The word around school is that Kaz Brekker will do anything for anyone for the right price. Nobody really likes him -- not in a way that would suggest that he’s personable. He’s moody, volcanic, unpredictable -- but for a solid fifty dollars he’ll leak the answer key to next week’s math test, for a few hundred he’ll hotwire the principal’s car so you can take it for a joyride during lunch. He’s exceptional with a lockpick and stealthy as a panther -- in most cases, he can go unnoticed, slinking from room to room noiselessly and without much objection.
Kaz has no competition on campus -- popular kids and band nerds and theatre geeks steer themselves in the opposite direction when he passes himself down the hallway; jocks and cheerleaders avert their gaze when he comes too close. Dressed in black no matter the weather, he’s certainly a force to be reckoned with -- and his authority goes unquestioned amongst the student body of Ketterdam High School.
It’s not enough to call him intimidating, to call him brooding -- he’s the drop in your stomach when you watch someone fall, he’s the ache of your bones after a long day of work. He’s a lingering pressure -- and though he doesn’t seem to have any real friends, he’s a solid presence in the school, the way a headache can rest in the back of your brain for days before coming to a head.
From the first moment Inej Ghafa laid eyes on him, she was intrigued. From the sharp angles of his shoulders to the bitter-coffee brown of his eyes, he seemed different -- he seemed other. As if he were some vengeful god come to walk amongst his subjects and forced into a body too small for his spirit.
She met him during Astronomy -- their names weren’t close in the alphabet, but close enough that their teacher’s seating chart had them side by side. While their instructor -- a hulk of a man with a rough voice and an undying passion for stars -- had been avidly demonstrating the Earth’s elliptical pattern with his arms, Inej had watched Kaz slip a pack of cigarettes from his pocket and pass them smoothly to the student next to him. The exchange was quick and delicate -- and if Inej hadn’t been watching, she might have missed it -- but it seemed as though the moment Kaz had produced the cigarettes he’d just as quickly pocketed a crisp ten dollar bill.
It had left an impression on her -- the way a street magician might leave you wondering just how he pulled off the trick for the rest of the night. It had been an act of sleight of hand like nothing she’d ever seen, and his expression hadn’t flinched -- not once. His face, slack and menacing as ever, was watching the astronomy teacher’s wild gestures, and if the rumors about him were true, Inej knew he probably hadn’t even looked down to make the exchange. He’d simply made it, the way you might butter a pan before cooking. A simple gesture, unthought of, as simple and as free as breathing.
She’d thought about it for the rest of class. Suddenly, the stars hadn’t seemed so important -- something about Kaz intrigued her more than she’d like to let on, and it had nagged at her mind like an anxious mother.
When the final bell rang at the end of class to signal the end of the school day -- a loud HONK that sounded less like a school bell and more like a prison bell -- she’d turned her eyes to him once more, watching the routine of his that she’d always ( until now ) managed to overlook. He’d stand, leaning heavily to one side, then shake out his leg before hoisting up his black backpack that always seemed too thin to belong to a student who got the grades that he did. He’d linger like a shadow -- waiting until the room was mostly empty -- and then slip between the desks and out into the hallway like a phantom.
This time, however, Inej waited -- her purple backpack slung over one shoulder, the hood of her jacket bunched around the back of her neck. Her scalp tingled as he turned, fixing her with those bitter-coffee eyes, one brow listing upwards in an almost curious expression. She’d tilted her head back at him, a silent question. And then he’d looked away, just as blank and emotionless as ever.
The classroom had emptied before Kaz finally made his move -- nearly exploding into motion, his limp more pronounced than usual.
Rumor had it that Kaz had been in a car accident as a little boy -- when he was no more than a third grader, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, before something had changed him into the ghost that so many were afraid of. The car accident had badly broken his leg and his family -- an adopted father called Per Haskell -- hadn’t had the means to fix it.
There were other rumors, though -- he’d snapped it in a gang fight, he’d fallen from a roof, he’d torn his hip out of socket on the run from the town police. Inej had wanted to believe the first one, to believe that it was no fault of his own, but from the way he used the limp as an intimidation tactic ( that there was no part of him that had not healed wrong, that he won fights far more than he lost them, that the limp was the scar from a life he’d survived ) she knew that Kaz might not be too eager to fix it.
