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 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 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 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 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 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 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 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, 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 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 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.”
“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 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 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 begin 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 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 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?”