Chapter Four: Cain
“About morals, I know only that what is moral is what you feel good after,
and what is immoral is what you feel bad after.”
Finding an escort service in New York City was as easy as a google search and a phone call. Finding all of them, visiting all of them, and getting anyone to talk about clients was another matter entirely. It was against profit entirely to turn over a man for potentially cheating on his wife, so playing the honest approach wasn’t going to work. Lying wasn’t something Cain approved of, but work and personal morals often had to have a certain separation. This was for a case. This was for Ash. Thus, how he felt about any of it didn’t matter. It was a job in need of doing, and as simply as that he pushed himself to get it done as soon as he got up that morning.
By noon he had a list on his phone of places to check out, and calling it daunting was nearly an understatement. The real trick to the work came down to finding which places were still in business regardless of online listings, and of those which had physical offices he could visit. From there it was a relatively simple task of ordering everything in terms of when they opened, if they opened, and when was best to call those who had no address he could find.
He skipped lunch then, instead catching a subway to start the first leg of his journey. The list he’d compiled was easy enough to turn into a trail, though it was hardly a clear or smooth one. A shot over to Manhattan, then a short ride across it before another train over to Queens. Nothing was ever nearby, but by the time he was done at one another was open to visit. By three he had to take a break, diving down a small alley for a semblance of privacy to make a phone call. Ash picked up after the first ring.
“How’s it going?”
“Oh, y’know.” He laughed a little, leaning into a wall and sighing. He was tired to a degree, more in mentality than physicality. “Aggravatingly laborious, but no more than was expected.”
Ash hummed in understanding on the other end, and all too easily he could picture her twirling a pen in one hand and rocking to and fro in her seat restlessly. If she had time to openly take his call in her office, then clearly the day was going slow.
“Actually, I could use your help at this point.”
As soon as he said it her chair gave the telltale signs of shifting, eagerly sitting up to better address whatever he threw her way. Unfortunately, it wasn’t much. It wouldn’t take her long, he knew. But it was at least something.
“The client’s address, and work address. I’m going to start setting up for a stakeout and visit the last places on my list in the meantime. So if you could text me those when you get them, we should be set on this one.” Idly, he checked up and down the alley. Not a soul in sight. People passed by on the sidewalk out of earshot every so often, but none so much as glanced his way. In this city, people minded their own damn business. Sometimes even when they shouldn’t. It was arguably what he loved and hated most about the place, most days.
“On it.” Came the expectedly quick response.
Typing rose up loud in the background and for a while he was content just to listen, reluctant to hang up and close off what would likely be their one interaction for the entire day. This job was sure to keep him out late (if not early) and by the time he drug himself home she’d more than likely already be going back to the office for the day.
“Hey, Ash?” He spoke up without entirely thinking, staring off at nothing in particular further down the dreary alley. It registered a moment late that perhaps he should have called her Milton instead. She was at the office, after all. But they were on the phone, and who else could hear or know who he was talking to? Context could lend obvious clues, but another glance back and forth and even upwards showed no signs of an eavesdropper.
She didn’t say a word, but the longer it went that she remained paused in typing, the more he got the hint to just continue. The only issue therein being, he wasn’t sure what to say. He’d called her attention mindlessly, in a moment of vacant longing. What was there to fill it with besides a dismissive comment she would only sigh at for wasting time?
“Thanks. For pulling it all up for me.” Was the best he ultimately managed.
There was an audible sense of hesitation in her, unsure what the weird moment meant if anything. It passed after a beat, and the typing resumed. “Yeah, sure.” Was all she offered in return, with a tone that made it clear enough she thought he was being weird and needed to knock it off. Cain just smiled, resigning to quietly listening to her type for a while more. One could argue it was stupid of him to hang on, but for as unwilling as he was to hang up, she wasn’t exactly telling him to get off the phone either. Maybe, he liked to think, she missed him too for the day.
“Well, I’ve got to catch another train for my next stop. Text you later?”
He pushed off from the wall, sighing a bit in quiet displeasure that the break was coming to an end. Neither of them said goodbye, but rather hung up at different moments and went about their business. The next agency on his list, and the last for an in-person visit, was Neon Lily.
