It hadn’t been this bad in a long time. Eben Flannery sat on the edge of his bed and tried to force his battered hands closed, but the most they could do was form claws. The knuckles looked like meatballs, but worse than the pain was the memory of how they got this way.
Nicky said Roy Murphy was a rat who had flipped for the feds. But Roy was family. Not just business family but an actual blood relative. A cousin and a real Flannery by blood, even if he carried his father’s name. Eben couldn’t imagine how anybody could turn on family, but Nicky said there was nothing a rat wouldn’t do.
Except all night long, Roy just kept on saying, “I didn’t do it,” over and over again. Never once “I’m sorry.” Usually they got around to that, eventually.
But Eben was just the dumb younger brother. Nicky was the smart one. Nicky was always right, and if Nicky said Roy was a rat, it wasn’t Eben’s job to argue. His job was to do what Nicky told him, no matter what--just like he’d promised their ma before she died.
Sometimes Eben’s job really sucked.
He got up. His stack of yaoi manga had fallen over and slid out into plain view. He nudged the books back under the bed with his foot before going out into the hallway. He shut the bedroom door, just to be extra safe. The last thing he needed was Nicky coming by unexpectedly and discovering his stash of gay porn.
Eben crossed his little apartment to the kitchen. It wasn’t much, his place, but it had all he needed, plus a little postage stamp of a patio where he kept potted plants. In the morning he liked to go out there and drink his coffee and water his plants.
Nicky lived in the Belmont Hotel now.
Eben always thought hotels were just for visits, but he was wrong. Nicky lived there full-time. He was a big success.
He opened the fridge with one elbow, but he couldn’t manage the coffee carafe without using his hands. They felt like they were full of glass. He hissed as he grasped the handle and poured himself a cup. He had the milk already mixed in. That was a blessing.
Nicky always made fun of him because he brewed one big pot of coffee and kept it in the fridge, drinking it cold until it was gone.
Eben liked it this way, though.
The cool mug soothed his sore hands, and he took a sip. Cold coffee with milk. Mmm.
He was just about to loop one arm through his watering can when his cell started playing “When Irish Eyes are Smiling.” Nicky.
Eben had a hard time gripping the little phone in his swollen hand, and an even harder time hitting the green button with his meaty forefinger. He dropped the phone on the counter twice before finally managing it. “Hi, Nicky.”
“What the fuck took you so long? I thought I was going to start collecting retirement waiting for you to pick up.”
“That’s funny, Nicky. You don’t have a job!”
“Fuck you! I got a full-time job just looking after you, dumbass. I don’t have a job? Fuck you. What do you think I do all day? Just ’cause I don’t punch a clock, I’m some kinda lazy ass? How many times I got to explain this to you? I’m a businessman. I work for myself, and that’s the toughest job there is. Don’t have a job. Fuck you.”
“I’m sorry, Nicky. I know you work hard to take care of me, just like you promised Ma. And I’m grateful. You’re a big success. I know that. I didn’t mean it like that. Ma and Da would be real proud of you.”
Nicky’s voice softened. “Yeah, well, you don’t gotta go dragging them into it. Just answer the fucking phone the next time, all right?”
“Sure. I’m sorry. It’s just my hands. They hurt real bad this morning.”
“I keep telling you to wrap them, fuckhead.” Nicky was just mad because he didn’t like Eben to get hurt.
“I know. It’s just... It don’t seem fair. The other guys, they don’t get to wrap their faces.”
That made Eben smile.
“Where do you come up with this stuff? Best writers in the world couldn’t create funnier material. I don’t know what I’d do without you, churning out the comedy to brighten my day. Priceless. All right.Look, I don’t got all day to fool around. I need you to do something for me.”
“I need you to make a pickup at the airport.”
“Okay. Anything special I need to know about this one?”
“Yeah. It ain’t a package this time. It’s a person.”
“No, not exactly. Just go to the international terminal and wait for him at the Starbucks next to baggage claim. He’ll be in a school uniform. He’s Chinese. He’ll say he’s there with International Cultural Exchange. Then you drive him to my place. Got it?”
“Sure. So you’re hosting an exchange student? That’s real nice of you.”
Nicky chuckled. “Priceless. Yeah, look, never mind who it is or why he’s here. Just treat it like a package pickup. Keep it simple. And don’t fuck it up. I’m warning you. I’d take care of it myself, but I have an important appointment I can’t reschedule.”
“Okay. I can do it. No problem.”
“Well, hurry. You need to be there by ten.” Nicky hung up.
Eben looked at the clock above the stove. It was nine fifteen, and Boston Logan Airport was at least half an hour away. So much for watering the plants.
Eben drank down the rest of his coffee and jumped in the shower.
* * *
Song Xiu hoped whoever had bought him this time would come across with his taste in a hurry. It had been a long flight, and his blood itched. He wasn’t going to be any good to anybody like this. His hand trembled as he unfastened his seat belt. He forced himself to move quickly despite the nausea that curled in the pit of his stomach like a whipped dog.
It was chilly in the access ramp, and he cursed this ridiculous outfit Uncle Lao had made him wear. He was twenty now, but Lao called him Xiusheng. It meant schoolboy in Mandarin. Lao was from the mainland and he liked people to know it. The nickname was a pun and a reference to the fact that Xiu’s father was also from the mainland and had given his son a Mandarin name.
It was also true that Xiu had traded on his youthful appearance with great success, but would this be what the Americans wanted? Goose bumps broke out across his bare legs.
