White-sale bed linens were strewn about the room as if a storm had hit. What I wouldn’t have given for a storm in that heat. The weather was unseasonably hot, even for May, even for a place like Bay City.
It was the type of wet warmth that just beats down into your bones. Though you tried to shed the layers, little could be done to ease the discomfort of your own damp skin. This feeling of discomfort only grew worse when combined with the ringing vibrations that worked as a jagged and sudden death knell to what was an otherwise enjoyable period of sleep.
I achingly looked at the alarm clock. It was standing to attention on top of the bedside table, performing its ritual taunting ceremony. In the morning fade its face was as hard to read as a Snellen chart after several slugs of Rye.
8:00 am, I finally deciphered. Then, like a jilted lover smothered the crying thing in a silencing embrace.
Five more minutes will be fine.
Living in the backroom of your office like I did then came with some bonuses. The air conditioning system wasn’t one of them. But it was easier to get to work and keep yourself out of the red; and the landlady, Mrs. Smallwood, didn’t seem to mind so much after I helped her with some personal trouble a while back.
I stayed laying there scorching in the heat a little longer. The only thing making the self-torture bearable was the ceiling fan, which teased me with barely glancing relief. Moths danced around in its cool cyclone, playing chicken with its blades. Their wings fluttered like faulty bulbs.
I finally climbed out of bed and over bundles of discarded clothes and linen. Away from the relief of fan and window, the air became thicker and more stifling. I quickened my pace and plowed through to the washroom, stopping once I could feel the cool floor underfoot. Though I thought about laying myself on it and letting the tiles’ crisp grip envelop me and rock me back to sleep, saner heads prevailed.
I had already wasted enough time. And the mean stacks of paperwork in my office wouldn’t read themselves.
Making a move over to the faucet, I turned it till it hissed water. I let the sink fill up before stopping the flow and submerging my head underneath.
Pulling it back out I looked forward into my reflection, letting the water drip over my skin in little rivers. Thick, wet ringlets clung to my pale face until I moved them over with my hand. I could never get used to this kind of medium cut, but I’m often told: “no-one will trust a man who looks like a bum with their private information”, and getting information out of people is essential in my line of work.
I rubbed my palm across my face feeling the familiar scratch of stubble. It hadn’t grown long enough to be unruly yet but would probably need shaving soon. I figured I could take the risk with it today.
After a strip-wash, I toweled down before throwing on a cream shirt and some navy pants. I strapped my dented A-11 to my wrist and watched the hands move for a minute. Once satisfied they weren’t trying to run away from me, I started picking up laundry from the night before, screwing it all into a ball and attempting to throw that ball overhand into the basket.
I missed. On contact with the wall, the ball exploded into a pile of soft shrapnel.
“Good shot, Joe Fulk.” I muttered to myself, deciding the linen would be fine for another day.
I made my way from the back room into the office proper, dodging paperwork arranged in messy stacks on the floor. They were mostly from the insurance company. I hadn’t had a client for a few weeks at this point so most of my days were spent going over whatever my old friend Sam Tarly could get away with sending me from his office. I went through the papers for him on the lookout for inconsistencies in customer claims and reports; if I found them I’d get a little dough. It didn’t pay well, but it was familiar and kept the wolves from my door until a new job fell into my lap.
One of my weekly powwows with Smallwood was planned for the mid-afternoon, so I thought I’d have time to review one of the larger files and compile some brief notes to send. I ambitiously perused the pieces till I found a thick folder marked Frey.
I was wrong about how long it would take. The only things I had finished were a half-pack of Camels and a piece of burnt toast. I got halfway through the folder when I fell asleep.
The personal details of Mr. Frey were probably enough to send anyone to sleep. He was a 90-year-old man. Mormon presumably. Has had or continues to have several wives. According to some documents, when he leaves this world his life insurance is supposed to pay out to his Son. Which one of them? I’m still not sure… There were several hand-written forms filled out in different styles, each one lists different numbers of children and grandchildren. I got to my eighth plot of his family tree when the yawns came, as they would to anyone trapped in such a muggy room.
I’m sure I’ll finish it tomorrow, I lied to myself as my thoughts faded into dreams.
A gentle rapping on wood frame woke me from my slumber. I looked up from my desk to see a figure through the pebbled glass. Their upper-body cut from the rest by flaked paint that read “snoitagitsevnI ,wonS noJ”. The whole wall that side of the room was peppered with thin streaks of alternating orange light and dark shadow that cascaded from the window blinds behind me. They made the place look like a prison cell.
I glanced down at my watch. It was 6:15 pm. Just after the time I was expected at Smallwood’s. No doubt the old doll had come down to make sure I was okay, that I was eating right. She did for me those little things that mothers usually do for their children. Things that no-one else had done for me before.
There was another knock, sterner but with the same gentleness and refinement that only a woman can manage.
I tried to peel myself out of the desk chair but in the first try only knocked my notes to the ground, with a second try I freed myself from its sticky grip and cursed under my breath collecting the tousled papers.
When I had them in hand, the door knocked again. I looked up at the door and spoke softly: “One moment, please.”
Levelling the backs of the papers on my desk I slotted them into their relevant folder then sauntered across the room towards the door apologetically.
“Listen, I know we said 6 but I’ve been snowed under here, just give me a sec to wash up and I’ll be ready.” I said hopping over a stack of files. I got to the door and opened it inward, stepping behind it I motioned my hand outwards into the place to gesture for her to come in through the cramped space. She did. There was a clack of heels muffled on the carpet.
“What’s cooking anyw-”, I began to ask as I moved from behind the door, closing it. As I did so, I looked forward to the figure in front of me.
It wasn’t Smallwood. It was a young woman with thick Auburn hair up in a ball of curls, and vivid blue eyes you could drown in. She was wearing a cream-colored shirtwaist dress with winter-rose patterns around the bottom, from a strap over her shoulder hung one of those dainty white bags that were too small to store anything. She wore no make-up, no lipstick, and no jewelry. She needed none of it.
The stranger waited for me to speak, and after a few seconds, I tried.
“Uhh… I thought you were someone else”, I half-mumbled before apologizing.
“It’s fine, sir.” She replied, her voice was soft and sweet, but there was something else underneath.
I moved past her to the desk switching on the bulb as I moved from the door. Her eyes didn’t leave me, I felt them burning into my back till I sat on the desk edge facing her.
Looking up at her face I could see flickers of emotion newly revealed by the light, she looked pained and saddened, eyebrows angled up slightly. I rubbed my sweaty palms on my pants.
“I probably came at a bad time for you; I know your office hours say 9 till 5 but I couldn’t get over here in time and everything was just-” She rushed until interrupted by cracks in her voice. A gloved hand went over her pale face to try to force tears back and there were a series of small gasps as she tried to continue the sentence.
Before she could go on I offered her a paper towel which she accepted. While she dabbed her face, I attempted the softest voice I can, the kind that’s used by parents in the park after their kid skins their knee:
“It’s fine, I’m not in a rush. Please, take your time. Tell me what I can do for you.”
She moved the towel away from her face and looked up through damp pools, the pale skin around her eyes was red and irritated. She sniffed and mumbled something about how she’s not supposed to be here.
“Joffrey would be mad if he knew.” She explained, her lip quivering a little.
“Is he your husband?” I asked and then as if in routine moved on to my usual script when situations like these arise. “I don’t work the divorce business but I can put you in touch with some people who can help you…”, my voice trailed as her hands moved.
She grabbed the bag by her side and fumbled with the straps until it opened, snaked her hand inside and flicked through the contents. Frustrated, she pulled off her glove and tried again. It sounded like the ruffling of bills.
“I’m afraid no amount of money is going to change this, ma’am. But the people I can arrange to take your case will do a fine job of it, I’m sure -”
Her small hands pulled out a folded photograph which she stretched out towards me. I gently moved my fingers towards hers and felt the brush of warm skin as I took it.
Unfolding the photo, I saw a sea of familiar faces and uniforms. In the middle of them, a pair of young men smiling with wolfish grins, arms around each other’s shoulders.
I looked up in confusion at the woman in front of me and recognized the familiarity of her features. She grabbed me by the hands and said the words that would change my life forever:
“My name is Sansa Stark, and my Brother is missing.”
Any feedback, no matter how small, both negative and positive in the comments is massively appreciated.
I looked down at the photo, hands sketching the slightly frayed edges. We were all there: Me, Robb, Gendry, Edd and the others. Even Captain Mormont was in the last row.
The 104th Infantry Division had just arrived for what was turning into the Battle of Hürtgen Forest, our unit had set up defenses off the Meuse ready for German counterattack.
The waiting was always the scariest part for me. Once you were in the thick of it routine took over and your training could keep you alive. The variety kept the mind occupied. Sometimes we were facing several dozen figures in the tree line, bark being torn from the trees by stray gunfire, each chip splashing against your face like hot hail. But sometimes there were sudden calm moments where there was nobody around. You wouldn’t have to do anything, just listen to the call of birds and the rustling of leaves… you could cry if you wanted to.
Waiting in those dugouts you’d look over your shoulders at the men next to you and start over-thinking everything, asking yourself questions you couldn’t possibly know the answers to. Questions you didn’t want the answers to.
Mormont always tried to make sure spirits were kept up to stop us thinking those thoughts. That day he had us arrange a unit photo. We used Robb’s camera. He carried that thing throughout the war, he and it saw more service than I ever would.
“Mr. Snow?”, Sansa drew my attention with a waving hand, “Did you hear what I said? Robb’s missing.”
I nodded and sighed rubbing my thigh and then the back of my neck. I hadn’t seen Robb since I was discharged. To me, he had been missing for years. Gendry told me Robb had moved out here just after the war for work, but I never tracked him down. I was afraid of his judgment. He’d developed a habit for liquor, apparently. I couldn’t fault him, we all have our coping mechanisms.
“How long?”, I asked.
She looked at me with a flicker of hope, the kind that you see in almost every client when you agree to take their case. The kind of hope you can never live up to.
“It’s been Three days.”
“Three days…”, I let the two words roll around my mouth a little, thinking them over. “How often do you meet him?”
“Once a week.” she replies until correcting herself with a nod of the head “Tuesdays. We usually go out for dinner at the same restaurant and talk for a few hours.”
“Except he didn’t turn up this week?”, I asked.
“No. And he’s not answering my phone calls or opening the door to his apartment.”
“So, you have his address?”
“Yes, I have a copy of it here,” she said as she pulled a piece of yellow paper out of her bag. She slid it across the desk but kept her fingers over it, pinning it down to the wood before she considered my eyes and asked: “You will help me, won’t you?”
My mind was trapped in those sky-blue orbs for a moment before I started to think clearly again, I reached over and slipped my hand underneath the paper pulling it from her grip. She let it go and brushed down her dress before sitting down in one of my uncomfortable chairs.
“I’m helping Robb.”, I replied as I turned over the paper and looked over the address.
Kingswood building, apartment 322.
“And to help Robb,” I continued, “I need to know why you didn’t go straight to the police. They can just as easily knock a door down. Or run through the gin joints from here to the coast. Robb still has the drinking problem I assume?”
She shot up out of her chair, brow furrowed and finger jabbing towards me accusatively: “I don’t like your tone Mr. Snow, and I don’t much see why it matters.” her voice faltered toward the end of the sentence as I stared unmoving at her. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to her that I knew. Maybe she was just acting like a sister would when someone brings up one of her brother’s sore spots. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never had a real family, only the brothers I chose, and the mothering Smallwood.
Even if Robb had slipped, it never mattered much to me personally. He was a grown boy and could make his own decisions, he wouldn’t be the first man who didn’t want to admit his failures to a loved one. If he needed an old friend to help him out I would be there for him, I would look past everything if he needed me. I owed him that much.
I spoke a little slow to let the gravity of my words sink in: “It matters because it will help me find Robb quicker. If he’s not at his apartment in a drunken stupor after falling off the wagon I need clues on where to look next. I need to know if he’s changed much recently, or if he’s done anything you’d consider out of the ordinary.”
She bit her lip a little as she stewed over what I’d said before finally answering, “He’s been sober for six months.” She paused while twisting away from me, continuing her thought train as she paced the length of my desk. Her hands were making little motions and you could see the gears moving in her head. “He seemed happier and happier every time I saw him, talked about his dream of opening up a little camera store, said he was finally going to do it.”
“Clearly something must have happened,” I said, reaching over to the desk to grab my pack of Camels. They were as empty as a poet’s bank account.
Walking to the side of the room I filled a glass with some water from the cooler, taking a small gulp before expanding on my point, I turned towards her.
“Has he been in any trouble? With the police? With anyone else?”
Sansa stopped her pacing once she got to the end of the desk again, then she hooked around the side taking three more steps until she came to the window. Slender fingers slid between the blinds and eyes peaked down into the street below.
“Expecting someone? Or am I boring you?”
She looked back at me like a kicked puppy. I couldn’t hold a stare for more than a second before looking back down at my glass.
She moved away from the window and back to her chair grabbing the photo off the desk and putting it back into her bag. She spoke down into the thing coolly whilst trying in vain to close the clasp. “There was a fight a month or so ago. At a movie opening. I forget which one, but I think he was there taking pictures. Robb didn’t want to talk about it but I read about it in the papers. They didn’t have a name or anything, just a description. They said he attacked some producer or something, ran before the police came. He was moving stiffly, face a little banged up. He told me it would never happen again.”
So the clink would be a good place to look, I thought, pondering what the bail would be on assault charges.
She exhaled quite heavily and frowned letting the bag fall to her side again, her forearm went up to wipe at her pretty face. I put my glass on a shelf and moved over towards her, she watched me like a skittish deer, tensed up a little and let her arms fall to her sides. I held out my hand pointing at the bag, and she handed it over with a sideways look. I placed it on the desk and opened it to get at the clasp.
“I just thought it was men being men. If something’s happened to him I’m the worst sister in the world.”, she continued.
Looking into the metal wire on the clasp I could see it was bent out of shape. I started to bend it back into a fishhook so it could get a proper grip, “I doubt that.” I replied looking back at her.
Ms. Stark stared back as I expanded: “There are sisters out there who would rob and beat their brothers. You care for the guy at least. That’s something.” She smiled a little at that.
I closed the bag and handed it back over to her. The girl thanked me and glanced at the watch on my extended arm. Her face drained a little as she announced she had to leave. “Heavens, is that the time? I really must get going.”
I moved to the door in pace with her. “Hold on White Rabbit. What if I need to contact you when I find Robb?”
“I’ll come back tomorrow, try to get him sobered up.” She pauses for a second before stopping and looking at me, “Tell him I love him, Mr. Snow.”
I shuffle my feet a little and opened the door for her. Watching her walk through it, I waited for her to turn and say goodbye before telling her to “Please, call me Jon.”
“Okay. Goodbye Jon.” She smiled.
I waited for a few minutes as she left, moving over to the window I watched her call a taxi. And just like that it pulled away, glimmering in the last bit of golden sunshine until disappearing out of view.
Grabbing my jacket and locking the door, I started to make a move over to Smallwood’s place. She lived on the bottom floor of the building in the apartment at the end of the hall. It was bigger than my office. Big enough to fit a family in. It had fit a family in it once, some pictures of them still decorate the walls. They were all gone now though. Mrs. Smallwood remains, quietly outliving everyone she ever loved.
I still remember the day I first stepped into her place. She was chattier then, still trying to make friends after all that loss. Everyone else in the building began to quietly resent being trapped by her in the staircase on the way home from work. Offers of freshly baked cookies would be declined and footsteps ran the other way if they could smell her floury pinny or hear the bottles of disinfectant slosh as they were carried in that wide plastic tray. No-one would actively try to be rude to her, she was a pleasant woman and impeccable landlady after all. She just tended to drone on for a long time back then, not wanting the sensation of human interaction to end.
One rainy winter afternoon I came back from the D.A.’s office in a slump, fired from my investigator role for misconduct on the job. Breaking the thumb and forefinger on the left hand of a man who strikes his wife in the street is a bad idea, especially if you’re supposed to be tailing him as part of an investigation longer than your career. I slowly drug myself up the staircase ready to throw myself into bed when I came across her. She was dusting the bannister when she stopped me, asking me how I was doing. I bitterly repeated the day’s events to her and she laughed in her sing-song way, gave me her sympathies and extended the usual offer. I accepted, thinking a tray of cookies would soak up my sorrows better than a bottle of Bourbon. She put out the tray as she tended to supper, she told me she was making me some too and wouldn’t take no for an answer. I listened to her all the way through the preparation, the cooking and then finally as I ate. She talked about her time as a nurse before this building. She spoke of her Daughter who died of influenza in 42. Then her Husband who died a year earlier. Finally, she fought back tears as she mentioned the Son who never came home from the war.
I told her a little about my life, the orphanage, college, France, Belgium and The Rhine. She listened attentively throughout. When the time came for bed she packed me a sandwich and enveloped me in a teary embrace. She doesn’t stalk the hallways as much anymore and has been like a mother to me ever since. Like Robb and Sansa, me and Smallwood meet weekly and just talk till night. We help each other where we can.
I got to the bottom of the staircase and jogged down the hall to her door, knocking gently as I reached it. A little while went by until it was answered with a smile. The familiar face moved to the crook of my neck for a hug and I wrapped my hands around her.
“Sorry I’m late.” I said softly, “But I’m going to have to take a rain check. I’ve got a job on, a friend who needs me.”
She nodded back at me before holding up a pausing finger. She went back into the apartment and came back with a covered plate. “Stay safe. And please be sure you have something to eat, Jon.”
I smiled at her affectionately as I took the plate in hand. Smallwood watched me making my way to the building entrance. I only made it four steps before turning back to her.
“I don’t suppose you have another plate?”
Despite its fair size, you could miss the Kingswood building if you weren’t paying attention. It stood between two larger, newer places, those brick monoliths shaded over it, drowning it in a darkness made even deeper by the late hour.
It had been a grander place at the start, I was sure. The memories of old glories stuck to its façade chipped and worn. Rusted decorative lamps adorned the walls and illuminated the cracked sidewalk outside. In the doorway hung a sun-worn sign that read “Apartments for rent, ask within.”
I got out of my car and reached into the backseat to grab the plates. Stacking them up I balanced them as I shut the door.
Walking through the building entrance I surveyed the lobby a little. Worn Leather armchairs and tables were scattered around before the staircase. On one wall was a collection of mailboxes, half of the doors of which were torn off the hinges and stacked in a pile in the corner. Another sign was stuck over the top of these empty chasms. “Parts out on order.” It read.
If only people were so easy to mend, I thought.
I turned to the parallel wall to study the building map. Apartment 322 was on the fourth floor at the end of a long corridor.
Once I got to the door I put down the food and knocked gently, preparing myself for what would come. A thousand thoughts blurred through my head at once as I wallowed in that short ten-second gap.
What would he look like?
What if he doesn’t want to see me?
What if he doesn’t like cheese and potato dumplings?
“Robb?” I finally asked, my voice directed at the small crack between door and frame. “It’s Jon.”
I waited a few more seconds before knocking more sternly.
“I have food.”, I said hopefully, but inflection made it sound more like a question than anything else. Nothing happened. I felt as if I was spending too much of my life knocking at doors in cheap apartment buildings nobody answered.
I knocked a final time as my thoughts went a little further:
What if he’s hurt?
What If he’s laying in there bleeding out after cracking his head or something?
Then I rattled the door a little and turned the knob. To my surprise, it opened. And I walked in.
The lights were on.
There was a short hall with a bathroom on the right. Beyond the hall, a living room and bedroom doorway were in view. The door was open and from where I was standing I could see a mattress had been thrown sloppily against the wall. It was cut open vertically , springs and fluff strutting out of it.
I walked hesitantly through the hallway to the living room, passing by the open bathroom door.
“Robb?”, I asked quietly turning into the room, hoping no-one but him would answer.
Pieces of a smashed coffee table were strewn across the place. Sofas were turned over, their coverings as ruined as the mattress. Desk draws had been removed from their homes and ended up upside down on the floor, out of them spilled produced pictures and unspooled reels of film.
I quickly moved to the bedroom but found it unoccupied also. Clothes were bundled messily next to a suitcase. Below a shelf next to the bed a collection of service medals were laying outside their boxes, the boxes themselves were shredded nearby.
The place has been tossed.
I could feel the sweat drip down my back as I brushed my hands across my face and through my hair, I scrambled back into the living room to look over the photos on the floor. Sansa was in one of them, auburn hair caught in the wind. An older woman with a duller shade of hair was in another. Mother maybe? The others I didn't know, clients I assumed.
I moved a jagged chunk of table to get at some more. Then I moved a thick piece of glass from over the top of one recognizable green photobook. I flicked through the memories. Hürtgen, Scheldt, and other familiar places, then the alien places, places that came after I was gone. Places Robb should never have seen alone.
I shuddered a little, letting a tear drip down my cheek before wiping it away with my jacket sleeve. Looking back down to the book I began to notice flecks of blood smeared on the edges. I held out my hands realizing it was my own, seeping a little from stinging nicks on my fingers.
Shoving the thing into my jacket, I made my way to the bathroom. A medicine cabinet clung to the wall above the sink and opposite the bath. The cabinet was open and empty, its contents littering the tiled floor. This room was also ransacked. Capsules and pills crunched underfoot as I moved forward towards a small bundle of bandages. I picked them up, placing them on the edge of the sink as I washed my hands down under the faucet.
I cupped my hands together and watched thin scarlet flowers dance on the surface of the water. Rinsing my hands clean I began to wrap them a little when I heard the slow scrape of metal on metal behind me.
Trying not to make any sudden movements I slowly closed the medicine cabinet and looked at the reflection of a twitching shower curtain. A feminine hand had snaked its way out, pointing a small automatic at the back of my head.
It was an elegant piece, shiny and small with a white-bone grip. That didn’t change the sensation much when it was pressed shakily into the back of my neck.
“Don’t you dare move.” The figure behind the curtain commanded, their voice was gaspy and muffled.
“I wasn’t planning on it,” I replied, feeling my body freeze up. “Just don’t do anything rash.”
The gun pressed a little deeper into my skin as she revealed herself unsteadily.
The first things I saw in the mirror were a pair of shimmering brown eyes, they sat on a reddened face smeared lightly with mascara and framed by a cascade of soft medium curls.
Whoever she is she’s been crying something fierce. Probably not wise to upset her further.
I read her crimson lips as she spoke again, her gun came off me for a moment as she struggled to step out of the tub behind me. “Like what? Point my gun at some nameless goon?”
Taking the opportunity, I moved a step to the side and further into the bathroom but away from the door. I was trying to give her a clear way out, trying not to let her get herself cornered in a tight space. Cornered people are more dangerous, just like with any animal.
Animals aren’t packing .32’s though, I thought.
She watched my movement and screeched as her heels clicked on the tiles. “I told you not to do that, damnit.”
I got motioned forward by a jab of metal in my back. It takes another few jabs until I’m face up against the wall.
I exhaled lightly “It’s hard not to move when someone’s trying to bury their gun in your back.”
Her feet take a few steps back until she’s out of reach. But I could still feel the heat of her eyes on me, could still hear a half sob as she spoke. “So, what are you? Huh? - A vulture? He tell you to come here and browse the scraps of my life?”
Turning slowly, I attempted to give her a sympathetic expression. Her sad eyes connected with mine. She doesn’t say anything, just stands there in her navy dress with her gun still trained on me.
“I’m sorry Lady, but you’re getting the wrong picture here. Robb-” I tried to explain before being cut off by a loud noise.
Crumpling back in panic I covered my face with my hands and waited for some feeling of pain to come.
But none did. So I looked back up at her through cupped hands.
She had slammed the butt of her weapon into the medicine cabinet, shattered it completely. Her facial muscles tensed into a wild rage as she approached me sticking the barrel into my cheek. That thing looked like a damned howitzer from this close. “You think that’s funny? You people have ruined my life and now you’re going to gloat about it right to my fucking face.”
I thought about grabbing it from her for a moment but decided against it, remembering someone from our unit who tried to wrestle a gun out of his face after confronting a scavenging civilian. He got it from him after a few shots rang out, we saw bullets hit the walls and ceiling of the place and we all thought he was fine until we saw the hole in his chest.
I’ll admit it, I sobbed a little thinking on that moment, thinking something similar could happen to me. I could barely understand the flow of conversation. All I could think about was what would happen if I died in that moment.
Who’d watch after Smallwood?
Would anyone even find my body?
Would anyone find Robb?
I watched her finger on the trigger and tried to talk her down. I can’t remember what words I stammered out exactly or the order they came out in. It was just more a string of random declarations than anything comprehensible.
Amongst the words were Jon, friend and Robb. She backed off a little questioningly and I slowly reached with numb fingers into my pocket to grab at the album. My bandaged hands shook as I flicked through the pages till getting to a photo of me and Robb just after deployment.
She looked at it then back to me. Then she repeated that until her angry scowl turned into a smile and her smile turned into a collection of sobs. The gun clattered to the floor and she wrapped her arms around me making us tumble backwards.
We stayed there on the floor for a few minutes while she sobbed apologies in my ear. I patted her back and lied: saying that I forgave her, that I was fine, that everything would be okay.
She told me her name. Margaery.
We straightened ourselves out a little, both wiping our faces with our own hands, patting down our clothes. I stared through heavy eyes at the gun on the ground, made a motion to pick it up to see if she’d mind. She didn’t. I held it in my hand for a second feeling its weight, then I tried to unload the bullets but nothing budged.
I exhaled as she looked up at me shrugging her shoulders before finally telling me “It’s a prop gun.”
I laughed so that I wouldn’t cry.
“Where would you get a prop gun?”, I asked as she followed me out of the bathroom and into the living room.
I sat down at the dining table and she took the seat opposite. Looking over at her I waited for a reply only for her to put a hand over her face and say: “From the prop department.”
Of course it is.
I smiled at her but it faded as I began to resurvey the state of the apartment. She grabbed a cigarette out of her purse and lit it with shaky hands before offering me one. I accepted. “So you work in the motion picture business? Is that how you know Robb?” I asked, exhaling between questions.
Margaery took a deep drag before replying, her hand went back down to her lap and into her purse again. “Something like that, he’s my fiancé.” She pulled a photo out, unfolded it and then slid it across the table with her left hand as if to prove a point. There was a little silver band wrapped around her ring finger, not expensive, but tasteful.
I flipped the photo over and examined it. It was her and Robb alright. They were kissing on a pier, one arm each around each other, the others holding the camera up to take the picture.
I handed the thing back to her before I asked another question: “Do you know where he is? What’s happened to him?”
She exhaled a little puff of smoke and then rubbed at her face with the back of her hand. Her voice cracked a little. “I’m certain he’s in trouble.”
Then she asked me why I was here, bit of an odd time for an old friend to come visiting. I explained that Sansa had tipped me off, that I was a shamus, a dick, that I could help. Then I asked her what she meant by trouble.
“Does it have something to do with the goons you talked about? The people who tore this place apart looking for something?”
She nodded in reply then took a breath before speaking, as if preparing herself emotionally. “I am being blackmailed, Jon.”
Her shoulders lifted slightly as she continued, as if telling me had alleviated a physical burden. “Robb said he’d help me deal with it, that he’d help me get out. But I think he may have only made things worse. I don’t think he understands the kinds of people we’re dealing with.”
That final sentence stung me a little, filled me with the kind of unease that I couldn’t let myself be filled with. If I was going to get my friend back in one piece I’d need to follow the basic steps I know I had to take.
“We were going to try and get away. Away from this city. Away from them. Move out north somewhere. We had some money saved up ready, we were going to meet at the station on Thursday and just run. He said he’d make sure they wouldn’t follow us, that he had a plan. I waited there all night for him, then I waited some more today. Then I got worried and came here where I found all this” She motioned around at the mess around us for the last sentence.
I tried to shut out my emotions and go away inside. Thinking through my usual routine I began to ask the questions I ask every client in a case like this, or at least the questions I thought I would if I had ever had a case like this.
"Has anything like this ever happened before? With other boyfriends maybe."
"No. Not like this, there was something when I just started out, a fling. But they just beat him a little and sent him away. Nothing like this."
That doesn't sound good.
“What kind of blackmail are we talking about here, and what kind of people?”, I enquired stubbing out my cigarette. “I’m going to need to know if I’m going to find Robb, help get him back.”
The woman looked down at the ashtray as the thin plume of smoke disappeared like a forgotten dream. She started to answer slowly, almost emotionlessly. It was like she almost wasn’t even there when she spoke. “The kind that involves pictures of a young girl in a new place, a girl who believed the people who told her they could help her break into the movie industry if only she did certain things for them and for their friends. The kind of people who hurt others because they take pleasure in seeing those less powerful suffer. The kind of people that you can’t go to the cops about without winding up in a ditch full of holes.”
“I’m going to need a name at least, something to go on so that-”
Before I could expand she interrupted. “His name is Petyr Baelish, and amongst other things he’s my ‘agent’.”
This chapter marks the beginning of the rewrites.
I found out more about Margaery’s life as she gave me what information she had on Baelish. It was a familiar story. Pretty girl from a sleepy little town goes to the city, pulled in like a moth by the fake glamour. She couldn’t have known what would come next. The seedy joints on back streets, the groping of thighs by rotund casting directors, that disgusting realization of how far things have sunk before you flail your arms trying to claw yourself out. The only thing she left out is the usual next step, the one you take once you know you can’t get out, once you know that you’ve been pulled in too far. Some people will turn to the bottle, others to the pills or the needle.
This place poisons anything beautiful, I thought.
We spoke a little more before being interrupted by our own rumbling stomachs. I grabbed the plates from the hallway outside and we delved into Smallwood’s grub. She ate hungrily, tearing the dumplings apart with her slim fingers.
Before she could finish, I checked my watch before deciding I needed to get out of there. 1.00 AM. I had to chase these leads. Find new ones.
“You got someplace to stay?”, I asked.
She finished her mouthful before replying. “My place. It’s over on Knox street, number 14. Has a little rosebush by the sidewalk.”
I thought it over for a second, wiping my hands on my pants. “He knows about it?”
She scraped the last bits of food from her plate. “Baelish? Yeah, he found it for me. He wouldn’t hurt me though, I’m too valuable for him to hurt.” She paused for a second before playing with the crumbs. “Besides, I should probably get there in case Robb shows up.”
Don’t over-inflate your worth. I shouted inside my head. If Baelish is the kind of guy I think he is he won’t have qualms about breaking those beautiful hands...
I thought things over for a second, I didn’t have the courage to tell her Robb probably wouldn’t be visiting, that every extra hour will be shaving the odds of him ever getting back to us. Then I stacked the plates up and put them under my arm.
Margaery stood up as I prepared to leave, I looked over at her and exhaled rubbing the back of my neck.
“I’ll come by tomorrow afternoon, make sure you’re all right. Don’t answer the door to anyone you don’t know. And if anyone you do know comes just act normally, pretend you’ve been out with a friend. They might be watching your house.”
They might be watching this place too.
She hugged me before she left, pressing her small body up against mine. She smelt of lilacs and salt.
I waited back for a minute before leaving to look about the place again, I grabbed a couple of photos from around the floor, figured Sansa may be interested in them, could know the people in them. Maybe they’d help the case.
Making my way to my car I placed the plates in the backseat, shut the door and walked across the street to the nearest outdoor telephone box. The switchboard operator answered with her rehearsed lines and I gave her the address.
It rang for a second before I heard the click of the receiver. A second passed before a familiar deep voice groaned.
I waited a moment, giving a little time for the sleep to leave him. Then I just came out and said it. “Gendry, It’s Jon. I need you to look up a name for me.”
“Can’t it wait ‘till tomorrow?” he yawned.
“It is tomorrow.”, I answered coolly. Then took a breath before adding. “It’s about Robb. He’s missing.”
“I’ll get right on it.”, he said not hesitating, his tiredness suddenly gone.
I slowly spelled out the name Baelish to him. Told him to call me at my office as soon as he could, to bring whatever he could swipe from police files without anyone noticing, make a few calls to people he trusted who had the kinds of information I needed. Places of residence, offices, known associates.
Slinking the phone onto the hook I made my way back to the car. I let the engine run a little while I rubbed tired eyes. Then I pulled out and made my way back to my place.
Night was strange in Bay city. With the night came the bright glow of a thousand buzzing street lights, they poison the air with an unnatural orange radiance that smothers the stars and sky, robbing us of that great ocean of shimmering speckles above. People like Margaery are drawn in by the lights, they think they’re an invitation or a reflection of some beautiful treasure to be found within. But they’re wrong, they’re not invitations, they’re warnings.
If only people were smart enough to listen to them.
I got back to my place within the hour. When I arrived, I stacked Smallwood’s plates by her door and dragged myself upstairs to my office.
The photo-book felt like a burning rod in my pocket so I laid it on the desk. Sitting down in my chair I opened a drawer and pulled out a bottle of malt.
Waiting by the phone I sat there and reread the label.
My door opened at 5AM sharp. I had an hour long nap after getting off the phone from the last of several drunk tanks and hospitals. No dice. And Gendry still hadn’t called yet.
Through the door poked a familiar head. Her face grimaced a little as she looked at the mess but a grin began to form once she saw me laid down in my office chair.
She tiptoed in towards the desk, trying not to wake me. But she was too late. Once she got within a few feet I opened my eyes and told her it’s customary to knock.
She smiled and put her hands on her hips. “It is my building you know.”
“I’ll be telling the tenants group about this.” I joked. She laughed and sat on the side of my desk, looking at the pictures deposited on it.
“Mind if I browse” she asked moving them around a little as she looked back at me.
I sat up and rubbed sleep from my eyes. “It is your building you know.”
Her hands ran over the book and she flicked through until she got to some group photos, she turned towards me with her finger on Robb’s face. “This him? That friend you were talking about?”
I nodded and she turned it back to her before putting it on the desk to take a closer look. The corners of her mouth slid upwards. “He is very handsome.”
I absently stared around the room and whispered, “or was”. Sniffing I tried to blank my face and focus on the back of Smallwood’s head. But she turns and her eyes moved towards mine as if she could feel them burning into her.
“Come now.” She said moving until she was turned fully at me, she lowered herself down and put her hand on my shoulder. “Don’t be like that, I’m sure things will turn out fine. Your friend will be okay.”
I looked up into her eyes to see the wetness well around them. She pulled me into a hug that was full of affection, patting my back gently until the urge to cry took over me. “He’s missing and I’m so scared for him, so scared he’s in a ditch someplace screaming for help and I’m not there.”
Smallwood pulled away from me and dabbed her eyes before putting one soft hand under my chin and pointing my face towards hers. Smiling and brushing fingers over my skin she told me the words I need to hear. “Your friend is counting on you. He needs your help, and his family needs your help. Don’t let him just become a memory in a photograph, get him back and let his mother hug him one last time.”
I thought about her son for a second, the one who never came back from the war, what she had told me about him… They never found his body, funeral had an empty casket, there was nothing for a mother to cry against, to identify, to hug. It had been like he was never truly alive; the only proof of his existence were the photos in Smallwood’s books and on her walls.
I can’t let that happen to Robb. I owe him that much.
Nodding I lifted myself out of the chair and embraced Smallwood again. I mumbled “Thank you.”, in her ear, before sitting on the desk and telling her what I’d learnt about Robb’s disappearance so far.
“I should really get out and try to look for some more information.” I sighed, wiping my tears off my face I grabbed at my jacket only for it to be snatched away from me.
Smallwood folded it up in her arms and placed it on the desk. “If what you’ve told me so far is right you can’t do much ‘til your friend calls, or ‘til Robb’s sister arrives, or ‘til the boy shows up himself maybe.” The last comment was made with a wishful smile.
I lounged back down into the chair and she tutted in response. “That doesn’t mean you get to sulk around in here for the next few hours.” She grabbed me by the arm and pulled me onto my feet and towards the door. “You’re of no use to your friend in this state. I’ll run you a hot bath at my place and you can come back here and get some sleep until the phone rings. I’ll even watch it for you if you promise to shave off that mess.” Her hands moved over the scratch of stubble on my face.
“Yes Ma’am.” I replied with a pout.
I slid down into the bath water and let it envelop me. Longstanding aches and pains soon shifted and were soothed without any pressure on them. Closing my eyes and letting the water block out noise I laid down beneath the surface, senseless and thoughtless before I had to come up for air. Sitting up, I let the water cascade down me and drip from my hair and over my face like tears. I thought a second about no one being able to know if you were crying in the rain, then I began to look around a little.
Smallwood’s bathroom was large. Much larger than my washroom was. Although that’s not hard considering my place only had a sink. I looked across the chequered tires on the wall and began counting them in an attempt to divert my mind from present issues; it worked about as well as a life raft made of bricks.
Giving up, I started scrubbing my body down with soap that stung my now scabbing hands. It was the scented kind, the kind that most red-blooded men wouldn’t want to admit to using, never mind enjoying. Honey and lemon certainly smells better than sweat, or that standard issue stuff we used to get in the rations. Amongst all the things someone could possibly remember about such a large portion of their life, strip-washing in latrines with cold water and a hard bar of unscented soap was one of the strangest.
Once I got to my leg I stopped for a second and pulled it from the water to look it over. The large pair of scars along the upper thigh looked like curtain rails, they framed a dozen or so smaller wounds which jaggedly and randomly dotted the leg. It was all evidence of the long-ago events which got me discharged, and that tried to fix what got me discharged. Sometimes they ached, as if I was being slowly hit by the ghostly echo of the shrapnel, or of the surgeon’s knife that once cut them.
Done in the bath, I slipped out and over to the mirror. Smallwood had left me a razor and lather on the counter. Begrudgingly and slowly, I removed all the traces of hair below my ears. Towelling down, I wrapped myself in one of her fluffy robes robe before making my way to my office.
I got up to my place without incident, luckily that time of morning nobody was on the stairs. No pink skinned apologies would need to be given.
Closing my door behind me I looked around the room. Smallwood was moving a stack of paperwork into one of the room’s corners, it now sat along with the other neat piles along the far wall. The rest of the room looked a lot neater and a lot barer than it had previously.
“You didn’t have to do that.” I told her appreciatively.
She finished levelling off the papers until the edges were straight and replied, “Don’t worry about it.” Then she moved behind my bed and pulled out a basket of laundry. She moved by by me carrying it and told me to “Get some sleep while I do these for you.”
I obeyed dutifully and walked over to the back room. Throwing on some underclothes I jumped into bed and laid there until overcome with sleep.
My dreams began with memories of enlistment and then the front. In the forests of Hürtgen beams of yellow light shimmered down through the dark, reaching limbs of a thousand trees and into the silence of our dugout. I looked around to take in the breath-taking beauty of the surrounding area. The whole place was dazzling, spreading like a connected web of life in the strands of light. Green, yellow and red leaves all swayed and danced in the breeze, moss clambered greenly up earthy trunks. It was like a rainbow of rich autumnal colours had burst through the canopy and spread downward giving radiant animation to everything it touched. The familiar scents of soft earth, greenery and water all drifted through the air and I took a long moment to fill my lungs.
Then the light faded. The forest became entombed in a dim gray. Peaceful silence was replaced by a hundred shambling noises, the cracking of limbs and the groans of un-life. A dozen familiar ghosts stalked quietly, all staring with heavy lidded eyes and slacked muscles. Skeletal cheekbones, thin limbs and tattered uniforms all accentuated the forms slowly lumbering towards me.
Instead of running I just stood there, more still than a gravestone and allowed them to approach. Their withered arms and limbs wrapped around me and they drug me against a tree wordlessly.
That’s when I see him. An accustomed face framed a figure that approached, it was marred with the wear of battle, skin looked like curdled milk, but it was still recognisable. He lifts his bony arms upwards and pointed the camera he carries at me. He smiled with thin, dark lips as he places his finger on the shutter.
That’s when I hear it. Not the click of Robb’s camera but a gunshot. A single gunshot that spirals into a storm of fire and blood, I’m blinded by a hundred images of cuts and wounds, streaks of flesh and mangled bodies.
I woke up gagging on the imagined taste of ash and blood.
After several hours and several cups of coffee the phone rang. It was Gendry, he’d just come out of the station and told me to meet him down at the Crossroad’s Diner so we could talk over the files.
I grabbed my jacket from its hook and left a note on my door before leaving. “Out to Dinner, back mid-afternoon. Leave notes with building manager”
Brushing by Smallwood on the staircase, I asked her to keep an eye on my place before I walked out the door and across the street to my out-of-style Plymouth. The engine croaked as I pulled out of my cramped parking space and into the wide street.
The journey to the Diner was about 20 minutes. It was an old place with tin walls that sat on a bed of weeds and dusty earth in the shadow of a nearby office block, completely out of place with its surroundings. It was mostly used by construction workers from the nearby building works, the kinds of people who don’t mind its rundown appearance or are at least willing to overlook it for coffee that was about a nickel.
I parked on the other side of the street to the place and pulled my jacket from the backseat. Putting it on I could instantly feel the small, familiar weight of the photobook in the pocket.
Did I put that in there? Or did Smallwood, I thought.
Putting my hand over the bulge it leaves in my clothes, I considered taking it out and leaving it in the glovebox. I didn’t though, Maybe Gendry would appreciate it.
Making my way into the place I threw my weight into the heavy door. Hard hats and newspapers littered all but one of the tables, they were accompanied by gruff looking fellows with patches of safety orange clothing, they tucked into their food or smoked cigarettes, obviously relishing the time they had off.
“Jon.” A voice from the back of the room called.
Moving across the room I sat down opposite him. He was a well-built man, a little younger than me but a hand taller. He wore the standard-issue navy uniform of a cop. On his table was a stack of files and notes, and a hat.
I moved my hand from underneath the table and shook his. A strong grip enveloped my sweaty paw as he nudged the papers towards me with his spare.
“Gendry.” I nodded, looking into his blue eyes. His steely gaze betrayed none of the anxiety I knew he felt.
For most of the time I had known him he was always better at burying this kind of stuff inside him than I was. He let the hard knocks brush off him rather than put him down.
“It’s been a while.” Once the pieces were on my side of the table, he started fiddling with his hat and brushed a hand through thick black hair, his cuff buttons rattled on his badge as they made contact.
We’ve both come a long way since Father Rosby’s Orphanage, I thought, remembering a flurry of names and faces from those days. Some I wished I could forget.
He paused and looked at me for a second before adding. “You look better than I thought you would. Considering…”
I took off my jacket and slid the photobook onto the table. “Yeah, that’s despite having almost no sleep and a woman waving a gun in my face.”
“Who waved a gun in your face?” he asked in a hushed tone, worried.
“Right…” He whistled, stretching the word out like a poor man’s last buck. “He sure knows how to pick ‘em.”
“What did you bring me?” I asked, fanning out the files on the table.
“Just what I could get in the time- It’s not much. I made some calls around to people I trust, my notes from those are compiled in the first binder. The rest are a couple of police reports, buildings he owns and their addresses, some of those are from lockups and will need to go back soon.” I could detect the suppression of a sigh as he finished, the sense of self-disappointment permeated the air around him.
I turned to him and gave him an encouraging smile. Then flicked through the notes. “This is good stuff.”
The scrawled handwriting told me its story, the habit of evidence going missing from lockup, informants who’d wash up on the beach and lines of inquiry that stopped as soon as they got anywhere near the name Baelish.
There had never been an official investigation into Mr. Baelish though he was tangentially related to a few cases marked unsolved. In prostitution, drugs, protection and extortion cases his name came up sporadically, the names of his establishments more so.
The man owned several nightclubs and bars in the Bay City area, a dozen or so warehouses on the waterfront, an office just off Sunset Boulevard and a hotel on the way into the hills. Next to the last entry was a note written in red ink that read “Off Limits. No Uniforms.” It wasn’t in Gendry’s handwriting.
It’s a brothel, I realized.
I looked up to Gendry and his eyes shifted to the paper. He had obviously come to the same conclusion because he gave me that recognizable jaded look. One I hadn’t seen since basic.
Some of us snuck out of camp to a bar in one of the seedier parts of town. Neither of us knew about it on entrance, but the place doubled as pick-up joint for women of the night. Me and Gendry both turned down offers of a good time. We each had our own reasons. But when a girl sat in his lap and whispered things in his ear he had made a similar face.
Gendry had a bad childhood. The earliest section of which he spent living in the cathouse his Mom worked in. He didn’t remember much about her, just yellow hair and an easy laugh. They found him holding that yellow hair, brushing through it with his tiny fingers after she’d been cut up by a client. That was before Rosby’s. When he got there, he didn’t talk to anyone for a month, only sounds he made were at night, soft sobs into a scratchy pillow.
“We should split up and look these places over when we can. See if we can find any trace of Robb or Baelish.” I proposed.
He looked a little haunted at that before I added “I’ll try and scout the Brothel and the Office tonight, after sunset. I’ll drive over to the waterfronts today maybe, but I’ve got to look over his lady’s place and the sister is supposed to be coming to mine later.”
Nodding gently, he replied. “I have some time after my shift starts I can use, I’ll take some of the clubs. The other places I might be able to do on my route.”
“You do that. We’ll meet back here or at mine tomorrow. Let each other know what we find.” I said, separating the files into two stacks and handing him one.
He wasn’t paying attention to the files though. He was looking at something else on the table. Robb’s album, laying there.
“That his?” he asked, his eyes not leaving its green cover.
I looked over at it and then back to Gendry. “The book? Yeah, I went to his apartment. That’s where I met the girl.”
He leaned forward into the table and put his fingers over it, running them down the spine and then withdrawing them like he’d touched a stove. “Did you look through it?”
“Yeah.” I repeated.
“Even the ones from after?”
I studied the book’s spine and tried to lose myself in the gold-leaf pattern, that book is far too beautiful than it has any right to be. “Yeah.”
Gendry moved over to me and put his hand on my shoulder, he looked at my face and told me. “You shouldn’t blame yourself you know.”
“I don’t” I lied.
Gendry was the first to leave, I did the same a minute or so after. Dawdling in the shade of the Diner I took off my jacket and looked across the road to my car. The heat made the hot asphalt look like a tantalising pool of clear water. For a second, I thought about armbands before crossing.
The door handle burned like the end of a cigar when I touched it, I had to wrap the jacket round my hands to get inside. The interior smelled like boiling leather. I looked over the papers quickly once more before deciding I didn’t want to be in the car longer than I had to and pulled away.
Planning my moves out I decided it would be wise to pay Margaery a visit. Robb could always have shown up and tried to whisk her away like some fairy-tale knight, or she may have learned something about his whereabouts since I last saw her. In any case, I needed someone to bounce ideas off.
