[AN: A side story from my webcomic 'Metanoia', but it can stand alone.]


Everyone's A Junkie

The fog was thick as milk and smelled like burning asphalt. Dawn in the city was like murder; surreal, depressing, and smelly. I climbed out of the truck and stood yawning in the parking lot. Fog filled my lungs and caught in my throat. I coughed, spit twice. Lit a smoke to get the morning-teeth taste out of my mouth.

Sleeping in the truck always gave me a headache. And a whole buffet of muscle cramps to choose from, of course, but walking and stretching for a while worked those down to a tolerable level. Damned uncomfortable place to sleep. Especially when last night's big fight with Milo insisted on replaying itself in my head over and over.

I'd decided I was through with him. Absolutely finished. I was sick to death of pretending we were in love. We weren't, and we both knew it. If I could just keep away from him for a few days, I knew I could leave him behind for good this time. Not like the last six million times. This time would be different.

For one thing, I had work to keep me busy. This work had caused the argument last night. All the arguments in the past couple weeks, in fact. Milo didn't like me seducing the target. Fuck Milo and his little jealousies; it was the most efficient way. The client wanted the target to disappear, not just turn up dead somewhere. This guy turned out to have a hobby of picking up homeless boys and making them vanish. Sounded like an ideal way to make him do all the work for me.

As I walked to the place where I'd be meeting him, I checked my reflection in dark windows. Nothing out of place. I'd used depilatory cream on my face instead of shaving, so I could easily pass for sixteen. I'd been wearing the same clothes for two weeks, washing with handi-wipes, eating only one small meal a day. Granted, that one meal had been whatever Milo had delivered from the deli at Byerly's, but the hunger was real. I only had ten dollars in my pocket.

I spent most of that now on sandwiches at the first convenience store I passed. The particular dullness of skin and starved-smell in my sweat was neccessary to the ruse, but being faint from low blood sugar when the time came to do my job was not.

The target was waiting for me already, leaning against the hood of his black BMW in front of the coffee shop where he'd first picked me up. He looked good, for forty-two. He liked to talk about how much time he spent in the gym, and he dressed like a European. I wasn't averse to doing him once or twice. On our previous meetings, he'd never done anything to me but kiss and grope. I put on the face of a nervous, blue-balled kid trying to pretend he did this kind of thing all the time, walked up to him, and stood there jittering like I wasn't sure what the next move was.

"I'm surprised, Stephen. You're very punctual." He looked me up and down with eyes like Milo's. "Did you stay up all night to get here so early?"

"Well, you know. No alarm clock." I flashed a grin. "Can I smoke in your car?"

"No." He held the door for me.

"Are we going fishing?" I asked him as we merged onto the highway.

"That's why I wanted to go so early."

"Cool. Where?"

"We're going to stay at my cabin for the weekend. You won't be in trouble for being away a couple days, will you?"

In other words, will anyone miss you and call the cops? Be a little more obvious, guy. Drive an unmarked white van next time. "With who?" I said scornfully. "I can do whatever I want. We're not just fishing, right?"

"I hope you won't be too tired, after staying up all night."

"I can stay up for like three days."

"Ah, I miss that ability. I remember when I could do that. When I was at Princeton, I used to pull all-nighters every day of the week and still have the energy to party on the weekends."

He rambled on about his college days for the rest of the drive. I kept him going with disingenious questions, being no end of impressed and resentful that he'd gone to Princeton. Which he hadn't. His college days, along with everything else he'd told me about himself, were pure fiction.

He wasn't a lawyer; he was a cocaine importer. His wedding ring was a sham; his reason for keeping our 'relationship' secret was a little more sinister. The question-mark-shaped scar on his forearm wasn't from carpal tunnel surgery; it was from a knife fight in prison, before he'd climbed from courier to kingpin over the bodies of his rivals. If it weren't for the disappearing-kids thing, I'd have sort of admired the guy.

Not that it would've changed anything. I'd still have taken the job.

