Chapter 1: May 1972: The Other
You know I have no idea what The Other is about but it's a May 1972 film with a thematically appropriate title so..
You've got your eyes narrow and shaded, watching the brown players zip back and forth. Their eyes and loose, almost languid curls don't quite match, their skin too dark, but that doesn't matter. Still reminds you of where he might be, while you're on this crusade.
But he's not here, it's just you, slumped and smoking in the penalty box.
Blondie leans back and bites hard on the cigarillo, the cool air in the indoor rink making him feel a little more awake. The harsh cut of blades scraping through ice brings back decent memories, at least. He's been combing bars and sleeping in the summer sweat of his empty car for two days now, and still no dice on finding anything or anyone that seems like a plausible hustle. The dull ache in his empty stomach feels a little better in the cold.
At least when you're alone he's not complaining about that.
Blondie hopes, wherever Tuco is, that he's getting a good meal.
One of the men who zips by is white-- though Blondie is sure he'd stand out even without that, his face as cragged and hollowed as the New Mexico desert. He's dressed no differently than the rest of the men there, but his skates are brand new, their blades cutting through the rust-stains left by the other players.
He's a weak player, though, compared to what you can do with a pair of skates.
Blondie blows out the smoke while watching the man miss a shot at the goal, his teammates chattering their disappointment in a language whose syllables blend together to Blondie's ears. The man murmurs back, quietly, and he's pretty sure it's not in English.
One of the opposing team skates by with a crowing, drawn out hey! and Blondie's stomach aches with a hunger that has very little to do with the fact that he hasn’t eaten.
That's what's you're here for, though. Just rest up after that shower, hit the streets again. Just a matter of pairing up the right hand, calling the right bluffs, you’ll find something --
“You looking to play?”
The man with the desert-hollowed face has stopped right in front of his vision. Blondie blinks, trying to get a read on the man's expression. Nothing other than that he might also play poker, and that he'd probably be better at that than he is on the ice.
“Not without skates, I can't. 'Sides. Something to be said for watching,” Blondie lets his eyes flicker covetously over the man's body, just to see if he's as goddamn oblivious as most of them are.
You'll get a laugh or a fight and either way that'll pass the time.
The man blinks once through surprise-- then his face falls back to that same poker face.
“Alright,” he steps off the ice, passing Blondie with an indifference Blondie is almost envious of.
But that, you can do at least as well .
The man returns with a pair of rentals, a little scuffed, but no rust on the blades. He drops them on the bench next to Blondie. From this angle, the lines in his face are cavernous.
“Our team is missing a player, if you’re up for it,” he cocks his head, gesturing to a pile of hockey sticks that lean next to the rink entrance. From another man, that would have seemed like a friendly gesture. Blondie caught the scent of a challenge in it .
“Hey, Gora!” One of the players calls, “Come on, we could use you out here!”
The man-- Gora, Blondie supposes his name is, though the syllables don't suit him one bit, waves back and gets on the ice without looking to see if Blondie took him up on the offer.
Can't hurt, to show them what you can do. Movement on ice suits you, at least as far as the poker table does. So maybe this ‘Gora’ has an interest. Can't do any harm for you to see that through.
Even if you're tired.
Blondie cinches the skates tight-- a tiny bit too big, but passable-- and grabs the tallest stick. As soon as his blades hit the surface he remembers the Wisconsin winters, getting chased off for impromptu games on the ice road.
For a time Wallace was the best player-- but you outpaced him too.
He lets the ice spray hard when he skates over to the man who'd called. He’s burly and with a few missing teeth-- shorter than Blondie, though. Most of them are.
“Can ya play a good attack? We're the blues, yanks” the man's accent is nothing like Tuco's, when he listens to it. Blondie nods.
You weave in and out between the players with the blue bands, some on their arms, some on their legs. You don't bother with a marker. You slip the puck out from the red forward, who yells something that might be a curse. Before the reds can figure out what hit them, you've slapshotted the puck between the goalie's legs to home.
Blondie allows himself a slight, wry smile. It's still there, still almost too easy. The men chatter back and forth to themselves, still in that language he’s never heard in his life. Or Blondie’s fairly sure. He’s crossed a lot of state lines in his time. It all gets to sounding the same.
“Hey, Mac. Not bad. Not bad at all,” the man with the missing teeth stops a little sloppy next to him.
You just nod, face impassive again. Not like this means much to you, a scrambled hockey game after days on the streets. You've seen all kinds like this.
“Very nice,” Gora has appeared next to him-- for all that he's not much of a player, he is quiet on ice. Maybe that's just his sharp-bladed skates.
“We're down four, but let's see if you can't catch us up in this last period.” the toothless man grins.
None of them seem to mind they don't know your name. Keep it that way. Keep your eyes on the play.
He pulls off, watching Gora tear down the ice with the puck, this time managing to ricochet it in. Their forward tries to make the same quick play, before the others on the team are set.
You check him efficiently, nothing a ref could possibly call, but throwing off his balance and slipping the puck out to the toothless man who yells out like he's mad with it and makes a cockeyed shot that misses by a mile. You don't glare though, just shake your head once, you can do this all day.
And it doesn't take long at all for you to tie the score, your only opponent that mediocre forward--
The siren blares, cutting through Blondie's thoughts. There are disgruntled noises from both teams, but no one skates up center to setup a shootout for the tie.
“Overtime?” Blondie looks over his shoulder for Gora, or possibly the toothless man. One of them is calling the shots.
“Team got the ice after us,” one of the other players shakes his head, passing Blondie. Blondie goes to follow, but stumbles slightly, a wave of dizziness washing over him. He pushes through it, but misses the edge of the rink, almost tumbles--
Gora has caught his arm, tugging him upright and letting his hand linger for half an instant, clapping his back.
He shouldn't have seen you like that.
Blondie pushes past him to grab his duffel bag, head to the locker room. Which isn't smart, he knows, given the small chance this man might be something of a hustle. But his ankles hurt from all the walking he's been doing, and it's hard to keep that off his face.
You came here to get a shower and cool off. No sense looking for marks in a place like this.
There are three slightly grey, exposed showers tucked in the corner of the room. The layout reminds Blondie a little of another rink in North Carolina. Once he's stripped off the skates and clothes, he turns on the shower, the blast of icy water rattling through his gritted teeth. Tuco, of course, had yelled and cursed until it reached a lukewarm temperature. That room had a lock on it though-- and time to make use of it.
He considers trying for a shave, rustling around in his duffel for the soap. The water has warmed up marginally, just so that tilting his head underneath the stream actually feels good.
