Friday, October 27, 2017

Friday Fiction

          Drew Calder stopped at the edge of the park, shifting to settle the load he carried more evenly across his shoulder. His suit jacket and the shirt underneath clung unpleasantly to his skin, wet all down his back and a little cold. Glad he’d disregarded Sebastian’s objections and worn his work boots, he sighed and shrugged into the burden, then set off across the grass, sticking to the shadows despite sufficient bribes paid to keep any cop in town looking the other way. The greenway made for a convenient shortcut back to the house, though Drew wished they’d just taken the car. Mostly he wasn’t bothered by Sebastian’s vanity, but sometimes his need to make an entrance bit them in the ass. Or bit Drew in the ass, really, since it usually became his mess to clean up. Drew hoped that a few rumors of their undignified exit did get back to Sebastian. Maybe he’d think twice about the hired limo next time, or at least let Drew wear pants with pockets sufficient to keep his phone from sliding out somewhere along the way, leaving them both stranded when things went sideways. A breeze kicked up as Drew reached the bottom of the hill that led up to the driveway, chilling the sweat on his face and making him shiver a bit. He tightened his grip and trudged on, his spine and shoulder protesting under the weight of Sebastian’s body.

          Drew met Sebastian the night he died the third time. The first death happened when he was born -- blue and floppy as a ragdoll, everyone said, even after they unwrapped the cord from around his neck. According to Drew’s aunt, who had been there, a seasoned delivery nurse snatched him from the doctor’s hands, put her mouth on his tiny face, and sucked out the gunk that was suffocating him before half the people in the room realized what was happening. The second time he died, he was working concert security in the rain when an ungrounded amp wire stopped his heart. Someone in the crowd knew CPR and kept oxygen moving to his brain long enough for the paramedics to get there. The third time, the one that almost counted, he’d been on the door at Kellan’s, pulling his normal Saturday night shift. One of the dancers had a shitty ex, who came around periodically to harass her. That night he’d shown up drunk and angry. Drew hadn’t been in the mood for it and told him to fuck off. When the ex boyfriend shot him, it felt like taking a football helmet to the chest -- no pain at first, just the sensation of something slamming into him and having the breath knocked out of his lungs. The pain caught up right before the second bullet collapsed his left lung, and he never did catch his breath.
          He had a dim memory of screams, of being lifted off the ground, of a sharp voice saying, “Please let me through; I’m a doctor.” A shot of something thick and scorched-tasting was tipped down his throat. That was all he recalled. After a long while, he opened his eyes and saw Sebastian watching him from a chair beside the bed where Drew lay sprawled on his back, still dressed in clothes soaked with more blood than any body seemed capable of losing. There was a dull ache in his chest, but he could breathe full and deep again.
          “I have a proposition for you,” Sebastian said in his trim accent. He was slender and well-kept, dressed in an expensive-looking suit. His hair was light, his eyes dark, and his features sharp. “I realize you may need time to consider my offer, but I’d like you to hear me out before you say no.”
          Sebastian needed someone to do his heavy lifting, he explained. Drive him sometimes, run his errands, keep his business close. In exchange, Drew would receive more money than he could ever spend, lodging on Sebastian’s property, access to the clubs and parties Sebastian attended, sex if he wanted it -- though Sebastian was firm that it would never be required. “Who could ask for more?” Sebastian asked with a smile that almost reached his eyes. “It’ll be a few days before you feel well again,” he said as he stood to leave. “The cure has healed you, but your body will take a while to replenish all the blood you lost. Please take all the time you need, and let me know if there’s anything I can do for you.”

          As Drew came within hailing distance of the gatehouse, Jordan leaned through the window and called out, “The limo driver dropped off your phone!” Then, seeing what Drew carried, he paled. “Jesus, man, what happened?”
          “Philosophical disagreement,” Drew grunted, pausing to lean against the side of the gatehouse. “He'll be fine, I think.”
          “I’ll get the cart.”
          Drew slumped further against the bricks as he waited for Jordan to return with the groundskeeper’s motorized cart, grimacing as he noticed how bad he smelled -- a mix of his own sweat and the acrid odor of Sebastian’s blood. He debated setting Sebastian down, but wasn’t entirely sure he’d be able to get him back up again, so he waited some more.
          Once Jordan arrived, they maneuvered Sebastian’s lanky frame into the cargo bed as carefully as possible, trying not to jar his neck, which Drew had bandaged as best he could with his own tie. The cut was deep, but hadn’t severed the spine, so as far as Drew knew it could be fixed. He slumped into the passenger seat and closed his eyes, taking deep breaths of the cool night air as Jordan drove them up to the main house as fast as he dared.

