In which bad news comes in threes, and Chris gets an unwanted gift.
When she remembered it all years later, Chris couldn't quite decide which of the two had started everything: the kid or the bar. In the end, though, perhaps it didn't matter which of them had begun things? She'd met the kid, she'd walked into the bar, and at some point after that, things had started changing in her. By the end of those few weeks, she'd been someone else.
Chris would never say how old she was when she met the kid, but the truth was, she had been just the wrong side of thirty. She'd come to East City a decade ago by way of a bunch of other places. She'd arrived with no particular plan in mind, and found herself working as a nightclub waitress, then later in a chorus line. A couple of months ago, she'd finally gotten her own show put on, and it had been a roaring success right up until the city censors shut it down. Chris had then found herself heavily in debt to the show's dubious backers. She'd had to talk herself out of a forcible dip in the canal. Unfortunately, this had instead meant that she had herself into a job working at a very bad bar owned by her sponsors. She'd gone from working in a bad bar to the stage - then back again because some politician's wife had blushed at her script. Wonderful.
The very bad bar was called the Ace of Hearts, and it was open all night. When Chris worked on the late shift, she finished work around six in the morning. Then she would walk the ten blocks home, her heels aching, wrapped in the cheap rabbit fur that five weeks earlier, she'd been planning to replace with a mink.
It was spring, a couple of months since she'd started at the Ace of Hearts. In the East, spring mornings were very bright and cold, especially this early in the day. Chris kind of liked this time of morning: the hour that fishermen and captains of industry started work, and whores and security guards finished up. It was just quiet enough. Not much later, the streets would be full of good citizens heading to work, kids walking to school, and guys selling newspapers and coffee and pretzels. But right now, it was just Chris, her echoing footsteps, a chorus of birds in the trees getting frisky with each other, and a few people swaying home from very good parties (or very bad ones).
Chris had a bad habit of noticing things. So even if the street had been busy, she probably would have spotted the two policemen walking with a very small boy between them. In the half-deserted morning quiet, the little group really stood out. Chris wondered what the story was there. Her guess was that maybe the kid had done that thing where you run away from home but don't get any further than the end of your street. She'd been like that once, before she got ambitious.
A half-block from her door, Chris looked away for a moment to find her keys, and when she looked back up, the cops and the kid weren't there any more, leaving the street completely empty. When she turned into the little porch in front of her apartment, however, it was already full. One of the policemen was knocking her door.
Chris's current line of work meant that she was not entirely friendly with the cops at this time in her life; if it wasn't for the kid, she might have assumed trouble and just kept on walking until they gave up knocking and went away. She wondered occasionally, later on in life, what would have happened if she had walked on.
But she didn't. Instead, for reasons she didn't fully understand, she drew her shoulders back and asked, "Can I help you, officers?"
The policemen looked Chris over. They seemed to take in the key in her hand, the cheap fur coat, the sequinned headband, the paste jewellery, the make-up that was no doubt smudged and half-sweat off by now, and undoubtedly the fact that quitting time at her job appeared to be six in the morning. They did not look particularly pleased about any of this.
As for the kid, he didn't look particularly anything. He just stared.
"Christina Mustang?" asked one of the policeman. Too tired to think straight and just lie, Chris responded automatically that yes, she certainly was. That did for her first theory, which was that the policemen and the kid must have gotten the wrong door.
What could she do? She invited them to come on up.
Chris's apartment was located above a shop that sold fried, breaded pork. She regularly had to spray her clothes with perfume to get rid of the smell of cooking oil from downstairs. She showed the policemen up to the kitchen, which also doubled as a hallway and a parlour. Until very recently, Chris had enjoyed the genteel luxury of a cramped parlour, but when her landlord had agreed to a roommate, the high-backed floral print chairs had been swapped for a cheap iron bedstead, and Chris found she was back to the days of living out of a single room.
There was, as usual, a rail of laundry drying near the stove. The first policeman, the taller one, looked at Chris's smalls on the rack and curled his lip a little. This did not get him on Chris's good side. She prided herself on always, no matter how poor she got, having decent lingerie. It was good for one's morale.
There were only two chairs at the little kitchen table. The first policeman took one, and the little boy sat in the other. The second policeman stood behind the kid's chair. Chris leant against the kitchen cupboard, watching them warily and attempting to formulate new theories as to what the hell was going on. She was coming up with nothing. There were plenty of reasons she might have had two strapping policemen in her apartment first thing in the morning, but none of them involved a tiny, grouchy kid sitting at her kitchen table and scratching the dirt out of the woodgrain with his thumbnail.
