Toby meets Cranston
approximately 2000 words
Dawn beat against Toby's eyelids. He winced at the squeal of the freight train's wheels as it crept across the rails overhead. His muscles ached and his mouth tasted like he'd been chewing dried-up cat shit. He blinked his eyes open and used a fist to try to rub away the grainy, itchy feeling on their surface.
The only thing worse than sleeping under the overpass was waking up there the morning after. No, that wasn't right. It was even worse to sleep in the fucking religious nut-case shelter. Maybe there'd be room in the Day Center for the Homeless tonight. At least they didn't preach at you with their...supercilious sermons.
The library wouldn't open for another three or four hours. Hunger filled his stomach, he stank, and his fucking hands still hurt from where he'd skinned them yesterday. His face flushed remembering that asshole John. They were nothing alike. What did he even mean by that, anyway?
Toby spent a few minutes stretching and running in place. He hung from a support timber for the railroad and did a dozen pull-ups, followed by fifty quick sit-ups on the matted-down weeds where he'd slept. He stopped to catch his breath, watching his chest rise and fall under his filthy t-shirt. Mud crusted his jeans.
He couldn't go to the library looking like this.
Ginger had let him stash his spare clothes at her place. It was too early for her to have any johns there. If her pimp wasn't around, he could maybe even use her shower.
Fifteen minutes later, he was back at his cruising corner. A few delivery trucks and early-morning commuters passed by without looking at him. The Daylight Donuts shop was half a block away, sending the ambrosia scent of pastries and coffee wafting his way. But smelling the way he did now, they'd kick him out if he went there, even if he had money to buy something. Which he didn't.
Ginger leaned against her lamppost, looking more whack-a-doodle than ever in a peach-colored wig, with matching peach halter top, mini-skirt, and pumps. Even her lipstick was peach.
Her face split in a gap-toothed smile when he approached. "Toby, darling. How's it hanging, hon?"
He snorted. "It's hangin'."
"Baby, you look awful." She made a fuss of sniffing him. "You stink, too."
"I know. Look, is there any chance I can use the shower at your place? Paul isn't there, is he?"
"Not when I left. You never know with that asshole, though." She paused to light a cigarette. "You want one, hon?"
"No, thanks." She always offered. He always said no. It was like a ritual she had to go through.
"I been thinkin' about you, hon." She tipped her head back and let smoke drift out her nostrils. Her lips had left peach prints on the filter. "I can do better than my crib. I got a john pickin' me up this morning. Some of his friends like boys." She waggled her eyebrows at him.
Toby didn't point out the obvious that Ginger was a boy, underneath her sex outfit. If the john liked Ginger, obviously he liked boys. "What's the gig?"
"He's got a fancy apartment in the southern suburbs. Real quiet and so-phis-to-cated." She narrowed her eyes. "We go there for the day. We put on a show. We get a meal and five bills."
"Five bills?" That was more money that Toby had ever seen in his life.
"I'll split it even with you, hon. Two-fifty each."
"Uh, what kind of show?" Toby didn't mind sex with strangers, but with Ginger it would be different. She had been his friend ever since he'd hit the street at fourteen. She'd never hit on him, but Toby's superpowers told him she wanted him. He didn't want to squelch her. That would ruin everything.
"Oh, no sex, baby. He likes to take dirty pictures is all. Sometimes he's got old fart buddies with him to watch. Sometimes all they do is talk. But they're all looky and no touchy. All we'd have to do is pose for them, and maybe chat them up some. You know, pretend they're interesting. Pretend we care about them."
Toby bit his lower lip and nodded. "I could do that." Easy-peasy. He could even push them, and they'd think he really did care.
"That's awesome." She took another drag. "You want donuts? I'll buy."
"Fuck, that would be incredible." He sniffed his armpit. "I can't go in."
"Don't you worry that sweet little head of yours, hon." She snuffed out her cigarette under her open-toed, peach pump. "I'll be right back."
Ten minutes later, they sat together on the sidewalk under Ginger's lamppost, sharing apple fritters and steamy coffee. Toby licked his fingers and asked, "How long will this take today?"
"Usually it's an all-day thing."
So he'd have to miss the library today. Still, two hundred and fifty dollars would be worth it. Maybe he could even rent his own place.
A black Mercedes limousine purred to a stop next to the curb where they sat. Ginger stood and brushed donut crumbs from her mini-skirt. "Show's on, hon. Let's go."
She held the rear door open for Toby, who clambered in. The plush interior smelled of leather and cigars. Ginger flounced into the seat next to him and slammed the door.
The driver turned to face them. "Who's he?" His craggy features held no expression.
Ginger answered in her best, breathy, come-hither voice. "This here's my buddy. You said I could bring someone."
Just to be safe, Toby pushed him. The pupils in his blue eyes dilated, and his face relaxed. He was sort of handsome, in an old-fart-businessman kind of way. Lean and athletic bod. He'd spent some time on his iron-gray hair to give it that tousled look. If the diamond in that ring on his finger was real, it was worth real money.
Toby relaxed. Confidence swelled in him. He could do this.
The driver's eyes glinted. "What's your name, kid?"
"Toby." His real name slipped out, as if by accident. He never gave his real name. "What's yours?"
"Cranston. Cranston Mallar, if you must know. What's your last name?"
"Smith." No way any creepy john was getting Toby's real last name.
A smile trifled with Cranston's lips, but then vanished. That feeling of confidence surged in Toby again, from nowhere.
