As much as Travis wanted to answer her naughty, beckoning gesture, he couldn’t decide whether or not her smile touched her eyes. Temptation exuded from every aspect of her: the dark hair cascading down her bared shoulders, the tip of her tongue touching her full, red lips, the way one arm held the fabric of her bra to her chest while the other reached out for him… at least, he thought her bra was still partly on. The black plastic board in the magazine rack covered up the rest.

It wasn’t such a big deal to buy it. He was old enough to do it legally. Hell, he was very nearly old enough to drink legally. He’d tried that at parties, though, and found he didn’t really care for the buzz. Or the vomiting. Or waking up on his friend’s couch with any number of profane things drawn on his face in black Sharpee. Or explaining himself to his parents. No, drinking definitely wasn’t his thing.

Sex was another matter. He hadn’t tried that. He wanted to, not that he had a partner, but even so there was so much stopping him: fear of rejection, fear of humiliating himself in his own ignorance, fear of shaming his parents… fear of God. Travis didn’t believe the way his parents did. There were things that they preached he simply couldn’t accept. But there was always the lingering worry that on some levels—not the homophobia, or the way they talked about other religions, but still—Travis worried that on some levels, his parents might be right.

Temptation stared at him through clear plastic wrap from the other side of the store countertop. There were other eyes there, too, on other girls lurking under even more tawdry magazine titles. The girl under the Surrender to Lust banner held his attention, though, right until the guy behind the counter spoke.

“Good evening. Can I help you, sir?” he asked. Travis blinked and stepped back, feeling his breath catch in his throat as he looked at the clerk. Dark-toned skin. An accent. A light beard. A strong nose. Dark hair, dark eyes. A curious expression. Something about him spoke of a kind disposition, a hard life and a terribly boring job. His nametag said “Ali.”

“Um. No,” Travis answered when his naturally deep voice finally worked again. “No, sorry, I’m just thinking.”

“Then can I help the lady behind you?” asked Ali.

Again, Travis blinked. He looked over his shoulder and down at the older Asian woman holding an armful of simple convenience store stock. He was a tall guy, and immediately felt like he was looming over her there in his black sweats and hoodie. “Oh, gosh, I’m sorry,” he mumbled. Travis backed away, careful not to bump her with his gym bag. His wet sneakers squeaked awkwardly on the tile as he moved away into the candy aisle, where he perused colorful packages of chocolate and snacks as if he were interested in any of it.

His old flip-phone told him it was fifteen after ten. By now, his mother had likely taken one of her sleeping pills. Dad would still be up. Travis would come home, finding Dad still in his slacks and sweater vest, working on the church booster club’s financial statements or maybe organizing the next prayer group newsletter. Or scouring the home PC for signs of pornography or songs with profane lyrics.

“Hi, Travis. How was karate class?” he would ask when Travis came in, with that slightly disdainful tone that he had ever since Travis gave up boxing in favor of kung fu, not that Dad could be bothered with the difference. Lord, the way Travis had to fight for the right to spend his own damn money however he wanted. It seemed to be the price he paid for living at home while going to school on Dad’s dime.

“Fine, Dad,” he would say.

“What kept you so late?” Dad would ask. Travis would have to decide whether or not to be honest and say he was out buying dirty magazines, or instead say something about sticking around to clean the dojo or the bus being late or any number of lies that would stain his soul forever on top of the magazine of dirty pictures that would be in his gym bag.

Such a simple thing: just a magazine in his bag. But all Travis could think of was all the horrible ways it could be exposed. That, and all the horrible things that could happen to him once he started on this downhill slide of lust. Would he wind up addicted to it? Would he turn into a complete pig? Would God strike him down with misfortune as punishment for his sins?

It was stupid. So stupid. He knew these things he’d been taught all his life couldn’t possibly be the way the world really worked. People looked at porn all the time. They did much more sinful things and led happy, healthy lives. Travis knew that. His friends at school all knew that, and in fact did it all the time. But they didn’t grow up in the home of Richard and Peggy Hennessy, and hadn’t been reminded from birth that God was always watching.

At that moment, God watched Travis stall. The lady paid for her odds and ends and shuffled out into the rain, leaving Travis in the convenience store with no one but Ali… and God, of course, but he never actually had anything to say.

