1—A Guide to Men

 

HOLDEN HAD always been very proud of the fact that he didn’t give a shit about fashion. He was happy whenever he could subvert a shitty stereotype. Which was why it was annoying him now that he was so bothered by his wardrobe.

He prided himself on dressing to fit the role, whatever the role was—from cheap-ass street hooker to classy, expensive Dom. But dressing down to blend into a straight crowd apparently offended all his sensibilities. It didn’t help that this job was kind of boring, leaving him time to focus on all this shit.

Currently he was following Seth Little, the husband of an old client of his, Jeremy Anderson. Holden really didn’t like the idea of doing a cheating husband case, but the cheat was the twist. He didn’t think Seth was cheating on Jeremy with another person. He thought Seth was back on drugs.

Seth had been in and out of recovery programs, and because of a violent incident the last time he fell off the wagon, Seth had promised he wouldn’t go back on drugs again. Jeremy made it clear he would leave him if he did. But he was afraid that Seth was using again. He hadn’t found any paraphernalia, and Seth denied it, but Jeremy was currently working the night shift, and Seth had ample time to use and sleep much of it off before Jeremy came home. Seth claimed any erratic behavior he displayed was due to his being on a new antidepressant. Jeremy claimed he wanted to trust him, but after being down this road before with him, he didn’t.

So Holden was in jeans and a sweatshirt, sneakers, and a hoodie, blending in with the downtown crowds as Seth made his way to a Starbucks on Eighth, which was a bad sign. The stereotype held that if you wanted drugs, you had to go to certain street corners or back alleys or sleazy bars like Burn, his meth using associate, used to inhabit. And while it was true you could get drugs in all those places, it was the type of drug and the audience for them that dictated where they were sold. In a pseudosuburban Starbucks like this, the type of drugs on offer were the middle-class poisons. Mostly prescription painkillers, with oxy and Vicodin—otherwise known as the Roan specials—being the big ones. Although college kids could also pick up prescription uppers like Adderall, and you could even get black-market Viagra if you were desperate. Holden would never buy here, and knew Roan hadn’t either, because these guys were overpriced. If you went to lower-class places, you could get cheaper pills. You paid for the ambiance here, the sheen of respectability. You paid to pretend you weren’t just another addict like all the so-called gutter trash you frowned upon. It was the middle-class version of stupidity tax, although Holden liked to think of it as arrogance tax.

Holden was just another customer in Starbucks, and so was Seth. It was still possible he wasn’t buying. He waited in a small line, Holden separated from him by one guy who was texting so much Holden wanted to slap the phone out of his hand out of sheer spite. He glanced over his shoulder at the screen and saw the man was big on emojis and misspelling everything from whut to loll—yes, with the extra L. He did it three times, so it wasn’t a thumb slip. That made Holden want to hurt him more, so he pretended to study the drinks menu like it was actually interesting. What he was really doing was scoping out the people in this surprisingly busy Starbucks, trying to determine who the suburban drug dealer was. He had two suspects: a college-age kid on a laptop at a table near the bathrooms, or a slightly older guy on an iPad near the door. They were both white, both within the same general age range, and both casually dressed in clothing that was just a bit pricier than you’d expect. Holden wouldn’t pay a ton of money for clothes, but he’d had enough clients with ridiculously expensive wardrobes to know them when he saw them.

Seth ordered some fussy coffee drink that took some time to make and got it about the same time Holden received his simple green tea and lemonade (if he had coffee now, he’d never get any sleep). Holden took a seat at a table near the back that gave him a great view of Seth’s chosen location and took out his phone. He was pretending to text while actually viewing Seth through his camera. Seth seemed to be trying to appear calm, but not successfully. His right leg jumped under the table, so much so that he hit it with his knee and made his cup teeter. He only just managed to catch it before it tipped over.

