head down, but even as he lowered himself deeper into that awful hole, he thought of when he would be out again. A free man. He pored over the catalogue and signed up for two classes. English and philosophy. Seemed like a good start.
School was weird. Ethan felt conspicuously out of place and hoped desperately that it did not show. All the same, by the end of the first class he was wondering if he hadn't made a mistake. Some people just weren't cut out for this sort of thing, after all. And then he saw Sam.
Sam looked much as Ethan remembered him. Yes, with his narrow, closed features, shaggy blonde hair, and quick blue eyes, he was easily recognizable. But at the same time he was completely different. Gone was the hungry, unsteady gaze and the restless, itching fingers. His flesh had a healthy, golden pallor and he'd gained some weight and muscle tone. For a long, incredulous minute Ethan just stared, and then he grabbed a nearby seat.
He felt his skin flush, felt all the cells fill to bursting with blood. Felt Sam's eyes bore into the back of his head. He hardly heard a word the instructor said that day. He could not reconcile the healthy, fresh faced young man sitting behind him with the strung out crackhead of Paul Evans' entourage.
Because really, that was how he knew Sam Cobb, from his deliveries to Lance Productions. Sex workers tended to use a lot of drugs, Ethan found, and he couldn't really blame them.