It was mid-week and still too early for paying customers. I was watching the vidscreen at the Stray Cat show programs about Earth, and wishing I’d never left.
The mirror above the bar showed Lena circulating in a green silk dress. The matching scarf around her neck marked her available. In the corner sat a couple of Bavarsi, a telepathically-bonded pair who specialised in threesomes. Their scarves were red: they must have been waiting for their patron to turn up.
The vidscreen was showing a documentary about sea turtles. It was one of the reasons I liked to work the Cat, there was always something to remind me of home.
Someone slipped into the seat next to mine.
“Buy you a drink?” a male voice said. Inwardly I grimaced and turned to the newcomer to decline. Accepting a drink meant only one thing, and I didn’t do guys for money.
Instead I gaped. A Ghost had just sat down beside me.
He had the pale features that gave his species, the Erizen, their nickname. Fair skin, large light grey eyes that were slightly too close together. His cheekbones were high in a narrow face. In fact, his whole face seemed too thin. The Ghost ducked his head, so that he was hidden by a curtain of hair so blond it was almost white. He probably got stared at a lot – Erizen were as elusive as phantoms, and that was the other half of how they got their nickname.
Lena circled closer, shark-like, and her hungry glances said she was ready to take what I wouldn’t.
On the other side of the room, the lumpy grey-green shape of a Rotakak walked in. The face looked like it had been caught in a door, and the yellow squinty eyes told me it was a female. She caught sight of me and crowed. My stomach turned sour with recognition. I’d serviced this lady before, and had limped for days afterwards. She might have four arms and the complexion of a toad, but under the terms of my contract she was nominally humanoid. If she wanted me and I was available, I was hers.
I thumbed the spot on my scarf that started it changing from green to red. The Ghost was, at least, more human-looking than the Rotakak. “Thanks. I’ll have a beer.”
He gave a broad smile and signalled the barman. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Lena pout and move away. The lady Rotakak scowled and turned her charms to Tervin, a tiny violet-skinned Yevenni.
“What’s your name?” the Ghost asked.
“You can call me Marlowe,” he said.
We drank our beer and made small talk, just enough to get comfortable. The vidscreen started playing a documentary about water birds: herons, flamingos, ibises, that sort of thing. I’d seen this show before too – hardly surprising since I hadn’t seen a new programme since arriving at the dome, but I hadn’t seen a bird of any kind either so I didn’t mind too much. Marlowe watched it intently, seeming both fascinated and amused that eating shrimp turned flamingos pink, and I realised he’d finished his drink. I picked up my bottle to down the rest of it.
His fingers, cool on my wrist, stopped me.
“There’s no rush.”
I nodded, “Okay,” but quickened the pace anyway.
We stood, and although Marlowe was tall he wasn’t as big as I’d expected. Six-six, maybe six-seven, and that was with a slouch. Tall for a human, but short for a Ghost if the rumours were true. He smiled like he knew what I was thinking.
He led me out into a street, where the neon strips weren’t quite enough to drown out the faint lights above us. Artificial stars, set into the roof of the dome to mimic a real night sky. They weren’t the same though. They didn’t twinkle.
I was expecting Marlowe to take me to a hotel, but instead we went to a bar. If the bouncers noticed my scarf they didn’t show it. Round tables occupied the centre of the room, in front of an empty stage. Booths lined the walls, and Marlowe gestured me into one of them while he went to the bar.
He came back with two beers and slipped in to sit opposite me. The place was so quiet I heard the mock-leather seat creak as he shifted. He cocked a bottle in my direction.
“To new friends.” Then he frowned, and cocked his head as if trying to see me in better light. “Wasn’t your scarf green earlier?”
“Um, yes,” I replied. “Marlowe… You know I’m a hooker, right?”
“Oh,” he said. “Well, isn’t this awkward.”
Which was not the reaction I was expecting.
“A little,” I allowed. “Especially since we’ve been on the clock since you bought me that drink at the Stray Cat.”
“Really?” His pale eyebrows raised at me. “Then it seems like you’re getting the best of the deal so far.”
