The hall that led to the back rooms was dimly lit and smelled musky and stale. There were doors on lining either side--it was like being escorted through a prison, with rows and rows of cells leading towards the execution block. Julian’s stomach knotted tightly and he pushed his fists deep into his pockets. He tried to assure himself that someone would save these kids. It couldn’t be him right now, but eventually, someone would come and rescue them.
Harkins smiled as they passed each door, rapping on a few as they went. “We’ve got some really nice pros in today as well, if you’re interested. Times are getting tough and lots of pimps are trading in their more useless charges for a nice load of creds. They specialize in sexual services, but can be made into good laborers as well if needed. Good at taking direction, bad with initiative. Perfect Collars, really.”
Julian shook his head. “I’m looking for resale value. Not much profit in black sheep.”
“Doesn’t hurt to offer.” Harkins shrugged and continued walking until he came to the last door on the right, proudly stroking the metal with his callused hand. “Now this, I hope, is what you’re looking for.”
Julian came closer as Harkins unlocked the heavy door and opened it wide. He held his breath as he peered into the dark, closet-sized room, standing closer to his escort than he was entirely comfortable with to get a better view. The only light was what spilled in from the hallway, illuminating, a small shadow of a child hugging its knees to its chest.
“This is Davie. His father’s got connections enough to make ransom a decent deal, but he’s also got a very good temperament. Not the brightest pixel on the screen, if you get my meaning, but he’s obedient to a fault. No matter what you do with him, you shouldn’t have a problem getting your money’s worth out of him.”
Julian nodded absently, seeing the first hint of shiny blonde hair as the child raised his head. Another dead end. Silently, he found himself thanking every deity he could think of that Harkins’s top item was someone other than his brother.
His relief was short-lived. He looked down at the boy, finding his squinting blue eyes in the darkness as they tried to adjust to the limited light. The time for celebration was over. He forced himself to look away, glancing instead at Harkins’s eager grin. “...How much are you asking for him?”
“Bidding starts at five hundred,” he stated, mater of fact. There was no limit to the amount of pleasure he seemed to take in showing off his frightened goods.
“I’ll give you seven hundred right now for him.”
Harkins shook his head. “You want him, you can bid on him like everyone else. If I start taking money behind closed door, people are going to start complaining. Got to give everyone a chance to see the goods before I can accept anything. You understand.”
Julian looked down at the cowering child and gave a small nod of acknowledgment. “Guess I’ll just have to stick around, then.”
Harkins clasped him hard by the shoulder and steered him back towards the floor, spouting off some gibberish about having good taste and a fine eye. Julian heard very little of it. “That reminds me,” the man of ill repute said with a flourish. “When I approached you earlier, I couldn’t help but notice you were eyeing Rabbit. Would I be mistaken if I were to assume your tastes extend to adult men?”
“Rabbit?” Julian blinked and returned his attention to his host. “Is that the name of the guy with the tattoos?”
“That’d be him. Hard-assed bastard. Not the friendliest of sorts, mind you. If it’s entertainment you’re after, I know a couple men who’d be more than willing to acquiesce to your desires,” Harkins said with a hungry smirk.
Julian smiled back, but was quick to decline. “There’s more fun to be had in the pursuit, Harkins. Thanks for the offer, though.”
“Well then, allow me to introduce the two of you, at least.” He gestured again for Julian to follow and cut through a couple of women discussing the finer points of bondage. “Who knows, he may be lonesome for company tonight.”
They moved through the crowd towards the otherwise unoccupied wall where the tattooed man still stood silently. He looked over at them as they came nearer, but he did not move to make himself more approachable.
“Rabbit, I’d like you to meet Darrell. This is his first time at a live auction and I was hoping I could leave him in your care.” Harkins turned back to Julian. “Rabbit is quite the wallflower but he can answer any questions you may have.”
Rabbit turned bright green eyes on Julian, looking over his face and body in a fluid but obvious motion. His eyes seemed more trained to assess danger than attractiveness and he gave a curt nod after his survey was complete. “Sure. Leave him here.”
Harkins smiled at them both and made his escape, wandering back into the vile crowd.
