Allan noticed the figure standing at the back of the room, a human outline in pale gas flame blue, beyond the sea of heads bobbing in conversation. As quickly as it appeared, the figure vanished. Probably some lighting effect, tossed off by the staff of an eccentric coffee joint. Allan saved his work, closed his laptop, and paid up. A stacked agenda of multiple priorities awaited him at the office.
He got into his car and headed down Sixth.
Sharply, from the backseat: “In a hurry this time?”
Allan jerked the wheel and nearly sideswiped a parked car. The face in the rearview mirror smirked—a thirtyish male face, on a head of dark brown hair, attached to an average-sized body clad in black khakis, top and bottom.
“The fuck?” Allan spluttered.
“Oh, I don’t blame you,” the passenger chuckled. “But I’m not going anywhere, except where you are.”
“Who are you?” Allan shouted. The man smiled and moved his eyes about.
Allan whipped the car around onto Rockford and lurched to a stop in front of some old apartments. “Look,” he said, his voice defeating the quivers and entering genuine pissed-off territory, “if you’re trying to carjack me, you kinda suck at it. And you’re getting out of my car, right now.”
The khaki man smiled. “Am I, now?”
“Yes, you are.” Allan got out and jerked open the back door. The stranger didn’t budge. Allan sighed, grabbed him by his epaulets, and yanked him out. He hit the pavement on his belly and rolled.
Allan stared. He’d been in a few scraps, but he’d never manhandled anyone before.
The khaki man propped himself up on his elbows and began laughing. “Now that takes it, man. Really does.”
“Okay!” Allan bellowed. “You’ve apparently had your fun.” He thought of McKinney and Erland, the office wiseasses who seemed to needle him for no good reason. “If those guys put you up to this, you can tell them it tanked. Miserably.”
The khaki man sat up in the street, his laughter gone. “What guys? This is strictly between you and me.”
Allan looked away for a second. “Well, that’d make perfect sense if not for the small problem that I don’t know who the fuck you are!”
The man in black khakis rose and dusted himself off. His voice became dire. “Allan, I’ve been in your world longer than I care to admit. This, in spite of the fact that in your hands I never seem to make it further than a couple of lines before you either kill me off or kill the whole story.” He spat on the pavement. “The guy who, that’s all I’ve ever been. The guy who does what—flickers in and out, sits on his ass, maybe mouths a word or two, and wears the stupidest fucking clothes you can think of?” He spread his arms. “Get a good look, Allan, because this is me, every time you call me forth. It’s the same in the back of your mind. Like black goddamn khakis!”
He ambled toward the driver door and held out a hand. “Keys now, and get in. If I can’t have any better, then you don’t get to, either. Not until I say so.”
Allan obeyed. He didn’t care what might happen. He feared the man in the black khakis. He needed him.
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