Seth then glanced at the hipster with the laptop, a look in his eyes Holden might have described as interest. About a minute after they made eye contact, the kid slipped his laptop into his messenger bag, gulped down the rest of his coffee, and headed toward the men’s room. Barely three seconds later, Seth followed him. He didn’t seem to notice Holden—in his slouchy cheap jeans and Seattle Falcons sweatshirt—following him in return.

By the time Holden entered the bathroom, the two had disappeared inside a stall. Holden figured he could pee and did so, trying to keep an ear out for their conversation. They kept their voices pitched low, so he couldn’t quite hear them over the piped-in soft-rock music, which sounded like lethargy given voice. Was it some kind of corporate in-joke that Starbucks sold stuff rife with caffeine and yet also played music designed to put you to sleep? Did they think it balanced out all the uppers?

Even though Holden couldn’t hear what Seth and the kid were saying, he could tell there was some kind of transaction taking place. Holden kind of hoped it was for sex, simply because being in the middle of a domestic thing was the last thing he wanted.

Holden was washing his hands for the second time when hipster drug dealer came out of the stall and left without glancing at him. He was a professional—he did his job and got out, never acting suspicious. Holden was deep into his third hand wash by the time Seth came out of the stall. He looked around nervously, but Holden kept his head down. Seth fake washed his hands, and Holden decided he was done loitering.

He went out, retrieved his cup—he’d already drunk his tea, but the cup was a good prop—and waited for Seth to come out of the bathroom. Luckily, it didn’t take long. Seth returned to his table and subtly popped some pills into his mouth before gulping his coffee. That’s when Holden sat down at his table.

Seth just stared at him for a moment. He was a very average-looking guy, a little sallow, brown hair thinning at the front to give him what appeared to be a bigger than average forehead. He was dressed as casually and poorly as Holden in a worn T-shirt for some marathon and a hoodie almost exactly the same kind as Holden’s, only grayer. His watery brown eyes made him look like he was always on the verge of crying.

“My name is Holden. I was hired by your husband to follow you.”

Seth scoffed, possibly trying for a laugh, but he couldn’t quite manage it. “What?”

“I’m a detective. He wanted me to find out if you were using again.”

“That bastard. I can’t—”

“As far as I can tell, you have two options here,” Holden said, ignoring him. He wasn’t interested in Seth’s excuses, or whatever he told himself to get through the night. “You can tell Jeremy the truth when he gets home and throw yourself on his mercy. Maybe he’s not all that serious about leaving you. Or you can tell him the truth, then pack a bag and stop trying to be something you’re not. It’s up to you.”

Seth shook his head. “You’re crazy. He—”

“You hit him last time, Seth,” Holden said, and Seth sat back as if Holden had just done exactly that to him. “Gave him a black eye. He could have had you arrested for that.”

Seth made warding-off hand gestures as he continued shaking his head. “No, see, that was an accident. I was drinking then. I’m not drinking anymore.”

“But you met that drug dealer in the bathroom and bought some pills, some of which you just took.” Seth opened his mouth, probably to deny it, and Holden held up a hand. “Don’t try to bullshit a bullshitter, Seth. I happen to know a pill addict, a couple of them actually, but I give them a pass if they’re in so much pain they otherwise can’t function. The first pill addict that comes to mind? He’s like that. I’ve seen him in so much pain he can’t move and can barely talk. And he’s a macho asshole type who never wants to show he’s vulnerable, so just think how much pain that must be.” Okay, Roan might object to the macho asshole part, but not strenuously. “You’re not in that kind of pain, dude. Not physically. I get that it’s an illness, but you need to get your shit together and never take it out on someone else again.”

Seth’s eyebrows lowered, and Holden could tell Seth was going to give belligerence a try. “Who are you to judge me?”

“The man your husband hired. You know, I don’t really do relationships, but even I know if you distrust your partner enough to hire someone to follow them, it’s pretty fucking over. So why don’t you be the adult, go pack your bags, and go off and be yourself? Take all the drugs you want. Just let Jeremy go.”

Seth’s watery eyes narrowed. “Are you fucking him? Is that it?”