His 'cabin' was a three-bedroom rambler on the shore of a private lake. I made the requisite noises of awe and gloating over it, and over the sleek little speedboat we took out into the vanishing mist.

I didn't worry about him trying to kill me in the boat. He hadn't fucked me yet. He was definitely going to do that first. I saw some marks on the gunwale that might've been made by a concrete block scraping over, though. I guessed that was how he'd disposed of them. I yawned and neglected my fishing pole. He ran his hand up and down my thigh while he pretended to watch the water. Neither of us caught anything.

About nine, he delcared fishing a waste of time and took us back to the dock. The cabin's refrigerator was stocked with perishables; he probably had someone come in and do it every week. He ate crab cakes and asparagus. I pretended to eat them, but they mostly ended up in my coat pocket; for all I knew, they were full of nembutol. I drank the beer he gave me, though, since that came in a can. When he went to the bathroom, I emptied my pocket into the undergrowth off the porch. As I expected, when he came back he offered me a shower, and when I'd been in there five minutes, he joined me.

"How old are you, Stephen?" he asked me while he soaped my privates.

"I told you. Eighteen." My body was responding as much to the prospect of a fight as to his touch.

"How old are you really, Stephen?" He gave me the Penetrating Gaze. I obligingly gulped and blushed.

"Sixteen," I said in a small voice.

"And do you think that's old enough to be doing this?"

"Yeah. Uhm. Obviously. Shut up." Offended at his laugh. Too horny to string a sentence together. Had I ever actually been like that? I didn't think so.

When he'd satisfied himself that I was clean enough to use, he moved the show to a bedroom that had a stuffed and mounted fish on the wall. I told him the fish was creepy, and that was the truth. He chuckled at me and got down to business.

The boy I was pretending to be would've been frightened and hurt, wouldn't have liked the way he manhandled me, the way he went too fast and didn't prep me enough. His hands left bruises on my wrists. He pushed my face smotheringly into the pillow. He didn't make any effort to take care of my needs, only looked to his own. A boy who thought this was a love tryst would've been devastated. I probably could've got off if he'd bothered to reach around.

After he finished, he immediately pulled out and sat up. He pretended that disposing of the rubber took a lot of concentration so he could avoid looking at me when I rolled over. Here it comes, I thought. He's ashamed. He's discovered that there was a witness to his unacceptable behavior. His closet's closing in on him. And here I am with an unattended boner and nothing for a weapon. Could be better. "Now blow me," I commanded.

He glanced at me, startled, then did a double-take. I wasn't bothering to be Stephen anymore, and it showed on my face. "What?" he said.

"I said blow me. You don't think you're done, do you? Go on, get down there."

His pupils expanded as I watched. He gave an uncomfortable laugh. "No, let me watch you jack off. Maybe it'll get me in the mood for another round."

I let my intentions show in my eyes, and watched him shudder. I grinned. "You heard me, bitch."

He obeyed.

While his mouth worked awkwardly on me, I thought about ways to take care of him. There were knives in the kitchen, but I'd never been fond of knives. Too much cleanup. The cleanest way would be to put him in a sleeper hold and then smother him the rest of the way while he was passed out. Breaking his neck or choking him could work. I liked the idea of getting into a proper fight first, but he probably wasn't capable of giving me any kind of challenge. There was also the option of immobilizing him in some way and then dumping him in the lake still alive, but that was risky. People about to die get resourceful and strong. You don't want to deal with that if you don't have to. Or I could try something in between -- let him know he was going to die, then do him while he was still processing it. That was how Milo would've done it.

The thought of Milo made my whole nervous system suddenly sit up and beg. Even though this man wasn't remotely in the same league, a moment's vision of Milo's pale hair pooling on my thighs and his perfect lips on me sent me over the edge.

My target choked and spat. I laughed at him.

"You could've swallowed. I don't mind leaving that much of myself behind. No one'll ever autopsy you."