The second policeman kept looking between Chris and the little boy. Chris thought at first he was going to do some polite introductions, but instead he just looked back and forth, as if he was expecting them both to do something. That was odd.
The kid himself was skinny and, as Chris had noted before, very small indeed. She couldn't have taken a guess at how old he was. Five? Eight? What she knew about kids wouldn't cover the back of an omnibus ticket. He was wearing shorts, a neat shirt and a dark green duffel jacket - not exactly street urchin wear. After a few seconds, he seemed to pick up that Chris was watching him and looked up to meet her eyes. And then he just carried on meeting them, staring and staring and staring. He had big, pretty, dark almond eyes, and apparently, no need to ever blink. Chris was vaguely reminded of the spooky little kid in a mystery movie she'd seen a couple of years back, in which he'd turned out to be poisoning ma and pa by soaking the arsenic out of fly paper. Cute.
"Miss Mustang," said the first policeman, "I'm afraid we've got some bad news for you." Chris observed that he really didn't sound too cut up about it. "Your brother Seth and his wife were involved in an automobile collision. I'm sorry to tell you they've both passed on."
Chris noticed that neither of the cops had offered her a seat. Her brother had an automobile? High hat, huh. Wait, her brother had a wife?
Seth, she thought. It's been a while. And now - well, it was going to be a substantial while longer. The policemen seemed to be expecting some kind of emotional show from her: crying, hair-clutching, maybe a little light hysteria. The kid redirected his stare to the grain of the kitchen table. Chris was beginning to get an inkling of what he was doing here in her apartment.
"Boys," she said, "I haven't heard from my brother for fifteen years. Sorry I can't give you a better performance, but right now, I'm bushed." She pulled the cigarette case from her handbag, got out a cigarette and lit it with the first match. It was a good plan. She felt her pulse slow with the first drag - and besides, it gave her something to do with her hands.
The first policeman said, "This is your nephew, Roy." He sounded personally offended by it all.
Chris marched over and popped her smoke in the corner of her mouth in order to hold out a hand to Roy. He didn't take it, didn't even look up. He just carried on scratching patterns into the ingrained dirt on the table.
"Hey, kid," Chris said. "I'm" - she considered for a moment - "your pa's sister, Chris." She'd decided against Aunt Chris. It sounded a little on the old side.
The second policeman said, "Young Roy is here because it looks like you're his only living relative. Lucky boy."
"Why didn't you just take him to my parents?"
Neither of them said anything. Chris had spoken without thinking: now she repeated the last couple of lines of the conversation back to herself in her head. Only living relative. She was way too tired to process all of this, but there had clearly been some sort of mistake here, that much she could see.
Policeman One said, "Well. Seth Mustang's mother died a couple of years back."
"My mother," Chris said. Whom she didn't like. And had never been planning to see again. Her parents and Seth had known for a long time pretty much where Chris was and what she was doing. They might not want to invite her round for Sunday dinner and parcheesi, but they could have damn well told her that her ma had passed. She squeezed her eyes shut, pinched the bridge of her nose. This was all becoming a little much. "What about my dad, then?"
He said, "You tell me." When Chris evidently wasn't about to tell him, he reached into his bag and hauled out a brown cardboard folder. He leafed through it. After a couple of minutes, he raised his head and said, "Apparently your father died of pneumonia eleven years ago."
Chris looked at the cop, thinking the cheek of him, saying it all casual. He looked pretty tall all of a sudden. Then Chris realised that she was now sitting on the floor. She was still holding her cigarette pointing straight upwards in her right hand. It was still lit. She took a long suck on it, held the smoke in her lungs for a moment to get all the goodness out it, then exhaled it forcefully with pursed lips.
The kid scowled at Chris. "Why are you sitting on the floor?" he said.
"Because I only got two chairs, and you already took one."
There was a little silence after that. During it, Policeman One and Policeman Two did a lot of talking with their eyebrows. Chris didn't really follow it at the time, but afterwards, when she realised it had been something of a significant conversation, she imagined how it might have gone. She decided that One had thought that there was no way in hell they were leaving a child in the hands of this woman, and that Two was getting a headache and just wanted to get out of here and get his coffee and cruller.