Holden rolled his eyes. “God no. He couldn’t afford me. I’m just hoping one of you can be a non-passive-aggressive adult about this. Stick a fork in this marriage—it’s done. I think it’s been done since you punched him.”

Seth scowled. “I didn’t mean to do it, all right? Stop painting me as some kinda… kinda….”

“Abuser? ’Cause that’s what you are.”

Seth slammed a hand on the table. If that was supposed to intimidate Holden in some fashion, it failed. “It was a mistake, and it happened once! Don’t you dare pin that on me.”

Holden raised an eyebrow at him. “I think you need help, Seth, but what kind I don’t know. Not my department. Like I said, I just think you’d be happier if you stopped pretending to be something you’re not.”

“And what am I pretending to be, exactly?”

“Not an addict. You are, and I don’t actually think there’s any shame in that. Own it. But you can’t own it if you’re living a lie for your husband.”

Seth shook his head again and gave Holden a look like he didn’t understand what was going on. “What the hell is this? Some weirdass intervention?”

Holden sighed and put his hands on the table. “What this is, is me giving you a warning you don’t deserve. I’m telling my client, Jeremy, that his suspicions were correct and you’re using again. I offered you the opportunity to be a man and get ahead of this. I realize now I was giving you way too much credit.” He shoved himself to his feet, done with this domestic disturbance in a teacup. “Sorry about your marriage.”

“Hey, wait,” Seth said, but Holden ignored him. Did he think Holden was kidding? When he was done, Holden was fucking done. He’d made a stab at being a decent human being, but he had his limits. To be honest, he had no idea how Roan had tolerated working with people all the time. They were so annoying.

He was out on the sidewalk when Seth caught up with him. He grabbed Holden’s arm, and Holden instantly yanked it away, so violently it actually sent Seth stumbling back a step. Seth stared at him wide-eyed, put off by the show of strength, but he still continued. “You can’t tell him.”

“Yeah, I can, and I will. Don’t plead your case to me, Seth. Go plead it to Jeremy. Leave me out. I barely care about my own domestic drama, and I’m involved in that. Why should I give a fuck about yours?”

Seth stared at him, not sure what to say. Holden didn’t blame him. This was a poorly thought-out impulse that didn’t help Seth in the least. He was acting without thinking, which was probably how his marriage had ended up on the ropes. It was funny the way those things worked.

Holden’s phone vibrated in his pocket, and he pulled it out without bothering to look at who it was. Right now he didn’t care. “Yeah?”

“Uh, is this Fox?” a woman asked.

The voice sounded familiar, but it took him a moment to place it. “Amanda?” He turned away from Seth and started walking. “Hey, girl, you still work at the Dungeon?”

“Sometimes. I’m mostly word of mouth, exclusive clientele, all that.” Amanda, aka Mistress Amanda, was a professional dominatrix. She’d helped Fiona a bit when she got started in that business. Holden’s path didn’t cross hers that much, but higher-end sex work was kind of a small universe. If they didn’t know each other, they often knew of each other. Although the field was getting so crowded now it was hard to keep up. “I’ve heard conflicting info on you.”

“Oh yeah?”

“Yeah. You still in the game or not?”

She didn’t mean table tennis. As he stood on the corner, waiting for the crosswalk light to turn green, he realized there were times when he really missed being a full-time sex worker. There was something so dispiriting about following people and observing their dreary lives. He would rather fuck a guy he wasn’t into. “Much like you, exclusive clientele. Why, you got something for me?”

“Yeah. Wanna talk about it over coffee tomorrow?”

Holden had to think of the stupid name of that coffee shop near her place. They’d met there once. At least it wasn’t a Starbucks. “Sure. Jitters, elevenish?”

“Sounds good to me. See you there.”

Yeah, he couldn’t see being a full-time sex worker again. But some nights it seemed a whole lot more appealing than being a private detective.

 

 

 

2—Queen City

 

HOLDEN KNEW he was in a foul mood and wasn’t sure why. It was neither the first nor the last shitty gig he’d had, and hell, it wasn’t even in the top hundred of them. He‘d had a very colorful life.

