The first time Nile texts him, Booker drops his phone.
It's 7:35am, and he's in the arrivals area of Montréal-Trudeau waiting for them to announce his baggage carousel. He's using a Tim Hortons as a mixer and he's perched at one of those stupidly narrow and awkwardly high bar tables, meaning that it has a long way to go before it clatters to the ground.
It is one part the fact it’s a text, when he had been engrossed in a puzzle game where you are required to hit moving pieces at a precise moment, which he considered the height of his productivity over the last month; one part the fact it’s a text, when he has exactly no one on earth who wishes to talk to him; one part the fact it’s a text from Nile, when he definitely doesn’t understand why she, to whom he owes everything and gave nothing, is getting in contact; and one part the fact that it’s a text immediately followed by the alert for a picture message, that sends his heart racing.
By the time he collects it from the ground, his phone has locked. The single text message sits on the homescreen. Look, it's Nicky :-).
Is this a taunt? Rubbing it in? He didn't know her long but he did not get the impression that she was that kind of person. And if it's not a taunt maybe it's an offering, an opportunity to see them, from a distance. But he surely can’t be allowed to be that close to them. Not yet. He’s not earned it.
He slides his thumb across the screen and promptly realises that, no, he most certainly has not.
He frowns at himself, then elaborates.
Booker is a man possessing what amounts to essentially unlimited resources, a century to kill, and an ever-changing array of locales to avoid at any given time. The way you get found in a crowd is to stay in one place, thus he declines to do that.
He opted for Montréal because he kind of likes it but mostly hates it.
It is a beautiful city he is too out of it to appreciate, but the sounds filtering in through the cracked window of his sub-let can pass for home. On most nights he gets dumplings from a restaurant halfway between the two paifang on Saint Laurent Boulevard and continues down the hill to eat them, still warm, in a pew towards the back row of the Basilique Notre-Dame. There are even odds as to whether Nicky would find that funny or not, he thinks. He pays the admission charge every time.
By the time he leaves the sky is dark and heavy, and the streetlights catch attractively on the river. He snaps a photo, not bothering to tilt his phone to the side. He sets it as his background. It overrides the previous one, a view of the sunset through Goussainville’s shattered stained glass. There’s an array of liquor stores on his route back, and that just about carries him through until he’s ready for dinner again the next night.
It’s ten days before he walks in to the dumpling place and they start plating his order - four prawn siu mai, two char siu bao, a serving of turnip cake - on sight, and he knows it’s time to move on.
Next he heads to Calgary.
When Nile messages to ask - gently, in a round about way, not probing - how he is passing the time, he tells her honestly. Perhaps she is trying to ensure they do not cross paths. In return, she spams his inbox with cowboy memes. One demands he say 'howdy' to a picture of a cat in a stetson, which he vehemently refuses.
He stays in a hotel where the ground floor restaurant is considered to be one of the finest in the city. He eats there, one night, until some of the staff clock that he is drinking alone and try to engage him in conversation. The next day, the security guard at the Calgary Tower isn't paid enough to frisk him, so up on the observation deck he takes a shot each time the audio guide mentions the concept of rodeo.
"Calgary Tower is 190.8m - or 626ft - tall at the antenna's spire," says a tinny voice directly into Booker's ear canal. He stands on a glass panelled section of floor and looks directly down. He's never fallen off anything that tall before, he ponders. In the early 1940s he took a late-night stumble off the White Cliffs of Dover, which was obviously unpleasant, though of course the staining on his uniform was more permanent than any damage to himself.
For several blocks around the base of the tower, buildings have painted their low roofs with brightly coloured advertising slogans. An endearing effort, he thinks, feeling his face fold into some sad kind of smile, to reach a few chosen imbeciles a day.
With no sense in underdoing things, he completes the trio and reaches Vancouver. He took the Rocky Mountaineer, where you pay luxury prices for unlimited drinks and not to be bothered by anybody other than the girl spouting trivia over the tannoy. He recalls hearing that they had finished laying this railway, blasting up and through rockfaces in the name of progress and claiming land that people already owned.