I went over to the Knox street in the east of the city. It was a fair drive from the Crossroads, out below the hills and away from the densest of the urban sprawl. Out here you could breathe without feeling like you were encroaching into someone else’s life.
The rosebush was where she said it was, out by the sidewalk. It took me a third glance to spot it though, it was withered and misshapen, like it had been left to die out in the heat. The heads of the flowers were pale, each one drooped down and languished like they’d seen a thousand seasons like this and weren’t willing to sit through another. For some reason, the grass around it wasn’t in so much of a state, it had this unnatural, almost toxic green colour. I could almost smell it from across the street.
Sitting in my car I watched over the house for a few minutes. It was a good-sized place with two floors and a cream face, one of the more modern builds. The windows and doors were latticed and trimmed in a pastel green that somehow made the shrubbery around the place look worse. On the top floor were two large, open balconies that overlooked the front and back gardens.
There was a shiny, maroon Lincoln Continental parked just off the path leading down towards Margaery’s house. Inside it sat a stocky looking man with a mat of nappy grey hair, he was chewing on an apple but didn’t look up. Like his attention was on something that sat in his lap.
I waited there another minute and looked over my files. This guy, or anyone with his description wasn’t mentioned within. But I decided not to take any chances and drove away before he could clock me.
Turning around the corner off Knox street, I slowly cut down a small walking path that runs behind the house. Getting out my car once I got as far as I believed I could go, I moved along the walls of back gardens until I could spot cream bricks. There was a black-iron gate that a path to the house ran through. It didn’t take much to reach my fingers in and wiggle the bolt before it unlocked and the gate swung freely open.
Stepping down the slabbed path, I slowly made my way towards the building proper. A big set of glass doors took up a large portion of the back of the house. I itched slowly over towards them to try and get a look inside. I managed to get within a few feet when I began to see it all and the familiar sight made my inner dialogue shout to me. The world seemed to all come a lot closer to my eyes and the air of the garden suddenly became thicker, making it harder to breathe.
This place was thrown over too. Just like Robb’s.
I immediately tried opening the doors, but they just rattled and didn’t budge. Then I knocked and put my head against the glass in an attempt to look deeper inside.
Throw pillows and furniture were in little heaps across the room, all with jagged holes cut into them. A mirror was smashed, and its shards were littered across the room. And a shaggy brown rug was folded in a corner next to a cabinet.
It took my eyes a second to adjust but I began to differentiate another brown thing on the rug from the piece itself. Its strands were much larger, but less thick and sat upon the head of a body dressed in underclothes, the lower half of which disappeared around a corner.
I thought about smashing the windows and climbing in for a moment before I remembered the guy sat out front. Looking around, I saw the trellis along the side wall. Without thinking, I tried climbing up the side and over onto the balcony. Some of the wooden rows broke, and it came a few feet short, but I managed to drag myself up. The door upstairs was glass too, not dissimilar to the downstairs one. Grabbing the handle, I prayed for it to be unlocked.
A metallic clunk signalled the doors opening and I quickly slid it enough to slip in. Running down the hallway I found the staircase. It was an open thing with thin little steps and no bannister. I made it two-thirds of the way down before stumbling the rest of the way. I ignored the momentary pain and pulled myself up, scrambling to the backroom.
Margaery was lying where I first saw her, unmoving.
“Margaery?” I quietly tried to get some response as broken mirror was crushed underfoot.
Once alongside her I tried shaking her. “Margaery, are you okay?” Please be okay. Her bare skin was clammy to the touch. I turned her over onto her back and straight away could already begin to smell it.
She cradled a long and empty glass bottle close to her chest. Her breath stung my nostrils as she slurred. “At least they didn’t smash up the liquor cabinet.”
It was a tough job carrying Margaery upstairs and to the bathroom. Mostly I struggled with where to put my hands. She had a beautiful body, small and lithe, with curves in all the right places.
You can tell a lot about a person by what they look like, with or without their clothes on. I studied her briefly on the journey, theorized on the good nutrition she must have received as a kid to have such length of bone, thought on the sheltered childhood she must have had not to have a single visible mark on any inch of her pale skin.
She groaned again and stretched in my arms like a cat, sweet-stinking flesh shimmered in the artificial light of the hallway.
We finally got to the bathroom. It was a large place, bigger than some apartments I’d seen. There was a tasteful modernity to the furnishings that screamed with well-groomed elegance, but it too had been searched quite fiercely. Women’s things and towels were spread all across it and a white-green silk shower curtain hung half-dead off of chrome rings.
I placed her against a wall by the shower and turned it on, fiddled with half a dozen knobs before testing my fingers under the water. Once it felt pleasant enough I looked around the room and collected some useful things: A large white bath towel, a robe, and a bar of soap that looked more expensive than my car.
Taking the bottle from her clutches, I replaced it with the bar and lifted her into the shower.
She whimpered a curse as the first round of water splashed against her face and dripped through her hair, but she soon drooped her head down out of its spray and supported herself with a hand. Whimpers were replaced with breathy whispers of confusion.
My response was shot through with concern. “We need to fix you up. Get you out of this mess. Wouldn’t want Robb to see you like this.”
She nodded and mumbled his name as I guided her other hand over her arms until instinct took over and she began rubbing herself down with the soap. The smell of stale alcohol became more and more over-washed by the delicate scent of summer flowers.
Her face shifted a little as she showered. Small bright teeth shined between parted lips as she breathed sighs and confusedly tugged at the little clothing she had. Deciding that was enough, I grabbed her wrist and pulled her into a carry before laying her down gently on top of a towel. Switching the shower off, I turned back to find she’d wrapped herself up like a baby.
I put my hand over my face and exhaled.
This wasn't what I had in mind when I decided to come over.
It took a while for Margaery to sober up. Until then she wasn’t much use to me. I poured her out a few glasses of water and left them by her bed to drink. I watched the unmoving Lincoln through the cracks between window blinds and thought things over.
Why would they toss Margaery’s place?
To scare her?
I rapped my knuckled softly against the windowsill and shook my head.
Same reason they tossed Robb’s.
So, they had to be looking for something. But what?
My mind went back to my first conversation with Margaery, I stewed over the things she said about blackmail, about the pictures. That certainly gelled with the manner of searching. If they were looking for pictures then that explains why they cut all the furniture down, why they’d even shredded Robb’s medal boxes and torn through his photobooks. Pictures could be hidden in the cavities of any of those things, they could have been put anywhere.
But why would they be looking for the pictures if they’re supposed to have them?
I began to pace the window, allowed myself a brief look back at Margaery before turning. She was laid sleeping on the edge of her shredded mattress as if nothing had happened. Her robe covered chest rose and fell in a poetic rhythm.
Like a prize-fighter, it hit me.
He must have got a hold of them somehow.
I smiled for a second admiring Robb’s achievement. But that smile soured like week old milk when two thoughts suddenly crossed my mind:
Firstly, if Robb did have the pictures why wouldn’t he have met Margaery at the station? Their hold over her would have disappeared, they could have run without worrying about them being released afterward.
Secondly, how could he have been confident that he could make sure they weren’t followed? They weren’t so shy when it came to roughing people up, making people disappear. Robb must have felt he had done something that would prevent that from happening to him.
But what? Was it something else he got hold of? That they were looking for?
Wisps of ideas danced in and out of my head, but none of them took corporeal form. All of them vanished when I heard Margaery gasp behind me.
"Why am I wet?"
Margaery fumbled in bed as she drank glass after glass of water. I watched her, perched delicately on a torn-up wicker chair. It had been cut down too, though that seemed to be more out of spite than logic, there was nowhere to hide anything inside it.
“Feeling any better?” I asked as she finished the last drops.
She dried her lips with the back of her arm and glowered at me before responding. “I don’t like to be touched.” She finally replied icily.
I rubbed the back of my neck down and traced the outline of the bedframe with my eyes to avoid her glare. It was black, little metal flowers and leaves decorated it. I counted them before looking back to her face.
“Yeah, I’m really sorry about that.” I finally said, as apologetically as I could manage.
She nodded hazily and sat herself up a little straighter. I quickly listed out a few more apologies, for probably breaking her trellis, for coming in without her permission. “In my defence though, you could have been dead. Anything could have happened, how was I supposed to know?”
She grinned beautifully as my face reddened. “It’s fine. I’m glad someone’s watching over me.” Staring her over for a second I thought about another face before responding.
“I don’t think Robb would forgive me if something happened to you.” Her grin faded at that, it was replaced with a stricken look that I was all too familiar with.
She pulled her knees up into her chest and patted her robe down flat over her legs, her bottom lip quivered a little before she asked me: “Did you find out anything?”
I told her what I had, what Gendry had got for me, what we had planned to do next. She sat there politely and took everything in, piece by piece, nodding politely at every other sentence. I’m almost done when her eyes well up.
“I could have told you a lot of that.” She sobbed, grabbing a glass and knocking it from the table. It didn’t shatter, just landed on the thick carpet with a thud. Wearing my most sympathetic look I tried to calm her a little. Margaery looked at the glass on the floor and whispered. “I feel so useless.”
“Not as useless as I feel, I bet.” I said back, dryly. Picking up the glass I rolled it in my hand for a second, looking at the shimmers of light cutting through it. “I’m supposed to be the one who does this for a living. I have barely found anything. What little I have isn’t much to go on. It’s like I’m trying to solve a jigsaw puzzle with only half the pieces.” My eyes begin to mirror hers until I buried the wells with my sleeve.
Our glances met each other’s and she reached across to put her hand in mine. It was warm, contrasted pleasantly with the cool glass in my other palm.
Placing the object in her hand I sat up straight and attentively. I fell back into the investigation. “Do you know anything else? Did they say what they were looking for?”
Turning back to the table she placed the glass with the others and looked back to me with an answer. “The pictures.”
“Yours?” I asked.
She looked a little confused, her skin flustered a little under the robe. “Who else’s? And why would they be looking here?”
I sighed and scratched my head before I replied. “That’s what I’m wondering.”
Putting my hands back into my lap I check the time. The hands stuttered along the face as I studied them and came to the realisation of how late it was. My office would be closing soon, I’d have to leave and check in with Sansa.
Another day wasted. Another day without him. I thought, contemplating what I’d tell her. What I could tell her.
I stood up and put on my coat. She stood too, looking a little worried.
“You’re leaving?” she asked.
Once my jacket was snuggly over my shoulders I replied. “Yeah. I told you, I’ve got some things to check out.”
She follows me out the bedroom and to the staircase. When I got to the bottom I looked up at her, light from the hallway radiated around her and made her look like a page from a children’s illustrated bible. A sudden protective urge overcame me.
“You got somewhere else you can stay? This place obviously hasn’t worked out too well.”
She replies with a nod. “I have a brother I can stay with across the city.”
“No can do, they’ll know where your brother lives, if they haven’t paid him a visit already.”
Her face looked shook.
“Wait half an hour then get dressed and slip out the back gate. Go to a friend’s. Someone they don’t know about. Call me later tonight, or leave a message with my assistant. Smallwood’s the name. We'll see where we go from there”
Fleshy footsteps echoed gently off the wood of the staircase as she made her way down. She got to the second from last step before she was level with me, stopped and drew me into a sob-hug. I patted her back gently for a minute before she withdrew and wiped her face.
“Just try to keep calm and lay off the booze. When Robb gets back he’ll tan my hide if you’re a mess.”
With that I creeped back into the living room and was welcomed by familiar crunching underfoot.
“And watch out for the glass…” I whispered loudly behind me.
Partial rewrite @ 23 June. More updates to come soon and hopefully with more frequency.
It was early evening by the time I got back to my office building. I parked the Plymouth in the nearest spot I could, almost on the next block.
The summer sun drenched the cracked sidewalk as I walked the street, it baked the ants that attempted to scuttle along its surface and into the safety of the shade. A dozen black corpses littered the path to the building entrance. Some more black dots scurried madly among the graveyard grieving for lost friends, others made for the safety of the doorways and the promises the inside held. How many would successfully cross I wouldn’t have time to find out.
I got my mail from the lobby box and bundled it messily under arm. Bills and angry letters were the least of my worries then.
Jogging up the stairs the wood welcomed me home with creaks from aching joints, I groaned back with the same. We’d both seen better days.
I passed a neighbour on the landing, she shuffled past with a sullen look as she made her way to the late shift at the paper.
I nodded at her and she returned a nod back. She works in the obits mostly. That and wedding announcements. How the two go together is beyond my comprehension, perhaps she just drew the short straws in the job line.
The hallway on my floor was brightly adorned by artificial light from overhead.
I got about halfway to my door when I first heard rattling plastic and quiet, shuffling footsteps.
I slowed down and listened carefully as I creeped closer to my office.
My door was open just a crack, the light gave way into the darkness of the room. I pushed my body against the doorframe and its pebbled glass to get a better look in.
A figure twitched and moved at the back and near the open windows, small tutting noises emanated along with the frustrated sliding, the rattles of dark slats.
Flickers of bright sunlight cut through the blinds at the back as they shook gently, illuminating patches of the room. The soft brown of my cheap desk, the mellow green carpet on my office floor, and prim copper curls that moved gently in the slight breeze.
“Sansa.” I spoke gently.
She jumped. Awkwardly and quickly, she brought her arms down from above her head and the whole set of blinds along with them. Light poured into the room.
The plastic slats and metal wire fastenings covered her, wrapped round her like some long-forgotten sea-monster. She turned back to me skittishly as she tried to untangle herself. Her cheeks reddened fiercely to match her red neckerchief and her brow furrowed.
I threw the mail on one of my cabinets and walked over to her, “Be careful or you’ll hang yourself.”
She stops struggling against the metallic contraption and I carefully lift segments that cling to her yellow dress.
“I’m sorry Mr. Snow. The light wasn’t working. I was trying to open the curtains but I’m not used to these types.”, she responded while she unclasped a shiny silver bracelet before dropping it gently into her purse. Doesn’t trust the silver with the hired help?
“Because they’re not made of lace?”, I quipped.
Her face hardened round the edges at that. Touchy subject.
“Why don’t you save the jokes and help me.”
“Yes, maam.” I replied dutifully before adding: “Call me Jon.”
I unwrapped the blinds round her shoulder and unknotted some wires round her other arm, letting them drop down to scuff along my carpet.
I crouched as I unhooked a piece from her thin brown belt and her hands shot down over mine. They were warm and soft but I could feel the resistance of a cool ring on a finger.
She looked down and told me she could do the rest now.
Once the bulk was off she shimmied the rest of it down her body and let it fall to the floor.
I opened the windows a little further, suddenly conscious of any staleness in the warmth of my office. Then I closed the door to the backroom. When I turned back Sansa had moved to the side of the room, away from the more direct part of the sunlight, her auburn hair was duller when she’d retreated to the shade.
“You couldn’t find Robb.” It wasn’t a question. More of a statement of the fact. Not a taunt, but a lament.
There was an intense heat at the back of my neck. I reached into my jacket and bundled out the photobook, sliding it across to the end of my desk. Then I opened my drawer and slid some more photos across, of Sansa, Margaery, other family and friends.
“I went to his place. It was a mess. Looks like it was broken into.” I figured it’d be better to keep the minute details from her, the last thing the situation needed was Sansa running down gangsters and crooked professionals on her own.
She nodded, held back an interjection before she nodded again.
“Has something to do with this girl,” I tapped my fingers on the photo of her and Robb, “her name is Margaery and they’ve been together some time.”
She took the picture in hand and studied it, a quizzical look overtook her as she racked her brain. “I’ve seen her before somewhere.”
“You probably have if you’ve been to a movie theatre recently. She’s an up and coming starlet.”
I sat down at my desk and opened the other drawer, searching for cigarettes but not finding any. “She’s nice. You’d probably like her.” She smiled slightly at that.
“But she swims with big fish and in tricky waters, Robb may have done something to anger them. They trashed her place too, just for measure.” That slight smile faded.
I closed the drawer again and the bottle at the bottom rolls audibly within.
She brought her hand to her face and rubbed her nose. I saw that ring for the first time, bright and sparkly in the sun, like something a magpie would pick out. It sits on the left-hand ring finger. Engagement.
“This is all you have?” she asked putting the photo in her other hand down back on the desk. She glanced over her own image, and then the rest.
I rubbed my hand on the back of my neck, and withdrew it damp with sweat. “There’s a folder in my car. Names, addresses, places and people. I’m looking them all down one at a time and I have a friend helping. In fact, I’m going out after this to see to some.”
She made as if to leave almost instantly, not wanting to interfere with my process. She sniffled and rubbed at her eyes before I raised by hand to stop her.
“Once they’re done and if they don’t bring any new information I’m going to have to make other lines of inquiry.”
“W-what does that mean?” She came closer to the desk
“Well he could have ran beyond my reach. Could be halfway to Washington by now. That’s where your family is from right? Originally?”
“Robb wouldn’t have run. He’s not afraid of anything. If people were going to hurt him he would have fought.”
Not like me, I thought.
“You can scare anybody—with the right technique.” I looked to a patch of wallpaper on the far side of the room over Sansa’s shoulder. It’s worn and torn down the middle in a section revealing the dark material underneath, looked like an open wound.
I shook stray thoughts from my head and looked to Sansa again. In the light her pale skin shone, accentuating the coppery sheen that framed her face. The scarf about her neck stood out clearly, thick and red, sweat drips below it.
“Probably best to reach out, or send a letter back home and ask around.”
I moved from out the chair and to the other side of the desk to get a closer look. She moved back slightly, heels rubbed along the carpet. I sat on the desk’s edge and gave her a sympathetic look to help ease what I was about to say. No indication into what I was looking for.
“I’m not going to lie to you Sansa. He could be really hurt. And you need to prepare yourself for that.”
She signed her agreement and looked to the floor. I took the opportunity to have a closer look at her neck, see the darker marks on the edge under the kerchief. They stood clearly against the porcelain skin.
“If they came after his lover there’s no reason they won’t come after his sister.” I added. She looked back to me and read me like a book. Her hand went to her neck and she adjusted the ‘chief up further up. She frowned, her eyes softened.
I studied her reaction for a moment then slowly held out my hand. She hesitated a moment before putting hers in mine.
I was reminded of another redhead, the bruises she’d come back to the home with. These weren’t the kinds of bruises you’d get from falling or roughhousing with friends. I doubted Sansa had ever roughhoused in her life, she’s the image of etiquette and curtesy.
“Are you safe? At home that is.”, I stared her down and waited through her hesitation.
She replied with a sigh, “Where I live is perhaps the safest place in Bay City, there are guards and a fence, I have a secure room in the house.”
“Not secure enough to keep him away.” I said under my breath.
She withdrew her hand as if scolded. Her brow furrowed and countenance hardened. Adjusting her handbag tighter she gripped at it fiercely.
She let it fall back to her side and her arms followed, extending to the floor quickly.
When she looked back at me there was no trace of wet tears or of their tracks. Her eyes narrowed, rigid and hard on her reddened face, they stared me down coldly. It was like she had gone away inside.
“My fiancé loves me and I am loyal to him. Don’t presume to involve yourself in my personal affairs.”
“I was just-”
“You’re not my brother, Jon!” her voice raised as she cut me off.
It stung a little, I don’t know why. I wasn’t her brother. I wasn’t anything to her. I didn’t have any siblings, no family to speak of. No-one but friends I’d failed or abandoned.
“No.” I sighed. “No, I’m not.”
There was a hard knock on the office doorframe.
In it stood Mrs. Smallwood, carrying a shiny tray of treats, she looked to both of us before announcing: “I brought sweets.”
Sansa began to excuse herself as Smallwood walked in.
“I hope I’m not interrupting anything.” Smallwood finally said.
“There’s nothing to interrupt.” I replied.
“I really must get going.” The red-haired girl muttered as she collected some of the photos from my desk. I put the book back in my jacket.
Smallwood stopped her by the entrance. Dead in her tracks. This was the tactic everyone in the building had learned to recognise. The bright smile from dark motherly lips, an arm extended outward with a tray of sweet smelling gifts.
“I’m sure you can stay enough for a snack.” She lifted the covering to reveal what laid underneath. Sansa stood and looked for a moment, hesitantly. “My name is Ravella. Please help yourself, it’s not often Jon has visitors for me to spoil.”
“I have lots of clients.”, I lied irritably.
“Sure you do, sweetie.”, She didn’t even look over at my sulking face or crossed arms.
Sansa gave her name also, and Smallwood complimented her on its beauty, then on her beauty. They smiled at each other and Sansa reluctantly inspected the offerings.
“There are little jelly sponges, cookies and lemon cakes. I would have brought more if I knew Jon had company.” She illustrated her words with a wave of the hand at the relevant points of the tray.
“Lemon cakes?” Sansa questioned, interest gently piqued. She put her slender fingers out to peck down at a pale indulgence, then withdrew it. Taking a small bite from it as Smallwood looked her over with wide grinning eyes, awaiting the verdict.
Sansa smiled as she finished chewing. “Oh, they really are quite lovely. Thank you.”
From the desk I could see the assortment on offer. One of every treat I could think of, minus what Sansa had taken. My stomach rumbled as I remembered I hadn’t eaten.
A spike of petty jealousy overtook me for a moment. “I wanted one of those too.” I grumbled like a child.
She looked over to me directly. Sansa did too, continuing to finish her own selection with extra added glee. I straightened my back and put my hands in my pockets.
“If you both come down stairs I have more.”
I didn’t really have time, but I knew better than trying to talk Smallwood out of these kinds of things. They meant a lot to her.
Sansa put her hand on her chest in apology. “I can’t. I really need to get home.”
“Come along Sansa, it’ll be nice to talk to another woman for a change. I won’t take no for an answer.”
She put the tray down on a filing cabinet and grabbed Sansa’s hand gently. Pulling her calmly out of the door. Sansa made a token attempt at resistance before submitting with a small grin.
Smallwood turned to me and motioned for me to follow. “And you too, Jon.”
I drug my feet on the way down the hallway.
Like two flies in a web, I thought.
“Sorry, I thought Jon was your son.” The bombshell exploded before any of us had a chance, each of us casualties to its blast.
We were down in Smallwood’s place, eating cakes and going through Robb’s photos when it primed, we had laughed at family photos of the Starks at the beach while Sansa regaled us with childhood stories. I appreciated hearing more about Robb’s life, whatever his closeness with me within the short years at college and in deployment it pales in comparison to those many multitude of memories that furnished the minds of his family.
Things had cooled somewhat between me and Sansa. Not bringing up Joffrey certainly helped on that front. In company and away from the grimness of her circumstance and that of her brother she was warm and pleasant.
Smallwood announced she also had some photos she’d like us to see and Sansa responded with a wry smile: “I have a hard time believing Jon was a little boy, I thought he was manufactured in a plant somewhere with inbuilt dry wit and cool demeanour.”
Smallwood dutifully tried to bury the matter, she took off and then folded away her floury pinny before she recovered her own photos from shoeboxes above the cupboards.
That was until Sansa called her Mrs. Snow. I was the one to correct her then.
She pressed on though, taking every wrong step in the proverbial minefield of hard conversation topics. “What do your parents do?”
Ravella cringed at that, she reached her hand over to my arm and patted it gently, waiting for me to break the news.
I halted for a moment and drew a short breath before opening.
“I’m an orphan, I never knew my parents.” I told her matter-of-factly, the way the weatherman reads the weekly forecast.
She nodded, her face looked like it’d been hit by a sudden realisation. Then she apologised profusely with a great deal of sadness undercutting her voice. “I’m sorry to hear that. It must have been rough.”
If there’s any phrase within the English language more detestable than “It must have been rough.” when describing the experiences of those in the care system in California I have still yet to encounter it. Rough can’t even begin to describe the rollercoaster of sensations.
It’s always the late-night sneaky carers they imagine first or the bullying from peers for those who are lucky enough to get to school, “sibling” rivalry with your foster parent’s real child if you were young enough and pretty enough to be fostered. The tropes do happen, but they don’t fully quantify the hard slog, the daily realities of life in that scenario and the cruel fact that nothing you do can will change things. It sucks your soul out slowly, death by a thousand small cuts.
Even if you’re a “good” foster kid, you can't control the environment you're dropped into, whether your new adults will look after you right, whether they will stay together. Threats of dropping you back off to where you came hanging over your head, the constant feeling of insecurity in your standing within the household. The spare. The outcast.
Me and Gendry are some of the lucky ones, we found ways out which weren’t prison, the bottle or the needle. Others aren’t so lucky.
I brushed her statement off with a wave of the hand and tried not to let the atmosphere dampen. “There’s no need to be sorry. You couldn’t have known.” I look over to her on the other side of the table, but it isn’t her face I see, just crooked teeth and a round face.
Smallwood changed the subject by producing her own photobooks. Some of them I’d seen before, others I had not. She had her own stories to tell, we laughed and winced together as she told them with the warmth, pride and fervour for detail that only a parent talking of their children can muster. The colour of her son’s first set of baby booties, what her daughter wore when she graduated school, each segment of her memory was crystal clear, rehearsed a thousand times in her mind.
I didn’t have any photos to share, I thought my stories blunt and dull in comparison to the shining gems thus provided. I laid back and allowed the group conversation to flow, pitching in my feelings when appropriate. It was the first real long conversation I’d had for some time. I felt guilty for enjoying it so.
It was beginning to get darker by the time one of us checked the clock. Books were stacked into a neat pile on the table and empty trays were placed on the countertop. Sansa announced she must leave, “for real this time.”, and me and Smallwood got up to see her out.
“How will you be getting home?” Smallwood asked her at the door with fuss and concern.
“I’ll take a taxi cab. One of my in-laws’ men will pay the driver at the gate.” She sounded certain, by the looks of the clothes and the jewellery it seemed likely, but that would do nothing to assuage my landlady’s worries.
“Why don’t you have Jon take you, save you the money and the hassle?” she offered as she drew Sansa into a hug.
Sansa’s face looked a little uneasy over Smallwood’s shoulder. Probably like a mirror of my own. That unease drained away as they withdrew from each other and came to each other’s view again.
“It’s no trouble, is it Jon?” She looked back towards me with a wide smile, smug with happiness over her ability to have us put together.
“No. I’ve got to go out anyway. There are things I have to do, related to Robb.” Sansa nodded in understanding then she opened her purse and withdrew a familiar piece from within.
She passed it over to Smallwood a who unfolded it, rubbed her fingers over my face and Robb’s face then grinned in appreciation. “Thank you for this, Sansa.”
We were moving down the road at some speed when a police car passed us. The banshee wail of its siren rose then fell against the low buildings as we got more and more distant.
Sansa watched through the window as it passed. Like a sheltered puppy she took in the sights and sounds of the city with glee and astonishment. Neon was lighting up, ready for the summer night and the rituals that come with it. A Ferris wheel across the block began to shine as it spun in the final glow of evening sunlight.
We drove down the strip then there wasn’t much else to see, mostly construction sites adorned with the names of men who did very well out of the crash. Some shabby and haggard looking figures crowded in the alleys and on the sidewalks, men who didn’t share in that success.
“You don’t come into town much?” I asked with curiosity, thinking of the distance between here and her place. Between her life and theirs.
She didn’t answer immediately, just continued to study the surroundings. A few seconds went by until she turned face forward in her seat and answered.
“No. Only when meeting Robb really.” There was an inch of regret in her voice, it cut underneath a new and raw sadness. She hesitated for a moment before she asked: “Are there usually this many homeless on the streets at night? I’m not normally out so late.”
I looked around and counted a few huddled masses in my head. At a raw glance the number didn’t seem unusual. “This time of year, these numbers are normal. At least as long as I’ve been back.”
“It was worse in the depression, of course.” I continued, “But for some people around the depression never really ended.”
She sat and stewed over what I said, nervously playing with the latch on her purse as it sat on her knees.
“You must think I’m terribly sheltered.” She guessed.
“It’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are plenty of things out there that it’s good to be sheltered from.” I made a turn down out of the thick air of the city and across the river, into Pasadena.
She stopped toying with the purse and looked me over with careful consideration. Paused for a moment before she softly said it.
“Like the war.”
Where did that come from?
I was expecting something like this to come up eventually, but not in this manner and not this early. I thought cynically on her motive for a moment and then decided it was only natural for her to ask me about one of the events that linked me so closely to her brother. Something Robb likely would like to shield her from.
I sighed gently. “Yeah, like the war.”
“I obviously didn’t experience it as you or Robb did, rationing and shortages affected us but it’s clearly not the same. Robb doesn’t talk about it much, and I don’t want to pry.”
“So, you thought you’d ask me?” I turned the headlights on with a flick of the wrist.
“I’m sorry for bringing it up if you don’t want to talk about it” She seemed genuine in her apology, it held none of the bite or bile that others who had said similar things and not meant them exhibited.
“It’s fine.” I lied. “There’s little else to do for the next 20 minutes.”
“Perhaps you’d like to ask questions of me too, make a game of it.” Her eyes blue eyes set alight with the reflecting beams of a passing car.
I nodded. “Sure, Sansa.”
She stopped toying with the bag and turned slightly towards me in her seat. “You were in Robb’s division, right.”
I chuckled a little at that, but she gave me a confused from. “Yeah, along with several thousand other men. It was the 104th, Timberwolves. A division is one of the largest grouping of soldiers. I was in his squad too, they tend not to number more than a dozen.
“That’s where you met?”
“No. We were roommates in college, the year of it we were there. We enlisted together with a friend.” My mind drifted to scenes of lecture halls and I could smell the dry chalk on the blackboards, echoes of Marlowe and Blake echoed softly in my ears, half-remembered lines from butchered soliloquies.
“You went to college?” The sides of her mouth lifted, somewhat staggered.
Just glad she’d changed the topic I delved deeper into the exercise., lathering myself in mock-offense. “Don’t sound too surprised. There’s just not much of a demand for it in my trade, clients just want you to have a license, thick skin and speak English. They don’t need you to recite Faustus” I enunciate the final sentence with an exaggerated refinery and she laughed. It was like birdsong in my ears.
“What was it like, living with Robb?”
I made another turn and rubbed at my chin as I thought it over. “It was good for me, I guess.”
“He helped me a lot. Kids from care often have problems with hoarding everything from snacks, to random papers, to clothes. Robb helped me break the habit at college. Though I think that was partially for his own good, my stacks of newspapers and magazines from the lobbies and waiting rooms of every campus building were beginning to flow gently into the hallway.”
She laughed again, then stopped, worried about offending me. I laughed too, to let her know it’s okay, and she continued. Then she began to ask another question before I interrupted her.
“Isn’t it my turn yet?” I wondered aloud.
I tapped my hands on the steering wheel rhythmically as I thought of a question and we continued the back and forth up until we got to the manor grounds. I had learned a lot about Sansa on the journey, and more about Robb. I told myself that this was all to help find Robb, everything could be useful tonight or in the coming days, but I was enjoying Sansa’s company too much to be able to lie.
She told me of her situation, her father’s death, how her father’s friend looks after the material needs of the rest of her family in Washington.
She told me how she came down for school and moved into that friend’s house, how the friend’s wife had taken to her, as had her son. Sansa made it sound romantic the way she described the engagement, but it didn’t seem like that to me. It seemed like they had arranged it for her, expected it of her, purchased her with security and expensive gifts.
It’s none of my business, I told myself as I pulled down the long road towards the house, shaking away thoughts of intervention and intreatments of consideration. Sansa’s old enough and smart enough to look after herself, to know her own mind.
The road widened as we got further down it. Thick woods covered its sides and encroached the closer we got to the manor proper, the Plymouth chugged along under the cover of the trees. Branches overhead swayed gently in the tame wind until I turned a corner, then they vanished as we came to a clearing nestled at the bottom of the nearby foothills.
The large red-brick complex appeared suddenly in the grounds and I became unsure how I couldn’t see it from the road. Lit turrets glowed in the darkness, illuminating the dense shrubbery that climbed up the side of the country house.
“Fancy,” I muttered, stretching the word on my tongue. Sansa gave me an embarrassed nudge.
Old-fashioned carts were dotted along the side of the road, covered in decorated tarps.
A gatehouse larger than my apartment stood at the end of a thick wall, fluorescent light creeped out from within and a large man stood by the doorway, motioning for me to stop the car.
He was a gruff looking guy with a thick beard and long hair, he wore ragged-looking black pants with dark suspenders sat over a yellow button-down. The sleeves were rolled up and revealed dense limbs. He looked like the kind of man you would want as a gatekeeper.
I rolled down my window as I pulled up beside him, he put his hand on top of the car and I inhaled through my teeth as I thought of the dent his big mitt would leave.
“What’s your business at the Red Keep?”, he rasped.
I planned on talking before Sansa pipped up. “He’s here to drop me off.”
He crouched down and ignored me, putting his head by the window to view Sansa fully. I got a closer view of his face then, half of it was a twisted mess of scar, shiny and dark even in the dim light.
“Hello, Mr. Clegane.“ Sansa smiled at him, the image of courtesy. I’m reminded of fairy tales again, images of princesses and misunderstood monsters flashed through my mind.
He withdrew his hand and moved back a little, nodding gently, he motioned for us to move. ”In you go then, little bird. The young master has been looking for you.”
I watched him walk back to the house, he shambled somewhat through the small doorway. We waited for a second before the gate creaked open and then we drove on through.
It was a three-minute drive down to the main building, I spent most of it with my mouth agape.
A village of thick tents and temporary structures had been set up on the green, each a fantastical set of colours. A swarm of men worked on them with hammers and other tools.
“What’s with the tents? An Errol Flynn flick?”, I asked.
Sansa replied nonchalantly as if this sort of thing was an everyday occurrence. “There’s a movie that was being shot here, medieval themed, the wrap party will be held tomorrow.”
I stopped the car when we hooked around a wide fountain. Opening my door, I thought for a second about a thousand dry mouths crying out for water.
Sansa had already got a foot out the car before I walked over to help her out of her seat. She laid her small hand in mine for a second before she retracted it with a thank and we said our goodbyes.
I watched as she turned and took her first step. She didn’t immediately take a second, just looked back to me.
“I would like to have met you under different circumstances, Jon Snow.”
“And I you, Sansa.”
She smiled and continued to walk up the long staircase and to the main entrance of the house. I stood there on the side of at the bottom hoping she would turn back again, but she didn’t, when I came to that realisation I suddenly felt colder in the dry heat of the night.
I got into the car and waited to turn the key, just listened to the gentle lapping of water on stone nearby for a moment. Until the noise was broken by the sound of approaching footsteps.
I checked my mirror and saw a primly dressed butler walk the path towards me. He was an old man with white hair and a lined face. He looked strong and upright despite his age, walked with a grace and refinement that defied his long years.
I didn’t strike the engine, just let him approach. He held out a hand by the still open window, inside it was a five-dollar bill folded around a business card.
“I was tasked with bringing this to you when you arrived, Mr. Snow.”, he told me, speaking with a clear English accent.
I opened my palm to let him drop them in and he did so. Then he looked around for a moment as if on the lookout for someone. I pocketed the bill and flipped the card over giving both sides a quick look. The front held a contact number and the address of the house, the back had a brief note compiled in shaky handwriting:
I have some answers to questions you may be asking, come to the party tomorrow if you wish to know more. 8:00 pm sharp.
Baratheon. I wondered at the name.
My immediate thoughts went to the fiancé. That he’d heard Sansa had visited and was planning to throw a scare on to me, tell me to stay away from his girl, the theatrics with the butler were to keep the number of witnesses for my inevitable beating down. The abusive partner is usually the jealous partner. Those sorts of things go together like crackers and cheese.
“This from Joffrey?” I asked.
He shook his head gently and I believed him. Those sad blue eyes would have given away a lie immediately.
“I’m not at liberty to say anything more, sir. Only that Mr. Baratheon would appreciate it if you were discrete.”
I opened my mouth to speak again, thinking of the possibility this had something to do with Robb. But he interrupted me with a raised finger.
For a moment he stood still and tall in the dim light before he slammed his hand on the roof of the car and pointed me on down the road. “Five dollars for your troubles is more than enough” He shouted in faux-outrage “And that’s all you’ll be getting out of these good folk.”
I can hear the other footsteps then, and I twisted my head to see a pair of figures standing at the edge of the fantasy village.
I switched on the engine and turned quickly out towards the exit as he continued to shout at the car.
What a strange place.
I used some of the five dollars to fill the car up at an overnight station on my way back to the city. I assumed it wasn’t expected back, nor was it likely to be missed.
As the gas churned from the pump I thought things over. What Baratheon might have wanted to talk about, how it was going to affect my plans for the next few hours, and when I’d meet up with Gendry in the morning.
I decided this changed nothing. If Baratheon wanted to discuss Robb’s case with me then I might as well give him a listen, if something valuable could be learned then what I did before wouldn’t matter so much. But I’d rather use the time I had before then in case things didn’t pan out.
Why he didn’t want the rest of his staff knowing about me, why he could have the type of information I needed, why he couldn’t tell me that night, I didn’t know. What I knew was I had a list of Baelish’s addresses I needed to visit.
I bought a pack of cigarettes before leaving, light one after I pulled out and onto the road.
Baelish’s talent agency was just off Sunset boulevard, it had a dull pastel coloured face and tall windows that allowed the streetlight to shine in. I sat in my car parked opposite the street for a quarter hour watching the place. No-one went in or went out. Few cars went by.
And why would they at that time of night.
When I thought the moment opportune I stepped out the car and made my way across the street until I was by the windows. I peered in for a second and scanned the lobby.
There was a desk at the end of the room, between me and it were a collection of modern chairs that seemed all too artsy to be of any practical use. It was a waiting reception that I assumed led back further into more rooms via a visible dark oak door.
Turning to the rest of the street I surveyed the barren place until I noticed the building works three buildings down. A stack of bricks was just past a tarp covered entrance way. I pocketed one and walked back to the office.
The windows collapsed inwards with a smash.
I looked around the street again, but no one was around. No curtains or blinds shifted in windows. No doors opened with heads pointing out to investigate.
I only had a little time to look around.
I stepped through the window frame and over broken shards of glass, they crunched underfoot like crisp winter snow.
I palmed around in the dim light until I found a switch.
With a click the room became well-lit. I noticed newly revealed movie posters and profile shots on the walls. Some of them had a familiar face plastered over them.
One of them had a dark background with fancy white cursive. A piece of jewellery was glowing green on a woman’s neck. It read: “Margaery Tyrell stars in the Jade Talisman.”
“Too valuable to be harmed.”, I thought
Another was an older poster, it had been faded by time, little cracks appeared around the edges where it was left to bake in the sunlight. It showed a young woman with golden hair and emerald eyes. She wore a long red dress and kneeled next to a lion. Golden letters ran across the bottom of the poster, they read: “The Lioness.”
The second movie’s name rang a bell. I could remember sneaking into the theatre near Rosby’s with Ygritte and Gendry. We had only managed to see half of the picture before getting thrown out. The message was drilled in with heavy armed grapples and small jabs, people like us weren’t wanted in a fancy place like that.
Maybe the manager was afraid his patrons would catch poverty or something.
I could recall the gist of the plot. It was about a woman who grew up with lions and protected them from rich white safari hunters. Despite not seeing the whole thing Ygritte smiled for the rest of the week, even through the hard beating Thorne gave us when we got back to the home.
She kept on repeating lines over to me again and again, and acting out scenes. In the darkness of the night and in the realms we created underneath our blankets and mattresses we could be anything we wanted to be. A questing knight, a space alien or even just a normal kid with a loving and stable family, with most of us the dreams would change by the day, but Ygritte for as long as I knew her wanted to be the lioness.
I moved along the wall and across the room until I got to the desk. Laying on it were several different stacks of papers. I looked through them, skimming application forms, notes and memos. There was a locked drawer beneath the desk that came open with a few harsh pulls.
Inside were a couple of pens and a calfskin journal that I pocketed. I moved on to try and scout out the hallway but the thick door wouldn’t budge, even after I tried slamming my weight into it a few times. Kicks didn’t work either, just aggravated a familiar ache which grew in my thigh. I finally relented, beginning to limp my way back to the car.
When I got back into my ride I pulled out jerkily into the street and drove a few blocks away. Once a far enough distance from the office I pulled over by a dumpster and turned off the engine. Grinding my teeth, I rubbed my fingers down my leg in an attempt at managing the pain. A thin sheet of sweat covered my face as I tried to control my breathing. Curses were whispered from tightened lips and shaky hands gripped the wheel for the worst parts.
Once it had begun to recede to a dull throbbing I exhaled, opened the glove-box for some painkillers but found none. Frustrated, I pulled the journal from my jacket.
It was a planner. Presumably put together by the office secretary. The first thing I noticed flicking to tomorrow’s date was an event: “Wrap party – Red Keep.”
So that’s what Baratheon had to talk to me about?, I thought. Then my thoughts drifted, What if it’s a trap? What if it’s a plan to get at a surveying eye who’s rubbing his nose in their business? I decided then and there I wouldn’t be going into the party with nothing and no one to back me up.
The planner listed several other meetings with clients and friends. Dinners and lunches across town, charitable events, movie premiers, etc. There were no real trends in any of the meetings but one. Every second Monday night Baelish had a meeting at his hotel. It was marked “Ros.”
The Mockingbird hotel was a squat place with blacked out windows. It had a decent sized carpark and a single red doorway out the front. Above the doorway was a small white neon light in the shape of the hotel’s namesake. The building was about as inconspicuous as a leper in a sauna.
I stood on the dying yellow grass by my car and looked around for a moment.
Next to the entrance stood the same stocky man who waited outside Margaery’s. He was dressed in an unbuttoned dark jacket, underneath was a shabby waistcoat and around the edges there were thin hints of brown leather. A holster most likely.
I moved slowly towards the door. and he watched me with dismissive eyes as I went inside.
“Enjoy your stay.” He mumbled behind me as he picked under his nails.
Inside, I could already sense the reeking hallmarks of class and easy privilege. The smell of cigar smoke, sweet perfumes and fine wines all lingered in the dark hallway of the entrance room. Through another set of doors in front of me I could hear soft music, the clink of glasses and sporadic giggles of laughter.
I braced myself for a few seconds before entering.
God help me, I thought.
Wide doors opened into a wider lobby. The place was littered with old men with expensive suits and liquor breaths, they lounged against walls or on white leather chairs. Some of them were accompanied by pretty girls in next to nothing, a few others were accompanied by soft-skinned boys. An older man was patrolling the joint, prowling down the sides of the room with watchful eyes, every few minutes he’d stop and rub his large knuckles along his belt.
On one side of the room ran a long bar spotted with patrons and workers, sweaty hands with porcine fingers ran across soft arms and thighs. At the end of the bar there sat a flat desk, behind which stood a lean, red-haired woman with full lips and wide eyes. She wore a tight green tiered dress with a plunging neckline and high waist. It set her apart from the other women and certainly showed off all of her assets.
I made my way to the edge of the bar, stopping just before the far side where the desk was. I slid out a cigarette from the box in my jacket pocket and lit it, ordered a water with ice as I watched the redhead. Why does it always have to be redheads?
She didn’t move. Just surveyed the room absentmindedly.
I sipped at the water, felt the cool crisp liquid slide down my throat, the thick blocks of ice clinked against the glass. I put it down and watched them swirl for a moment before I was tapped gently on the shoulder.
A young man stood behind me, black hair in curly ringlets topped his head. His soft skinned face looked uneasy and his cheeks flushed pink.
“Are you looking for someone?” He had an almost sickly-sweet voice, like the thick syrup that collects at the bottom of an ice cream sundae.
“How old are you?” I asked as I finished my drink.
He looked unsure for a moment before he answered with a poorly rehearsed flirtatiousness. His hand rubbed along the length of my thigh. “Whatever age you need me to be.”
I hid my anger as much as I could, peeled his hand away and turned back to the bar. Just a kid, doesn’t know what he’s doing. I thought about how much he weighed for a minute, how far I could run him out of the joint with my leg this dumb, how much he’d struggle before I got him into the car and away from this place.
I waited for him to hover away from me before I continued the last of my journey, leaning on the bar a little to take weight from my aching leg.
She was watching me with a smile as I approached, like she’d caught a spider in her web.
“Welcome to the Mockingbird.” she greeted me, running one hand down the spine of a book in front of her as she closed it. In her other hand, she carried a small golden pen and was stroking her long fingers down its cap.
I paused for a second before replying with a stammer. “H-Hello.” I took a second to clear my throat before continuing, “I was looking for Ros.”
Her smile widened and her head leaned in a little as she slowly answered. It felt like she was whispering a secret. “That would be me, Sir. To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“I’m afraid it’s business rather than pleasure.” I replied with a low voice pulling the journal out of my pocket and giving her a glimpse. She looked at it knowingly and I glanced around to see if anyone was close enough to hear, leaned my head in till I could smell her flowery perfume. “Mr. Baelish sent me.” I lied.
Moving my head back I asked, “Is there a quiet place we can talk?”
Ros was no longer smiling. She looked to a nearby table to the same young man who offered me his “services” and motioned for him to come watch the desk. “I won’t be long, Satin. Just watch the books until I get back.”
She led me through a side door then down a long hallway until she stopped. She attempted to open a door in front of us with a large bundle of keys, tutting with each failed attempt. After the third try she asked me my name.
“Mr. Wulf.” I replied.
She turned for a second with a raised eyebrow and then went back to trying the door. “And how long have you been working for Mr. Baelish?”
I thought my response over for a second before I answered. “Not long. I got back in to town recently, I work on the docks for him usually.”
She stopped scrambling with her keys for a second and after a turn we finally heard the click of latches unlocking. Ros opened the door and motioned for me to pass her grinning. “Hmmm…”
I walked into the dark room and ran my hands along the wall for a light before she instructed me from behind. “It’s just down the wall near the side of the bed.”
I heard the door close behind me as I fumbled across the room through a thin gap between bed and wall, I heard the rolling tumble of a lock. Then I heard a third noise that made my stomach drop. An all too familiar clacking sound.
My hands found the switch and the room lit up with a dim glow.
“Ros?” I questioned before she turned the corner with a small revolver in her hand.
She elevated it up till it was pointed at me and smiled raising a single finger to her lips. “Take off your clothes and get on the bed, please, Mr. Wulf.”
I sat on the bed with raised hands and looked at Ros through tired eyes. “This is getting monotonous, you know.”
She didn’t reply, nor did I expect her to. Just moved her finger from her lips and pointed it down towards my pocket. The one with the journal in.
Ros stepped closer gradually until the gun was pressed gently into my chest, then she kept pressing until I was pushed on my back with my hands touching the headboard.