"Well, Toby Smith, this is your lucky day." He faced forward, put the car in gear, and pulled away from the curb.
Ginger snuggled up to him and failed to suppress a giggle. She whispered, "I think he likes you."
"Ya think?" Toby had seen the mark's eyes dilate. He knew he had the guy hooked.
The limo stopped in a tree-shaded parking lot. Sidewalks curved through sculpted shrubs and flowers, leading to fake-colonial condos. The lot was mostly empty and no one was about.
Cranston turned back to them. "Follow me."
He headed down one of the concrete trails, with Ginger following. Toby hung back a little, taking in the scenery. It was like Woodward Park, except it was private, just for the rich creeps who lived here. Cranston paused where a sprinkler squirted across the sidewalk and waited for its cycle to rotate back to the flowers. Toby followed, but paused and let the cold water wash over him. He left little muddy puddles where it drained from his clothes.
Cranston unlocked an oak door and motioned Ginger and Toby to enter. Inside, the living area included a black leather sofa, two easy chairs, and a wide-screen TV. A kitchenette opened into the space, and an open door led to a bedroom with a king-sized bed. The place smelled of clean linen and roses.
"The shower's off the bathroom." Cranston pointed. "There are clean clothes in the closet and the dresser. I'm sure you can find something that fits."
Ginger tugged at Toby's hand. "Come on, hon."
"No, not you. Just him." Cranston pointed at Toby. "I've got other plans for you today."
"Really?" Ginger drawled. "Whatever you say, lover."
Toby hesitated. He didn't like the idea of being separated from Ginger. But something in her manner, or maybe something about Cranston, made him relax. If anything went wrong, he always had his superpowers.
The glass-enclosed shower had jets built into the wall as well as a waterfall shower head hanging from the ceiling. Toby turned on the hottest water he could stand and stripped off his filthy clothes. The water streamed across his lithe body and washed away the...detritus of the last couple of days. Even here, he wanted to practice his vocabulary.
The soap and shampoo had a mint-flavored scent. Tea Tree, the bottle said. His scalp tingled when he scrubbed it. After he finished, he used an enormous, fluffy towel to dry himself. Still working his wet hair, he returned to the bedroom. Someone had closed the door. He used the gift of privacy to go through the drawers in the dresser and inspect the contents of the closet. Sure enough, there were slacks, shirts, and underwear of all sizes.
He slipped on boxer shorts, and his skin prickled at the crisp, fresh linen. Someone had starched and pressed the button-fly blue-jeans he picked out. He fingered an Izod t-shirt, but instead chose a plaid, short-sleeved, cotton sport shirt. The label said Burberry, which sounded like it must be expensive.
He was eyeing the array of sneakers in the closet when the bedroom door opened and Cranston entered. "Feeling better, Toby?"
"Yeah. I feel great." He did, too. Amazing what a shower and clean clothes could do. "Where's Ginger?"
"Ginger's next door. I have some clients who appreciate his special services."
"Her services," Toby corrected.
"Whatever. We both know what Ginger really is, don't we?"
Supercilious. The creep should have repulsed Toby, but for some reason he didn't. Toby shuffled his bare feet and frowned. Something strange was happening here.
"I've taken the liberty of fixing breakfast for you. An omelet. Orange juice. It's in the living room."
Saliva flooded Toby's mouth. Fried chicken yesterday from that asshole John and a donut this morning just weren't enough. He'd gone too long without enough food. "Sounds great." He followed Cranston back into the living room.
Sure enough, an omelet sat steaming on a plate on the breakfast bar. Coffee and glass of OJ were at hand, as well, along with a cloth napkin folded to resemble a swan. Someone had opened the drapes and sunlight flooded the room. Toby sat on a stool and dug in. "This is good. Thanks."
"Drink your orange juice down. It's freshly squeezed, just for you. That's a good boy." Cranston sat at the sofa and fiddled with a laptop computer. A jumbled pile of white plastic with wires extruding from it sat on the end table.
Toby gulped at his OJ. He'd never had freshly squeezed before, and the tang burned his throat and tingled his nose. He liked it, even if it did taste a little odd. He took another sip and stared at the setup on the end table. It looked like a plastic octopus was making love to a shower cap, with wire leads going to a black box on the table. Another cable ran from the box to Cranston's laptop.
"What's that?" Toby took another bite of his omelet.
"It's just a little something we use to evaluate candidates."
"Candidates for what? Mayor?" That's it. Zing him with humor.
"No. As it happens, the Mayor is next door with Ginger. Our candidates are much more special than a mere mayor."
"Really." Toby finished his OJ. "Shpehsul...Special how?" He peered at Cranston and tried to push, but he couldn't concentrate.
"We like to think of our candidates as having super-powers." He licked his lips and smiled. "Do you have super-powers, Toby Heinz?"
"Shoop...shooper powersh? You're not shupposhed to know." The room swirled about him. What was wrong with him? What was going on? Shit! Cranston knew his last name. How could that be? It was like he'd pulled it from thin air. Or from Toby's head.
"It's all right Toby. You're safe." Cranston gripped Toby's shoulder and steadied him. Hadn't he been just sitting on the sofa? When did he move? "You're with your own kind now."
The room spun and Toby fell into Cranston's waiting arms. He lost himself in the dazzling sunlight. What had Cranston done? The OJ. He must have drugged it. Toby knew he should panic, but all he felt was an overpowering calm.
Then world glimmered to nothingness and went away.