Julian was glad to be rid of him. He looked at Rabbit, who was an infinitely more pleasant sight, and smiled a bit to himself, though the other man seemed to have written him off already. He looked much younger close up, with the shadows in the room no longer masking the subtleties of his features. His eyes were dark and hollow, though, untouched by emotion.
“What kind of name is Rabbit?” Julian asked at length, trying to find some topic to talk about that wasn’t associated with their location.
Rabbit raised a gold studded eyebrow at him. “A last name.”
Julian smiled coyly. “I see. I like it. It’s different.”
Rabbit shrugged, adjusting his stance against the wall. “So, what are you here for? Labor or pleasure?”
“I’m not into kids.”
“Then you are very, very lost.”
Julian smiled a bit, leaning against the wall next to him. “Guess I am. What about you?”
“What about me?”
“Why are you here?”
Rabbit furrowed his brow, looking out at the crowd. “Consider it an investment.”
Julian nodded, though he could hardly pretend to understand. He had to maintain his facade, though, and questions were better reserved for less suspicious matters. “So tell me, Rabbit, what’s the going rate here?”
“Under a thousand, generally. Couple of them can go for more. It all depends on the kid.”
Julian pursed his lips. He had fewer than three thousand in his account after paying Riley. Still, with two thousand creds he could maybe escort four children out and make back perhaps half of it in compensation from the families. Generous as he would like to be, there was still the issue of making ends meet, and he wouldn’t get the other seven thousand from Maxwell until Phineas was safely home.
The lights went low on the floor and brightened over the stage area, gaining the attention of the audience. An overweight but well-dressed man stood at the center, smiling broadly. “Welcome, everyone. In a minute, we will get started. First of all, I would like to thank Mr. Harkins for his generous contributions, as well as the Jacksons for their continued patronage.” There was a pause for applause. It was unnerving how natural it all seemed. “And now, if I can have all of your attention once more, we will begin the auction. Please make sure you call out loudly or you may miss out on our lovely offers.”
On cue, a line of children was brought onto the stage by collars looped around their necks, lined up naked and trembling before the eyes of the crowd. There was another brief moment of applause and a moment of murmuring as attendees before finally the first child was pulled to the front. She was trying desperately to cover her pre-pubescent body with her hands. For their part, the crowd behaved professionally; there were no jeers or lewd remarks barked at the angel tethered before them. The girl was drugged, as were the rest of them, but her face sparkled with tears in the stage lights as the auctioneer took her chin in hand to help demonstrate her fine points.
“This is Sarah. She’s got fine teeth, no history of broken bones or serious illness, and she’ll be ten years old in two months. Sarah can read and write and took gymnastics with her school. Bidding starts at four hundred.”
Julian watched, trying to keep his jaw firmly set as a wave of hands went up and amounts were called. Four hundred was soon four-fifty, five, six, six-fifty. Julian looked at the lead bidder, watched the way one hand caressed one member of his entourage’s back as the other hand announced his next bid.
“Seven hundred!” he felt himself shout, his right hand jutting up from his side. This caused the going bidders to turn their gaze on him, their penetrating stares all collecting to size him up as potential competition.
“Seven hundred from the back. Seven-fifty, anyone?”
Of course there was. Julian’s hand and voice called back with every changing interval though, challenging the lecherous man in the front row till eleven hundred credits rolled off his own tongue. The man in the front pinched his chin in thought but shook his head in the end, declining to bid once more. The mallet fell and a victorious smile spread across Julian’s face. It had taken much more than he had bargained for, but he had won.
Julian blinked as the girl screeched and reached out for one of the boys in the lineup. The boy tried to go to her but the leash only gave him so much room to move, as did the attendant holding the other end. He cried and grasped at the air, trying to reach out to her. “Sarah! Please, not my sister!”
Julian watched as they pulled him back into line and the girl was pulled to the side to be claimed at the end of the night. They were both crying. Julian felt his grip on his money slipping.
“Next up for bid: Elijah.”
Julian looked at his feet and tried to drown out the rest. He didn’t want to hear it. He’d never have enough for all of them. He could see Rabbit’s hands out the corner of his eyes--the way they flexed and relaxed at his sides in a nervous manner before he crossed his arms over his chest. Was this man really one of them? He felt different from the others. Julian tried to keep his attention back on the stranger beside him, letting the sound of the heavy mallet fade into the back of his mind.