“I’m sorry.” I’d hunched into a defensive slouch, ready to flee: this far out of my comfort zone there was no one to step in if things went bad. “I thought you knew. Look, I’ll go and we’ll call it even.”
“That hardly seems fair. I’ve taken half your evening, after all. Why don’t we head back to my hotel? That way we both get what we want.”
I nodded, too surprised to speak. His mouth stretched in a smile.
His hotel was twenty floors of gold-coloured glass that reflected the city lights so clearly it looked like an optical illusion. Inside, everything was trimmed with metal the same colour as the glass, and there were giant golden pots of plants too green and glossy to be real. No one batted an eyelid as Marlowe strode across the lobby with a whore in tow.
Inside the room, a towel hung from the bathroom door, and a bowl of discarded watermelon rind sat on the desk next to a cluster of coffee rings. I flickered a glance at the bed – it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been hired to attend second-hand sheets – but it had the crisp, clean look of having been freshly changed that morning.
“In a hurry?” Marlowe teased.
“Only if you are.” If he wanted to play that game it was fine with me. Some of my regulars liked to play at dating. One, old enough to be my mother, liked to call me her “young man” and be seen with me out at dinner, concerts, and the theatre. She paid extra for me to leave the scarf at home.
Marlowe moved closer, so that I had to look up at him.
“Can this come off?” He touched my scarf lightly with his forefinger.
I nodded and reached up.
“Let me.” His voice was as soft as his touch, and I couldn’t help but shiver as he held my gaze and undid the knot as carefully as if he were undressing me.
“You should know,” I breathed. “I don’t usually do this with guys.”
“But you have done it before.” It wasn’t a question.
“Well then,” he said, like the cat that’s got the cream, and went to his knees.
It took me a moment to realise his hands were at my trousers, and by then the thought of what he was going to do had me standing at attention.
“Wait!” It came out as a strangled croak. Clients never offered to go down on me.
He drew back and looked up at me with his eyebrows raised. “If I don’t, then later you’re not going to last nearly long enough.”
“Oh,” I said, and wondered what the heck I’d let myself in for.
Marlowe laughed and bent his head again.
Lorenzo put a datapad on the desk and turned it to face me. “You know what this is?”
I didn’t need to see the electronic scrawl on the bottom to answer. “My contract.”
“That’s right. I’m glad you recognise it. What does it say just here?” He jabbed at it with a finger.
“Humanoids and females only.”
“Well done. Did your Ghost turn out to be a cross-dresser?”
“Then explain to me how come it was you went home with him, not Lena. And how come Tervin ended up with an irritable lady Rotakak and a black eye that’ll hit his takings for a week.”
That made me wince, although it was the reason I hadn’t wanted to service the Rotakak in the first place – on them, aroused looks a lot like irritated.
“He wasn’t interested in Lena.”
“So you should have sent him to the Launchpad. I’ve been flooded this morning with calls complaining about breach of contract. Give me one reason why I shouldn’t fire you.”
I said the only thing I could.
“I didn’t take his money.”
Which was true. I’d woken up in the early hours still in Marlowe’s bed, a professional faux pas if ever I’d made one. Being fast asleep himself he hadn’t noticed. My scarf was on the desk, with a generous pile of currency on top of it. I hadn’t seen him put it there. The evening had been fun, not like work at all, and I felt weird about taking it. So I didn’t.
Lorenzo stared at me like I’d admitted to bedding a non-sentient. “Explain to me how that’s better.”
“It’s not breach of contract if I didn’t get paid. Nobody loses out but me. You’ll take the night out of my pay anyway.”
“Damn right I will.” Lorenzo shook his head. “Stay on your own side of the fence from now on. No more guys and no more nights off.”
He waited until I got to the door before he spoke again. “Was he worth it?”
Marlowe was the only client who’d ever treated me like more than just a walking dildo. Just thinking about his hands on me in the darkness made me shiver. I nodded. “Damn right he was.”