It's then he notices in his peripheral vision -- reflected in the mirror just around the corner. The man Gora, quietly packing up skates in a much newer bag. Blondie focuses on scrubbing his legs, but can't help but glance back when the man throws off his jacket. He's carrying a gun in a shoulder strap-- no. Two of them, one on his hip, concealed by the length of the coat. Blondie stares back at the draining water, considering the reasons why a rich white man packing that kind of iron would spend time here.
You carry a gun. Wayne might carry two. Sometimes it's about what a man needs to be respected.
He steals another look, this time the man has pulled off his sweater, the wiry muscle on his back marked by at least one scar -- maybe more--
“You're not nearly as subtle at that as you seem to believe.”
Blondie's hand slips on the bar of soap, spiraling on the floor towards the drain.
You turn, don't pick it up, don't look at it. Let him look at you, while you measure the ways he enjoys looking.
He has a sharp, considering gaze in the mirror-- it's easy to see lust in it, for certain, but it seems like he's taking measure of Blondie. Like Blondie might be something dangerous, temptation for even the saints, perhaps. Or worse.
It's probably good for the scene that look goes to your dick a bit. Street hockey prodigy with a sinner's streak, waiting for the right rich man to get in his corner. You can play that.
Blondie pulls a dirty towel out of his bag. He doesn't cover himself, just wipes his face and shakes the warm water off his hands before passing out of the mirror's vision. He pulls on the cleanest clothes he has, deliberately slowly, while the man watches, mere feet away. Then he looks the man in the eye.
“Ask me to have dinner with you.”
“Have dinner with me,” he doesn't even flinch, just raises an eyebrow and resumes folding the sweater he'd worn in the rink.
“That wasn't asking.”
You ought to resent that one.
It’s something you could have said. If you were him.
That thought settles to his exhausted feet. Blondie shoulders his duffel bag, and follows the man out the door. The early evening hasn't broken the heat a damn degree, the humidity settling on Blondie's forehead like a heavy blanket. Getting out of his car for a night -- Blondie hates that he’s looking forward to that. He shouldn’t need that. The man's car is as nice as his skates, one of those Firebirds, though in innocuous blue.
If it were yours it would be red. If it were Tuco’s ...probably yellow, or purple, even .
Blondie gets into the passenger’s seat, still thinking about his partner’s horrific sense of style. The man’s eyes are intent on him, making it difficult to stay aloof.
“So. You didn’t give your name.”
You hesitate, on the name on your lips. Without Tuco, the dye, it doesn't quite make sense here, does it?
“Manco. People call me Manco.”
You're Manco, lone road rider, easy to underestimate. Could charm the birds from the trees if you chose to, but most of the time you choose to stay in with whoever's bed you're sharing for the night. What you do is -- something dangerous, something you're running from. But you're good at it too, better even than you are on ice.
Yeah, he figures he can work with Manco.
The man laughs then deep and chasmous enough to make the sweat on Manco’s face feel almost cold, “No, no, that’s not my name. You can call me Angel Eyes.”
Manco would have laughed, but something in the man’s wicked gaze sticks it in his throat.
Angel Eyes. He steals a glance to the rearview mirror, and the man holds his stare, just as arresting as when he’d caught him watching in the locker room.
Now that, Manco has to admit, is a name that suits him far better.
Four in the morning has the most peculiar sense of dawn.
The grandfather clock chimes from the study down the hall, barely audible but it sounds like a carillion against the soft rhythm of his breath.
He's still asleep.
Of course he is, I didn't misread his exhaustion when I caught his arm on the rink -- but then, why then? Why there? Of course by now I mistrust serendipity, et in Arcadia ego . But there must be some way to make sense of it all.
There's been a thousand inconsistent explanations running through my mind all night -- why there, a rink dominated by a small community of Indian-Americans? If not to cause trouble, and he would hardly be the first, even in the scant year I'd been there to shoulder some of the responsibility for warding off those with ill intent.
(They'd hesitated to do the same with me, when they learned I could respond in Punjabi-- of course, the weight of words is different in your mother tongue, my mentor would have said. So trust, if not some degree of camaraderie, was established.)
Was it truly as simple as wanting that chance to demonstrate his considerable skills on the ice? He certainly seemed to have a relished indifference to his impact on the game, the attention it attracted. To an observer, it was simply about the game, not the people in it. Or perhaps -- his role in it.
Then there was the matter of that covetous glance, barefaced in its lust and almost exaggeratedly so. I still second guess the surprise I caught in his eye, when I gave him due consideration. But there was no mistaking his intent in the locker-rooms after.
I place one finger to my neck, bruises from where he'd sucked with almost vicious sweetness last night.
By far the worst of all this winding misdirection is that it's the most interesting thing to fall under my purview in weeks.
A few minutes pass, just as the others, with nothing but the steady rhythm of his breathing against the sheets. Then he twitches, just once, a movement from deep sleep. I know exactly the amount of time (two and a half seconds) it would take to drive the penknife behind the headboard into his neck.
His brow furrows and his eyes open, finding mine a full three seconds later.
He blinks slowly, eyes blue as the endless open sky.
Then he rolls over, back to me. After a few minutes his breathing returns to the rhythm of sleep.
Well. If nothing else he doesn't see my watchfulness as a cause for concern, which is its own form of unusual. Or perhaps he simply enjoys the watching --
Never mind, this is taking me nowhere except along Galician labyrinths of the very same thoughts I have been having for hours. No progress. So I ought to take some action. There’s enough light out that it makes sense to dress for the morning’s exercise.
Manco, as he said his name was, does not stir. Whether it to mean absence or a missing limb...it's no name I've heard before. Funny to trade a false name with my true one. Likely reckless. I consider the softness in his cheeks. So strange and innocent he looks in sleep. Even as I restore the gloves to my hands, I am tempted to leave them bare, run my hand over the stubble there one last time.
But the most consistent explanation by far is that he’s prostituted himself in one way or other, whether for food or for rest or even to pursue the so-called sin he’d practically goaded himself into.
That, I could admit to being deficient of, as of late.
You look dead on your feet, I’d said when he’d approached after dinner. He’d smirked, the shadows under his eyes tenebroso in the low light of the dining room. I’m more than alive enough. He’d surprised me, his crushing kiss gently spiced from the fideuà.
I’d surprised myself, letting him pull off my gloves that way. Nothing for it now.
If I’m correct about this particular theory, he’ll likely try to run out with something meaningless while I am out of the room. So it goes. There’s little here worth taking a life over.
Now that thought comes with no small irony.
