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 her voice cracking. A gloved hand went over her pale face to try to force tears back. There are a series of small gasps as she tries to continue her sentence.
Before she can continue I offer her a paper towel which she accepts. 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 move.
She grabs the bag by her side and fumbles with the straps until it opens, she put her hand inside and flicked through the contents. Frustrated, she pulled off her glove and tries 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.”
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 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 spoked 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.
She exhaled quite heavily and frowned letting the bag fall to her side, 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 whilst looking sideways at me. 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 untill 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 say 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. 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 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 thing I see in the mirror are 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 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, damn it.”
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, shattering 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 words than anything comprehensible.
Amongst the words were Jon, friend and Robb. She backed off a little questioningly and I slowly reached into my pocket to grab 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, 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. 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 overinflate 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 grab 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 and shut the door and walking 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 photobook 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 poke 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. “Be my guest.”
Her hands run over the book and she flicked through until she gets to some group photos, she turns 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 tells 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 places 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 ‘till 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 grabs me by the arm and pulls me out of my seat 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.”
“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 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. 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 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 of 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 goes by me carrying it and tells me to “Get some sleep while I do these for you.”
I obeyed dutifully and walked over to the backroom. Throwing on some underclothes I jumped into bed and laid there until overcome with sleep.
My dreams begin with memories of enlistment and then the front. In the forests of Hürtgen beams of yellow light shimmered down through the dark 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 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 blood and mangled bodies.
I woke up gagging on the imagined smells 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 purred gently 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 passed 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, 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 burnt 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 was 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 makes 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 for me 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 takes 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?
Whisps 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 out 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 look 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.”
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.