At the Cat, Lena greeted me with a pout. “Your Ghost was here. Asking about you.”
“Is it true you didn’t take his money?” Tervin demanded. His scarf was green, although he might as well have not bothered – Lorenzo hadn’t been kidding about the black eye.
“True,” I admitted.
There was a commotion by the doorway. I turned to see the bouncer’s solid frame blocking the doorway. “I’ve already told you once, get over to the Launchpad if you want boys.”
Marlowe peered over his head and caught my eye. “Addison!” he called. “Look, I only want to talk.”
I had just enough time to shrug that it was out of my hands, before he was shoved back into the street.
“Just what I need.” I turned away. “Maybe I should work somewhere else for a while.”
“Not so fast.” Tervin, facing the door, broke into a grin. “Someone here to see you.”
Behind me, a lady Rotakak crowed in satisfaction.
She kept me the rest of the night, and made me pay in her own way for bailing the evening before. I gritted my teeth and bore it, and tried not to wish it was Marlowe moving above me in the darkness instead.
After she let me go, I went home and straight in the shower. If I’d thought I’d ached before it was nothing on how I felt now. I ducked my head under spray that was too hot for comfort and wondered, not for the first time, if Lorenzo would let me amend my contract to exclude Rotakaks.
Wishful thinking. We’d already had this conversation, and although he’d accommodate gender preferences, he wouldn’t allow his staff to be too selective. No one would sleep with the Rotakak at all, otherwise.
I got home to a message from Lorenzo. Would I kindly make an appearance at his office in the morning to discuss my stalker.
I groaned and fell into bed, and pulled the pillow over my head.
The following morning, I prepared myself to be fired.
Lorenzo’s doorman nodded me in when I arrived, his craggy features not giving anything away. I opened the door.
Marlowe was sitting at the desk.
They were obviously in the middle of discussing something – me, probably. Lorenzo waved me into the chair beside Marlowe.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“Mr Marlowe has a proposition.”
“I want to hire you,” Marlowe said.
“But I don’t do guys,” I protested. He gave me a look of polite scepticism and I blushed. “It’s not in my contract. Lorenzo, tell him.”
“I did. He won’t take no for an answer.”
I felt my face get hotter. “I don’t do guys for money.”
Marlowe sighed, looking disappointed. “Won’t you even hear me out?”
Which left me no choice, because if Lorenzo wasn’t interested we wouldn’t have been having the conversation at all.
“Okay,” I said, and Lorenzo explained.
Marlowe wanted to hire me, not just for sex but for the company. He wanted someone who knew the city, who wouldn’t mind showing him around and going places with him. He wanted exclusivity, and he was willing to pay for it.
“I’ll grant an amendment in your contract to cover it,” Lorenzo said. “Males by prior agreement only. You won’t have to pick up men while you’re working the bars.”
I thought of the money. The extra commission would be a nice bonus. I might even save enough to get off-planet. I could go home.
“Where do I sign?” I asked. And that was that.
The first day we didn’t leave Marlowe’s hotel room. In the aftermath, laying in the tangled sheets, his voice woke me from a doze.
“Why do you do it?”
I shrugged beneath the hand that rested on my shoulder. “I needed the money and Lorenzo was hiring.”
“So it’s just a means to an end?” He teased his fingers across my shoulder blades and I shivered.
“You do what you have to, to get by. How about you? Why’d you pick me?”
Marlowe didn’t answer, just leaned forward to kiss me. I kissed him back: if he didn’t want to talk about himself that was fine. He was paying, after all.
Later, we sat in bed eating thin slices of watermelon. Marlowe loved the stuff, although I thought it tasted like it’s name. The turtle documentary was on again.
Marlowe frowned. “So they lay their eggs in the sand and then just abandon their young?”
“Sure,” I replied. “Plenty of species do it.”
“Um. Fish. Scorpions maybe. Spiders.”
Seeds fell from the slice he was holding. “You have some strange creatures on your planet.”
He shook his head. “Once, maybe. Now it’s just us.” He became intent on looking for the dropped seeds, and I knew better by then to push for answers.