Stupid, Travis told himself. This is so stupid. I’m not gonna go to Hell because I want to look at naked women. I’m not gonna go to hell for jerking off. It’s not going to destroy my life. It’s just porn.

He took a deep breath and pulled out his wallet. The ten dollar bill inside couldn’t be traced by his father, who wouldn’t see it on Travis’s bank statements that he constantly read without Travis’s permission.

His face set in determination, Travis returned to the counter. Ali’s back was turned as he rustled through a cabinet. “Um, excuse me?” Travis asked. Ali didn’t answer. Travis realized he was speaking barely over a mumble. He inhaled again. “Excuse me?”

“Yes?” Ali replied, turning around.

“I’ll have, um…” Travis blinked. He gestured to the magazine rack behind the counter. “Could I have a copy of Surrender to Lust, please?”

Ali shrugged. “Sure,” he said. Travis couldn’t tell if there was judgment in his eyes or his tone. He seemed indifferent… didn’t he? The clerk turned to pull the magazine out. Its plastic wrap caught awkwardly on the rack as he pulled on it, forcing Ali to fuss with it to get it out neatly.

The “bing bong” tone of the door chimes rang out as the door opened. Travis’s eyes snapped to his left to see two men and a young woman enter. The guys were both noticeably larger than the woman, dressed in clothes that were probably stylish in a fashion genre Travis had never understood. The largest looked like he might step right out of his baggy jeans at any moment, while the other walked with his shirt collar popped up and his ear glued to his phone. Excessive gold jewelry hung from their necks and rode their fingers. Neither seemed particularly pleasant.

It was their companion, though, who instantly had Travis’s complete attention. Her skin bore a smooth, flawless tan that spoke of Latina heritage. Her hair, lightly brown with subtle blonde highlights, spilled over to one side like a brown waterfall. The miniskirt and thin, tight top did a lot to show off her natural curves and flat belly, but it couldn’t have been very warm. It was late September, and Seattle was already threatening to skip straight into late autumn temperatures.

He only stared for a heartbeat, maybe three, before he turned his face back toward the counter. Yet the damage had been done; she had entered with a frown, but then smiled winningly at him as their eyes met. Travis realized he had seen her before, more than a few times, walking up and down the sidewalks of Aurora. His friends had a mocking game they called “Walking or Working,” where players driving the north end of the major street guessed the activities of women on the sidewalks. This young woman, probably the same age as Travis, had been a “contestant” more than once.

In a car, with nobody else hearing, it seemed harmless enough. It wasn’t like they yelled at the pedestrians they passed by. But now, making eye contact and seeing that smile, Travis suddenly felt very guilty indeed. She was a human being.

She was also a woman, who almost certainly noticed as she walked by that Ali had just put the copy of Surrender to Lust on the countertop. It turned out the model on the cover had a bra, after all, but it was entirely off of her chest and dangling in the fingers of the hand that cupped her otherwise naked left breast.

“Here you go,” Ali said too loudly for Travis’s taste, “one copy of Surrender to Lust. Anything else?”

“Uh, no!” Travis blurted. “No, j-just that.”


“Hi,” the woman smiled, leaning up against the counter.

Travis considered dying on the spot. He had no idea what to say at a time like this. Something. Anything. His mind reached for a suggestion.

“Bitch, I am gonna fuck you up!” snapped a voice behind Travis.

Not what I had in mind, Travis thought. He blinked, standing even straighter in surprise as the man with the phone stepped into the candy aisle behind him. “I mean it! You don’t have what you owe me, I swear to God you will choke to death on my cock.”

“Uh, Rudy,” the woman hissed to him, “there are other people here.”

“Vanessa, shut your fucking whore mouth,” snapped the man on the phone. “Nobody cares anyway. No, not you, Teri,” he said back into his phone. “Fifteen hundred. That’s what you charge. That’s what I told you to charge. Not a fucking penny less. Bad enough Illyana’s down with her fucking cold, I’m not losing money on you tonight, too.” He paused. “Joey. Cuervos, man.”

“On it,” said the larger of the two men.

The woman shook her head and looked to Travis once more. “Don’t suppose you’re looking for a date tonight?” Vanessa asked.

“Uh. No,” Travis shrugged. He looked at Ali, imploring him silently to hurry up with the register. So. Awkward.