He paused in the midst of wiping his face and stared at me. Then he dove at me, hands clawed. I planted a foot in the middle of his chest and shoved. He bounced off the far wall and sat down, breathless.

"Is that how you did it?" I said as I stood up. "Strangled them?" I felt loose and easy, relaxed and strong. Maybe I'd invent a new kung fu style on the spot. Just-Laid Style. The thought put a smile on my face.

He climbed upright against the wall, gasping for breath. He wanted to talk, but I'd knocked the wind out of him. I answered the question he couldn't get air enough to ask.

"No, I'm not a cop. I'm not here because of the boys. I'm just curious about them. How many were there? Did you dump them in the lake?"

With a huge wheeze, he got respiration back on line. "I didn't kill them, if that's what you think," he said.

"Confession is good for the soul. I won't tell anyone. And you won't be in a position to care if I did."

"No, I didn't kill them! I offered them a job!"

"As a fishing weight?"

"As enforcers on the Colombia side of the organization." He watched my face carefully, to see whether I was surprised.

I let him see I wasn't. It told him what I was there for, but that didn't matter. "You know, I might even believe you. How'd you pitch it?"

"Thirty thousand dollars for a two-month tour."

"And at the end of two months the ride home is mysteriously unavailable."

"Of course, but they do get paid."

"What about the ones who said no?"

He straightened up, confident he'd recovered from my kick. He flexed his hands. "Nobody ever says no. What do I have to offer you?"

That amused me. I decided we weren't going to fight naked after all. I went to get my clothes out of the bathroom. He followed me, and he behaved, so I let him have his pants. He didn't try to stop me from dressing or go after his shoes or shirt. I gestured for him to precede me to the kitchen, where I pointed him at a chair and got myself another beer.

"What do I have to offer you?" he repeated. "I know doubling your price won't be enough, but it's a start."

"Man who welches on a contract never gets another one." I perched on the counter and watched him try hard to calculate past his fear.

"You'd never need another one. We take care of our own."

"You talking retirement bennies?"

"Anywhere but back in the States. The Bahamas, anywhere."

"You have people in Key West."

"Sure, you could go to the Keys."

"You said not in the States."

"Well, that's a working organization. But you could have a management position."

"What about former clients gunning for me?"

"They'd never even find you, let alone be able to get at you. You could oversee a whole plantation. You could oversee a lab."

"In Colombia."

"Or the Keys."

"Are you afraid of Milo Sterne?" I asked him, and grinned at the surprise on his face.

"Why would Sterne have me hit? He's in weapons. We're not competing."

"Oh, he didn't make this contract. I'm just asking."

"But he's your boss?"

"No. He's my boyfriend. He'd be awfully pissed if I eloped with you."

He jerked in his seat. I could feel his hope turn into terror, like a bile taste in my mouth, as his mind fit rumors and descriptions together and came up with the word Resonator. He made a sudden dive for the nearest drawer.

I let him get his hand on a knife before I slammed the drawer shut on his wrist. I punched him in the stomach, broke his elbow while he doubled over, then gave him a hard fist to the windpipe as he straightened up. It crunched under my knuckles, that was it. I kept the drawer shut on his hand and immobilized him by twisting the broken arm while he choked and wheezed. His eyes were on me the whole time, changing slowly from human to animal and back again as he wrestled with the idea of death. He sank slowly to his knees, then toppled over backwards. I gave his broken arm an extra twist and he didn't twitch, so I let his hand out of the drawer. The knife he'd been trying to grab fell out and clattered at my feet.

Silence descended. It was beautiful. The silence after someone dies is the only peace I've ever known. I let the perfect quiet roll through me until I was empty and pure. I became nothing. Sweet, white nothing.

That nirvana was, as always, too short. With a soft sigh of regret for the return of time and duty, I got busy making him disappear.

There were concrete blocks, nylon rope, and heavy-duty garbage bags in the boathouse. Whether he'd been shitting me about where the boys went or not, he was certainly well-prepared to deal with a refusal. I sent him to join the rejects.