The next few days were the best holiday I’d ever had. We got up late, ate what and when we wanted, went around galleries and museums. In the evenings went out to bars and clubs. And the whole time, I was getting paid.
On the fourth night we ended up at a bar with a pretty Yevenni singer. She was even tinier than Tervin, no more than three and a half feet tall, with every inch of exposed violet skin patterned with curling dark blue tattoos the same colour as her hair. She must have been the reason the place was so crowded.
“Isn’t she good?” Marlowe asked.
I nodded, and scanned the room without turning my head from the stage. For a while I’d had the feeling of being watched, an instinct I’d picked up early, on account of how it either means someone’s working their way up to asking if you’re free or you’re in trouble.
Just to the right of the stage, the only still point in a booth of her own, was a woman. No, not a woman – a female Erizen. Her hair was dyed dark, but after spending time with Marlowe I could recognise what she was.
And it wasn’t me she was staring at.
“Hey.” I reached across the table to touch Marlowe’s wrist. “Isn’t that one of your kind over there?”
I felt him tense. He raised his head to take a drink, which incidentally let him look in the right direction. When he looked away his fingers were white around the bottle. He muttered a stream of flowing syllables I recognised as probably not polite.
“We have to go,” he murmured, his lips barely moving.
Marlowe twined his fingers in mine, and drew me towards the bathroom. The people around the corridor parted for us, figuring we were going for a quickie or something. He pulled me straight past the males’ room and out the fire exit into an alley that stank of uncollected trash. There was a puddle in the corner, and I didn’t want to think about what that was since it didn’t rain in the dome.
It was difficult to keep up with Marlowe’s long-legged stride, but his grip on my wrist didn’t give me much choice. I stumbled as he dragged me through the streets, into clubs and out fire exits, until I was thoroughly lost.
Somehow, we ended up back at the hotel. Marlowe didn’t stop until the door closed behind us.
I collapsed to my knees, face pressed into the bedcovers. “What,” I gasped, “was that?”
Marlowe took a step towards me. “We’re not a sociable people.”
“I know that.” I lifted my head to scowl at him. “I didn’t think it meant your own kind.”
“They wouldn’t approve. Of us.”
I wasn’t sure if he meant because I was male, or human. Before I could ask he went into the bathroom and a moment later I heard the shower running. Usually it was an invitation. This time, I left him to it.
We didn’t leave the hotel the next day, and Marlowe kept glancing out of the window to the street below.
“We should move,” he declared that evening. “I’m bored with it here.”
I wasn’t paid to have an opinion: I shrugged.
It only took a moment to pack, as both of us were travelling light. I followed Marlowe out the back door and wondered why he was so afraid of the other Erizen finding us. We’d almost made it to the street when a voice behind us said something that sounded like “Allasinar.”
Marlowe froze. He let go of my hand and straightened, and I wondered how much of the slouch had been to hide his height.
Marlowe was tall but the newcomer was taller. Close to seven feet, if not over it. It made her arms and legs seem gangly, like the pale spiders I always seemed to find in my bathroom. Ghost spiders. Except she wasn’t like any Ghost I’d ever heard of.
Although she had the same narrow features and pale skin as Marlowe, what I had taken for dyed black hair was actually a deep purple-black. It matched her eyes and nails, and I thought I could even see a hint of it in her lips.
She continued like I wasn’t there, until Marlowe cut her off with a sharp gesture.
“I’m not going back.”
The non-Ghost glanced at me with contempt. “It’s not your decision. Come with me willingly or I’ll take you by force. The result is the same.” Her accent was so thick I barely understood her, and I realised how human Marlowe sounded. How human he wanted to sound.
Marlowe shifted his weight. I heard it then, the same thing he had: a group of revellers on a night out, heading down the street towards us. When he grabbed my wrist and dragged me backwards into the crowd, I was ready.
In the middle of the festivities, we were just two among many. Marlowe grabbed a party hat from somewhere and perched it ridiculously on top of his head. If anyone thought we looked out of place they didn’t say.