Even so, he’d learned to hide it -- Inej knew that better than almost anyone. Her whole life, she’d watched people -- she’d taught herself the coveted art of reading human character like it was her required novel for English class. Before she’d ever met him, she’d seen him...she knew of him, the way a high-school student knows of the lead in their school play or the student council president.
She’d seen him in the hallways, walking like someone had recently knocked his knee out from beneath him with a crowbar. Those were the bad days -- when anything might churn him into a frenzy, the days when he was avoided at all costs. On the good days, the limp was hardly visible -- a slight hitch in his step, maybe, but far less pronounced than on those days when the only option was to get out of his way.
Inej, like any sensible young woman, was intrigued. She had only moments to watch the slope of his back disappear through the doorframe before she was after him, feet disarmingly light on the old gray carpet of their classroom. In the hallway, it was easy to find him once she knew she was looking for him. He was a spot of black in a sea of vibrant colors ( pastels were all the rage, these days) , walking like a man who’d just gotten off of a particularly shaky boat ride.
She was at his side in no time, and when she spoke, she could have sworn he flinched -- as if he’d been caught off guard by her sudden appearance.
“You’re Kaz, right?” She’d asked.
“Who else would I be?”
His voice startled her, and for the first time she realized she’d never actually heard him speak -- not directly, anyway. His words were rough, like shattered glass passed through a blender.
“Dirtyhands?” She ventured, testing the nickname he’d been given by their classmates. He’d do anything for the right price.
“Right now? Sure.” He shot a glance over his shoulder, moving his head fast enough that she caught a whiff of his cologne -- a mixture of teakwood and coffee grounds and something else she couldn’t identify. He was only a head taller than her, but standing next to him made her feel small -- impossibly small.
“Because you’re talking to me, Ghafa. Why else?”
He seemed to be picking up his pace with each lurching step, and soon Inej was ducking underneath backpacks and between packs of students to keep up with him on his way to the front parking lot. “You know my name?” She shouted over the din of the main hallway.
“I know everyone’s name,” Kaz remarked, shoving the front door open with his shoulder. Inej slid between the door just before it closed and the two of them burst into the dim light of the Ketterdam parking lot, the sky overcast and pregnant with impending rain.
“Why are you in such a hurry?” She asked, catching up to him with ease now that there weren’t as many students to fight through. His pace was almost lurching now, and he was making a beeline towards the outer edge of the parking lot, where the only two cars parked were a sleek black sports car and a large white truck.
“Why are you asking so many questions?” He bit back. And then, coming to an immediate stop, the heels of his scuffed black boots scraping in the gravel, “And why are you following me?”
His eyes burned — no longer the color of coffee but the color of ash, the blackened flurries that escaped the hearth when the fire had become too hot. Inej forced herself not to flinch — she would not fear him, she would not let him bend her to his will like he had so many others.
“I want to know how you did it.” She said, lifting her chin. She was taller; triumphant. He would not treat her like someone to be stepped on. “The cigarettes. The money.”
His brow lifted and she could have sworn his expression softened, but only minimally. “You caught that, huh?” A low, rasping chuckle escaped his lips. “Not many people do.”
He reached into his pocket and pulled out the crisp ten dollar bill. Folding it between his fingers, he held it out to her, and for the first time she noticed the gloves sitting snugly against his hands. They were fingerless, made of supple, well-worn leather held together with tiny stitching.
Inej plucked the ten away from him and examined it, frowning. “What’s this for?”
“A reward,” he said, the grin that flashed across his face as disarming as a thunderclap. “You’re the first to ever catch me. I hear there’s a big number over my head down at the police station,” he remarked, as casually as he might comment on the weather. “Cops like to take bets on who’s gonna catch me first.”
“And the reward is ten dollars?”
Kaz barked a laugh, stony and unforgiving. “I’m worth a lot more than that, Ghafa.” He reached into his pocket and produced a black key-clicker. He hit a button and the black sports car chirped and blinked its lights, almost impatiently, as if it were waiting for him to drive away. He limped towards the car, and this time, Inej didn’t follow. He hadn’t answered her question, but he’d left her one far more important than an explanation of his magic tricks.
When he reached the door, he stopped, one hand resting on the roof of the car. He turned his head, looking over his shoulder at her, eyes unreadable. “See you tomorrow.” He muttered. The door snapped shut behind him and the engine purred to life.
She stood there, prone, as she watched the black car slip out of the parking lot. She turned her new question over in her mind, and she mulled it over for the rest of the night — even as she drove home, as she’d sat down to have dinner with her family, as she’d curled into her bed and hugged her pillow.
