One

 

I OPEN my eyes in darkness. A muffled vibration pulses against the left side of my face. My phone, buzzing like an angry insect.

I lift my head and look at the digital clock on the nightstand. It’s 2:39. In the a.m.

I’m on call during the late-night weekend hours. At once I stick my hand under the pillow and retrieve my vibrating phone. My eyelids feel as if they have glue under them. I blink several times and clear my throat. It’s important that I sound alert and ready.

“Hi. This is Mace.”

It’s a man’s voice on the other end, deep and authoritative. He isn’t shy and doesn’t waste words. He lays out the parameters of what I have to do in a few sentences. I lay out my requirements. After that, it’s just a matter of the when and the where. The when is an hour from now, which doesn’t leave me a lot of time.

In the bathroom I clean myself inside and out. I blow-dry my short, thick hair, running my fingers through it to fluff out the strands. My hair was blond until I left home a year ago. Since then it’s darkened to this murky brown color. Maybe that’s my body’s attempt at camouflage. When I’m done with the blow-dryer, I shave, brush my teeth, and gargle with an antiseptic mouthwash. At the mirror I inspect my body front and back, making sure I haven’t overlooked anything. I slip into black cotton boxers and a black T-shirt. Then I dress in black jeans, black boots, a black jersey, and quickly shrug into my thick leather jacket. I grab my wallet, my keys, and the items I’ll need for the job, and I’m out the door.

I move quietly down the hall, down the stairs. There’s always someone awake in the dorm, studying, watching TV, sexing it up, but there are also plenty of guys here who are sleeping. I don’t want to disturb anybody, regardless. Once I’m behind the wheel of my car, I plug the address the man gave me into my GPS unit just for the hell of it. I have a good idea where I’m going but use GPS to be sure.

I drive carefully, following the directions. It’s January in Chicago. Several inches of snow cover the ground, and thick gray clouds blanket the night sky. Flurries whip through the air, shimmering in the yellow haze of the streetlights. My stomach tightens and flutters, tightens and flutters. I always get nervous on the way to a job. I put on some music. Coltrane. Other guys my age are into rock and hip-hop. I don’t think it’s pretentious of me, but I suppose it is a little weird that I’m so heavily into avant-garde jazz, with its free-flowing, take-no-prisoners rhythms. What the hell. It relaxes me like nothing else.

Traffic is heavy downtown. Lots of people are on foot, partiers and late-night daters. It’s Friday night—actually early Saturday morning now. Last weekend I was booked solid, but this weekend there is so far only one appointment, late Saturday night. So I’m grateful for this out-of-the blue call. I need the money. Paying my tuition, dorm, lab, and parking fees this semester, along with buying textbooks, practically cleaned out my bank account. In a couple of weeks, payments on my auto loan and insurance are due. Then there’s the little matter of feeding myself; I don’t dare look thin or sickly. I’ve got to build up my account again, and fast.

The hotel is on Michigan Avenue, one of the ritziest in the city from the looks of it. I pull up to the main entrance. A valet in a long black wool coat with red lapels and a red wool cap is there almost immediately. Leaving the engine running, I open my door and climb out, grateful I won’t have to worry about my car. Finding a place to park downtown, even in the early morning hours, can be a nightmare. The valet smiles, welcomes me to the hotel, and slides behind the wheel. He doesn’t look much older than I am.

The doorman solemnly opens the way for me, and I walk through into a huge, ornate lobby. People are all over the place. I slip past the front desk and go straight to the elevators. The ride to the thirtieth floor seems to take forever, and my stomach starts flip-flopping again. Anxiety tingles through me, making my arms and legs tremble. Jesus, I have to pull it together. I can’t show up for the job looking like some junkie on a tweak. Deep breathing calms me down a bit.

The elevator door slides open, and I walk down the hall. Room 3014. I knock once, a sharp but discreet rap. As I wait I take another deep breath, blow it out. The lock clicks, and the door swings open. The man standing there is wearing a long, white, terry cloth robe. His legs and feet are bare. His head is bald, but he has a bristly mustache and beard, the hair black with just a touch of gray. I’d put him in his midforties. He looks me over quickly and then raises his thick, dark eyebrows.

