Title: HIDING MARIAH
Word Count: 17,000
Prompt: This photo: http://ic.pics.livejournal.com/
SUMMARY: Robert Davis has an ordinary name, an ordinary job, and an ordinary life. Until the day his attractive neighbor thrusts a potted cactus into his hands, giving Bob his first hint that everything around him might actually be a little bit extraordinary. (Many thanks to my betas Byaghro and Rinny for beating this story into shape!) This whole tale is a bit ridiculous, but just go with it, okay? XD
The knocking was getting louder. Bob thought it was part of his dream, but when his eyes snapped open, he realized someone was at his front door. Pounding on his front door.
“Hang… hang on!” he yelled and swung his feet out of bed. He caught a glimpse of the clock on his way to the door. Who the hell was banging on his door at 5:47 in the morning? Was there a fire in the building? He yanked the door open.
A hard object was thrust against Bob’s torso. “Take care of Mariah. Don’t let them get her. I’m counting on you, man.”
Bob tried to shake off his sleep-addled confusion long enough to form a question, but by the time he did, the man had trotted to the stairwell and disappeared. Bob shifted his attention to the object in his hands. It seemed to be a potted cactus plant. And the man had been Bob’s strange, but very attractive, neighbor from two doors down.
“Wait, what?” Bob called and broke his stasis to run to the stairs. He peered down just as the exit door clicked shut. His neighbor was gone. Bob did not even know his name. “What the hell?”
Bob carried the cactus back to his apartment and placed the pot on the kitchen table. He cocked his head. It looked a bit suggestive – one tall, prickly stalk bordered by two smaller, rounded cacti.
“Mariah, you look like a cock and balls,” Bob said and then rolled his eyes. “And I’m talking to a cactus.” He shook his head and shambled back to his bed where he crawled between the sheets and tried to reclaim his lost sleep.
More loud banging roused Bob sometime later and he flung the blankets aside and stood up.
“Hold your fucking horses!” he bellowed. He assumed it was the cactus owner returning, so he didn’t bother to hurry. He picked up his jeans from a nearby chair and tugged them on, then slipped his feet into his Nikes as protection from the cold hardwood floor. Bob dragged a clean t-shirt over his head and walked to the door, which had gone ominously quiet. He wondered if the strange neighbor-guy had given up.
Bob opened the door, only to have it shoved open another foot. A gun was thrust into his face and someone bellowed, “WHERE IS THE CACTUS?”
With reflexes born of sheer terror, Bob gripped the edge of the door and slammed it shut, narrowly missing the toe of the black boot the would-be intruder tried to shove through to prevent it closing.
The doorknob twisted as Bob flipped the deadbolt to the locked position. He backed away as fists pounded against the door. “Give us the cactus and we’ll leave!”
Bob snatched up his cell phone and dialed 911. They were crazy. The world had gone crazy. He glared at the cactus and held the phone to his ear, trying to ignore the banging on the door . His neighbors would hopefully report the ruckus, as well. The pounding stopped and in the moment of silence, Bob realized he did not hear a ringtone from his phone.
He stared at his cell as the words UNABLE TO CONNECT popped up on the screen. His jaw sagged. Unable to connect?
A solid thud hit the door and Bob heard the doorframe crack. Were they actually trying to break in? Shaking off his astonishment, Bob cleared his phone and tried again, only to get the same message.
“I am in the twilight zone,” Bob said aloud and then the doorframe made a splintering sound. Not willing to be trapped inside his apartment if the crazy people with a gun made it inside, Bob hurried for the window. He knew he couldn’t fight them off. There had been three others in the hallway, possibly more. The apartment was old and a rickety metal fire escape dotted the outside of the building, with a ladder that led to the ground. Once down he could run for help. The local police station was just up the street.
When Bob reached the window, he glanced back at the cactus on the table. What was so important about the stupid plant? He hurried back and snatched it up. Maybe the police could figure it out.
Bob pushed open the window and stepped out onto the metal balcony. The wind was bitterly cold and he regretted grabbing the damned cactus instead of a jacket. He heard a shout below and looked down to see a man perched on the shoulders of another, striving to reach the rungs of the ladder below.
“Son of a bitch!” Bob muttered and glanced up. There was roof access from the interior stairwell. He had seen window washers using it back when his apartment had belonged to his friend Alyssa. Carefully holding the plant pot with one arm, Bob started to climb the steps.
He reached the roof quickly and felt only slightly winded—and much warmer—for the exercise. He jogged across the empty expanse of roofline and grasped the handle of the door that jutted from a small brick building. It was locked. Of course.
He growled and whirled around, wondering where he was going to go now. He supposed he could go back to the fire escape and drop the cactus onto the heads of his pursuers.
“Hey!” someone yelled. “This way! Come here!”
Bob looked toward the voice and saw his neighbor waving at him from the adjacent roof. Bob refused to be surprised. After all that had already happened, the reappearance of the person who had shoved a cactus into his hands seemed almost ordinary. His neighbor held a huge board in his hands, standing it upright, and as Bob watched it fell with a loud bang, slapping across the gap that divided the two buildings.
Bob walked over but paused to stare across the chasm. “What are you doing? What did you get me involved in? And what do those Neanderthals want with this?” He shot the questions at the man and thrust the cactus out accusingly. “Who are you?”
The man’s black hair fluffed over his eyes from a gust of wind. He lifted a hand to brush it back and then beckoned. “You’ve got Mariah! Great! Come on, they’ll be up here any minute!”