I took a second to look about the room for something to grab and saw only a green-glass ashtray and a newspaper on the bedside table.
Then I said a small prayer in my head, the kind they drilled into us at the home, hoped it was another prop gun despite the odds not being in my favour.
I began to think about not being as scared this time around, perhaps I was building up an immunity. My mind drifted to tales of Mithridates
I groaned harshly when she crushed my leg as she climbed onto the bed and then onto me.
The gun came to my chest again and I nodded at it. “You probably want to be careful with that. The littlest thing could set it off.”
She smiled wryly at that and told me she knew how to handle it.
“I don’t doubt it.”
Straddling me she snaked her hand gently into my jacket slowly and pulled the journal out. It was placed on the soft sheets of the bed just by my side.
“That wasn’t a good idea you know, it’s much easier to reach up and grab a gun than it is to sprint across a room. I’d have time to read the sports section before you got a shot off.” I shifted my head towards the paper as if to illustrate my point.
“How about the obituaries? I’m pretty quick.” She told me, raising the automatic till it was up to my chin. It didn’t seem anything but playful to her, like we were taking part in some elaborate twisted foreplay before the main event.
I got a closer look at the thing then. It shimmered and shined in the dim light from above. I could see the deformed reflections on the surface, they swirled and danced like wraiths in the moonlight.
I also noticed a way out, but I didn’t take it. I wanted to see where she was taking this, why I wasn’t already full of holes. I reasoned that if she was to shoot me then she would have done so already, done so as soon as the chance presented itself.
“Doesn’t matter how quick you are if the safety’s on.” I told her smugly, slowly folding my arms behind my head. I raised myself up a few inches so I could see her face better.
She peeked at the gun disgruntledly then and I watched her. She clicked the catch on the side of it and moved off of me to the end of the bed.
“Take off your clothes, please. Things will be much easier without them.”
“What exactly have you got in mind?”
She didn’t reply again, just smiled and looked sly, motioned with the gun in a chop-chop manner.
When I laid there in stubborn refusal she leaned over me and unbuttoned my jacket herself, then she moved onto the shirt, pulled it open quick and rough with a single trained hand. The trousers were a bit tougher but they went away too and I was suddenly self-conscious, weight shifted onto my bad leg, drew out ragged gasps and small moans. She avoided it after that, went through the effort of trying to make it all look a little sensual with little bumps to agreeable areas and soft rubs over stiff muscle but her pats were in all the familiar hiding places.
As each piece of clothing came off she patted those down too before throwing them to the floor, obviously checking them and me over for concealed items.
“Those are my good pants.” I winced as they dropped to the ground in a heap. She didn’t care, just kept piling my clothes on the floor, their contents onto the bed.
I was down to my thin grey socks and pair of loose-fitting boxer shorts after a couple of minutes, she’s was off the bed then, stood at the end of it with her arms crossed.
“Now spill.” She told me in a voice that could cut glass.
I sat back up slowly and she trained the gun on me again. She held it gently in her hand by the side of her hip, like the gangsters do in all the movies.
Moving my hand down to the shiny mess of scars along my thigh I rubbed it and groaned: “I feel like I’m spilling already. Was that all necessary?”
“A naked man has few secrets. Now quit the japes and tell me who you really are, what you’re really here for.”
“I told you, I’m with Baelish.” I kept my tone flat not trying to upset her with a lie that’s anything but obvious.
“Like hell you are. I know his goons, the usual ones that is. I know them like the backs of their hands. And they don’t have your manner, nobody else would have this book without Baelish by their side.” She listed out her reasoning, counted the points on long fingers, the nails of which were pointed with a shiny red gloss.
“So, I’m not with Baelish.” I admitted. “But if you knew that from the start why didn’t you turned me in? Why haven’t you howled for the pit bosses and the bouncers to come in and knock my head, drag me out by my feet and dump me battered in a dumpster somewhere? That’s the sort of thing they’d do, right?” I didn’t break the questions up with a breath, just rambled them out through the irritated ache.
“Something like that.” She nodded.
“Happen lately?” I asked with a raised eyebrow.
“Every other night. Can’t say I cry myself to sleep over it. Sometimes it’s deserved.” The final sentence was spoken almost in a whisper.
Sometimes it is. I thought about thin bruises on a pale neck, the copper locks that hung beside them spurred my thoughts further.
“A younger man, late 20’s looking with auburn curls and blue eyes. Heard about anything like that happening with him? Heard about anyone like that recently?”
She shook her head as she spoke. “Not ‘round here.”
“Anywhere else? One of the other clubs maybe?” The words came out a little faster than I had meant them to.
“Not that I recall. What’s the interest?”
“All this violence doesn’t sound like something you’d want to be around.”
“I’m used to it.” She shrugged.
“You might be, but are the other girls, is the boy? Baelish know you’ve got underage here? Or was it his idea? Get even more scumbags in the joint, draw them in like rats with a fresh cut of meat.” I couldn’t hide my disdain for the enterprise.
“He knows.” There’s a look in her eye there, like an icy covering had been chipped off a lake to reveal the clear pools underneath. For a second she’s brittle and raw until she looked back up to me.
“That the kind of guy you want to work for?”
“Not many other joints in town after he came in. Not many girls leave without a souvenir” She made a slow slicing stroke over her face, just below her eye and to the edge of her mouth, like she was playing connect the dots.
“That where I come in?” I wondered.
“That’s where you come in.” She nodded before she said something that surprised me. “I take it they didn’t teach you undercover work at the academy?”
“You think I’m police?”
“Who else would you be?” She paused and rubbed her face over with the back of her hand. “Some idealistic kid who thinks he’s going to bring Baelish down. You’ll need help, of course, that’s where I come in.”
“So, it’s a deal you want then?”
“If that’s the sort of thing you can give me. Or do I need to speak to someone higher up the food chain?” Her face was confused and wooden, like she was still piecing out the broader details of her plan.
“Let me guess, your protection in exchange for some papers or for some testimony, something that they can’t make go away.”
“Not for me”
“The boy?” I asked.
“The boy.” She answered.
“The boy.” I repeated, rolled the word around in my head a moment while I thought out a plan of my own. I winced as I shimmied down the bed, swung my legs to the side of it till my feet hit the floor.
I took a breath before I let her down. “I’m not a cop, I’m a dick. People like me don’t make good cops.”
She frowned then and I imagined the machinations of her mind for a moment. Unease and regret stung her face, but I didn’t let her stew before I spoke again: “I can still help you though. I know some places, some people. They and I can keep you and the kid safe for a few days until we sort something out, either get you out of state or with some sort of protection scheme, float what you give me to a straight judge and some straight cops to consider. If not, there’s always the press.”
The gun lowered in her hand, pointed below me at an angle as uneasy digits played with her belt. “You can’t guarantee me anything then?” She asked.
“I can guarantee that if you stay here things will continue the way they’ve been, or maybe get worse. If you want to get out of here then I’m your best chance right now, or you can make a run by yourself. But I don’t imagine you’d get very far without help, otherwise, you wouldn’t have asked.”
“Sounds like I’m being strong-armed a little.”
“Well, you’re certainly not being strong-legged.” I laughed at my own joke, the rise and fall of my body hit like a knife.
She opened her mouth slightly and sucked a little air in through her teeth. Eyes closed a little as she cringed. “Sorry if I hurt you. That looks rough.”
“It ain’t so bad.” The gritted teeth and pain shooting through the sentence made that lie even more obvious than the last.
She audibly winced at me, lowered the gun before she spoke again. “I can help with that if you want.”
“It’s not really something that’ll get better, it’ll pass after a while.” I told her, gasping as another bit of pain shook through.
Ros gently uncocked and placed the gun on the ground, stepping over to me until she was crouched by the offending leg. She looked up to me with begging green eyes. “Please, just let me help you. We can talk more after.” Taking a second to have a closer look she started massaging the thigh from top to bottom.
Sweat beaded on my forehead and wetness welled around the edges of my eyes as she let her fingers glide over my skin and embed into muscle. It took a few minutes for the pain to shift out, but it did in time. Throughout the period her face was steely determined and she cooed soothingly to me.
With the worst gone I brushed her off a little, shrugging of the sensitivity I asked her: “Do you do that often?”
Her arm went across her face to brush it as it flickered with a dozen different emotions and memories. She created a barrier between her and me with folded arms. “Not so much anymore. I was a carer for a little while.”
I took the opportunity to light another cigarette, leaned awkwardly to grab at the ashtray on the table. After the first exhale, I asked her another question. “What happened?”
She looked away absently, her eyes trailed to the gun, to the door and then back at the floor before she spoke softly, pinching the bridge of her nose. “He died. The war. Some people came back and never got better, some people came back and got worse.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” I took another drag and shook my head.
I waited a second before I spoke again in a plea. “But that’s partly related to why I’m here. There’s someone who came back and got better, who has the chance of a happy life in front of him with a woman he loves and who loves him. But he needs your help to do that. It’s up to me and you to make sure they aren’t both robbed of the chances we both lost. And it’s up to me and you to get that kid out of here so he doesn’t have to do the things he’s doing to get by.”
We sat there in silence for a moment before she slowly got up and sat beside me with the book in her hand. Leaning over and into me she placed it on my lap carefully.
“What do I need to do?”
The yellow shining sun started rising in my wing mirror, it slowly climbed up from underneath the ground and painted the sky with vivid reds and oranges. Clouds dotted the skyline, the first I’d seen since the drought began. They were splashed and shot through with thick rays of pink and peach. The mesmerising brightness invited my tired eyes to stare, deep into the horizon and deep behind me.
There was a shuffling in the back. A soft sigh as I looked from the wing mirror to the rear-view which I adjusted. His chest rose and fell gently underneath my jacket as he slept on the backseat. The loose curls which clung to his face moved slightly as we took a slow corner. He’s so young.
I focussed back on the road, tried to clear my mind of everything and organise some thoughts, some plans. I brushed my weary face with a hand and let some ringlets droop over my forehead.
The planner was with Ros. It wasn’t much use to me anymore. I’d made what notes I could on things that seemed important, Baelish’s meetings for the previous week, what he had planned for the next few days. Ros was going to use it to inform on some documents she thought would be useful, she’d give it back when we organised a meet, when she’s got enough together for something, anything that’d help.
I trusted her to do that. I can usually spot a liar, she was either the best I’d ever seen, or she was telling the absolute truth. She seemed desperate to me, a woman brought to the edge by a fear she wouldn’t fully share.
The kid was one of the conditions, and I was fine with that for a while. He could stay in my place until the dust settled, and we could get him to some place safer: a place where he could grow without having to do the things he’d been doing.
“Not a home.” I remember telling Ros. That point I was adamant on.
Getting him out wasn’t too difficult, Ros gave him an almost tearful farewell as we climbed through a back window and out of the building. Told him they’d see each other soon, to do what I said ‘til then. She threatened me with hell and a thousand tortures if I didn’t live up to my promise before I left her.
The rest of the plan remained unchanged. I’d go to the Red Keep that night and hear Baratheon out. But I wouldn’t be going alone, and I wouldn’t be walking into anything I couldn’t manage if I could help it.
A phone call to Gendry was high in my priorities, I reasoned. Get some recharge and do some homework before that night. It would help to know the key players Baratheon and Baelish surround themselves with, whether there are any visible connections between the two beyond the set and the shindig, whether there were any connections to Robb.
Beyond that the goal was avoidance and surveillance, watch how Baelish acted that night and get what information I could without drawing attention.
I ruminated and plotted as I drove, yawned loudly as I rubbed my eyes in the brightening morning.
The leg was feeling a lot better, so I carried the sleeping kid out of the car trying not to wake him. He woke and protested as we got to the stairwell and I didn’t want to cause a scene, so I let him. Besides, me being spotted carrying a half-naked boy to my room would no doubt result in questions and phone calls, nobody would hire someone like that once it was plastered in the papers and I’ve got a livelihood to think about. I need this job to eat. I need the time to find Robb.
The steps were scaled without incident and we’re up in the room in no time. Light cascaded in through the unblocked window which was wide and open, it reflected off of the now visible emergency stairs outside and the glass from buildings across the street.
“You don’t need watering or anything, right?” I attempt to joke as the kid pawed at his eyes.
“I can take care of myself.” The words are acid-like, he’s obviously a bit grumpy.
I thought for a second about things. Things I would like to have been asked when I was at a new home.
“I’ve got some chips or some bread in here somewhere if you want something to eat, or there’s a diner across the way we can go to when it’s open. Your call.” I took my jacket from him, worried it’d smell of boy’s sweat and sweet perfume. It was my only good one.
He looked at me like someone who’s never been given a choice in his life, then he shrugged softly. “Diner. I guess…”
“I’ll talk to you about some rules and stuff later, you can go back to sleep if you want.” I pointed towards the backroom and he opened the door to peer inside.
“Where will you sleep?” He asked with curiosity.
“There’s an old chair I can pull out.” I shrugged my shoulders then, moved over the far closet and illustrated my point
“That doesn’t seem fair.”
“It’s fine. I’ve slept in worse conditions. Just get some rest and we’ll sort everything out after.” My mind drifted towards memories of hard mud and thick wooden planks that wore roughly against my back and shoulders. I threw a pillow on the chair and I got ready to sit down when I looked at him.
He nodded, waited as moment before he talked so softly that his voice made him seem 9 or 10, not the 15/16 I guessed he was:
“So… Do you own me now?”
His face was neutral as he spoke, that was the worst thing. The words unlocked a sadness which made me want to weep like a baby.
I moved towards him and crouched. Was about to put my hand out on his shoulder when I thought better of it, retracted it like someone who’s touched a hot iron, then I just sat down in front of him.
He looked me in the eyes and I looked back into his.
“Nobody owns you.” I spoke slowly and deliberately. “Nobody should own anyone.”
He moved then, towards the door, “Do you mind if I keep the door locked?”
“I wouldn’t blame you if you did.” I said as I sat down, listened for the click of the door and then of the lock.
I shimmied out of the worst beams of light then I stared at the high corner of the office, straight into the darkness.
I felt tears drip down my face before I swiped them with the back of my hand.
I slept for a little while before I was woken by a rough thirst. I hovered over to my old cooler and watched as my warm glass filled underneath with a gurgle.
Sips emptied the glass again and I moved back to the desk and palmed around the top drawer for a key. It met my hand around the wooden edge and I withdrew it with clutching fingers.
The bottom drawer called to me then. I slid the key into its reinforced lock and it clunked open loudly in response, stiff and old, it was unused to being in such an open state.
My hand trailed into the drawer and I felt it, made sure it was still there. Hard, oily metal greeted me and I caressed my fingers along the smooth barrel, ran my palm along a collection of boxes which rattled slightly as I brushed into contact with them.
Some little metal cylinders rolled in the drawer’s bottom as I closed and locked the desk, putting the key into my jacket pocket. I kept my hand inside and twisted the small object around, felt the tiny weight of it. If Satin was staying there then the key should be with me at all times, at least ‘til I could get a read on him and his manner, ‘til I knew I can trust him.
I gave Gendry a call to meet me at the Diner and he sounded almost happy as he answered. He didn’t tell me anything over the phone, just said we’d speak when we met. I thought it’d be good news on top of my own, maybe we were really making inroads into Robb’s disappearance.
When I got done on the phone I heard the door to the backroom unlock slowly and creep open. Satin stood in the frame and waited ‘til I looked to him.
“Put some of my clothes on and we’ll get moving soon.” I said as I put the phone back on the receiver.
He settled on an old blue dress-shirt, it was baggy over his smaller, thinner frame and he rolled up the sleeves so they’re past his elbows.
He followed closely behind me when we left the building, the pale skin on his neck and face shone in the summer sun as we crossed the street. He was hardly inconspicuous.
When we reached the joint I entered and the doorbell rang to greet me. I held the entrance open and pointed Satin over to a corner booth where we sat down. I took the side facing the entrance so I could watch out for Gendry.
I took the menu off of the little wooden island that it comes on and passed it over to him, he looked at the thing like it was a corpse, then he looked up to me.
“You can have whatever you like.” I told him with probably a little too much sincerity.
He nodded and looked back to the thick paper, his fingers trailed along a line and his mouth moved as he quietly worded out every letter. His brow furrowed and his eyes squinted as he attempted to decipher what might as well be hieroglyphs to him.
He can’t read. I thought as I put my hand out to take the Menu back. He put it in my hand and I slotted back into the wood island, pushing that to the wall to clear the table.
“How about a burger?” I asked as I palmed the change left over from Baratheon’s five-dollar bill. I put my hand in my back pocket then and dug out a little more copper shrapnel.
Grateful his torture had ended. He looked up and nodded again. His face was etched with a sullen embarrassment. I studied him for a minute as we waited for service, he looked around the room with bright young eyes.
I can smell her before I see her. She pulls up at the end of our table and looks us over. Her blue eyes light up a little and her fingers move through a mess of black curls which radiate a pungent and sickly perfume.
“And what can I do for you fellas?” She said something else too, but I wasn’t paying much attention. Her words were overly familiar, too friendly for a woman working the job she does for the pay she does. I appreciated the quick and smooth service but considering we’d only spoken three times and that was just me listing the items I wanted there was something about what she said and how she said it that was coming on a little too keen for what I assumed was more than a tip.
My words were clipped and precise, perhaps bluntly so. “We’ll take two burgers, a plate of fries, a coffee and some juice. What’s the soup of the day?”
Her hand went to her wide hips as she thought, then she leaned backwards, twisting part of her body towards me as she tried to read the specials board across the room. “Tomato and Basil.”
“Two bowls of that too. And some thick bread. Please.”
She finished jotting everything in a notepad and left us. “I’ll be right back with your drinks.”
My eyes went to Satin again who shrugged at the conversation, his arms folded on the table and he sank into them as he spoke with his chin above them. “I don’t read so good.”
I nodded understandingly before I corrected him out of habit: “Well.” …the English options at college were finally coming in handy.
“Well what?” He replied questioningly.
“You don’t read so well.” I reasoned.
“That’s what I said.”
I tried to change the conversation but can think of little else, it continued on similar lines as I settled on the subject: “Did you go to school?”
He straightens his back slightly then, pushes his face up as he looks behind me and answers. “For a little while. We moved around a lot when I was little, the people I was with.”
“Your parents?” I asked as the drinks came. He waited ‘til I brushed the doting waitress away before he replied.
“I don’t know my parents.”
I nodded in solidarity, I could almost tell before I asked, I think he can tell too.
The food came with a grin and he tucked into his burger messily. I figured I’d wait for Gendry, it wasn’t a long wait because next thing I knew the door-bell rang again and he’s by the doorway.
I flagged him down and he moved towards us, took off his police hat in an almost rehearsed manner and stopped at the edge of the table.
“Sit down and dig in. I’m paying.”
He smiled and then he moves to sit opposite me.
Gendry stared at him and I noticed an instant shift in his mood. Then he looked to me and there was a silent hurt in his eyes, like a drawn-out memory.
“Who’s this?” he asked with as his face hardened somewhat.
“I’m Satin.” The boy spoke with a grumbling mouth full of food.
“He’s Satin.” I repeated in translation.
“Oh.” His response almost sounded like a question.
I watched and waited for Satin to finish eating til I put some coins in his hands and told him to pay the waitress, the rest I said he could go to the newsagent outside and buy some comics. It’d likely be a long wait til Ros turned up with something, and it would be easier if he had something to keep him busy.
Gendry let the boy move from the bench and then set back down with an inquisitive look on his face. “What’s that about?”
“I’m watching him for a while. I’ve found myself a man on the inside and this is part of the deal.”
“Jon Snow’s baby-sitting agency.” He remarked, making his voice sound like an old radio ad. “Who’s the man?”
“A woman really.” I bibbed my mouth with a napkin as the waitress visited the table, she made some crack about brothers laced with innuendo and we cringed in reply. I waited til she was serving someone else before I continued talking. “She’s willing to get together some stuff on Baelish in exchange for some sort of protection. I was hoping that was something you could help me out on.”
He nodded, and I continued: “Who’s the straightest detective on the force right now?”
“Tully.” He responds instantly without thinking as he took the last handful of fries from his plate, shoved them into his mouth and pushed the plate to the wall so it was out the waitresses’ sight.
“And the straightest guy in the DA’s office is Royce.” I theorised. “A real crusader. If we can get some files together, enough to dump corruption or some other charge in front of Baelish, get the woman and the boy to safety with some witness statements then we could...”
“How does this help us get Robb?” he interrupted. He was never much for the long game, probably why he didn’t come to college, why he didn’t have a detective badge.
I paused and thought before responding. “If Baelish has Robb, or any information then we can blackmail him into giving him or it up, say we’ll move the charges down a notch, maybe make a few disappear.” It sounded flawless as I said it, but as he sat there with that look on his face I was suddenly realising the limitations.
He leaned in to me and his voice was almost a whisper. “Firstly, what makes you think he has Robb? Secondly, if he has Robb and has done something to him, what makes you think that he’ll deal with us rather than just throw us out to sea?”
I was self-conscious then. I didn’t want to admit my search hadn’t amounted to much, that I was a failure. “I’m pretty sure he has him. Or at least knows where he is.”
“I’m not convinced.” He said almost smugly as he pulled something out of his pocket and slid it across the now empty table towards me. “Who’s to say Robb’s even in town anymore.”
I turn it over and look. “It’s a cheque.”
“Gee, thanks detective.” He opined, I shut up and let him speak. “Made out to west-coast trainlines, price is the same as a ticket far up north.”
“As far as Washington?”
I looked it over in my hand, twisted and pulled it slightly as if testing it was real. Everything I had done suddenly seemed like nothing. “Where’d you get it?”
“Flashed the badge at the train station to some ticket seller.” He grinned as he spoke, and we were both suddenly a lot happier looking, the tone was instantly more optimistic.
“Is this his handwriting?” I asked as I traced the familiar cursive on the thin paper, it looked jagged and rough, like a drunken scrawl.
“Certainly looks similar to me. I thought I’d get you to have a look though, give it to the sister and see if she agrees.” He motioned with his arm as he said the words, held his hand up slightly with his palm facing the ceiling appraisingly.
I sat and stewed for a moment before I responded. “That doesn’t make any sense.” He looked offended as I answered. “If Robb left up north, why wouldn’t he take the girl with him like he planned? Why has Sansa not got back to me after calling the relatives like she said she would if they saw him?”
The confidence in his face was mostly gone and that made me uneasy, it means he thought this through already. He scrambled for justification. “Second thoughts? Maybe he’s off the wagon and doesn’t want to see them? It doesn’t matter. This is some proof at least that Baelish doesn’t have him and there’s no need to go playing with the street cats to get him back.”
I mulled Gendry’s theory over and weighed its likelihood, it’s certainly possible, maybe even likely. I didn’t want to admit that to him however because it made me feel stupid, made me feel like I had put Robb and the others in danger, like I might have put the Ros and the kid in a lot of danger. I listed in my head the names of the people who could have been hurt if things went wrong: Smallwood, Margaery, Gendry. Sansa.
I dig through my memory before I finally responded. “I’m out to Sansa’s place tonight, And I’ve got a meeting with another source too. If she’s heard anything on Robb via the family, we’ll call everything off and book some tickets up the coast. If I get a reading from the source that points to that, we’ll call everything off and book some tickets up the coast.” He nodded, and I continued.
“But if neither of those things happen then give me enough time to hear back from my woman, it shouldn’t be more than a day til they get back to me on it. If that points towards Baelish we do everything as I planned because that’s where I feel he’ll be, that’s where a lot of the limited evidence, no matter how circumstantial, no matter how stretched, points to him being.”
“Don’t make this one of your quests Jon, people could get hurt and Robb is the priority here.” His words are almost a condemnation, a pointer to our shared history.
“I won’t. I know.” The words are almost whispers from my mouth.
He leans back into his bench and brushes through his hair with his hands. “On the phone you said you needed me to for something?”
I put the exact change on the table as we got ready to leave.
“I don’t suppose you have a suit?”
He gives me a suspicious look.
We arranged to meet that night before the party. Before then I’d have to organize something for Satin.
I knocked on Smallwood’s door and she opened it slowly, I could smell the baked goods on the inside as soon as it opened and saw the smile in her eyes as she saw me. I instantly knew this was a good idea. Then she looked behind me at the boy reading his comic and she gave me a sideways stare.
“This is Satin.” I motioned lazily with my hand and gave her a desperate smile.
Margaery called from her friend’s house while I was out. Smallwood told me.
I’d have to tell her about the cheque, but I figured it’d be better to do it the next day, face to face, when I felt I could tell her what my next movements were. I didn’t want to raise or dash her hopes too quickly and avoidance seemed like a partial solution to the problem for the meantime.
Gendry was on duty until the early evening, so I spent most of the morning in Smallwood’s. She was happy for the company and took a liking to Satin almost instantly. I took a moment while they were busy talking and looked at the faded photos on her walls, there was a rough similarity between the lost boy and Satin. Noticing it made me feel cruel and deceitful. She didn’t say anything though, was more than happy to watch him for me while I was out.
I let them get to know each other as I moved back upstairs and organized everything for that night.
Moving through the pieces in my office I came across the photobook again, its Lincoln green cover made me think of some scrappy fairy-tale I read as a child, it was one of my few possessions at Rosby’s.
I let my hands move along the cover and over the imitation gold-leaf writing on the front, “Memories”, it read. More like nightmares.
The images inside were messily arranged, some upside down, some sideways, some pages were simply missing. If they were searching this one, they certainly didn’t find what they were looking for. But why search at all if they had Robb? They could make him talk given the timeframe, what they could probably do.
I finished before I got to what came after again and closed the thing, frustrated. I felt that if I slammed it hard enough it could trap the events inside and I’d never have to confront them again. Pulling the book off the desk and into the drawer there was a barely legible shuffle as something dropped out.
It was a photo, but Margaery wasn’t in it. It was full of water, a wide river among a sea of trees that encroached all the way to the edges, long branches hung down and dipped lazily in the liquid. The Meuse.
The photo came into my hands reflexively and I studied it. This section didn’t look familiar to me but who am I to tell one part of that place from another. It could have came before, it could have came after, I didn’t know.
The flimsy paper twisted and bent in my hands as I looked at it, noticed a small crack along the image that looked somewhat like a scar, it ran down from one edge of the paper until it stopped as it hit the water, like a single ray of light.
So I checked the back of the photo. There was no scar there though, it must just have been a problem with the camera. What was there made me even more curious however.
Bay City Photography Company. Not a particularly imaginative name.
I looked at the beaten watch on my wrist and made a decision.
I have time, I thought as I grabbed my jacket and stepped out of the office door.
The shop was over near Robb’s apartment building. It was cramped and squat on the small row of stores squashed from above by offices and apartments.
I parked the car on the opposite side of the street and watched the entrance. Nobody went in or out for a few minutes. The door shimmered meekly in the late morning son, there was a sign hanging on the inside which the glare made illegible from this distance.
The walk across the road was torturous, I could feel the blasting heat on the top of my skull, it rattled around in my brain and drained my thoughts.
When I got closer I noticed the door was slightly ajar, it came open silently with a weak push.
I walked in slowly. It was a narrow and clustered little thing, probably more so than usual given the place had been trashed, just like Robb’s, just like Margaery’s.
Shelves stacked high against the walls, but they were mostly bare. Unreeled film and unused printing papers littered the floor and I was getting a strong feeling of déjà vu. Too late again.
I hesitantly and quietly palmed over some of the photos on a counter by the door, then I felt the spongey resistance of a book underneath them. It opened, and I could smell the paper from the old ledger, dusty and sharp. A section was bookmarked by a thin strip of fabric and there was a list of names sorted alphabetically.
I moved a finger down and read. Got into the mid S’s and then there was a sharp tear in the pages and everything between Smith and Yaxley was gone, missing. That made me uneasy.
What came next made me more so.
There was a shuffling in one of the backrooms, the movement of feet and hands on hard surfaces.
I snuck a little closer until I could see a moving shadow and a bright red light through the crack in the door, then I creeped back and into the hellish heat of the street.
I went back down the steps and across the street again to my car. I unlocked the trunk with shaking hands and got out a heavy tire iron and a small flashlight. I went back to the building and to the entrance of the red room as carefully as before—even more carefully. I listened again but there was nothing but silence from it. Nothing but the low hum of the street from the other side of the shop front.
I took a small and quiet breath as I fumbled with the light. Switched it on and beamed through the crack in the door for just a moment. Before withdrawing with my back pressed against the nearest wall.
For several seconds nothing happened, then the door opened slowly with a creak.
I waited ‘til I could see the distorted pink of flesh in the mingling darkness and red glare before I slammed the door into the person’s body. They groaned in reply and melted back into the room. And I came through just after them, with the iron heavy in my hand.
“Fuck.” The figure groaned as his body slammed against the floor.
I put my hand out and found a switch, clicked the lights on and looked down at the person in front of me.
It was a young man with brownish hair, he was stocky and fairly non-descript in appearance. His pale hands went over his face where there was a shot of blood coming from his nose.
The iron fell through my fingers and I caught the end of it ready to swing it like a bat. “You better have a good reason to be here.”
“Please don’t hurt me,” he groaned as he held his pained face. “I work here.”
I shook my head and crouched down in front of him. “Prove it.”
He went for his pocket quickly ‘til I nudged him with the edge of the metal club. “Slowly.”
He paused and snaked the shaky hands slowly into his pocket before he withdrew a card and passed it to me.
I read the front, its cheap looking font read: OLYVAR FREY, JUNIOR TECHNICIAN. There was the logo of the shop there along with it. Frey. The name rings a bell.
“This doesn’t prove anything, show me some ID.” I tossed the paper to the side and he passed me another one, this one had a home address and other information typed onto it. I asked him to recall it from memory and it matched. That will be enough. I thought as I helped him to his feet.
I looked at his face and winced in regret. “You’ll want some hot water on that later, before it swells.”
“What happened here?” He asked confused.
“I was about to ask you the same thing.”
“I don’t know anything, I came here about a half hour ago and found it like this, I was doing an inventory to see if anything was stolen when you came in and slugged me with the door.” He held the bridge of his nose as he spoke. Pinched his fingers together gently as he stared at me with soft angry eyes.
I rubbed the back of my neck. It was wet with sweat. “Sorry. It’s been a long week.”
I explained the situation and who I was to Olyvar and he listened quietly. He told me him and Robb were close, often saw each other at the shop where Robb would develop his photos.
It was my turn to listen then and I absorbed the information he provided. He hadn’t seen Robb since Tuesday morning, the day he was supposed to be meeting Sansa. He was at the shop early and working on some film, the red room in the back he rented out, had his own key for.
I asked him if anything was out of place and he pointed around himself as if it was obvious, then I remembered the place had been tossed, the red room however was clean and orderly.
“They couldn’t get in?” I asked.
“Looks like it. Reinforced door is heavy, it keeps out the light which spoils the pictures. There’s a revolving door round the back which is usually used but that’s bolted and locked from the inside.”
When Olyvar finished his tale, he looked across the room to me, his eyes pleaded. “Take me with you, I can help.”
I thought it over for a moment before I decided against it. He may look loyal, but he still had all the anxiety and fear that a kid his age should.
“I’m not recruiting for the Justice League, Frey. I’ve got too many pieces to watch over already and I don’t want to spend half my time worrying about the safety of some kid.”
He looked hurt at that. I didn’t let him respond, just jotted my name and number on a piece of paper which I handed to him before I made to leave.
I put a hand on his shoulder before exiting. “Go home and make yourself scarce. If they come back, which they probably will. They probably won’t like that you’re here. Neither will you. You find anything you think is important give me a call. You think someone is tailing you or watching you then you head to the nearest police station or public place and hold out there.”
I walked back onto the baking street and felt the burning hot pavement through my shoes.
Gendry showed up to my office earlier than expected, just after I got back from the shop. He knocked on pebbled glass of the door as I looked through some of Robb’s photos.
Gendry had two large bags in tow, threw one at me, told me to dress and not to ask any questions. I didn’t. Yet. I told him where I’d been however and that annoyed him, I told him not to worry and that annoyed him even more.
The formal suit fit a little tight, the jacket would have to remain undone to be presentable. I could feel the fairly large white tag on the inside which read EVIDENCE and had several numbers and letters scrawled on.
I looked at myself in a dusty mirror before I turned to him. “Why do I have a feeling this jacket is from a corpse?”
“They won’t be missed.”
I gave him a look, raised an eyebrow as I spoke. “The corpse or the clothes?” I lifted a sleeve up and could smell the cheap lemony soap they’d been washed in. At least there aren’t any blood stains.
He didn’t answer the question, just smiled slyly. “There was a matching waistcoat too, but the bullet holes would have probably made it hard to fit in.”
We turned down on the edge of the land and went over the plan as we parked up. Gendry’s mouth opened as wide as I assume mine had when I first saw the red gleam of the manor house in the dying summer light.
We watched pieces of set being rolled out in large vans out of a side entrance, burly men in white jackets watched what left the site. Another pair of men stood by the main gate where the scarred guy from last time was still hanging around. Clegane, the name was.
Everything was moving in full swing at the main gate, well dressed women and men queued to enter the grounds of the Red Keep, each showed a paper in their hands after which they were allowed through and into the festivities.
I motioned for Gendry to move with me along a side wall and I put my hands out in a cup shape as I crouched down against it.
“I thought you had an invitation?” Gendry remarked as he looked at me sceptically.
I rolled my eyes as I replied. “Not an invitation, per say.” Then I flashed him a smile. “Come on, it’ll be just like old times.”
He shook his head as he moved over to me. “In the old times I was the one who usually landed on his ass.” He copied what I was doing as he pushed me gently from the wall.
“You should probably go first,” He tapped his leg and pointed to mine. “You know.”
I sighed and jogged directly towards him, put my good leg in his hands as he lifted me up and up with his thick builder’s arms.
I waited until the wall was at my chest and I could see the still standing marquees on the other side when I finally leapt upwards and swung sideways till I straddled along the thick brick. He let out a heavy breath as I jumped upwards.
Trailing my arms down over the side I struggled as I pulled his ox like form to me as much as I could. He ran up the walls edge until he clamoured on top too.
I smiled as I reminisced about jumping the back gate at Rosby’s together. He didn’t smile though, just looked down the edge of the wall and at the thick bushes below which spread out a few meters into the garden before stopping in dim evening light.
“What’s your master plan now?” He whispered as his brow furrowed.
I smiled wider.
Stray twigs pointed sharply into my neck and back as I turned slightly towards him, wary about one of them taking out an eye or sticking up into my nose.
He didn’t move for a moment as I watched him and that worried me. Then he finally outstretched an arm, the jacket he wore was covered in a thin layer of red brick dust.
“Why do I listen to you?” He groaned as I hoisted myself out of the bushes.
I thought I could smell the easy privilege and among the clientele at Baelish’s joint, it had nothing on this place and these people.
The very air felt as if it was peppered with silver and gold, I was almost scared wading through it would leave me with cuts along exposed skin. I could taste the weird things that rich people ate in the back of my throat, the things they know taste awful but chow down on anyway to satisfy their insecurities about not being able to fit in.
There was such a diversity and variety in the lively crowd. The small-town rich who dressed up in their best summer dresses and light business jackets, the eight-room town-house rich who moved comfortably in fresh suits, and finally the big money, the Rockefeller and Woolworth types with the decadent European looking clothing that clung snugly to the skin.
The oddest figures in the crowd were the sparser local looking ones, senior looking people who looked like they worked for the city, in law or in politics. Some familiar faces from campaign posters and ads stood alongside young and pretty not-wives in cheap two-dollar dresses.
Me and Gendry moved with the crowd and up towards a large pavilion near the big house. Cheering and clapping from the inside was only slightly muffled by thick and colourful fabrics. The applause faded as the band beat into a different song.
I checked my A-11 nervously as we walked and saw it was nearing the time for the meet-up.
I hadn’t seen Sansa or the old butler anywhere, so I decided to search towards the house, near where he had slid me the note and the picture of Lincoln.
The note flipped and twisted in my jacket pocket as I fumbled around in my hands, waiting for an approach.
Three minutes before the deadline someone came to me, his white hair and white jacket standing out in the sea of shiny black suits around me.
“I’ve been tasked by Mr. Baratheon with escorting you to the side lodge, Mr. Snow.” He said dutifully as he held out a hand toward a not-so-distance building which would be described by any ordinary person as a house, not a side-house.
The man moved forward through the crowds and across the grounds with unanticipated speed, as I struggled to catch up without jogging I got somewhat unnerved about the reason for this.
Gendry followed clearly visible behind me, but the butler didn’t seem so worried about that, probably anticipated I’d be bringing along help after the cryptic way in which the meeting was organised.
We reached the old cream-coloured house by the manor and hooked around the side with what I assumed was record time, that was when the man opened a thick oaken door. He shifted the heavy thing without breaking a sweat, held it with his extended arm as he motioned for me to enter.
“Sir will see you now. Alone.” I looked at him sceptically in response before he added a: “Please.” His sad eyes looked to me as if recognising someone, and there was something visceral and elemental within those pools of clear blue that made me sad, made me do what he asked with little hesitation.
I looked over my shoulder at Gendry and he looked back to me. “Stick within screaming distance just in case, I’ll give you a holler if anything’s wrong.”
He put his hands in his pockets as he answered. “I’m not sure I like this, Jon.”
“I’ll be fine.” I half-decided. “Find yourself an heiress to schmooze, but don’t stray too far.”
He watched as I walked inside the dim entrance, I could feel his stare in my back all the way up until the door slammed closed behind me, then there was just an unseasonable iciness that almost made me shiver.
The Butler moved past me and into an orange looking side room that flickered in lamp light, he took a seat in an old looking chair by an older looking desk and stacked some papers. “Follow the hall down and to the right. He’ll be waiting for you there.”
Blue eyes or no, I took a moment to think about the situation I had gotten myself into, led into a mystery location for a mystery source with mystery information, it’s like something out of a bad pulp magazine. If I turn up with my skull intact I’d be a lot better off than I deserve to be.
I cursed myself for allowing this, cursed Gendry too, just for measure. But my feet slowly followed the line of the hallway as the butler said, my eyes however were scanning, looking for heavy and sharp things. They found nothing.
I was by the last door which hung lazily open, a brighter light beamed from within and out into the hallway, cutting through the blackness. I put a little pressure into it and watched it creak open slowly until I could step inside.
It was a study. The end wall was covered in trophies and bookcases and there was a pair of ornate red chairs which sat neatly by an open fireplace. The fireplace roared despite the summer heat and the flames licked up into the empty space above them.
On one of the chairs sat a man with unkept, pitch black hair and blue eyes which seemed to have sunken into his face. Empty skin drooped over his sweaty face and his clothes looked far too big to fit him, whatever drastic weight loss he’d been through made him look shrunken and sad, like a half-full tube of toothpaste.
In his arms he nestled a hunting shotgun, he raggedly piped a rod up and down a barrel as he looked up and to me. When he watched my confused face he slowly drew out the pipe and placed it on a table with a vase by his side, then he snapped the barrel of the gun up until there was a loud click.
I stepped slowly into the room. “Mr. Baratheon, I assume?”
“You can call me Robert.” His voice was deep but there was a rough hoarseness about it.
He rested the thing over his lap, on top of the thick travel blanket he had wrapped around his legs.
I moved closer until I could smell the blue roses on the table beside him.
He motioned with his hand, pointed it towards the chair opposite him as he spoke: “Sit down. We have a lot to discuss.”
I watched him for a moment before sitting and he stared at my face almost lifelessly. The only emotion from his sunken eyes was a slight glimmer of regret.
As I sat he looked away and into the crackling fire. He wiped some moisture from the edge of an eye with a limp finger as he glimpsed at the flames. A memory seemed to etch his countenance and then he smiled slightly before he addressed me again.
“I’m sorry about the heat. I’m trying to sweat out a cold. Something like that could take me out and I’m not ready to go yet, damn it. It would ruin everything I’ve planned.”
I didn’t reply, just simmered in the scorching warmth, he sipped gently from a small water glass by his side, then he cleared his throat before he spoke again.
“It’s funny. I remember thinking about the weakness of those who eventually succumbed to pneumonia or the flu. I was just a boy then, of course. God I was strong, not the bag of skin and bone that sits in front of you now. The idea of a slow illness scared me more than any fire, any blast or gunshot. ‘Give me a clean death anytime’, I used to tell Ned.” He waited before continuing as he looked to his lap at the gun. “He got one, I guess. Lucky bastard.”
His thoughts seemed scattered and rushed to me. I tried to bring him on topic with a question as I palmed my sweaty face. “You’re sick?”
He laughed at that, it finished with a rough cough that translated coarsely into words. “Haven’t you been listening?” He smiled widely, a man fully accepting his fate. “I’m dying.”
I nodded understandingly. I was confused however, confused and boiling like a ham. Why am I one of a dying millionaire’s last calls?
He anticipated my next question before I voiced it, as if he’d been asked it a thousand times before: “Cancer. Liver, stomach, you name it and it’s there, gnawing inside me like a rat. The drinking and smoking likely didn’t help. Neither did the eating or the whoring, I was never a man for temperance. But that’s beyond me now: What little I do eat usually just visits me again later.” He almost licked his lips at what I assumed were the memories of many an extravagant feast, a banquet of flesh and other things in his mind.
I gave him a sympathetic nod as I leaned forward, trying to press him into saying what he brought me there to tell me. I had Robb to worry about and I reasoned to myself that nothing was bringing me away from that. “I’m sorry to hear that, but I was told you had something to tell me.”
“Straight to the point. I like that about a man, Jon. I can call you Jon, right?” His tone was familiar, overly so. That made me uneasy, but I nodded again, gently, felt a bead of sweat roll down my face as he smiled at my allowance. Then the smile faded as he moved into a long lament.
“People aren’t as head on as they used to be in the old days, you had a problem with someone then and you fought it out. Now they play their little games and tell their lies like they don’t hurt anyone.” He moved the gun from his lap to the side table and it slid heavily along it as he spoke. “Everybody’s too afraid to just call out the bullshit they see. Instead the state’s full of moneygrubbers, backstabbers and asslickers.”
He shook his head slightly as if remembering a point he was trying to make, but it seemed as graspable and as fully formed as the distant mist on the side-walk in a summer heat. “I apologise if I ramble, it’s been a long while since I’ve spoken to anyone but Barristan and my younger kids. And these pills they’ve got me swallowing certainly don’t help.” He leaned forward in his chair slightly, moved his blanket slightly to get comfortable. “Why don’t we start somewhere a little clearer? What do you know about my family?”
My mind drifted to the house first, then to memories of thin bruises on a pale neck. I wondered where he was going with this before I voiced a response. “Next to nothing beyond you’ve got as much money as Dillinger had and that your boy’s a nasty piece of work.” There was an edge to the last half of the sentence which wasn’t lost on him.
“Joffrey?” It wasn’t really a question, he almost instantly added the next statement with a slight shake of the head: “The little shit.”
His candidness shocked me a little, the ability to be this open with a stranger about what you think of your child seemed odd. But I told myself I knew nothing, not of the relationship between parent and child, or between father and son.
He continued his tirade. “Takes after his mother, they all do really, I was never there like I should have been.” There was a sadness there, a new type of regret which moved along the edge of his face for a moment before he continued: “But he’s the worst. I look at him and I can’t see anything of me in him, only her, a woman I can’t even bring myself to visit anymore. I know that all I’ll get is that smug look of satisfaction and those viper eyes, just rubbing her hands together ready to collect my businesses and my house and my money.” He held his hands up to his then frowning face and made small blinking motions with skinny fingers. He did that throughout the last portion of his speech and then stopped abruptly.
“But she’s not getting it.” He coughed defiantly. Then there was a smile again, this one wide and toothy. “Not a penny.”
I figured that I’d come all this way and the guy had told me this much of the story I might as well listen to what else he had to say to me, what he had to offer me as part of it. “What’s your plan?”
He looked at me and grabbed a bell by his side table. It was yellow and black with decorative animals covering the round section at the bottom. The top was pitch black and looked almost like a wand. He gently pushed the bell across the table and it rang faintly as he continued.
“I want you to help me finds someone. My bastard daughter. If I’m to die soon I want her to get almost all of it. The house, the money, everything. The others can have enough to live comfortable lives, but she’ll get the ‘fuck you’ money. I owe her that much.”
The butler arrived with an opening of the door and Baratheon didn’t even look to him as he spoke. “The file please, Barristan.”
I was instantly inundated by doubt as the file is called for. There was an unease in the pit of my stomach which had come three or four times before. When you tell a client that you can’t take their case, that they should try someone else. Then there was a realisation of my complete powerlessness in helping this pitiful old man: I can’t take a job while Robb’s gone. I won’t take a job.
I tried to let him down gently, like how I tried with Sansa earlier. “I’m on an important job as is. Mr Baratheon, I was hoping this meeting was due to that. Maybe afterwards I can take a look but…”
There was a desperation in his eyes and he moved slightly forward in his chair, so far that I was scared his small body would fall out and onto the carpet. “Just hear me out, Jon. I have more to tell you.”
The Butler returned swiftly and brought it in. A thickish looking folder with two large and different coloured sections. I look at it as it moved across the room in Barristan’s hands.
“What’s in it?”
The butler passed it to stringy fingers which almost collapse under the miniscule weight. Baratheon pulled it to his chest and held it close to him in a limp grip.
“It’s you Jon. It’s you and your mother. Your stories. Everything I have, Everything I remember.”
My mother?, I thought. Images formulated in my mind. An outline, an imagining of who she was that I had held since before I could remember. A wraithlike figure which haunted my dreams and my nightmares, forever beyond my reach and beyond my recognition. A blank and dark hole which remained unfilled in my childhood fantasies of normality.
I looked to the folder which glinted and shone in the firelight and everything felt so much hotter, everything seemed so much heavier, even my timid thoughts. He has my life. He has my life and he’s holding it in his hands. The thoughts were pervasive to me initially, like an invasion of privacy or of foreign possession.
I leaned forward to the edge of my chair, almost ready to jump across the room and seize the thing from his hands when I thought about the file’s thickness. How can someone’s life be summed up in such a number of pages? Is it possible to judge a man by words alone. My mind went to my neighbour and the obits she wrote, generic platitudes and words like “He died as he lived” rattled within my.
He reached across the space between us and I met the object with my hand. He didn’t release it however, he kept it in his grasp and I looked up into his begging face. It was stung-looking, a complicated mix of pains. “Please don’t read it yet, Jon. Just let me explain some things.”
I nodded and he let go. Without his hand there to support it I almost dropped the thing from my now shaking grasp.