The question was on the tip of her tongue, on the brink of her mind, and it followed her into her dreams.
Who is Kaz Brekker?
While Jesper Fahey had no initial inclination to be interested in his neighbor’s business, he didn’t think he’d been given much choice. The house next door was squat and held together with white clapboard siding that looked one bad storm away from collapse. The yard was overgrown, the gnarled tree in the front cast an ugly shadow across the front walkway, and the porch sagged like it was fatigued from so many years of heavy footsteps and endless traffic.
Jesper’s house wasn’t much nicer in that regard — sure, the yard was kept, and sure, it was old — but it was old in the way that seemed cozy, like an antique store. The house next door was dilapidated, an animal waiting to be put out of its misery. It was the person who lived there that drew Jesper’s attention.
Jesper backed his dusty blue pickup into the driveway just as a slim black sports car pulled into the drive next door. Jesper had seen the routine too many times to count — enough that he could tick everything off on his fingers, ingrained into his head with a beat like the second-hand of a clock.
Kaz opened the door, shook out his leg, then stood, turning his keys in his hand and locking the car once more with a shrill chirp. He turned his head, shoulders sinking, then trekked to his pitiful mailbox, listed almost entirely sideways in the dirt where it had once been planted. He grabbed a handful of envelopes, frowned at them, then turned and slipped up the walkway. On his way to the front door, he stomped his foot in a dry patch in the grass and the end of a sleek black cane swung upwards. Catching the handle of the cane in his palm, he shifted easily from a pained lurch to an easy gait, and just as soon as he’d pulled up, he’d disappeared into the house, the screen door banging shut behind him.
Jesper turned off his truck and jumped out, stretching his legs with a groan. He’d been neighbors with Kaz Brekker for almost ten years and not once had his routine changed once he’d gotten his license — flip the keys, mail, cane, inside. Even though Jesper was all too familiar with Kaz’s entry routine, he’d never seen (or heard , for that matter) his neighbor leave the house. Kaz’s comings and goings were foreign to Jesper, neighbors or not. Jesper wasn’t normally one to snoop, but to catch Kaz outside of school was like glimpsing a bear mid-hike. He was afraid, but too intrigued to turn the other way.
Part of him knew that if Kaz ever confronted him about it, he’d blab like a child. Of course I watch you every day. What else would I do? You’re Kaz Brekker. Ketterdam High School’s foulest creation.
He’d never had a real conversation with Kaz -- not that he talked to anyone much anyway. As far as Jesper knew, he and Kaz had one mutual acquaintance -- a girl named Nina, a theater student with a voice and a presence big enough to fill a concert hall. She was breathtakingly beautiful in almost every way, and the rumor around school was that Nina and Kaz had some sort of unspoken relationship (sexual or otherwise) and that she was the only person who got things from him for free.
Jesper had cornered her after class one day and asked her about it. She’d thrown her head back, laughing like he’d just told her the world’s funniest joke. “Of course not ,” She’d hollered. “Kaz and I might talk occasionally, but I’ve never gotten anything from him for free.” She’d winked conspiratorially. “And he’s not the one with all this --” She’d gestured to her own body. “In his bed at night.”
Jesper hadn’t been sure what she’d meant by that, but he’d grinned at her and shaken his head. He knew as much about Kaz as he knew about astrophysics. Stretching his arms above his head, he’d turned and ducked up the walkway and into his house.
“Jes?” Called his father from the kitchen, his voice fatigued.
“It’s me,” Jesper confirmed, dropping his backpack with a heavy whump on the floor by the front door. He drifted into the little kitchen, where Colm Fahey was hunched over a sheaf of papers. “What’s up?” He said, more out of habit than concern.
Colm looked up, scrubbing at his eyes with a fist. “Taxes,” he muttered. “Taxes.”
Jesper patted his father on the shoulder as he closed the short distance between himself and the fridge in one good stride. Yanking it open, he produced a container of cold takeout and a bottled water. Without heating up the noodles, he scooped up a fork and shoveled the food into his mouth without much thought. His mother had blessed him with a good metabolism -- he could eat as much as he liked and not gain an ounce of weight.
Dropping a kiss into his father’s strawberry-red hair, he carried his snack down the hallway to his room and shut himself inside. He collapsed onto his bed and leaned back, gaze drifting to the ceiling as he thought about the boy next door.