Come on? Bob looked at the board and then gaped at the man. Surely he did not expect Bob to walk across? “It’s five stories down! Are you crazy?”
“I’ve done it a hundred times! It’s easy!”
Shouts sounded behind Bob and he glanced over his shoulder to see two burly-looking men ascending onto the roof from the fire escape. Bob swallowed. Were they armed like the one in the hallway had been?
“Come on, come on, come on!”
Since the alternative was to stand on the roof and possibly get shot, Bob turned back and steeled himself. It wasn’t that great a distance. Ten, maybe twelve feet, and the board looked about a foot wide. Dammit! Without pausing to think about what he was doing, Bob stepped onto the board and hurried across, keeping his eyes fixed on the man who watched him. The man whose face he was going to punch if he made it across without dying.
Bob’s intent to do violence was thwarted by the cactus still gripped in his hands, plus the fact that his attractive neighbor held out his hands to grip Bob’s arm the moment he drew within reach. “That was awesome!” he said with a bright laugh.
Bob’s heart hammered in his chest and he could not remember the last time he had been so terrified, or so enraged. He felt like throwing up. “Take your goddamn cactus and get out of my sight!” Bob snarled.
“Naw, you’re doing a great job taking care of Mariah. You keep her. Come on, it won’t take them long to get over here. Of course, they’ll have to go down first.” He let go of Bob’s arm and reached down to hoist the board back into the air, swinging it away just before the men on the opposite roof could grab it. He looked like a skinny skater boy, but his muscles flexed beneath the thin black jacket he wore. He weathered the effort of lifting the long board with ease. Bob was impressed in spite of his anger.
“Not fair, Takara!” one of the men yelled.
Bob’s rescuer lifted his hands with a grin. “I’m not touching it! It’s totally fair!” He turned and gave Bob’s arm a quick squeeze. “Let’s go!”
He jogged for the stairwell entrance—the door stood open, and Bob followed, entering the wind-blocking alcove gratefully. His fingers felt frozen around the ceramic pot. “Takara? Is that your name? Who are those guys? What did they mean by ‘fair’?”
“Actually, you can call me Jory. I don’t really acknowledge the Takara part.” He started down the concrete steps.
Bob frowned as he hurried after him. Takara—Jory—wore tight black jeans and flashy monochrome tennis shoes that looked expensive. His black fleece jacket had no markings and the edges of his black hair nearly blended into the collar. When he turned his head to smile at Bob, the glint of an earring caught his eye. It wasn’t black, as Bob half-expected, but green, too large to be a real emerald.
“Look, Jory, I don’t know what’s going on and I really don’t know why I’m carrying a cactus and pulling insane stunts like walking across a tiny board over a five story gap, and I definitely don’t know why there are men with guns trying to break down the door of my apartment—” Bob’s voice was rising to a hysterical pitch, but Jory stopped and looked up at him sharply.
“Guns? They have guns?”
“Yeah, one of them—hey, do you have a cell phone? I need to call the police! My phone isn’t working and they are probably trashing my place and stealing everything I own by now.”
“Guns. Huh, that doesn’t sound right.” Jory turned and pelted down the stairs again, forcing Bob to hurry after him. It was difficult to jog down stairs with a cactus plant in hand.
“Wait! The police, remember?”
“No, we can’t call the police. They can’t get involved.” Jory pushed open the door marked with a large number 3 and hurried down a hallway whose floors looked to have been laminated in the 1970s. The plaster walls were cracked and peeling.
“What is this place? Wait, what do you mean no police? Of course we have to call the police!”
Jory opened a door at the end of the hallway and then pushed aside a wooden grate to reveal a tiny elevator. “Trust me, Bob,” he said and then reached out and hooked his fingers into the front pocket of Bob’s jeans. Bob’s eyebrows lifted skyward as Jory gave a yank and pulled him into the lift. Before he could comment on the intimate contact or rough treatment, Jory was closing the grate and pressing the button for the ground floor.
“How do you know my name?” Bob asked.
Jory spoke without turning around. “’Welcome to Bank of America. How can I help you?’”
Bob flushed, but he cast his mind back to the hundreds of customers that came into the bank every week. Surely he would have remembered someone like Jory? Wouldn’t he? Jory did look familiar, but probably because he had run into him in the apartment building hallways and stairwell more than once. They had never exchanged more than a nod of greeting before today.
“You’re a bank customer?”
“No, but I’ve seen you there.” The elevator stopped with a lurch and Jory opened the grate before pushing the door open and peering out. “Coast is clear, at the moment. They’ll expect us to come down the stairs.”
Bob opened his mouth to ask additional questions, feeling more and more out of control of the situation, but Jory spoke first.
“Look, if we get separated, I want you to hide Mariah somewhere secure. It’s important, okay? And then meet me at Ivar’s at the waterfront. I’ll wait for you in that caged thingy where people eat outside. You know where that is?”
“Yeah, but why would we get separated? And you still haven’t told me why I shouldn’t call the police. Or anything at all.”
Jory drew away from the door and clamped a hand over Bob’s mouth. “Shhh. They’re out there.”
Bob’s heart seemed to hammer into his throat. Jory’s hand was warm on his cold face and it smelled earthy, like old boards. Bob wrinkled his nose at the memory of Jory swinging the board over the chasm. His hands were probably rife with bacteria; Bob probably shouldn’t like them pressed against his lips.