Escort Agency offices were not what one would likely expect. There were no glass box rooms out front with naked girls dancing, and no pinup posters lining the walls of their lobby. It was generally similar to every renting space in a multilevel building, not unlike Milton’s office. On the third floor, down the right hallway, there was a single door. Knocking on it once had someone inside calling to him to open it.
Shouldering the door open gently, he edged inside to a surprisingly plush space. He hadn’t gone into the whole thing expecting a strip club with less rules- but rather, given the places he’d seen already it had become a little common for the offices themselves to be sterile. Bought up purely to have a legal face, decorated just enough to not seem sterile, and inhabited by a skeleton crew and a manager half the time conveniently out for a late lunch. Neon Lily however had a careful decoration about it, made to be welcoming and not a stiff space for paperwork and unavoidable meetings. Given the agency’s name, he’d assumed it would be more like the others from the day, and the surprise must have been on his face as the young woman at the secretary desk offered a teasing kind of laugh as the door shut behind him.
“Not what you were expecting?” She spoke soft but not meek. Gentle, comforting. A good face to have as the first people would see of your business. Easily, he found himself smiling back at her and returning a slightly embarrassed laugh to her teasing.
“Admittedly, no.” He didn’t elaborate. No need. Instead he walked over to the desk, looking about nearly every step of the way. The lobby was painted in plain colors- a light beige, with rich brown doors and trimming. The details were what made it, though. Gold accents, and the slightest flourish to golden lines following the path of the ceiling and above the flooring trim. It was a small dash of something that proved whoever decorated the place cared about it, and it made all the difference. The waiting seating was plush couches and armchairs, in a creme color just dark enough not to seem daunting to sit on as white would be. A few pillows dotted the couch in browns and golds, and the glass coffee table nestled between it all had a selection of not just magazines, but full novels as well.
Even the secretary’s desk seemed nice, rich wood and sleek glass offering a modern though not sterile look. The woman behind it was made to match, with an average build and bust and delicate features framed with the perfect amount of makeup to enhance and not overwhelm. She was art, plain and simple. Decorated just enough to bring out her natural features, celebrating herself with every stroke of eyeliner and blush. She had brown hair swept up into a twisting bun, a few strands of curling hair falling free in a way that made her seem elegant but not uptight. The cut of her blazer and the shirt beneath were modest but hardly chaste, and the light grey paired with the dash of blue made her eyes pop brightly as she looked up to his approach.
“What can I help you with today?” She asked in what had to be the most welcoming tone he’d ever heard any stereotypical customer service phrase come in. She even did a good job at staring at his scar but avoiding gawking, covering up the lingering gaze with a slow panning search up and down what she could see of him. He’d come dressed for his role for the day- a fitted grey suit with a light blue undershirt that, like her own, emphasized his eyes. A silver tie and fleur de lis cufflinks were the careful accents that held it all together, offering him a look of official influence and finances.
“I’m here to see the manager of this agency. I understand this is sudden so if a meeting at a better time can be arranged, that’s perfectly fine.” He smiled, trying to seem patient and reassuring, though the secretary clearly faltered for a moment. Unsure, nervous. Wondering what was so important he’d need to see the manager without warning, but not be upset in some way. She did good to tuck the brief fall in her smile behind a quick nod and turn away towards her computer.
“Of course.” Her tone remained calm, pleasant. She certainly was a professional, and he couldn’t help but admire her composure as she turned to make a call on the desk’s landline presumably to the manager in the office beyond the lobby.
“Miss Rowan? I have a man here to see you, he says he can schedule a meeting for later if you’re busy.” She paused, lips pursed, before nodding just slightly and turning back his way. Muttering with the phone held away a touch, “Your name, sir?”
“Matthieu Fortier.” He lied, same as every other place he’d been to that day.
She nodded and turned away again, relaying the given name to her boss. A pause went by, some short nodding and a hum of understanding, before the phone was set down and the secretary turned back with another calm smile.
“Mister Fortier, she says she can meet with you now, though shortly. She has a meeting within a half hour.”
Readily, he bowed head in thanks, returning the professional kindness he offered with his own.
“Thank you very much. I’ll try to be quick.”