          Two days after he was shot to death -- Sebastian later confirmed that he had briefly died -- Drew woke up again in the same bed in the strange room that was not in a hospital. No one watched from the bedside this time. His muscles were sore as he pushed himself up to sit, his clothes stiff and reeking from the blood that had drenched them and mostly dried. Drew gagged a little and staggered to his feet, saw a doorway that led to a bathroom and stumbled over. There were towels and soap, so he stripped naked and dropped the awful clothes outside the bathroom door, pausing to stare in the mirror at the two round, slightly puckered scars that marked his chest now, one just to the right of his heart and the other centered on the left side of his ribcage. He pressed his fingers to one and then the other, feeling nothing but his own familiar skin and muscle and bone, the faint drum of his heart beneath. He got into the shower, made the water hot enough to hurt, and scrubbed until he couldn’t remember the smell of blood.
          When he went back out to the bedroom, his ruined clothes were gone and the bed had been made up with clean linens and a new blanket. A pair of jeans, boxer shorts, and a thick henley shirt were folded and waiting on the chair, his wallet and cell phone and car keys resting on top. Still feeling dazed, Drew got dressed and picked up his phone, but the battery was dead. There was a light knock at the door, so Drew opened it and found the man he’d seen two days before standing in the hallway, wearing gray slacks and a sweater. He was almost as tall as Drew, who stood 6 feet 4 inches barefoot.
          “Hello,” the man said. “May I come in?”
          “Um. Sure?” Drew backed up to let him enter.
          “I’m Sebastian Birk.” He offered his hand and Drew shook it.
          “Drew Calder.”
          “Do you remember what happened to you, Drew?”
          “Maybe. I think.”
          “Please, sit. I find it’s sometimes best to not try too hard to understand it, but just to accept that remarkable things can happen.”
          Drew sat on the edge of the bed, and Sebastian settled into the chair.
          “Do you remember the offer I made to you, the night I brought you here?”
          Drew nodded. “You want me to work for you.”
          Sebastian returned the nod. “I do. I could use a big, solid fellow who won’t take shit, as they say. As I said before - it would be a lot of driving, errands, and discretion. It may be dangerous sometimes, but I don’t think terribly so. Certainly nothing worse than you’d expect working as a bouncer at Kellan Ferguson’s strip club.”
          “What happened to the guy who had the job before?”
          “He worked for me for many years, but finally decided he was ready to retire somewhere nice.”
          “Is this like when your dad tells you he sent your dog to live on a farm, but really he shot it?”
          Sebastian laughed and gave Drew an appraising look. “Astute, Drew Calder. I like you quite a lot. I also suspect we had very different fathers. But no, Charles is actually retired. I believe he’s living in Majorca now. Speaking of dogs, though, that is something I should tell you.” He reached into the pocket of his slacks and retrieved a glass vial full of a substance that looked like motor oil. “The cure that saved your life is quite useful. Good for everything from a gunshot wound to a hangover. But if you use it much, dogs won’t like you. They can sense it somehow, I suppose. Cats, on the other hand, won’t care one bit.”