Jory jerked his hand away as if sensing Bob’s thoughts. Footsteps sounded beyond the closed portal and then a door slammed down the hall.
“Come on. They headed upstairs. Most people don’t know this door leads to an elevator. Let’s go outside and regroup.”
Despite his need for answers, Bob was happy to escape the confining space and the sensation of being trapped. The cold air felt bracing even though it cut through Bob’s t-shirt like knife blades. At least he was no longer stuck on a roof.
“Shit! They must have brought reinforcements. I’ll decoy them away. You get Mariah to safety. Hurry! And no police! I’ll explain later!” With that, Jory put on a burst of speed and pelted across the street and away. He shouted at two men as he passed them and they immediately gave chase. Remembering the gun in his face, Bob turned the other direction and ran.
Sitting on a metal bench outside the designated restaurant, Bob stared at the cluster of seagulls beyond the chain-link and tapped his fingers on his leg impatiently. Jory should at least have given him a specific time to meet. Bob bit his lip, harder than intended, and hoped Jory hadn’t been captured. The men had all been large and rough-looking. He wondered what they wanted. Bob had examined the cactus thoroughly and it had not seemed the slightest bit unusual, except for the shape. It was just a cactus.
He had debated tossing the damned thing into the nearest dumpster and walking to the police station, but the memory of Jory’s earnest face stopped him. There was something about Jory that intrigued him. Bob’s friend Alyssa had formerly rented the apartment Bob currently occupied. She had moved in with her boyfriend and had recommended Bob to the landlord, so the place had never even gone on the market. It was within walking distance of the bank where Bob worked, plus it was enormous for a studio, with high ceilings and large windows. The price was reasonable as it catered to the artistic sort, talented and starving.
Bob wondered if Jory was an artist. Several times while passing in the hallway, Bob had wanted to do more than nod at him, but Jory’s direct eye contact and almost fey look had been intimidating. Bob had always dropped his gaze and hurried past.
He knows my name, Bob mused, and he knows where I work. Why? It was flattering, but after recent events, Bob felt cynical enough to be suspicious.
“Hey,” someone said behind him and Bob nearly jumped out of his skin. He whirled to find Jory watching him with wide eyes. He reached out a hand and clapped it to Bob’s shoulder. “Hey, it’s okay. It’s just me. Sorry to scare you like that.”
Bob forced himself to relax. He took in Jory’s clothing in surprise. The black jacket was gone, revealing a short-sleeved blue t-shirt. Bob stared.
Jory frowned after a moment and looked down. “What?”
Bob shook himself. “You must be freezing. Where’s your coat?” In truth, Jory wore the shirt like a supermodel. It gathered in all the right places, showing off the mouth-watering V shape of his torso and fit like a glove around Jory’s shoulders and chest. Two small bumps gave evidence of the cold; Jory’s nipples were hard. Bob swallowed and dragged his eyes upward, willing himself not to look at the studded white belt just visible beneath the hem of the shirt, wrapped around Jory’s slender hips. Bob had long known he was gay; he just hadn’t realized he had a type. Until now.
“Yeah, one of them grabbed me. I had to make like an eel and ditch my jacket to get away.” Jory’s eyes narrowed. “You didn’t go back to your place, did you?”
Bob shook his head. “I went to a friend’s. Borrowed this jacket and scarf while I was there. It’s too cold to be walking around dressed like that.” He indicated Jory’s lack of warm attire.
Jory rubbed his hands up and down his arms in the universal gesture of trying to get warm. He smiled and Bob noted that his teeth were brilliantly white and perfectly shaped. He also had a dimple on one side.
“Want to go inside where it’s warmer?” Bob jerked his head at the large wooden building that jutted out over the water. It had once been a warehouse, built in the days of railroad transportation, but had been converted into a tourist trap filled with kitschy shops and assorted eateries.
“Yeah.” Jory turned and headed for the interior. When the heavy door closed behind them, the silence was almost as welcome as the warmth. The old building was solid and the sounds of seagulls cawing, tourists chattering, and the gusting howl of the cold wind were effectively blocked.
Boards creaked beneath Jory’s feet as he walked down the long hallway past a store selling novelty shot glasses and seashell-adorned knickknacks. He paused outside a bread shop and looked at Bob. “Hey, where is Mariah?”
Bob shrugged. “At my friend Alyssa’s. It’s where I picked up this coat and—”
“You took her to Alyssa’s? Shit! Come on!” To Bob’s surprise, Jory bolted for the door and pushed back out into the cold.
Bob ran after him and caught him at the curb. “Wait! What’s the problem?” He was about to ask if Jory knew Alyssa, but then kicked himself. Of course he knew Alyssa. She had lived in the same building for two years. For all Bob knew, she and Jory might have had dinner together three times a week.
Jory’s eyes scanned the passing cars. Traffic was fairly light for a Saturday, probably because of the cold weather, but people would flock to the docks later, regardless. Jory did not bother to walk to the nearest crosswalk; he simply started into the street.
Bob swiveled his head, panicked, and searched for bicycle cops. He did not need a jaywalking ticket. No black and yellow clad policemen were visible, so Bob jogged after Jory, who had reached the other side and cut through some ornamental shrubs to the parking lot on the other side.
“They’ll go to her place next,” Jory said when Bob caught up.
“They? You mean the guys with the guns?”