At the end of first night, he gives his flask to a man sleeping in a doorway. From the beginning of the second, he bounces between wherever will serve him. There's art dotted around seemingly random corners that he bumps in to en route; some (like Dali's Space Venus, a woman's torso in jade cradling a round golden egg), he thinks, are beautiful and some (like Digital Orca, a 30-foot tall pixelated killer whale), he thinks, are bizarre and stupid and far more enjoyable.
Eventually he tires, and slips stateside to trade the pleasant surprise of Vancouver’s sunshine for the inevitably of Seattle’s rain. It pours for three solid days and he doesn’t step over the threshold of his motel, just watching this dog’s weather from the window. He does circuits of his room until he’s bored and hungry, and then he drinks until he doesn’t notice anymore. When he wakes up, it’s still fucking raining.
Exploration of the singular drawer in the nightstand contains, in addition to the obligatory Bible, an incongruous paperback copy of a Stephen King collection. He’s read the one about the homophobic clown and no more, so he cleaves the pages open for a moment of distraction. It has, he comes to consider, been a fair while since he actually took the time to sit down and read. The proliferation of the industry and ease of modern technology made everyone fancy themselves a writer, and the average quality dipped. Reading more of King doesn’t change Booker’s mind about that per se, but it is refreshing to have his opinion validated rather than providing it by tired rote. One story he likes, and another has an ending so nonsensically daft that he is sufficiently moved to search internet discussion boards to ensure he isn’t actually missing something.
He's not, but after some hesitation he places the book back in the drawer for the next customer, just the same.
Booker hitchhikes the long distance south to California. At its northern edge the climate is remarkably indistinct from the Pacific Northwest. Stickier, but no less damp. The giant sequoias astound him with their permanence. He touches a palm to the bark of a tree older than most humans can comprehend a living thing to be. The texture is smooth-on-rough, young-on-ancient.
That night he wild camps in the National Park. Some college students, backpacks and tents shiny and new, offer to let him pitch up with their group. He declines. If there's a bear nearby, hopefully it will opt for him instead. The humidity folds him into its embrace and he feels small and humbled.
The light from his phone screen illuminates his face in the otherwise impenetrable darkness of the forest.
Eventually, he arrives in Juárez in a thirty year-old truck which he bought for cash outside of a 7/11. It is a city that bleeds injustice and resentment around its edges. El Paso watches from across the border, smug in its safety and security. Nonetheless, the air is jovial. The contrast roils, like mixed drinks in a sensitive stomach. Narcocorridos with danceable, polka bases are played in paved parks and in bars flying colourful flags.
He was last here fifteen years ago, when tensions between warring cartels were at their highest. Frankly he doubts that they achieved much of anything back then other than stirring the pot, but perhaps doing so delayed things from boiling over for just a little while longer.
One time he gets tacos from he stall he knows to be good, the hot amber oil from melt-in-the-mouth carnitas rolling over the edge of the soft tortilla. He licks his palm, and can barely register the flavour. On principle he shivers through a day of sobriety, compulsive habit twitching his hands more so than any bodily withdrawal, until his taste buds unpickle themselves.
He flies out via El Paso. The statue of Juan de Oñate, horrors edified in permanent bronze, watches him leave.
When Booker feels ready for home, he returns.
He takes a three-month rental contract in a converted warehouse building that used to be a shithole but is instead now merely only adjacent to them. The entrance hall has a notice board full of people looking for work (cleaning, mostly), selling secondhand furniture (fridge-freezers, predominantly), or missing their pet cat (black with one white foot and answers to Bartholmiaou, exclusively). Outside the foyer, the city is a cemetery, and he haunts it like a ghost. His pain is a scab, but he continues to pick at the wound. He visits four graves and sits vigil at each of them.
The city is constant in its movement, unchanging in its evolution. Much like him, parts die and are reformed in the same shape. Shop frontages and gallery collections and the en vogue swim in and out of view like face cards in a dealer's deck.
Everything - perpetually, always, forever - smells like piss.
He paces like a caged animal. People never change and things are too familiar. Every action feels like inaction, when he turns down a side-street and recognises it from his youth. He vomits into a sewer drain near the church where he first kissed his young wife. The air feels tight and compressed.
He is restless, trapped with the person he will always be remade into. He blames that, rather than himself. His phone buzzes, and his soul bares its teeth.