          Drew and Jordan managed to get Sebastian into the back ground floor bedroom where Drew slept when he didn’t stay in the carriage house. They laid him on the bed and then Drew let his knees give out and collapsed onto the floor, the old hardwood smooth and cold against his back through his damp clothes. Jordan sank down to sit nearby, breathing hard and using his sleeve to wipe sweat from his face. “Jesus,” he choked out, his teeth chattering from adrenaline and nerves. “He’s heavy for a skinny dude.”
          Once he’d caught his breath, Drew sat up. “I’ll be back in a minute. Stay here.” He hauled himself up and went out through the hallway and down the old servants’ staircase to the wine cellar. Inside, he placed his palm against the scanner lock on a sleek industrial refrigerator. There was a cheerful beep and a click as the lock mechanism disengaged. Drew pulled the door open, selected the supplies he needed, and closed the door, tugging it afterward to make sure the lock had re-latched. He opened a second, unsecured fridge and collected two bottles of beer before heading upstairs. When he got back to the bedroom, Jordan was pacing the floor, his arms tightly crossed. “Hey,” Drew said, bumping him with an elbow, “you need to take some deep breaths. Calm down.”
          “He looks dead, man. He just...he looks dead.”
          “He’s dead every time you see him.” Drew handed Jordan one of the beers and set the other on the narrow dresser. Next he opened and assembled the shrink-wrapped syringe he’d brought up from the basement, and filled it with thick, black blood from the refrigerated vial. “If you don’t like needles, don’t watch,” he told Jordan. He unclipped a small folding knife from the waistband of his pants and used it to slit the sleeve of Sebastian’s jacket and shirt up to his bicep, then carefully injected the blood into a vein at the inside of his elbow.
          With this accomplished, he went to the dresser and pulled out a set of clean clothes. He uncapped the second beer and took a long drink. “Sit with him until I get back,” he told Jordan, who was sipping his own beer and looking less like he was about to freak out. “I’m going to take a shower and call Isabelle.” “Shit,” Jordan said, looking utterly miserable. He gulped the rest of his beer and stared glumly at the floor. “Shit.”

          Isabelle Morgan was in her late twenties, with a petite frame and a heart-shaped face that could best be described as cute. She dressed in expensive professional clothes, never wore heels, and was utterly terrifying. Drew had met her just after being formally introduced to Sebastian, when she’d breezed into the bedroom with her smartphone and planner and proceeded to sweep him along in the wake of her efficiency. Tapping on the phone and jotting notes, she briskly scheduled him for a trip to buy clothes, arranged a visit with Sebastian’s accountant, ordered a driver to retrieve his car from Kellan’s, and called the groundskeeper to show Drew the various secondary homes on the property that he could choose from as his new living quarters. Then she handed Drew a piece of paper with times and dates printed neatly across it and swept out again, leaving him dazed and not quite sure what had just happened.
          Sebastian, who’d been standing to the side and gazing out the window, turned to Drew with a wry smile. “You’ll get used to it. If you do what she says at all times, your life will be simpler.” He came over to the bed and offered his hand to shake again. “So it seems we have an arrangement.”
          Drew nodded, his head still swimming a bit. “I guess we do.”
          “You can leave my employ whenever you choose. I do ask that you give me the courtesy of notice beforehand, but your time is your own. I do not require a contract, unless you would prefer one. I will do everything that I can to treat you fairly and reasonably. Please know, however, that if you betray me -- either while you work for me or afterward -- I will kill you. And you will be quite permanently dead, in that case.”