“That couldn’t have been a real gun. Charles was just messing around, getting into character. It’s stupid, yeah, but he’s always had a thing for military games and stuff.”
“Charles? Games? What are you talking about?” Bob reached out and snagged Jory’s elbow. His skin was cold. “When are you going to tell me what the hell is going on?”
Jory stopped and pushed his dark hair out of his eyes before looking at Bob steadily. One strand fell back and caught on Jory’s long eyelashes. His eyes were the color of dark chocolate and his features had a slightly Asian cast. Takara, Bob remembered, so there must have been Japanese in his ancestry.
“Look, it’s just a game, but the stakes are kind of high. I probably should have asked if you wanted to play before involving you, but…”
Bob goggled at him. “A game? You’re saying that people breaking down my door and chasing us all over town is a game?”
Jory winced. “Sorry about your door. I’ll pay to fix it. Charles is… Well, he’s a bit stupid and gets carried away. Hopefully the other guys stopped him before he actually broke in, since it is a felony, but… Anyway, we really do need to get Mariah and Alyssa will kick my ass if I involve her in this, so can we please get a move on?” Jory rubbed his arms again and turned away.
Bob’s thoughts were whirling. A game? He had been terrified out of his wits and risked his life walking across a five-story drop for a game? He could not trust himself to speak, so he only trailed after Jory, who had set off at a brisk pace.
Alyssa’s new place was several blocks away and uptown. The grade rose steeply past the docks and Bob’s thighs and calves burned as he powered up the hill after Jory, unwillingly admiring the motion of Jory’s hindquarters in the black jeans and the play of his muscles as he walked.
Traffic was heavy on 3rd while they waited for the light. Bob tried not to pant with exertion. He was in good shape, but such a steep climb always left him gasping for breath. Jory did not even seem to be breathing hard. He glanced at Bob as they waited and then winced when a drop of water hit his cheek.
“Of course it has to rain,” Jory said in a wry tone.
“Here,” Bob said impulsively and unwound the scarf from around his neck. He stepped closer to Jory and wrapped it around his throat, looping it once and then straightening it with a quick tug on the ends. His knuckles grazed Jory’s chest and he felt his cheeks heat with a blush. He dared not meet Jory’s eyes. The scarf was a soft grey color with a muted violet pattern and looked surprisingly stylish with Jory’s blue shirt.
Idiot, Bob said to himself, you’re supposed to be pissed off at the guy, not admiring his ability to look like a fashion model.
“Thanks,” Jory said and curled his hands around the scarf near his throat. He lifted it and inhaled. “It’s warm. And it smells like you.”
Their eyes locked and Bob’s blush darkened. His tongue felt caught in his throat and he couldn’t think of a single thing to say.
“Green light,” Jory added and then slipped around Bob and trotted across the street. Bob swallowed hard and followed.
They banged on Alyssa’s door. The apartment she shared with her boyfriend was in a more modern building, accessed through a keypad-triggered door at street level. Once upstairs, Bob fumbled in his pocket with the key. He wondered where Alyssa had gone, since she had not answered the buzzer. She hadn’t been home earlier, either, when Bob had dropped off the cactus and borrowed one of Scott’s old coats.
“Anyone here?” Bob yelled as he opened the door. Silence greeted the question. “That’s weird, they were— Hey, it’s gone.”
“What’s gone?” Jory asked, looking around as if he hadn’t seen the place before. Bob wondered how close Jory had been to Alyssa. Had they dated? It was a disturbing thought, but Bob liked to think Alyssa would have mentioned it. Plus she had been hung up on Scott for a long time.
“The cactus. I put it right there when I came in before.” Bob gestured toward the countertop.
“So either she moved it or the boys took it,” Jory replied. He dug a phone out of the front of his jeans, making Bob wonder if he had a special pocket to keep it from slipping out. Jory’s slender finger skated across the screen and then his thumbs moved in a texting pattern.
Bob wandered through the rest of the apartment to keep himself from staring at Jory. He checked the tabletops and bookshelves to see if Alyssa had moved the cactus, but it was nowhere to be found.
“The boys are downstairs. Come on, Bobbin.”
Bob scowled at the name, but before he could comment, Jory was out the door. By the time Bob went out and locked it, Jory was down the hall standing before the elevators. The bell pinged and Jory got on, holding the door open with one hand. Bob hurried to join him.
Jory grinned at him and pressed the button for the ground floor. Bob wished Jory wasn’t so adorable. It was hard to be annoyed with him.
“What’s so special about the cactus, anyway?” Bob asked, feeling grouchy in contrast to Jory’s cheerfulness.
Jory shrugged and then lifted his hands to pull his hair back in a combing gesture. Bob gaped at him with a shock of recognition.
“Oh my god. You’re that barista!” Bob blurted out.
Jory dropped his hair, which spilled back over his face again. He huffed it out of one eye with a puff of breath and cocked an eyebrow at Bob. “That barista?”
“You always wear a hat, right? That’s why I didn’t recognize you.”
Jory grinned. “Yeah, they make us wear ugly hairnet things if we don’t do something to keep our hair back. Mine isn’t long enough to wear in a ponytail, so I just wear a beanie. I hate it, though.” He combed his fingers through his black hair again. “I much prefer having my hair loose.”
Bob shook his head. How had he not recognized the hot boy he had admired a half-dozen times? Granted, he did not often travel to the coffee shop on 6th, since it was out of the way, but still…
“Skinny vanilla latte,” Jory said and cocked at finger at him.