Something feels hot and tight behind his eyes. Claws come out.
There's a notable pause, and Booker's phone feels abruptly like a leaden weight between his soft hands. Time dilates.
His palms are beginning to sweat by the time the phone buzzes a full minute later.
After that, Booker doesn't hear from her in over a fortnight.
Nile doesn’t text, and she certainly doesn’t call. It is miserable, and far harder than he had expected. Getting to know Nile has made him like an addict, trying to wean himself off a drug, unaware of how high his tolerance was creeping back up. He sees echoes of her everywhere, moreso than normal, mores than he sees the others. His hurt of her feels newer and sharper, unprompted and unearned.
She’s nice and against her better judgement she likes you so obviously you need to throw it back in her face until she doesn’t any more, he thinks.
He spends a week drinking himself into a stupor, but eventually the ouroboros of his self flagellation eats its own tail when he realises that sleeping off this punishment is depriving him of feeling bad about it, and that’s where the truly pitiful shit is. So he spends the next week after that walking loose circles between the takeaway coffee shops in his neighbourhood and staying awake each night until his eyeballs burn.
Eventually, he texts her.
Her response comes almost immediately. It catches him off guard. Damn millennials.
The wound spring of his spine unspools a little, in the wake of that.
He had wanted a shower. He knows he had wanted a shower, because at a certain point he always wants a shower; not necessarily when he requires one to get clean, but because there is truly no finer place to be depressed.
But he had stumbled in late and this place didn’t have a shower, it had a tub, some ancient enamel thing in the corner with a showerhead that sat in a cradle like an old rotary phone. So - he infers - he had stripped and laid himself out in the tub, set the water running somewhere between hot and scalding, and promptly fallen asleep.
He wakes, eyes gummy, to someone banging on his front door.
The reason why is immediately apparent, when he shoots upright with a start and displaces enough water that it cascades over the rim of the overflowing bath. The faucet is still running.
“Merde, shit, fuck,” he mutters, flailing to twist it between his palms. His hands are wet and wrinkled, and he scrabbles for purchase.
The banging continues.
“One moment!” he calls, finally turning the knob. The rumble of the boiler shuts out and dips the room into momentary silence, save for the rapid sounding of the water as it drains over the edge and continues to pour to the floor. Standing up in the bathtub is like trying wade out of the ocean.
Booker finds his pair of trousers, shed the night before, draped high and dry and inside out over the cistern of the toilet. He pulls them on, and bangs his way urgently across the hallway to the front door. The water follows him most of the way. Like a rising flood tide struggling to crest a hill, it stops just after the threshold from the bathroom, but the floors in this place are made of thick hardwood with pencil-width divots between each plank.
On the other side of the door stands, unimpressed, his downstairs neighbour. She is wearing a pink fluffy dressing gown and a silk hair scarf.
She also has a baby on her hip - a toddler, really. They are perhaps two and a half years old, three at the very most. For their part, the baby is wearing a little yellow outfit with the feet included.
He knows her name is Mlle E. Dubois, and that she lives in the flat directly below him. He knows both of these things because they keep receiving one another’s mail by virtue of them sharing the same last name. He’d opted for Dubois when he signed this lease because it had made Nile laugh - “du+bois i.e. from the+wood” “abdfjabdf Booker NO” - and begun not long after to summarily regret it, but by then the can of worms had been opened and he was forced to lie in it.
The woman does not speak. The baby does.
“It’s raining in our house!”
Booker winces. “I am so, so terribly sorry. Are you alright?”
This question does not appear to help. She puffs up. “I was alright, until water started pouring on my head while I slept.” She does not shout, presumably out of respect for her child and their other neighbours, rather than him.
“Is anything damaged?” He flounders. “The electrics - are the electrics okay?”
“No. But my grandfather is coming now, to check the wiring.”
He has managed to pull three generations from their beds in the small hours. Perhaps that is a record. He wilts.
“I am truly sorry, if there is anyth -“
“Save it,” she hisses, cutting him off. “Just do not let it happen again!”
“I won’t,” he confirms. Then, under his breath. “Will bring a toaster next time.”
She had not waited for his answer, and had been in the process of turning towards the stairs when she freezes, before spinning on her heel. “What did you say?” she asks, fixing him with a gaze. The baby does, too.
