e finds you like they always find you: through a friend of a friend, a number scrawled on a bathroom wall. First names only, smoke in the air, music he doesn’t like pounding in his head. It makes you smile. You try to hide it with your hand, but kind of don’t care, too.
“You’re taller than I figured,” he says.
For an instant you see it in his eyes, that maybe you’re the wrong guy, that he was about to ask some complete innocent to do the dirty thing he needs doing.
You settle your eyes on him, say it: “That supposed to be some kind of code, man?”
He opens his mouth but there’s no words.
It always catches them off-guard, not trading lines back and forth like they’ve been told to expect. For an instant you see it in his eyes, that maybe you’re the wrong guy, that he was about to ask some complete innocent to do the dirty thing he needs doing. But then you shrug, tongue your lower lip out to keep from smiling more—he is a client, after all—and give him the line he’s been told to expect: “The stature of a man isn’t measured in feet or in inches, but in acts.”
The muscles around the guy’s eyes relax.
“Tweak,” you say, extending a half-gloved hand.
The guy smiles, makes up a name for himself on the spot: “Ash.”
This is business.
If it didn’t happen at least twice a week—some loser lurching from the shadows of the bar, his fingers clenched around a grubby little fetish—you’d be back to stamps, probably.
Not that hand-to-mouth doesn’t have a certain appeal to you, of course.
It would be nice to pull a client that you could actually talk to, though. Just once, anyway. Talk bands and gear and then slope off into the night, to the next place.
But this one, he’s the same nobody as they all are: grey hair neat and trim, hands soft, neck twitchy. If you put a scope on his heart, you know it’d be thumping like a rabbit’s, too. He’s burning a week’s worth of calories just standing in this place, so far off his beaten path that it’s like stepping into a movie.
A wad of cash under the sole of his shoe, too. Or lined in his belt.
Because, of course, this might all be a scam.
In the handicapped stall in the bathroom he shows you what he’s into.
Your laptop is balanced across the seat, ready to tip into the water should Vice or somebody crash down through the ceiling.
Instead of a domain, he feeds you an IP.
You nod to yourself, key it in. Don’t know it specifically, but make a few of the early progressions for mirror sequences, which is where most tracers get lost, bouncing back and forth like a pinball, their dendritic cavities filling with noise and light until the signal iterates back into the kaleidoscopic filth of the off-shore data sinks, where nothing gets washed.
According to the news feeds, the drain at the bottoms of those sinks opens onto hell. For others, it’s just the opposite.
“William,” the guy says from above you. “That’s my name.”
“Don’t,” you tell him. “I don’t need to know, man.”
The screen pops, the IP trying to hiss off somewhere else, but you know this protocol: it’s a test. Only the faithful wait it out. The junkies, the deviants. The Williams of the world.
Behind you, too close, the toe of his shoe’s going like his heart, now. The knees of your jeans so deep in the sludge around the toilet that you’re going to have to burn them, probably.
“How do you know I’m not—not a cop?” he says.
You focus deep into the screen, something glimmering there now, like the blue-black outline of some rough beast, waking—or, no: rising. From whatever it had been bent down over.
“What?” you say, only half with him.
“I could be a cop.”
“Your real question, I mean.”
When he doesn’t answer, you look up to him.
“You’re too nervous,” you say, shrugging your own challenge off. “Vice never gets that right. They just go through, like, the nervous checklist, never really improvise.”
“What was I really asking, though?”
He locks eyes with you and for a moment something different flashes in him, like there’s an actual intelligence in there, behind the hunger, and the shame that hunger brings. Like, if just one wire in his head could have stayed where it was instead of rubbing itself raw, crossing its juice with some other, darker wire, he might have done something with himself. Not been a freak.