“No, you aren’t gonna leave me, Teri, ’cause you know what’ll happen if you try,” Rudy continued menacingly. “If my money isn’t there when I get back, you’re gonna take another fall down the stairs again, you got me? Maybe a couple falls.” The voice on the other side of the conversation could be heard making some sort of plea just before Rudy cut the connection on his phone.

Travis winced. These were plainly bad people—at least Rudy there was, anyway—but there was literally nothing Travis could do about it, anyway.

“Hey, Ach-med, where the fuck are your Cuervos?” called out Joey from the other side of the store.

“In the center case, sir,” Ali answered as he finished ringing up the sale. “There you are. Eight forty-five.”

Travis already had the cash in his hand. He put it down on the counter immediately. “There you go. Keep the change.”

“Are you sure, sir?”

Vanessa gave a little grin. “Big spender,” she winked.

“Yeah, I’m—” Travis paused. He realized then that he’d left his transfer pass back at the dojo. Shit, I need the change after all. “Um. No, actually, uh, sorry. Go ahead and ring it up.”

“No problem.” Ali keyed in the transaction on his register.

“Fuckin’ hurry up, man,” Joey said then, appearing behind Travis with a case of beer. “Ain’t got all fuckin’ night.”

Over the sound of the beeping register buttons, Travis heard a sharp, heavy snort from behind him. Vanessa’s eyes went wide. Travis glanced at her, then up at the security mirror over Ali’s shoulder. He could see Rudy snorting something out of a tiny bit of plastic.

“Rudy!” she hissed, stepping forward.

“Sorry, sir,” Ali muttered, “the register tape’s jammed.”

“What, bitch?” Rudy snarled at Vanessa.

“You told me you weren’t carrying anything!” Her voice remained barely above a whisper, but Travis could still hear every word. It wasn’t like they were far away.

“The fuck’s it to you?”

“Rudy, you know what happens if I get caught in a car carrying shit,” she pressed. “I’m not trying to tell you your business, but—”

“If you ain’t, then shut the fuck up.”

“Look, I’m just sayin’, I’ll take the bus over or somethin’, alright? You get crazy when you’re on that shit.”

“What? Fuck that. You ride with Joey an’ me. You can ride the fuckin’ bus back, but this asshole john is payin’ up front and he ain’t payin’ you.

Travis tried to keep his attention on Ali and the register tape. Against his will, his eyes flicked up to the security mirror at exactly the wrong moment.

“Rudy, lemme just—”

He grabbed her by the neck. “Bitch, don’t even fuckin’ start!”

Travis couldn’t look away anymore. He turned around. “Hey man, let her go,” he said, trying to sound reasonable rather than challenging.

He immediately felt a heavy hand on his shoulder. “Mind your own business, boy,” said Joey.

“Yeah,” Rudy agreed, his eyes wide and crazy as he continued to hold Vanessa, who clearly wasn’t enjoying this. “Just buy your fuckin’ jerk-off mag and scurry out of here, bitch.”

“Let her go,” Travis repeated. “You don’t have to grab anyone like that. And take your hand off me, please,” he added to Joey with his voice growing more assertive.

“Rudy,” Vanessa struggled, “just calm—”

Joey spun Travis around roughly. Travis was ready for it. He turned into the move, bringing his right fist up in a swift hook into Joey’s temple. It caught the bigger man by surprise; Joey fell against the counter. Travis brought his foot down hard on the side of Joey’s knee.

Rudy shoved Vanessa away, knocking her against the rack of candy and gum. His hand went to the small of his back as his friend went down. By the time Travis turned on him, Rudy had the pistol out.

Training took over. Travis did exactly as he’d been taught. With one hand, he grabbed Rudy’s wrist, and with the other he took hold of the gun and twisted hard. Rudy let out an unmanly shriek as his finger broke. Travis kept hold of the gun, roughly pulling it down and out of Rudy’s hand.

“Motherfucker!” Rudy screamed. His other hand came around to punch Travis across the jaw. Travis staggered and dropped the gun. Rudy came on at him, tackling Travis against the counter.

Travis struggled, getting one arm around his opponent’s waist and one leg up against Rudy’s for leverage. He heaved the Rudy through a twist that put him in exactly the position Travis had been in, bent over backwards with his head against the counter. Travis followed up by bringing his elbow down toward Rudy’s jaw with all the force he could muster, but against a struggling opponent it didn’t exactly go as planned.