“Nothing,” he reassures with a pasted-on smile. She looks at him sceptically for another beat, before finally walking away.
Booker closes his door, leans back against it with a deep sigh, and slides down its length to collapse on the floor. His trousers are immediately sodden with cold bath water.
“Oh,” he says aloud, into the unfeeling silence. “Gross.”
There comes a night where the evening is unseasonably bright and warm, and the streets are teeming with life. Booker finds a place with seats available despite it all. On the other side of the street, there is a bistro where people are eating rather extravagant crudités. He looks longingly across the distance for several long hours until the crowd thins, then he finishes his drink and crosses. The spirits behind the bar here are nicer so he drinks more but rations his double measures out, spreading them thin over the evening like the dry tang of the vinaigrette that coats the pretentious locally-sourced vegetables he dips into an array of condiments.
Long and languid hours later, he staggers home feeling a classier kind of drunkard. At the corner of the park by his building, a furry shape darts suddenly out from under a bush and Booker stumbles into a gutter puddle. So much for that, he considers while levering himself out of the muck, but it was a fine effort.
He is in the mood for playing tourist, now; taking in luxuries and all the small trimmings of Parisian life he has long since deemed overly banal. The view from the Eiffel Tower is less impressive than some he's seen recently but it nonetheless leaves him feeling preternaturally smug. He hums ABBA when his foot get runs over crossing to examine the Arc de Triomphe. He visits the Louvre, which he tells no one anything about because it is boring as all get out, and then the Musée Rodin, which he texts Nile about exhaustively for the entire duration of the tour because her reaction is a joy.
He knows enough but plays ignorant, enjoys her palpable despair and imagines her gripping her hair, fizzing at her phone.
He dawdles in front of every sculpture until she texts back, just in case he needs to take another picture from another angle for another, stupider joke. The moving crowd pushes at his back but he finds he does not particularly notice, stepping out of the flow of traffic. Booker has always smiled, always laughed. Enjoyment of the world was never incompatible with fear of its insurmountable continuation. But on the other side of the end of everything these sensations seem to come easier and leave slower - harder won and and less readily given away.
Unmoored and adrift, he realises with clarity; I would hate for this to end.
Days begin to pass and melt together, an unfamiliar phenomenon and a resultantly unsettling sensation. One day he goes to the market and seemingly by the next, the man who sold him a wheel of ewe's milk cheese is greeting him like an old friend. A woman with a map asks him for directions to a specific cafe, and he gives her directions to a better one. After some trial and error he manages to grab the postal carrier and explain the name situation, and suddenly mornings are easy and unremarkable.
He returns to the bar with the unfairly nice tasting platters and eats tiny pickled cornichon by the handful until he feels fit to bursting. Someone in the restaurant celebrates a birthday and he, to save being the only asshole in the vicinity, claps along with the communal celebratory song. On the route back to his bed his feet fall approximately and, surprisingly, into line. At the corner of the park a furry shape pokes its upper body out of a bush; its small, black body with one white foot.
Bartholmiaou and Booker make direct eye contact.
After a tense beat, the former turns tail and runs.
"Oh, you little shit," says the latter, and gives chase.
With Nile, it is like nothing has changed. She texts him on random days and at all hours, patternless, and he falls upon them immediately to fire some inane response back right away. However, it feels different to him now, even if the action is the same. More vital. He would be ignorant not to be aware that in reality, things have indeed shifted; she has an improved understanding that he's a bastard with a cruel tongue, and he has an improved understanding that she probably really is getting very little from his conversation and that he's one false step away from losing her, too.
Booker recounts attempting to eat a filled baguette in a park, because fresh air was supposedly good for the soul, and getting ambushed by a goose. He embellishes the story somewhat, because Nile keeps sending the happy-crying emoji and random assortments of letters to indicate overwhelmed laughter, and he selfishly desires to drag out the moment as long as he possibly can. His phone once again begins to rest in his back pocket, rather than sit neglected and uncharged on the side table.
It is like nothing has changed, until something has.