Bob nodded and looked away, flattered that Jory had recalled his drink order even though he had only been to the shop a couple of times. Bob remembered Jory was beautiful; he was even more so with his hair down.
“How do you like working at…?” Bob paused, forgetting the name of the establishment.
“How do I like wasting my life, you mean?” Jory asked with a trace of bitterness. He shrugged. “It’s all right. I like coffee, and my coworkers are great. Plus it really annoys my father.” The door opened and Jory walked out. The hallway was marble-lined and the exit doors were glass. Outside, Bob could see three men, one of whom had brandished a gun in Bob’s face earlier. Bob hung back, but Jory beckoned to him.
“It’s all right. Come on.”
“Where is the damn thing?” Gun-boy demanded when Jory and Bob stepped outside.
Jory shrugged. “Dunno. It was here, but now it’s gone. I thought you guys had it.”
“Liar! It’s up there, isn’t it?”
Bob glared at the man, remembering the splintering of his doorframe. “Did you break into my apartment?” he demanded.
The guy looked away and one of the others piped up. “No, man, we stopped him. There is a little damage, though. We figured…”
“You figured I’d take care of it. Thanks,” Jory said and sighed.
“Sorry, we—hey, isn’t that Mallory?” The one speaking lifted a hand and pointed across the street. Bob followed his gesture and saw two men talking and gesticulating in their direction. One of them spoke into a cell phone.
“How did they know about this? Shit! Did one of you spill the beans?”
“No, Jory! Fuck, they must have tapped one of us again. Goddamn Snyder!”
“Split up!” Jory said and reached out to grab Bob’s wrist with a cold hand. “This just got serious. We need to find that cactus and Bob and I are the best bet for locating it.”
“How do you know Snyder doesn’t have it already?” one protested.
“Because then Mallory wouldn’t be headed this way. Go!” With that, Jory took off at a run, Bob’s wrist sliding free of his grip after the initial tug. Bob found himself running after him. The rain stopped spitting and began to fall in earnest.
“Where are we going?” Bob yelled as Jory rounded the corner and pelted up the sidewalk for a short distance before ducking into an alleyway and then shoving through a battered metal door into an old parking garage.
“I don’t know!”
They raced up an incline and then through the main garage entrance. They crossed the street in the direction that displayed a green light and then pelted down the sidewalk. Thankfully, this one had an overhang that kept most of the rain off the sidewalk. Bob glanced behind them to see if they were being followed. Jory turned the next corner and headed back downhill before ducking into a coffee shop.
There was a short line and the windows were small and covered in reflective film. Casual passers-by would never notice them without walking inside.
“We’ll be safe in here for a minute. Plus I’m freezing and can use a coffee. Want one?”
Bob shook his head. He was already pumped up on adrenaline; he did not need to augment it with caffeine.
“Why don’t you call Alyssa and ask what she did with Mariah?” Jory suggested.
Bob frowned and pulled his phone from his coat pocket. To his surprise, there was a message. He punched in his passcode and listened to it, drifting toward the back wall of the shop while Jory placed his order with the barista.
Bob shook his head and tucked his phone away before crossing the shop to wait with Jory near the PICK UP YOUR ORDER HERE counter. “Alyssa took Mariah—the cactus—back to my place. She left for the coast with Scott. I can’t believe I forgot.”
Jory let out a sigh of obvious relief. “Thank goodness. We can go grab Mariah from your place and figure out where to go from there.”
“She wanted to know why my door was fucked up.”
Jory giggled and Bob gave him a threatening glare, but Jory stepped away to retrieve his coffee. To Bob’s surprise, Jory handed him a steaming paper cup. “Skinny vanilla latte half-caf with a sprinkle of cinnamon.”
Bob took it, feeling more gratitude than he should have. It was coffee, for fuck’s sake, but still, it was a nice gesture. “Thanks.”
Jory slipped out the door and looked in both directions before weaving through a line of cars stopped at the light. Cursing him under his breath, Bob followed, trying not to spill his coffee. “Will you stop jaywalking?” he hissed when he caught up.
Jory laughed. “You really are law-abiding, aren’t you?”
“What’s wrong with that?” Bob demanded.
Jory gave him a look that on a close friend might have been described as fond. “Nothing. It’s cute. Hey, bus!”
Nonplussed, Bob hurried after him. The bus was only partly full and Jory made his way to the back of the vehicle where he sprawled in the rear-most seats. Bob sat on the side-facing seat near him and watched warily out the windows for their pursuers.
“Who are Snyder and Mallory?” Bob asked.
Jory tipped his head back and looked at the ceiling as if planning to shut his eyes and go to sleep. “I’ll tell you at your place,” he said.
Bob shut up and drank his coffee. It was only a two minute ride to the stop closest to his apartment, so he was not finished by the time they exited. They walked back to Bob’s apartment in silence and took the stairs to the second floor.
The doorjamb was splintered and the door was loose in the frame, but it was still locked and could not be forced open. Bob realized his keys were sitting on his bedside table—inside the apartment. “Um…”
Jory seemed to realize the problem without Bob speaking. He guzzled the rest of his coffee and handed Bob the empty cup. “Wait right here.” He walked down the hall to his own apartment, used a key to open the lock, and disappeared inside.
Bob wondered what he was doing. Getting something to jimmy the lock? He was just about to walk down the hall and ask when the door to his own apartment opened. Jory smiled and gestured him inside with a flourish.