Travis’s elbow came down hard against Rudy’s neck.

The sound of the blow was frightening. Rudy jerked and flopped uncontrollably. Travis blinked, suddenly horrified at what he had done, and then he heard a metallic click.

He found himself staring down the barrel of Joey’s revolver as the bigger man struggled to his feet. Travis heard a gunshot, and then another… only they didn’t come from Joey’s gun. Joey fell against the side of the countertop, blood pouring from the center of his chest as he tumbled to the floor.

Vanessa remained crouched in the snack aisle, holding Rudy’s pistol. Smoke wafted from its barrel. The wide-eyed shock and fear on her face mirrored Travis’s as they stared at one another.

Ali sighed. “I knew I should’ve changed out the register tape an hour ago.”

“Is he dead?” Vanessa demanded, pointing at Rudy. “Are they both dead?”

Ali looked over the counter at Rudy and then at Joey. “Oh yes. They’re both dead.”

“Holy shit!” blurted Travis. He knelt down to check Rudy’s pulse.

“Rudy—Rudy can’t be dead!” shouted Vanessa. “You just beat him up a little!”

“Oh, he’s dead,” Ali nodded sagely.

“He can’t be!”

“Listen, girl, I am from Mosul! Okay?! You think I don’t know dead men when I see them?” He stabbed a finger tward Rudy. “That man is dead. And so is that man. Very dead.”

“Oh God, call 911!” said Travis, his voice wavering with fear.

“No!” countered Vanessa. “We can’t call the cops!”

“It was self-defense!” Travis pressed. “We’re not gonna be in trouble for that!”

“It was self-defense for you,” Vanessa said. “I just shot—fuck, I just shot Joey!”

“Yeah, but that guy was gonna kill me if you didn’t shoot him,” Travis argued, pointing at Joey. “It’s on the security cameras, right?”

“Shit,” Ali sighed, coming out from behind the counter and heading toward the door. “Those cameras have never worked since I’ve been here.” He promptly hit a couple of switches to turn off the exterior lights, then produced a hooked rod which he used to pull down the sliding door over the store entrance.

“What are you doing?” Travis asked.

“Making sure I don’t have customers wander into this,” Ali scowled. He turned to look at them both. “So. He wants to call the police. What about you?” he asked Vanessa. “Are you in any trouble with the authorities?”

Travis’s jaw dropped. “How is this even something we need to talk about?”

Ali’s hands came to his hips. “Have you ever tried speaking to Seattle police without being a white male?” Travis’s only answer was to drop his jaw even further. “Exactly. So allow us a moment. They won’t become any more dead than they are already. Now. Girl. Talk.”

“I—” Vanessa’s voice failed her. She finally lowered the gun. “There’s still two more of them. They’ve got my baby.”

“Then why don’t you tell the—?” The question died on Travis’s lips. Given what Ali had just asked, he felt dumb for even thinking it.

“I can’t prove it!” said Vanessa. “I can’t prove anything! All I’ve got on me is my driver’s license and a couple of condoms! They’ve got everything else. I don’t even have keys to get in where I live.”

“Oh, goodness, what am I thinking?” Ali muttered. He strode between the two stunned young people in his store to walk over to the tiny aisle of housewares. “So you have a baby? A boy? A girl? What name?” As he spoke, he grabbed a small plastic package of sponges and a small bundle of pink mechanic’s rags.

“Chester,” Vanessa sniffed. “His name’s Chester. He’s not even two and he’s all I’ve got. They keep him locked up while I’m out working.”

Something inside of Travis twisted as he saw the distress on Vanessa’s face. “Look,” he said, “that’s kidnapping, right? If they’re forcing you to—you’re a hooker, right? I mean a prostitute? If they’re forcing you—”

“You think I’d be in this situation if the cops ever followed up on shit like that?” Vanessa snapped at him. “You ever been told you’re not a credible witness? Or been arrested on a bullshit charge by the cop you just asked for help? I can’t even begin to tell you the shit these assholes have gotten away with.”

Travis looked to Ali, hoping he would have something reasonable to say. The older man seemed to be handling the stress of the moment much better than he or Vanessa. Ali busied himself stuffing sponges into Joey’s shirt to sop up the blood from his fatal gunshot wounds. “So their associates will take revenge on you for this through your boy?” Ali asked.

“Hell yeah, they will!”