Julian’s awareness snapped back to the stage as the blonde child he had seen in the back hall was brought forward. He looked terrified, searching the crowd for some familiar face. Julian could still hear his trembling voice calling for his daddy.
He purchased him for eight hundred credits. When the mallet fell his stomach did as well. He only had seven hundred more creds to his name, and there was one more child, rent, utilities, and food to think about. By the time they started the bidding on Nathan, Sarah’s older brother, he’d rationalized just about every possible outcome.
Bidding started at five hundred. In a minute it was up to seven-fifty. Julian clenched his teeth and looked at the floor. He didn’t want to see who won. He punched the wall at his side, waiting for the mallet to drop, though he willed it not to.
“Nine hundred!” a strong tenor announced from beside Julian. Rabbit raise one hand in a gesture of nonchalance before crossing his arms again. Julian’s eyes locked onto him, not even moving to watch the mallet fall and Rabbit was declared the highest bidder.
“What do you want for him? I can give you seven hundred for him now and the rest in a couple weeks.” The words were tumbling from his lips before he had even gathered his own thoughts.
Rabbit shook his head. “He’s not for sale.”
“But...” Julian watched the other man pull a cigarette from his coat pocket and place it against his lips as the proceedings continued around them without pausing. Rabbit lit the end and breathed in deep, letting the smoke drift slowly from his mouth. Julian watched, mesmerized by every detail of the man standing next to him. “Please...can’t we cut some kind of deal?”
“Mm.” Rabbit seemed far away, barely listening to him as he inhaled the smoke. After only a few drags, he looked at his cigarette and put it out on the wall as though it offended him. The mallet fell again. “I rode my bike here tonight. It’s going to make it a little hard to transport him back to my place. Come on.”
Julian watched him walk towards the pick up area, uncomprehending. He followed him to the table set up beside the stage, where a young woman with a nail file stood, paperwork set up for their signatures and a card reader ready for payment. Behind her, the children who had been purchased were being dressed for transport. Julian watched Rabbit run his cred card and readied his own.
“Now, they’re on a mild sedative so they should be complacent for about four hours. There’s a no return policy on all purchases, but you can feel free to put them back up for auction at any time if you’re displeased. Any other questions? No? All right then. On behalf of Mr. Tyler, thank you for your business. Have a safe journey home.”
Rabbit nodded curtly and took the hand of his purchase, Nathan, and exited the building. With a small hand in each of his own, Julian followed.
The night was colder than he remembered, and the street outside seemed more desolate than it had before, too. Without the smoke and twisting lights all around him, the real world seemed alien somehow. He watched Rabbit intently as they stood on the sidewalk, waiting for a sign of his intent.
Rabbit simply walked over to where he had parked his motorcycle--a rare and surprising form of personal transportation--and pushed the kickstand up with his foot. “The bus stop is this way. I’ll walk you down there. Wouldn’t want any of them running off.”
“Right...thank you.” Julian held on tighter to the children’s hands and pulled them along. They didn’t fight. Whatever sedative it was had them blank and complacent.
They walked nearly three blocks from the auction house, passing several bus stops on the way, before Rabbit stopped walking his bike and put the stand back down. He dug in his pocket and passed his phone to Nathan. “Call your parents. Tell them that you and your sister are riding the south-245 and will be getting off at 332nd and 990th street. They need to be there to pick you up.”
Nathan looked up at him, life sparking in his dead eyes. He took the phone with shaking hands and began to dial, the sedative making his fingers clumsy. Julian watched as he finally got the number right and pressed the ph to his ear; the boy began to cry at the sound of his mother’s voice, his words coming out nearly unintelligible as he wept in relief. Julian pushed Sarah closer to him, watching tears spring up in her own blank eyes as she listened in to her family.
“You have a phone?”
Julian looked up at Rabbit and nodded, using his free hand to pull it from his pocket and turn it on. “Davie, you know your phone number, right?”
Davie nodded deafly and began rattling it off as Julian punched the numbers in. He passed the phone over, letting the boy do his own talking. Like the other two, the tears began immediately. Julian force-fed him the information through his gasps and hiccups, helping him let his parents know where to find him in an hour’s time. It was hard to get the phone back from him; he hugged it like a lifeline. Julian wiggled it out of his grasp as the bus came into sight. Rabbit set his bike back up and straddled it, revving the engine to get it warm.