We left the party when it reached the subway system. Marlowe ditched the hat, grabbed me, and dragged me through the maze of tunnels. We got on a shuttle, changed at random, got on another and off at the next stop, on a third and straight through to the platform on the other side.
Finally we got on a shuttle to one of the outlying districts. Marlowe collapsed into a seat. I perched on the edge of the one opposite, half expecting the dark-haired Ghost to jump out at us. The shuttle emptied until it was just the two of us, but I couldn’t relax. Marlowe had known exactly where he was going. Just like the night before.
“You knew someone was coming after you, and you didn’t think she’d confront you if you had company. You used me.”
Marlowe’s eyes flashed anger. “Isn’t that what you’re paid for?”
I sat back. “I’m paid for fucking. What did you do, that your people want you back so badly? Did you kill someone?”
“No!” He stared at me in horror.
“I don’t know what else to think. If you wanted protection you should have hired a bodyguard.”
“Please, Addison. I didn’t kill anyone!”
“Then explain. Or I walk away right now.”
He sagged. “My father was an adjudicator in cases of contamination by outsiders. At night I used to sneak into his office and look at the evidence. It seemed so unfair that the Council wanted to keep all these things from us.”
“When he died, I had no other family so I was placed in an institution. It was very different to what I was used to. There was never any privacy – we all ate, slept and learned together, all the time. I hated the routine, and the strictures, and never being able to ask why.”
He looked so miserable, hunched forward with his hands dangling between his knees, that I almost went to sit beside him. Instead I waited.
“When I reached my majority I asked to go to the Memmet, the traders. The Council refused. They said it would dishonour my father’s memory if they allowed me to be tainted by contact with outsiders. So I ran. I’ve been travelling ever since. So now you know.”
Now I did go to sit beside him.
“It doesn’t seem that terrible,” I ventured.
“I think if my father hadn’t been who he was, the Council might have let me disappear. But he was well known, and their interest was supposed to be an honour, so instead I’m an embarrassment. That’s why they want me back, to rehabilitate or make an example of me. Maybe both.”
Marlowe met my gaze and nodded. His eyes seemed huge in the poor light.
I sighed, and brushed my fingers across the back of his hand. “I know a place we can hole up for the night,” I said.
I’d been to the motel before, but only once. It hadn’t improved. The desk clerk, a Rotakak with acid green eyes and rolls of extra flesh, gave us a sour look as we booked a room for the whole night instead of at the more expensive hourly rate. His skin was greasy and flaking, and I had to suppress the urge to wipe my hands as he gave me the keycard.
Marlowe followed me to the room in silence. The door squeaked when I opened it, and the bottom caught on the carpet. It was a far cry from the hotel room where we’d first spent the night together. Marlowe moved past me as I locked the door, and when I turned he was hunched on the edge of the low, narrow bed. He looked tired.
“It must be lonely,” I said. “Being on the run.”
When he looked up to answer, I kissed him.
For an instant I thought he wouldn’t react. Then he leaned into me and his hands pulled at my shirt. He tasted of coffee and stale beer. We sank to the bed and clung to each other like we were drowning.
It was much later when I stirred. Marlowe was sprawled face-down and barely stirred as I slipped out from underneath his arm.
I went to the ancient and stained water heater to make a drink I didn’t really want. The clock’s sickly green display said it was still early, but we didn’t have long before the first flights off-planet.
When I turned back, Marlowe was watching me.
“You have to go,” I said. “Move on somewhere else and hope she loses the trail.”
“I owe you,” he said. “For the contract.”
“Last night was on me,” I said. “I’ll tell Lorenzo the deal’s off.”
“At least let me buy you breakfast.”
“I’ll see what’s on offer,” I said, and stepped outside.
The movement was so fast I barely saw it. All I knew was I was flat on my back. A figure stepped over me.
“Marlowe!” I shouted. “Run!”