He's in Morroco, and he'd stayed until closing at the very bar wherein he'd brought them to meet Copley. He might be a sad sack, but he sure is poetic. It had felt like a suitable place to return to, upon leaving Paris. There were no rooms available at the same hotel as last time, though, so his misery tour is incomplete. AirBnB ends up covering his back. The room he's booked is a minuscule cube with its sole redeeming feature being a balcony that overlooks a market square. Outside the sky has the grey tint of a summer morning where dusk has faded directly into dawn and then directly into the early morning light. He's over the sink, methodically throwing back glass after glass of tap water because his brain sluggishly demanded it, when his phone vibrates on the narrow sliver of wooden countertop. He pulls it closer without looking, and after dropping the cup into the basin he opens it.
It's not a meme, or a screenshot of a so-called ‘relatable’ tweet. It's a view out of a window. He knows which window, even, from the flaking blue paint on the wooden frame. Nile is in Santorini, in a tiny apartment inside of a cylindrical, whitewashed tower. Last time Booker went there it was the 60s, a decade which he attempts to recollect as little about as possible. Around that time the four of them had taken to enjoying the newfound ease of international travel, and he had booked them a series of package deals that criss-crossed the Mediterranean coast. The long weekend on that island had been their favourite; salted olives and cheap, sweet rosé wine, one of the globe's finest bookshops, and Andromache on rare form relaxed and cat-like in shifts cut from white linen.
Later, one of them had bought that place. He had never gone back.
There is a time difference of a few hours between them, and it shows, because the sunlight in Nile's image is bright and fresh. The town looks as if it has spent the last fifty years frozen in time. Rolling hills of houses with round white edges and round blue roofs, melting smooth into one another against the background of the sea other than where they're studded with blood red flowers.
He crosses to the open door out to the balcony and holds his phone up against it and they match, almost. Marrakech's walls and roofs have crisper lines but they're baked in dirt. They look like two uneven halves of a picture locket.
He takes a photograph - and then another, phone turned the right way - and sends it back to her without saying anything else.
He hears through his old channels - those that he was responsible for tapping before he invited anyone else to steal his job - that there is a shipment of medication headed for distribution throughout the tribal communities of Subsaharan Africa that is liable to get intercepted. It is a charity-funded aid shipment, which means lower overheads and lower security. No one tells him to, but he goes. He dons the same outfit as the two other UN peacekeepers, and takes half a dozen bullets for them when the time comes. They had each nodded at him earlier in the day when he entered the armoured convoy. One had enthused about his fiancé back home, while the other had made off colour jokes regarding their boss. Neither of them deserved to die.
They deliver their supplies successfully, but are ambushed on the return for goods as measly as three automatic rifles and two days worth of rations. The sweet natured fellow with the fiancé tackles a desperate man to the floor and stabs him repeatedly in the throat, while the misogynist holds Booker's writhing intestines against his gut until they squirm back into place.
Booker flees, and only days later does he settle long enough to do some digging. Within his first twenty-four hours back on home soil, a man had taken his beloved by the hand and eloped. A cursory Facebook stalk shows that another familiar face was among the attendees, one of a small crowd blocking the pavement around an unpretentious courthouse. Different natures and different causes brought together through humane service and human joys. The image leaves him feeling tight and itchy inside his skin, like there is a sore somewhere deep that is willing itself to close.
Booker doesn’t start tailing them, exactly, because that would be sad, creepy, and a violation of the terms of their mutual understanding, in that order.
He wants to be there if they call; not on him, necessarily, but for aid in the abstract. But it’s a selfish wish, far more than it is altruistic. He is self aware enough to know that all he wants is to feel close to them, to know that the set of stars that Andy is under is the same as his, and that the sea into which Nicky will inevitably wade his cuffed trouser legs is the same as the one into which he tripped and fell on his jog this morning. Likes pretending that Nile's version of her view is the same as his, that he can watch the way she folds her smile as she takes a photograph.
So they’re providing aid in Brazil when he happens to touch down in Mexico City. And while they’re in Venice, he goes to Birmingham, which as a blasted local in a Wetherspoons proudly informs him in fact actually has more canals. From there, when they make their way to Bath, it’s fortuitously only fifty minutes on the train for him to reach to Leicester. He hasn’t been there for years, but he recalls it having having some pretty, tree-lined side streets that could pass for the other if he were to tilt his head and squint enough.
