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“Fareless,” says Christian to the bus driver. His hands are jammed in the pockets of his old grey sweatshirt, tugging it low. He doesn’t flash a transfer or a pass. He doesn’t drop quarters in the fare box. The driver shrugs. “Lloyd Center?” she says.

“Yeah,” says Christian. “Whatever.”

The bus is nearly empty. He swings himself into the seat just behind the back door. His reflection glowers at him in the black window-glass.

“Running to Northeast,” says one of the men sitting in the very back seat to the other one. “Now that seems pretty smart, first time you look at it.”

The other man, the big one, doesn’t say anything.

“Nobody’s going to look for you up that way, at least not right off the proverbial bat,” says the first guy, the little one. “Certainly not the people you pissed off. And not the people they pissed off, neither. You’re out of the middle of them, and yay team for that. Plus, you’re crossing water.” The bus changes gears, surging up and around an on-ramp onto a bridge. “Always good to get some running water between you and your troubles. Not that it necessarily has any practical effect, mind you. Come to think of it, it doesn’t have much of any effect at all, does it? But it’s what everybody does, they hit a patch of trouble too big for their britches. Makes you feel a little better to be doing it. It’s something. You know?”

The big guy doesn’t say anything.

“And see,” says the little guy, “you start looking at this plan, this whole running to Northeast plan, with that attention to detail, well. It all starts to look less like a home run and more like a bunt, and maybe not even a base hit, you know? I mean, hell. Northeast. Here there be monsters. You don’t know the signs and signals, the ways and means, you’re gonna end up as lunch, make no mistake.”

“What you need,” says the big guy, “is a friend.”

“And that is precisely what I was about to say, Mr. Keightlinger. Hot damn. Hot damn indeed. Who wouldn’t want a friend in times like these? The other fellow has somebody to back his play, what do you need? Somebody to back yours. But not just a friend, no. Not any old friend will do. You need a friend with britches big enough to stand up to your troubles. You need a friend with deep pockets to back your play. What you need, Mr. Keightlinger – ”

“Dude likes the sound of his voice,” says Christian, loudly.

“What you need, Mr. Keightlinger,” says the little guy, “especially if you’re a loud-mouthed pushy little sonofabitch like Christian Beaumont here, what you need is a goddamn patron.”

“Make no mistake,” says the big guy, who has a thick beard the color of mahogany furniture, bushy enough to bury the knot of his skinny black tie.

“The fuck are you?” says Christian, who’s spun around on his seat to look at them.

“Me?” says the little guy, who’s wearing a black suit just like the big guy’s. “I’m Mr. Charlock. My associate is the aforementioned Mr. Keightlinger. And I’m assuming that you are in actual fact Mr. Christian Beaumont. If you aren’t, what I’m saying probably makes no sense whatsoever. But if you are, my friend, well, you just stood yourself up between two houses of the gentry who are determined to butt heads and none too particular about what happens to the little folks stuck in the middle. Hell, you’ve got one or two of ’em ready to see to it personally you end up flatter than not. The kind of trouble you’re in doesn’t come any bigger. You need a patron. And we can fulfill that role, my associate and myself.”

“And what if I told you to go fuck yourself?” says Christian.

“Well,” says Mr. Charlock. “You have a couple of options, all of which involve running out of town. But! That costs money, doesn’t it?”

“Quite a bit of money,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

“More than Mr. Beaumont has, anyway.”

“Fuck you,” says Christian.

“He could hitchhike, I suppose,” says Mr. Charlock, “or hobo his way south or east. Or he could sign up to fight forest fires! ’Tis the season, after all, and the commercial outfits aren’t too picky about who they sign up. He could be out at the Three Sisters burn in a matter of days.”

“He doesn’t have days,” says Mr. Keightlinger.

Christian rolls his eyes.

“Oh, you’re right there,” says Mr. Charlock. “That Mooncalfe is a vicious bastard. Murderous. What was it again he did to that obnoxious cowboy in the parking lot of the Red Lion?”

“Bet he didn’t talk his motherfuckin’ ears off,” says Christian.

“No,” says Mr. Charlock, his voice suddenly flat and quiet as the bus pulls into a stop. “No, he didn’t.”

“Lloyd Center,” calls the bus driver. “End of Fareless Square.”

Christian hauls himself up out of his seat. “So what do you want from me?” he says.

Standing, Mr. Charlock says, “You see, Mr. Keightlinger?” They follow Christian out the back door and onto the sidewalk in front of a dimly lit park. “The street is a harsh mistress, but her lessons are taken to heart. The invisible hand of the marketplace is hard at work, ensuring that services are rendered for value received. A patron is no mere friend, after all, to flee when the fair weather turns; a patron, after all, is a mutual obligation. So let’s by all means cut to the chase: we will, Mr. Beaumont, keep you safe from the Mooncalfe and the Stirrup and anyone they might send to effect their revenge. In return for which, you will educate us in the ways of one Jo Maguire.”

“Jo?” says Christian.

“You do know Miss Maguire, don’t you? Mr. Beaumont? Otherwise, I’m afraid this has been a dreadful waste of everyone’s time.”

Christian jams his hands into the pockets of his sweatshirt. He looks away from the two men in their black suits up the sidewalk toward the parking lot of a movie theater, filled with a slowly churning traffic jam of people and cars working their ways home after the last show. A number eight bus pulls up to the stop, opens its doors expectantly. He waves it off. “Buy me a burger,” he says. “Let’s talk about it.”

“By all means, Mr. Beaumont,” says Mr. Charlock. “By all means.”

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