He was hungry, and it was on the way, so he stopped at Dick’s for a burger and bought a couple for the homeless guys camped around it hoping for some benevolent soul to buy them food. He didn’t recognize them, which was very nearly a first. It used to be he knew every homeless person around the city, or anyway had seen them around. At least he knew people who knew them. That was no longer true. Not only had Holden had a place to live for too long, but the homeless population had exploded as the economy course-corrected, or whatever they called it when the greedy fucks at the top of the pyramid hoarded every cent they could get their hands on.

He knew there was a big homeless encampment in Seattle called, ominously, the Jungle, and he had enough street-level contacts and personal experience to know that place was kind of iffy. There was some safety, sure, but there were other kinds of threats too. There’d already been a drug-related murder there, and politicians were dithering over what to do with all the people as the wealthy assholes of the city screamed about property values. As far as Holden was concerned, Seattle could use some property devaluing. The city was getting way too fucking expensive. If things didn’t change soon, he’d have to move, and while he was sure Tacoma was fine, he wasn’t sure he wanted to live there.

Oh, and nobody seemed to be marveling over the fact that these displaced people, while having no home, still had guns. Because it was America, and somehow it was easier to get a gun than it was to get affordable shelter or food.

Yes, he was in a shitty mood. Holden was aware he probably needed to punch something, but instead he went home.

Chai might have been around, but the apartment was empty. A unit had opened up in the complex, and Holden was going to help Chai move in, but that started tomorrow. Tonight Chai was meeting an old boyfriend for drinks. Holden checked his phone in case Chai had texted him, but he hadn’t. And it was late, and he wasn’t home. Did he get lucky? Sly devil. He could use it.

Chai was doing okay with therapy, and he and his doctor had been trying out antidepressants. The first batch gave Chai headaches, so they tried another, which he didn’t like. They were all hoping pill number three was the charm.

No, Chai wasn’t currently suicidal, but Holden had been friends with enough depressives to know that could change with little warning. Depression was a beast that could eat you alive, even if you were a lion guy like Roan.

That reminded him, as he sat on the sofa eating his greasy burger and washing it down with gin straight from the bottle, that he needed to check his email. Roan usually got back to him within hours, sometimes minutes. He claimed he didn’t spend all his time online, but Holden could picture Roan trying to write his memoir while he surfed Twitter and watched something on Netflix. In other words, doing anything but what he was supposed to do. Roan was usually more diligent, but he was retired now. This was the time to fuck around.

Holden opened his email account and discovered Roan hadn’t gotten back to him yet. Did that make it two days? Something pulsed nervously in his stomach, and he abandoned his booze bottle for his phone. It was late, but Roan hadn’t stopped being a night owl. Retirement hadn’t changed all his habits.

On the fourth ring, someone picked up the phone, but it wasn’t Roan. “Hello, Holden,” Dylan said, and his voice sounded odd. A little congested.

A hole seemed to open up in Holden’s gut, and the burger he’d eaten earlier turned to lead. “Holy fuck, is he okay?” The noise in the background sounded like a busy hospital on a Friday night.

“Relatively,” Dylan said, pausing to sniff. “They’re still running tests. They don’t think it was an aneurysm, but they want to make sure.”

Holden sighed. “Shit.” The reason for Roan’s retirement in all its glory: aneurysms. Or as Roan had put it in an email, “just killing time before I go all Scanners and my head pops like a balloon full of paint.” Lovely imagery there. His brain was a time bomb, and one day it would explode and take Roan with it. This was a case where there was no way to fight off being your own worst enemy.

Roan might have had a different relationship with his virus from every other infected, but the virus would still kill him in the end. It always won. And he deserved so much more. He was a hero who had earned a whole hell of a lot better end than that, but life wasn’t fair, and he wouldn’t get one. He’d die like everyone else, and the world would keep turning, even though the best of humanity was gone and might as well have never existed. If you didn’t know life was a fucking joke before that, you learned hard.