He’s not wrong. He still is, somehow. Nile sends a picture of Bath’s springs; glorious ancient Roman things for health and play, with columns tenderly preserved for two millennia that support shallow steps down into warm water. He receives it when he’s halfway through reading an information plaque near the ruins of Leicester Abbey; a knee-high wall in a scrubby field off a public park, destroyed by a monarchy’s hunger for war and power.
That night is a weird one.
He wants a drink but he doesn’t want to want a drink, so, progress there. He wants to talk to Nile. He stares at their chat log instead. One message in particular jumps out.
A therapist, some actual serious metal health professional, is going to want details. He could, of course, bash out the requisite paper trail in the work of an afternoon. However, that suggests pathos and a backstory to the act that he doesn’t have the heart to cook up nor the energy to commit to. Weaving a tale of woe adjacent to but discrete from his own seems like considerable effort. Lastly, something registers in the action as somewhat counterproductive. He is meant to be facing things. Hiding behind another person’s name and pretending his story is different is rather what got him here in the first place.
Copley could probably find him and vet him someone he could really, truly talk to. No lies, no anonymity; just someone to look into his past and his future and tell him how he was broken and how he could work to fix it.
Fuck that, honestly.
“Good evening, you’re through to the University of Leicester Nightline.”
The voice is bring and cheerful, with a pep that instantly leaves him feeling sour by direct comparison. He’d gotten the number two days ago from a photo he’d taken; a peeling sticker on the back of the men’s room door in a basement crowded by students. Out of curiosity he had braved the beer there, which had cost 80p for a plastic pint and it tasted so goddamn awful he could not actually will himself to drink it beyond the first pull.
He can’t bring his mouth to move, until it does, somewhat of its own accord.
“God, this is stupid.”
“Maybe,” the speaker offers. There is the sound of a smile in their accented voice. “Hi. Is there anything you’d like to talk about?”
“What do people usually call to talk about.” Answering a question with another question, an absolute classic that has historically always worked great as a distraction.
He imagines that the somewhere across the city, this child of a human being has just shrugged. “Lots of stuff. Homesickness. Housemates stealing their margarine. How late the union pub is open.”
The question is rote and automatic. “How late is the union pub open?”
“1:00am on weekdays, 2:00am Thursdays and weekends,” the reply comes, equally so. “Do you have anything you’d like to talk about tonight?”
“I’ve got a lot of shit going on,” says Booker, feeling abruptly like he’s at the AA meeting he will never attend. “And most of my friends don’t want anything to do with me.”
“Are you angry at them?”
“No,” he says, evenly, like he’s reading off a sheet. “I forced their hand.”
“So are you angry at yourself instead?”
“Sure. We can go with that.”
“Hmmmm,” says the person on the other end. They sound thoughtful, though somewhat in the way that one does when they’re pantomiming the concept of thoughtfulness sarcastically. “That must be very difficult. You can’t blame them for turning away when you’ve upset them, but they’re also the people you would want to turn to when you are upset.”
Well, fucking obviously. “Aren’t you meant to give me advice?”
There’s a chuckle down the line. “Nightline is a listening service. I’m literally sat underneath a big poster saying I’m not meant to do that.”
“So what’s the point in you?”
“Wow, blunt.” His listener coughs, surprised. “I don’t know. Just saying things out loud helps, most of the time. We’re meant to talk you through your problems, help you come to your own answers.”
“Well, they’re bad. Can I get a refund?”
“Fresh out. Anyway, yeah. We’re meant to listen. Be a friendly ear.”
For no reason other than it genuinely does not matter in the slightest, he volunteers, “My friend - the one who still talks to me. She said she couldn’t be my therapist.”
“Ignoring that, like, I can’t either, she’s not wrong. No one can be everything to everybody.”
Unbidden, Booker recollects the way in which Joe would wait exclusively until the two of them were free to watch the football, and how midnight mass at Christmases the world over was he and Nicky’s own, private ritual. He swallows. “Thanks, I guess.”
“You’re welcome. You can call back any time you’d like to talk about this, or anything else.”
“Can I ask to talk to you again?” He appreciated being able to have this exchange with someone sharing equal levels of contempt for the whole experience.