“Mace,” he says, his voice a growl. “Get in here.”

He steps aside, and I walk into the room. It’s actually a suite, with a living room and, to the left, a dining room. The layout makes me nervous; I can’t be sure no one else is here. I stop in the living room and wait, since I have no idea where this man intends to conduct our transaction.

He closes the door, his eyes on me. One corner of his mouth goes up in a smirk. “You look exactly like your pictures,” he says. “That’s good. Nothing pisses me off more than having one of you guys show up looking fifteen years older than your ad shows. Bedroom’s through there.”

He points to the right, where there’s a hall. I don’t like turning my back on anyone in a situation like this, but he’s not leaving me much choice. He apparently doesn’t want to turn his back on me. I walk down the hall with the man following.

The bedroom is easily three times the size of my dorm room. The king-size bed is still made, with welcoming mints on the pillows. On the dresser, laid out in a row and easily visible, are five hundred-dollar bills. Just as I’d instructed. I stop in the middle of the room, turn around, and wait. The man made it clear on the phone; he likes calling the shots.

He stops in front of me. I’m six feet tall. He’s at least six four, a real bear. His middle is thick with the beginnings of a beer gut, but the rest of him is pure muscle. He looks like a pro wrestler or weightlifter. On his left hand, he’s wearing a thick gold wedding band. I admire the fact he didn’t take it off. He doesn’t give a shit what I think of him.

“Get those clothes off,” he snaps. “Throw ’em on the floor.”

I undress slowly, dropping every item around me as it comes off. When I’m naked, I stand there, letting him look me over. That smirk comes to his face again. He likes what he sees. That relaxes me a bit more.

“Come here.” His voice is soft, low, but still commanding.

I walk up to him. He just stands there, looking down at me. The scent of cigars is thick on his breath. It’s somehow disgusting and inviting at the same time. I actually want to kiss him. But it’s not about what I want. In a sudden, startling move, he grabs me by the back of the neck. Hard. It hurts. He puts his other hand on my shoulder and forces me down to my knees.

He shrugs out of the robe, revealing his big naked body. He smashes my face against his hairy belly. His hot skin tastes bitterly of salt and smells of fresh sweat. I can barely breathe. His hand around my neck is tight, almost choking me.

I don’t protest. It’s all part of the job.

 

 

I DON’T believe in God. I don’t know if I believe in anything. Except privacy. I’m really glad the rooms in my building all have an attached bathroom. My bathroom is little more than a glorified closet, but it’s all mine.

I need that privacy now. It’s 9:36, sunny but cold on the morning after.

Facing the bathroom mirror, wearing only my boxers, I look myself over. There’s an array of bruises around my neck and biceps, dark, florid marks that seem to be burned into my flesh. I pull down my boxers and see bruises on my waist, my butt, and my left thigh. Red, glistening carpet burns decorate my knees. I’m sore in plenty of other places.

Last night was one of my roughest jobs ever. The man was so into it he kept me an extra hour. That meant I picked up an additional five hundred bucks. I really need the money, but it feels as if every single one of those dollars has been branded on my skin.

Nevertheless, my mind is at ease, or what passes for ease in my world. Everything is the way it should be. Almost everything. I take a hot shower to get my blood circulating. That will help ease the bruising. Any marks still visible when it’s time for tonight’s job will get covered with makeup. I can’t show up for a job looking already beat-up. The makeup usually gets wiped away when I’m working the next assignment, but that’s no problem. The new bruises blend in with the old ones, and the current client thinks it’s all his or her handiwork.

I don’t like keeping large amounts of cash on me. After the shower I get dressed—a turtleneck works wonders—and head downstairs. My bank doesn’t close until one on Saturday afternoon, but I want to deposit last night’s earnings as soon as possible.

Outside, sunlight bounces off the white carpet of snow, creating a glare that’s painful to my sleep-deprived eyes. I pluck a pair of shades from my pocket and put them on as I stride down the sidewalk. The air feels as crisp and clean as a frosty glass of ice water.