Along the grounds of the mansion I take one of fifteen different routes in circulation; quick sprint with a weave in my run, difficult in principle for a sniper to predict. The route passes all the small markers of the landscape. First, the pinyon pine with its lower branches stripped and the upper ones far too high to noticeably reach. Its smell just barely reaches the earth below. Then, the fountain, a decidedly Italian design. A ogni uccello il suo nido è bello , though most times I pass it I wonder if I ought to reduce it to rubble, add a Spanish design to match the exterior of the hacienda . The garden blurs past into thoughts, movement. Muscle memory.
Autopilot can itself be dangerous, can it not?
I slow my run to focus a pair of binoculars through the south gate. Nothing but the streak of the red road back to town.
So that's more than half of the morning routine done during the early summer sunrise. My mentor would often sleep poorly as this, quieting the endless loopholes running through her mind, gaps in our safety. She had a much smaller home, in a gated community she knew every home and the names within it, most of when they woke and where they went. Surrounded by people, all of it like clockwork. And her, returning to set traps for me, or I for her, our own strange good morning.
I always think of her too much, come this time of year.
She wouldn't have wanted me to think of her at all.
What she would want me to do is return to the indoor shooting range that was my first specification when this home was built; and shoot two hundred rounds across four different handguns. Each making their mark perfect, head, heart, up to my discretion.
The same as any other day.
By the time I make it to the dark marble of the shower, I’ve ceased to linger on the spark of questions about my unusual houseguest, turning my attentions to the Slater Gala floor plan in my mind. That kill will be in two weeks time. The details are, as always, impeccable, mors ultima ratio.
I always liked the translation of ‘accounting’, its meaning doubled in English. Assassinations are best thought of as accountings.
When footsteps sound outside the bathroom door, it is my turn to let the soap drop to the floor, instinctively ducking in case of gunfire. But it’s simply Manco, tilting his head consideringly before taking my curious stare as permission to enter.
Further, permission to enter the shower, and run an esurient hand across my ass-- even as my hands tense close to the razor on the shelf. Among the handful of other killers I’ve taken as sexual partners, not one would have the foolishness to subject themself to this level of vulnerability, in another killer’s home. I let my bare hands travel along his body, checking for weapons -- yes -- but the temptation I can’t deny, either.
“You slept well, I take it?”
“Mm,” he nods, a small smile tugging at the corner of his lips when his eyes flicker down to my hardening cock. I school my features. I need more information, no denying it.
“Seemed like you needed it, from wherever you were coming from -- Manco,” the name tastes strange and almost natural to say it aloud. But he reacts with a familiarity, at the very least I can be sure he’s used to being referred to as such by others than myself.
“Been on the road a long time. Angel Eyes. Well, it’s half a fitting name, I’ll give you that much. Eyes like Lucifer, so fitting enough.”
I have to smile then, normally it’s myself who has to point that out to intrusive colleagues. “My mentor gave me the name.”
An innocent truth, to offer him. Nothing in it. There’s a funny giddiness, in dropping meaningless truths like the warm rain of the water above us.
“So. What’s all of this?”
He offers nothing in return but another question.
“Isn’t the kind of home I’ve ever been in,” he glances at the malachite pillars framing the walls, rich green paired with the dark granite, “What is it you do?”
Ah. To have such wealth, so carelessly and with such solitude. The old lie rises on my tongue, how long has it been since I’ve had to offer it?
How long has it been since one who knew my name would not already know the wariness it should be taken with?
“I’m an assassin for hire.”
Such a stupid thing to say -- and yet, the surprise in his eyes, there for a moment, is as genuine as I’ve ever seen it. Then it vanishes, replaced by that practiced cynicism.
“Can’t picture that.”
I laugh then, at his disbelief, dio bestia, of course that would be his response. Of course.
What remains surprising, though, is the intensity with which he kisses the laughter from my lips.
Chapter 2: June 1972: Frenzy
You know the film Frenzy is probably better suited to the next chapter than this one. So it goes.
With my thanks to mcicioni for her help with the Italian and her beta thoughts!
It’s an old, dull ache, rolling over in bed to find the other side empty. Too familiar. Manco blinks the sleep out of his eyes, remembering a leather-gloved hand on his face and the brush of lips on his, far too early in the morning.
You did know this was coming.
Angel had told him just a few days after he’d arrived, that he’d be gone for business purposes for a few days on the fifteenth. The days have turned to weeks far faster than Manco expects, after the slow crawl of those months on the road. He sits up, rubbing his eyes and suddenly remembering he’s long overdue for a letter to Tuco.
Of course, that makes its own sense. It’s not you that misses him, not in this hustle.
Even that’s a thought that stops short, as he crosses the north bedroom in his boxers to seek out the jeans he’d left in the southwest bathroom. He’s been a lot of things in Angel’s house, shifting to suit the many rooms he’d at first thought were endless. They each have their own character.
There were bedrooms, of course; he was reasonably certain they’d fucked in all of them by now. Some of them blatant in opulent perversion, others more demure, but always dripping with wealth. After the first night, Angel had taken him to the north bedroom, all brick and near-medieval stylings; tapestries and red velvet.
He’d placed on hand on your neck then, his eyes searing, searching and said, ‘I want to know how you want pleasure.’
You’d swallowed and said, 'Rope.’ before the guilt could choke you out.
And he’d smiled like the devil cradling a bought soul–
All told, Manco wasn’t opposed to spending most of their nights there.
The days were fairly easy to pass inside as well. A library with high windows; dark wood shelves packed tightly with books– many in Italian, some in English, a smattering in Latin. Manco allows himself a small smile remembering the way Angel’s brow had knitted, then softened when he’d quoted Seneca back to him. They’d done little but read and trade quips and quotes that afternoon, had retired to bed after dinner without even considering a fuck.
Remember what you’re doing this for. Who you’re doing it for.
Manco found his pants and blue shirt neatly folded on a velvet settee in the bathroom– certainly not how he left them. He hadn’t seen any staff besides Angel’s cook– but perhaps that was how Angel prefered it.
If it were you owning all this, you wouldn’t let anyone fold your damn pants. Especially if the money put so much blood on your hands.
There was the matter of the shooting range, just down the staircase a room over. There, Manco had gotten a chance to make use of all those times he’d spent on the road, keeping his draw in. Angel Eyes had pursed his lips in that curious, all too tempting approval. He was far better at marksmanship than he was at hockey– but still bare inches behind Manco’s accuracy.
Manco frowns, pulling on his shirt. If Angel was the assassin he insisted he was – well, the job would come easily if Manco decided to try it, if it just came to shooting.