“Not really, sorry; our shifts are secret for anonymity, and we only do a few each per semester.”
“Shit, you mean I have to tell a different stranger about my sad ass life next week?”
“Like I said,” they say, another smile audible, “Call back any time.”
Copley asks him to deliver a package to a courier in the French Riveria. An exchange of material goods for information on people’s lives, same as ever. He was a better choice for the hand-over than the average stock of goons Copley would clearly otherwise pull from, given the warning he had received beforehand that the buyer was likely to attempt to remove any witnesses to the deal.
This assessment was not incorrect.
No sooner was he through the door than was he stuck with some kind of tranquilliser; the sort that would put a racehorse down but merely has the unfortunate affect of making him feel unpleasantly hungover as he schleps his malfunctioning body in search electrolytes. His faculties are mainly detoxified and back in working order by the time he comes to find himself in a hypermarché on the outskirts of Nice, perspiring under the fluorescent lighting and his shopping trolley solely responsible for keeping him upright for most of his journey around the store. Only after ingesting a good portion of its contents - namely, two bottles from a six pack of orange isotonic sports drinks and half a sleeve of paprika Pringles - is he recovered enough to actually pay.
The one-way system for the checkout queue takes him through the alcohol aisle. Normally, Booker would grab a bottle from somewhere at about his height on the spirits shelf. Now, though, his liver is actively rotting into his bloodstream. The concept registers as unpalatable.
He continues down the aisle, knocking two bottles of Nile’s lager into his basket as he goes.
Etihad loses his checked luggage, which would be a much greater shame if it contained literally any single object he cared about. There's nothing to identify him in a black duffel full of cotton shirts and blue jeans, so he doesn't even bother to register it as missing. The messenger bag over his shoulder has all the essentials, which he unpacks onto a hotel bed beside a hastily purchased set of three boxer briefs in a clear plastic package. He arranges the items into a neat rectangle; two laptops, several hard drives and their matching cables, a satellite phone, a selection of forged passports, a re-usable travel mug from the Musée Rodin gift shop, and a rare copy of Don Quixote.
When Andy had first handed it to him, he had for a second wondered if she knew what was to come. The motivation for its choice could not be more plain. Realising that she had not, fear rapidly turned to hurt. Don Quixote is a man who has fallen out of step with the world, whose only touchstone with it is the cheerful mind of a self-motivated friend. That Booker's suffering could be so transparent but so unworthy of effort to remedy had stung.
He wants to laugh, now. In an uncharitable reading, she certainly had him pegged; deranged and railing at an unjust morality solely he can see. But multiple themes can be present throughout a text. Perhaps she thought it a wry observation, a wink and a nudge, a comment on a could-have-been that was narrowly avoided by two friends. Perhaps it was an acknowledgement of his endurance. Perhaps she actually saw herself as Don Quixote, and he was merely greedy Sancho reaching for an island beyond his means.
Perhaps, at the end of all things, it was only just a book.
He has carried it around like a leaden weight all this time. A gift given to a man who did not at the time, and whom certainly no longer, exists. But if that person cannot read it at least Booker can, he reasons.
The shop frontage directly in front of him is closed up. Freshly so, from the taped printer paper notice on the door.
Booker had liked this place, and had recalled it specifically. They had not visited Taipei in several years, but it had seemed to be doing well at the time. It was one of the first pearl milk tea places he had encountered, and sold the unsettling cheese foam topping of which Joe had been a vocal advocate. Since he was on the same continent, Booker had resolved to return here and try it where he had last time not been brave enough.
He'd been looking forward to it, recalling the way Joe had praised the blend of savoury salt and sweetened tea. Foam had stuck to the hair of his upper lip and Nicky had reached over to thumb it off. The memory makes his heart hurt, for reasons now overly complex to articulate. He is trying. Yet an eternity never seems to be long enough to get used to the ephemeral. He's been given an unending task and a fallible selection of tools with which to handle it.
"Would Sisyphus mourn the wilting of a tree on his hillside," Booker asks aloud, "Or would he grateful for the change in the view?"
A man in the crisp suit and tie of a commuter, similarly paused disappointed by the door, turns to him.