I recovered slightly, and moved it to my knee where I just studied the plain cover. “You knew my mother?” I asked, it was almost a whisper, barely audible over the crackle of the fire.
“I did. We were engaged.” He half-nodded as he spoke. “I’m the man who could have been your father… but I’m not, Jon. I’m the man who ruined your life. And for that I am so sorry.” He looked scared and ashamed as I stared to his face, almost impossibly so.
My hands traced the cover of the folder and I could almost feel a heat radiating from it. My sweaty hands left small dark prints on the pristine cover which made me flicker through some emotions before I wiped my fingers on my trousers. Anger. Sadness. Fear. I tried scrubbing the cover with a sleev for a moment with desperation, but the marks didn’t come off.
He didn’t say anything more, so I spoke. “What do you mean? Why are you telling me this?”
“It’s all in the folder, Jon. But the short story is your father and mother ran off together, we didn’t know at the time, I didn’t find out for so long after that it was too late. He was already married, and his Dad was a monstrously cruel and insane guy, ran the drinks during prohibition. We thought he took her, but he didn’t. He loved her and her him.” An extreme sadness crossed his sunk eyes then. His face filled with guilt and regret and jealousy before he sighed and calmed, stilled. “Nobody could have stopped it.”
The rest he spoke almost impossibly neutrally, like how one informs another on the baseball scores. “Everything went to shit soon after that. Your grandad went after me, I went after your dad, his family, his friends, their businesses. Nothing was safe from our rage. Innocent people were hurt on both sides, your father included.” He hesitated as if he was about to say a word, but he coughed and shook his head instead. The next word was a struggle for him. “Lyanna, your mother, died soon after giving birth to you. It took me a while to find her and you under her maiden name.” The tone was gone then and there was a half-sob before he continued. “None of the doctors could save her, and nobody could save you from me.”
It hit me like a truck, took all of the air out of me and made me gasp with anxiousness and bubble with impotent rage.
“I put you in care, Jon. I’m the reason you don’t have a family. I was a young man who couldn’t stand the look of a child whose face was a mixture of the man he most hated and the woman he most loved.”
I exploded upwards from the chair and tears welled on my face which hardened like stone to hear his words. “I’m sure it was real heart-breaking for you. While you sat in your palace I lived with the orphans and the vermin, dodging poisonous fumes in the dockyards from the age of eight and sharing a bed pointed with nails.” I let it all out of me in a burst. Decades of anger and sadness once directed an unknown face, a cruel god who could curse me to my life, it all finally had a target. And that target was finally in front of me. I was holding nothing back. I paced in front of him angrily as I continued.
“You don’t know what it’s like not knowing who you are or where you came from. Not knowing whether your mom gave you up because she thought she couldn’t give you enough scraps to live on, or because you were an accident nobody even wanted.” I stopped and took a breath in the rush of words. They were not prepared, had just sat there simmering underneath my consciousness. I felt streams of water fall on my cheeks and to my chin and I wiped angrily with my sleeve.
He didn’t react as I hurled it all at him, the Butler with the sad eyes made to take a step towards me but Baratheon grabbed at his wrist gently and he stopped. The dying man looked at me with a face that sickened me. “You have every reason to hate me, Jon. I hate myself for what I did, for what I did to you. Nothing I do will ever be enough for you to forgive me, and I know that.”
No. It won’t. I threw the folder onto the red chair and moved closer to the fire. The flames danced as I leaned into the fireplace and watched open-eyed, the itching warmth in them felt better than the tears had.
He spoke behind me, almost absent to my attendance. His words sounded like a sad reminder. “I have some pictures of you somewhere, you know, hidden from the wife. I wouldn’t want her to think you’re one of mine, that wouldn’t end well at all. She’s a jealous and spiteful woman, views everyone who isn’t her blood as a threat.”
They barely registered to me and a heat built up behind my eyes and in my cheeks as he continued.
“As I grew up and had children of my own I learned to deal with some of the emotions I felt towards you. I did some things for you behind the scenes to give you a helping hand, but I could never have confronted you or spoken to you. I was too full of shame, of fear.” I turned to him then, and he couldn’t meet my eyes. He stared to the folder I tossed at the chair.
Then he rose shakily. Barristan helped himl but he rose and hobbled over to the other chair where he took the folder in his hands and with care reordered some pieces that hung out of it haphazardly. His words were gasps under the effort of standing. “It was like you were my secret. If I wasn’t dying and if I wasn’t in need it’s likely I would never have contacted, you. I don’t know what kind of man that makes me, likely not a good one.”
“I wasn’t your secret. I wasn’t your shame. I was a little boy.” My words were no way near as venomous as I wanted them to be, I wanted them to melt into him and burn him like how I was burning. “A boy with hopes and dreams and fears, who cried out at night for parents who never came, whose firsts words were the names of people he could never meet because he was robbed at birth. Every possible happiness in my childhood you robbed from me like a thief in the night and I will never forgive you for that no matter how many strings you pulled. And what were those strings? An extra spoon of gruel in the lunchline?” It’s a half-laugh near the end. I felt like I was going mad with anger and hurt.
He looked at me then and his sunken eyes were red and soaked. I moved towards him as he sat down and I crouched by him, close enough to him I could see the faded blue shimmer of his eyes. I grasped at the chair arm and felt like it was going to burst in my fingers as I leaned forward to speak to him.
“I’m not one of your bastards, you can’t discard me and then pick me back up when you’re bored.”
He was hurting. That made me feel better, then it made me feel worse. The anger subsided gently as he looked at me and was replaced by pity as he spoke. “No.” He said softly. “No you’re not.”
“The helping hands were nothing to me, and I could have done much more than that. Even if I paid for your schooling and for your college, those uniforms and trips, the dental plan, none of those things are worth a damn compared to a parent’s love. I know what it’s like to lose the people you love.”
I thought about college and school, I had been told there were scholarships and bursaries available for people like me, each one felt like an achievement, but they weren’t. They were charity.
“But those are things that I didn’t do for some of my own children, my bastard girl mostly. Even if I did something out of shame, I still did it. But not for her. This will be her chance for everything she’d ever wanted and she shouldn’t be robbed of that.”
My knees hurt so I just kneeled down beside his chair as I spoke. The hatred and the anger in my voice had gone, and there was little else but quiet resentment, pity and sadness. “What if she just wanted a father?” I asked. “What if she just wanted a Dad to tuck her in at night, to tell her she did a good job on her book report?”
He shook his head again. “I’m dying, Jon. And she’s missing. I can never be a father to her if she doesn’t turn up. Even if she does show, for how long can I play happy families before I keel over? It might be much better for her to receive it all when I pass and decide her own path. I can’t be sure to find her unless I use someone like you, someone my wife can’t get her claws into. Her father owns the police in this state and he wouldn’t take too kindly to his grandson’s inheritance being ruined. They’ll contest any will of course, but I’ve got enough friends and favors left to make something pretty airtight.”
“If you don’t find her, one of my wife’s dogs will. Then I don’t like her odds so much. Don’t let another kid get hurt, grow up rough without all this wealth which could ease her suffering. What use is all this…” he struggled as he motioned around him limply at the luxurious room. “…if I can’t give it to someone I choose?”
My thoughts flickered to another kid, young with the man’s own black hair and blue eyes. “Another kid got hurt?”
He leaned back and stared upwards to the ceiling. “I had a boy. Bright little thing he was, not that I was there much to see it. Edric. Pycelle said what happened to him was an accident. But I trust that man about as far as I can throw him. I know he’s in hoc to my wife’s family. I’m not letting another one of my children be hurt.” His face was angry then, it haunted me slightly, like an echo of something from a nightmare.
I resigned myself and moved to the chair. I slumped heavily into it as I reached my hand towards him and asked for the folder again.
“What do you want me to do?”
Baratheon told me what he wanted me to do: a search job up out by Kings Canyon in the Sierra Nevada.
The girl had been out of contact for a long time but the movements were tracked loosely up until the diagnosis, then she was out of mind for a while, and out of sight. He had no one he said he could trust to do the pickup. That’s where I came in. I didn’t know why, but he trusted me, trusted me more than his servants or some brothers he half-mentioned.
I listened inactively as the file rested in my arms. Half of it was dedicated to his bastard, another thicker part to me and my mother, they were divided thinly by a coloured divider.
I didn’t accept the job, nor did I reject it. I didn’t give him any real indication to my feelings on it and allowed him to feel the anger and resentment in my eyes. I waited for him to finish the gist of his proposal before I let him stew for a few minutes in my cruel indifference and told him we’d talk. Then I stomped out.
He called after me weakly as I left, but I kept walking , my spite suddenly being stronger than my pity. The red in my ears and face itched as I moved away from the blazing inferno of the room and the house and into the uncomfortable heat of the night.
A small breeze between the manor and the side building felt like it was going to knock me down, but I walked down the small pathway to the edge of the house where I finally let myself collapse.
The house bricks in the shade felt cool against my face. I could feel smaller grains of brick on my fist and my forehead as I pushed them slowly inwards wishing I could tear his house down like he tore my life. There was no movement beyond my own, the wall stood stubbornly and I silently and impotently screamed in a wordless response.
I took a napkin across the damp tears and the brick dust on my face and straightened myself up. Then I searched in the vicinity for Gendry and a drink. But mostly the drink. I needed it. I needed information on Robb. I needed a break, and for the world to slow-down as I caught up behind it.
The drink was much easier to find than the information or Gendry anyway. I was half-way through a champagne/brandy supper before he patted me on the back with one of his thick mitts.
“You good? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.” He spoke cautiously as he sat down at the artsy looking bar beside me.
I drained the tenth or so long-thin glass empty without tasting it before I responded with a clipped tongue. “I’m just dandy. Let’s do what we came here to do and leave. I don’t want this to be a wasted trip.”
I could feel his unease at me drinking again as he watched me. Silent and judging he waited, ‘til I rose from my seat and tucked the file uneasily in my pants at the back.
“Your source had something on Robb?” He asked.
I shook my head as I moved out from the large tent and through into the crowds. It felt like a swarm of bees as the more lively air and the drink hit me.
“Something else.” I slurred. He watched behind me as I stumbled on some ornate garden furnishing and towards the recognisable feature of the fountain in front of the manor.
Snobs circled and sneered as I splashed some water in my face and tried to sober, but I didn’t care. Gendry stood by me dutifully and apologised for me. That disgusted me as much as the bubbling alcohol in my near empty stomach. We don’t owe these people apologies. We don’t owe them anything.
I watched the water ripple and move gently as drops dripped and splashed within the pool, it made me feel queasy and sick. I closed my eyes for a minute and just listened to the water and the crowd and the clinking of glasses.
Then I heard a voice and some bustle towards the manor.
I turned my head and she was there. Sansa. Sansa moving towards me alone, emerging from the crowd like a demi-goddess, something from a Pre-Raphaelite painting.
She looked tall and grown, her crown-braided hair shone like a copper halo in the light of the nearby candles. Her burgundy dress hugged her tightly and reached from below the knee and up along her neck. It would have to be, I thought bitterly as I balled my hand into a fist.
She crouched slightly beside me as she spoke gently. “I thought it was you. What are you doing here?”
Sansa’s arrival didn’t make me feel any less angry, in fact it made me more so. Bruises on a pale neck were added again to my list of worries as I studied her anxious face.
I mouthed a reply, but nothing came out. She leaned close into me as she watched my face and I could taste the subtle fruity perfume that clung to her skin.
“Is he okay?” I heard her ask as she turned from me. I looked into the ground to stop the spinning.
Gendry, who loitered nearby mumbled something unhelpfully as he kicked some stones gently with his rough looking dress shoes.
They mumbled some more back and forth until I felt their hands grab me and pull me through the crowd and towards the house.
“Lets get you sobered up.” Sansa told me as she wrapped an arm around me, supporting me up and through an old-looking door.
The self-medication didn’t work.
I stammered wordlessly and woozed in the bathroom through an almost hour-long malaise as I regurgitated pint after pint of the alcohol I’d put inside me. It burst from my stomach, and through my mouth and nose, the sensation stung my throat and my eyes.
I was doubly thankful that I could only half-hear Gendry’s and Sansa’s worried whining from beyond the door. Firstly, because it gave me something to focus on as I slipped between the bounds of consciousness and unconsciousness, it was stupid of me to mix alcohol with my pills. Secondly, I wouldn’t be expected to respond, and my original attempts to do so were a messy blur.
The gagging ceased after a dozen or so minutes and gave me some reprieve. It allowed me to survey the luxurious bathroom Sansa had all but pushed me into. Her big blue eyes sat worried on her soft face as I shut the door behind me, not wanting her or Gendry to see me weak.
The room was mostly sparkling white and tiled. Dark, onyx coloured marble ran along the top halves of the walls and small golden animal figures sat on the bottom of the feet of the bathtub, they snarled at me, reminding me with glistening teeth that I didn’t belong there.
I had made a mess around the toilet and on the porcelain belonging to it as I threw myself to down initially in a gallant attempt to save the splendour of the room from the half-digested bites and liquor that once sat inside me.
It took a while to get good enough to walk steady. I splashed my face down in the sink and slicked my thick hair back and out of my face. Luckily, I had missed my shirt. The borrowed jacket however was pretty done in, the smell of stomach acid clung to it tightly as I threw it into a basket.
I hoped it wasn’t important enough to get Gendry in trouble.
“Jon, let us in.” Sansa’s voice muffled through the gap in the door.
I didn’t answer with words, more like an unintelligible grumble. Then I grabbed a couple of pieces of paper and my hand reaches out to a cupboard unsteadily to get at the mops and detergents I guessed were inside. I wasn’t leaving without cleaning my own mess up. That I can do at least, I don’t need anyone’s help for that. I don’t need him.
Once it was clean enough I moved off of my knees and dumped the papers down the toilet and everything else back where I got it. I brushed my mouth with a finger and a mess of borrowed toothpaste, then I moved to the bathroom door where the others greeted me as it opened.
Gendry was the first to speak. He pressed the almost forgotten folder into my chest as I emerged from the bathroom. I passed it back to him and told him to hold onto it for now, my hands felt more comfortable and light without it.
“You okay?” He quizzed as he tucked the files into his wide inner coat pocket.
I didn’t look at him, just hung on the doorframe as I recovered. “I’m fine.” I lied.
Sansa looked to Gendry as if expecting him to come in again, he didn’t, so she looked back to me. “You want to talk about it?” She asked.
Words danced on the edge of my tongue, but I hadn’t time to formulate them. A man was visible to me then, behind them both. He moved in my vision slightly down the edge of the hallway, dark haired and stubbled, he leaned against the wall until I stopped to look at him. The others looked to him too and he squinted and watched me.
His unmoving eyes made me uneasy. Uneasy and suddenly quite sober in my unease. Thoughts of the “wife’s dogs” line crossed my mind instantly and I felt pangs of realisation at my own selfishness. I had things to do and everything else was a distraction. One problem at a time. Robb needs to be my focus. Robb then Ros and Satin then the kid.
“No.” I finally decided, looking to Sansa. Then I moved forward and tapped Gendry on the shoulder as I passed him. He nodded ever so slightly, an indication he knew what I was thinking. “Let’s go.”
The others followed behind me closely and in Sansa’s case, confusedly. We passed the man and his resting scowl turned into a half-smile. “The room free?” he asked as we were just beyond him.
Two other men appeared from a doorway near him, and they looked like brothers or twins.
“It’s all yours.” I called out.
Sansa brought us out of the manor and to the edge of the party, the night sky was dark so I assumed it was late. A luminous glow radiated from the grounds and made it seem earlier than I guessed it was.
Things were truly in swing and she moved us through the crowd to some lounging wicker chairs which had been tucked neatly underneath a fashionable looking table.
She ordered us some waters and I drank mine and Gendry’s quickly with an unfathomable thirst. I sent Sansa to get some more and she grumbled, when she walked off towards a waiter in the back of the tent-like building I kept my voice low and my sentences short as I apologised and explained what happened with Baratheon to Gendry.
He nodded through it and rubbed the back of his hand understandably as I clipped through my feelings briefly, as I told him this lead was nothing to do with Robb.
“We can’t take on every missing person’s case from here to Saigon. She’ll have to wait until we’ve word on Robb.”
I nodded gently. My head stopped aching enough for me to. “You’re right. That’s what I told him.”
I must have looked sad, or melancholy, Gendry interrupted it by telling me: “You can’t save everyone all the time.”
I nodded again, this time I held the bridge of my nose as I blinked something irritable from my eyes.
Gendry played with the edge of the tablecloth as he leaned in and spoke lower. “Only thing to do is find Baelish then, you said he would be here.”
“How are we going to do that in a place like this? We can’t just run into every person and ask ‘Hello, are you Mr. Baelish and are you involved in the disappearance of our friend?’ maybe grab the microphone from the band and put out an announcement.”
“You’re the detective.” He told me as Sansa returned. She had a small posse of people around her. One man in particular had his arm linked with hers. My mind jumped to the fiancé and I almost stood for some reason, then I thought better of it and adjusted in the wide wicker seat. Too old, I reasoned.
The others in the group faded onto nearby tabled but he and Sansa continued toward us.
He rubbed his salt and pepper goatee as his green eyes sparkled in the light. Sansa finally guided him to our table with the excitement of a girl younger than her years.
“There’s someone I wanted to introduce to you.” She said as she sat him down at our table and pointed to me. “This is Jon and Gendry, they’re Robb’s friends.”
I looked across the table as he looked at us. He adjusted the jacket buttons on his light tuxedo to stop it from bunching as he sat. Then he put his hand out and I grabbed it, looked into eyes which didn’t smile as his mouth did.
“Petyr Baelish.” He spoke quietly with a catlike grin as his hand was in mine.
“He’s a friend of the family. Works in movies.” Sansa smiled as she looked from me to him. I didn’t let go of his hand.
“I’m going to need my hand back.” He said with a casual laugh, that smug looking smile widened on his lips as I held his paw in mine. My hands shook slightly, either from the alcohol or the anticipation.
How do we play this? I grabbed my thoughts from beneath me and scrambled for a few ideas, imagined a few scenarios before deciding what to do.
I could feel Gendry adjust slightly to the side of me as he shook hands too, and I worried he might blow it, that I might blow it. We can’t let him know what we’ve been doing. For Ros, for Satin.
I stood upwards slightly before anyone said anything, before anyone did anything and with an exaggerated nervousness I let my knees bang into the table as I grabbed at his hand with both of mine.
I shook it like a mothy blanket and told him with the best performance of fervour and fake sincerity I could muster: “Sorry, I’m just such a big fan.”
“Really?” He grinned like a cat does at a mouse. I imagined that grin with Ros’ slicing animation when she brought up the souvenirs girls were given who left the life. I imagined that grin with Satin’s scared voice in the night. I imagined that grin with the mess of Margaery’s and Robb’s apartments.
I scraped every fibre of my being for the energy to do nothing. Don’t make this one of your quests Jon, people could get hurt and Robb is the priority here.
“Really?” Gendry repeated. I turned to him slightly and he raised an eyebrow.
I let go of the man’s hands with an inner reluctance and nodded as I sat back down. It hurt my woozy head a little.
He put his elbows on the table and leant his chin onto upright palms, so they framed the bottom of his face. He moved in the way the Hollywood types always did in the Warner Bros flicks, with a sort of inflated urbane femininity. A walking caricature. “When you say big fan, is that in a Hollywood connections kind of way, or with true earnestness?
I put my hand on my heart in mock offense and resisted the urge to gag out the words I spoke. “Truly. The Lioness is still one of my favorite movies.”
“You and few others, I’m afraid. That was one of the few pieces I produced, though the awards for Cersei worked out well and launched her career, it didn’t do much to better my standing.” He sighed, fishing for more compliments. I rested the bait for a moment and let him talk, they always like to talk.
“I loved it too, Petyr. It was very romantic.” Sansa opined as she sat in the chair next to him, his arm still in contact with hers. It made my skin itch.
He looked to her and his lips puckered just slightly, then he smiled at her, catlike again. “You are my greatest fan.”
Gendry spoke then with a faked cluelessness, he leaned over the table a touch and asked him what he does for a living, as if he didn’t already know.
“I’m an agent firstly, I find young people with special skills and beauty and help them to refine it and gain employment. I’m also a producer and dabble in screenwriting when the mood takes me.” Gendry’s jaw tightened when he heard the first sentence and he balled his fists up underneath the table, just within my vision.
“Is that why you’re here?” I asked inquisitively, probing him for what information I could.
Baelish replied by pointing a ringed finger around the themed half-lot we sat in. “You’re looking at one of my more recent labors. A swords and sorcery piece full of action, adventure and romance.” He turned to Sansa again on the last word and she blushed slightly.
He looked back to us and smiled craftily at his achievement. Then he toned the smile down after studying us and turned back to Sansa again, twisting to put her hands in his. “But I’m remiss, Sansa. Have you any news on Robb’s whereabouts?”
It came like a hammer on an anvil for me, Sansa’s blush vanished, and her eyebrows furrowed. She brushed her face gently with her hand, being careful not to smudge her make-up. I looked at her with pleading eyes and tried to beg her not to say anything, but she didn’t notice me. “No. He hasn’t contacted any of the family.”
Off north we go then. I thought on Gendry’s plan and the cheque. It all felt wrong to me, deep in my gut, but most of the evidence was pointing that way and I wasn’t risking Robb’s safety on a gut feeling.
“That’s curious.” He brushed his beard again, thoughtfully and glanced at me. ”I imagine his friends are helping out?” He added without looking back at her.
Gendry bristled somewhat, but I kicked his leg under the table and he slacked back into his chair.
I nodded. “Yes. We’re looking into some things.” I tried to keep the subject muted, give him as little information I could and hoped he didn’t pry. Sansa looked at me confused, and I shifted my eyes in an attempt to signal her again.
Baelish considered my face, looked at me and into me before responding. “Hmmm… Well let me know if you hear anything, Sansa. Or if I can do anything to help. You wouldn’t believe half of what you learn in Bay City when you keep your ear to the ground.”
One of his party moved into my vision then. I recognised him as the bit-boss of the Mockingbird. He crouched beside Petyr and whispered with a mouth covered by a thick hand.
Petyr nodded gently, and his face went blank as he did so. Then he rose from his seat and opened his arms towards us all apologetically.
“I hate to leave such lovely company, but unfortunately, business calls.”
He withdrew a business card from his pocket and slid it across the table towards me and Gendry. “Let me know if either of you are interested in the industry, we’re always looking to expand.”
“Sansa, it’s been lovely to see you, as always. Please keep me posted on what happens with your brother, or if I can do anything to help.” He drew her into a hug and I gripped the chair as he half spun her. Then as quickly as he came, he left us. I watched him melt into the crowd and talk with his men.
“What was that about?” Sansa finally asked in a hushed voice as my eyes came back to our table.
Gendry replied before I had a chance to think. I didn’t want to tell her someone so close to her may have had something to do with Robb’s disappearance and Sansa’s relationship with him could have enabled that, that from what we’ve been told he’s been hurting a lot of people. But I wanted to warn her, wanted her to stay away from him.
“Nothing. He’s just star-struck easily.” He paused for a moment and his face stiffened as he rose from his seat and grabbed the card with his eyes on the crowd. “I’m going to go to the little boys room. I’ll let Jon tell you what we’ve found on Robb.”
I watched him shimmy around the table and gave him a stern look to stress that he be safe, he nodded as he continued forward in the same direction Baelish went. I remembered the folder in his pocket and oddly felt a little better at it becoming more distant, I wasn’t ready to look in it yet.
She moved from her chair and over to me. Sitting down where Gendry was she turned the chair slightly facing mine and spoke. “What did you find?”
I leaned into the back of my chair and pulled my legs up so that they sat neatly in the wicker. She did likewise as I replied, but smoother and with more elegance. “We think he’s gone north.” I pulled the cheque out of my pocket and passed it over into her hands.
She unfolded it gently and looked it over.
“Does it look like Robb’s handwriting? He has a tendency not to label his pictures and I don’t have a sample, so I thought I’d ask you.” I rubbed my chin with my thumb as she studied it, then I rolled my sleeves up. Her face creased slightly in concentration.
“It looks familiar. But I’m not sure.” She finally admitted after passing it back to me. “Sorry if I’m not a big help.”
“It’s fine. We’ve been told by a railway worker this was used to pay for passage north, so we think he may have gone up to Washington.”
She smiled hopefully and grabbed at my bare forearm. “This is good news. I contacted Mom, but she hadn’t heard anything, maybe he’s with some old friends or something.”
Her happiness radiated towards me and filled me with a warmth that stayed with me for a few moments before being quenched by nagging doubts. “It’s the best lead so far, we’re going up soon to ask around, I think Gendry has friends in some police departments in Washington.”
“Do you have any paper?”
I fumbled around in my pockets until I found a pencil and a small notepad. She snatched them from me excitedly and scribbled a few names and addresses on the pad.
Reed, Cassel, Flint.
“These are some local sheriffs and police officers who may be able to help. They wouldn’t know about that fight or anything, and they were friends of my dad’s, so it’d be fine talking to them about Robb.” She held out the pen and paper to give them back to me and I grabbed them. But she held on for a second as she spoke. “Thank you so much for your help, Jon.”
I smiled gently. “It’s fine.”
“I’m really glad Robb has friends like you and Gendry.” She finally spoke as she drew me into a short hug. It was all too brief and forgettable. Like a faint breeze her embrace disappeared as soon as it was recognisable and left me stunned and babbling in the aftermath at where it had come from, lost in the tiny memory of the sensation.
In my hungover mind I thought about saying something to her. Something she’d like me to say, but the words didn’t form on my tongue. She watched me with a smile and waited for me to speak. “Sansa—I…”
“Sansa.” The name was spoken clear and refined from behind us. I was half-glad at the interruption, your stupid. Stupid and foolish and too drunk. Get those thoughts out of your head.
We both turned and looked at the stunted man who spoke it.
He had a wide and toothy smile which only grew as he got closer, bringing all attention away from the pair of miscoloured eyes and scarred face that were buried slightly under a messy blonde fringe.
What is it with Sansa and scarred people? My scattered brain thought.
He approached with a spring in his step, a deeply felt confidence that was hard to fake and was unusual in the malformed and the differently abled. A bearded man followed just behind him.
Sansa left her chair to crouch slightly and embrace him.
His hug was longer and that made me jealous of the dwarf. “The world has been a more solemn place without your beauty.” He finally spoke with rehearsed reverence as he withdrew and kissed her hand. The sides of her lips raised, and her face was etched with more than happiness. Relief and liberation also. That confused me.
“You’re back then?” Sansa replied.
“Not even the plumpest women of Mexico could keep me away from my family.” He beamed. “I’ve spoiled you all terribly with overpriced gifts, I’m afraid.”
“Cella and Tommen will be happy to hear it.” She laughed.
“I trust I’ll see them in the morning. But until then, I have something for you.” He pulled a small black pouch from his pocket and placed it in her hand.
“You really shouldn’t have.” She protested as she reached within, withdrawing a small silver bracelet embedded with a pattern of blue stones. It looked more expensive than my car, than almost anything I had ever seen. Beyond not being able to compete, I thought, these people didn’t even play the same games.
I looked solemnly as he took it from her gently and wrapped it around her wrist with stubby fingers.
“Think nothing of it.” He said as he tapped her wrist. Then his small eyes flicked towards me. “Though I will beg you for something in return.” He beckoned her ear towards him with a motion of the hand and then whispered into it.
She nodded gently and turned before she told him: “I’m sure I can do that.”
“I’ll be over by the band. Call for me if I’m needed.” He waved as he waddled off, chatting idly to his friend.
Sansa moved back to me slowly with a smile.
“What was that all about?”
She moved behind me and lifted gently under my arms to have me stand up. “That’s Tyrion Lannister. He’s Joffrey’s uncle.”
I turned and tucked in the chair. “What did he say to you?”
“I’m to ‘take that sullen fellow for a dance’.” She chuckled as she grabbed my hand with hers. Her skin was hot against mine as she led me out of the tent and into the night.
Something was different in Sansa now that Tyrion Lannister had returned from his south of the border journey. A brighter confidence seemed to burst from underneath the surface and that gave me a deeper look at something she hid from the world, something which I had only previously seen in uncaught flickers of emotion and passion.
I liked it.
The conversations had between me and her had been quite frigid and formal in a way, it was only with the company of Smallwood that she had bloomed somewhat, only after Tyrion’s interruption that she had emerged like a fog had been lifted.
Is it fear that kept her reserved and distant? Or an unease alone with me?, the thoughts had made me self-conscious. As she dragged me across the party I became even more so under the stares of several well to do looking folk with upward angled noses.
Like animals, they can smell that I’m different, not one of them.
We passed a long table at the side of the party and a couple of guests were gathered around some exotic looking man who span a long blade in his hand as he performed a party trick.
I tried to spy Gendry around, mostly for help to get me out of there, but I couldn’t find him.
My attention was then mostly on Sansa. The heat of her touch and the beating of her heart which I could feel so gently through her palm.
She laughed as I stumbled on a lighting rig, but I regained my footing swiftly and shakily and then we reached the dance floor.
We were there. A whole new battleground, an arena in which I had never set foot. I had decided the nervous fumblings at school and college dances didn’t count, they were nothing like this.
Sets of young partners span and twisted in rehearsed movements while the crowds which lingered happily around the edges clapped and tapped their feet. The song was upbeat and new and dangerous. My leg already ached at the thought of us jumping in.
Sansa let go of my hand as we stopped, and I missed it instantly. She cupped her face as she laughed with the crowd while the dance reached its peak. She turned to me and the sparkling white of her teeth flashed between red lips.
I smiled in a stilted, unpractised way back and she clapped with the crowd. She was happy. The small news on Robb that had made me bubble and worry even more had made her happy. Or was it Lannister? Or was it the party? Or was it me?
The band replayed the peak of the half-familiar song and the bushed looking crowd of couples within the ring laughed and continued exhaustedly until the piece pattered out, until finally it was replaced by a chorus of rhythmic clapping.
I clapped too, just to fit in, my sweaty palms met and an unknowable noise came from them underneath the pats and cheers of the more far gone guests.
The applause of the crowd died down and the band leader announced something I could scarcely hear. Sansa led me onto the floor and I brushed my hands on my pants as we moved with the other groups.
The new song began to beat in gradually.
She took me to a section of the floor with some space and spun so that we faced each other. My body didn't move, just remained still and hesitant, so she placed her hand over mine again and guided my uneasy grasp up and to her waist as the soft flow of a new song began.
I had figured in that moment that she had lessons in things like this. That made me feel inadequate. What little I knew was broken and stolen from bad movies and pulp magazines.
We turned and moved slightly, and she felt small and delicate in my hands. She stood about a head shorter than me and seemed a lot thinner and younger now I had her.
I couldn’t see her face, just the top of her hair.
I hadn’t noticed the small blue flowers that were patterned delicately in her crown-braid before. I could see them then and smell them. They smelled like life and air and summer and everything good in the world. I raked my mind for their name in the almost forgotten basic trips for wilderness survival, it took my mind off of the crowd, off of the imprecise and clumsy shuffling my feet seemed to do all on their own.
My thoughts drifted to the larger flowers on the desk in the study, the smell of heat and death and decay. And I grimaced as I stood on my own foot.
I could hear her laugh gently into my shoulder and I lost the song. She motioned for us to slowly twist again to a beat that was silent to me. Her body left mine for an instant and I felt cold as she did some move.
A dizzy glimpse of her face revealed almost closed eyes as she lost herself in the performance.
She met me again, her body met mine and we were closer than before. The heat of our bodies blended, and her hand tightened in mine as we stepped.
I relaxed, and a smile formed on my lips.
Is this how they felt? , I wondered as my mouth practiced the new name wordlessly. Lyanna.
I closed my eyes and just felt the movement of our bodies. I envisioned a pair of anonymous wraiths dancing slowly in some meadow, a scene from some children’s book. I breathed and smelt flowers and skin and perfume.
When I opened my eyes again they were blurry, I blinked out the moisture and the vision and the pain and the dizziness and I focussed on her.
She must have felt my body unstiffen, she pulled her head back slightly and looked up at me with blue eyes that sparkled brightly in the light.
“Are you okay?”, she whispered.
Would it be so bad?, I wondered in the instant she stared at me.
My thoughts ripped me from her, they filled with nothing but a cramped hotel room, tattered wallpaper, creaking floorboards and the smell of blood.
Then it was all gone, replaced with glimmering gold and silver rings and bracelets, the red bricked castle and the wide garden. I could feel myself plummeting to earth, suddenly aware again of the alien surroundings, of the unfamiliar faces that watched quietly from the side-lines.
I moved my arm from her waist to her back and pulled her towards me so that she rested her head against my upper body, then I spoke softly near her ear. I felt cold despite the heat of the night, cold despite her radiating warmth against me.
“I’m fine, Sansa. Everything’s fine.”
You know nothing, Jon Snow.
We left the floor silently after the dance. Neither of us spoke as we moved through the crowds and into a small clearing by the bar.
A younger girl with mousy hair pulled Sansa excitedly away and while they moved they spoke in hushed girlish voices.
She turned and apologised with her eyes and I nodded wordlessly in reply, watching her blood red dress disappear into the night.
“Beautiful, isn’t it?” I heard a voice speak. I looked around but saw no one until I dipped my head.
The dwarf stared up to me, one hand scratched at the scar on his face, another held a champagne bottle. I gave him a questioning look back.
“The dress.” He finally spoke as he turned to face the same direction I did. “Though it’s a little high in the neck for my liking.”
I could feel his sideways glance burn into me as his large head twisted slightly upwards for my reaction.
“Hmm” I nodded thinking about what lay underneath it. The milk white skin that moved with her breath, a beating vein that throbbed on the edge of her throat, marred by thin dark marks.
“Tyrion Lannister.” The dwarf addressed me as he held out his hand.
“I know.” I said as I bent to take his hand in mine. You’re Joffrey’s uncle.” Stubby and thick fingers brushed out of my reach and snapped up to his chest in mock offense.
“I am hurt that you think that’s my only claim to fame. I thought you might know me through my numerous other exploits.”
I stood stiffly in reply and he let his hand drop to his side again. “Well, we don’t get to choose our families. But we must do what we can to aid them nevertheless.” The last sentence was spoken sadly before he took a large swig from his drink. He enjoyed it slowly, purposefully before speaking again.
“Sansa will make a fine addition to it, I’m sure.” There was little emotion in his voice, the words felt clinical and blank. “A pretty bauble to hang from the tree.”
I winced slightly and wondered aloud. “How does she feel about that?”
He waved his hand gently to the crowd. “Do you think it really matters to them? Or that she would say anything against it if it was proposed to her again?”
Would she? Would she leave it all if given the chance? Could she do without the glamour and money and the servants? I felt like I was maybe short-changing her when echoes of sincerity and defiance and courage came through my mind. “I don’t know.” I spoke, “There’s something there.”
He nodded slightly at that, his oversized head bobbed gently at my words. “Oh, indeed there is. The usual Stark stubbornness no doubt, slowly making its way to the surface.”
I thought about Robb, he had often been the strongest of us, the mess of men who he served dutifully with. His stories about his father confirmed something within that thought.
Tyrion continued. “But will it come in time and with enough strength to stop what I think we both know will eventually happen?”
There were flashes then behind my eyes. Of bruises and of blood and of pain and of sorrow. I rubbed some sweat from my face with my forearm.
“Some people have tried to help her, at least.” I spoke of the confidence coaxed out of her by the dwarf’s words, a slight variation of which I felt in that moment. The careful choice of words which made you let down your guard, that made you feel easy and big. Anyone would feel big next to a dwarf.
“Indeed, but I’m afraid she’ll need a few more pushes yet before she runs. The natural reaction for most creatures is to remain still when there are predators around. Failing the push, perhaps some gallant knight atop a white steed to carry her from the lion’s den.” He raised his eyebrows with the last sentence and I felt nervous and caught.
Knights only exist in fairy tales, I wanted to tell him. This isn’t a game for knights.
“What about you?” I finally asked as I put my hand out to the bottle in his hand.
“I’m not a good man.” He sighed quietly as he let go of the cold drink and I took a deep swig. A flash of hurt was exhibited on his deformed face briefly then vanished deep inside again. “And mounting a horse would be difficult with my specific affliction.” He laughed quietly at his joke and I smiled to put him at ease.
We stood in silence until I took another deep drink and passed the bottle back to him. He tipped it gently in his short hand and drunk too.
“I didn’t catch your name by the way. I’m usually very good with them.”
“Jon Snow.” It felt weird speaking it. The name didn’t belong there. I didn’t belong there.
His eyes studied me curiously. Then he nodded. “The problem with taking any action is you can’t be sure of all the ramifications. One move leads to another, and before you know it, the game has shifted.”
I nodded again. “What if choose not to play?”
“I’m afraid we’re all pieces, whether we like it or not. Though a select few of us get the opportunity to become players.”
“You want some advice, Jon Snow?” He asked as he emptied what was left in the bottle onto the ground. He didn't wait for an answer. “Forget her. Forget her or flee with her. Just make sure you know the stakes of either option.”
Then he gave me the bottle and hobbled off, leaving me to stew on his words.
Gendry returned soon after in the same state he left, the solemn and strict look on his familiar face made me feel slightly more comfortable as I swam the sea of opulence.
“Where’d you go?” I asked him, as if I didn’t already know.
He took the bottle from my hands and shook the emptiness disapprovingly. “Tailing Baelish for a little while.”
He passed me the glass back and I let it slide through my fingers and onto the grass. “Anything interesting?”
“No.” His voice made him sound somewhat irked.
“Nothing at all?” I pried as I patted my pants down, looking for some cigarettes. Then I realised they were in my ruined jacket and grieved.
“Him and the Lannister woman were talking.” Who?, I wondered before he added: “Baratheon, now, I guess.” Cersei Lannister’s name jumped to me for the first time and I connected the dots. I hadn’t realised she was Robert’s wife up until then and that made me feel dumb. “About the movie, I think.”
That’s not particularly devious. I thought as Robert’s words on dogs came to mind, I traced the memories of his stories and noted a difference between the screen persona of the woman whose work I had seen, and the description Baratheon had given me.
I speculated on the relationship Baelish had with Cersei. Whether it was anything like he had with Margaery, or whether Cersei’s wealth or family connections had managed to prevent that sort of thing. Lannister was an old name, etched almost on the bedrock of the Californian state, carved via the gold mines her ancestors had dug deep into the hillsides.
“You ready to leave?” He asked looking disgruntled, like the whole thing had been a wasted journey. He brought out his car keys from his pocket.
I thought about Sansa again and repeated Tyrion’s words in my head as I browsed the crowd for a moment without catching sight of her.
Forget her or flee with her.
“Yeah. Let’s go.” I spoke almost absently, refusing to make the choice yet.
We moved through the crowds gradually and back to the car. Some of the guests were leaving as well and that allowed us to slip by the gates without any potential issue.
We got back to the city quickly on the empty roads.
Gendry had given me the folder as we sat down and I let it rest on my hands all the way.
He didn’t ask me if I was going to read it, barely talked along the whole journey. That made me feel better for some reason.
He finally dropped me off at my place, stopping the car so it rested underneath a buzzing streetlight. I opened his door with a creak and swung my legs out of the car and onto the pavement.
“We going North tomorrow?” he asked with the engine running and his hands still on the wheel.
I closed the door behind me and spoke through the open window. “Yeah. We should be. I’ll call in the morning.”
We said our goodbyes and I moved along the cracked sidewalk into the building.
Across the long hall I opened the door to Smallwood’s that stood by the staircase. Some old music played softly, faintly from the inside and I passed the walls of watching eyes to the living room proper.
Smallwood and Satin were curled up beside each other under a patterned old blanket on the sofa. She had an arm wrapped around him, the other hung limply off of the furniture’s edge.
On the coffee table were half-eaten plates of food and some comics. Sitting neatly on a chair across the room was a stacked collection of men’s clothes in greys and whites and blues.
I stood still and silent and watched the rise and fall of their sleeping forms for a minute and chastised myself for even thinking about waking them.
The folder felt thick in my hands, and my throat was dry and rough.
I left them alone and creeped back outside to climb the stairs. The stairwell shifted slightly in my vision once when I was near the top, but otherwise the journey was fine.
My light feeling head pushed against the door as I unlocked it with practiced precision. It clicked open and I pushed inwards to the blackness, fumbling against the wall for a light switch.
I found it and the place brightened with a click. The pile of blinds remained where they were, curled messily on the floor.
I put the folder on my desk and walked over from my office to the backroom and then into the wash where I drank cool water straight from the tap.
Then I filled the basin up and rested my weary face underneath the surface of the cool pool.
I withdrew my head from the water and looked at my reflection in the mirror like I had a thousand times before, the water dripped over my skin and hair and down my back and my neck onto the shirt.
I studied gray eyes that looked almost black in the ever so dim light from the office and asked myself a question which I had tried to avoid.
Who am I?
My reflection gave up no secrets, just stood silent and woozy in my mirror, mocking me. I knew the file would give me at least something. All I needed to do was look inside and study the words written within.
I took off my shirt and dried my hair with it messily as I walked back into the office. I could feel my half-dry curls as they clung untidily to my forehead.
The folder sat and lingered on my desk’s edge and I watched it as I parked down in my chair. My hands reached out and met it, dragging it gently across the table until it was in front of me.
The cover was shiny and blank. On the edges several pieces jutted out just slightly. I let my fingers feel along the edges of the papers of various amounts of thickness before I pushed them back within gently and levelled them out against my desk.
I sighed softly as I put it back onto the desk. Then I opened to the first page.
Within was a typed-up profile. The name Lyanna Snow was on the title, nestled just by it, attached via a thick paperclip was an old looking photograph. I unattached it gently and closed the folder again as I studied it.
The edges were frayed and worn, as if it had been handled far too often. Within the middle of the monochrome piece a young woman in a plain looking dress sat down on a wooden chair, a chain of flowers was being pieced together by her slender hands.
Her dark hair sat gently on her shoulders and her soft eyes were sullen. She looked sad. Sad and beautiful. My mother.
I sat and stared at the picture until I was familiar with her face. Then I stared some more.
My vision blurred, and I yawned as my fingers traced the image. I wondered what she would have felt like, what she would have smelled like. Those small details, the things which Robert’s file would never be able to tell me, those things which he took from me.
Was it fair to say he took them? I thought.
I regretted how I had left Robert, I remembered the sight of his sunken blue eyes and the struggle on his face as he attempted to stand. It was a cruel state to leave a dying man in, and there was probably more I could have learned had I not let my emotions get the better of me. Perhaps things that could have helped with Robb.
Does he even know he’s missing? He mentioned Robb’s dad, so I assume he’d be willing to help. Resources like his would make things easier.
I’m such an idiot.
I leaned into the stiff chair with a solemn regret, with several regrets really. Then I put feet on the desk and let my thoughts fade into vague dreams of women and flowers.
It was early in the next morning when my phone rang offensively to wake me. I swiped at the receiver quickly as it screeched and it almost fell off the desk before I scrambled to answer.
I had assumed it was Gendry. But it wasn’t. A feminine voice spoke on the line.
“Jon?” Margaery asked.
“It’s me.” I answered back with a yawn.
“How are things going - with the case?”
I explained my reservations as I rubbed my eyes, piecing together most of what I had learned for thus far. The cheque, the shop, the train trip and what happened at the party. I aligned what I could of his known movements from the sources I had.
Olyvar said that he saw Robb at the store the Tuesday morning he was supposed to meet Sansa. He didn’t show however, neither did he show at the train meeting with Margaery on Thursday. Sansa tried visiting his apartment before she contacted me but there was no answer at the door. When I searched his apartment on Friday night I didn’t find anything, and the door was open. Sunday morning Gendry gave me the cheque. He didn’t give me any information on when it was from, just that it had been used to pay for a ticket north. That same Sunday I went to the store to find it tossed, just like Margaery’s, just like Robb’s.
I scratched my bare chest and back as I talked, the skin felt dry after being in the unrestrained heat of the early morning sun. My throat felt almost just as bad.
She seemed confused once I was finished. “But if he took the train, why wouldn’t he take me with him?”
I didn’t have an immediate answer and could hear her take in a breath over the receiver. That made me nervous. I dreaded hearing women cry.
“Maybe things got hot really quick and he didn’t have a chance to send a message. The family haven’t heard anything, but the working theory is that he’s hiding out up north. We’re going up to dig around today.”
She didn’t cry, or if she did I didn’t hear her. There was a small stutter in her sentence as she took another breath. “W-what can I do?”
“Nothing really. Just stay safe and away from Baelish. I’m working on something that will deal with him, but that’s a separate issue for now. I’ll call you when you need to know something. I can get you on this number?”
“Yeah. Make sure you stay safe too, Jon.”
“I will. I have to go now, I’m keeping the line free for a call.”
She wished me luck and said her goodbyes. The words were sad and eager. She put the phone down with a click once and I did likewise with my own. Then I waited.
When you’re a private investigator, half of your job is waiting. The other half is talking. I was getting masterly at the former.
I checked my watch to see how long it would be until the passenger trains were ready in the morning, wondered how long it would take for Gendry to call. Or failing that, Ros.
Something bugged me. A little itch just underneath the skin. Something I had missed but could be significant, and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I didn’t know whether it was important enough at the time, but it seemed like a good enough reason not to read the folder Robert gave me yet. I was looking for one.
I stood up at my desk and my legs struggled against me. They didn’t want to move. They wanted to creak and sway and to have a long term of vacation somewhere cold and icy, away from the thick heat of Bay City. I sympathised. But I dragged them cruelly across the floor nevertheless.
I leant across my cooler half-way and saw that it was almost empty. Rather than dealing with the luxury of a glass I put my mouth underneath and drank until the drops stopped.
Smallwood had stacked my case files neatly in piles on the cabinets, on top of those files were the unopened letters from when Sansa had trapped herself in the curtains. There was no order or reason to the files’ organisation, so I dropped pile after pile back on to my floor and began browsing.
The name Frey was written in a formal office slant on the last stack, underneath it was my doodling’s, several imaginations of the family tree.
Olyvar Frey. 10th or 17th kid, something like 50th in line to inherit. Not all that much older than I guessed Satin to be.
The coincidence was eerie. But I didn’t mark it much, plenty of coincidences happen in day to day life, it didn’t have my attention.
What had my attention was a blood-red envelope which had untucked itself from between a bill and another letter in my mail during the movement.
It sat on my carpet, bold and brazen.