He’s got the sense that’s what you’re running from, taking refuge from here. You’ve dodged the question of why you’re on the road, trying to get off of it. Maybe someone you killed.
Maybe someone you didn’t.
If Angel Eyes sympathizes with that – a fond warmth fills the pit of Manco’s stomach. The man had avoided most direct questions. Manco got the sense he was enjoying trying to piece it together.
So you make sure he’s got skin in the game before he figures it out.
It’s one thing to have a story and stick to it; but it always makes a better hustle if the mark has something personal in believing it. He has that look about him, like he’s always weighing what Manco says against life and death, gunsight-focus in the way his eyes narrowed.
You lied when you said it was hard to picture. You picture it all the goddamn time.
After he’s pulled on his clothes, a familiar discomfort begins to creep up in his stomach. Hunger. Intensified by the smell of sausage, lingering from – no, this was coming from the kitchen. It had been a month since he’d been hungry. Almost like an old friend.
Manco hadn’t thought about Angel’s cook staying on while he was away. Come to think of it, he’s never been in the kitchen at all, in the month he’s been here. Once, Angel retreated in there, came out having made a rich soup Manco tacitly choked down.
An assassin cooking soup, that paints a funny picture for damn sure. Not that you’d ever be caught making something like that.
When he comes into the dining room, the cook is at the table eating, another plate placed at the polished end of a long table they’d been supping at. Manco has half a suspicion this is the most use it’s gotten in a while. She tosses her blonde hair back, studying him with a half-smile. It reminds Manco of cheap dye and another name.
“I wasn’t sure whether you’d know there was anything to eat, if I just had mine in the kitchen,” she says by way of explanation, “And I’ve got the only key.”
Manco is somehow relieved that she hasn’t offered to retreat to the kitchen. He’s unsure how to treat a hired cook, especially considering Angel seems to treat her almost as a friend. He sits, nodding his thanks before taking a bite of the cheese and sausage omelette. It’s a little cold, but better than having to ask for it.
“I could have made something different, if you like.”
“I was considering porridge and fruit tomorrow, it that suits,” her omelette is steaming. She must have made his earlier, left it waiting.
“Mhm. Thanks,” Manco doesn’t let the memory of forcing himself to swallow Joseph’s bland porridge show on his face. She stares a moment longer, just curious but– long enough that he feels an odd need to throw out an explanation, “Not used to having someone to cook for me.”
“You know, he was like that too, of course –” she stops, as if considering whether that’s overstepping, “But you understand why that would be.”
“I do, yeah,” keeping that vague, drawing her in with a bit of eye contact.
She cocks her head, “So you’re staying out of that for now.”
“It’s like he hasn’t left. This an interrogation?”
“Birds of a feather…” she seems both flattered and amused by that.
“You say that like you’ve known him a long time.”
“Oh not so long, three– oh you are good. Does that work on him too?”
“He tells me what I want to know.”
“And what is it you want to know?”
“S’far as he wants to tell me,” Manco leans back, that answer ringing right. She smiles, stands up to clear his plate.
“Well, I can’t ask any better than that. Anything else you need?”
You passed her test. Funny person to get a test from, but you deserve a seat at this table, just the same.
Manco lets that thought wash over him, eyeing the writing desk in the other room. But even with Angel gone– he can’t break character. Not here. The hustle is worth too much.
It would feel wrong, for you to write him here. So just take a drive, slip out there, head back.
“There a movie theater anywhere in town?”
“Huh. I believe so, let me get the phone book.”
It turns out Black Mesa Twin Cinema isn’t far from there. And Angel had put gas in his car when they’d gone to town to get it; what little cash he had been saving for that still tucked under the front seat. He doesn’t have to ask for anything. With the road burning up behind him, it’s almost easy to imagine his partner by his side again. Once he stops in front of the dusty red dirt of the parking lot, he gets the postcard from Colorado out of the glovebox, leans back his chair to write on his knee.
Found something like steady work a while.
That isn’t what he looks forward to in the post cards, Blondie knows.
It’s not much, but I’ve got enough to pay to see Cowboys again. Too bad that was worth the admission.
Blondie glances up at the marquee. The Way of the Dragon is what’s passing for matinee. Could be worse.
The car I told you about still limping along fine, so don’t you get worrying about me. I got a bed to sleep in most nights; someplace to think about you.
Funny how that wasn’t a lie, but there was a lie in it. He’d lain alone a few nights, missing his partner like the sweet spring rain in Wisconsin. But then again, had he ever thought about Tuco when he was with another mark before? Nah, he couldn’t.
He did miss him now, though.
I’m going to see this karate flick now. Don’t think there’s gonna be anyone there. Missed opportunity. Wish I could blow you during the credits.
The strange thing about 'Manco’ isn’t how easy he is to slip out of. It’s that his ghost leaves its own absence in the pit of his stomach.
Different than the other hustles, then. You’re getting comfortable with this one. That’s a dangerous way to be. But you’re dangerous.
Blondie feels like 'Manco’ ought to be, thinks it over in the cool shade of the afternoon film. Not dangerous like this – Chen? Whatever character Bruce Lee was swinging around nunchucks as.
No, you’re more like Michael Corleone, aren’t you? Decorated, circling the drain of your family’s dark history. Some day you’re going to fall right back in line, top of the heap and hating every second of it.
Manco lights a cigarillo, liking the picture that paints. The Godfather. Definitely one of the better movies he and Tuco had snuck into. Tuco had a few good things to say about the Italians in it, though he fell asleep for part of it.
Manco finds himself wondering if Angel might like it.
The strike of the match cuts cleanly through the heaving, slowing breaths. Manco takes it when I offer it gratefully, pulling out one of those brown paper cigarillos he favors. He brings up his knee to rest his arm on his bare leg, the sweat drying on his brown hair. The cigarillo looks natural between his fingers, and more so – he looks as natural in front of the brickwork of my favored bedroom as he did on his second night’s stay.
An entire month then, but more importantly– I’ve wanted him past the space of another job.
“How’d it go?”
“Neatly. Poisonings are often neat,” I purse my lips around the pipe. My mentor favored poisoning, and they have the advantage of subtlety. If all goes as planned, the death will be on record as a tragically poor dispensation of the mark’s medication. My patron will be pleased.
“If you can get the right stuff,” he says a moment later. I nod once. I’ve gathered that what little work he does with killing, he has access to far fewer resources. Likely why he’s on the run, I suppose.
He runs a hand across my bare shoulder absently, fingers lingering on the scar by my elbow.