Caught by surprise, Marlowe paused in the doorway. The dark Ghost bundled him backwards into the room and kicked the door shut. I lunged for it, wedged my hand between it and the frame. The pain made me scream and then I was in.
She had Marlowe against the wall, dark-tipped fingers around his throat. “The stink of him is all over you,” she growled. Marlowe didn’t seem hurt, but I didn’t stop to find out.
“Let him go!” I grabbed her arm.
She back-handed me across the face and I went sprawling. Her boot landed firmly in the side of my head. For a moment all I saw was stars. Then something looped around my throat and choked off my air.
“Let him go!” Marlowe screamed. “If I go with you, will you let him go?”
The female shoved me away and stood. “If you’d sacrifice yourself for him, you’re already corrupted.”
I clawed the smooth cord from my throat, and found a lamp at one end of it.
“But they still want me back,” Marlowe said. “Why does it matter how long I’m out here?”
She shook her head. “It is forbidden. There are Erizen, and Memmet, and Kelessin. Nothing else.”
She was focused on Marlowe. I groped for the lamp beside me and leapt. It caught the dark Ghost on the side of her head and she went down.
Quiet, and all I could hear was my own breathing. Marlowe stared down at the female wide-eyed as I used the lamp cord to bind her hands behind her back.
“What should we do with her?”
Marlowe took a step back. “I don’t know.”
“Head start?” I suggested. “If we book the room for another night we’ll be gone before anyone finds her.”
“And when she catches me again?”
“We’ll deal with it then.”
He gave me a startled look at the “we”. I tore strips from the sheets to tie her feet.
“What did she mean, Erizen, Memmet and Kelessin?”
“Kelessin are pariahs,” he said. “We send them out to do the things no pure Erizen would do.”
“I thought that was the Memmet.”
“The Memmet are traders only,” he said. “They’re the ones the adjudicators keep an eye on. Mostly they’re allowed home again, after purification. The Kelessin are beyond redemption. They can never go home. That’s what the dark purple colouring is for, to mark them. They eat something and it changes them forever.” He gave a little hiccup of a laugh and closed his eyes. “They’re flamingos.”
The thought of the lanky kidnapper as a bright pink bird made me laugh out loud. Marlowe’s expression became pinched and he started to laugh, and then to cry, and couldn’t seem to stop. I wrapped my arms around his shoulders until it passed.
When he was done, we grabbed our stuff and headed for the door.
“You won’t get far.”
We turned to see the pariah watching us from the floor. Even her eyes were purple.
“I know,” Marlowe said.
“When I find you, I’ll kill your lover.”
I squeezed Marlowe’s fingers to show him I wasn’t afraid. He pulled away and dropped to his knees beside her.
“One of the things the Kelessin do for us,” he said as he searched through her clothes, “is track down the irredeemably tainted.” He pulled a small bag from the pariah’s pocket, and opened it to reveal a cluster of pills the purple of seaweed. “They mark them as pariahs.”
“You wouldn’t,” the female said, at the same time as I realised what Marlowe meant to do.
“You can’t!” I exclaimed. “Marlowe, they’ll never let you go home.”
“If I don’t, it’s go home now or they kill you. It’s the only way I’ll ever be free.” He met the pariah’s gaze and held it. “How many do I take?”
“You’re mad,” she said. “Even after all this, the Council will let you go home. Not if you become Kelessin.”
I tried to imagine Marlowe, with his curiosity and his constant questions, trapped on a planet with nothing but his own kind.
“I want this,” he said.
The pariah dropped her gaze.
“One,” she said.
We watched as Marlowe swallowed a pill dry, and grimaced. He stood, took my hand, and led me from the motel.
“She’ll tell the Memmet what happened,” he said. “No one will come after me. I can go where I want.” He stopped, studied my face. “Maybe we could go to Earth. See the turtles.”
I met his gaze, looking for signs of his eyes turning dark, but he just looked like Marlowe. It wasn’t the time to tell him what the documentaries hadn’t, that turtles had been extinct for decades.
I took his hand. “Come on, Flamingo.”
Earth could wait.
by C.L. Holland