"I have no idea what you are talking about," he offers politely. He then gestures with an arm in which he holds a briefcase. "I believe there is another store on the next street."
Booker goes to text Nile a selfie of himself, standing in front of a bizarre statue from a strange Soviet era comedy film, pulling the same odd expression as the lovesick man kneeling in front of a woman. He does not do so, for two reasons. The first of all is the recognition that this action would cross a line that he is ardently, pathetically grateful she is letting him toe. The second is that he looks like fucking Chewbacca.
He hasn't shaved in months. It hadn't bothered him - in fact, he'd felt it useful. Last week, he had alerted Copley that he'd likely been caught on the CCTV passing the Russian Embassy in Ukraine, which he is not too big to admit was perhaps a little beyond the remit of his laptop and the Kyiv-Pasazhyrskyi Starbucks Free Wifi, at least not when he had the capability to outsource.
Copley had needed him to clarify which face in the crowd was his.
Working as part of a team made Booker overly aware long ago of when something falls outside of his remit. As such, he finds the nearest Turkish barbers he can and puts himself in the hands of the professionals. Said hands are soft, ply his skin with steam and aftershave balm until he emerges new and softly vulnerable like an oyster shucked from its shell.
The realisation sets in about six months after London, with the backdrop of another unremarkable short-term let in another remarkable European city, that Booker no longer spends swathes of his private infinity chasing oblivion at the bottom of a bottle. For a long time he would sit, he would drink, and he would wake up four days later after he had died of alcohol poisoning and grown a new liver. Then he’d take it from the top.
A few things have begun to shift. Largely, he straight up drinks better shit now, and while his pockets are deep enough it is objectively kind of a shame to piss away whisky that’s been sitting around longer than he has. Further, liquor has without his awareness become something more of a filter which he applies over nights on which he’s feeling or doing other things. Though out of practice he is given to understand that is more the mode of your average casual drinker, only for them the activities are assumedly banal things like 'having co-workers over' or 'cooking dinner', not 'preventing a break-in at the farmacia downstairs' or 'attempting to divine whether it is possible to deserve forgiveness for selling your loved ones into eternal torture'.
So maybe he wants to try normal, for a change. Indulge in the sensation. Live a little, even. He pours a small measure of aged malt into a short glass, inflates it with the addition of an ice cube, and sits down on his couch.
Any time they make a mark on the grid, Copley scrubs it. By result, actively electing to make accounts that are by nature not temporary rather goes against that ethos, and Copley seems like he’d appreciate the heads up.
Ten minutes later, he is sent an email address and a clinical sounding password. However, upon login, he is faced with the option of two existing profiles entitled ‘James’ and ‘Kids’. ‘Kids’ features the word in brightly coloured bubble lettering. ‘James’ displays an icon with a little green smiling face.
Booker does so, after a brief bout of snooping. Copley is half way through about six different crime dramas. After some contemplation, he eventually selects the face that looks like an unimpressed, red chicken for his own icon.
When he clicks through, he’s given five seconds to be overwhelmed by the myriad poster-like title cards before one of them starts blaring at him full-volume. He flails, sloshing liquid out his tumbler in an effort to stab the mute button. He watches the trailer play out in totality. He has no idea what it is for, and nor does he particularly care. It appears to contain superheroes, which seem to be a trend of late. The last time he went to the theatre was to see that film with the blue aliens that claimed to be the future of cinema.
Four hours and change later, he texts Nile.
Copley it is, then. Beggars can't be choosers.
At that, Booker places his phone gently on the plush fabric of the seat cushion beside him. Then he promptly gets up and walks through his front door, tipping the very last drain of his drink down the kitchen sink on the way. Once outside, the neon of the illuminated green cross hanging above the door to the farmacia casts his skin in a sickly pallor, which makes sense, because he abruptly feels like he is going to be revisiting his dinner.
He walks one lap of his building, skin shivering him awake in the evening air, and then another.
On his way back up the stairs, a young child flaps a chubby arm at him, and he waves back with a small wiggle of his fingers. She drops a soft toy out of her rudimentary hands in her exuberance, and Booker hops down half a dozen steps to collect and return it to her parents.
Eventually, he sits back down. He unlocks his phone and begins to type.