He moved for the only other door in the office space, knocking once and waiting for approval to sound from the other side. Only after an older woman’s voice called back did he open it, slipping inside as discreetly as he had the lobby just before.
Behind the desk inside was a rather average looking woman, with long dark hair and even darker eyes. She wore a grey blazer with an open neckline that exposed a frilled blouse in a particularly striking magenta shade. Her lipstick was a perfect match to it, and from beneath the waves of her hair the edges of two silver hooping earrings glinted in the light as she moved. She was, Cain realized quickly, a very bold woman. Her outfit was a smart blend of professional and loud, and her desk was angled ideally to face the door, so that the instant he walked in he was approaching her seat of power. She smiled, wide, though it struck him less as reassuring and more satisfied. He approached with measured steps, neither rushing nor hesitating to come before her. She waited patient, motioning to a chair once he was near, and again he was struck by the offset. Perhaps to anyone else it would have seemed a welcoming, kind gesture. All he saw in her however was a manicured, experienced sense of power. She knew how to control a room, and on some level enjoyed the position. Not surprising given her work. Still, for all that she hardly struck him as a sadistic or cruel woman. At least not at a glance.
“Mister Fortier,” she started them off the instant he was sitting down.
Cain smiled, not surprised in the least she would take reigns immediately. He let her, settling into his seat and nodding as she continued.
“To what do I owe this sudden visit? You’re not here to talk taxes, are you?” She laughed with the charm and confidence of a woman who knew someone looking like him wasn’t there for something like that. She was smart. Smart enough to recognize a line between government official, potential client, and whatever he was. It was as impressive as it was comforting on some level, knowing the working girls under her were looked after by someone with a damn strong head on her shoulders. Unfortunately, given that he’d come there with a lie to present, her perception did not promise good things for him.
Cain laughed when she did, and shook his head smoothly at the notion.
“No, I’m afraid not.” He hummed, joining hands in his lap and crossing ankles slightly. Polite, non-aggressive body language. She seemed receptive to it, easing into her own seat, and he waited just a moment for her to relax before starting the first step of the unfolding dance.
“This is about your clientele, actually.” He flashed a wider smile, made to match the woman’s own. Outwardly charming. Cunning, beneath the surface. He straightened and reached into his pants pocket, sliding his phone free and swiftly bringing up the photo he’d been using all day. Turning it over to show the woman, he leaned into her desk some to meet her as she leaned across it to get a good look.
“Do you know this man at a glance?” Cain asked, waiting for the expected answer.
“No, can’t say I do.” Rowan was quick to sit back again once sure, analyzing every move carefully as Cain retracted, pursing lips as if disappointed and humming slightly to himself.
“I see.” He sighed, tone let down as he put his phone away again. “Then does the name Jaxon Avery ring any bells?” He sat back in his own seat, resuming the same passive posture as before. Rowan was not so easy as the others, however. She shifted, eyes narrowed. A tentative smile stayed on her face but there was a sharpness beneath it. A suspicion that grew in the heartbeat pause between his question and her answer.
“None at all.” She spoke with a certain finality that suggested his welcome in her office was closing fast. “Let’s cut to the chase.” She more commanded than invited, ever so slightly raising her chin. A dash of superiority added to the stern words. “You’re not here to book one of my girls, and you’re not here on legal business. So what do you want? Looking for some asshole that skipped town, or hoping I’ll turn over an unfaithful husband?”
Cain watched her, full of confidence and an aged sense of expectation. He was not the first person to come around her business asking questions, for whatever reason. Or perhaps just not the first person to come snooping in her life where he wasn’t needed, or wanted. But looking at her, seeing her await his backpedaling loss of composure, he couldn’t help but laugh lightly. Right away, her smile faltered. Dark eyes grew tense. Guarded. Suspicion spiking all the higher.
“Forgive me.” Cain shook his head at her, raising a hand as if to assuage her tightening nerves from a distance. “I think we both know someone coming to an escort office hoping for staff to turn over an unfaithful husband is more than a bit ridiculous. You’re not an idiot, Miss Rowan. You can run your business better than that, as much is apparent.”