The strangest detail by far of our tryst is that the sex has gotten better, rather than more pedestrian. Though little has changed about what we do. Perhaps it was the way he asked for rope, or more so, the way I never felt I had to make it clear to him that if I wanted him dead, it would be quick and have utterly no part in sexual encounter.
Why he should trust me, with his neck, with the thread of the veins on his wrist, with the careful strain of his breath? Más vale pájaro en mano que cien volando . I don’t question it. Not for the moment.
“Do you miss it?” I venture, a strange question to ask about ones work. Strange and light. I’ve occasionally considered doing as he is right now, though never had a reason to. Susan mentioned he went to see a movie the day I’d left. Something that wouldn’t have occurred to me.
“Why would I?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps– well, so many of the necessary muscles end up being used nonetheless. Watching your weak points. It would seem to me easier to take full advantage of that.”
“Didn’t say I wasn’t going back.”
“No. I don’t suppose anyone stays away long,” that thought turns bitter around the taste of Latakia. He tilts his head, making a study of me carefully.
The glint in his gaze is almost artistic. I’d seen him flipping through a notebook the other day, sketches in charcoal and graphite. I wondered if they were his– snatches of landscapes in many states I recognized. A few of a man with a considerable mustache and an impish grin that he’d shut as soon as he’d noticed my wandering eyes.
“S’easier if you have someone to watch your back, I figure. To walk away from it without missing it.”
I take the measure of him, trying to see what he means by that. A month is hardly a proposal for anything lasting. I’m still partially expecting this to end in attempted assassination, though my instincts tell me he’s got little skill that I couldn’t handle. But perhaps he isn’t referring to me at all.
“I’ll take that into consideration,” I say, promising nothing. I’ll let him stay here – how long? How much longer?
At this rate, if he’s not planning to make an attempt on my life, he’ll be taken out by someone who will –
“You been out to see The Godfather yet? Night is still young, and I think they had a late showing of it at the Black Mesa tonight.”
“No, I– Haven’t seen a film at a theatre for years,” I say truthfully. I didn’t expect the invitation– unless this is a casual way to draw me out of where I am most protected? I study his eager eyes carefully. They’re almost green in the lamplight.
He gets up right away, tossing me my jacket from where he’d tugged it off as soon as we’d gotten alone. There’s some kind of life glinting at the corner of his gaze, tugging at his mouth. Was this what people outside of the business of killing did?
Rather. He’s in the business, so that’s not a particularly useful question to ask. He picks up a glove from where I’d tossed it carelessly on the floor, all too needy to have my hands on him. When his bare fingers brush mine, passing me the glove, I feel an involuntary shiver.
He pauses with his boots, meeting my eye, “Wait a minute. You haven’t heard anything about it, have you?”
Then he smiles out of the corner of his mouth, that secretive ruefulness I’d seen a handful of times, “You’re lucky then. Nothing like the thrill of going in knowing nothing.”
I’d characterize that as a profoundly foolish philosophy, but it may well apply regarding film.
While we drive towards town in the bloodlike sunset, he rattles off a few technicalities; projection type at the theater, a bit of background on the director. From that I am able to intuit this much; the film has Italian influence, and is set in America. And the strange feeling he thought of me specifically when he proposed this –
But then, I suppose, I’ve given him enough of Leopardi and Dante for him to know that much about me. Our almost comically apt discussions of La vita solitaria – but surely, neither of us would go so far as to use amore, assai lungi volasti dal petto mio to describe ourselves.
Fortunately the theatre seems to be generally poorly attended, making it easier to catch subtle movement in the dark. Darkness is itself a disadvantage, and the beginning of the film sheds little light on the corridors and seats where someone could hide.
Then I said to my wife, for Justice, we must go to Don Corleone–
–ah. This, then, is what made Manco connect the film to myself. When I take in the ageing mobster’s office in its entirety – regretfully, even I can see shades of my own in its style and decor. Filius peccata patris per successionem accipiet . I let my eyes linger on the projection a little longer, until the so-called Don fingers a red rose on his chest. Too much of a coincidence, for my patron not to have had a hand in it.
All of those under his patronage would say this much regarding Rose, he has a way of appearing that could surprise anyone. A necessary trait, in someone who spends most of their time ordering men dead, and keeping that under wraps.
I glance behind me before I can help it, Manco placing his hand carefully on my arm. My fingers tense without warning. He gestures to the film.
“Anything happens, we’ll handle it,” he mutters.
Alright. We’ll do it his way, for now. Or at least, since we’re sitting near the back, I can keep an eye on the aisle without looking away from the film too much. I let my fingers relax, one by one.
It’s near painfully unsurprising, watching Michael Corleone’s resolve that he should escape the shadow of his family fall away immediately when Vito is gunned down. Il sangue non è acqua – and one could drown trying to deny that.
Myself, I never tried. I took my freedom in what little measure I could, for certain, never once considered washing my hands of the blood I was offered as my inheritance.
I wonder, then, if it makes me believe Michael Corleone is noble or naive for his resolve to do so, for his failures. And as he falls deeper into the one role I see as beyond me, I can’t help but feel repulsed by him. Hypocrisy, so common in the underworld. In the world, perhaps.
By the time the credits roll I’ve lost count of the minutes since my eyes last did a sweep of the room. Dangerous, yes but – that be damned, I can see why Manco appreciates film as distraction. It’s immersive.
He takes his boots off the chair in front of me, his smile still as it was in my bedroom, “You can see why they’ve kept up the run since March.”
I nod seriously, “Let’s get something to eat.”
I have a sense that he will appreciate Mariana’s poor attempt at Italian cuisine, that it will leave us both with the lingering taste of the film. That’s a kind of vice I could almost say we share, attraction to that which promises narrative.
He has quite a bit to say about the Corleone narrative, as we drive out into the darkness of evening, the summer wind whistling through the open windows. Some of it naive, but almost charmingly so.
“And Corleone is a Italian name, lion-hearted,” he continues, sucking in the night air with a fever in his eyes.
“I noticed, that was an interesting detail.”
“Oh yeah– someone else who knows a bit of Italian pointed that out to me. Anyways, the entire Coppola family acted in it, you remember that boy in the baptism scene – beautiful scene, perfect symbolic contrast –”
I take my eyes off the road in the glow of a red light to give his description my full attention. It’s a breath of fresh air to hit on a real passion of his. I hadn’t appreciated the degree to which I was basking in his effortless indifference. There’s comfort in that, for certain, but seeing his eyes narrow and alight as he flickers through the ins and outs of scripting and cinematography alike is its own form of riveting.