Two won the eyebrow-argument. Chris occasionally wondered in later life what might have happened if he'd had his breakfast before knocking on her door.
Policeman One stood up and left the cardboard folder there on the table. Chris stood up and started flipping through the documents. Roy's birth certificate. Doctor's notes. A memo from Seth's local police branch about the accident. Seth had still been living in her hometown, apparently. Pfft, why? It was such a dump.
It suddenly hit Chris with full force what it was that these two guys were attempting to pull with her and the little boy. Only living relative. Shit, they were really going to leave him here, weren't they?
"What if I don't ... " Chris didn't even know how to finish up that sentence. Did she look like the sort of person who could take care of a kid? Did she look like the sort of person you'd even let your kid speak to?
The two cops were already shuffling in the direction of the door.
Policeman One said, "Just bring him on back and we'll take him to the City Orphanage."
"Does he come with any clothes?"
"At the address in the file. That's the lady who was looking after him when your brother passed."
"Why didn't she take him in?"
The second cop shrugged. "Ask her."
The door slammed behind them.
Chris looked at Roy. Roy folded his arms and looked down.
Thus far, it was a pretty damn indescribable morning. Some feeling or other was smashing into her like a wrecking ball with every beat of her heart. She hadn't looked too closely into it yet; so far, she was keeping it at bay with nicotine and exhaustion. She could work it out later, after some sleep and a strong cup of coffee - and maybe a couple of highballs. She'd lost the brother she'd never gotten along with, the father she was still angry with, and the mother who was just plain insufferable. Plus some sister-in-law she'd never met. And in place of these people, this lost family she had never been planning on looking up anyway, she had a very small nephew. If Seth hadn't gone and crashed his auto, then Chris never would have met this spooky little creature. Now, apparently, he was all hers.
Well, that wasn't going to happen. Even the remnants of Chris's brain still functioning right now could work out that much.
Mind you, it wasn't as if she could turf him out on the street on the spot.
Chris sat at the table and finished off her cigarette. Little Roy had got back to scraping all the dirt out of the cracks in the table with a scowl on his face. If her morning was a bust so far, Chris thought, his was looking a hell of a lot worse.
"Kid, you want a cup of coffee or something?"
He shook his head without looking up. Something vaguely stirred at the back of Chris's mind. What age had she started drinking coffee? It was a long way to think back.
"How old are you?"
"Four." What did four year olds drink? Hot milk?
"Hot milk?" Chris tried.
He nodded. Chris felt very pleased with herself. Then she headed to the kitchen window to check if they actually had any milk that wasn't off. She hauled open the window and looked over the three bottles of milk cooling on the sill along with a pat of butter. One of the milk bottles was full of semi-transparent liquid and lumpy curds. She dumped it straight into the sink. Goddamn Iris, that girl needed housetraining. If it smelled bad, she'd just put it straight back on the sill. Even the simplest parts of decent roommate conduct seemed to go over that girl's head. Chris carefully sniffed the remaining two bottles, deeming them probably safe for human consumption. Chris did, in fact, have a proper icebox. It just didn't have any ice in it right now, so it was currently more of a cupboard, really. She and Iris kept sleeping through the iceman's morning round.
She poured a little of the milk that she decided was newer onto a spoon. Having tasted that, she located a milk pan in a pile of dirty dishes, scrubbed it out at the sink, and dried it with a relatively clean cloth. Then she poured in some milk, popped it onto the gas stove, and lit it with a match. While it heated up, she found a coffee mug in the dirty dishes and washed that up too. The coffee mug was the heavy white kind you get in diners. In fact, it had 'Marie's Coffeehouse' printed on it cheaply in curly script. Iris was an expert at leaving bars and cafés with more dinnerware on her than when she'd entered. That was why none of their spoons matched.
The kid's eyes followed her through the whole performance. It was, Chris thought, a solid demonstration of why leaving a child in her care was a nutty idea. She wished she'd thought to do this in front of the cops.
Finally, Chris plonked down a mug full of hot milk in front of young Roy. He looked a little sceptical. He leant forward and put his nose to it without picking it up. After a few ginger sniffs, he wrapped his small hands around the mug, then, with an air of intense concentration, tipped it towards his mouth and slurped some, still without picking it up. A few sips in, he took it up with both hands.
"How's your drink?" asked Chris.
The kid turned his big, kitten eyes on her and nodded soberly. Then he got straight back to nursing his milk like a barfly on his third bourbon. 'Thank you' would have been nice,' thought Chris, but then she waved the thought aside.