The flattery had muscles in her face loosening, but her posture didn’t shift. A subconscious relaxation, but she was too smart to be so easily swayed. He liked that about her, as mildly inconvenient as it was.
“No, I’m here for something more advantageous for us both.”
“I don’t make deals with the mob.” She spat out before he could say another word.
Cain halted down to even his thoughts, blinking numbly for a moment. Lips twitched in the smile that was frozen on his face, no time to hide the clear shock. Rowan watched, her own smile gone, as flat-faced as possible as the blonde across from her struggled to catch back up to the moment.
“I-” He all but choked over himself. “I’m sorry?”
It was a terrible moment to, but he laughed again, balking over the notion a moment more.
“I don’t care what you’re offering.” Rowan explained. “I’m not interested.”
“I am not mafia.” Cain shock-laughed, blinking rapidly at the woman.
She simply crossed her arms. Not buying it.
After a moment more the worst of the surprise washed over him, and Cain rose one hand to rub at his forehead briefly before pressing a sigh out.
“Miss Rowan,” he started, reordering himself as quickly as possible. When he looked back up at the woman she was openly staring down her nose at him, a look of transparency. Clearly not in the mood for his bullshit. How ironic. He’d come there to sell her a lie but the more difficult thing then seemed trying to convince her of the truth.
“I am looking into Jaxon Avery right now as part of a.. personal favor, you could say. Strictly.. away from conventional methods.” He tried to smile as he explained, urging a sense of honesty that she seemed totally disinterested in.
“Cut the crap.” Rowan spoke sharp, the pleasant patience of her initial tone entirely gone.
Cain hesitated, staring at her. Processing the clear look, the office, the situation. After a long beat of quiet, his shoulders dropped. He sighed again though differently, less a noise of frustration and more one of letting something go. Releasing a certain pressure. He flopped back in his seat all too loosely for someone dressed as nicely as he was, and leaned heavily on one elbow onto the arm rest.
“Alright,” he agreed, professionalism removed from his voice entirely. “Avery’s a cunt.”
Rowan’s brows rose, though she said nothing. Surprised, but still on guard. Clever woman indeed. Then again, she’d be a poor mistress if she wasn’t the best damn guard dog possible for her girls’ sakes.
“The kind that can prove dangerous to girls like yours. By which I mean-” he started quickly, as soon as the flicker showed in her that ‘girls like yours’ was easily taken as an insult worthy of argument. “-working girls. You wanted to cut the crap, so let’s do it both ways. Your girls, they do house calls?”
It took a moment of stern staring, Rowan trying to gauge him and Cain relaxed and letting her. After a short wait, she nodded slow and rigid. He smiled, though nothing like before. More natural, more honest. Happy she was making what he was there for just a little bit easier.
“Avery’s bad news for girls that go out. Even if you’ve got security, he’s got the money and status to clean and cover it up. We both know the cops aren’t on the worker’s side in these kinds of things. I came here for my own work, yeah. Doesn’t mean it can’t help you, too. If you’ve got any orders from a guy with his name, I need to know. And if you get any in the future, you need to turn him down. I don’t know how many more girls in the area he’s gonna hurt before I can get to him, but if this meeting’s good for anything, it’ll hopefully be ensuring none of them are gonna be yours.”
They ebbed into silence again. Rowan looked at him, through him almost, long and hard.
Judging, analyzing. Doing everything she could to tear him apart with her eyes and be certain of what he was saying. Cain just sat back, staring back at her calm and quiet. Not too self-assured. A little desperate on the edges, maybe. But patient. The way someone who gave a damn would.
“Yeah. Alright, fine.” She agreed, reluctant but all the same. Pulling open a drawer, she lifted a laptop out and opened it on her desk, booting it up and talking to him with face half-obscured behind the screen.
“How bad’s his history if a guy like you is on his tail?” She asked, drumming fingers on her desk waiting for the computer to initialize. Cain huffed a bit, an almost-laugh sort of noise.
“It’s less a matter of severity and more.. Personal interest.”
Rowan leaned around the laptop just to narrow eyes at him in another flat stare.
“What happened to cutting the crap?” She grumbled sourly.
Cain laughed, not as artificial-sounding as the first time.
