Jason looked up as Jane sat down at his counter. “You take debit cards?” she asked as he poured her a cup of coffee.
“Five dollar minimum,” he said sourly, sniffing. “Pardon me for saying so, Miss-I’m-too-cool-for-a-name, but you smell like a whorehouse.”
Jane smiled good naturedly. “More like one particular whore than the whole house, but no offense taken – these things take time.” She grinned as his scowl deepened. “While we’re on the subject of houses of ill repute, though – I found Tony and Kitten…amusing, but not really roommate material. You wouldn’t happen to have an extra room available?”
Jason nodded suspiciously.” Yeah,” he grudgingly allowed, “but it’s a hundred a week, and I’m not putting that on your tab…”
“No need, my friend.” She rummaged in a pocket of her leather vest and tossed him a strip of plastic. “Run that like a credit card for two weeks rent. It’ll do for starters.” She leaned over the counter, looking left and right. “My rucksack still back there?”
Jason absently opened a cabinet under the register and handed her the leather bag, motioning towards stairs leading upstairs next to the counter. “Take room three. Alex is in two, and it shares a door with one, where his boy stays. There’s an outside entrance, too, door code is 4692.” When she didn’t move, he looked at her. “Something else?”
She was looking at the tied laces on the flap of the rucksack, and then up at Jason, her expression grave. “You didn’t open this.” It wasn’t a question, and as he returned her gaze steadily, she sighed. “Oh, Jason. You’re an honest man, aren’t you? What the hell are you doing in a shithole like this?” Without waiting for an answer, she turned and headed upstairs.
“Whatever I can,” he answered softly, and pulled a cel phone out of his pocket. Pressing a button, he began to talk in low tones, his eyes never leaving the staircase.
The next morning Jason had her pancakes and eggs ready as she came down the stairs, and she saluted his timing with a quick snap of her hand and a brilliant smile. Alex sat at the counter with a small boy of about 4, the two of them sounding out words in a Seuss book. “Sam-I-Am!” the boy said happily, pointing at a sad moustachioed figure in the book. Then he looked up and noticed Jane sipping coffee in the booth. “Who dat, daddy? She pretty!”
Alex hushed is son with a whispered “Don’t bother her, Joey, let her eat alone.”
“Hello, Joey.” Suddenly she was standing next to them her hand offered to the boy. “My name’s Jane. You’re doing a great job on that book – it was one of my favorites.” She looked at the book critically for a moment, then at the boy. “Can I tell you a secret?” The boy nodded warily, and she whispered a few sentences in his ear. His eyes grew wide for a moment, then he looked at his father sitting next to him and started giggling. Smiling, Jane tousled his hair and went back to her breakfast, reading a battered paperback with some sword-wielding barbarian on the cover.
Jason came over and topped off the boy’s orange juice. “What’d she tell you?” he asked casually, glancing over Joey’s head to Jane in the booth.
“It’s a SEEKET!” the boy pronounced happily, then more quietly, “That means I have to whisper it.” Jason nodded gravely, leaning over. Joey whispered intently, and giggled as Jason began chuckling.
“Well, then, I guess it’s lucky for him you’re done! There’s your bus!” Joey squealed with excitement, hugging his puzzled father and giving Jason a high-five before jumping off the stool and rushing out the door.
Alex watched him go, and then turned to Jason, curiosity getting the better of him. “What?” he demanded.
Jason indicated the moustachioed fish in the book. “She told him that her father kind of looked like that fish,” he grinned. “And that if Joey didn’t eat all his food, it might happen to you, too.” Chuckling, Jason cleared away the plate, and in spite of himself, Alex grinned back. Taking his coffee, he turned around and walked over to her booth. She looked up at him and waved him into the seat.
“I ran into your wife earlier this morning,” she said bluntly.
Alex’s expression didn’t change. “Yes, I heard. Thank you for not involving her in your little…demonstration.” He sipped his coffee and Jane thought she saw just a glimpse of the deep pain he felt at the mention of his wife. “I didn’t watch the tapes, but Tony and Kitten were quite impressed.”
“What’s the deal with them, anyway?” Jane asked. “With a sweet set up like they’ve got there, why can’t they make ends meet? Those camgirls and boys I saw in there – man, talk about walking poster children for the Big Burnout.”
At this Alex chuckled, a soft, bitter sound. “Yeah, that’s a good way to describe just about everyone over there. The problem isn’t the infrastructure – it’s that it’s a castle under siege.” He looked up at Jane, then, and she was startled by his eyes, which had looked brown, but now revealed a vivid green ring around his dark irises. “The Incubikers won’t let any new talent in, and if old talent goes out, they don’t come back. That talent you saw? They haven’t been out of that building in three months. Tony and Kitten are able to get supplies in and out, they have that much pull with the teamsters, but people…” He trailed off. “When the Doukas’ catch someone trying to get out, well, if they’re lucky, they disappear. Some they keep… for their own amusement.”