As such, it’s not a hardship to let him tell me all he knows about a director turning The Godfather down for its themes, the surprising veracity of the horse head, the striking of the word ‘ mafia ’ from any part of the film.
In short order we’re sharing a checked table at the back of Mariana’s, with a single glass of wine for company. In unknown territory I wouldn’t imbibe, but the first question I investigated when this restaurant opened its doors was whether it was connected to the mafia. Fortunately, not in this case, it’s owners are only themselves half-Italian.
“I didn’t get to ask you; what did you think?” Manco turns his full attention to me just as our waitress arrives with our pasta.
“I enjoyed it. Far more than I thought I would, given the subject matter,” I admit, then adjust it to his frown, “Business mixed with pleasure.”
“It’s a good story,” he leans back in his chair, reaching for a cigarillo for the first time since. A vice, or a way of hiding? Both, I suspect.
“Realistic, in fact.”
“And you would know, would you?”
“ Intimamente ,” I lean forward, determined to let him have the full gravitas of what this film has tried to accomplish, “Let me tell you a story. Suppose our youngest Corleone was instead taught his father’s business, as he called it, from the moment he could speak.”
A dangerous tale to begin, I realize– but I want him to hear it.
“Perhaps it would be instructive to think of the child and father from the perspective of the Tattalia family, near-desperate to be more than pawns in the bloodstained business that Corleone sits at the helm of. This child would never be given Vito’s deathbed platitudes about wanting more for his son– no. He was born to this, for this, and all of his childhood would be swallowed by learning what it would take to advance his family name.”
“Then one day, much as our unfortunate Don,” this I have to pause and smile sardonically at. That’s one detail the film misses, I’ve never known a family head who wished to be called Uncle, “The child’s father falls to bed without waking. Poison. Very neat as I told you, the only thing the killer must make certain of is that it has done its work.”
The killer had, her lips pursing when she checked his pulse, dressed as a substitute for our usual maid. White gloves. She’d laid his hand to rest before pointing out her full knowledge of my presence.
Are you going to kill me, little Angel Eyes?
I’d only been sure of that when she’d spoken.
“So. What happens to kid Michael?” Manco asks carefully, “He old enough to take up after his father?”
I had believed I was, which even now I could call abstractly frightening.
“He was eleven. But no– no, he came to the assassin, when the job was done. He asked to be taken as apprentice,” I take up my wine, half-enjoying and half-loathing the slight widening of Manco’s eyes. Manco says nothing. The wine goes sour on my tongue.
“I’m sure you wonder– what kind of child would look upon such a murderer, the killer of the only parent they ever knew– and see something to learn from that act?” Maledizione, this is far too close to a conversation I wish I didn’t remember, with a loud-mouthed colleague I knew even then wasn’t to be trusted–
“Guess he saw a way out. Or a way in.”
The silence between us is measured and truly exquisite, nothing like the uncomfortable laughter that Michael Corleone’s half-forgotten lover offered. There is neither shock, nor pity in the clear blue of his gaze by candlelight, now. And he keeps that silence, longer than I thought he would. Longer than I would have.
I think– and this is it’s own form of respect– he’s waiting for me to speak. To continue, to respond. Or to let the thread go, if I must.
Ad perniciem solet agi sinceritas , I shouldn’t have begun it in the first place. But I don’t regret it. Not in the least.
I twirl the tagliatelle around my fork, watching him hesitate to take another bite. A pedestrian change of subject, then, “You know this – is not particularly good pasta.”
“You picked it.”
“Surprisingly that’s not a complaint– more of a fond observation. I could get remarkable pasta from what Susan can make any day of the week if I wished. But no – when I go out I favor something that reminds me of my mentor.”
“The one who gave you the name Angel Eyes?” he remembers this well, about her. It grants me more warmth than I would admit to.
Though he doesn’t ask if this is the selfsame murderer in the fairy-story I gave him of my history – I would stake my life on him holding that thought just the same.
“He sounds like an interesting person.”
“She,” I meet his eyes, “And yes. She was.”
He only inclines his head respectfully over the glass of wine. I find myself wishing he could have met her, if only to see what she would make of him. And what he would make of her.
I keep that thought poised on my tongue, taking a slow sip of my own wine.
Chapter 3: July 1972: Nightshade
Heed the chapter warnings for the first section:
Graphic depictions of violence/murder, extremely poor coping, dissociation, explicit sex, ropekink.
This story has the structure of a delta function or something. Poor Blondie.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Let me set the scene for you.
You’re sitting in a terrace too goddamn beautiful for even Manco’s road-sanded mysteries. A fountain in the distance of a near-clear rolling New Mexico landscape, Adobe walls and curated patches of hardy flowering plants.
“Come da morte
Vivendo rifuggia, cosi rifugge
Dalla fiamma vitale
Nostra ignuda natura”
“As it recoiled in living
from Death, so from the flame of Life recoils
our naked being–”
Your lover stops short, and something in his gaze pushes you to your feet. He holds out a hand– you take a step back just as he pulls himself to standing.
This isn’t going to be like anything you pictured, anything you’ve seen flickering on the screen.
Angel Eyes looks up.
Someone drops down.
Gunshot, knocked from the figure’s hands faster than you can blink, where the hell did it go– the man’s in red, the man is red –
– the stones are red, horrible gurgling in your ears, and the gun lying next to it–
Manco stares at the gun. Steps forward, picks it up, takes out the bullets. Turns.
Fuck that is – a lot of blood.
You have to keep calm.
Angel is holding the knife, scarlet running down his glove. He’s breathing hard, but his expression is at most resigned. No trace of human fear in it, even as he stares contemptuously at the body–
– the man, the corpse’s neck is mangled into so much meat. White and purple strands of red glistening insides. He’s stopped gagging. He’s only dripping now, pooling into the white tile.
He’s dressed in a camouflaged red, something that would blend into the New Mexico dirt, into Angel’s tiled roof where he’d hidden, waiting for his chance to try and put a bullet in Angel. In both of them.
Look away goddamn it–
Manco forces his gaze back to Angel. Walks past the body. Offers him the gun. Angel takes it with gloves slick with blood. The wall behind them is marked by the missed gunshot.
You only get one shot.
That’s what Manco would have said. He fights a shudder, and Angel Eyes sees, his expression bleeding into something so damn exhausted.
You need to get out of here.
Manco puts his hand on Angel’s shoulder. A tremor goes through Angel, he leans forward, still holding the knife in the hand that brushes Manco’s thigh. Rests his head, pulse audible next to Manco’s ear.