“It’s like I said. Cops don’t take the girls’ side. Ever. So.. someone has to, right?” He shrugged a bit, looking away. A sign of embarrassment. Rowan hummed and dipped back behind the screen, typing hurriedly. Cain kept his mouth shut, letting her pull up what she had and scanning through it in peace. It took a few minutes of waiting tensely before she exhaled quietly in relief.
“No Avery in any of my girls’ records. He got another name he orders under?”
“Not that I know of right now.” Readily, Cain moved to stand as Rowan shut the laptop. Surprisingly, she was eager to stand as well, leaning over the desk some with one hand offered out. He hesitated for just a second, caught off guard, before meeting her firm shake with his own.
“You know, you came in here talking all fancy, dressed like that. How the hell were you surprised I thought you were mob?” Rowan looked him up and down, scoffing.
Letting go of her hand, Cain just grinned crooked and flustered, rubbing at the back of his neck as he looked away from her. “Guess I just don’t see myself as anything like that.” A more honest admittance than she likely realized. “Though you’re one to talk.” Looking back up at her, his grin remained as the teasing rose. “Elegant office like this, and you sound like some kind of punk off the streets right now.”
“Hey,” Rowan warned, tone serious and expression matching for all of a moment before she broke into her own jagged smile. “Watch it.” She crossed arms over her chest, hip cocked just slightly. The posture of a girl who could still remember hacking it on the streets, picking fights with local boys who thought they had a leg up just because their parts dangled and hers didn’t.
Cain hummed, raising both hands palms out in surrender. “Takes one to know one, I guess.”
It was her turn to laugh then as he eased back a bit, moving to leave. She called to him when his back was turned, making him pause readily and glance back.
“She payin’ you?” Rowan questioned, the humor draining. “The girl this Avery guy roughed up?”
Cain slackened his posture, looking back at the woman as if she should have known better.
“She worked harder to earn it than I am, you think I’d accept it if she tried to?” He sighed back.
Yet again, Rowan studied his face, mistrustful deep down even still. But she smiled after a pause, shaking her head at him. “Well if she does, you tell her Neon Lily already covered it, and you send me the bill. Got it?”
“Yes ma’am.” he hummed, waving on the way out.
Like that, the dance was done. He had what he needed.
The secretary smiled almost knowingly on his way out, a look in her eyes that felt more fond that before. Maybe the walls were more thin than they seemed. He didn’t ask, she didn’t tell. He saw himself out from there, back down and outside to the sidewalk. He’d lied, just enough and at the right moments to slip past the woman’s guard.
Internally trying to justify it with the reminder it was all for Ash, all for the job, didn’t help anything at all. Rowan seemed like good people. She gave a shit about her girls, maybe more than was safe for her in this line of work. And he’d lied straight to her face, got her friendly with it. Same as he’d been doing all day, at all the offices, just to see if Avery had called a single professional working girl in the city.
He took a turn off the mapped course two blocks down, to a small magazine stand on the corner. A pack of ultra lights and a bummed lighter off the stand owner later, and he was sucking down a cigarette trying to take the edge off. Nicotine didn’t make him feel any less guilty. Nothing really would. He already knew. The weight of his job wasn’t some giant, singular burden. It was a whole lot of small things that he fought with every day. Little justifications, small compromises in his morals. It piled up. The weight always grew. Slow enough, small enough, it never really broke his back. It just made him a little bit slower every day.
Finishing the first cig by the time he was back on track to the subway station, he bummed another light at a corner waiting for the crosswalk, and finished the second by the time he got on the train. Today he met a woman busting her ass to run an escort business and protect girls who likely had no one else to protect them. He’d lied to her, with a smile. Straight to her fucking face, just to find out if some rich accountant on the upper end was cheating on his wife. It wasn’t a surprise that so far no one had Avery on files they’d admit to. Either he was using a fake name, or it wasn’t that kind of infidelity. If it was even that at all.
Shaking his head, Cain stuck to the back and let strangers with tired faces pack in around him like sardines. No one looked at each other. No one said a word. A child somewhere further ahead in the car started crying.
He wanted another cigarette.
Instead, all he got for the full twenty minute ride was a self-inflicted guilt trip.