I lifted the square envelope from the floor and studied it. It was addressed to me at the office, typed up very neatly, very precisely on a tag in the absolute centre of the paper. The corner bore a stamp with the face of Horace Mann.
I opened it and tipped the almost empty envelope to the floor until its single occupant slipped out.
A piece of paper.
I turned the thing over in my hand and looked at the scrawl on it. An illegible number and what I guessed to be a date, equally as legible. At the bottom of it were words, printed finely: Hibald’s Pawnbrokers.
I shuffled over to my desk for a phonebook and went to the back sections as I wondered who’d send me this. I found the address quickly, ripping it out on instinct when I heard a slow knock at my door, a tapping along the wooden frame by someone too timid to bash upon the thin and inexpensive pebbled glass.
I read the address as I walked. The shop was over in one of the mixed blocks. The kind I’d see highlighted in red in the maps at the D.A.’s office. Low-income, low-opportunity and low-life expectancy as a result. This is something I’ll have to look in to, I’d decided.
I moved to my door as it was tapped again by the vague looking figure on the other side. It moved skittishly back and vanished from sight as I folded the note in my pocket, wondering who’d sent me it.
I opened the door, but there was nothing but empty air to greet me.
Then I put my head out to the side and saw her.
She twisted back towards me in a superbly unseasonable long coat as she heard the door open. Her face was half-hidden by a pair of thick, dark sunglasses that were trimmed with little silver features.
I emerged fully.
“Oh” She paused as she looked me down. “I thought you might not be in. I don’t know whether this is a good idea.” Her words were rushed and breathy and moved shiftily, undecidedly. Like she was excited. Or scared. Or both.
“Are you okay?” I asked, worried.
She moved quickly toward my door and stumbled through, I let her pass me and she turned with a smile once she was fully within my office, cradling a wrapped hands in the other. She didn’t speak.
I closed my door and stepped towards her.
For once she didn’t move away. I reached up to her face and stopped. She dipped her head slightly, giving me permission, and allowed me to wrap my fingers around the frames which I took gently off of her face.
She winced in response.
Underneath the tinted glass hid what would surely develop into a black eye. A ring of darkened skin that marred her perfect, pearl like face. The lid was swollen just slightly, swollen and red.
I clenched my fists tightly as an old memory came to mind, and they continued to clench until I heard the metal and plastic in my hand begin to crack in resistance.
“Who did this to you?” I asked slowly, as if I didn’t already know. “And don’t tell me you fell, or that you ran into a door.” The words came out harsh sounding, too much so.
I seethed and placed the glasses on a cabinet.
“Joffrey.” She smiled eventually as I turned back, her make-up from last night still on her face. That response confused the hell out of me. Not the response itself, but the manner in which it was spoken.
My hand went up to her face and felt along the smooth edge of her cheek until it met the darker patches of skin. She winced again and finally batted my mitt away softly, then she winced some more.
“Do you have any hot water?” She held her balled hand towards me as if just remembering it. I loosened the fabric to take a look.
The knuckles looked worse than her face did, the bruises were darker, and a small amount of the skin was cut.
“I think I broke my fist.” She finally admitted.
She sat on my desk as l dabbed some make-up off her face with a paper towel. She vibrated in anxiousness or excitement, or some other mess of emotion and her teeth gritted between half-painted lips as I touched the side nearest the mark.
Her hand was wrapped in cold linen I prepared from the water in the faucet. I had taken the opportunity whilst getting it to throw on an old shirt.
“Who taught you how to throw a punch?” I asked with a laugh that was only half forced, trying to keep her mind off the no doubt irritable scratchiness of my cheap paper towels.
“Nobody.” Figures, the bruising was along an unusual line, like the fist had been thrown at an odd angle. I thought maybe Robb would have taught her, that seemed to me like something that an older brother would do. Not that I knew anything about that, I didn’t learn that way. In Rosby’s if you didn’t protect your share you didn’t get it.
“Sounds about right.” I mumbled. “You going to tell me what happened?”
“Joffrey was angry after someone told him something. He took it out on me.” Her words weren’t as emotional as I expected them to be. Usually when people leave their partner after a fight there’s a frightful realisation of what you’ve just done, second thoughts, the works. If she was to exhibit them they certainly hadn’t kicked in up to that point. Maybe the shock of it unbalanced her slightly. After the shock is usually the crash however, I thought. It’s one of the reasons why I don’t work the divorce business.
I began to prepare myself for it, watched her face carefully, waiting for the eventual explosion that had yet to come.
“You hit back this time though?” I supplied, nudging her story as gently as I felt I could.
“I didn’t mean to. It was very heat of the moment.” There was a glimmer of fright on her face, but it disappeared as I imagined she relived the situation in her head. “I just felt like I had enough, like I didn’t need to put up with it. I couldn’t rationalise or defend it anymore and it was like something inside me just snapped and I could see everything clearly for a minute. I thought about Robb and what he’d do.” She nodded her head as she spoke quietly. I withdrew the paper from her face so as not to take her eye out. That’s not all Robb would do.
Tyrion won’t have to wait anymore for that push, I reasoned. But has she thought it all through?
She stopped moving and I brushed the last of the red off of her lips. She puckered them slightly, ran them against each other to feel for any residue. They looked soft and pink and glittered wetly under my bulb.
“I’d like to have seen that. You’ll have to tell me all the gory details.” I finally offered as I tossed the waste into the trash.
“Maybe later. It was in public. So, I’m sure you’ll hear something eventually.”
“I don’t quite run in your circles” I reminded her, offering her a hand off of the desk. “Nevertheless, you sound like quite the hero.”
She accepted the hand, put her unscathed one shakily into mine as she hopped off. Then she took a mock bow, like a gymnast takes after landing a somersault. I clapped sarcastically in reply.
Has she been drinking?
“You didn’t say goodbye, you know.” She commented as she straightened up against my desk hazily.
“At the party, you didn’t say goodbye.”
As I recalled it, she left me. “Neither did you, really. I was left on the dancefloor with a dwarf.”
“Tyrion spoke to you?”
“Not for long. I left soon after.” I added. “How’d you even get here?”
“A friend at the party gave me a ride over as it ended. I had gone to see Mr. Baratheon after the fight and he told me to come here to wait things out and he’d send a car to collect me if I wanted to come back. I didn’t even know you knew each other.”
There was a bitterness raised within me from the mention of the name. A jump towards the accusatory or the wary, another thing in my life he’s trying to organise. But I got over quickly as I stared at her.
“We’ve met.” I replied in a clipped voice. “So, what do you have planned now?”
Her eyes adjusted as she thought, then she rubbed her face gently with her hand. “Well immediately, I could do with another drink.”
“It’s a shame I haven’t got any.” I lied. “What’re your plans beyond that”
“I was thinking about taking the train north with you today, going home. But then I was thinking about staying around, for Robb.”
“For Robb.” I repeated with a nod, I wasn’t convinced entirely. Often these things are settled with false apologies and pre-broken promises never to do anything again. I wondered whether she would go back. I don’t know her really, not enough.
I decided that whatever she wanted to do was none of my business, that I was nothing to her and shouldn’t guide her to take the actions I want her to take. There’s been enough of sort of thing.
“Robert offered that I stay in the side house, in one of his spare rooms.” She continued. “Nobody really goes in there except him and Barristan anyway, maybe the younger children sometimes. It all seemed a little too close to Joffrey though. So I was thinking about going to Petyr’s, but I couldn’t get a hold of him. He left the party in a rush.”
I silently thanked God for that happenstance. And thanked Robert for the first time in my life for mentioning my name. I changed my mind very quickly, convincing myself whatever I do I couldn’t let her go to Baelish.
“Why don’t you stay here?” I blurted out, all too quickly and improperly.
I corrected myself immediately, in a rush. “Not with me, of course. But Smallwood has a spare room downstairs with a bed, I think. Or there are empty apartments in the building that I’m sure she wouldn’t mind you staying in. And if I get anything on Robb you’d be the first to know.”
She nodded. Then she moved forward and put her arms around me. I could feel the wet of the towel in my back as she pressed forward against me. Her thick coat made her round and bulbous, preventing her body from reaching mine. I avoided looking at her but could smell just a little alcohol on the coat. It made me feel guilty.
“Thank you. You’ve done a lot for me and Robb. We don’t deserve you.”
I could have done more, I almost whispered as I thought on it all.
She backed up slightly and I could see a flicker of doubt hit her countenance and her smile faded just slightly as I remembered all of the phone calls I didn’t make to her Brother, the letters I didn’t send, the gulf that got wider and wider until I couldn’t bring myself to jump across.
I put my arms loosely around her in fear she’d run off and she stopped, then I patted the thick and awkward thing covering her back. I doubted she could feel it.
“I mean, Robb wouldn’t like it if you were out on the streets. And Smallwood would be the one housing you. I’d just be using my not inconsiderable charm to convince her. Though that wouldn’t be too hard considering she’s basically in love with you.”
“Yeah.” I admitted. “She’s already asked me when you’d next be around.”
The corners of her mouth rose for a moment, and her eyes widened, blue and bright in the dimness of my office. My mind conjured images of her in one of Smallwood’s pinnies, baking and prattling along idly with her about dresses and cakes and perfumes or whatever. It seemed like a good solution in that moment, her as an addition to my growing collection of outcasts. All we needed was a team name.
She took off her coat and turned, folding it neatly on my desk next to the phone book.
I looked at her back, she was still dressed in the burgundy piece from the night before, it clung to her shiny, pale skin like perfume. Messily, a piece of fabric dipped from the back of the neckline which was torn. That made me mad again, then it made me down.
Her good hand trailed along and moved over to the photo still on my desk,she placed it in her open palm gently.
“One of Robb’s?” she asked as she turned back to me.
“No.” I spoke in an almost whisper. “That one’s mine.”
She nodded her head as if she understood. “She’s very beautiful. Looks really familiar.” She held it up slightly at an angle and compared the faces as she looked from it to me.
My face adjusted under her gaze and my throat and neck twitched under her criticism.
“She looks sad.” Sansa supplied.
I stepped forward so I was stood next to her, could smell her perfume more than I could the gin. A chain of tattered forget-me knots fell droopily from her hair.
I carefully took the picture from her hand and placed it on the desk and in the file again, pushing it down as deep as it could go before I sealed the rope-tie. “She has a sad story.” I finally said. “A lot of us do.”
I turned back to face her again and she was close.
Her previous defiance and energy melted into a shyness, but not entirely of the same kind I had seen before.
Her face turned slightly, sadly, down and away from me. With the movement a small lock of her auburn hair unfurled from her crown braid and hung like a string over her rocking face. My hand shot up gently on instinct and I brushed it softly out of her hurt eye and behind her ear. It was soft and shiny like copper in the light. For a moment it was like we were in a dream, like I was in a memory.
Maybe she’ll be fine?
I brushed my finger from behind her ear and along her cheek, all the way down to her chin which I turned gently upwards, so I could see her face.
She turned, and I felt a need to capture her mouth in mine. To hold her tightly in my arms and tell her it would all be okay. Lie and tell her I could protect her, that I could fix everything. Robb. Joffrey. Everything. Lie like I had lied once before.
Don’t make this one of your quests, Jon. Gendry’s words echoed in my head as she edged her face closer to mine. Slowly. Deliberately.
We were within a few inches of each other and I could feel the warmth of her stilted breath on my face, and I was sure she could feel mine.
I watched small trails of moisture drip from her eyes, the deep blues of which fogged and faded as she made to shut them.
I caught her safely in my arms as she pressed herself against me. Her wet face buried into my shoulder and my chest, her sobs muffled against the fabric and the muscle.
I peeled myself from Sansa after a while and let her dab at her tears.
She did so fairly groggily and then I led her down to Smallwood, where I thought she could have a bath and a sleep. Smallwood didn’t ask any questions when we arrived, didn’t say much of anything really. Just had a look at the younger girls face then guided her gently and silently to the bathroom to clear up.
It’d be a help. I thought, for Sansa to talk these things through with another woman.
Satin was at the dining table, eating some toast that was thickly smeared with red jam. I nodded to him and took a slice. He scowled just slightly and I told him to come to my office once he was done, give the girls some privacy, maybe watch the phone while I take a look at that Pawn shop. Then I headed back upstairs.
Back in my room the air felt still and hot and dry and muggy. By the time I was at the top of the staircase and had finished the last bite of the grub, I could hear the echoed chiming of the phone from down the hall.
I moved around the desk and almost tripped in the stray wires of the blinds. So I threw them across the room impotently, the messy tangle sailed in the air until they struck with a loud thud against the wall, then they slid down behind my cabinets all clingy and octopus like.
I put my hand on the receiver, lifted it and answered.
The voice was new and strange. Gruff and authoritarian even with the pitched distortion cheap phones like mine always give people. I tried to place it but didn’t succeed, it was no one I knew.
“I asked you a question.” The voice spoke again, irritated.
My jaw tightened. I wasn’t in the mood. “This is Jon Snow. But I usually get called Mr Snow until money has changed hands.”
The caller sniggered roughly. “That’s real cute. Do you practice lines like that in the mirror?”
“Only on weekdays.” I told him sarcastically, then I got ready to hang up the phone. “If you want a private dick, I’m busy this week. Call someone else.”
“Where were you between the hours of eleven o’clock last night and the early hours of the morning?” The voice spoke again. This time sounding all too official to be a crank or a client. And there I was hoping he wanted to sell me new lightbulbs.
“Bywaters. Captain Bywaters. Bay City PD.” The police? I thought at reasons why they might want to call me here and ask me those questions. None immediately jumped to mind, very little of what I’d done had been “strictly speaking” illegal, the smash up at Baelish’s was obviously over that particular line but that wasn’t this night. Then my thoughts turned to Robb, and I began to worry.
My door startled me with a knock, Satin walked in, shutting it behind him. I waved him to sit down on the still out chair and he did, curling his feet up and crossing his legs.
I figured it wouldn’t do any harm to tell the captain the truth, what I did yesterday would be easily verifiable with Gendry. A cop’s voice matters a bit more than a civilian, but a lot more than a PI. Detectives in the Bay City Police Department were known to hate the mess of licensed investigators who swarmed in soon after the war’s end, suddenly the city was swamped, like the world’s magnifying glass and pipe stores had all converged in one place. Sleazy men in sleazier suits jumped from the trains armed with their Chandlers and their Hammets and their correspondents course textbooks on investigation.
“I was out with a friend” I finally supplied. “We went to a wrap-party and then came back either in the late night or early morning. I’ve been at the office since, mostly. What’s the business?”
“We picked up a vehicle dumped off the end of the Rivergate pier. It’s got your name written all over it.”
Memories drifted in and I could almost smell the burning tyres, the taste of stolen gasoline on her tongue. “My days of joyriding are long past me, thanks.”
“Yeah, I looked you up.” By the sound of his voice there was no doubt he did, he sounded sure and confident. Like a man who has skipped to the end of a murder mystery. “Spoke to Royce over at the D.A.’s before they opened.”
“What makes you think it’s something to do with me?” If I wasn’t being profiled or a suspect on pure history then they must have had something to start bothering me over.
“There’s a jacket in the back. Just about the only defining thing left in the car, thing’s been beaten pretty bad. Your name and number is written on a soggy card in the inside pocket.”
I racked my brain for a reason someone who dumped their car would have my name and telephone details written down. First instincts went to Robb. Maybe he came back home, tried to get a hold of me the previous night but couldn’t on account of me being out, so he got jumped and they trashed the car, or he drove it off in a chase. I listed some other reasons in my head, hoping beyond anything he was alright before I replied.
“Is there a body?”
He replied quickly. “No body. It’s too close to the pier to have been driven off. Must have been pushed.”
The chase scenario was off the table then. “That’s pretty thin stuff in terms of evidence. My number’s available in half the city’s phone books.”
“I’m not fitting you up for it quite yet.” He admitted. “Do me a favor and stay in your office until I come by for a visit. Maybe check your car out, see if it’s where you left it.”
That was something I hadn’t even come close to in terms of anticipation. I fingered the cord nervously as he said it.
“I’ll do that now. Wait on just a minute.”
The wire stretched and unfurled from the strange twisted shape they are delivered with. It resisted my movement somewhat until it started scraping along the desk and I was up against the window.
I looked into the street and breathed a sigh of relief, when I saw it parked up where I had left it. “It’s hail and hearty.” I told Bywaters.
Then I saw it. A big bright Pontiac parking up on my side of the road. The red paint glared ostentatiously in the morning sun and the chrome work along the details was almost too glaring to look at, like some poor bastard had polished it ‘til his fingers bled.
A man emerged from the front seat. Then a second. They were big fellas, all brick and mortar looking. The one in the passenger side reached back in to pull the seat forward and let another passenger out. The driver walked around the car slowly and scratched at the mess of scars on the side of his face. I recognised him. The gatesman from the Red Keep.
The passenger from the back emerged like he was at some red-carpet gig. Tall and slender his yellow hair was medium length and slicked back stylishly, it looked like spun gold in the light. He wore a thin red sport blazer with glittering gilded buttons, it fell like silk over his body. On his face there was a white bandage, just visible on the nose.
I guessed who it was. I guessed why he had come. He said something to his men and they all began to walk towards the entrance.
I spoke into the receiver again. “When are you thinking about stopping by?”
“An hour or two, maybe sooner. Whenever the recovery vehicle guy is paid and the eggheads are done having a look. Why?”
I checked my watch, it was a half-hour drive from the Rivergate, even without traffic, even with the engine to the line. That won’t be soon enough.
“No reason.” I said finally, then I hung up.
Satin looked up at me from the chair. He played with his nails until I threw Sansa’s coat at him from the top of the desk. Then I turned and opened the window as wide as a rusty and stiff thing like that could. Some of the air left the room and the staleness was replaced with the smell of traffic and trees and the humidity that comes with summer. I looked up into the sky and it was all blue, bar some thick, dark clouds rolling down from the top of the foothills. A storm was coming.
“Take that and go hide out on the fire escape.” I told Satin hurriedly as I tossed the Bastard folder into my top drawer. That wasn’t something Robert would want Joffrey to see.
“Why?” he spoke from underneath the thick mess of the long-coat.
“Just do it. I don’t think they’re quite up to regulation, so the ladders are for shit and they don’t reach the floor. Don’t try jumping, you’ll probably break your neck.”
He looked confused. And I motioned for him to move quickly with my hand. He collected the coat in his arms and shuffled across the room and to the window. He gave me a worried look as I struggled to pull the stiff thing up just a little further to make it easier for him to climb through.
I watched him move, there were cold metallic steps as he moved down to the floor below my window and waited, just within my sight as I leaned my head out.
“And don’t come back inside ‘til you hear me say that it’s safe. No matter what. Smallwood might come in eventually or maybe Gendry, don’t move for anyone else.” I said as I finally put all my weight downwards on the frame. Wood rested on wood again and I flicked the thin steel catch back down to secure it in place.
I looked around in a rush to see if there was any trace of Sansa around. The sunglasses on one of my shining file cabinets stood out right away, I tucked them underneath a stack of paper inside the bottom metal tray. Then I looked around for my jacket, praying that Satin closed the door to Smallwood’s place, that Sansa and her wouldn’t choose that moment to come up the stairs for a visit.
The old jacket was on the floor by my back-room door. I put my hands in to the inside pocket and withdrew the small key to my bottom desk drawer.
Pressing back to the cheap wooden chair, I sat down at the desk and hovered my fingers and then the key over the hole.
It unlocked with a clunk and I ran the drawer out just enough so that my hand could fit within, I heard the rattle of boxes and tiny clashes of metal on metal as the pieces within met each other. I pushed my hand farther in until I felt it.
Cool and hard, its touch greeted me like an old friend.
I let my fingers dance up the barrel for a moment. Then I checked the small automatic over. The thing was polished to a dull shine, the result of a routine heavily and repeatedly drilled in. Dark and rust-less, the metal along the outer casing was smooth and without a flaw. It felt light and reflected a distorted portrait as I looked into it.
Pulling the slide back I saw the chamber was empty. As was the magazine, I had taken that out already and placed it onto the desk.
I thought about loading it full to the brim and stalking down the lobby ‘til I found them, throw a scare on them in the long hall then watch them walk out with their tails between their legs. But that wouldn’t do. I couldn’t be the one to start things like that, I was outnumbered in terms of witnesses already and with the kind of money Joffrey had he could buy what credibility and excuses he needed to walk any charges, or put some on me. If anything was to happen, it would need to be in clear self-defense, within my space that I pay for.
I repacked the magazine into the gun with a careful slide. Empty and almost weightless, it clicked harshly once fully within and I turned the safety off, so that if the gun made an appearance that old trick couldn’t be called out.
The piece went back into the drawer, but I didn’t lock it. Just kept it there, ready and accessible if necessary.
I guessed they wouldn’t be bringing their own toys, nothing could save them if something went sour and they had brought their own equipment on hand. Nobody wants to be the man on the witness stand saying: ‘sorry your honor, but I just had to bring a weapon to an angry confrontation with a stranger’.
Reasoning to myself, I thought the best bet was trying to get rid of them quick. Send him a message and maybe take a bit of a beating, give him some joy and have him go on his way so he could find some ants to burn with a magnifying glass and forget about Sansa for a while.
I moved from my chair and to the front of the desk where I sat on the edge, waiting, listening.
They were down the hall not so long after my movement, I could hear the sets of heavy feet stepping cruelly on the old floor, hear some voices of different pitches and tones through the long window.
They didn’t knock. The door swung open fairly quickly and hit the wall with a rattle of the thin glass. Clegane entered first. He looked a little like he didn’t want to be there. I nodded at him and he nodded back in reluctant recognition as the rest of the group assembled beside him.
The younger man moved into the room then, his face grimaced as if there was a bad smell in the air and his eyes scanned the place before they set themselves on me. They flickered in green contempt just above the bridge of his busted looking nose, it was bandaged and swollen looking. Joffrey, I guessed as I resisted the urge to laugh.
“You know why I’m here?”
I nodded to him and tapped the bridge of my nose. “For your close-up?”
His eyes flared for a second, as if he didn’t expect any resistance. I was more than willing to give-up my body to them, but not my soul. Never that.
“Where is she?” He spoke slowly as he readjusted a golden cravat, the kind you’d expect as a key component for the wardrobe of any reputable Errol Flynn impressionist. His voice made him seem much younger than his perfect skin, styled hair and cruel emerald eyes did.
I fanned my fingers out on the table and leaned back into it, battling the urge to rush him as I scowled back and spoke.
“Who?” I asked with an utterly unconvincing cluelessness.
His jaw tightened, and the larger, nameless man moved through the edge of my office, touching his hands along my stuff. Joffrey spoke again, with venom and bile. “Don’t play dumb, you bastard. I know she’s in the city. Where. Is. The. Whore?”
I didn’t reply, just sat with clenched teeth and stared with unveiled scorn, I kept the moving man in at least the corner of my vision.
“He asked you a question.” The moving man spoke sternly through the side of his mouth which was covered by a thick red beard. He ran his fingers along the top of one of my filing cabinets and withdrew them in disgust, rubbing the dust he had collected on to his light wool pants. Then he peered in to the cracked open door to the backroom.
I turned to him and barked. “And I didn’t answer. Why don’t you let noses supposes over there speak for himself like a big boy? I’m sure he wipes now and everything.”
The young man fulminated at that jibe, threw his hands to his side in an almost toddler-like rage. “If you don’t tell me where she is I’ll-”
“Stomp, shout, threaten, moan and cry. Or everything else in the same category. You’re still not getting an answer.”
The men looked back at him in shock, they gave him searching, reserved stares that waited for a command.
He nodded slowly towards Clegane, the tower of a man approached me slowly.
I didn’t look at the big gorilla coming in front of me, just stayed passive and spoke to Joffrey directly. “I know you’re the type of guy who’s never been told the word no, but you’re going to have to get used to it.”
I did nothing as the man grabbed at the front of my shirt stiffly. I didn’t mind the beating I knew was coming. I’d had enough of them before and anything to just get them to leave me be, leave Sansa alone, was worth some cuts and bruises.
He looked back to Joffrey again and I looked into the side of the thick mess of burns on his face, suddenly in a alarmed unease I began thinking about where he got them. Usually I didn’t take a pounding without giving something back, it was bred into me since Rosby’s. On instinct, I thought briefly about swinging a fist but I was scared he’d simply eat it.
“Any thoughts now?” Joffrey smiled, dangerously.
“I’ve got nothing to say to you. Do what you came here to do.”
I looked away and prepared my face for a beating.
Clegane took his hand off my shirt and balled it into a fist about the size of a school bus. Then he rolled it very hard and fast with a sudden jerk and hit me somewhere below the ribs, somewhere that felt important.
I retched and groaned, collapsing onto the floor with the room spinning around me.
It was a good punch. The shoulder had dropped just slightly, and he had swung his body with the precise amount of strength he wanted. There was a lot of force behind that punch and the man who landed it clearly had had a great deal of practice.
The floor beneath my mouth felt wet and dusty on my lips as I coughed up against it. I put my hands on the ground and steadied myself to my knees with a deep and rattling breath, looking back up only in time to see another fist come down on me.
I was knocked sideways and to the back. Just against the corner of my desk. My head snapped against the wood with a thud and my whole face throbbed.
“She’s not yours to abuse anymore.” I coughed as I resettled myself upright with defiance, my back against the desk.
He was grinning. I could just see it through the blurry puddles that were my eyes. He approached and crouched just out of my reach before speaking. “Everyone is mine to abuse.” I looked behind his shoulder to the door and wondered how long Bywaters would be, what sort of state I’d be in when he got to my office, whether if he saw what was going on he’d put a halt to it or just join in. Either was possible with a Bay City cop.
He watched my eyes predatorially as I coughed again, the taste of blood in my mouth. “You think anyone would help you?” He said. “They can all be bought, they can all be persuaded to sit down and let it happen. You’re nothing. Nobody would miss you if you were gone.”
I thought about the element of truth within what he said. And attempted a long response. In the dizzy mess it only came out as a groaning: “Fuck you.”
“You can’t talk to me like that. Don’t you know who I am?” Joffrey stomped, baring his pearly whites.
I took a deep breath and prepared myself to speak again. It began with a moan, the words were stilted and about as cutting I could make them.
“Someone who got too much or not enough attention as a child. Deep inside you’re usually the most scared person in the room so you set out to prove to everyone else that you’re not. Usually by going after women, of course. Until they start to hit back.”
He shook with rage. He looked weedy and juvenile, but still very dangerous. A foot flung out from him, straight into my chest. Shortly after there was a hail of heavy fists hitting my face and shoulder and back, beating me into and along the floor again.
It relented after a few moments and I could feel my eyes swelling as I opened them. A trail of thick liquid that wasn’t tears was flowing gently down my cheek.
“Ready to talk?” I heard Joffrey ask with what sounded like an echo in my skull. I didn’t respond. Not with any words anyway. Just turned my head and squinted at all three of them.
“No? That’s fine, we have all the time in the world.” He withdrew something from his back pocket then, shiny and sharp looking in the summer’s light. I shook my head, suddenly very afraid, as if that would change anything.
“Cut him.” The young man said. I saw the blade change hands to red-beard and took a deep breath.
My body was heavy and dull underneath me, my head didn’t feel all that much better. I did what I could to collect myself and decided I needed to get some distance. So I put my hands out and attempted to grab at Clegane’s legs.
He did what I wanted. Pushed me back with those heavy hands a few feet. I fell to the floor again, turning to my side and then pushed myself further just a few more inches in a desperate flop as I grabbed the barely visible leg of the desk.
Two of them laughed at that.
I pulled myself up weakly, slowly by the edge of the desk, heaving my body around the corner. Then I dragged the unlocked drawer open with shaking fingers and pulled the object out, using it to push my body up further.
Then I slammed it against the table. They weren’t laughing any more.
They itched backwards, hesitantly, sucking all the air out of the room.
The small thing cocked as I pulled back the shiny metal top and the sound echoed in the silence of the room as I flung myself in to my desk chair.
They watched soundlessly. Watched and waited for what I was going to do.
I spoke. A warning. My vision cleared a little, slowly, and I coughed most of the way through. “It’s a small gun, I know. Not very frightening ‘til you realise what the little bullets could do to your insides. One in just the right place and you’re in a hospital bed for six months, or spending the rest of your life pissing into a bag.“
It hurt me to say so much. For a moment I thought they’d call out my bluff. The thought of that frightened me, but not as much as Smallwood or Gendry finding my body, not as much as Sansa leaving with them.
Redbeard itched slightly to the side and to the edge of my messy vision.
“Your boys come at me and I’m coming for you, Joffrey.” I creaked with an intake of breath. “All eight rounds. And the one in the chamber.” My left eye twitched as I talked, something had dripped into it.
“You wouldn’t dare.”
The blurs of men shifted slightly and I waved the gun limply until they shuffled back.
“What have I got to lose?” I almost whispered. “After all, I’m nothing. Nobody would miss me.”
They halted and we simmered in the silence and stillness of the room for almost a minute.
“This isn’t over.” The smallest blur finally snarled as he slunk away. The red bearded man followed him, and then Clegane, slamming the door behind him with a crack.
I sighed and wiped my face, only to feel the stickiness of blood on my fingers.
The phone rang, muffled in my ear which sounded like it was underwater.
I managed to reach it on my second try as I painfully leaned across the desk.
Gendry spoke on the other side.
I cleared my throat and interrupted him, not hearing his words properly.
“Sorry. I don’t feel like I’m going to make it in today.”
I heard the sound of a smashing window and then something slamming, thick and weighty, to the floor.
The heavy-feeling receiver dropped slowly from my hands and it swung below me, knocking against my knees as my vision faded into darkness.
In the last moments, in the slow breeze that followed the crash, I caught the vague scent of chrysanthemums.
That's 50k words and 150 kudos, which is rad. Thanks for all the support and feedback gang. New chapters soon.
I woke slowly and unwillingly. My eyes hurt. Everything hurt. The dull ache which usually only exhibited in my leg was everywhere. Bearable, but still a throbbing sore.
There was movement in the room, gentle and fine along the side of my desk. I listened for a while, then I turned with a cringe of my throbbing head.
Satin was there, with a dustpan and brush, his hands working busily to sweep the broken glass. By his side was a thick and very cracked decorative planter full of flowers.
I raised a hand up to the front of my dull face and felt only the thick plasters and bandages which hung tightly above my eyebrow, the top of my head and above my temple.
Satin looked up at me, sensing my movement. “It’s not so bad. Just a few cuts and bruises mostly. I don’t think they’ve broke anything, nothing important anyways. You went down pretty quick.”
I felt weak and powerless. I was willing to take a kicking to have them move off, but I hadn’t thought it would be as bad as it was. I thought I could control things, but I couldn’t.
Satin stared up at me and I had almost forgotten he was there. Shame creeped along my countenance and I worried about what he’d think of me for a moment, that was ‘til I moved and felt a sharp pain in my stomach. A bruised ego is the least of my problems.
“That depends whether you think my head’s important, I guess. I feel like it’s been hit by a tank.” I finally replied to the boy, holding my stomach and the back of my head in my hands.
He nodded, I resisted the urge to nod back. Just felt with my fingers along my skull and hoped the thing didn’t feel like swiss cheese.
“Thanks for the flowers.” I added wryly as I finished, staring at the bright purples and yellow collections that looked like they were growing out of my floor. “But they’re not quite my color.”
He ignored the joke and continued with what he was doing for a while. Then he looked up again as he collected the last of one patch of glass. “They weren’t here long.”
“You make it sound like a bad thing.” I rattled as I stretched myself out in the chair.
The boy moved with the cleaning tools before finally depositing them near my waste basket. “Mr. Waters will be here soon. I spoke with him on the telephone and he said he’d be coming over.”
I tried to stand up and could barely. Satin moved to stabilise me and supported me over to the larger, comfier chair in the office.
“Yeah, him and Bywaters both.” I said as we were moving. “Best for you to go and make yourself scarce.”
Gendry showing up at mine was the last thing I needed. We were supposed to be going north on Robb’s trail that day, he didn’t need me slowing down his pursuit of the scent. He should be searching for Robb, not mothering me. I should be searching for Robb.
We got to the chair and I fell into it with a wince. Pushing myself up, I coughed and motioned for Satin to wait before leaving.
“They know about any of this?” I wondered.
“Sansa and Smallwood.”
“I haven’t been downstairs, or told Sansa and Ravella. I used the bandages from your washroom to wrap your head.” Ravella?, I thought. The name sounded ridiculous as I repeated it in my mind.
“Good. Don’t.” Both words were a rushed exhale as I propped myself upwards. “They wouldn’t let me leave the building if they knew.”
His eyebrows raised just slightly on his pale face and he spoke with surprise. “You’re leaving?”
“Before you head downstairs, do me a favor and head to my washroom again? Grab the pills out the cabinet and bring them here.”
He did what I asked him dutifully. He was the kind of kid that’d do anything you asked him. A good kid, I thought. Then I thought about where I found him as he moved, and that made me sad.
The pills were the size of life savers and I swallowed a handful dry in what was probably an all too practiced manner. They made my mouth moisture-less and papery, brought on memories of hospital beds and cane training.
He looked up at me as I shook the memories off, fidgeting in the chair. “Aren’t you supposed to take water with those?”
“Weren’t you supposed to stay on the fire escape?” I replied without skipping a beat.
He shrugged his shoulders and gave me a damning look that made me feel ungrateful. Then he left, closing the door behind him.
“Don’t tell them.” I half-shouted to my name written backwards on the pebbled glass door.
I closed my eyes and waited for them to come. Bywaters or Gendry. Sooner or later one did.
The first man through my door looked annoyed when he entered. I told him to come in, not yet feeling up to tackle walking to the door.
He seemed to dislike my discourteousness.
His mouth was in a tight bind on the canvas of his salt and pepper stubble that matched his slub-gray jacket. He nodded his head as he stepped through the entrance, the long hair that was pushed back shifted slightly with the movement. As his hand came off the door it was replaced by someone else’s who followed not far behind him.
“Snow.” The first man said with the recognisable gruffness from the phone as he came to the foot of my chair. His eyes looked about the room with something akin to curiosity, then he looked behind himself in annoyance.
His partner followed. Loudly. He was thickset and stout, his heavy breathing and strange emissions would have made that obvious to a blind man.
His jowls moved gently as he walked, not unlike Bywater’s hair. This stranger had no hair however, his bald head shined dimly with a sun-baked pinkness not unlike a New-England ham.
If that was one of Bay City’s finest, I was suddenly very worried about the crime rate.
“What happened?” Bywaters asked as he brought his other hand out of his pocket and turned back to me. He itched the arm under which he had tucked a non-descript folder, then he itched to the edge of his wrist. There was no hand below that wrist. Just a dull metal fist, strapped on with thick leather ties.
“You wouldn’t believe it.” I coughed as I looked the pair over sceptically. “A summer-isle bird flew right through my window. Strange really, all it did was steal my ashtray and replace it with this flowerbed.”
Bywaters nodded at that. His face was blank but his eyes smiled. “Those things are really something huh? I heard they could break a man’s arm.”
“Or trash his office.” I supplied as I sat myself up straighter. There was a small groan that came from me as my chest moved upward.
“You should really call animal control for that. I can leave you the number if you want.” There was a deepness to the developed half-chuckIe as he spoke, the kind that made a man feel relaxed and reassured. I imagined some poor widow sleeping soundly after a robbery because they knew Captain Bywaters was on the case.
I liked him just a little already.
“What about his face?” His partner said with a sneer, obviously not enjoying the line of conversation.
“What about it?” I coughed again, my face now straight and passive.
The partner rolled around so that he was near me and took a closer look. He lifted his stubby nose and settled some beady eyes on me. “I assume you didn’t get a set of shiners like that dancing, or the bandaged cuts.”
I thought for a second before replying. I had decided already they didn’t need to know about Joffrey or Sansa’s business, that it’d only delay things that had already been delayed long enough.
“I ran into the back of a car.” I replied. It wasn’t a lie, I had ran into the back of a car once, ten or so years ago.
“More like a bus, I think.” Bywaters added with a laugh. Then his eyes flicked behind me and his laugh paused. “What are you doing with the gun?”
I had forgotten about that. I turned my head slightly to see it sat at the far side of my desk.
The leaner cop motioned his hand as if asking for permission, and I hummed positively in response. Then he moved over to it, switched the safety on with his one hand before picking it up and smelling the barrel, obviously checking if it had been fired.
He shook his head to the other cop whose face drained slightly for some reason. Then the one-armed man pressed the piece against the desk awkwardly with his knee as he checked the magazine and the chamber, both of which I knew were empty.
There was movement on the staircase and after a short while Gendry showed up, I could feel his entrance on the floorboards without needing to turn.
Bywaters put the gun on the desk and dropped the files onto the cheap wood as well before looking back to the younger man in a vague recognition. “Officer Waters. As if there weren’t enough of us here already.” He gave the bald guy an eyeful then, suspicious and aloof.
Gendry pressed through the room with what seemed like unease. He nodded to each of the men.
“Jacelyn. Slynt.” Then he continued and put out a hand which Bywaters shook in his non-metallic mitt. “What are you both doing here?”
The man rubbed his chin and I could hear that prickly sound as his thick looking skin scratched against the stubble. “I’m here because we fished a car out the water. No license papers and registration were peeled off. Only link is to Snow. I’m guessing you’re not here for that?”
Gendry withdrew as their handshake finished. He moved his feet around the broken pot and to the edge of the room.
”I don’t know why our friend Jonos is here either.” Bywaters added as the younger man moved.
“As shift officer I reserve the right to monitor all cases of those on the job. And I will carry out my duties as I see fit without an inquisition from the likes of you.” Slynt rushed to his reply, doing so spikily as the pinkness of his face deepened. He obviously felt explaining his actions to his fellow cops was above him.
He struck me as a fairly unpleasant and squeamish guy who had achieved advancement through well placed friends rather than working well with his colleagues. I imagined the others felt similar, but through personal experience rather than intuition.
“Or how your friends see fit…” Gendry mumbled in a snub.
Slynt didn’t like that one.
“You have something to say Waters?” he snapped and stepped forward bullishly. “I was patrolling these streets while you were in diapers. I will not have insubordination on my watch. By god, I will not.” His pink face was red now, and he pushed it towards Gendry who stood a head above him, but still like a rock.
I hesitated and hoped Gendry would do something before I interrupted the police officer’s ball and tried getting them back on track.
The sooner they left the sooner we could move on. The sooner we could go out and look for Robb. “You said something about a card with my name, my number. Can I see it?”
Bywaters stroked his arm and moved back to the desk with a nod. His fingers flicked through the file gently as the other two officers separated from each other. Slynt moved, sulking in the darkness of the office’s corner, watching and waiting for something only he seemed to be looking for.
Gendry leaned into one of my cabinets and watched the proceedings until Bywaters pulled out a shiny piece.
“There’s a whole mess of detectives in the coastal California phone book,” he said. “But only one of them is called Snow.”
He stepped sideways and handed it to me and I reached my aching arm out to accept it.
I turned the photo over and saw the card in the centre. It was blurred and smudged with the water damage, but I recognised the name and the number sure enough.
I recognised my own handwriting.
It was the contact details I had given to the young man in the photography store, the words curled crimpled and slight on the dull background. They were written with much more ease than they were read.
“Frey.” I looked up at my questioner as I spoke. “Olyvar Frey. That’s who you’re looking for. Car’s probably his.”
“How do you know that?” Bywater asked calmly.
“It’s my handwriting. I gave him the card yesterday morning. I was looking for….”
I stopped and thought my reply over. Creeping dullness from the painkillers was beginning to etch around the corners of my senses and that made me feel a lot more comfortable, like I was sitting in a warm bath in a familiar but long-since visited place.
I watched with unease at how Slynt was salivating as he awaited an answer. No doubt thinking of the good boys and pats on the back he could get for bringing them back a little treat. My mind drifted to Baelish and I spoke.
He asked me if he could come with me and I said no. Why did I say no?
“I was asking him about his family tree.” I decided. “I’ve been going over some documents for the insurance company and couldn’t get my head around it. So, I paid him a visit at his work and saw the place was smashed in. He was fine when I saw him though, pretty sure he was heading home.”
It sounded plausible. Just enough to avoid any deeper look or avoid any more-revealing questions needing to be asked or answered. It answered what was important regarding Olyvar without needing to bring up Robb.
“You didn’t report it?” Slynt wondered aloud.
I didn’t look at him as I spoke. His piggy face was starting to disgust me. “No. I thought he would, or his boss maybe. Their address is in the phonebook somewhere. Bay City Photography Company.”
Bywaters had a pen out quick and was back to the table, scribbling on a note of paper.
“What time was this?” He mumbled.
“Before Lunch I’m pretty sure. 11ish maybe.”
When I stopped speaking he took the note and folded it into his pocket. Then he came back to collect the piece in my hands and slid that into his jacket too.
He adjusted that jacket and put his metal hand back in his pocket before reaching the other out to me for a shake. “We may need to ask you some more questions. Don’t wander too far.”
I nodded and thought about whether Washington fit within his definition of too far. Probably, was my guess.
“I’ll be here.” I told him as he withdrew his hand.
He left then. Moved out the door and down the hallway with a look of determination.
Slynt lingered until we both stared at him silently. Then he left. Gendry made sure of it by watching the hallway for a few minutes.
“What’s his problem?” I asked Gendry as he moved back in, closing my door behind him.
He moved over towards me, then behind me. His big hands came at my bandages and realigned them. Suddenly a small weight and a feeling of tightness was lifted from the back of my head.
“Be careful with Slynt, he’s bought and paid for. Bywaters is a guy you can trust, good thing he took the call really. Couple of others would have brought you down to the station house.”
He stopped his ministrations for a moment and sighed. “What happened to you?”
“Don’t know. I think I’m coming down with something.” I joked.
“Who did these?” He asked as I felt some bandages fall off me and slide down my back and shoulder.
“The kid. What’s up?”
“I thought so. There’s too many and they’re too tight. You looked like something from a Looney tunes flick.”
“Thanks.” I told him sincerely. Then he was in front of me giving me that look he usually does. The “I told you so” look. The “don’t you have something to tell me” look. A lot of his looks were too similar to differentiate from each other.
“Sansa’s fiancé jumped me.” I admitted under his gaze.
He nodded, pleased he had gotten it out of me. “Fiance?”
“Ex-Fiance now, I guess. He came over and wanted to know where she was. I didn’t tell him.”
“She’s downstairs with Smallwood. Hurting a little, face is all bruised up.”
I shimmied to my side and reached under me for the pills. My fingers itched to open them up and swallow a few more, but I gave them to Gendry instead.
“Do me a favour?” I asked.
“Yup.” He took them from me then, placing them into his back pocket like maracas, the way I’d read some new-age dancer do.
I don’t need those times coming back, I decided as I flung the issue from my mind and into the space reserved for the worst memories.
We stood there in silence until he raised the proverbial elephant in the room. “Doesn’t look like you’re going anywhere.”
“Doesn’t look like it.” I agreed, bitterly.
I scoured my mind for other things I could do. Anything to make me feel less useless. “Gotta watch the phone anyway, in case my girl on the inside calls. Got delivered this as well.” The pawn shop slip was still in my pocket, I thanked myself there wasn’t any blood on it like there was on my shirt, then I passed it to him.
He looked it over and handed it back. “Why do I feel like you never share anything with me until you want to?”
He looked hurt, but he was right. I hadn’t worked in a team since the D.A’s and I was never that good at it then.
I searched my actions for reasons why I didn’t share everything with him as soon as I had learned about them. The ticket, Ros, some of the stuff on Sansa. There was no justification really, nothing real, nothing beyond my own anxieties and inadequacies as a “partner”.
“You’re right.” I realised. “I’m sorry. Gendry.”
He nodded again and crouched beside my chair, looking at me with raised eyebrows, the image of worry and sullenness and intent carved into his features. “You’re the closest I’ve got to family, Jon. You and Robb and the others are basically everything I have…” He stopped for a moment and breathed a heavy breath before continuing. “You’re my brothers. And --- I just worry about you. That you’re not taking care of yourself. That you’re not taking the right precautions. Since the party you’ve just seemed so… shook up.”
I let his points cascade into me and they felt like little daggers in the chest. Gendry was never one for sharing his deepest thoughts, always more of a silent soldier than the rest. He was at all times stronger than me, even in Rosby’s. Him bringing it up must have meant that he’d been thinking it for a long while, that he’d been bothered by it for a long while.
I looked down to my knees and rubbed my palms on them, trying not to look into his eyes. I attempted in vain not to think of his face the first day we met, when we buried our childhood friend, or when he looked down on me in his arms as he dragged me out of our foxhole on the riverbank.
“You’re right.” I confessed as my feeling for duty overcame the terrible mixture of shame and inadequacy. “You’re always right. When this is over we’ll sit down, and we’ll talk everything through. I’ll tell you about the stuff from Baratheon, we’ll talk about anything you want.”
He nodded. “Be careful when I’m gone.”
“I will. You be careful too.”
“I don’t think the train will be much trouble.” He spoke softly now that we’d finished. While he stood up he spoke some more: “If I find anything I’ll give you or Ravella a call.”
“Ravella?” I smiled.
He shook his head just slightly and smiled back, then he watched me as I dragged myself up to my feet with a thinly masked ache.
“You sure you’re gonna be okay?” He asked as he grabbed my shoulder, pulling me up the last of the way.
I winced under his thick arm, but it steadied and supported me, the way Gendry always had.
“I doubt things could get much worse.” I laughed and groaned as he drew me into a goodbye hug.
The pawn-shop was out in the depths of the city, a mixed area, low on the dominance pecking order. It took me about an hour to get there: 30 minutes of which was me wincing down the staircase of Smallwood’s apartment building.
Satin came up and found me in a ball on the landing, trying to shimmy myself down with the thin handrail. He helped me the last flight or two to the bottom and I thanked him, then I asked him to watch my office while I went out, a job which he accepted readily.
I parked the Plymouth under a tree that grew sadly and misshaped in the dimness between a set of buildings and I cased the joint over for a warm while, the darkened branches of the tree shifted in the coming winds that brought the darker clouds from the hills.
The place seemed legit. About as legit as these sorts of places got, anyway.
It was on a mean looking block full of cheap clothing stores and arcades with boarded up windows, thin alleys where the sunlight disappeared into the jungle of slums. The place somehow looked a great deal more respectable than its neighbors, the sign was spick and span, and the windows were bright and well lit in the dullness of the canopy, clearly showing off the goodies within.