Don’t retch, don’t let it show on your face, you idiot–
Angel lifts his head, and goddamn if Blondie can’t hold back a scream–
– he can’t see you –
Blondie kisses him then, both hands framing Angel’s knife-sharp cheekbones. He hears the knife hit the terrace, dim and distant, Angel breathing hot and ragged in his ear.
“I should – check the grounds–”
“Fuckit, inside is safe, isn’t it?” Sounds a lot more sure than he feels.
You guide him inside, past the body, pinning him to the wall as soon as you’ve turned a corner. He reverses your positions easily, pressing you sharp and certain, sucking the fear from your lips.
Oh god if you could just stop seeing it.
The north bedroom is mercifully close by, Angel strips off his gloves, the coagulating blood leaving a mark on the wooden countertop. He pulls Blondie’s shirt off roughly, running his bare hands over his chest.
“You could have easily have been shot.”
That registers as more of a strange buzz in Blondie’s ear, against the tremors building against sparks over his skin. Angel has captivating fingers, easy to take in, keep his eyes open. He unbuttons Angel’s shirt, near imitating his movements. His fingerprints skip over so many scars.
“How many times has it been for you?” Blondie’s fingers find a gunshot scar before he knows it, he could map Angel’s skin in his sleep by now.
“The last time this close started much like this– stab wound. Shallow, at least,” he traces a line along his hip, “I kept expecting you to try the same.”
“God above, no ,” the thought makes him sick in a way that digs deeper than mere survival. He grips Angel’s arm hard. Angel leans forward and kisses the breath out of him, letting his soft hands drop lower along Blondie’s hips.
Blondie keeps his eyes wide open, drinking in the sight of Angel, stripping his clothes off lithe and eager. It gets him by the throat all of a sudden.
He could have been shot same as you.
“Thank God you’re – that he didn’t – he–” it comes out all in a mess, no voice Manco has ever had Angel stops short, his brow knitting carefully. He places his hand on the side of Blondie’s face.
“Trust me, I’ve been through worse before and I will again. But you’re alright?”
Not convincing enough.
“Alive and want to know it,” Blondie adds, and his voice doesn’t sound shaky, at least. Angel’s fingers relax a little, and Blondie dips his head down so he doesn’t have to look at his face, pulling off his pants with shaking hands.
There’s a numbness that he usually has to steel himself against, almost looks forward to, on his knees with a stranger’s dick down his throat.
None of it is strange though–
He knows the taste and length of Angel far too well by now, knows the way his breath hitches and shimmers into a moan. The man with the knife– the man under his mouth. One and the same, and fuck if that doesn’t spin back and forth between intoxicating and horrific.
Hell of a good distraction– when did you start to look forward to this? Fucking him like a killer’s whore.
How the hell did it come to this, Manco?
He breaks off, the choking sensation in his throat going straight to his dick. His hands are all over a murderer, fucking someone who by all accounts flickered off a film reel into unreality, sin soaked into his black leather gloves.
You’re with him.
The familiar black jute falls around his neck. He meets Angel’s gaze, lets the rope bring them eye to eye. Sees, for a half a moment, something the camera wouldn’t – something in the uncertain glint of desert-sand eyes.
He needs this from you. So you give it to him.
Angel is most of the way gone, by now, neck straining, tendon against the rope that’s wrapped around both their necks. The rope tightens, heat coiling brutal and unbearable in his hips. He squeezes Angel’s dick, strokes it as the blackness builds on the edges of his vision, fuck, fuck –
– at least you can’t see it anymore–
The pleasure rips through him just as he feels Angel shiver and dig his nails in hard. The gasp in his ear could be a death rattle, a last judgment.
But the rope loosens, and they’re both gasping, breathing hard in the sticky mess of their flesh.
Now though. You’re not going to panic.
Blondie didn’t on the terrace and he’s not going to now. Not with Angel’s limbs tangled tightly around him, not when he’s worked so damn hard to keep the story alive.
“That was– so unbelievably – reckless–” Angel manages, breaking off with half a laugh, “Don’t think I’m not grateful. I shouldn’t be, should be checking the grounds but– a moment.”
Blondie leans forward to kiss Angel before he starts thinking again, thinking about the body on the terrace stones.
“You think there’s someone else out there?”
Angel pulls himself upright, squeezing the top of Blondie’s bicep, “I know the kind, they work alone. We’re as safe here as we’ve ever been.”
Those last words skip slightly over the image in Blondie’s mind. Angel’s brow knits, fuck, he hasn’t managed to school his features any better.
You got this far. Come on.
“I might have warned you this place was poor refuge.”
“And I thought I was the one with a target on my back,” that’s good, it’s light. Sounds like Manco’s voice. He remembers, distantly, what he’d said to Angel their first morning together, “That was – easier to picture than I thought.”
There you are.
Angel’s lips turn up in that wicked smile he has sometimes, “Cineri gloria sera venit. But we are, as you have said, alive.”
Manco almost turns to kiss him again, just manages to pull himself back to a practiced indifference. He’s dimly aware of his pounding heartbeat.
“Yes, after a sweep– that’s the first order of business. Stay here. I’ll make the arrangements.”
It’s all Manco can do to nod blankly as he comes back to himself, while Angel pulls out a clean set of clothes, whisks out of the room as if this is as normal as taking out the garbage. He disguises his retch as a cough. Doesn’t matter, Angel has already left.
You need to get the hell out of there. This is crazy.
Manco doesn’t move. He knows whose voice that thought belongs to.
And Tuco is never going to get tangled up in this.
Not if he can help it.
By the time he arrives, a bouquet of the damask variety of roses resting in his arm, I am already regretting contacting my patron.
Not that Rose would give me a choice in the matter.
I made the call but a few hours before, was surprised and yet – unsurprised to hear him insist on looking in to it personally. By now, it’s been long enough since Baker made him aware of Manco’s refuge in my home for him to become curious as to the nature of our connection.
Aggiungere legna al fuoco. This complicates matters. Never has it been more pertinent to keep that intensity under wraps.
Rose sweeps in to the vestibule without introducing his new bodyguard. He tilts his head into the bouquet of roses, his smile just as wide as when I’d met him as a child. For that matter, his face may be less lined than mine, at this point.
“For your table, to mask the smell. They always did look lovely in that Titano vase.”
“Thank you,” I make sure to let the strain in my voice slip out. If Rose has any vice, it’s the petty game of bestowing gifts that assert himself over his patronages’ space and person. If I deny him the satisfaction of knowing it bothers me to arrange his symbol, in all it’s velvet scent, on my dining table– well, he will waste no time in finding a gift that will unsettle me further.