Cleaning up the cabin was easier than I'd expected; I didn't have to figure out how to dispose of the bedspread he'd fucked me on, because there was a washer and dryer. Even if forensic science had a way to get DNA from semen that's gone through the laundry, no one was going to look for it on a clean bedspread folded up in the linen closet. I made sure there was no hair in the shower drain, wiped down everything I might've got prints on, and scrubbed the floor with ammonia where he'd drooled a little blood while he died.

I drove his car back to town and left it in long-term parking at the airport. That was it. All that remained was to get a cab back to my truck and go to the storage unit where I'd left my cel phone so I could call in the job and get the other half of my pay. I had some money and a change of clothes in an airport locker for occasions like this.

It wasn't until I was standing in front of the locker that I realized I'd forgotten one little thing: the locker key. It was in my wallet, and my wallet was in the storage unit.

I sat down on a bench and put my head in my hands, laughing at myself. I'd only planned the job as far as getting to the airport. What a stupid oversight. Oh, the job was all right, the job was perfect, but now I had three dollars on me for a twenty-dollar cab ride.

Well, I looked like a homeless kid. I could probably finagle a ride out of a motherly type or some socially-conscious college kids. The days when I couldn't hide my anger well enough to panhandle were long gone. Only two categories of people got to see my real face these days: the ones I was about to kill, and...

Milo.

I swallowed a groan. The voice of reason jumped up and started shouting. No. This is not a good excuse to call him. You left him, remember? He's a hypocrite and a control freak. He screws his minions, then forbids you to use sex for a job. He called you ridiculous names. He dredged up the things you told him in moments of weakness and used them as weapons. He said, "Once a whore, always a whore; I should've expected this from you." He said, "If you have to seduce your targets like some bimbo in a Bond film, you're not good enough to be in this business." He said, "Fine, go, I have a list of replacements waiting." He doesn't even want you, he just wants the game of controlling you.

Just pretending it was him blowing me sent me off like a rocket. I'm never going to be able to have sex with anyone else without thinking of him.

So? Is that all you live for?

I thought about that for a few minutes.

Yeah, pretty much, I answered myself eventually. That and the silence when someone dies. Is there anything else?

Comic books and driving fast, reason suggested, and I knew it had given up.

I went to the far end of the bank of pay phones, away from anyone who could overhear, just in case I ended up making a scene. I was ready to talk my way through his secretary, but I tried his cel first. To my surprise, he picked up on the first ring. "Yes?" he said icily. He always answered the phone like the caller was one demerit away from expulsion.

"You wanna pick me up at the airport?" I said.

There was a pause. His voice was much warmer, and a little hoarse, when he answered, "I'll be there in ten minutes."

"I'll be outside the baggage claim," I said, and hung up.

It was at least a fifteen-minute drive to the airport from either his apartment or his office, and it was afternoon rush hour, but somehow he made it in twelve. His silver Lexus darted among the clotted traffic like a pirhana to slip into a space at the curb right in front of me that hadn't been there a moment ago. I got in, closed the door, and fastened my seat belt before looking at him.

He was staring straight ahead. There were tear tracks on his cheeks. Even though I was sure he'd worked himself up to it on purpose to make me sorry, my heart convulsed. Every time he called me pet names, every time he went on purple flights of poetry about me, every time he said he loved me, I knew he was lying. The only way I could get real emotion out of him was by hurting him. Those tears were real. Every time I made him cry, the tears were real. Whose fault was that? Which one of us was broken?

We didn't talk while he drove. He flashed through the traffic like it was a race, but he was stony-faced the whole time, silently weeping. I didn't ask him to take me back to my truck. Partly because I was afraid he'd refuse. Partly because I was afraid he'd drop me off at my truck and drive away without saying a word. I'd made the only overture I could stand to make. If he turned his back on me now, I wouldn't try again, and just now I didn't want that to happen.