“How did you get in?” Bob asked.
“Fire escape. Out my window and in through yours. I figured it was still open from your escape earlier.”
Clever. Bob walked to the kitchen area to throw away the cups; he spotted Mariah on the counter. “Here is your cactus. Good as new. Are you going to tell me what this game is all about, or are you going to disappear with your plant?”
“Do you want me to disappear?” Jory asked in a quiet voice.
Surprised, Bob made a show of rinsing out the cups and tossing them into the recycle bin. Did he? Did he really want Jory to leave so that he could go back to his boring life? What had Bob intended to do before Jory had thrown his day into disarray? He had planned to do laundry and get caught up on homework for his online accounting class, maybe watch a movie.
“No. I don’t want you to disappear.”
Jory beamed and then sat on one of the barstools. Bob turned on the water and washed his hands while Jory began to talk.
“We’re all online gamers. Hardcore. I had to specially insulate my apartment to keep the noise level down; sometimes I get worked up and end up screaming through my headset. Neighbors don’t like that at two in the morning.”
Bob laughed. “No, I imagine not.” He wondered how one went about “specially insulating” an apartment, but did not want to interrupt Jory. “Hey, want something to eat?” Bob hadn’t eaten all morning and it was approaching ten o’clock. His stomach was rumbling.
“Sure, thanks. Anyway, I got my hands on a special code for this one game, a code that hasn’t been released to the general public yet. It opens up some amazing new features and is going to blow the lid off the gaming universe. Do you play?”
Bob pulled out some ingredients from the fridge. Eggs, bacon, and some fresh veggies. He selected a knife from the block and started chopping. He shook his head with an almost guilty glance at the television.
“Not much. I fail at online shooter games. I tried a couple of times, but I always end up getting yelled at and called a noob, so it turns out not being fun. There are a few solo adventure games I like.” He gestured toward his lone gaming system, which had been collecting dust for a few weeks. Ever since he’d started his online classes, he felt guilty whenever he was screwing around instead of studying.
“Such a loner,” Jory said and tsked. “It’s more fun when you have someone to show you the ropes. Hey, you’re really good at that.”
Bob glanced up and smiled. He might have been showing off his knife skills a bit while chopping the onions and peppers. He loved to cook and had considered entering the culinary arts at one time. It just hadn’t seemed practical enough.
“Where did you get the secret code? And what does the cactus have to do with it?” Bob gestured at Mariah with the knife.
“Where I got it isn’t important,” Jory replied, sounding evasive. “And this is where Mariah comes in.” He grabbed the ceramic pot with both hands and gave the base a twist. The bottom section came free to reveal a shallow bowl. A scrap of paper was taped to it. Jory peeled it away and held it up with two fingers. “Gaming gold.”
Bob shook his head. It seemed silly for grown men to get worked up over such a thing. “Why give it to me?” he asked.
“The guys and I sometimes like to play outside the box. We go to paintball clubs; Jason and Mike took up parkour; we do GPS scavenger hunts. Stuff like that. It’s fun and keeps us from turning into couch potatoes.”
“Male bonding,” Bob said with a grin and set a frying pan on the stove. In spite of his amused tone, he felt a little envious. He did not have any close male friends. He supposed he was a loner, although not really by choice. Most of his friends were girls, like Alyssa.
“Yeah. Anyway, you seemed like you could use some fun, so I thought you might want to play.”
Bob blinked at him and then scowled as he cut off a slab of butter with the knife tip and dropped it into the pan. It sizzled. “You didn’t think to ask first?”
Jory grinned. “Pretty sure you would have said no.”
Bob snorted, but Jory was probably right. “If I had known it involved being chased around town by crazed gamer boys, I definitely would have said no.”
“Yeah, those guys. Snyder is sort of the leader of our rival gang. It started online where they were constantly harassing us and being assholes. Then it moved offline. They challenged us to a paintball match, got their asses kicked, and have been acting like even worse dicks ever since.”
“How did they find out about that?” Bob indicated the paper with the code displayed.
Jory’s eyes glittered. Bob drew in a breath. He would never have considered Jory dangerous, but he realized he would not want to be on the wrong side of that stare. “Fucking Snyder thinks he’s a spy. He loves to plant surveillance equipment on us. I installed a security system in my place and I have to sweep for bugs occasionally. The other guys aren’t as diligent, so Snyder usually knows what we’re up to. I should have checked more thoroughly when I knew the stakes were this high.”
Bob scraped the onions and peppers from the cutting board into the pan. The resulting sizzle and burst of steam flavored the air with a delicious smell. “Bugging equipment? Isn’t that stuff expensive? And illegal?”
“Snyder comes from a rich family. Anything he wants, he gets. He’s got a pretty big sense of entitlement. And the cops don’t care about a few kids using surveillance equipment for playing games, not that any of us would squeal by going to the police. No one gets hurt by it, at least not so far.”
Bob lifted the pan and gave it a shake to toss the veggies. He grabbed his grinder and cranked some pepper in, and then added a pinch of salt. “Mushrooms?”
Jory wrinkled his nose and shook his head.
Bob grabbed a baggie of pre-cooked chopped bacon from the fridge and dumped it into the pan. He preferred to cook an entire package of bacon at once, and then freeze the strips and chop some into pieces for salad topping, omelets, or soups. He let it heat through and whisked several eggs in a bowl before pouring them over the mixture in the pan.