“It’s been several months, has it not, since anyone has broken in to your little hacienda?” He leans forward on the dining table, eyes flitting towards the door, “I regret not having been present to assist with the last incident.”
I don’t. Though granted, if Rose had indicated he would come personally– I hardly would have decided that getting disastrously drunk was an option.
“The assistance you sent was appreciated nonetheless.”
At minimum I am confident that Baker’s misplaced amorous attentions will keep what little I revealed that night from Rose. It’s not as if my relationship to a dead father could be used as leverage against me now.
It’s that moment that my innamorato chooses to make his entrance.
Maledizione , this evening is a convergence. Only years of schooling my features prevent anything from lust from coming through when my eyes fall on Manco, who wastes no further steps, simply leaning against the dining room door frame.
“Huh. Rose on the lapel. Like Corleone, huh,” he offers one further line of explanation, “Angel mentioned.”
“A man of taste in film, then,” Rose smiles wide and closed-lipped, “Most know me simply as Rose.”
“A few know me as Manco,” Manco watches Rose’s hands with appropriate wariness, when he takes the offered handshake. He acts much the same as he does around – anyone, which is it’s own form of impressive.
I’d known since before I could hold a weapon, how to project not just walls, but entire labyrinths to keep a man from learning anything about me. Rose had always been subtle at this art, among a host of other reasons why he gave the orders.
That and he relishes the work.
But Manco seems to give even him some pause. Not especially when he lights a cigarillo, studying the rose on his lapel carefully.
“Cigarillo. Interestingly rough tastes. If I may?” he extends a gloved hand.
“Rather you didn’t,” now that was it’s own boldness, coming from Manco. Perhaps he has the right instincts to suspect a trick, from someone more willing to get his hands dirty than Rose.
Or perhaps he simply has no care for any kind of decorum but his own.
“Tch. Surely Angel Eyes has indicated to you if I wanted you dead, that job would be good as done.
Manco flips out a second cigarillo from his pocket, “So we negotiate then.”
Rose raises an eyebrow at me and –yes, that’s a funny kind of approval. Strange how I rather resent it. He takes the cigarillo, Manco clicking the lighter into flame, offering that too– and Rose takes it with his hand, lights it himself, effortless even through the leather. He hands Manco back the lighter, brushing the cigarillo to his lips.
“Hmm. Awful,” he crushes the cigarillo into an ashtray with distaste, “but never mind, I did offer you a service, Angel Eyes.”
With that, he sweeps out of the room. Once I’m certain he’s left and his attendant has his back turned, I let my lips quirk in apology to Manco. He’s unreadable as ever when he speaks.
“He’s what, your – boss?”
“You’ve never come across the name Rose, before?”
“Can’t remember it being relevant.”
I cannot for the life of me tell if he is lying or being glib. But never mind, I should attend to Rose.
They’ve already got the bag prepared when I join them, Rose smoking his own cigarette on the long holders he favors. His leather shoe tilts the man’s face sideways. He kneels, his keen eyes assessing the details of the murder.
“One of Vlasov’s men.”
“And not one of yours.”
“If it had been, I’d have been glad to see him dead. Anyone going off book to threaten my premier assassin is no asset of mine.”
I incline my head. It’s been years since I had a serious suspicion that Rose had sent anyone to have me killed. And mainly when he had, I suspect they had been tests of sorts, to note my loyalty to him. That I’d more than earned, through humility and reliability alike.
“Dead a few hours prior. You’re most often more…direct,” Rose stands to full height, gestures to his attendant, “The mess, if you would Lorenz.”
I make a split second decision as to how much to reveal– even that half-beat of silence is it’s own revealing, “I had a distraction, in the meantime.”
He’s studying the marks on my neck now. I’m regretting not picking a sweater, “Your tastes will be the death of you, Angel Eyes.”
“I’ll take that advice into consideration,” the chlorinated smell of oxygen bleach hits the air, as Lorenz runs a hard-bristled broom over the dried blood where the body was. Part of me loathes to give this kind of labor to someone who might grow resentful of it – that part of the job I could just as easily do myself. But Rose would have no part of that.
And it is efficient, how quickly the stones are made new again.
“I’ll have his background by tomorrow morning, this armless one of yours. Would you like to see it,” not a question. Rose expects me to take the offer.
“No need to insult me. I know everything I need to.”
“Simply offering further assistance. I’m glad you’ve found someone to keep company with,” oh there’s sincerity there, but none for my sake. He’s glad of potentially easy leverage on me. Or at least easier than I’ve ever had in the past.
“I appreciate it.”
“I’ll have your next assignment by Thursday,” Rose taps the ash off his cigarette, Lorenz shouldering the body.
“I look forward to it.”
If nothing else, Rose has always been exceptional at picking work that challenges my skill set. I’m couldn’t say I’m not grateful for that much. I scuff my shoe on the clean stone, almost satisfied to see a residual brown mark there. The act not so easily erased.
I find Manco in the north bedroom again, his own shoes off, smoking what I suspect is a new cigarillo. I sit next to him carefully, no sudden movements. Despite his being hunted, I suspect he’s never had an encounter quite this close cut before.
I wish I could say the same, sometimes. Eram quod es, eris quod sum . The thought catches me by the throat, studying the shadows under his eyes.
“I got – there’s blood on my socks,” Manco says distantly, staring at the dirt brown flecks. He tears them off all of a sudden, his bare feet catching the dim light.
“I can get those cleaned easily enough. Or if you like, I could get you a new pair,” it’s an oddly conciliatory tone I have. My black gloves, still thrown carelessly under the pooling lamplight, are in much the same state.
“I’ve walked over a mountain in those socks,” he says distantly.
Without quite deciding why, I pull off my clean glove, place my hand on the bare foot that’s perched on his knee. Run my finger along the instep. He shivers, his shoulders hunching.
There’s something implacable, near-biblical about this.
“Achilles tendon,” he mumbles absently, when my hand reaches the back of his heel.
“That’s the name of it.”
“Easy to cut someone down there, right?”
I can’t tell if he means it from experience or no, but I suspect– never mind that.
“Should I offer the same promise you gave me? I’m not going to hurt you.”
He scoffs, but I can hear bravado there, “Knew that already. Don’t worry.”
As with many things, I can’t tell if he believes this. But that isn’t what worries me about this promise. He’ll know in time.
What worries me is that I might believe his.
With all my thanks to my lovely co-author D, for among many other things, giving me the cue for the socks bit at the end of this chapter.