Jane sipped her coffee and speculated out loud. “And in town known as “the Murder City”, I guess it doesn’t take much of a donation to keep the police out of the whole thing.”
Alex laughed again. “Police? You kidding? The Doukas not only have them paid off, they have them procuring. Notice that Juvenile Detention facility down the street? Both Tony and the Doukas brothers used to take advantage of that, scooping up people close to the edge. Doesn’t take much paperwork to get a pretty not-quite- 18 year old released on a ‘work apprenticeship’. By the time his or her birthday comes around they’re strung up on smack or in debt or both, and they just start working the cameras.” He waved out the window in the vague direction of the Incubiker enclave. “Or the clients.”
“So what changed? What put Tony and Kitten are on the defensive?” Jane snorted. “For that matter, why doesn’t Doukas just roll right over him?” Her tone dropped low. “And why do you get to come and go freely?”
Alex looked at her steadily. “I really don’t know the answer to the first two questions. At some point the détente failed, that’s all I know. The Doukas brothers just decided one day to make a move on one of Tony’s stars.” His eyes were expressionless. “That’s part of the answer to your last question, though.”
His voice quickened, as if he wanted to get the telling over with quickly. “Isabella. That’s her name. The one you saw in the alley, the star that the Doukas brothers took from Tony.’ He took a breath, eyes glued to the table in front of him. “Joey’s mother. My wife.”
Jane said nothing, simply waited, and after a long moment Alex got his emotions under control and continued. “She was an indie model, came to work for a month-long exclusive contract with Tony. She’d just finished a great trip to New York, worked with some really high-end photographers, and we thought – that is, I thought – ” his voice cracked, and Jane simply sipped her coffee and waited, silent, for him to regain composure.
“I wanted to stay in the city, keep working the contacts. But she told me she had gotten something really good during her time in New York, something that she wouldn’t show me…I never really understood what it was, or what she thought it would do, but…fuck, I don’t even really care anymore. She just seemed to think it would be our ticket to the dream – for her to stop traveling all the time, for me to stop having to scrambling for freelance gigs, for us to do what we wanted.”
“What is it that you wanted, Alex?” Jane’s voice was soft.
He looked at her bleakly. “Fuck if I know. Never had enough breathing room to actually figure that out.”
Jane nodded, solemnly. “Fair enough. So what happened?”
He sighed. “Again, I don’t really know. I couldn’t meet her when she landed at the airport because of Joey’s school stuff, and from what I heard, Incubikers were waiting there to take her. That was three months ago. Since then, they’ve intercepted every talent Tony and Kitten have tried to hire – and anyone who gets out of Kitten’s building gets disappeared, or worse.” He stirred his coffee and gave a soft chuckle. “The last two times it was a bund from Russia. Tony thought they might be beyond the Doukas brothers’ reach.” Alex gave a bitter laugh.” Didn’t matter where they came from, though,” he pointed out the window again, “that last mile is where they grab them. Didn’t even have to use force; just convinced the girls that working for them would be much more convenient than working for Tony and Kitten.” He chuckled again, sounding tired
Jane tapped a sugar packet thoughtfully. “Why the laugh?”
Alex grimaced. “It’s not really funny. Another bunch of girls are supposed to come in today. Tony is nothing if not persistent. I’m just thinking it might not be so easy for the Incubikers to convince this group to switch sides.”
“Really? Why’s that?” Jane’s tone sounded speculative.
“Because the only guy they have who speaks Russian is in the clinic with his jaw wired shut,” Alex grinned with a bitter triumph and tapped a finger on the table in front of Jane. “Thanks to you.”
Jane stood up from the booth and was gathered her things. Alex looked up, surprised at the sudden exit. “Hey, where are you going?”
Jane gave him a big smile. “That, Alex, was some valuable information. In fact…” she handed him a small card. “Here. PIN is 1469. Take out a hundred, get Joey something nice. And hang onto that card. Anything else you hear about that you think I might be interested in, pass it on, and I’ll authorize more.” She snugged her fingerless leather gloves over her hands, and carefully dogeared her place in her book before tossing it in the rucksack. “Place like this, the right piece of information can be worth a lot to a woman like me.”
Alex looked at the card with a bewildered expression. “I don’t understand. What are you doing?”
She smiled and slung her rucksack over her shoulder. “Going to see Michael Doukas about a job. I hear he might be in need of a Russian translator.”
Alex still looked confused. “And…you speak Russian?”
Jane gave him a wink as she went out the door. “Vot tak!”