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She lit another cigarette. They sat for a while in silence, Roy with his milk and Chris with her smokes. Then, without preamble, the kid put down the mug, drew his legs up to his chest, folded his arms around them, pushed his nose between his knees, and went straight to sleep, just like that. The whole business must have taken less than ten seconds.
Well, that solved the question of what to do with him for the morning. Chris ground out her cigarette, stood, and went to shake Roy. He snuffled, but didn't fully wake.
"Come on," she said, "Time for a nap." She knelt down and shook his shoulder.
Then he put his arms around her. That was weird. They were barely on speaking terms. The kid couldn't be properly awake.
Chris wasn't sure exactly how to pick him up, but she put her hands under his butt to support his weight and hoisted. It seemed to go okay. Her heels didn't give out, so she walked him into Iris's room, and popped him into her roommate's unmade bed without even turning the gas lamp on. She drew the covers over him. He was out for the count, which, coincidentally, was the exact condition in which she was hoping to be herself in five minutes' time.
Chris's own bedroom, unlike Iris's, was neat. The cheap bedspread was made up, her sheets were good cotton, and the floors were clean. Chris's beliefs about the morale boosting powers of an inviting bedroom went along with her belief in always wearing silk panties and good stockings. If she was in the black, Chris would have preferred something a little more decadent and a little less decent - but unfortunately, silk sheets and a good set of boudoir furniture were much further out of Chris's budget than fancy undies. Right now, though, all she cared about was the bed. Everything else in her life could wait. She stepped out of her heels, shimmied out of her frock and hung it up. Then she unhooked her stockings, rolled them up and threw them into her laundry bag. She dealt with her corset and laid it flat on the wardrobe shelf, and pulled off her drawers and threw them in the laundry too. Standing in just her slip, she breathed for a moment. Then she stood at the washstand, pulled the pins from her hair and combed it out. She took off her paste jewels - heavy earrings, a necklace, two rings on each hand - and put them into a painted wooden jewellery box. She poured some water into the bowl, rinsed off the night's make-up and washed the prickly sweat out from her armpits. She dried up, then opened the window, shouted a quick warning, then splashed the soapy water out into the alley. A little boy whistled at her. She raised an eyebrow, gave him a freezing look and then slammed the window shut. She pulled the curtains, slipped into her narrow bed and was fast asleep by her third breath.
Some time in the afternoon, Chris's roommate came and shook her awake to ask why an unidentified little brat had just kicked her out of her own bedroom.
"That's Roy," Chris said. "I just inherited him. I was thinking I might keep him around and train him to attack burglars."
In which Roy flirts with his first waitress, and Chris meets a woman of means.
Besides good underwear and an enticing bedroom, Chris also believed in the power of a good dressing gown. She threw on her robe (Xingese artificial silk), shoved a soft cap over her hair (which doubtless needed a comb through it) and felt instantly more dressed, and therefore, more in control of her life. Then she swept through to the kitchen to face a hungry, grouchy child.
Little Roy was back at his previous seat at the kitchen table, sitting cross-legged and looking solemn. His hair was sticking up all over the place. When he saw Chris, he screwed up his eyes for a moment, and then made them big.
"Where's Iris got to?" asked Chris. The kid looked confused. "Blonde, about so high" - she indicated her shoulder - "really annoying." Chris knew why she was rooming with Iris. She needed the money. Still, Chris would frequently find herself pointing out coffee cups that were growing mold or drying laundry that was left to go stiff for a week in front of the stove, and then she'd get some sass and a slammed door in return. That's when she would think to herself, 'why Iris, of all people?'
"She took my bed," said Roy. "And I can't open the door." Ah. She'd locked the little moppet out. Never let it be said that Iris wasn't all heart. "And I'm hungry," Roy added.
"What are you hungry for?" asked Chris.
"I like egg."
"Any particular kind?"
Geez, it was like having a conversation with a drunk. "Boiled? Scrambled? Gold-plated?"
Roy frowned at her. "And toast."
Chris checked the cupboards and the bread bin, and was not entirely surprised to find neither egg nor bread. This was one of those moments when you just had to throw money at the problem, wasn't it? Not that she had much to throw. "Roy, would you like to accompany me to lunch at Marie's?"
"Can I have egg?"
"Yes, I believe you may." Roy seemed delighted. "But first you're going to have to work on your appearance. I don't think Marie's will let you in with your hair like that." This was not strictly true. Marie's let hobos in.
