“You’re a journalist,” Stipple says once we are outside the warehouse.
“Police? DEA? What?”
“So you have no name and you are nothing.”
“That’s about it.”
Stipple stops. He leans against the tin siding, propping one foot flat against the metal. He pulls out a cigarette, lights it.
“So what’s your story?”
“What’s yours?” I ask to deflect. It’s not the snappiest comeback, but it’s the one I’ve got.
“Nah, we’ll stick to yours for now,” he says. He billows smoke. “You’re new to this scene. I know because your skin is clear. You’re not a junkie. Your skin’s too clear. You’re too old to be a runaway, except maybe from domestic abuse or something. But you didn’t hesitate to follow me alone out here. I swear, you could roll around in the mud and still look clean. That’s a rare gift and a suspicious one.”
He takes another long, slow drag. I count the ways I’ve already told too much with just my skin and my actions.
“I figure you’re on some kind of assignment,” Stipple says.
I strain to keep my eyes locked to his. He’s either been doing this a while or he’s what he accuses me of being. I have to stop giving up information, if I can. I’m in no way prepared to corner him.
“You won’t exploit these kids,” he says. HIs drawl, though charming, makes even threats sound innocuous. But the message is abundantly obvious: He protects the herd from outsiders. Probably from insiders, too, though I’m not quite fully initiated.
He smashes the butt on the wall and flicks it away.
“I give you mad props, man,” he says. “Not many people would take a chance outside their comfort zones. This,” he motions to the world at hand, “is miles from comfort for you.”
“You about done?” I ask, finally summoning an ounce of boldness.
“I’m never done, darlin’. Remember that.”
As Stipple walks back toward the warehouse door, I breathe freely for the first time in several minutes. I mustn’t take much time or make any sudden decisions, or I’ll confirm what he already knows. The welcome wagon’s left and I am expected to fall in line.