The first time you see him, he’s grinding his teeth, curled up and shaking on the metal bench in the corner of a holding cell full of junkies, rent boys, early-evening drunkards, and after-hours hooligans. In time you will come to learn he is all of the above in unequal measures, and more--much more--besides. But the first time all you know is that he is a sick kid with an abscess visible on his neck, running or thrown away, swept up in a raid before he was able to earn enough for his nightly fix. Inexplicably, you blame yourself for his sorry state, and when he catches your eye, you look away.
Soon enough he’s a Friday night regular, and you’re looking for a promotion so you’re taking all the shit shifts--weekend overnights, bank holidays, Sundays after the matches let out and every other handcuffed man jostled past you toward the cells is slick with blood or vomit or both--and it’s not long before he knows you. Not just your name, but that your wife threatens regularly to take your children and go to her mother’s. That you drink your coffee black with four sugars. Your brand of cigarettes, after shave, loyalty, bravado. His pupils are huge and he slurs his words but he knows things. Knows everything. You catch yourself thinking about him, sometimes, when your wife’s in bed and you are alone in the sitting room at half-three too wired to sleep. You think about him with his back against a wall, jeans too tight, shake-fingered cigarette, and bare skinny wrists. You should be ashamed. You aren’t.
You can see the tender underside of him, even though he doesn’t show it--all edges, over-educated--and sometimes he holds your gaze too long. Naturally, you know it would be convenient for him, a copper in his back pocket. But again and again he astounds you with insight and clever-clever observation that is never once wrong. You hit a wall and want to turn to him. You know you’re missing something he would find in no time flat, pronounce with a sniff not related to his habit. One morning as he’s signing for his wristwatch, money clip (a money clip! but he’s a kid!), and shoelaces, you pass him your card and he plucks the biro from your shirt pocket, scribbles on it, and passes it back. Curses, and a phone number. You keep it close and look at it twice every hour.
At last you find the key--serial murders, codes, taunts, symbols left at the crime scenes and dump sites, a pile of clues that add up to nothing you can see--and dangle it in front of him, set the price. He agrees, but only if you drive him. It’s four hours up the A1. He fills the car with cigarette smoke and the nervous jitter of his knee against the passenger door. He asks you invasive questions and you answer every one. You realise an hour from your destination you want him to want you. You want him to like you. You want to stroke that tender underbelly, touch him in every way no one ever has, and your prick aches in your trousers and your head aches because of your wife and kids and he’s practically still a kid, and what are you thinking? He goes on smoking and picking at you with pointed questions and by the time you arrive you are randy and raw and his expression shows he knows all of it, and is pleased. You let him kiss you, fingers on the door handle, in plain sight in the car park, and he lets you hold his skinny wrist, and then you walk him in and leave him and don’t expect to see him again. Ten minutes away you realise he’s stolen your last five cigarettes.
When you see him again six weeks later his face is fuller and pinker, which makes him look even younger, and you are suddenly aware of the nicotine stains on your fingers and you hold in your middle when you stand to shake his hand. His eyes are brighter, pupils normal-sized, and your wife’s finally done it--taken the kids and gone, two weeks now, almost three--and you want to tell him but you don’t. You give him the files and sit by not talking while he paces the room, pulling his hair, thinking out loud on a trail you can’t follow. He slides your phone from inside your jacket pocket, and the internet confirms some tangent he’s on, and you make a call and share the wealth; in a few hours there’ll be an uneventful arrest of a man who wanted so badly to be caught he spelled his name in ancient alphabets and decorated his victims with it. In the meantime you offer him dinner, or coffee, or whisky. He offers you himself, on his knees, and his hand is busy between your legs as you drive him back to yours, and all you want is to kiss his smart mouth, it’s all you’ve thought of since he kissed you that day outside the rehab facility, and he laughs as he drags you by the hand through your house as if he’s been here before, stepping over left-behind toys in the dark.
You saved him, for yourself, and at last you are ashamed. He’s not for you, he’s better and brighter, he’s sturdy and soft at once, he’s a flash of lightning, he’s all you want, all the time, all to yourself. You hold him too hard and you’re jealous of the air he breathes because he is everything, everything, and he gives you everything, everything, until you feel used up and depraved and still he offers more because all he knows is how to give himself over--use himself up--to get what he needs. He was broken, but so were you, and you fixed him, but it won’t last. You lie spent and shattered beside him, and he is hollow because you carve out all you can of him. Because he’s all you want. And it won’t last.