In the parking garage of his apartment building, he held the door for me. He still wouldn't look at me in the elevator, though he dried his face. In the apartment, he went into my room, which was still disarranged from my hasty packing. There were clothes I hadn't been able to fit into my duffle; he picked out a set and handed them to me, finally meeting my eyes. It was like having a spike of liquid regret injected into my brain.

While I showered, I wondered what would be waiting for me when I came out. Flowery apologies? Another fight? The silent treatment? I could never guess what he'd do. He might be gone on a month-long trip. He might try to kill me.

If he tried, he might succeed. He was stronger, faster, and more ruthless than I was. That was part of the attraction.

What I found was my phone, sitting on the coffee table. Milo was at his computer with his back turned. "So," I said. "You know where all my storage spaces are, or just that one?"

"Call in," he said without turning around. He sounded like he'd been deep-throating a masonry drill.

I called in. It took all of twenty seconds. I dropped the phone in my pocket. "You sound like shit."

"Yes, crying all night will do that to a person."

"You're such a girl, Milo."

"You didn't cry?"

"No." It was the truth. I'd pretty much lost the ability years ago.

"If you're going to leave me again, please just go. I can't take another fight."

"Then maybe you shouldn't start them."

"If you want to believe I started it, that's fine. I don't want to talk about it anymore."

"Yeah, until next time you need something to dig up and throw at my head when you're in a bad mood."

"What did you do with him? No, don't tell me, I don't want to know."

"He went straight for my ass like a complete rapist. He was real shocked when I made him blow me afterwards."

Milo still didn't turn around, but his hand hadn't moved on the mouse since I came into the room.

"Then he tried to buy me off. He actually made the best pitch I've heard so far. He wasn't dumb enough to keep trying after I mentioned your name, though."

Milo's shoulders hunched a little. "I don't want to hear this."

"He asked if you hired me. I said no, you were my lover. You'd be pissed if I eloped with him. That's when he went for a knife. I guess everyone knows I belong to you."

"Everyone but you," Milo said softly.

"Yeah, funny thing about that. I just can't get rid of this crazy idea that I belong to me. It must be a crazy idea, because a smart guy like you just can't seem to get it through your head."

"Star, please. If you're going to go, go. If I look at you I'll break down again."

"Good. That's the only time you're honest."

Milo set his elbows on the desk and dropped his face into his palms. Agony radiated from him like it was infrared. It pissed me off.

"Maybe," I said, "if I ever got anything from you but pain, maybe I'd believe it matters whether or not I fuck anyone else. Why do you try so hard to own me? All you want is power over me. You don't like me, it doesn't make you happy to be with me, all you do is play with my head when I'm with you, but then you give me this tragic act when I try to leave. Where's the payoff, Milo?"

He surged to his feet, knocking his chair over, and spun around to glare at me. "You want a payoff? How about the fact that the very angel of war is broken before you? How's that for power?"

I rolled my eyes. "Oh, don't get poetic on me. I got up really early."

"I own a majority share in death, but when you turn your back on me I become nothing. I need you, Star. I need you. I'm out of step without you, out of time, like winter with no autumn, day without dawn. Just a monster, not a man." He was crying again. And it was working. It was so hard to stay mad.

"Seriously, knock it off. I slept in my truck. And my target was one heavy motherfucker to dispose of."

"Star..."

"And he gave rotten head. I couldn't get off without pretending it was you."

Milo stared for a long moment, then gave a weak little laugh. "Oh my cruel one. I don't know whether you're trying to make me feel better or drive the last nail in."

"Neither. It's just the truth."

He crossed the room in two strides and grabbed me in a crushing hug. I hugged back just as hard; it was automatic. He was so big and warm and solid. The smell of his hair, the shape of his shoulder under my cheek, the way we fit together -- I knew this wasn't what 'home' meant, but it was the closest referent I had.

"You own me as much as I own you," he said softly.

It felt true. I didn't want it to be true; it scared me. "Take me to bed, Milo. Let's pretend we're in love."