          Drew’s job was to accompany Sebastian to events and parties as requested, fetch and deliver when needed, look dangerous as required, and drive a lot of wan-looking and very hungover young men (and more rarely, women) home after mixing up a morning smoothie with a shot of the cure blended in among whatever ingredients were trendy that month. On three occasions he’d been asked to dispose of a body, each time someone whose name had come to Sebastian through whispers and half-coded messages, men whom the law couldn’t touch, monsters who were using the dark corners of Sebastian’s world as their hunting ground. As far as Drew could tell, Isabelle handled everything else, from arranging personal shoppers to booking international business meetings. Calling Isabelle to tell her that her plans had been derailed was never a fun experience.
          As he undressed and started the shower, Drew weighed his options -- if he called now, he’d have to talk to Isabelle now. But if he waited and called her after he got cleaned up, she’d undoubtedly be furious at the delay. Heaving a sigh, Drew thumbed his phone to life and selected Isabelle’s number. The call went immediately to voicemail. “Isabelle - it’s Drew. I think you’re going to need to clear the schedule for Monday. Maybe Tuesday, too. Sorry about this.”
          Within minutes, his phone rang. He reluctantly accepted the call. “Hey, Isabelle.”
          “What the hell is going on, Drew?” Heavy bass thumped in the background, and Isabelle’s voice echoed weirdly. Drew wondered which club bathroom she was calling from.
          “Sebastian is out of commission. I think he’ll be okay, but it may take a few days. Also, we’re both going to need a new suit.”
          Isabelle’s sigh was a rebuke. “I’ll be there in thirty minutes. Are you with him right now?”
          “No, but Jordan is.”
          “Jesus Christ.” She disconnected without saying goodbye. Drew showered and dressed and made it back to Sebastian’s side in fifteen minutes. He sent Jordan out to the gatehouse with instructions to admit no one other than Isabelle until he heard otherwise. Then he settled into the chair he’d brought over from the staff kitchen and closed his eyes.
          He’d barely started to doze when he heard Isabelle coming down the hall. She knocked lightly and came in before he answered, stopping short when she saw Sebastian. She clutched the strap of her work bag tightly, her eyes going wide. “You didn’t tell me it was this bad.” It was the first time Drew had ever heard worry in her voice.
          Drew peered at the wound on Sebastian’s neck. “It was worse,” he said grimly.
          “Did you give him the cure?”
          “About 45 minutes ago.”
          “How did this even happen?”
          “I missed the beginning. There was an argument over something at the club. Backroom stuff...I think there were Russians? I was supposed to wait in the hall, but I went in when I heard shouting. It was over by the time I got the door open.”
          “What about the bodies?”
          “Nothing incriminating. I got him and got out.”
          Isabelle gave a curt nod. Under her Saturday night makeup, she looked pale. “I have some things to handle. I’ll be in the office if you need me.”
          Sebastian and Isabelle had adjoining offices on the other side of the back of the house, separated from Drew’s room by the old servants’ kitchen. He waited until he heard Isabelle’s office door close, then went to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. After some consideration, he made two plates of toast with honey as well, and took one to Isabelle. She actually smiled at him, just a little bit, from behind her laptop when she saw what he’d brought. “Thank you,” she said, accepting the plate and mug of coffee.
          “Do you need anything else?”
          “No. Just stay with him and let me know if he wakes up.”
          As Drew was pulling the door closed behind him, Isabelle called his name. He paused, half-turned.
          “Thank you,” she said again, and her voice wavered - again, just a bit. “For saving him, I mean.”

          Daylight was just beginning to brighten the sky when Sebastian stirred, bringing Drew back from the drifting almost-doze he’d been in and out of for the past few hours. Drew stood but didn’t approach, waiting for Sebastian to open his eyes. When he did, he seemed quite alert.
          “Ah, Drew,” he said hoarsely. “It seems I owe you a debt of gratitude.”
          “Just doing my job,” Drew answered. “Can I do anything for you?”
          “I think perhaps you’ve gone above the call, but we’ll sort that out later. Would you help me up, please? I’d like to go to my room if you don’t mind.”
          “Isabelle’s here,” Drew told him, moving close to support Sebastian as he got to his feet.
          “Please tell her to get some sleep. I will call her as soon as I can.”
          Leaning heavily on Drew, Sebastian was able to make it up the stairway to his private rooms on the third floor. Drew had only been inside Sebastian’s suite a few times, and he always felt like he was trespassing. He helped Sebastian to the bed, where he sank onto the mattress and kicked off his shoes. “Much better” he said with a sigh, easing himself down onto his back. “Thank you, truly. I will call you when I’m feeling well.”
          “Or if you need anything.”
          “Yes,” Sebastian said with a ghost of a chuckle. “That, too.” He reached out and patted Drew’s arm. “Now go to bed, please. You look like you’re about to collapse.”
          Drew was aware of every sore muscle as he made his way downstairs, his back aching in earnest now. He stopped by Isabelle’s office, where he found her asleep on the chaise. He scribbled a note and left it stuck to the front of her phone and quietly slipped back out, pausing in the hallway to text an all-clear to Jordan. Back in his room, he changed the bedding and opened the windows to let in some fresh air. As the sun crested the trees outside and lit up the room he finally lay down to rest, sliding gratefully into sleep.