From the sidewalk’s edge ran a set of steps that led downwards slightly and then into the entrance way of the shop. By the building next door to that store-front sat cautious looking men who talked and smoked without needing to move their lips, they ignored the wind which was picking up and tossing clotheslines to and thro. I passed them on the way through and they gave me sneaky glances, covering their faces with their hands and murmuring things incomprehensible to me.
From the window it seemed a quiet and antique looking place within, like it had been plucked from some Christmas postcard, one back before the war which showed a toyshop in a little German village, the kind with wood trestles and that thick glass that looked all the better for the snow. In the front window was displayed a collection of knick-knacks and tat from almost every era before this one, each placed with care and attention on boxes covered in soft thick fabrics.
I took the last of the steps down with a groan and opened door to hear a bell jangled overhead and somebody moving his feet across the thick wooden floor. An old looking guy in a black waistcoat came along behind a counter, smiling at me from the other side of the usual glass window that separates customer and server.
Around me was a collection of neatly stacked boxes some of which had pictures on them of small trains, guitars, toy cars and snare drums. It seemed less a pawn shop and more some repository for unwanted Christmas gifts, but this is what they do. Anything of value would be behind the counter, especially in this neighborhood.
I got the slip from my back pocket and made my way to the counter. He kept his smile up and watched me struggle.
The counter was glass too, thick and bright in a way that hurt my eyes, and over the top of a collection of rings in golds and silvers. Little barely-readable price-tags were strung around each, I guessed most of them were beyond my budget. When he saw me look at them, he beamed.
“Gold, is it? Or silver maybe? What is your woman’s complexion?” He said in a vaguely Eastern-European accent, his eyes twinkled underneath bone-white eyebrows.
“It ain’t like that.” I told him.
“Perhaps some earrings then? Or a nice necklace? I hear jade is the next big thing.” He made to turn, and I saw some shiny things glint in the light behind him.
My mind shifted to the movie poster in Baelish’s office, the one with Margaery front and centre, painted beautifully on the dark background. I wondered how many women walked through that office door and what they ended up getting into, the big stack of application letters didn’t make me happy. The idea of the smashed window made me feel slightly better, as if that might have stopped the rotation for the day.
I placed the slip on the counter and pushed it out underneath the glass. “I’ve got one of these.”
He turned, and he instantly understood. “Ahh.” He said as he collected it in thin and boney hands, then he took a thick pair of glasses from a pouch in his pocket and looked at the chicken scratch writing on the front.
“Yes. Still safe, very safe even.” He laughed in a slightly worrying way, but his smile was still as bright and as warm as before. “Come, come.” He said and motioned with his hands as he moved to a door and opened the latch on a metal barred gate to let me through to a side room.
It was a thin corridor, full of deposit boxes of various sizes and numbers. The little old man ran his long fingers along the edges and mumbled as he counted up to a number. Above his back pocket was a leathery holster in which sat a dark looking automatic. I was suddenly very unsurprised on the condition of the place.
“Here it is. And here you are. A day early even….” He shrugged his shoulders and moved his arms to unlock the box, pulling it outward and placing it with a metallic clank on the table to the side.
Beside the table and on a hook was a cork clipboard with a few pieces of paper placed heavily within the confines. He took the thing off the hook and held it, squinting to read something. “I just need your address now, Mr. Stark.”
Robb? I thought. That’s who sent it?
“My address.” I repeated as I searched my memory for the open door and the trashed apartment.
He waited. Tapped his thin fingers on the top of the board rhythmically.
“Kingswood building, apartment 322.” I decided with vague recollection.
“That’ll be the one.” He said. And jotted something down on the paper with a pencil attached via string. He reached into his pocket and fished out a small key which he used to unlock the box without opening it. Then he pushed it along the table, so I could see it.
“You still have a day left if you want to get your money’s worth.” He told me with a shrug, then he moved to the next room to give me privacy. His hand came up to my shoulder in commiseration and just skirted across a bruise as he passed and left the room. “No refunds unfortunately. Store policy.”
I stared at the deposit box and just wondered. Wondered why Robb would want me to be here. Wondered what was hidden inside it.
There was only one way to find out.
My hands came up to the edge of the box, the metal was cool and smooth against my palms. With a small squeak of the hinge it opened, and I looked inside.
It was a picture in a large frame. In the centre were me and Robb and Gendry in training equipment, straight out of basic but before our deployment.
The frame was thick and wide and wooden, decorated with delicate and intricate vines and roses that climbed the sides like a garden wall. Not the sort of thing I’d expect Robb to buy, it reminded me of the bedframes at Margaery’s apartment, I thought maybe it was something from her collection.
That confused the hell out of me. Until I picked the thing up in my hands and could hear the shaking of something light on the inside.
I twisted the thing in my hands and looked at the back of the frame. It opened easily with the twisting of a few black notches. The thin board of wood pried from it loosely and I placed it on the table.
Underneath a thin, white tissue-like covering there was something other than the photo.
With shaking hands I moved the tissue over and I saw it. I had to blink to be certain what I was looking at, but I saw it.
Black and white and crisp as new snow, a portrait of US Founding Father Alexander Hamilton sat inside.
A portrait of Hamilton is a $1000 bill.
The frame slipped from my fingers as I looked down in front of me. I had never even seen one before, never seen anything close to like it. I was sure few people had, especially in this neighborhood.
I caught the frame with the bare edges of my fingers and just looked at the thing glow in my hands. Calling out to me like some beacon, a private searchlight which only I could see.
I stood there and looked at it for a long time, ignoring the ache in my legs, in my arms and everywhere else. I thought about tucking it back inside the piece and walking out as if nothing had happened. Something prevented me though.
If Robb had anything close to that kind of money, and in that specific denomination the method of it coming into his possession was surely not legal. Bank tellers and accountants don’t even see that much money in that way. It meant that he was involved in something even beyond Baelish and his photo games, beyond anything I had thought of up to that point
My stomach dropped, and I could hear myself exhale before I thought anymore, everything around me seemed raw and fresh. The air just that much thicker and the edges of every surface that much sharper. I was worried.
I checked around me to see if the old man was watching. He wasn’t, he was behind the counter again, but this time with a loupe in his eye, hunched over the top of some desk.
So I took the note and rolled it up to a thin cylinder, reached down with an ache and tucked it deep into my sock. It felt like a burning iron against my skin.
I redid the fastenings on the piece and tucked it under my arm before leaving the room.
The teller said something to me as he saw me move to the window of the shop. I hummed in an absent reply and watched the street for something, anything that was out of the ordinary.
It was bare. Desolate and dark as a gravestone. It was only midday, but the storm clouds were above us, thick and heavy making the whole place look forlorn and even more rundown. I even watched those suspiciously and waited for rain or a break or bolt of lightning.
“Storm’s a comin’” The old man said.
I turned to him and wondered if he had known, what he would do if he did know. With one thousand dollars on your person anyone seems like a threat.
I nodded and ignored a kink in my neck. Then I sprinted breathlessly out of the door and to my car, ignoring the pain across the rest of my body too.
I took the long way back. Just to make sure I wasn’t being followed. My head hummed, and my legs and arms jittered with a fumbling unease and anticipation.
With the heat by my foot, each passing car felt like a tank and every bird that danced in the now stronger wind a bomb primed to go off.
I waited a block away for a while and once satisfied with my aloneness I shuffled the rest of the way to the building.
A cigarette was in my hand by the time I was through the door, I didn’t remember getting it out, never mind lighting it. The deep inhalation of the nicotine warmed my insides and balanced nicely with the rising heat across the rest of my body.
Satin was on the staircase with a comic, some blue-suited hero emblazoned on its cover. The boy’s eyes looked up to mine from underneath a messy fringe of curls and I shook my head as if to tell him no, that I didn’t need him just then. I asked him if I had any calls and he shook his head back.
The climb up the staircase was easier than the descent, that was for sure. The increase in ease was no doubt down to my willingness to ignore everything my body screamed at me. Only the half-baked thoughts skimming across my mind like phantoms over gravestones seemed to matter.
My door locked once I was through it, and I pushed myself into it, dropped down with my back against it, drunk with nerves and anxiety. The thing felt like a cinderblock in my sock, so I took it out and unrolled it, a craving just to just look at it overtook me. I needed to make sure it was still there.
Hamilton’s expression hadn’t changed. He was still looking into some unknown horizon, as aloof as he ever was. I watched the blacks of his eyes unmovingly and breathed a breath that felt like a new beginning.
I rolled the cigarette around my mouth along my lip and thought about what some people would do for that kind of money, what they’d do for even a tenth of that.
I had seen people beaten and robbed for their spare change on the streets, seen people shot over ration-bags on the front, the cruelties of men in search of riches and in search of sustenance were nothing new to me. But I wondered. Wondered what Robb would have had to have done to get money like that. His family hadn’t been so well off since the death of his father, I knew that much. I guessed that nobody would lend him something like that, and especially in one bill.
No. This had to be something bad, a shady thing that Robb had invested himself in. Drugs, gambling, or smuggling were my first thoughts. Whatever his method made me uneasy, what felt worse was the realisation that the stakes of the game might have been raised, that the number of players might have increased.
Could Baelish have that kind of money? I thought. He was a pimp and a fairly successful producer and all the rest of it, but he wouldn’t keep his cash like that. The smart middling people kept their dirty money untraceable and small, laundered in crumpled ten and twenty-dollar bills. Everyone involved in that world would know that. Robb would have known that if he was involved.
This was the kind of money for people who didn’t care if they were caught, people who are too strong for any prosecutor and detective to take down no matter how straight, no matter what their evidence. Baelish was a big fish alright, but only the sharks registered in the category I was thinking of. Hungry man-eating sharks that made Baelish and everyone else look like nothing but bait.
The paper felt dirty against my hands. I thought about the potential suffering and pain it could have bought, that money like that usually had. People like that usually did.
It can’t be him, I hoped as I made Robb’s image clean in my mind. It must be someone else’s, there must have been some logical explanation.
It began feeling heavier and heavier in my outstretched arms. I pushed myself upwards from the door with a series of grunts and shuffled to my desk.
On top of it the gun sat hard and dark atop a few pieces of scrap paper. I stubbed out my smoke on the desk and crushed the remains in my hand, watching the ash and the tobacco float out of my palm. There wasn’t much difference between them both.
I picked the pistol up and checked the safety. Then I rolled up the note and jammed it forcefully into the barrel until I couldn’t see the thin paper anymore, like I was smothering it out of existence.
It seemed the last place anyone would find it, certainly the last place I would look.
With the note in the gun and the gun locked in my desk, I sat down and felt the wood, hard as a coffin against my back
I remembered something then, something that Margaery was talking about in Robb’s apartment. About the two of them having some money saved up ready for moving on.
I decided it was time to make a call. That I had questions I needed answers to, that I had questions I hoped she could or would answer.
My hands moved in a jitter to pick up the phone, but as if omniscient it rang before I reached it.
My heart skipped a beat and I hit my palm against the edge of the table with a resetting breath.
It rang again.
So I picked it up.
A voice answered.
“Hello. This is the Mockingbird calling, I think we can fit you in today.” The voice on the line spoke smoothly and seductively. A practiced manner that I was sure worked on all the men she spoke to, but I questioned why she was using it on me?
“Ros?” I asked, numbly.
She waited in silence for a few moments before speaking again, simulating a conversation we weren’t having. I got that trick quickly. “Yes, you’re a very fortunate man. We’ve got almost everything you wanted ready.”
I pondered on the reason for this method of communication, was she being watched? Listened to? Was I? I decided not to give anything away, speaking carefully and calmly.
“What time can I come and do all that then?”
That’s fine, I supposed. It would have given me a lot of time to sort things out, enough to call Royce and flesh something out for the next day.
With my mind on Royce and a case against Baelish I suddenly felt awful. Awful and distant and dangerously careless. While Ros was risking her life for Satin and the others under Baelish’s thumb I had let myself get swept up in self-pity and fear without having a plan, without doing the things I had promised I would do for them both.
Gendry was right, I can’t save everyone. Not from an unwillingness to help them, but my own inability, my ineptness, my gross and utter negligence to the people to whom I had made solemn guarantees. I’m not a good man.
I stewed on that thought as I spoke. My voice cracked slightly, and I rubbed my face which stung beneath the bandages. “That’s fine. Where? At the bar?”
“Okay, Mr. Wulf. I’ll arrange that for you.” She paused again without the hint of an answer, then she waited with a warm hum. “No sir, I’m afraid I won’t be working tonight. I’ll be at home, snuggling up with a bottle of ‘33 Chateau Melloc Chardonnay.” There was a purr then and a dusky giggle that held the promise of something more.
“We’ll see you then, Mr. Wulf.” she finally said and hung up with a dozen fading goodbyes.
While I still remembered it, I made a note of what she said, figuring it must have been some sort of clue for our meetup.
Then I called Royce’s office with the D.A.
He didn’t bite at first, not knowing the documents Ros had, what he was giving in exchange for what he felt he could get. I talked him into at least a meet-up and some preliminary protections, reminded him of massively over-inflated debts to me, begged him with pleas that only became more and more desperate with time.
I gave him the name of the detective Gendry mentioned, I even floated Bywaters as a possibility. Any clean hands to help would have been beneficial, any more names I could drop to lend me credibility. He said he’d call the next day and arrange time and destination for a safe-house, I figured that Satin and Ros would be safe at the apartment for the night.
With that done, I clinked the phone back onto its receiver and waited with a staggered stretch before making another call.
The vibrations on the other side ended with a soft click and I jumped to the introduction.
The voice that answered wasn’t hers, it held the same underlying eastern-county Californian accent however. Formal in that small-town way and just slightly less snobbish without those hints of received pronunciation I assumed most actresses had. “No. This is Elinor Tyrell, Marge’s cousin.”
“Can you put Margaery on the phone, please?”
She stilted and then spoke again, drawing out her words in a sing-song way. “That depends. Are you the boy she’s been crying over?”
“No.” I answered dryly and adjusted in my chair. “Put Margaery on, tell her it’s Jon.”
She tutted and then moved the phone. I could hear the sound of it being passed from feminine hand to feminine hand after she shouted Margaery’s name.
Her voice came in a worrisome blur. “Jon? What’s wrong? Did you find Robb?”
“No. It’s something else. We need to meet.”
She gave me the address of her cousin’s place. Her voice dipped slightly as she asked what I wanted to meet her for. I kept it vague, not wanting to give her time to prepare a lie. If she knew or didn’t know why Robb had the cash I wanted to watch her eyes as she told me.
“I thought you were going to Washington?” She asked with an oh sound after a pause.
“I’ve gotta stay around the city for other reasons, Gendry’s on the train north now looking into everything. I just wanted to talk through some points with you and see how you were doing.” With the raising of Gendry’s name, I wondered where he’d managed to get to. I checked the watch and decided he wouldn’t have finished the train journey at that point.
She mumbled an okay and got ready to put the phone down before I spoke again with a short: “Wait.”
“What do you know about wine?”
It’s worth a shot.
Margaery's family owns a small but prosperous vineyard. She knew her wine a little better than a middle-class housewife did.
Chateau Melloc, like most Californian wineries not able to switch to supplying grape juice or the blood of Christ, collapsed with prohibition in the 20’s. Chardonnay wasn’t widely grown in the state until the 40’s. A ‘33 Chateau Melloc Chardonnay is an impossible vintage.
I asked Margaery if she knew where the winery was, and she told me that it was out west of the city, up around the canyons. I made a note and hung up soon after.
There was a familiar itch in my blood when the phone went down, a craving that came with the throbbing of my leg and with the rest of my body. The worst of the pain was gone, a dullness remained however, simmering beneath the surface. The areas of worst harm stung when moved, but beyond that things were bearable.
I rattled within my cabinet and drawers for any more pills but couldn’t find any. I lit another cigarette instead, the last of my packet. Anything to keep me busy, anything to occupy my thoughts and draw attention from the ache and from the call of the unopened bottle in my desk.
I left before the siren’s wail got too bad.
My hand knocked on Smallwood’s door and I opened it just a crack to speak down into the hallway. I didn’t want to reveal myself fully and risk the women’s worries. I had things I needed to do.
“I’m heading out. Satin, watch my office.” I told them through the gap.
“Make sure you eat.” Smallwood responded, dutifully.
I half-mumbled a wordless reply.
A scene of them all together around a table with smiles on their faces flickered in my mind and I lingered in the warmth of the mental image before I shut the door again and left into the wide, gray afternoon.
The thought of telling them about Ros crossed my mind, but I couldn’t think of a way to properly explain it without bringing up Baelish, and I wasn’t sure if Sansa would believe the many dastardly things I had to say about him. I couldn’t risk her leaving the safety of the building for anything, I couldn’t risk her leaving me.
We’ll cross those bridges when we came to them, I decided on both the Baelish and Ros points. It wouldn’t be the first whore I had brought home that week, and neither she nor Satin would be at the place too long if the documents were as good as I, or more importantly, Royce wanted them to be.
It’s easier to ask for forgiveness than permission.
Margaery’s cousin lived in a house across the city, it took me a while to get there due to traffic on Main street.
Fire engines and police cars huddled around a flame-clad office building and diverted people away. I watched the plumes of dark smoke rise shakily from the gutted chars up into the equally dark clouds. I hoped it wouldn’t spread too far.
The house Margaery was in was a dull affair. Gray and plain it sat almost square on a patch of dry-looking lawn. On that thirsty ground, several apples from an overhanging tree had fallen. Each apple was the green color that the grass should have been if not for the gloomy heat and lack of rain. I looked at the clouds above again and hoped a torrent would come and wash everything away.
I was most of the way down to the front of the house when another apple dived to the path in the wind. A rush of ants clambered from the dead grass over to their new feast of flesh and I watched before I continued.
I knocked on the thin wood of the door until it opened. A tall and slim woman stood on the opposite side of a screen and gave me a thin, appraising look as she leaned into the frame, opening the screen just a crack. Her long hair moved gently as she stood, and I watched the curls twist in the breeze
“Jon Snow, I think we spoke on the phone.” I told her.
She didn’t say anything for a while. Just let me wait in the faintness of the wind, my destiny entwined with the apples and the ants in the garden.
Margaery appeared, and I had to move back as the screen opened outwards towards me. She greeted me with a hug that her cousin watched, I stood impotently and defensively through it.
She turned to Elinor and patted down her summer-dress in an almost shooing manner before the girl vanished deeper into the house. Then she turned back to me and I watched the bottomless browns of her eyes attentively.
Aware of the ears and eyes that could witness if there were a scene, I stood back and off of the porch, motioning for her to follow me. “Come with me.”
She did so hesitantly, and I led her to the side of the house, through the grass and over the apples strewn along the floor until we came beneath the tree. I listened for the thick rustle of leaves and branches overhead.
I leaned into the tree uncaring towards the borrowed pants I still wore as they brushed against the greenery of the trunk. She came near me and watched me closely.
“Are you okay? You’ve got bandages on your head and face.”
I ran my hands over my face and hair and unwrapped them all, let the things flow past my hands and take flight in the wind. With the freedom from their obstruction and annoyance, I felt partly liberated.
“Why do I have the feeling you’ve left something out?” I asked as I watched her eyes.
She straightened up just an inch and her eyes focussed. That was all I needed. “What do you mean?”
I gave her a look and watched as she didn’t move, didn’t shift or even sway in the wind. She was a good actor. “It’s really going to be like that?” I sighed and let my body slide down the trunk slightly, she moved down onto her knees in response, primly, as a lady does.
“Why didn’t you tell me about the money?” I came out with it directly.
Her hands were folded neatly over her skirt and her brown hair flowed messily in the wind. “I told you about the money. We had some set aside to leave, Robb was going to open-”
“Yeah, I know.” I interrupted. “You were going to run away. Robb was going to open a camera shop and you were going to be a florist, or something as idyllic. You’d settle down in comfort and have three and a half kids, maybe even a dog too, with nobody bothering you ever again.” I rambled the fantasy out in a snide tone. I wanted it to hurt her, I wanted her to react and stop the act, stop the lies.
She didn’t budge, that made me feel worse, so I continued, setting my jaw and gritting my teeth with a sullen rage.
“But you couldn’t. You couldn’t get enough money together, as if it mattered. So, you had Robb steal it from someone, maybe your agent. Made up some sob story about blackmail and some pictures when things went bad, so you could wheedle in a schmuck like me to do some legwork for you.” The veneer cracked midway through and her eyes welled, but I was lost in my own semi-concocted fantasy of betrayal and lies. “Is he even missing? Did you ever love-”
She interrupted me then. An open palm around my face. Not the kind you see in the movies, but a forceful hand straight into my mouth and cheek.
I recoiled and brushed my lip with the back of my hand, feeling a spec of blood from a crack she made.
Her eyes were filling like the rock-pools beside the ocean in the morning tide. She folded her red hand back into her paler one on her lap again and sobbed, they were as real as the slap was.
Guilt didn’t even occur to me in my state of moral righteousness. She sobbed, still, and I watched in a numbness until she spoke again.
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.” she breathed.
I reservedly offered her a fairly-unused napkin to dab her tears.
I’m a fool. A damned fool.
“It never is. How right was I?”
There was a little glare there, and then she touched the edges of her face with the napkin and spoke with an admission I finally believed. “Not so far.”
I retreated slightly in the discovery and leaned my head back against the soft hardness of the trunk. My eyes looked up into the entanglement of limbs and watched them writhe and collide.
“We did take some money. Probably more than we needed. They’re fakes, Petyr launders them with the studios for the mob, they’re rolling in it, don’t care what kinds of bills they’re paid in.” She spoke with what seemed like a realization. Then there was a breath, long but still somehow shallow and sad. “What I said about the pictures was true though… and Robb really is gone.”
I looked back to her and found her with her hands over her eyes. “He said we needed to be careful, but I pushed him into it. It’s all my fault, my greed and my stupidity got him killed.”
“Hollywood never destroyed anyone worth saving.” She told me with anger and self-hatred across her features. “Nobody comes here other than to make a buck.”
It’s money, I thought. It’s always money. Images of haggard looking men sitting at type-writers banging away at their next potboiler, dead and alone and young women clinging to the last shreds of their clothing, both of them with distant dreams of cash and starlight crossed my mind. We’re all whores in the end.
There was a drop in my chest then, and the color faded from my eyes for a moment like I was Hamilton printed on the bill.
She rubbed her face then, it looked raw and itchy along the cheekbones and below the eyes. “I don’t know.” She admitted. “We were supposed to meet, but he never showed.”
“And now we’re back to square one.” I said as I sat down fully. My mind wandered for a minute and I checked my watch before I came to a decision.
“Pack your things, I’ll give you an hour to do that and say your goodbyes.”
The tears had dried slightly in the air, they glistened and smudged in streaks along her face as she looked to me.
“Where are we going to go?”
I stood and leaned against the tree to support myself. I resisted the need to flinch from the small twinges that ached across my body. “My apartment building. We need you away from people connected with you and safe. That’ll be the best place I can watch you.”
She nodded and sniffed, then she turned and disappeared back into the building. I watched her run across the grass.
The wait wasn’t long. I stood by my car for her, watched the street in a quiet anticipation for some unknown reason. She came carrying a large handbag and small suitcase in her hand. The cousin followed with a worried look and the two women gave each other silent goodbyes in a learned embrace.
When Marge came down the path the cousin gave me a heavy stare that I could feel beat through the now cooling breeze.
We got in the car and pulled out onto the street. I drove across the empty asphalt and wondered almost hypocritically what Robb ever saw in her, whether she was good for him.
I reserved my judgement, old memories of dangerous scrapes and wild escapades with my own woman drifted in on the breeze. Then the things I sensed, the smell of blood first, still raw and overpowering. Then the lighter, warmer sights and sounds of much earlier recollections.
Stolen kisses in the long hallways of abandoned tenements, the dark coal smeared like bruises across our pale skin, sirens and smiles as we kicked through a boarded window.
Leannán sí, I remembered. That was what Mance had called her as she slept in my bruised arms, her red hair blazing in the dancing lights of the barrel fire.
The things we do for love.
Some quite nasty things in this chapter. You have been warned.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Margaery didn’t talk much on the way back. I didn’t much expect her to. It took longer to get to the apartment than it did to get to Elinor’s.
The fire was bad, having spread across the whole block. The afternoon night dimmed slightly, and we could both see the vague glow of the flames in the mirrors as we passed.
I parked on the edge of the pavement and turned the engine off, then I turned and saw her staring at me.
“If I’m gonna find Robb I need to know everything,” I said, deliberately.
She nodded, I had a feeling she was being sincere.
“Everything,” I stressed.
“I’ve told you all I know. Everything else was Robb’s stuff, he kept the money, he kept a lock down on that kind of thing.”
I palmed the steering wheel and twisted it slightly in small frustration. “If you think of anything while I’m gone, write it down so you don’t forget, no matter how unimportant. Any small detail could be all the difference here.”
She gave me a worried look, her brow furrowed, and her eyes took on oval shapes. “You’re leaving?”
“Soon. I’ve got things to deal with, a lot of people are counting on me. You’ll be safe here, a safe as things get. Sansa is here too, Robb’s sister and my landlady will be with her. Just think of it like a sleepover,” at that I opened the door and swung my legs to the floor. She struggled with her bag as she got out, so I carried it in a groan.
Instead of going straight to Smallwood I motioned for her to follow me up the staircase to my office. She did so slowly, her speed lessened somewhat by my sore struggling. It hadn’t seemed so slow to me earlier when I made the climb alone.
We moved into the office and the pebbled door opened with a creak. Satin was sat at my desk with the same comic from earlier in hand. I gave him a nod and he returned it, only with a confused look on his face as Margaery appeared behind me.
Margaery’s things went to the side of the room and she brushed down her clothes and looked around critically, the way a woman does when she’s in a man’s living space.
I moved to my desk and pulled out a map. It was recent, probably too much so to find Chateau Melloc within. I went to the right section of the book and pulled a pencil from the drawer.
“Where’s the winery?”
She moved over slowly, her face puzzled as she gave the map a look over. Then she finally picked up the pencil and circled a square. “’round here, I think.”
“That’s good. Satin, take Margaery here downstairs and introduce her to Smallwood and Sansa. I’ll be home in a few hours with Ros.” At the mention of Ros’ name Satin smiled, at the mention of Sansa’s Margaery did likewise.
The boy held his hand out to Margaery and motioned for her to follow him in an overly gentlemanly manner. She played along with the game and they left the office quickly.
My head ached with the games we used to play as the door closed behind them. Those things we’d pretend under the covers and in the dark closets at Rosby’s. It was always easier to pretend a lot of things were just games.
I shook my head and bundled my jacket underarm, pushing the map into my back-pocket. I worried about Gendry. If he had anything he would have called. If he called Satin would have told me. He didn’t.
It took me a while to fumble down the staircase, but I got to the car eventually and checked my watch. I had enough time to get there. A little over maybe.
The engine chugged as I struck it. Then I turned the car west and into the street. The lights came on soon after and I watched the city begin its evening glow, underneath those orange clouds the slight shower of rain was visible in the wind. It patted and ran along the car windows and made the day seem later than what it was.
Clouds rolled thick and dark above, as far as the eye could see. The rain fell in the city and in the hills and even in the canyons where after several turns I found the winery.
A long road curved into the hills and I discovered the crevice in the canyons where it was.
It was a big house with a large barn-like building to its side, black and forlorn it stood in the small valley in which the vineyard was nestled. Iron chain spread across the entrance and I gave the place a glance before continuing onwards, looking for some sort of sign, either of a car or of her.
A dirt road coiled down around the side of the chateau and into a little hollow, then it picked up over a small hill that levelled with full view of the ocean and of the vineyard. I looked back into my mirror and looked at the rows of vines as I climbed. They were naught but wooden and wire frames now, withered and eventually lost in the depths of time.
There was a car at the top, empty and dark and wet against the not quite charcoal background of the evening. The water of the ocean could just be heard if you listened closely and a feminine silhouette was visible on a bench overlooking the hill’s edge. Above it was a thick, old-fashioned umbrella that covered most of her and most of the seat.
The figure sat there, still and silent on the metal, green furniture.
“Ros?” I spoke after I climbed from my car, approaching in the darkness. She didn’t turn, just continued to look forwards, watching the dipping hillside, the falling rain and the crashing of the ocean beyond it.
I stood beside the bench.
On it lay Ros, unconscious, her long, red hair fanned out in a wild manner around her head. A tortured tension was cast across her face, but it looked like that had almost slipped away into the strange stiffness bodies get. The soft, pale and wet skin of her bare chest was smooth and neither rose nor fell as I watched it. Her very upper body was dry underneath the cover however, the head had a large slice across from ear to lip and the blood oozed from the cut almost black, her face stained with dried tears, like that of a child that had cried herself to sleep.
“No,” I whispered harshly as my eyes focussed and I resisted the urge to run. “No. No. No.”
The tiered green dress I had seen her in once before was nothing but a wet scrap about her waist, as dumped and forgotten as she was. Thick bruises and cuts hung intimately below and above the dress, like dark smudges and rips on paper.
By her side, just tucked underneath the edge of her thigh but still on the bench was a small folder, the pages of which fluttered damply and gently in the wind. I put my hand to it hesitantly and grasped it.
It wasn’t documents on Baelish. It was a set of photos. The kind nobody should have.
I gagged and heaved dryly as I turned the pages, each one worse than the last. Men in masks and cloaks doing things. Things that nobody should do, not to a woman, not to anybody.
The papers fell from my shaking hands and scattered in the wind. I tried to chase them down in a panic, but a gust took two or three off far.
I took a deep breath which sounded like a sob and contemplated running down the hill after them.
I looked back to her and could feel my eyes well before I took off my jacket and placed it carefully over her body, covering up what they did to her, preserving what little modesty I could.
I tried to move to the car, but my legs failed underneath me. I had to get it closer, get her out of there, get to a phone, just do something, anything.
I fell to the floor, my hands grazing on the wet rocks in the ground.
That was when I heard it, just over the drizzle was the striking of an engine, then the slow hum of a car coming toward the hill.
I closed my eyes and thought of Ros, her dead visage shifted into another girl’s, all round-faced, her small hands held in mine as I looked into blue-grey eyes, the lights in them fading away.
A set of headlights beamed at an angle towards the sky and then levelled out as they made it to the brush near the peak. The car that approached sounded heavy and strong.
I scrambled across the wet floor and over to the car, the one that wasn’t mine. It was far closer and safer looking than the other.
The vehicle reached the peak and pulled gently along the edge of my own car and the engine stopped, the headlights dying for a moment.
A spotlight clicked on and swung out to the side and I could see the wet glow of Ros’ skin in the light. Then saw my car glisten under inspection.
I held my breath and waited, hoping that my shadow couldn’t be spotted, dipped so that I laid with my lower half covered by the wheel and its arch.
I turned and pressed my back against the car, trying to will myself to be flat and invisible, to be anywhere else.
I looked in my pocket and found nothing but lint and the map, no gun, no knife, nothing that could help me.
The phantom car struck up again and I could see the beam’s edges in the corners of my vision as it moved.
For a second, I breathed, praying it had missed me, that they thought I had trailed back to the house or down the other side of the hill.
Then there was a crunching sound of heavy wheels over twigs and stone and dirt as their car turned. Its bright headlights raked my hiding place from one end to the other and I curled up with my head down in a hurry. The lights swept above and around me like a sword cutting into the night and then the movement stopped.
The engine died.
The headlights died.
Silence, nothing but the soft tapping of water on the floor, on my body and on the cars for a minute.
Then doors opened and sets of footsteps landed weightily on the floor
I held my breath. Nothing existed but the footsteps that fell.
Then there was light, a straight beam from a torch at my location directly.
Rain continued to fall.
Thoughts on this chapter? Let me know what you think in the comments.
Also, I'd say we're about a third or so to where I wanna be with this story. After that, I'm looking towards maybe either just rewriting the whole thing, working on a Ygritte/Jon prequel or a completely different historical AU, maybe Western or American war of Independence. Tell me what you'd like to read in the comments.
“All right, Jon. Come out of there with your hands up and empty,” the voice spoke softly, familiar, that same overly familiar manner he used at the table in the Red Keep. I could still hear it over the rain, but it was almost too quiet.
I stilled with the beam of light cascading through the darkness around me, within it, I could see individual drops fall in a shambling blur. My eyes were wet, and my dark hair clung down with drops over my face, just within my vision.
The light moved as the hand that held it moved. I thought they must have been fanning around, trying to surround me.
I counted three, maybe four sets of footsteps leave the car, two of which were moving in that moment.
“Baelish?” I asked into the night, the word coming out with a small splash of rainwater that spilled from the top of my head and over my face and lips.
There was a whisper then, too faint for me to catch, followed by a low hum. “I’m afraid so, Jon,” he shouted.
“Fuck,” I winced and breathed. He laughed at that, then his friends did. I thought deeply about that laughter, whether it was there when Ros was getting the treatment she got. My blood itched and boiled as I guessed the answer.
Footsteps moved again over the far side of the car, just hearable over my heavy breath, half a dozen or so meters away. I looked around my immediate vicinity then angled my head upwards at the car mirror just above me.
My hands flooded my pockets and I pulled out the map with a scramble, rolled it and folded it with haste until it was like a rod.
I used that rod to push up against the mirror and adjust the angle until I saw him, red-tied with a black long-coat the man itched closer and closer. In his hands, he carried a gun, the type used to hunt creatures much bigger than a man. I fell to my knees and twisted while hugging the cool, cold metal of the car while I looked underneath it for the other guy. I saw the tips of his flashy shoes before my face touched the ground.
“Listen, Jon. I’ve got men here with itchy fingers over the triggers of some very big guns. With one word you and that car could be blown away, but I don’t want that,” he almost sounded sincere as he entreated. I didn’t trust him, but I weighed my options.
Run? I first thought, it was dark and they might not have seen me jump down the hillside and into the black gaps where hiding was possible. With my bum leg, the state I was in, I didn’t much like my odds.
I adjusted to the mirror again and the man moved a few steps closer. I pulled my legs up to my chest to try to decrease my target size. My mind searched for actions or words to get him to stop.
“I know about everything, Petyr,” I rasped, my voice wet and warm, I could see the fog of it rise to the light. “The police and the papers will too, if I don’t get back in one piece that is,” I bluffed and prayed he’d buy it. There was a small silence in the wind and the rain, the man didn’t move, and I shivered before I continued on: “Tell your guy with the rifle to back off and we’ll talk this out? The other guy too.”
The man looked back, and I took the opportunity to twist myself into a thinner angle. “Just what do you think you know?” Baelish’s voice rang out.
Nothing. Zip. Nada. Zilch. So little that it was almost laughable for the amount of time I was working on it. That’s what I would have told him if I was being honest. Would it have been better for me to admit that or continue the charade, I wondered. I made up my mind quickly, necessarily so, and I inhaled shakily and scoured my mind for information.
“I know about the money…” I shouted hoarsely. “The blackmail schemes… The laundering…”
He didn’t reply, so I breathed and guessed, my voice cracked. “I know you took my friend.”
He responded then. “What else do you know?” he called out.
Fuck. He’s got him. He’s fucking got him. I wiped my face in a hidden agony, but my hand was just as wet as it was, a useless gesture. About as useless as I felt.
“Everything,” I lied, “Like I said. And it’s all with a friend, ready to be sent to the police and to the papers, and everyone else with power and an address in Bay City. I don’t show up to his tomorrow and everything you’ve built is dead.”
There was nothing for a minute, then another. Then some mumbles I couldn’t hear.
Petyr growled, angrily. “Don’t shoot him.”
The red tie backed off until he was out of the angle of the reflection and I breathed a relieved sigh as I adjusted the mirror again. The others were shadowy and quite distant, their silhouettes just visible in the darkness I could see beyond the torch glare.
“Do you have a gun, Jon?” the middle shadow cried through his coned hand. “I don’t want my men getting shot in the back as we leave.”
That question didn’t sit well with me. I thought about an answer as he waited, trying to give myself time. I checked the watch on my wrist and pushed across the cold glass of the face to reveal the clock.
Then I dropped the map onto the floor, tucked it lightly, wetly, between the tire and the ground. I looked back to the mirror and to their blurry figures before I wiped it clear for a moment with my sleeve. “You’re not going to let me leave,” I told him ad I realized in a bitter refrain.
A chorus of sniggers came then, like music, they cut through the wetness of the night.
I slumped and fell against the car, feeling the moisture clinging to it pool coolly against the heat of my back. I thought about Ros, dead and cold on the bench, and then my mind moved back to Robb.
They have him, I repeated the information in my mind like a parrot.
Somewhere in the distance, there was a rumble of thunder that echoed on the hills and in the valleys. It shook me straight. And I pushed myself up a few inches at first, gently.
I edged myself a few more inches and twisted in the dark. In one fluid movement, I glimpsed into the car and hoped there could be something in there that I could use, but there wasn’t.
They didn’t shoot with my movement. That information was both liberating and damning. They obviously wanted me alive. For what though, I couldn’t say.
I hesitated. Then I decided.
My hands raised, fingers spread widely into the air. I moved slow, dragging myself upwards and was ready to jump back down at any noise or sight that was too displeasing. “I’m not armed.”
“Take me to him,” I mumbled , a desperation to know stuck across my face as I stared into the light, watching the rain fall all around us.
There was movement within the light and then someone approached slowly with their weapon drawn, casting a shadow across the beam. He was all mean-faced and had watchful eyes. I shuffled from behind the car slowly, so I was along its front. The light followed me.
The red-tied guy was moving too, up around the car’s other side so that he could come up behind me. I ducked my head slightly and waited for the smack I thought would come.
No blow fell, the two men grabbed my arms roughly and twisted them harshly behind my back, pushed me hard and face down into the front of the car, the metal of which dipped and dented under my weight.
I breathed without much struggle and could see my breath push the drops that slid down the car away from me. The front of the car was warm underneath me, which meant it had been moved recently. I congratulated myself on what seemed like the first real deduction I had made since Sansa walked into my office.
They twisted my hands again and tied something thick and coarse around my wrists behind me, again and again in a series of knots.
Baelish approached then, looking much braver than the moment required. The light behind him made his dark-green suit and hat gleam in an unusual manner. There was a man beside him who followed with an umbrella that had edges which rain ran down.
I watched as he moved close enough for me to see his eyes in the darkness. They were predatory, in a way that made me feel all too mousey.
He closed the distance until the umbrella covered both me and him, the rain slipped from it and down the edges over my back.
He leaned in and spoke softly almost next to my ear. I could taste the mint of his breath.
“You’re likely to wish you never asked for that.”
His face disappeared. I disappeared. Everything disappeared into a blackness as something went over my head.
I struggled then, struggled against them for the first time as my vision went. I twisted my neck and my face desperately against the scratch of fabric until I could push up against it and breath through the gaps in the weave.
My body shot up in a rush of panic only to be slammed roughly back onto the hood of the car, my face and then my shoulders colliding first. I couldn’t feel the second collision under the blurry malaise of the first. Trickles of something thicker than water ran down the inside of the bag, between it and my face.
Hands emptied my pockets as I squirmed, they spoke and then took off my shoes and I could feel my socks soak up moisture like a drunk in a wine bar.
“Get him in the car,” Baelish’s voice spoke and then I was dragged with my feet scraping against the mud and the stones on the leveled ground.
Through the bag, I could hear the sound of an engine being struck, then another more familiar one. My head was dipped down and I was shoved unceremoniously into a backseat, rainwater dripped from me onto the leather interior and I shivered as I tied to sit myself up, keep myself steady.
There was a heavy strike against my face then, I felt the hard almost brick-like slap of it and could hear my neck crack as I slumped against the opposite side of the car.
My face felt sticky like tree sap and I could taste little but blood, water and the scratchy earthiness of the bag over my head as the car began to move. Things faded, and my ears rang.
My ears stopped after a longish time. I could feel the rise and fall of the car as we moved through the hills. The thing twisted like a knife across the canyons until I could hear the crash of the coast, more clearly than ever. For a time, I thought we were driving out to the sea, up north for a quick burial in some cold wet grave carved into the side of a hill. That made me shudder.
Then there was a sharp turn and a long straight road which we chugged down.
My face and head were pushed down into the seat in front of me, I assumed we were somewhere public, somewhere in the city maybe where they wouldn’t want my predicament to be known to onlookers.
I could feel my nose shift as it pressed against the leather in a way that made me feel all too queasy. I resisted the urge to gag at the liquids dripped down and collected at the bottom of the tight back along my neck. I steadied my breath, deliberately so to avoid the smells of sweat and water and blood.
Another corner was turned and we traveled straight by along another road that stretched on for a few minutes.
There was a stop, a slow one. People moved in the car and I could hear the other side passenger door open. I tried to lift my head up and push my eyes against the darkness of the bag to see if I could make anything out at my window. There was little but darkness and a small blur of fluorescent light.
The door stayed open and I wondered if they wanted me to move. Then I heard the clanking and dragging of metal wire, a fence or a gate opened slowly until it stopped.
They were back in the car then, silent and still, we moved forward a few hundred yards until we stopped again. Then their hands were on me, two or three sets of them rough and hard on my shoulders and under my arms.
I could feel concrete against my wet socks and my knees as I hit the floor, I failed to struggle to my feet as they dragged me.
After the concrete, we were through a large doorway and I could no longer feel the rain drip onto me. The sound of a million drops falling from the heavens ended as we got deeper into the echoed caverns of the structure.
I could hear the sound of my breathing bounce off of the bricks of walls and I was cold. Impossibly cold.
They stopped, and I clambered to my feet with a twist. There was a heavy metal door rolling along a floor and then the loud clattering of concrete and metal twisting into position.
Wood came then, wood scraping on concrete and on metal until I heard it clatter as it was placed onto the ground. Then there was another one. Footsteps moved around me, a lot of them, heavy on the hard floor. Then there was a violent slam into my back, another into my side. Blind to the blows that fell, I balled myself up while still standing.
Some hands left me, others came again as I was thrown forwards. The ropes came off and I was pushed into the wooden thing that creaked underneath me, a chair.
I tried to raise my hands in case any more punches came. but they held my wrists down tightly against the frames. Then my arms were tied against them so deep into my skin that I could feel the burning of the ropes even over the sleeves of my shirt which clung close and sodding wet.
“Alright.” A voice spoke softly in the ringing echo of the room. I struggled slightly and I was released, could feel the chair underneath me stumble heavily as I moved.
There was a grab of my head then, pulled back I could feel the liquids slosh warm within the bag until it splashed against my face again. Then it was ripped away with a blinding light.
Cold. The cold was on my face where the wet warmth hadn’t splashed. Cold was in my hands and my arms around the burning of the ropes.
My sight cleared until I could see the blurriness around me. Meat and blood that wasn’t my own, I witnessed it around me in the arctic cold. A freezer, some backroom with thick metal and brick all around…
The wet of blood and sweat and rain dripped from my chin and down to my chest through a ragged open shirt. Petyr smiled as I looked at him, he had settled himself comfortably on another chair, like it was a throne to some lost kingdom.
“Now,” — Petyr spoke in that same manner he does, his tone almost fatherly — 'the game is over. You stumbled by unfortunate chance into our game and must have already found the experience quite…” he paused, searching for a word to use, ever the playwright. “riveting.” He ran his tongue over his teeth in delight at his words then continued. “You are not equipped to play these games even at the level beneath the rest of us play; and it was very foolish of you to try playing on your own, not knowing the rules, not knowing who the other players are. Very foolish indeed, and it’s going to turn out very unfortunate for you.”
I writhed just a little against the ropes to try to feel for slackness in them, there was none. I could feel the chair move, shuffling against the solidity of the floor. Someone’s hands came down and pinned me down to it with large hands. “Where is he?” I growled, sounding far too confident, far less scared than I actually was.
There was a wide smile then, he nodded, and I could hear footsteps behind me, then the rattling of chains. I turned my head, something swung into my view.
A carcass strung up, a large hook spiking into it. The pig’s body was dry and cold, little trace of blood was on it.
After the pig was something else. Something worse. Dangling like some twisted marionette, a clothed body swung in front of me, being pushed along by one of the goons. The clothes were soaked thickly with the blackness of old blood.
“Fuck,” I cried. “Oh god.” I gagged and choked and could feel the stomach acid surge out of my mouth, a sliver of it following the dampness down my chin. “Oh god,” I sobbed again.
He looked up to the body and back to me. I could see him in the corner of my eyes which never left Robb. His face was covered. With the same type of bag that had once been on me, tight and around his face and neck. I couldn’t see what they had done to him, I couldn’t see his blue eyes or his auburn hair, or his lips, didn’t know whether he had changed in the years since I had seen him.
Baelish spoke, and I couldn’t hear him. I couldn’t hear anything, everything was about Robb. About his body. He moved from his chair and into my face and put his fingers underneath my chin. Gently. They moved my face and my vision towards him, the glimpse at the corpse all too brief before it's pulled away again.
I looked at him and wept, could feel the tears flow warm against my cold skin, down the dryness of the blood and the bile and the rain. I shivered against the wood and the rope.
“Perhaps I should explain the situation to you because you don't quite seem to comprehend it," said Petyr, he grinned salaciously as if letting me in on a juicy secret he couldn't quite hold in. "I intend to have my men do things to you, just like what your friend here got, some of which Ros got before her untimely exit from our play. They will do these things again and again until you answer some questions I want to know."
His hand moved from my chin to my cheek and slapped it, dismissively, the wetness of the clap echoed in the tight space. “They don’t have any mercy. And I don’t either. We will not stop until we have what I want. Nobody will be riding in to save you and there is no possibility of escape. This isn’t one of the movies, not some Robin Hood type flick where the evil prince is brought to justice and you won’t be marrying the Lady Marian. Those things don't happen in real life, believe me, I know.”
The palm was stroking where it struck then, it moved along it and down to my jaw. “It’s very important that you know all this, so you can just tell me what I need to know, and we won’t have to do those many awful, horrible things we might have to do to you, prolonging your suffering and wasting everyone’s time.”
“It’s also very important that you know what will happen if you don’t tell me what I want to know,” his hands came to my neck, my throat, slowly, almost sensually and he continued smoothly and quietly in my ear. “That you are made aware that you will be tortured and beaten to the edge of death, and then if that doesn’t work we’ll pull Margaery or one of the other misfits you’ve collected so nicely for us in that hovel you call a home—”
I whimpered and sniffed in the frigid air. Visions of blood and the smell of death and decay overtook my senses as I imagined the images.