When it was nearly cooked through, he lifted the pan and gave it a quick jerk, flipping the entire omelet over and catching it in the pan, uncooked side down.
Jory gasped. “You did not just do that. I’ve never seen anyone do that except on television.”
“It’s easy,” Bob said a trifle smugly. He had practiced the maneuver what seemed a million times, until it was second nature. “It helps to have great pans.”
“I don’t think I own any pans,” Jory said and then laughed at Bob’s horrified look. “Just kidding. I might have one. Somewhere.”
“What do you eat?”
“Takeout. Nuked food. Pizza.” Jory shrugged.
“That’s not food,” Bob protested. He sliced the omelet in half with a silicon spatula and then slid one half onto a plate. He clipped some fresh parsley from the plant on the windowsill and sprinkled it over the top, and then added a sprig for garnish. It felt stereotypically gay, but he decided he didn’t care.
“Fancy,” Jory said as Bob handed him the plate and a fork.
“No, this is fancy,” Bob countered and grabbed two crystal wineglasses from his rack. He poured a large splash of orange juice into each glass from the carton in the fridge, and then grinned when Jory raised his glass in a toast.
“To real food,” he said.
“To real food,” Bob repeated and clinked his glass against Jory’s.
They ate for a few minutes and Jory made appreciative sounds and gave Bob the thumbs up, then he said seriously, “I shouldn’t stay here. Snyder won’t stop looking for me. They’ll come back here eventually.”
“Looking for that?” Bob gestured at the code, which now rested next to Jory’s plate.
“Yeah, now that he knows it exists, he won’t rest until he gets it, or drives me insane trying.”
“Can’t you just destroy it? Set it on fire or whatever?”
Jory looked so traumatized that Bob nearly laughed.
“You didn’t make a copy? You seriously wrote something like that on a piece of paper and did not make a copy?”
“The stakes need to be high or the game is pointless.”
Bob did not mention that the whole scenario seemed pointless to him. “There has to be a safer place to keep it than inside a cactus pot. Why don’t you just—?” Bob’s eyes widened and he chuckled. “Come on, I know where you can take it.” He put the plates in the sink to deal with later and glanced out the window. It was pouring rain. “You need a coat.”
He crossed the room to his “bedroom”. The apartment was one large room with a small bathroom, so Bob had created a more private space by hanging large swaths of heavy burgundy fabric from a bars-and-chains setup suspended from the exposed ceiling beams. It even had a makeshift door, although he usually didn’t bother to close the space off.
In one corner stood a large wooden wardrobe cabinet he’d bought at an auction and refurbished. He opened it and flipped through his hanging jackets.
“Your place is nicer than mine. I like this setup,” Jory said and Bob turned to find him sprawled on his back on Bob’s bed. Jory swiveled his head toward him and smiled; for a moment he looked like a dozen of Bob’s fantasies come to life. Bob swallowed hard and thrust a water-resistant black jacket in Jory’s direction.
“Want to borrow this?” he asked and then realized it had been a stupid idea. Jory lived right down the hall. He could fetch one of his own coats on the way out.
Jory sat up and then pushed off the bed to take the coat. “Yeah, thanks. Good thinking. It will save time.” He shrugged into the coat and it looked only slightly too big for him. He flipped the large hood over his head and added, “Hey, maybe they won’t recognize me in this.”
Not unless they catch a glimpse of your perfect ass, Bob thought and smiled. He grabbed a similar coat in tan—his mother had a thing for coats and sent him at least one per year—and made a mental note to return the one he’d been wearing to Alyssa’s later.
“Are you going to tell me where we’re going?” Jory asked.
“Just trust me,” Bob replied, glad that he was finally gaining some control of the situation.
They went out into the downpour, watching for anyone that might be lurking, and headed uptown. Jory ducked into doorways twice in order to tap out messages on his phone.
“I think we’re good. The boys led Mallory and Hitch on a goose chase. They lost them in the Market.”
Bob breathed a sigh of relief. He’d had more than enough of crazy people for one day. The bank where Bob worked was only four blocks from his apartment. He had a safety deposit box there; it was the best place he could think of to store Jory’s code.
The rain did not let up as they walked. Bob was glad they had taken the time to dress appropriately. As it was, his shoes and the exposed portions of his jeans were soaked by the time they reached the second stoplight.
“Still not going to tell me where we’re going?” Jory asked.
Bob shook his head. “I think it’s your turn to be in the dark.”
Jory chuckled. “Fair enough.”
“How was this game supposed to work? Before Snyder and his gang got involved? I mean, how did you know I wouldn’t just hand over the cactus when they knocked on my door?”
Jory shrugged. “I had a feeling about you. I rely on my instincts a lot, probably even when I shouldn’t. I thought you might rise to the challenge if the opportunity presented itself.” He gave Bob a grin and nudged him with an elbow. “Looks like I was right.”
Bob snorted. “You got lucky. If I’d been more awake, I would have traded the cactus for a cup of coffee.”
Jory laughed. “Sure. By the way, Charles apologized for the gun thing. It was just an air pistol. He’s such a noob.”
Bob caught sight of the bank and breathed a sigh of relief. Nearly there. Hopefully this whole thing would be over once the precious code was locked away behind several inches of concrete, steel, and bulletproof glass.