The Starbucks near baggage claim in the Boston Logan Airport was the saddest coffeehouse Xiu had ever seen. Small and dim, it offered little to distract him from his dope sickness. But it did have a bakery case. Xiu had a monster sweet tooth. He stared at the pecan-encrusted sweet buns and wondered what the person who’d bought his contract would be like.
Uncle Lao wouldn’t tell him who it was. Xiu didn’t even know if he was going to a pimp or someone who wanted a full-time “companion.” He’d had thirty-six hours to contemplate the two alternatives, and he still wasn’t sure which would be better.
Being stuck with just one guy sounded boring, and he’d have to put up with whatever the perv dished out. That could get ugly, unless of course Xiu could manipulate him, in which case, it might turn out to be a pretty sweet deal.
On the other hand, if some pimp or syndicate had bought his contract, he’d be getting lots of screened clients, and he’d have the opportunity to distinguish himself in the operation--which he would. Xiu may not have gotten into this life by choice, but he’d decided early on that if he had to be a whore, he was going to be a top-notch one.
He smoothed out a crease on his shorts and adopted the demure pose that had earned so much money for Uncle Lao.
* * *
“He’ll be in a school uniform. He’s Chinese.”
Eben hadn’t expected a vision straight out of a yaoi manga, but there he was, standing beside the bakery case in a navy blue jacket with white trim, a white shirt, a red tie, and navy blue shorts. Shorts.
Eben took a deep breath and tried to get himself under control. It wasn’t easy when the “package” turned and Eben got a look at his face--a perfect oval with dark, hooded eyes and a Cupid’s bow mouth.Damn.
“Are you”-- Legal? A dream? An illegal dream I should be shot for even having?
--“here with International Cultural Exchange?”
“Yes. My name is Song Xiu. You are my liaison?”
Eben wasn’t sure what that was, but it sounded like it had “lay” in it, and that sent his mind even further down the wrong track. “I’m here for you.”
They stood staring at each other for a moment.
Eben shifted his weight.
The other guy glanced at the bakery case.
Finally, Eben remembered his manners. “Oh. I’m Eben. Welcome to the States.” He held out his hand, forgetting what a mess it was. He colored at the sight of his split and swollen knuckles. Now this guy would know exactly what kind of a person Eben was. But it was too late. It would be rude to pull his hand back now.
“You’ve injured your hand.” Song took Eben’s hand in both of his.
Eben tried not to notice how gentle his hands were, like the wings of a dove.
Song ghosted one thumb over Eben’s knuckles. “It must be painful.” He only came to Eben’s shoulder. He looked up into Eben’s face, searching with dark brown eyes. His lips parted, ever so slightly. He was so freakin’ beautiful.
Eben pulled his hand away before he got himself in trouble. “It’s nothing. Nice to meet you, Song.”
“Ah... Eben is your surname?”
“Your family name?”
“Oh! No. That’s Flannery. I’m Eben Flannery.”
“I see.” Song bowed. “Excuse me. I made a mistake. I should say my name is Xiu Song.” He looked up at Eben with a tentative half smile.
The half smile grew to a whole one, and a dimple appeared in his right cheek.
Eben’s heart sped up.
“Yes. Song is my family name. In China, we say family name first. But you give me your first name, so I should do the same, correct?”
Eben was confused.
“If I call you Eben, you should call me Xiu, right?”
“Oh! So you mean your first name is Shoe.”
“Oh, I get it. Shoe!” said Eben.
Shoe’s smile widened. “Yes. Just so. Shoe.” Again he glanced at the bakery case.
“Hey, are you hungry? I can get you something.”
Shoe’s larynx bobbed up and down as he swallowed. “Oh no. Thank you.”
“You sure?” Eben noticed the sharp angle of Shoe’s jaw and the prominence of his wrist and knee bones. “You look a little thin.”
The look that got him seemed a bit more intense than Eben would have expected.
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to get personal. You look great. I mean...fine. You know. I wasn’t trying to bust your balls. I just--” Finally he managed to shut his trap.
Shoe stared at him a moment more, and then that smile broke out again. “Please. Do not worry. You can’t offend me. You are very kind to offer and to be concerned for my health.” He bowed again.
“Oh, that’s nothing. Nicky pays me plenty. You want a sweet roll or something? It would be my pleasure. Sort of a...you know, a welcome-to-America thing.”
More bowing. “No, please, I--”
“Aw, come on. You’re staring at that case like a dog at a butcher shop window.” Eben waved off Shoe’s protest and went to the counter. “Two sweet rolls, please. And a coffee. You want a coffee? Do you drink coffee? I mean, not ’cause you’re Chinese, ’cause... Are you old enough to drink coffee?”
Shoe tilted his head down and looked up at Eben. He had one hip cocked, and he traced the ground with his toe. “Do you think I’m old enough?”
Something about the way he did that made Eben feel queasy. Frowning, he leaned in and took a good long look at Shoe. “I don’t know. How old are you?”
Shoe straightened up, his smile gone. His cheeks went pink. His voice was barely a whisper. “I’m twenty. I’m old enough.” He didn’t meet Eben’s gaze.
What the hell? Why was Shoe acting scared all of a sudden? Why had he been acting like one of Nicky’s girls a second ago? Eben was all too familiar with the feeling that a game was being played and everyone else knew the rules but him. He was about to ask Shoe what was going on when the barista’s audible sigh brought him back to the matter at hand. “Two coffees, please.”