“Oh, we know all about that," he nodded. "All about you.”
“Anyway. We’ll take one of them, or maybe all of them, your landlady, Margaery, young Satin. —" he smiled widely and then he paused. "Even Sansa, I have always wanted to put her in one of my movies — We’ll take them and set them in front of you, so you can see what happens.”
His hands left me, and he looked at the streaks of blood and wet on them, collecting a napkin from his pocket and wiping them. “I’m going to ask you now. Think carefully about what I have said to you, think carefully about how you answer.”
He kneeled down in front of me and growled, the illusion of civility, the formality and the familiarity all gone. “Where is my money?”
He gave me a minute to think about it. My mind wasn’t much on the problem. Not directly. They got to work soon after.
In that brief moment, I found myself thinking as I sometimes did about the politicians in England and France before the war. We all look back with the hindsight of those few extra years since its beginning and since VE day and think that everything was so obvious and that preparation for the fight could have been easy. Some think those unwilling or unable to vociferously confront the rise of totalitarianism in Europe must have been cowards, or incompetent and evil people. Not me.
At the library I had read that the Prime Minister of Britain, Neville Chamberlain, had worked as a city councilor in his hometown for years during and after the Great War, that he had seen the effects of it upon all of his thousands of constituents who had gained nothing but often lost everything from a fight that ultimately seemed pointless.
I wouldn’t blame anyone who had been through that sort of experience doing foolhardy and unwise things at even the slimmest chance of preventing such horrors from ever happening again.
Similarly though, up until that point I had never gone through the exact experience myself, I had some friends and acquaintances who had been tortured. Violently and viciously so. They returned home from distant lands without parts of themselves, physically or mentally. Some were a mess of burns and wounds, others had scars that ran so deep they were invisible to the human eye.
Having knowledge of these things, the idea of being tortured and beaten for information, or threats of being tortured and beaten for information, I imagine have a certain heightened weight in comparison to what other people receive.
Do I judge myself harshly for what I did? For how quickly I caved? Not particularly, there was little I could do in the situation with the information I had. I had to think about what my words or lack thereof would make befall both myself and others.
I lasted four minutes. Little but a token, a small and fruitless gesture of arrogance and self-punishment, just enough to buy myself some time, to let myself think of something else I could say, something before he threatened Satin and the girls again. There was nothing coming to mind.
I counted the time roughly in my head, often failing to spell out Elephants and Mississippi’s between blows to the face and to the chest and to the back.
They were big guys, Baelish’s goons. The two doing the business were fairly thick-set, one had a collection of large knuckles he’d brush clean on a dirty rag between every few hits, as if it mattered.
I hadn’t wanted to make any noise, but once it comes to a certain point you can’t prevent your body from making them. The sound of air leaving you, the sound of you trying to fill your lungs again before more hard, wet, slaps of flesh upon flesh.
Baelish sat and watched until I coughed a word. That was all it took, it all seemed so easy at the time.
He moved back to his chair from the entrance of the room and sat against it. His lackies had brought him in a thick winter jacket that looked to be lined with the fur of some exotic animal, then closed the door and left me and two others besides Baelish inside before they got to work. He crossed one leg over another, then he lit a cigarette and puffed it pretentiously. “So, Jon. You’re ready.” He spoke after an exhale. “What will it be?”
The smoke and his breath were so thick in the cold that I could almost feel it push against and into me as I swayed, trying to steady the mess of my dizzy head.
My face was cold, so terribly cold, even past the warmth that exuded from the rawness of flesh. My eyes itched insatiably with pain and the freezing moisture all around them and the driest parts of the skin where blood and spit and tears had once clung felt chapped, cut, dull and throbbing.
I spoke quietly in a series of small shivers; my stilted breath was as visible as his smoke was, and my wrists, which were now discernible from my struggling, had turned to a worrying shade under the tightness of the ropes.
“I only have £1000. A phony bill, I was told…”
He tapped the cigarette onto his chair arm and a small amount of ash flicked off, I watched it as it faded in the frigid air like a memory. I moved my eyes achingly back to his, which narrowed as he sighed.
“I’m afraid that’s not the answer I’m looking for, Jon.” He finally spoke after studying my swollen eyes. The vision within them was darkening just so before I was awoken with another strike. I couldn’t even tell the direction. It hit me so hard that the chair was knocked down with me in it and my body crashed heavily as it hit the floor.
A wordless gasp left my lips which shuddered bitterly as I felt the scratchiness of the concrete against my face and my arm.
Breaths. Heavy breaths were drawn in by a chest which heaved as I took the opportunity on the floor to rest my face.
“Get him up,” Baelish yelled after a moment, it echoed in the spacious freezer, so much so that some chains rattled around me.
Arms grabbed me, big arms that I was all too familiar with already. I was dragged upright, and the chair rocked as my head and shoulders hung hazily and I tried to speak again. “I don’t know anything else. I swear… I just know about the one note… Please don’t hurt anyone else.”
He sighed as I watched him. My neck gave in under the weight of my head and I looked down to his shoes. Which were polished to a bright shine.
“I hadn’t wanted to do this, but I’m afraid desperate times call for desperate measures.” There was a rustling then as he spoke. I raised my head shakily to see what it was, only for him to throw them into my lap. Pictures. One by one.
Pictures of Ros. Some more of them. Horrible and explicit. Knives. Men. Blood. A series of dark patches where her flesh had been bruised deeply, marks that fists with rings had left.
After that, there were some of someone else. Intimate and shaky pictures that came one after another, thighs, shoulders, waist, all bare and all confusing up until the last few.
Margaery Tyrell was in them. In the final one, she was sitting on a very fine-looking piece of furniture, straight and upright, with her hands clinging desperately to the arms of the chair and her knees tightly together. Teeth glimmered, just visible in her open mouth. Her eyes were wide and brown. They were open too. They stared drunkenly and sadly at nothing in particular.
She was wearing a necklace, fine and thinly roped with a single and flat jewel drooping down to her chest. Besides the necklace, there was nothing else, not a single scrap of clothing.
They got them back off him, I thought.
He settled with an unease and a restlessness which changed the mood gently. “I’ve got some very unkind people on my back, Jon. Very unkind. They make my boys look like cherubim.” His words were slightly shaky and there was a core of vulnerability in his voice just noticeable below the surface. “If you want to be anyone in this town you need their permission. If you want to play the game you need their blessing, which costs. I've got to make a lot of money to pay the people I have to pay in order to make a lot of money to pay the people I have to pay.” There was exhaustion there, peppered throughout the whole monologue. Exhaustion and underneath that, fear.
“Some money goes missing when I’m handling it and guess who gets the blame? Guess what happens to them?” He paused and shook his head slightly, his eyes looked tiredly at a small puddle of blood on the floor and they narrowed just so with some stray thoughts before he looked to me again with a renewed steeliness. “5,000 dollars in fakes of various denominations and 10,000 in genuine cash in tens and twenties. Gone. All of it. I need that money, Jon. And I need it now. Not in a few months when the new flick premiers, or when we get a deal on Margaery’s movie. Now. Everything else isn’t important. Everything and everyone else I am willing to throw aside for that money. To get these people off my back. I don’t want to do all this but if I can’t get the money back then I’m afraid I’ll have no choice but to bring them in, your friends. To bring them all in and make them hurt until one of you talks and tells me what I need to know.” He folded his legs at the end and watched me with a short, attentive look.
My voice rattled as I tried to speak. Throat dry despite the blood and the spit within the mess of my mouth and face. “None of us… None of us know anything… You’re wasting your time. Run.” I coughed.
He gave me a longer look, a deep and silent stare which lasted several moments before he finally stood. “I’m afraid running would ruin a great number of plans too far set in motion to be left alone now.”
Then his gaze moved from and ignored me. Addressing his men, he spoke again. “Get them in... Bring Ms. Tyrell in first and we’ll see if either of them talk. Then the landlady, the boy, and Sansa.”
I could feel a shake in my chair as the goon holding it up nodded his head. I could barely rustle up a cry of disapproval before he’s moved into my vision and the freezer door is pulled to one side, he vanished and the door closed behind him with a slam.
A few more minutes of beating went by and they began having fun with it. Watching my body brace and flinch with punches that were held and sometimes never came. I was thankful for those, certainly a refreshing change of pace.
Red tie was giving it his all with the ones that did hit however. He would knock me back three or four times to the concrete like a ragdoll before throwing me up again.
I was certain the chair would only last so long.
Baelish watched in an unmoving mirage. His coat tightly fastened around him, he huddled within it and let it bury him.
It hurt to look at him. It hurt to do anything.
Another fist fell and I could barely feel it anymore in the frostiness of the room.
Then it stopped.
My ears rang and my head was a mess. Eyes so beaten that all I could see were shadows through blurry, red pools. Baelish moved quickly as above the pitched squeal of my ears I heard something like a slamming door.
Then again, a few moments later. Louder than before even.
“What in hell was that?” I could hear someone shout in the malaise.
My vision darkened and I put everything I had into keeping my eyes open, into listening. My fingers, my wrists my legs, nothing else existed but what I could see and hear.
The room fell silent again.
BOOM, BOOM. Like metal smacking heavily against metal, the sounds came again... They echoed off of the walls outside.
Then suddenly and very quickly the door opened.
In it stood a man.
Robb? I thought, in my half-dream before telling myself it couldn’t be. Robb’s dead.
For a moment there was nothing. Nobody moved. The figure I guessed to be Baelish raised his hands slowly until one slipped into his coat. Then there was a sharp, hard sound before his hand was fully out again. For a second his body just slightly rose then fell sharply down to a knee before trembling despite the warmth he coated himself in. Finally, he fell to the floor with his head looking upwards to the pigs which swung as he fell against them.
The figure in the door turned. Turned and said something I couldn’t hear over the buzzing sound in my head.
I was taller. Suddenly so. My neck stretched as ghostly hands grabbed around me tightly. I attempted to loosen them but everything was dead. Dead and cold.
Everything around me moved forward slowly and I could feel something. Something so small and faint that I was hardly sure it was there. The scatch of concrete against my socks and my feet past them.
There was movement there. A movement so disconnected from my body that I felt like a newborn, that I had felt like these limbs could never have been mine.
Once the movement stopped I steadied my feet against the floor and flopped like a rowdy fish with every iota of power within me. My head hit something which felt like an echo, like it wasn’t even there. Then there was nothing but warmth around me. Wet warmth which was suddenly everywhere.
I fell again for the last time as everything behind me lost solidity. I stared up into the air, thick with blood and with frost and watched a figure swing from a chain, his head a cracked with something shiny and sharp, his body as limp and as lifeless as the one I had seen before.
It moved and that frightened me more than anything, then it left my vision and was replaced by a face. One I could only just see and just remember within those few inches that separated us...
He said something I couldn’t hear and struggled with the ropes and with the chair and finally with me until the room was behind us.
In his arms I felt little to nothing, noting only the sad echo of a memory.
Always there to pick me up.
Apologies for the delay on this one. I've been really busy with stuff lately and couldn't find much time to update.
Everything came in flashes but my barely legible thoughts were clinging to memories of bodies. Dead bodies, aching bodies, bare bodies. My own felt foreign in the sticky malaise of the new heat. Though I guessed the temperature outside the meat-packing joint was bitterly cold in the rain and the wind, things felt almost Saharan. Everything I knew was burning, the rain itself created small sparks as it fell hard against my half-corpse, each one igniting a separate fire within me.
Gendry cooed something which I couldn’t hear, all sounds were distorted like my head was submerged in water. He put me into the backseat of his car and I was suddenly very aware his police salary didn’t extend to make them comfortable.
With a distant hand I tried to push myself upright, but blindly stumbled like a toddler. I could hear a horrible crunching sound, the clearest thing I had heard all night as my unrecognisable face and arms took the small impact.
He closed the door and left me for a moment after I begged him for something buried so deep it was beyond my comprehension. I instantly regretted it, the blood and bile across my lips splattered up and back down against me as I haggardly and achingly breathed and groaned. Please don’t go. I don’t want to die alone, I tried to say between the sting of taste and tears, and the shooting pain whenever my lungs filled, which was becoming more and more frequent as time passed.
My eyes closed for what felt like millennia.
Like some Egyptian monument I was unearthed again. The next thing I knew, I was getting shook by Gendry who was back. With wet, trembling hands he looked me over before he tried to widen my eyes with his fingers. He said something as he adjusted me in the seat, propping me up against his door and throwing a travel blanket over my body. With something soft he steadied me and my shaking and swaying. “You need to….” I half heard. “…broken…”
That’s certainly a word I would have used to describe myself. Broken. We’re all broken really, I thought.
Something almost without weight hit the seat, then the door closed and the engine roared dramatically to life, I could feel the vibrations of the car as my face pushed against the cool of the glass, the sharp turns here and there as the car strode across the earth.
It was still raining. Like they had on me, each drop fell on the roof like a bullet. The windows were blurred and I could just make out the frigid phantoms of streets and lights which zoomed on by.
Something recognisable came then, something that for a moment allowed me to collect my thoughts for the first moment in what felt like forever, to focus on something other than the sensation of the journey, of the bitter agony of my broken body.
It was the Ferris-wheel. The one I had passed a few days ago in my own car. The pinkish tinge of its lights hummed by and I was instantly reminded of Sansa, of the rest of the girls. Something rasped from my lips and after a few more seconds I was twisted as the car turned a corner viciously.
Horns honked in the blackness of the night as we moved at a quicker pace than I thought the old bucket of bolts could go. In time, the blurs around us were becoming more and more familiar, each one a faded memory of a place only then half-accessible in the blocked avenues of my mind.
Gendry said something and turned his head for just a moment as my eyes struggled to watch him. Darkness faded into the edges of my vision, tinges of red were still clinging onto it like some beast.
I tried to speak again but lost the feeling in my jaw, like most of my body, it felt numb and dead.
He turned once more, a worried look across his face before a beam of light cut deep into the car and he twisted in reaction.
He wasn’t quick enough. The vehicle had spun out and near tumbled until it crashed loudly into something hard and all too much like a street light.
I was thankful for the lack of feeling I had in that moment. My face clung to the side of the car’s interior where the window used to be and I looked lifelessly at the road that had emerged in front of me.
Rain danced upon the street, which glinted like the stars had fallen. Some time went by before a door opened nearby. It must have been on its last hinges because it dropped heavily to the floor soon after. A figure emerged and moved away from our wreckage and across the street in a quick half-stagger, the sound of broken glass crunching underfoot was just audible over the wind and the rain.
Another figure moved opposite, it had emerged from just near the entrance of a building and went to draw something large and heavy looking from a nearby vehicle before shouldering it
Like firecrackers, several noises snapped and echoed off of the nearby apartment buildings which I had come to know intimately. Bodies collapsed to the floor abruptly and seemingly without life. Those were the last things I witnessed before I passed out again.
“Fractured jaw, couple of broken ribs, a busted beak, rope burns on the wrists, thick contusions on the back and chest. Probably hypothermia and a concussion based on the symptoms. He’s very lucky not to have a punctured lung, we’re doing what we can for him with antibiotics and anaesthetic, he may need some more work soon if his condition worsens, but we’re still waiting on more information for internal damage.”
The doctor reeled off his wounds distantly, far too distantly to make her feel comfortable. They have this manner about them when they have doubts for the long-term health of the patient, she had learned that much from her time as a nurse. She began to wish she hadn’t asked.
Ravella watched silently as his chest rose and fell haggardly, a mess of bandages covered his lower-face where they had inserted the material to help his jaw heal properly and prevent the breathing and speaking complications that would inevitably come if that wasn’t the case.
Loose paddings covered the suturing on his chest and arms, it needed to be so as not to constrict and shift the broken bones underneath into his lungs or his heart.
Even with the Baratheon money Ms. Stark had managed to get a hold of, the same basic operating procedure for these types of things doesn’t change.
She turned and sat, not being able to bear looking at the mangled boy in front of her. Her face twisted in sadness and her hands cupped for her head as she silently sobbed. In the depths of her stomach she could feel something haunt her so, it repeated on her again like the rhyme of fate.
Gendry shifted as she moved next to her, he hadn’t left the room bar a few hours after he himself was discharged, she had seen him arrive and be collared by other officers for a report on the crash and the shooting.
“What can you tell me?” She asked as soon as the doctor had left, finally closing the door behind him. It was their first opportunity to speak alone since it had all begun.
He clinged to his side, adjusted himself as he ached. The glancing shot had caught him in the shoulder and a sling had been attached to help distribute the weight of his arm more comfortably. The sleeve had been torn away and bandages wrapped about the thickness of tanned then abruptly untanned muscle.
Something looked to be troubling him. His eyes were narrow and his features steely in a sort of distant way. It was like he wasn't even in the room.
She tapped his shoulder to get his attention before he answered.
“Oh, I don’t know?” She bristled in that low tone that parents often do when they argue in front of the children. “Why your friend is lying in a hospital bed fighting for his life?”
“He’ll get better, he always does.” He said absently and only half-reassuringly, it was mostly for himself than for her. A memory was thick on his face and the cogs in his head turned almost audibly. His fingers pinched his face with a sort of sullen regret that Ravella couldn’t divine.
She didn’t move. Her eyes did not shift from the look she gave him. Searing and strict it imbedded itself under his skin before she spoke again. “I didn’t ask whether he’d get better, I asked you what happened.”
His good hand went to his lap slowly and he sat motionless with his eyes far off for a few moments before she noticed it. His hands were shaking… violently so.
He breathed deeply to settle himself and then spoke, his voice cracking as he began. “I went out to the vineyard. It was right where Margaery said it was.”
He paused, one of the shaking hands raised to his eye and whipped roughly at the rawness of the flesh there, a couple of nicks of broken glass had splashed across his face and dotted it with small, thin marks.
“Nobody was around. Nobody living at least. Jon’s contact, they’d killed her, the body was there. Their cars were both stood out in the rain but there was nothing else, just some treads in the mud that led back out and into the canyons, an almost washed away map was tucked underneath the wheel of one of the cars. I took it as a sort of signal and drove back down to the city. Thought they would have him some place. Some place quiet where they could…” His head turned up and towards his friend for a moment and he stopped. Pushing up from his chair he moved towards him and looked. Still and silent he looked until he turned again.
His feet brought him to the window leading out into the corridor, the blinds moved noisily in his hand as he peered through a gap he had made with splayed fingers. Quietly, he continued, not answering her question. “I drove by a couple of places first, places they could have taken him. The old meat packing place was the first I saw with some cars outside. They were all there still. They were still doing things to him.” As he spoke, he moved to the opposite side of the room, back near the chairs again and surveyed the other window from which you could see the bay.
Her hands moved slowly to one of his which now hung limply by his side, she captured it in her own and wrapped her fingers around his thicker ones in a comforting grasp. He didn’t look down to her or acknowledge the contact immediately, but she knew he was listening.
“Tell me what happened, Gendry.” She pleads, frightened almost to know the answer.
His fingers were rough and calloused. She can feel them brush against hers as the shaking slowly stopped.
“I killed them.” He finally announced. Some tears has begun to sting Gendry’s face and he reached awkwardly with the wrapped and coiled arm to swipe at them so as not to break the contact of her touch. “Left the bodies there, even the one I hadn’t made, just some kid. I had to get Jon out.”
She had assumed that was what happened. But hearing it from his mouth made it seem all the more real. She looked to Jon, remembered the photos from the back seat which the girls had rushed to get before the police came and imagined the nameless, faceless woman who the men Gendry spoke about had murdered, the many more who had or could have been victims and she could not bring herself to condemn Gendry’s actions.
Though she did not condemn, she did worry. Gendry finally looked down at her and saw it cast across her face. Her eyes narrowed as she almost whispered. “Do the other Police know? About you two being there? About the bodies?”
A beat passed. “There are no bodies.” He said as his eyes went back to the bay. The words had a severe finality which confused her.
“But you just said…”
“I borrowed a friend’s car and went down to the winery and the other place before the others came. They’re not there. There’s nothing there.”
She gives him an unnerved look and they can both hear footsteps approaching down the corridor. He leans in before the door opens and whispers into her ear. “This is Bay City. If someone important enough wants something not to be found, it won’t be.”
In my nightmare I was back at the front again. I struggled to move but my legs were useless mess beneath me. The sides of the dug-out were high like city walls. As I studied them, they only seemed to creep higher.
Something moved beside me and I twisted hastily to see him there. His open mouth screams silently, nothing but bone and dust. Somehow, I can still tell it’s him.
Dark, ancient things about us shuffled and slithered about the edges of the fortification. The sad, strange shambles grew louder with each passing moment until they were a full orchestra of blood and bone.
They were getting closer.
With every second they creeped closer.
Even as the walls raised, even as we sunk they were getting closer.
Ghouls and ghosts stood, almost faded upon the edges above us. More and more. Each familiar and yet still unknown.
I tried to twist again and change my gaze, but something pinned me, something unseen forced me to watch the gaping maws of the creatures open to reveal dark holes, voids into nothingness.
My fingers and arms waved to cover my eyes but I could still see, could still sense them as they jump.
They soared for a brief moment, each of them. Soared until they crashed into the hard dust of the earth around us.
Each fell with a sickening crunch, then bounced dead against the floor again.
Like a sink the pit filled, dozens of bodies, hundreds, each slamming down against each other, against the ground. I could feel them even covering my absent legs, could feel them as they came up to my waist.
I panicked as they stacked, trying to push the lifeless things away. The first few were easily mobile but as they stacked so they became heavier and heavier and my arms more tired.
Nothing covered my face, but my breathing became panicked and erratic. I clawed at my throat, unable to bear the darkness closing all around. Body upon body piled over us, crushing my chest, crushing my face. Like sand they sifted through the cracks of each other, leaving no air, no room.
Stop, I pleaded with the darkness. Just make it stop.
She carefully opened the blinds just a tad and thought on an embarrassing memory that almost made her smile, that made her feel guilty, more so than she already did.
It was raining again. She could see the cascade of water on the window blur her partial reflection, as if she had almost disappeared. The thought tugged at her chest. Below and in the street, the blurred pollution of light was visible, it spilled across the sidewalk and the car park, reflecting dimly off of the morphing, wet sheen of the falling rain. It was like someone had thrown a bucket of neon into the gutter.
She turned, he was a dark shape under some thin cloth, there was no movement, and she didn’t know whether that that was worse than if there was.
She had been in the room for some time, all of them had, though his friend and landlady much longer than the rest. It had taken all of her pleas to make Gendry and Ravella leave and rest for just a few hours. They didn’t leave truly, just moved over to nap in the break room, where the water tower gurgled quietly and the scratchy paper cups were stacked messily on the coffee table.
The doctors had come and gone sporadically, giving the visitors concerned and sad nods but little news. They had been so very good to them all since Sansa had pleaded over the phone with her former prospective father-in-law to fund the hospital stay. She must have seemed a state when asking, for after she had gotten through to Robert Baratheon, he had parted with his money more quickly than she had anticipated.
Her face hardened at how the admitting clerks had looked down distastefully at the figure of Jon when he was brought in on the stretcher, it had taken every inch of her energy not to scream, not to cry at the cold new world that she had found.
He looked better now, without the wetness of rain and blood clinging to his skin and to his clothes. But there was still an alien nature to the tubes and the bandages that stuck out of and laid on top of him. It had made her sick to see him so, even then it was a stinging sore deep within her, more so to see him knowing he was following the case she had set for him.
They wouldn’t tell her the reason for his state, or for the shootout in the street. Though she had guessed. She heard from the nurses that Jon’s wounds might have been from a particularly bad mugging, she didn’t agree however. For she knew beatings all too well to believe that.
Police hovered outside the door and down the hall, she could see the detective’s greatcoat again through the pebbled glass of the door, he stopped in the hall and then moved back and out again. A couple of different police officers had come to the door now and again to see if Jon had woken, one was frustrated, the other with the long coat and salt and pepper hair just nodded and excused himself with a sort of quiet understanding that seemed to put Gendry a little more at ease.
She sighed in relief as the detective disappeared again and slouched down into the uncomfortable chair by Jon’s bed. Her stomach ached from nerves and too much bad-cold coffee, she had allowed herself to be plied with it to ward of sleep. It hadn’t worked. The time continued to drift into minutes and hours and her body wore down further and further, with her helpless to stop it.
She didn’t want to sleep. She didn’t want to dream. She knew that in her dreams she would see Robb again, see Jon as he was again, that she would conjure a half-dozen imagined conversations and activities which she would wake from and perhaps never be able to experience in real life, again or for the first time.
“Is Jon going to die?”
The boy had come out with it almost from nowhere. His wide eyes stared up at her from the other side of the table and she had struggled to look back into them.
She pushes her food around her full plate and reasons that it had gone cold long ago. Finally, she dropped the fork back down and stretched a hand out across the table to his. She didn’t know what to say, so she simply told him what she could.
“I don’t know.” She rubbed her fingers along his and gave him a sympathetic look. “He’s very badly hurt.” She added after she made a connection with his eyes.
Satin nodded gently, looking distantly behind her shoulder and into the emptiness of the hospital cafeteria. He inhaled shortly once through his nose and then his brow furrowed and his face turned bleak.
Margaery shifted across the length of the bench and skirted across the table so she was with him. With her arm she wrapped herself around him and pulled him into a loose hug, as she had remembered doing once with her cousin, Alysanne, when the girl’s father had died of sickness. His face embedded into her chest and into the soft fabric of her coat which only just managed to silence his cries.
After some time, he turned his head away, and she let him lean against her as she hushed him and let her fingers go through his hair.
“I hope he’s going to be okay.” He muttered. “I hope he’ll get Ros back.”
She didn’t have the courage to tell him what Jon had gone out into the night for, or of those things that he had brought back with him from the darkness. Those papers which were not hers, but were bundled messily along with her images in the cold of Gendry’s back-seat.
She had gagged when she saw them and it was like a heavy weight had been lifted only for several more to drop on top of her all at once.
It was all a rush. The shots, the shouting, the rain.
She had been the first across the sea of broken glass and to the mangled car where Jon hung in half-life from the door. She saw the files on the seat and rushed to them, rushed to them as Jon had cried and bled. After he had fought for her, and was planning on continuing to do so after she had lied to him. It had made her feel impossibly shameful ever since.
She looked down to the boy and hoped that he would never have to find out about Ros, nor her own role in instigating all of this. That he would never feel the bitter sting of loss and the hopelessness and despair that comes with it. The sting that she herself had been feeling since this had all began.
The boy threated and shook slightly as he slept. His shut eyes were still so restless and tired. Again, she found herself thinking on what she could do, how she could help, but she found no answers in the old ceiling she stared at, or in the tears that only just manage to fight their way out.
Robb would know, she thought.
He stared at the back of the detective and watched as he left. His bald, pink, head disappeared beyond the faded green of the hall and beyond that. It was the kind of green which must have once reminded the hospital visitors of spring meadows, it had dimmed and faded with time and had lost its shine, almost like all the hope and life had been sucked from it.
Gendry had to brace himself with all the strength he could muster not to run down after him and sock him to the floor. With the badge in his pocket gone he was feeling inhuman and almost weightless. His jaw clenched tightly as he tried to make his face take on a steeliness that wouldn’t betray the severity of his thoughts.
“I’m sorry to see that, boy.” The man near him said, giving him a genuine sympathetic look and a pat on the shoulder with his remaining hand. “Sorry to hear about your man, too.”
The younger man shrugged the weight of the limb off, acted like it all didn’t matter to him, lied to the world and to himself on what it all meant.
“I’ll get it back.” He finally mumbled before his thick hands burrowed shyly into the emptiness of his pockets. For a moment he stared to the wall before his eyes returned to the face beside him. “Thanks.”
There was an unspoken truth crackling in the air between them. The corridor in which they stood bustled gently with people every few minutes and the hospital rooms weren’t that much better. Bywaters almost asked him to walk outside for a chat but knew intuitively what the answer to that request would have been.
Gendry’s eyes went back to surveying the halls, watching and waiting for whatever unnamed threat could appear next.
“He tell you about his call to the D.A.’s office?” The man asked, fingers brushing the edge of his wrist where the stump was,“Before all this? I’m told my name was mentioned in relation to the case he was working when he was grabbed.”
The question was just vague enough to be a guess or to be real, he knew Jon could often be light on the details with people while he figured things out in his head. “He didn’t tell me much of
anything.” Gendry decided,“He never has.”
His face shifted suddenly as a memory came upon him. Jon sat nursing his wounds and telling him of how things would change, how they would talk everything through on his return from Washington. Gendry worried that those conversations may never come, that any other conversation with him might never happen again.
“We’re damned lucky.” He shook his head in a sort of disbelief at it all. At the sheer chance of him turning back half-way across the state after he had found out from the ticket-collector that the train line to Washington had been broken on the day the cheque was given in. At the sheer chance of him being able to make it across town with the rain, and the fire, the looting that was still ongoing. Robb was out there somewhere, and if he left the city he didn’t do it by train, at least not on the day they had thought.
“I’m not sure how lucky he feels right now… “ Bywaters noted, as he shuffled to the edge of the corridor to avoid an oncoming trolley, the sound of heels clicked on by as they made their way with it across the linoleum floor. He looked back down the hall and to the door of Jon’s room and leaned in closer when he knew the moving nurses were out of earshot. “You have no idea how lucky you were. That the guy you brought down had a warrant out, that the number of shells from your standard issue matched those not found in your gun. It would have been worse than a suspension if they found any more… in the car…anywhere else.”
In the chaos of it Gendry had lost count, lost his head. It was all a sloppy mess of events that rushed on by too quickly for him to capture and commit to memory. Everything was a strange blur.
The second visit to the freezer wasn’t, however. It was sobering and so very real in the strange emptiness of it all. The lack of bodies, the lack of bullets. Everything had been cleaned down so well that you could eat your dinner from the chopping line floor. “They won’t find anything else.” He almost whispered in a certain unease. He had checked it all intimately. He knew.
“Good. Good.” He stretched the second iteration on his tongue before he leaped into another line of thought. “The name I heard on the phone. You know he was connected, right? Cops on the payroll, some bigwigs in city hall, all the usual stuff these kinds of people have.”
Margaery and Satin had passed down and into the room then, the small boy had looked up to Gendry with a questioning glance, a query for news. Gendry just shook his head and watched them go on by.
The older man opposite him took his hat off and pushed back some greying hair from his face, waiting for the door to close.
“Point is. There will be repercussions. Without a badge and a gun, those things will be harder to face, perhaps by design. It’s no coincidence that Slynt was the first one here, you’ll need to watch him, watch everyone you’re not sure on. I imagine you have other things that you can use to keep them all safe?”
Gendry knew what he meant. A second gun. One he may or may not have a license for. He didn’t, but in his head, he listed a few places he could get one before the day was out. Maybe I can get a hold of Jon’s , he thought
“Don’t answer that,” Bywaters added before Gendry could signal a reply. “Just play it safe and play it smart. You ain’t a one-man army.”
The man placed his hat under his arm and pulled out a pocket watch before he let out an exhausted sigh. “You and your boy have brought me into one hell of a mess here, as if I didn’t have enough to do with the damned half-riot last week.” He lamented.
The younger man took his hands from his pockets and folded them over his chest defensively, thinking carefully on the mess he was dragged into he responded: “Believe me, Sir. It wasn’t my idea.”
The clearest thing I can remember from waking up was the taste of blood. It clung to my mouth like rust, recurrent and stubborn. Within my mind, there were scarce memories of it not being there, of there not being something hard and strong which weighed heavy and foreign from jaws that refused to open. Those memories hid and fled from me like stubborn rats in a building’s crawlspace.
Each muscle resisted me as my body woke in the darkness behind my eyelids, there was a crustiness to them which reminded me of wet sand as they eventually blinked open to reveal the blurry fullness of the room.
Our collection of broken toys had assembled all around the place. Gendry and Smallwood talked quietly by the window. Satin, Margaery and Sansa shared a couch that looked like it obviously didn’t belong in there. The young man nestled between them with a wet face.
God. Images of the bodies flashed through my mind before I willed them down to the depths. What canI tell them all?
I looked down to the gauze and bandages which clung to my chest and my midsection and watched with hissing breaths as the rise and fall of them rumbled a series of dull aches through me.
Robb… I tried to say, but there was little but a hoarse muffle through the throat which even I could barely hear.
None of them turned, none of them looked over to me, crippled and lame as I was. That made me feel better, but I wished in that moment that I could fully disappear, that I could sleep just long enough for all of this to be forgotten, that I could sleep and suddenly find myself awake in a better world.
It hurt to stare down at the foot of my bed for a long, long moment. Hurt to try to close my eyes again. Eventually I squeezed them shut tight -- as tightly as they could go. Holding back tears, which I could already feel sting, I whispered a silent prayer...
I could feel a familiar warm buzz in my body. Like an old friend had come to visit, or I had been lowered gently into a lovely hot bath. Whatever they had zapped me full of was working a dream, working too well to make me feel comfortable. I tried to focus on my pain to draw myself out of the fog of ease and back into the cruelty of reality.
They had cleaned me all up dutifully. Changed my dressings, checked and adjusted my bandages, my stitches and the metal fittings all on me. They even put enough cotton wool in my mouth to soak up the blood that I was almost scared I would choke.
The rain outside had stopped and the dampness on the windows had vanished in the sunlight which occasionally glinted across the room to creep to the foot of my bed.
The white coated men didn’t leave me alone for the next few hours. I didn’t talk. Not through the samples and the prods in all the usual places, checking which type of aches my rattling bones were giving me. But when two or three had ganged about the bed I flinched in a panic as the tides of the past swept over me, still jumpy, still anxious, still broken.
It didn’t feel right to talk. Not just physically. It didn’t feel right to voice my failure, my inability to do those things which I had promised them all. Something nagged at my head that Sansa should be the first one I told, something old and codified in some dusty rulebook somewhere. That’s a PI’s first duty after all, to inform their client on what they found. And whatever else she may have been then, she was still my client in a broad sense of the word.
When the quacks had left, I asked the others bar her and my oldest friend to head on to the break room, then I came out with it.
She had stared at me and wrinkled her eyes tight when I told her. The words were slurred and ached in more ways than one as I adjusted the trappings the Docs had strewn along my jaw and my lower face. What I had seen, that which I thought she had needed to know.
She didn’t cry. Not until Gendry interrupted, and then it was quiet sobs of relief as he told me I was wrong. How it wasn’t him. He had looked himself, he described the dark and bloated face, the way bodies get when you hang them like that, and I knew he would have to give Bywaters a call.
There would be someone else’s family who would need to be informed that a loved one had died, a whole mess of other people who would need to mourn and cry until the tears dried on their faces
I apologized as best I could and regretted it for a long while… I still do.
It wasn’t right of me to say it without a body to point to. Without getting everything sorted out for them. But a part of me felt it could have been easier if it had been true, a part of me thought on Smallwood and her boy who never came home. It’s much easier to mourn when you have a body, I thought. We didn’t even have that, we didn’t have anything. I later found out that Gendry’s lead was a bust for the date we thought, the train could have been taken up to the northern states but there was nothing but silence on that line according to Sansa. Bywaters and Royce had tapped whatever sources they could on it, but even then there was an absence.
Sansa left the room too after we had got down into it all, I had omitted the name Baelish from the conversation, and Gendry had thankfully done the same. She didn’t ask any questions, and no immediate plan for telling her came to mind, I had decided he was the kind of guy someone like her shouldn’t mourn. Once we were done with the discussion she brushed her pale face down with her sleeve and went out into the corridor where the others had disappeared.
Gendry gave me a slow look as I watched her leave. “You thought it was Robb?” he had finally asked when she left, leaning into the wall opposite my bed with his arms crossed. The thin-faded material of his dark jacket was rolled up to his elbows.
It was a faint echo, like a record after you had worn it out so much you couldn’t even make out the lyrics. It was all still so dizzy, so fuzzy that I could barely believe I was there.
My body reminded me.
“Didn’t know what I was thinking.” I told him as I moved up just a quarter inch. As much as I felt able to move without busting a lung, as much as they would let me. The strain of each word beat down into my chest. “Still don’t.”
“I know.” He said, his eyes hardened fiercely at my reply. “You were thinking you could go out there and save the day all by yourself. Well you can’t. And if you try it again you’ll only end up killed.” He threw himself from the wall and paced with his hands in the air in a moody shrug. “What if I hadn’t shown up when I did? Where would we all be then? Huh?! You run round like you’re 18, but you’re not, you’re getting older and slower, and your bum leg isn’t getting any better. You need to stop doing this to yourself.” His arms were by his sides again and he stopped the pacing just before he got to the end of my bed.
A sudden quiet hit his voice as he finished and looked to the ground: “Stop doing it to me.”
His hand swiped his face and he seemed to shrink suddenly. Like a child under a sudden realisation. “I saw the pictures, Jon.” He said. “I saw the pictures and it reminded me of them. Mom. Ygritte. I’m not losing anyone else like that. Never again.”
“My fault.” I replied, as I thought it all over, as all the shades of red I had witnessed seemed to blur in my mind. My voice sounded all too much like the rasps of an old man. “All my fault”
With my words he relit to life and stomped over by my feet, his hands wrapping around the bars of the bed like he was going to ring the life from them. “No you don’t. You don’t get to play that card with me. The fact is, you can’t stop it all, you can’t save everyone and you have to confront that fact rather than throw yourself into stuff you have no business getting involved in, or hiding behind perpetual remorse and self-pity rather than sitting still and waiting it out.”
There was a pain in my chest that wasn’t entirely physical, then I coughed. Coughed and could feel the taste of blood again where the wool had left a strange numbness all around my gums. There was another and everything suddenly felt so dry and raw.
His blue eyes softened as he looked across my body. After a moment he strode alongside it and to the cabinet beside me, just outside of my vision.
He rattled with something and there was a soft gurgling sound which vanished as quickly as it had came. Eventually he emerged again with some water in his hand, the glass looked like it belonged to a dolls set as he clenched it between his large thumb and forefinger. He rose it to my mouth gently and tipped it just over the metal contraption until I could feel the moisture above my bottom lip. It was like I had never drunk a drop before.
“It hurt?” He asked as he grabbed a paper towel from the side and wiped my chin down like you would a toddler.
It did hurt. But the truth of his words hurt more. I shook my head and lied to him.
“I told them to go easy on the dope. I know how you feel about it all.” He gave me a sympathetic look as he said it, and that made me feel shame.
I just nodded with my eyelids and tried to thank him with a fake smile while deep memories of a hundred fuzzy nights strapped to hospital beds ran to the forefront of my mind, for the first time in a while. That was back when I was so doped out of my face that I spent half the day trying to feel something, not just in the leg, but anywhere. Learning how to walk again was only the second hardest thing to do after that, the year of infrequent operations and crutches were little in comparison to waking in tears forgetting where I was, forgetting who I was. Sometimes in the darkness of the night, when I had finally realised my circumstances, when I had finally awoken from the wretchedness of the pills and the needles, I silently resented that they hadn’t cut it off.
My eyes scanned the room almost absently in search of something else to think, something else to attempt to talk about.
That was when I saw it.
As he leaned over and put the water back down I saw it.
A gun inside his jacket. My gun.
“The gun.” I half-whispered. “Check the barrel.”
He looked confused for a moment before he looked down and saw it. I pushed my hand towards it, ignoring the pain, the tubes that had tangled around it.
He looked to the door warily and then unholstered the small automatic. The smooth blackness of it shimmered gently underneath the bulb and he pulled the top back, and put the barrel downwards to the floor. Nothing came out.
“You remember how to take them apart, Private?” I asked. The long sentence taking a lot more out of me than I wanted it too.
He didn’t look up to me. “You never really forget.” His hands touched the catch which released the magazine, then he pulled the slide and emptied the chamber. Once he had pocketed the bullet and the mag he pulled the slide again and hit the lock which kept it in place.
Like a jigsaw it came apart. Piece by piece. Slide, spring and then finally he jimmied the barrel out of it.
He looked it down and finally pulled it out. He unrolled it and it looked almost as crisp and clean as I had seen it before, the black and green darkness of the printing seemed to glint in his eyes as they opened widely.
“What… How… What do we do with it?” He finally stammered as the paper seemed to weigh down heavily into his hands.
“If we had sense? Burn it.” I said.
Smoking was hard in the get-up they’d put me in.
Smallwood looked disapprovingly at Satin as he wheeled me out of the dull monotony of the ward and into a crevice between the maze of hospital buildings.
The smoke filled my lungs, which welcomed it in a loving embrace after its two week absence. Me and my body were both glad of the taste of something other than blood, something other than the jello and the soup they had been serving me.
I could move just enough in the face-frame at that point. The coolness of metal was still wiring my broken bones together, collecting and straightening the fragments for better healing. It ran like a bear trap along my chin and cheeks, obscuring the skin beneath that already had begun to form scars.
I was about a fifth of the way through the recovery period that they gave me for the jaw and for the ribs. What tests they ran couldn’t find anything that wouldn’t heal, given the right time and the right rest. And for that I was grateful. Though I had felt I could probably have gotten enough of those particular things in the apartment. But the Doctors insisted I stay, and I did so obediently after Smallwood’s heavy urging. If I got hurt again she said would kill me.
To keep busy, I watched the clock. And the door. And the window. I watched every moment for something to happen, anything to happen. But nothing came. No other friends bar those I had collected around me. No strangers to come finish me off. Nothing but Doctors intent upon my staying.
I watched them too as they prodded me with dainty hands that seemed almost unfathomabley accustomed to the process, almost like they were ringing out the final drops of moisture from a mop.
I didn’t mind that they dragged their feet. It wasn’t my money they were siphoning, and I wasn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Not like Sansa and Gendry had, up to Washington five days before to see the rest of Robb’s family, pick up whatever breadcrumbs remained in the trail I had lost almost from the start.
Margaery was staying around, and she was as drained looking as I felt.
She had left the hospital room even less than Smallwood and Satin did. We sat and talked into the night about things and people. The weather, the hospital food, the next year’s presidential election. Our words danced around the subject of what happened and Robb infrequently. Some evenings however, when Satin and Smallwood had left for the break room, for the apartment building, or a nearby hotel, she would crawl silently into the covers beside me and cry herself to sleep.
I was getting well enough to talk reasonably, enough at least for the police to have come in and questioned me fully.
Slynt was there in the room first, all bulldog faced and in a ratty mood. He had been shooed away several times beforehand by nurses and doctors who were getting sick of the sight of him in the ward hallways. I didn’t tell him much of anything, and by extension didn’t tell his paymasters, whoever they were. The story of the mugging lived on as a result, despite the obviousness of its falsehood. The guy he was with, whose name I didn’t catch, asked some more about my car, which to my mind and theres, had all but vanished in the night. I was lucky the mobs had chosen to descend in the streets on that particular evening, that the arsonists who burned out the building on Main street had struck.
Once Slynt and his boy were gone, Bywaters had stopped by to see if anything had changed. He brought Royce with him and they asked me several questions I didn’t know the answers to, several others I did but wouldn’t tell them. The involvement of Robb and Margaery in the mess for one. It didn’t seem to matter, and the legalities of it were bad enough to make it being avoided a necessity.
“Are you sure you’re feeling good enough to be smoking again?” Satin asked as he watched me exhale the smoke quite heavily, enjoying the feel of it leaving my body before filling myself again. The breeze through the cracks between the buildings came down and touched me gently and I dreamed for a moment of floating away on it.
I opened up my gown an inch or so, just enough to let him see my chest. “It’s not coming out of me anywhere else.” I puffed tensely, before throwing it shut again. It wasn’t the surroundings or the situation that had bothered me so much, but more the feeling of not knowing the things I wanted to know, not being able to do some of the things I could have been doing.
He looked back at me, hurt. And I regretted it instantly.
He had always looked so hurt since I had told him what little information I had the heart to. He didn’t really reply, or ask questions, and had barely said a thing to me about it since then. Instead he had stewed in a quiet sadness that I could often only glimpse beneath his facade.
“He’s doing it for you, you know..” Smallwood had told me on the ward when he had left with Margaery for a drink. “Bottling it all in. He doesn’t want to show you that he’s hurting. But I’ve seen him when he thinks we aren’t looking.”
“What should I do?” I asked her, only to see her shrug her shoulders as a distant look came across her face.
I struggled for a moment for something to say as he looked down at a crack in the pavement beneath us. His shoes moved along it, like he was trying to smooth out a crease in a piece of paper.
“None of it’s your fault, you know.” I finally said as I trailed my fingers around the faded skin that marked my wrist.
But his eyes didn’t move. Instead he mumbled an agreement to the floor, the kind I knew I would make.
I stubbed my cigarette out on the edge of a street lamp and threw the end into a small pile that had collected in a coffee-cup. The pieces within floated in some stagnant water that had soaked up all the tar and the nicotine to give off this sick greyish colour.
“Come on.” I said. “Let’s get inside before she comes after us.”
Satin wheeled me dutifully to the entrance, where a thick-set man and a ward clerk had cornered an old woman in the lobby chair.
As we passed I could just hear her speak in a quiet plea: “Please. Don’t send me back. There’s nobody there for me anymore.”
Their forms disappeared as we rounded a corner and headed back over to my room. A sudden thankfulness for my friends had begun to rise to my surface thoughts.
The hammer hit the nail and drove it down deep in one hit. My hands shook the tile to check its tightness beneath it and I moved on to the next one as quickly as the last, grabbing another tile, another nail from the bag along the roof’s edge.
Mance struggled to catch up with me for a moment before he stopped. He watched me carefully and dabbed at his sweaty brow with an old rag before he spoke, his lined face still glistening in the stalted summer heat.
“Slow down, kid. Some of us will be doing this kind of work for life.”
“I’m just fine. Thanks.” I told him. Still so young, so cocksure. Nobody could tell me my limitations.
I managed the pace for about an hour before my lunch break came, my fingers had begun to coil up in a weird mangle.
Mance took me to the side and wrapped my hands up tightly in brown paper covered in a strange smelling oil. As he wrapped them he kneeled down and adjusted the brow of his hat. My sweaty farmers’ tanned skin stuck to the back of the picnic chair he’d laid out by the soup pot.
“If you’re gonna be working this job, and that thing on the docks you’ve got going, then you’re gonna burn yourself out before you can even grow peach fuzz.”
My thoughts went to old Aemon, our carer for the summer. Though it seemed me and Gendry did most of the caring at that point, as sick and as blind as he was by then. We would never tell though, he treat us good, better than anyone else ever had and the time with him was a welcome break from Mr. Thorne and the others. Even if it meant we left some of our friends behind for a few months.