The light turned red and Jory spun around to walk backward for a few steps. “I sort of like it when it rains like this,” he said and lifted his arms. He tipped his head back and Bob smiled when droplets of water hit Jory’s face and trickled down his neck.
“You’re crazy,” Bob said in amusement.
“I’ve been told,” Jory said as he faced frontward again and started across the street.
“Jory!” Bob shouted and reacted without thinking. He bounded forward and snatched at Jory’s coat, hauling him back with all his strength just as a blue sports car raced by in a blur with a screeching of brakes and a blast from its horn.
The force of Bob’s action sent them both slamming against the hood of a parked car. Jory landed atop Bob and their legs entangled. Bob winced, hoping they hadn’t dented the hood of the vehicle.
“Thanks,” Jory breathed. His face was near-buried in Bob’s throat and his breath was warm on Bob’s chilled skin. His body draped over him like a heavy blanket of heat.
“Jesus, you could have been killed!” Bob said. His heart was racing with adrenalin, but he could not seem to move.
“I didn’t think anyone would care if I got killed,” Jory said quietly. “Other than, you know, the guys.”
Bob’s arms tightened; it wasn’t until then that he noticed they were wrapped around Jory. “I’d care,” he said sternly.
Jory’s lips pressed against Bob’s throat, tentatively, as if uncertain what Bob’s reaction would be. Beyond an intake of breath, Bob made no outward movement. Internally, however, the danger-sparked energy coursing through his body found a new meeting place—his groin.
Jory’s mouth opened and he sucked lightly on Bob’s pulse point, earning a sound that was half-whimper and half-moan. Bob’s senses seemed ridiculously heightened. The rain pounding on the hood of the car sounded like thunder and everything smelled wet. He could see nothing because his eyes were closed, but his nerve-endings were supercharged. His fingers clenched in the wet coat Jory wore; the warmth of his hips and thighs seemed to burn through Bob’s jeans.
Bob wanted to… He wanted…
“Get a room!” someone said loudly and Bob heard a laugh and footsteps crunching on the wet sidewalk. His eyes snapped open.
Jory chuckled. “Come on, Bobbin, let’s get out of this wet.” The delicious weight of his body left Bob feeling bereft, and then two hands gripped the front of his coat and hauled him away from the car.
“Bobbin?” Bob asked incredulously, remembering Jory had used it once before. “Oh no, you will not be calling me that!”
“Yes, I will. It’s cute.” Jory curled a hand around his wrist and pulled him back to the sidewalk.
“It’s not—no. I hate my name enough as it is, thank you very much.” His words felt stilted and somewhat unreal. The blood still pounded through his veins and he wanted nothing more than to wrap himself around Jory and kiss him until he was convinced that Jory actually wanted to kiss him. Already the interlude felt like something he’d imagined.
“The name Bob is a bit, well, boring,” Jory said. The light was red again, but he actually waited this time, hopefully aware of Bob’s stern expression.
“Tell me about it. I’ve spent half my life trying to get people to call me Rob, or even Robert, but for some irritating reason they always default to Bob. Or even worse, Bobby.” He shuddered.
“What about your last name?”
“Davis? Try turning that into a nickname.” Bob shook his head. “My name is as boring as toast, so Bob it is.”
“Anyone ever call you Bobbin?” Jory’s grin was infectious.
“No.” Bob tried for a threatening tone, but he feared he failed miserably in the face of Jory’s dancing eyes. “No, they have not.”
“Good.” Jory’s grin grew even wider and Bob tried to glare at him and instead burst into laughter.
“You are impossible!”
The light turned green and they crossed the street, safely this time, but they had just reached the opposite curb when a car pulled up as if planning to turn. The doors flung open and three men emerged with a rush.
“Oh, shit.” Jory grabbed Bob’s wrist and pulled, turning to run.
Bob made it six steps and then slipped on a wet metal grate set into the sidewalk. His arm wrenched from Jory’s grasp and he fell to one knee, hard. He pushed to his feet, but a hand snared the hood of his coat. Jory had paused when Bob fell and he looked back, eyes wide.
“Go!” Bob yelled. “Go, go, go!”
Jory took off, running like a shot with two men on his heels. Bob watched as they all rounded the corner and then he was slammed chest-first into a nearby wall by the man holding him. Bob turned his head to avoid his chin colliding with the stone, but the breath was nearly knocked from his body.
“Don’t worry, they’ll catch your boyfriend. Into the car you go.” The man grabbed Bob’s right arm and twisted it behind his back, then walked him to the car and shoved him inside. It was not a long, black model like in the movies, but a sleek, silver sedan. Bob stared around, wondering if anyone on the street noticed him being kidnapped, but the pounding rain seemed to have driven most people inside. There was no one on the street.
He sat up on the leather seat just as something dark was thrust over his head, blocking all light. The car started to move. Bob fumbled for the door handle with one hand and the covering over his head with the other, intent on escape. His fingers had just located the latch when an arm crushed him back against the seat and strong fingers grabbed his thumb. The digit was wrenched sharply and Bob cried out, wondering if the bastard had dislocated it.
“Sit tight, princess, you ain’t going anywhere. And leave the sack on or I’ll break it next time.”
The car sped up and Bob massaged his sore thumb with his other hand. The pressure across his chest did not lessen and soon they were moving too quickly for leaping out of the car with any chance of survival. He tried to pay attention to the twists and turns, but gave up after a few minutes. It became hot and difficult to breathe inside the cloth bag that covered his head. He hoped they reached their destination soon.