Ahead I see Troy Andrews and Wesley Deems. They’re a few years older than me, seniors sharing a double room on the floor below mine. Both are around my height, with wiry bodies. Troy has black hair, long and thick, draping down almost to his shoulders. Wes’s hair is shorter, a darker brown than mine and already thinning a bit on top. They’re digging out Troy’s big red Dodge Challenger, which is parked at the curb a few spaces ahead of my not-so-new Hyundai Elantra Coupe. They both spot me at the same time, pausing momentarily in their snow scraping and flashing little smiles as if controlled by a single brain.

Troy stands tall and straight and gives a sharp salute as I pass. “Morning, Agent Danner.”

Because I’m quiet and keep to myself, he always jokes that I’m some superspy. I nod at the two of them and keep going. Wes mumbles something I can’t make out. It sounds nasty, mocking. He’s called me a snob a couple of times when my back was turned, always just loud enough for me to hear. They look, smile, and sometimes josh whenever I pass by, but I don’t think they want to make me a friend. They’re suspicious of me. I have my suspicions of them as well, namely that theirs is a “roommates with benefits” situation. Not that it bothers me. They seem decent enough, with lots of friends in the dorm. On weekends they sometimes have people over to play cards or watch sports. That kind of socializing is not my thing.

I get in my car and let the engine warm for maybe a minute. Troy waves as I drive off. I don’t wave back. Not because I’m a snob. I’m just not good at making connections anymore.

 

 

MONDAY. SIX a.m. Last night I worked for two middle-aged ladies, regular customers who pay lusciously for the privilege of disciplining a bad boy. I’ve only had four hours of sleep, but I’m up. My schedule is tight today.

From six fifteen until seven, I swim laps at the university’s indoor pool. I pick up coffee and a bagel at the cafeteria and return to my room, where I eat and then shower. At eight I’m out the door again with my backpack on my shoulders.

It’s windy and cold as I slog across campus toward the sciences complex. Snow clings to my boots like paste. My mother left a message last night, asking me to call her back. This is probably the only chance I’ll have to do that. My thumb seems to freeze up as I punch in the number. I haven’t seen my parents in almost a year. They moved to Springfield after I finished high school. To get away.

“Hello.”

“Hi, Mom.”

“Mason. My goodness, I can barely hear you.”

“I know. Sorry. It’s really windy out here. I’m on my way to class.”

“Are you all right? You sound tired.”

“I’m fine. How’re you? How’s Dad?”

“We’re well enough, I suppose. It would be great if we could just see you.”

A shudder goes through me that has nothing to do with the cold or the wind. “Mom….”

“I know, I know. You can’t afford it. You don’t have the time. You have to work. You have tuition to pay. Oh, Mace. It would have meant so much to your father and me if you could have been here for Christmas.”

“Mom, please. Please.”

“Maybe you could come for a weekend. Your father and I can scrape up enough to buy you a round-trip bus ticket. It can’t cost that much—”

“I’m sorry, Mom. I don’t have a lot of time now. I’ve got class in a few minutes. Why’d you call?”

“Oh. Katie got in touch with me yesterday.”

Another shudder. Katie Birch was my girlfriend the last two years we were in high school.

“She’s in Chicago. It’s her parents’ twenty-fifth anniversary. She and her brother are throwing a party for them. Katie wants to say hi to you. I told her I’d pass her number on so you can give her a call.”

No. No way. “Mom, I can’t do that.”

“But Mace, she’s so sweet—”

“I have to go now. Tell Dad I said hello. I’ll be in touch.”

Before Mom can say anything else, I disconnect the call. Yes, Katie is sweet. She’s smart, compassionate, supportive, giving, and beautiful, one of the most honorable people I’ve ever met. I couldn’t help falling in love with her, a love that lingers even now. And she truly loved me. Maybe she still does.

The best thing I ever did for Katie was to break up with her.

Like my parents, she got away. In August she went back to San Francisco for college.

Everyone got away.

Except me.