“I need the money.” I told him, “I need them to know I’m a good worker.”
“Is sleeping in the half-a-mile line of men at the foreman’s trailer in hope of a day’s work in the morning really worth what you’re getting? These sort of job will chew a kid like you up and spit you out before you’ve ever had a chance at life. Why don’t you just head on back to school and forget about it all? Leave this kinda work to old men like me and go off and become a lawyer or something.”
“Rattles said Schooling ain’t done him no good.”
He raised his hand to the side of his mouth conspiritorialy. “That’s because he’s dumb as a post.” I smiled at that, and he smiled back before he continued: “I’ve seen you reading the papers, and some of those ratty old tomes you’ve found in the trash-carts. I reckon you get some more of that book-learning down you and you’ll go far.” His eyes squinted and he moved his fingers over them to block the sun as it appeared from behind a whispy-white cloud.
“You ever seen a bucket full of crabs?” He asked.
“You’ve worked on the docks right?” He nudged. “You should have seen one. They all try to climb out all lonesome like, pull and claw at each other in a panic, stopping the ones who almost get out. You put a crab on its own and he’ll make it just fine.”
I flexed my fingers in the paper and felt it rustle against my movement. “What’s that got to do with anything?”
He took off his hat and straightened his back again before he moved over to the fire, I could see Ygritte emerge there just appearing over his shoulder and beyond the gate, her hair a bright beacon signalling her entrance.
“Don’t jump in the bucket with the rest of us.” He finished before he left me.
The days drifted like sand across a desert. And with them I sat and laid and continued the watch I had already begun. The wounds were still healing, as slowly as that took, and the Earth continued to spin as if everything was right in the world.
The others had come and gone again, worried and trying to act busy around me. Trying not to let me see the lack of movement in the investigation. I had to pry the stories of non-descript calls with Gendry and Sansa from them like I was pulling out gold fillings.
Margaery was with me again, her hands moved slowly as she worked a disposable spoon between the thin lines of metal across my jaw and into my mouth. A numbness still exhibited from some pain relief the night before.
The soup was thick but the cream from it had begun to separate with a thin liquid forming around the edges of the cup they had served it in. It had gone cold long ago, left just out of my reach as I napped. When Margaery had showed I asked her to help despite her reservations on its quality.
I had always despised wasting food.
She sat on the edge of the bed, with her leg bouncing rhythmically on the floor, like a child does on a long trip.
Her face still looked sickly pale despite the shining lights out of the window. She rarely left, though Smallwood had been sure she was showering and eating.
The final scrape of polystyrene on polystyrene signalled the end of the meal and she quickly dabbed the edges of my lips gently with napkins she threw into the trash.
Before I had to ask, she brought a cup of juice underneath me and pointed the straw towards my mouth. It had that watered-down taste and a synthetic sweetness that made it almost all too sickly to stomach.
Some of the liquid moved in a trail along my lips and to my chin, where thick stubble had sprouted defiantly among the wires and the bars.
I dabbed at the dripping hairs of liquid with my vest and she watched me with sad eyes. “I’ll get you some more paper towels.” She said as her feet met the ground and she straightened herself up. “But I need to go to the restroom first.”
My fingers felt along the damp hair on my chin and stroked the roughness of it. “Tell Officer Larence to grab some, he needs to earn his keep somehow.” I said, before she nodded and left the room. Then she was gone, as was the shadow that had lingered in the doorway since Royce had set the young man to watch over us all.
I twisted in my bed for a few minutes, trying to get something similar to comfort in my back and along my chest and arms which all had begun to feel heavy again.
Legs moved distantly, I could feel them with my attempted ministrations. They tented in the looseness of the bed covers before they managed to escaped. Then they swung over the side as I tried to push myself out of the bed and into a thick chair alongside it.
The bed creaked underneath as I made to dip myself down.
Someone moved into the room, their footsteps’ clattered against the limoneum of the floor. The door opened slowly and then clicked back shut again as I twisted with my back to it.
“Just throw them on the bed for now, Marge will be back in for them soon.” I said as I faced the windows which stared out brightly towards the bay. Sailboats dotted the blue of the horizon, the kind of yachts and racing 40 footers were barely distinguishable from each other.
I finally sat down on the edge of the chair and twisted to face my visitor.
It wasn’t Larence. It wasn’t Margaery. I was seeing stars, and this time not because of the meds they had me on.
Cersei Lannister – Baratheon. I corrected myself - stood boldly in a red skirt and white blouse striped through with gold, it gave off an almost masculine appearance with sharp corners on the shoulders and the other joints. Her hair clung loosely in a ball of curls that looked all too much like docile snakes entwined together. Her eyes shone emerald and bright in the sun’s shine.
I just stared at her.
She was worth a stare. And from what everything her husband had told me, she was trouble. Her shoes clacked upon the floor as she moved across the room and by the bed, finally stretching out along its edge. Her sharp heels looked to almost stab into the linoleum as she crossed her knees and adjusted herself formally.
Her legs were covered, if you could call it that, in the sheerest silk stockings and seemed purposefully arranged for staring at. One was visible up to the knee and the other one of them into the darkness well beyond, inviting onlookers to try and discern whatever promises laid within.
My eyes adjusted back to her face. There was a sulky sort of droop to her lips which were full and as red as her clothes. The rest had a smattering of make-up which seemed to be just enough to cover whatever aging had occurred since I had seen her in the motion pictures.
“So you're Jon Snow,” she said, a smile moved over her lips but didn’t reach the rest of her face.
“I didn't know private detectives really existed, except in the dime novels, or the three-month flicks they’re putting out in the movie theatres these days.” Her tone wasn’t dismissive, more teasing. Her mouth moved like I imagined a spider’s would. “I can’t say I’ve ever seen one in real life before.”
“Oh, there are a fair amount,” I replied as I tried to adjust in the chair, something in my back flared a little and made me rumble gently as I leant back against the softness of the back. “Though the conditions have been better... I can’t say it’s often I meet many movie stars.”
Her lips raised just enough for the movement to be discernable and I began to see the whites of her teeth between them. She put her hands on her knees and leaned in slightly before I reached to a moving cabinet for a cup of water that I didn’t even attempt to drink in front of her.
I took a swipe at what she come around for. “Sansa isn’t around. She’s with her family.”
Her eyes didn’t leave mine, and I knew what she had come for instantly. She wouldn’t come out and say it, but instead she would dance around it for a while. “That’s a shame. She is a sweet girl and I do wish to see her again soon.”
She spoke slowly again and there was a hint of desperation in her voice: “I heard you met with my husband.”
There it is. I thought. That isn’t something she’s supposed to know.
“Yeah, we talked. I liked him a bit. He’s been good to me with the hospital room and all that. I hope you’ll give him my thanks.”
“Hmm… I’m told it’s quite the bill. You must be very close for him to have signed off on it all.” She dug. With their wealth in the labyrinth of western gold-mines, the Lannisters had experience with digging, though it was doubtful that her perfect hands had ever touched God’s earth she seemed well practiced at it.
“Uh-huh.” I mumbled. Telling her nothing in particular. If she wanted information she was going to have to work it out of me, and I wasn’t planning on giving much up without something in return.
An eyebrow rose and she spoke again. “I heard you met my son too. Is that right? You two had a disagreement?” Her words sounded almost like a challenge.
I didn’t nod. I didn’t want to waste the energy on him. She could tell from the way my shoulders tensed at his mention what I thought, what I felt. “My face might have had a disagreement with his foot.” I said.
She spoke diplomatically. Like an owner apologising for some damage their dog had done. “Joffrey can be a little… spirited at times, but he has other qualities. It’s never been quite this bad.”
I resisted the urge to snark something in reply at her reasoning. Rabid dogs get put down , I wanted to shout as I remembered the beating, as the shadow of a strike fell across me and the glimmer of a knife dazzled in my mind.
She continued sympathetically. “He shouldn't have gone off like he did with you, or with Sansa. He feels very badly about it, I’m sure, although he would never say so himself.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing, mostly because it wasn’t believable. People like that don’t feel bad. They rarely feel at all. If they did they would recognise the bruised flesh under their fists, and know the deep hurt their actions caused and never wish or act it upon another human being again.
“I’m sure he’s real torn up about it.”
She reached into her purse, past the softness of the leather and between the gold of the trim. In short time her hand was out again, within it was a cheque book which she folded open. Outside the binding she withdrew a small pen and held it with the book on her knee. Several stubs where cheques had been fanned out as a vague indication towards its frequence of use. I wondered how many people she had silenced, and how much it had cost.
“Of course, we’d all like to keep everything quiet, we can’t allow these childhood scrapes to besmirch anyone’s reputation. And any legal drama would just be a waste of everyone’s time. Time which you could be spending recovering.”
Something gnawed at me. A feeling that she’d got the wrong end of the stick. I did nothing to correct her, or to address that feeling. If she was going to run off the cliff’s edge that was fine with me.
“How much would it take to put things right?”
I sighed in exasperation at it all. Why did it always have to be about money? “Why are you doing this?” I asked as I pulled myself up half an inch in the large backed chair.
“If my child breaks something, it is only right that I would pay to fix it,” she reasoned, “and then whatever it took to settle the matter. I assure you. Money is no object to us.”
“I don’t want your money.”
Her hand moved forward slowly until it hovered over my knee. “Everybody wants something, Jon.” She said as it finally made contact with the bare skin just beneath the gown. “In the darkest corner of our mind there is always something there we desire completely.”
I said nothing. The hand was soft and warm and circled gently enough for its movements to barely be noticeable.
“What is it you want?” She asked and leant inwards. I could taste something sweet on her breath as it inched closer to the mess of wires on my face. It and her golden hair reminded me so much of honey and I wondered how many flies had drowned in this particular trap.
I put my hand over hers for a moment and she smiled like a wild cat with a juicy steak in its paws. “What I want--” I said as I peeled her palm from my skin. Her smile vanished and she got the message as I stared at her politely through a pause. “What I want, is to be left alone. For Sansa to be left alone. Do you think you could give us that? No trials, no courts, no papers with your family name in the title.”
Noticing the shift in the conversation she shifted and her tact changed. “Sure I could. Though he wouldn’t like it. I could do other things for you Jon, I could be such a good friend to you.”
“What would that cost me?” I wondered aloud. Everything has a cost.
“Tell me why my husband called on your services, is that something to do with why he’s footing the bill for your treatment? He never did it for anyone else Joffrey has had an altercation with.”
“How did you know about the throw down with your son? I told the police it was a mugger that got me.” I bluffed, hoping to trail her along enough to find out more.
I had a feeling she had seen through me at once, that she was asking questions she already knew the answers to. The green of her eyes took on a shade that mimicked that which shiny pennies get after a few years sunk in old water.
The door opened and then shut, Officer Larence raised the napkins in his hand sympathetically and I nodded to the dresser table thing my pills were piled upon.
He left the room as silently as he came and Cersei made a face that seemed like her brain was hard at work, thinking, plotting. I didn’t interrupt her.
Eventually Mrs. Baratheon said: “I have my sources. Though it seems they’re not as well placed as they’d have me believe. How will you go about it then?”
I struggled. “About what?”
“The job my husband put you on.” She said with satisfaction at her deduction in her voice.
“I’m not on it. He asked and I said no. I’ve got my hands full right now. Why don’t you just ask him what he wanted?”
“I don't see what there is to be cagey about,” she snapped suddenly and then corrected herself as quickly as she had done so. “I’m asking you, not him. He’s in no position to tell me anyhow.”
That one came like a freight train. As I imagined his sweaty, thin face, I made an immediate assumption that she would correct instantly.
“He’s not dead,” she clarified. “He’s very sick, even more so than usual. And I wanted to make sure his affairs- ” she scoffed at the word, “are dealt with before he passes. If it is about me anyway, I feel I have the right to know. Do you use this manner with all your client’s wives?”
The tone she spoke in was a straw too far, still hit at the news and another pain in my chest I took it out on her.
“You know, I'm not too happy about your manners either,” I said. “I didn't ask to see you. You came to my hospital bed. I don't mind you doing your best femme fatale routine, touching me and showing me your legs. They're pretty nice looking and I’m sure you know it. I don't mind that you don’t like how I speak, we don’t all have the nice elocution lessons you had as a kid. But what I do mind is you wasting both mine and your own time trying to quiz me about something I’m not involved in, something I wouldn’t even be able to tell you if I did know without losing my license.”
She seethed and I had a feeling it had been a long while since anyone had said no to her. At least since puberty.
She swung her legs to the floor slowly and stood up with her eyes sparking and her nostrils wider than even in her composure she couldn’t hide.
Her mouth opened slightly and her bright teeth glared at me. “People don't speak to me like that,” she said thickly and knocked the drink from my hand.
I sat there and shook my head incredulously and resisted the urge to tell her its about time people started. Very slowly, she closed her mouth and looked down at the floor beneath her, the puddle which formed from the spilled water. Something of resignation came across her face, and then something else.
“What are you afraid of, Mrs. Baratheon?” I asked.
Her eyes whitened slightly. Then they darkened again until the greens of them were almost black.
“It wasn’t what he spoke to you about,” she said in a strained voice as she sat again. “About me. Was it?”
“You had better ask him. But I honestly don’t care what happens between you two, whether either of you are getting along, whether you’re seeing the bellhop, whether you’re going to join a cult that worships cheese and plans a mass-dance contest on the moon. I’ve got more important things to worry about.”
The worry in her face faded and in time was replaced with something akin to relief. We sat in silence for a few moments before she spoke again, rawly. “I loved him once, you know… he was so easy to love… all muscle and black hair, and kind, he could be so kind if he wanted to be.”
I nodded understandingly at her secret sadness and thought on what love could have been between them if not for the shade of my mother in the way. Does she even know?
“Women threw themselves at him, but I was the one who got to be his wife, I was the one who had the opportunity to have his babies. But-- ” Her eyes burned for a moment and then laxxed, I could see anger and pain inside her before she buried it. “He never loved me. He was too busy thinking on some ghost of a girl long vanished, and nothing else could fill the void she left in his heart.”
“Please,” she said in what seemed like realisation. “That’s what it is about isn’t it? He wanted to see you? You’re a final string connecting towards her, your mother.”
I thought for a moment, and then I nodded again. “He just wanted to talk. Ask me how I was doing, whether I was okay. I was angry with him…”
She seemed to think and then she nodded too. “It would be a final kindness,”she supplied. “For him to see you again. And then it would all be over for him. The last chapter of a sad story and the beginning of several new ones out of its ashes. The rest of us could go on to live our lives how we wanted.”
“I’ll call on him when I can.” I supplied.
“Just be careful Mr. Snow.” She warned. “If your meeting prys into mine or my family’s private business, if it puts any of my children’s futures in jeopardy, if you accept anything further from him in any way. I will do whatever it takes to destroy you. I have destroyed men before.”
I agreed and watched her as she began to leave. When she finally looked back from the door she had her lip between her teeth and worried it slightly. Finally she breathed and it had gone, replaced by a steeliness and fire which I guessed I wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.
Margaery came in soon after. Still looking as palely as she did. She approached me and I mumbled a joke too softly for her to hear properly.
“Tell my Doctor I’m seeing stars.”
My first job was out in the Mohave. The truck was full of desperate men tired of seeing their children starve.
It was a good target, Rattle had told me, some filling station out in the sands by an old ranch. The cowboys had gone long ago, searching for jobs in the urban sprawl that had begun to creep further and further into the wasteland. The rancher and owner of the station had hired migrant labour that worked a lot cheaper and could be worked a lot harder than even the faceless poor of the city could. The stories told around the fire mentioned a whip he used and we all shook our heads in disbelief as images of the dusty plantation were conjured in our minds. After that we were nothing but liberators, hungry and thirsty liberators who of course should be justly rewarded for their good deeds.
There was something poetic about it. Robbing from those who had so much to spare but were unwilling to share it, those lords of a new age who were a law to themselves.
It hadn’t turned out poetic at all.
The ranch and the station were littered with the shadowy forms of dead men and blood dyed the dusty concrete which had cracked in the intense heat.
Ygritte held me in her arms as I cried and we slept in the back seat of one of the stolen cars, hidden just barely by an abandoned garage as the police sirens rose and then fell in the empty expanse of the desert around us. She had balled her hair up in a patchy hat and donned an old set of work clothes to sneak into the gang, I didn’t notice her in our number until the guns started firing.
She cooed and stroked my hair as I woke and I could feel the dryness of the tears along my face as I remembered how the first bodies fell in a sickening mangle. My blood was somehow still thrumming in my veins and my chest beating so loud I could barely hear her.
She led us and eventually her soft lips met mine in a way that was different from all the playful pecks before. Her leg hooked over the cushioned seats until she was sat astride me. She pressed against me and I her as I knocked the hat from her head and watched the red curls tumble down like curtains all around us, creating a world in which only we resided.
In the sticky fumbling, her thin fingers skirted beneath my shirt and lower until they had wrapped around me. My own traced her thighs and then the creases of her hips until they went up again under the denim top she wore, the scratchiness of the fabric created a strange contrast to the soft heat of her flesh.
She leaned back and her hand left me, for a moment I panicked in the coldness I suddenly felt until she was pressed against me again, her borrowed clothes shed and her skin hotter than anything I had ever touched before, almost like a second sun.
Her hands went to mine and she pulled them up to trace over the curves of her small breasts, over the peaks which had hardened under my touch.
She moaned, the sound was like a secret chord that unlocked something new and deep inside me, something so urgent and true that nothing else mattered and I was lost in a moan of my own.
My trousers were gone. Tugged down to my knees and she was kissing me again, on the lips, over my cheeks, my jaw and then to my ear. Her soft and sweet voice told me what she liked, where she wanted me to touch her, what she wanted me to do, how good we both felt together.
We panted as we met each other, intimately. One of her hands traced my neck and pushed me down so I sunk into the cushions and she in turn sunk onto me. The other clung tightly to the glass of the broken window which refused to go down. Her shaky palm smeared streaks in the steam and the moisture dripped down the inside of her wrist.
We were together again that morning. My fingers and lips were attentive on her neck, where she said she nearly took a shot as the rancher unloaded his gun into the crowd.
My kisses moved as I slid down the seat and my mouth pressed against her skin, lower, unsure of what I was doing, but becoming less so with the noises it had her making, encouraged gently by the way she had pulled at my hair and my ears, the way her back arched, the way she pushed herself against my face.
Once we were done she curled up against me. I stared up at the ceiling and it stared back and into me as I thought, thought about leaving the state, about taking her as far away as I could from it all, from the city, everything. My fingers stroked over her back and in her hair, and I considered the possibility of it all, how far we could get before the stolen car was spotted or before Rattleshirt caught up to us.
I listened to her breathe and reality came back to mind. Promises I had made to Gendry, and to Aemon when his wits were better.
I woke her up and told her to get dressed. Then we walked the long way back into town. The sun rose from the horizon and watched us silently in the blood red of the sky.
Then we caught a ride back with a trucker and sat in silence as he spoke of the crispness of the beer he was transporting.
It took a long while to get back to the burnside, where the slums and the new construction sites met and a hundred haggard and torn faces watched from the crevices between the buildings and shanties newly erected by families moved fresh from the dust bowls out east.
We found him eventually. Lounging in a dilapidated tenement building, an old sofa underneath him.
He smiled and laughed as we approached and gave us an intrigued, hungry look.
My hands shook with the urge to smack him, to call him a liar in front of everyone gathered. A murderer. But that would get me nowhere.
“The car is in an abandoned garage out past Lancaster.” I mumbled. “Quick and Go, I can take you there if you want.”
He didn’t say anything at first. Just nodded and counted out a few dollars in his hand before presenting them to me. “I know the place. You’ve done good kid.”
I watched and waited but didn’t want to touch them. They looked so grimy and dirty, each curled slightly at the ends. I could see blood on them that wasn’t really there.
“We got a problem, boy?” He said as he stood and stepped towards me, affronted by my lack of manners.
He breathed deeply and his chest puffed. I could hear the reason for his name as his breathing rose and fell and the copper necklaces he wore jangled against each other and over the top of his mangy white vest.
Ygritte moved by my side, shaking my arm she whispered; “Take the money, Jon. Let’s get out of here.”
I bridled and did so, then stomped out and into the gray of the city, resentful and silent I ignored her shouts as I left her side and then as she was far behind me.
I got back to the house before midday. Aemon’s figure moved gently in the fold-out bed of the living room, hair white as snow clung to the sweat of his forehead. I threw my small haul down and onto his dresser and was glad I could avoid having to look him in the face and explain where I got it, for the first time ever I was glad he couldn’t see mine.
Some water gushed from the tap and I splashed myself from the sink. Cupping it in my hands I bent down and drank.
“Where have you been?” a voice in the doorway said.
I didn’t look at him. I couldn’t. “Go back to sleep, Gen.”
Cersei’s visit puzzled my mind for a while. If the marriage was as bad as Robert had said, why would she allow him the small allowance of seeing me again?
Was it a final nail in the coffin? One torturous glimpse at the lost-boy, one he could never call his own, whose face looked like the man who took the one thing he loved in the world away from him.
My thoughts drifted to the missing bastard girl, and the dead boy, Edric, that Baratheon spoke of. Is his wife really capable of doing that? I didn’t doubt it all that much, but there was something there, something underneath. Something motherly and caring in her eyes sometimes as she spoke of her children’s futures. Could she do that to another woman’s children? The hidden cruelties of people in this city rarely surprised me, but I couldn’t shake the feeling of there being more to it than I’d been told.
The bear trap on my face came off with little ceremony. The bones had healed for the most part and the contraption was doing little but preventing me from eating and drinking normally.
Gendry was back, and Sansa too. They had no real success in picking up a trail, though with Baelish gone Gendry had been brave enough to file missing persons reports in several counties between Bay City and the northern state.
They all watched, biting their nails awkwardly as the quacks used bolt cutters and other tools to take out the largest chunks of metal that clung to my face.
It didn’t take long. The stitching done to close the little holes they left behind afterwards took longer and after some dressing changes they let me leave for home.
After some time the walls and the doors of the room began to almost beat together in an audible bong that didn’t seem unlike a grandfather clock.
The same tone repeated again and again in my head and I watched for something… anything to move in the dead dullness of Smallwood’s home.
I’ve got to get out of the apartment.
I’ve got to get out of the apartment.
I’ve got to get out of the apartment.
It repeated again and again, a silent prayer that I couldn’t agree with more. I sat and stifled groans which I knew could build into shouts of frustration at it all.
As people came and went, Gendry, Margaery, Satin, Royce and Bywaters, I began almost begging like a child to go with them wherever they journeyed, almost always to an apologetic no. It wasn’t safe enough, I wasn’t healed enough, there would be nothing for me to do. The last excuse stung most of all.
Smallwood tried to have me do things, tried to get me to read or to write, even to sew at one point. It all worked for a time before I eventually dropped each in favour of worrying, about Robb, about everyone else who was out there and looking for him at that point, even for Robert Baratheon who I had yet to visit again.
My leg wouldn’t move like it used to. Not from any injury I took in my beating, or even years ago from the front, but something new: hidden and lingering deep inside me. Sometimes there were little tremors too and they wouldn’t subside for a while; as well as I could, I hid those from everyone, figuring they had enough on their plates without worrying about me.
On the worst days it felt like my head just didn't feel right. Like I was stumbling through thick fog and to nowhere at all.
On the worst nights I curled up on her bathroom floor for a few hours, in dismay at my own impotence.
That was where I found Sansa once, in a blur hovering over me.
“Where did you come from?” I slurred.
She said something about Satin which I could only half-hear, the sound was off, like something going through a washer.
“That traitor.” I mumbled.
Her hands hooked under my arms and she tried to lift me up and off the floor. When she couldn’t succeed she disappeared for a moment and returned with a chair for me to raise myself against.
My hands grabbed the rails on its sides and I tried to pull up, batting her hand away softly when she tried to aid me.
“Please, let me help you.” She twirled out of my way as I stumbled again and I could feel her arms pull at my sides.
I struggled into the chair and watched the room spin for a minute before I recognised where I was. My chest still ached as it heaved from the labour of my movement and I saw the mirror and sink just out in front of me.
My hair was thicker and longer than I was used to. The damp curls moved this way and that away from my face. And Sansa’s hand moved for a moment through the tangle and to my beard which had grown in a patchy thickness.
“Are you okay?” She asked as her hands left me, she hovered over my shoulder in the reflection like something from a William Orpen piece.
I resisted the urge to put my head in my hands and spoke into the mirror, hoping somehow it would feel less real than turning to face her.
“You shouldn’t be asking me that, Sansa. I should be asking you. You came to me for help to find your brother and I’ve done nothing, if anything I’ve just made things worse, wasted everybody’s time and everyone’s efforts.”
She moved around the chair and kneeled down so she was beside me. The baby blue cotton of her shirt sleeve was almost so long it covered her hand, and that went to my arm in solidarity. Her words attempted to be soothing, It’s not your fault, You shouldn’t blame yourself, you did the best you could. They weren’t what I wanted to hear. Then she blamed herself and that felt worse.
“Maybe if I had been more attentive I could have helped him get past whatever he was dealing with, I would have known more and done more.” Her face looked up to me and I fought the urge to parrot her own words back to her, I could think of nothing else to say.
Nothing but one thing.
“I’m sorry I told you I’d found him. I never really apologised in the hospital.”
She looked me in the eyes and smiled appreciatively. “It’s okay. In a way I think that it has prepared me, made me accept the possibility we might never find him. That’s something I need to be prepared for.” With the final sentence she gave me a sad look that ached for understanding.
I continued. “And I’m grateful for you talking to Mr. Baratheon about the hospital bills. God knows my insurance would never cover any of this” My hand motioned vaguely up to my chest and jaw with the words.
Her eyes studied my jawline and watched as I moved it uncomfortably, a stiffness still lingered there. “I don’t suppose you’re going to shave it off? See what It looks like underneath?”
“I don’t want to look.” I wasn’t sure why, it wasn’t like I had grown a set of tentacles underneath. Something in me didn’t want her to see me like that. Something which voiced itself despite my reservations. “When people see scars they see vulnerability”
She blinked, and then she shook her head. “I don’t.”
“What do you see?”
Her eyes wandered from the open buttons of my henley tee and the gauze underneath and up to my face again. “Strength.” She said. “You’ve got to be able to survive what happened to you to get the scars, and that shows a sort of strength.”
I nodded and saw the sense in what she said, even if deep down I couldn’t find myself believing it completely.
Her hand moved from my arm and went to the sink, turning the hot faucet on until it came steaming out.
“Sansa, What are you doing?” I asked as she began rolling her sleeves up and reached over the counter for a disposable pink razor and some small scissors. The faucet still ran and the steam had begun to climb the mirror above it until the world in the reflection had disappeared into a blur.
“Hold still for a few minutes.”
I was practically vibrating, pacing the table all stumbling and excited like a new puppy.
We were going.
I was leaving.
Finally leaving the building, the walls and corners of which had been closing in on me inch by inch with every passing day.
The bandages and the stitches were finally gone and Gendry had decided things had been quiet enough for these few months that we wouldn’t be hearing from the ghost of Petyr Baelish ever again.
The newspapers hadn’t mentioned anything in that time, not on the bloodbath in the packing house at least. Gendry’s suspension being lifted made the paper however, as did Bywaters as his character witness during the investigation. Everything else was focussed on the series of seemingly unlinked arsons across the city.
Margaery was hearing nothing new on the grape vine from her friends in the film industry, those few she had left without her agent’s ties. What she did hear was the same old rumours that always came around when people went missing all of a sudden; mob connections and cement shoes.
It was like nothing had even happened. Like a black hole had opened in the city and swallowed Baelish and his chief goons up, leaving nothing but a shadow where he once resided. It all felt too smooth, far too smooth.
The Mockingbird was being run by somebody new from out east, someone whose name and manner neither me nor Gendry had any desire to know anything about. The lower bars and clubs, those shaded in the darkness of the back alleys, had faded and died like distant stars.
“You sure you up to this?” Gendry asked as I shimmied along the edge of the corridor, placing my hands on the shelves and the little cupboards for support. I tried, badly, to make it look like I was just interested in the knick-knacks on top, the little bears and unicorns they now mass-produced with moulds in factories that paid in little but lead poisoning or silicosis.
I breathed as I stepped a leg closer, almost pulling the other one behind me. “It may not be getting much better, but it’s not getting any worse.”
I turned my head and could see Sansa and Satin prepare some foods with wax paper and cloth coverings, then one sandwich they made went into a tarp bag that was patterned over with a red-white criss-cross.
Smallwood and Margaery clung by the sink, they weren’t coming out with us. Margaery was still ill, her clothes looking loose and dark on her and her eyes lingered here and there about the room sometimes in unease.
Gendry cleared his throat gently to get my attention, and I turned to see a thin but long box of card in his arms, it had some stickers and storage labels on it and the corner section was damp. “I brought you something.” He said.
A thin layer of dust covered the top and I brushed it down with my hand before he opened it fully, placing the box into its lid and finally pulling back some dark fabric to reveal what was underneath.
I gave him a slightly repugnant look at the realisation of what it was, where I had seen it before. He diffused me with a shake of the shoulders.
The cane felt light in my hand. Far lighter than it used to feel when I was a kid, moving it across the room or cleaning it down for its owner. The silver tip still shined though, just as it used to, and I wondered why Gendry hadn’t sold it long ago. Perhaps he was more sentimental than I gave him credit for.
I leaned and felt as it took the pressure of my weight.
“So…” He wondered, grabbing the keys to his borrowed car from his pocket. “Where do you want to go?”
The pier was quiet in the light that remained. I felt old and dull, like a hunk of coal watching gold and copper butterflies dance in the breeze, unaware of how long I was forgotten by time and left to wallow in the shade.
The few dozen youngsters about were moving happily along the winding cobble road that snaked down towards the piers and the funfair beyond them. One of them moved past the car barefooted, smiling handsomely as she carried her sandals loosely in her hand.
In the distance the screams from the rides echoed in a soft flow that mimicked the waves. The usual crowds had gathered in their set-up spots, adorned in their usual garb, and were selling their straw hats, beads and shirts to the rubes that stopped and browsed.
There was something in the air far beyond the salt of the sea or the boiling fat in which they cooked the famous burgers and dogs comprised of mystery meat, the kind that old ghosts like me know to avoid. There was something like a charge, a static or electricity which lent a momentum to the evening. I breathed and could feel it.
I finished lingering by the door and dragged myself from the back seat, brushing off the attempts to help me. The stick stayed under my arm, where my pride and visions of a dying man had relegated it.
The uneven surface below me seemed to shift as I moved, so I propped myself up against an old sea-rail and felt the cheap, dark blue paint flake off like dust as my hand touched it.
“Why the beach?” Sansa asked as she came up close alongside me. Her arms prepared to catch me if anything happened, the way she had been since she had got back from Washington, always so close, so helpful.
I straightened my back and gave her the most comfortable and collected look I could muster in an attempt to aswade her worries. It seemed to work as she backed away a step, one arm folded over another and her fingers clinging to the short sleeved polka-dot blouse she wore as she watched.
I moved along the edge for a few seconds until the rail curved away from the cobbles and towards the sand, and then I steadied myself as much as I could and mumbled with only slight hesitation: “It doesn’t hurt so much when you fall.”
“It’s not a great day for it.” Satin said from behind us as he closed the car door and pointed up towards the sky. It was overcast and it was getting late. The last gray shreds of daylight clung to the surface of the sea and were being slowly absorbed into the horizon. Above us clouds had gathered again and I hoped that it would rain. I hoped that I could feel the fall of it against me again, just to prove it wouldn’t be like the last time.
An image flashed in my mind and I couldn’t bare to look at Satin anymore. The shame hit too hard.
I turned back forward and continued along the rail until it pitched down and into the thickness of the dry sand below. The others grouped around as I unfastened the two top buttons of my shirt and at least attempted to stride along the beach.
I managed about twenty feet before I stumbled and had to realign myself with the cane. In the softness of the grains it wasn’t particularly useful for doing that, so there was an almost toddler like unease to the steps. Man’s reach exceeds his grasp. The words of the half-remembered poem and several others danced around my head as I pushed myself just a little further, they helped to regulate the reach of my feet somewhat.
I pushed on as much as I felt I could. Beads of sweat pooled in the small of my back and my legs ached. The chest beneath me beat and hummed almost like it wasn’t my own and continued to do so until I reached underneath the cover of the main pier.
As we moved underneath it something buckled and I pressed against a part of its frame for support, the shadow of the structure felt like the cool touch of water as it fell across my form.
The others rushed but I pushed them off with a smile, so happy that I could at least feel the aching of my limbs, could sense the beginning of a slow recovery after my movements.
I slumped against some beach-wood that had a tangle of net across it and fanned my hand out past the walk where I could remember the sandy trail rejoined civilization and struck deep into the festivities. I could hear some footsteps and the faint rattle of the smaller rides on the old wood above me, and I felt sympathetic to the way it moaned as something heavy moved along it. “You guys go on ahead. I’m just going to catch my breath a moment.”
Satin gave me a solitary look and I tried to widen my smile, worrying that a stiffness in my face which came and went might turn it into something less than kind. “Go on, kid. I’ll be fine.” I handed out a few dimes and pennies to the boy, the last of all the money I had in the world. “Gendry, take him to the caramel apple place that Aemon used to take us. Save me something too.”
The boys left and I sat down to watch as their shadows stretched across the beach. Once I was satisfied they couldn’t see me my breathing falling heavier on instinct and my fingers running down the looseness of my trousers and into the muscle of the leg underneath to soothe at it.
“Did Joffrey do it to you?” Sansa asked after a while. She had been so still, so quiet, that I had almost forgotten she was there.
I stretched out my legs and she helped me push up to my feet again, the metal of the support beam was cold against my back. “That’s the talk around town apparently. It’s not true though. It was just a mistake, I ran before I could walk in an arena that didn’t concern me.” My eyes faded slightly and I blinked the fade out a few times before I spoke again, the rattling of the pier sounding too much like the jangle of chains. “I came off lightly compared to others.”
She bit her lip and worried, I was glad she didn’t ask anything else about my beating. I didn’t want to lie to her. Her lip moved and bent under the sharpness of her white teeth and I resisted the strange urge to stop her before she hurt herself.
“I thought it was him.” She sighed. “I thought he would get to you for it. Get you again… I felt so bad.”
“Who told you he’d ‘got me’?” I asked, but knew the answer already. I was regretting having Satin around, for the reputation of my masculinity at least.
“What did you think he would get me for? It’s not likely he knew where you went, unless the person who gave you a ride into town spoke.” She shook her head at the final sentence and I searched my mind for something I did at the party to wrong him, something which could have linked me to Sansa in his mind, something that drew attention. I could only think of: “The dance?”
She watched the water for a moment, as if trying to summon something from the deep. Then her eyes returned to me, there was a reluctance in them. “Not exactly. Though that’s a part of it.”
“Sansa, What are we talking about?”
She leaned in, coyly, as if telling me a secret she didn’t want the sand crabs to hear. “Someone said I kissed you. That was what we argued about before all this.”
I smiled and watched her. Watched the blue of her eyes and the hint of scandal within them.
I spoke with an exaggerated outrage that made her laugh in that sing-song way. “That’s preposterous, of course, we’d never do that!”
“Yeah…” She mumbled almost guitily when the laughter had stopped and her chest finished its rise and fall. I could feel her blouse flow against my skin in a gentle breeze as she moved slightly closer. “…never.”
I wanted to kiss her, so much so that there was an ache in my throat. But something else in me felt terrible, low-down and dirty. I wished in vain that all of the circumstances surrounding us would just dissapear for a moment and leave us alone. Alone in the darkness under the pier. Alone where no-one could see or judge and the rest of the world didn’t exist.
Why shouldn’t I kiss her? I thought. She had such beautiful lips, the kind that just seemed to need kissing.
I finally committed, hesitantly. But didn’t want to scare her. After everything she had been through she deserved gentle, deserved careful. I waited and watched as she looked to me, her blue eyes levelled with mine for a moment before I bent down, my lips against the ethereal softness of her cheek, brushing against it lightly—so lightly that the touch was almost like a dream.
"If you want me to stop, tell me.” I whispered against her, but she said nothing. She said nothing and moved her face slightly so my mouth traced the line of her cheekbone. And then again so my lips were against hers, just for a few moments before we both withdrew again.
I looked at her and she blushed gently, the pink warmth radiating from the cheeks and the cheekbones that I had my lips against. “That was nice,” she said as her eyes sparkled.
I could feel the heat in my own face, could feel a slight strain in it as I smiled and was reminded of my scars, the silvery mess of which garnished my skin… The smile faded and I felt the back of my neck with my hand, it was damp against my fingers. “We should go and find the boys. You don’t want them to find you kissing a battered old man like me.”
"You're only a few years older than me," Her own hand went up and to my chin and the fingers traced the grooves of my skin. The sides of her mouth raised gently. “You’re still quite handsome.”
“Still?” I challenged.
“I don’t know." She said as her palm felt the softness of my face, playfully. "I was starting to like the beard.”
I felt the urge to kiss her again, another time for the missed kisses I had failed to give her before, on the dancefloor, in my office.
My hand came to her arm and held her softly as our lips met another time, the last time that evening.
In the depth of it a gust had blown and I had felt the soft patter of sand against my clothes. A stray copper curl loosened to her face and brushed in a gentle tickled against my skin, the sensation was familiar, an old echo that brought on a sad memory of another girl.
We parted and she laughed, but I could not bring myself to do the same. My hand left her arm slowly and I could see the pattern the old railing had left across my palm, see the marks I had left, streaked dark and fine upon the milky canvas of her skin.
In the shade of the boardwalk I stayed still and hoped that a ghosts eyes could not see me. Hoped that Sansa wouldn’t ask me why if I started to cry.
I sat back down on the beach-wood and silently drew patterns in the sand with my cane as she leaned against me.
“Margaery is pregnant.” Sansa finally said after a few minutes, softly, sadly.
“Some detective I am.”
We found Gendry and Satin on a wooden bench, a small pile of fried sweets between them. They smiled knowingly and watched us as if they were all-seeing, and I smiled back with my face, grateful for the flatness of the floor beneath my feet.
The front of the food court was open and arranged in a loose horseshoe. The carnival men in their dark jackets and greasy aprons could call you in to try what they had on offer. Beyond them the bells and whistles of the table games and the tents and booths whizzed and chimed in the luminous glow of an evening that had only just begun.
They didn't tempt me, neither the food vendors or the providers of the fixed games. I studied the food in the loose pile on the bench out of curiosity rather than hunger, my fingers ran along the bags and felt at the paper which was so thin that I worried it could enter my bloodstream.
After a few moments we bagged the food and walked the thin lanes between the bingo pavillion and the other amusements. It was still crammed full of people, all oohing and ahhing at the various goodies on offer.
Satin led us down in through the side entrance of a hut that bustled gently with the flow of losing contestants. I forced my way inside and stood against the thin tarp of a wall with Sansa and Gendry hanging by me.
The carnie nearest had a low, loud voice that had more gravel than an upper-middle-class drive-way. He howled and raved as the last guy brought down the wooden hammer onto the pressure plate and the puck moved to only narrowly miss the bell. The mark gave some more of his change and had another try, putting even more of his weight into the blow, only for the exact same thing to happen.
We knew the score, Gendry and me. It hadn’t changed since we were kids. It’s a fixed game, like so many are nowadays. They let just enough win so that the rest don’t flip the table, so that the rest have something to aspire to, only for them to be humiliated even more when it’s their turn for having tried so pitifully hard.
Satin obviously hadn’t got that kind of cynicism yet, the type he’d probably learn after only a few more harsh lessons from life. His hand raised and with the exchange of some pennies the mallet came to him.
It was large and unwieldy in his hands, almost had a cartoonish appearance.
He hung it over his head and then swung the thing down until the wood slammed effetely into the plate. The puck rose. And then it plummeted back to the bottom with a soft thud.
The crowd tittered and Satin’s face was going the type of red the sky got in the mornings. Satin patted his shoulder in commiseration.
Gendry had almost thrown himself to the front of the line. He pushed a few coins into the carny’s hand and received a side-ways look in return as he heaved the big mallet.
He rolled his shoulders and set himself ready before he snapped down harshly, with all the conviction of a hanging judge’s gavel.
Something rang in the air, and it wasn’t just the bell.
The plate vibrated under the hard and vicious hit, and then it cracked, the leather covering and the metal underneath it too.
The carnie ran a pale palm over the bottom of his sullen and paler face. I thought he was going to say something, but he didn’t, just extended his arm out and pointed to the top row of prizes.
He let Satin pick it in the end. Something furry and almost as large as he was. It looked warm. Warm and cumbersome.
We delved deeper into the pier and beyond after that, our feet ringing on the planks beneath them. We rang our way down to the wharf and looked at the smaller rides and the water taxis on the outskirts, watched the younger people enjoy themselves on them, listened to Satin’s almost buried muffles from under his prize that said he was too old for most of them.
Sansa had convinced him in the end to share a paddle boat in an enclosed part of the water. She hooked her handbag around my shoulder for safe keeping and I felt useful for the first time in a long time.
The taxi men hung about the water’s edge, smoking and scowling near us. They didn't like the look of me or Gendry, we didn’t have those faces that the tourists have on a day out, neither of us were giddy or ready to spend some of what little cash we had on the fleeting enchantment of an ocean cruise. So to them we were worthless.
One of them studied us for just a moment longer than the others, and after that the contempt faded somewhat, replaced with a searching, distant look.
The boatsman finished his cigarette and then brushed the tip of his long nose with the back of his arm. His swarthy skin shined by the light of the nearby pleasure ship and his mouth raised in a smile as if he had finally found the answer to a crossword puzzle.
“Jon?” He asked in an all too familiar way for it to be a guess... I ignored the voice until it rang again, hoping it would just go away.
I leaned into the stick and tried to summon the most authentic smile I could at his sight. The kind you see from housewives who meet in the supermarket, the ones that are about as crooked as a politician’s.
He began stepping over with my confirmation. There was a certain swagger to his movements as he brushed past his friends and came alongside us both: “And Gendry too.” He realised and smiled to reveal a new gold tooth, “It’s been too long.”
Gendry shuffled the bear in grip and put his hand out to shake the other man’s limb. I did likewise. “Garin.” I nodded as I did so.
His smile widened at the use of his name. It always did. His fingers danced along the shadow of stubble on his face and then to his ear where a jade as small as a pinprick glistened. It didn’t take me long to guess where he got the money to buy it. “What brings you to my neck of the woods?”
I didn’t reply, just smiled back politely until Gendry could save me: “I didn’t know you were still out here. I thought you would have packed up and moved on to the next big thing by now. ”
He leaned into a nearby rail and threw his head back in quiet laughter at the prospect of him ever leaving. “It’ll always be my neck. Once you get sea salt under your nails, in your blood, it’s hard to get out.” With that he levelled a palm steady before us as if to prove his point, but it was soft and clean.
“We should go get a drink.” He finally remarked, the usual sly sparkle in his eye mimicking the gem at his ear.
I knew the kind of place he meant. A place on the waterfront for old sea dogs and dock workers, where the beer was cheap and warm and served in plastic cups to prevent damage. He’d regale us with barely believable stories about women he’d been with, places he’d seen, things he could get his hands on for us. The prospect wasn’t appealing.
“We’ve got company. Sorry.” I nodded my head out to the water, where the beacon of Sansa’s hair was just visible in the evening light.
He cupped his hands over his eyes as if looking through binoculars, then his smile widened again. “That’s fine, the more the merrier. Bring Ygritte along, and the bear too.” He finished, flourishing his final words with a feel of the bear’s face.
I could feel my face move and he studied it for less than a second. Then he swung and missed, bringing up an incident that I had almost forgotten had anything to do with him. “Geez Jon, I thought the thing was authentic. How was I supposed to know the difference at fifthteen?”
I didn’t correct him, nor did I address the elephant that stood between us, just put my hand out to shake his again, as fairly meant as I could make it. “I’m sorry. We have plans already.” I said with a finality that he got the message of.
“Okay… Maybe another time.” He replied, before slinking off back to his ship.
I leaned into the railing and gripped them steadily, watching as the small two-person vessel moved happily back to the side of the water, hoping to god another “friendly” shoulder wouldn’t bump into mine.
As we finished the day we cut across the block towards the car. To avoid the cobbles our feet we followed a couple who took us down into the tightness of an alley where I wasn’t sure which was more faded, the buildings or the people. Both sat greyly in the dimness of the night and neither moved nor swayed.
A man huddled in a corkboard lean-to by a chain fence. It was barely big enough to for him to get his legs inside and I could only just see the shadow of a beard in the shade.
There was something ancient about him, something familiar. Like he had almost always been there, been there since me and Gendry visited with Aemon as kids, since the men in top-hats posed for a sketching of the laying of the first track in to town.
“Go west” was the saying of the day back then, when businessmen raced across a continent to connect the coasts together. Go west in search of new opportunities in a bright and shining land. Go west for a new beginning. Go west for freedom.
These types of people didn’t get any of that. They had got as far west as west went and had nothing to show for it but hunger and dissolution, dreams with which they could not trade or barter.
It wasn’t just the people that moved, but the place too. It sprawled and it shifted in the sands, reaching out hungrily like a diseased hand to the lands and the people around, pulling them inwards, forever inwards, but never towards the heart. Los Angeles never had a heart, the mismatch and patchwork thing it is.
The couple were about ten feet in front of us and passed by some kids sat on a dusty step. A broken window by the black door had collected a spider-web. In the darkness between the building a dampness still clung to it, making it shine almost like jewellery.
Some of the children watched as the strangers passed them, but one didn’t even bother, his gray eyes so used to people walking on by, stared only at the bricks in front of him.
You could almost smell the hunger, smell the desperation. It smelt like warm-damp, dust and garbage, like the sprawl of the city.
We got back to the car and I opened the back, pulling the tarp bag out and heaving it under arm. It wasn’t heavy but I was tired.
The others watched silently as I struggled with the cane back across the street, continued watching as I placed the bag down by the floor and sat near the dusty step.
I looked in to the eyes of each person there, just so I could show them somebody knew, show them somebody cared.
When the last piece of food left the others were near me again. Satin placed his prize to the ground gently and left it there before he helped me up and hobble back to the car.
I opened the door and adjusted myself to get in.
For the first time, I noticed a grate near the back wheel. Inside a stem had clung along the rust of the orange metal, bright yellow petals seemed to have only barely emerged from a budding flower in the storm drain.
What a world to bring a child in to, I thought