“You take the bus with them. Make sure they get off at the right stop and the right people are there to pick them up.”
Julian blinked, surprised to have all the responsibility dumped on him. “You’re leaving?”
Rabbit was already gone, taillights disappearing around the next corner.
Julian boarded the bus in silence and paid the children’s fares before ushering his charges to the back. He wrapped his jacket around Sarah’s shoulders and felt a little safer with his weapons in view. This would probably be the longest hour of these children’s lives, he thought. However long they had been missing, whatever had happened to them in that time, they were finally on their way home. To be so close had to be harder than anything that had happened so far. He didn’t envy them.
Outside the bus windows the city flowed past them. People held hands on the street, walked out of shops, or cast their silhouettes against windows. The warehouse cum auction house was behind them now and around them ahead was the illusion of safety cast by the shadows of Solace’s buildings and walkways. Taking in the small, happier things around him helped Julian digest the past few hours more easily. No matter how many disgusting, vile creatures roamed the streets, there were still good, normal people in the city.
As their stop came up, he helped the children rise, watching as their adrenaline fought hard against the medication subduing their minds and bodies. He shrugged his jacket back on and walked them off the bus. They broke away from him as soon as their feet hit the pavement. There were screams and cries enough that Julian felt his hand go for his gun out of instinct. There was no threat, though, just relieved parents embracing their lost children.
Maybe he envied them a little bit.
Julian ducked away; plenty of people had gathered at the sound of the commotion and it was easy to push out of sight through the crowd. He didn’t need to talk to them--it was obvious they were the people the children belonged to--and he knew if he did there would just be awkward questions asked of him. Besides, their happiness was enough of a reward that he didn’t feel it was necessary to negotiate with them for compensation. He wondered if he could convince his landlord of that.
As he began to walk to the next northbound bus stop, he saw a single headlight flash at him. Turning his head, he could see a motorcycle with its occupant leaning casually over the handlebars as though he’d been waiting for some time. Julian paused for a moment then walked over.
“My name’s Julian Vaughn.” he said, stopping beside him.
Rabbit nodded, sitting up a bit. “Live near here?”
“Maybe half an hour or so north.”
Julian straddled the bike behind him, tucking his long hair down the back of the jacket to hopefully keep it from whipping around. Without another word, Rabbit turned onto the street and took off. Julian wrapped his arms around him and leaned against his back. Apparently red lights, speed limits and all traffic signs were suggestions to Rabbit. Fortunately there wasn’t much traffic as they moved core-ward. The ride was intoxicating. The feel of the stranger in his arms with the wind ripping at them and the lights of the city passing by like fragments of a memory was a high like nothing else Julian had ever experienced. It ended too quickly.
At the sidewalk in front of his building, Julian slid off the bike with some reluctance and tried to regain his composure. It felt like his hair was twisted in a million knots and he flicked it over his shoulders, instructing himself to braid it next time. For some reason, he had no doubts that there would be a next time.
Rabbit killed the engine, his voice edgy and annoyed. “Next time, leave the undercover work to the professionals.”
Julian raised an eyebrow, still flicking stray hairs behind his ears nervously. “What gave it away?”
“You practically said so. You only really looked at the wall, the floor, and me, and you got too emotional during the auction process. You’re just lucky they were too busy to really notice you.”
“So are you a professional?”
Rabbit shrugged. He adjusted his fingerless gloves then gripped the handlebars tight, kicking his engine back on. “Just stay out of it.”
Julian watched him for a moment, knowing he’d disappear again in seconds. He couldn’t let that happen before he told him, though. “...I’m looking for my brother. He’s fifteen, five-foot-two, red hair with blue eyes.”
Rabbit paused for a moment, the sound of his leather-clad palms clenching the handles swallowed by the rhythmic hum of his bike. “Any reason to believe he’s on the market?”
“None,” Julian admitted truthfully. “Just trying to rule the worst out.”
Rabbit nodded. “I’ll keep an eye open.”
Julian’s words of thanks were drowned out by the sound of Rabbit’s escape.