A couple of minutes later, Chris found herself back in her bedroom with a basin full of water and Roy. She got him to wash his face, and he seemed very smug that he could do it himself. Then she wet her good hairbrush and tugged it through his hair while he stood on the chair with his lower lip out. She was starting to get the impression that children required a lot of maintenance.
In Marie's Coffeehouse, a block away from Chris's place, the coffee still cost half a cen and the cup was bottomless. Roy sat with his elbows resting on the table, and stared through the menu like he wanted to burn a hole into it. Ah, thought Chris, too young for school. I'll have to read it to the little guy.
Roy stabbed his finger into a spot on the menu. "Egg," he announced. Chris leaned over to look at his little finger - there was dirt under his nails. She'd have to get him to scrub his hands or something - and hey, sure enough, he'd found the eggs.
"So, you're reading, huh?"
"Yes." He got quiet again.
Chris took a guess and ordered a boiled egg and toast for Roy, and a farmer's breakfast for herself. She ordered herself coffee, and got Roy orange juice because it sounded wholesome. Now that she thought of it, she was starving.
Little Roy's egg arrived. He stared at it for a moment, and pressed the top with a finger. Then he said, "Mama puts the egg in a saucer. With chiyou sauce." Chris had absolutely no idea what that was, but she was fairly sure they didn't have it at Marie's.
She pulled Roy's egg over, and cut the top off for him. Then she cut his buttered toast up into fingers and pushed it all back to him. He ate silently and with intense concentration. Chris watched him, and saw more and more of Seth in him. She'd left home at sixteen. Her elder brother had been a lanky, surly teenager then, but he must have been - what, thirty, when Roy was born? Seth as a grown-up, Seth as a father, Seth not in the world at all ... Chris didn't know which was stranger to imagine. Roy's little frown looked like his, and the nose - had Seth been so round-faced as a child? Chris hadn't taken any family photos with her when she left, hadn't wanted any. She guessed she hadn't thought what never come back, never see you again really meant. Who can, at sixteen? Roy's hair was definitely much darker, though; it was poker straight and glossy, inky black where Seth's hair had been much like Chris's in its (seldom seen) natural state, brown with a little wave to it. Those lovely eyes must be courtesy of Seth's wife. She had to have been Xingese - and a real looker if the kid was anything to go by. But the stare - now Chris was remembering Seth as a little boy, arms folded, refusing to budge over some stupid kid row or other. Seth had always had that way of staring at you when he was digging his heels in about something. A sharp, burning pang rose up in Chris's chest. Heartburn. She shouldn't have eaten so fast.
They finished and paid. At home, Chris dug out a pack of cards, and spent the rest of the afternoon teaching her only living relative, tiny and silent, to play her at snap.
That evening, Chris walked to work slowly, thinking. Iris was working later that night, so when Chris had to start work, she'd called in a favour from Mrs Torrado upstairs and asked her to look after Roy for the night. The woman had six kids anyway - or was it seven? - so it wasn't like she'd even notice an extra midget around the place.
At the Ace of Hearts, Chris hung up her coat in the cloakroom behind the bar and pulled her face powder and cigarette case out of her bag. As she checked out her face, Ava bustled in, on time for once, but looking a little peaky. "You hear about Louie?" she asked Chris.
"What about her?" Chris snapped her compact shut and leant against the wall, feeling her stomach curl up a little. She could see it now: this was just going to be one of those days that goes on and on until it's over.
Ava continued, "She missed the day shift today and yesterday. Boss was throwing fits over it. He sent the boys around her place and it turns out her landlady hasn't seen her for days." Ava wrinkled her nose. "And the old lady already called the cops."
Chris whistled. Brannigan would be in a filthy mood tonight. Some of the things that went on at the Ace of Hearts skirted the boundaries of the legit, to say the least. Brannigan wasn't a big man to his business associates: if it came to it, the real big hitters would throw him to the wolves, and everybody knew it. Any whiff of trouble therefore made Brannigan jumpy in the extreme. He got mean when he was jumpy, which in turn made everyone else jumpy.
"So, the story goes, she went out Monday night all dressed up, landlady never seen her since."
"Didn't she have a date? That guy with the nose ... I didn't like him."
This was one of the reasons Brannigan was right to be nervous around the cops. Louie's date hadn't been leisure, it'd been business. Not that she was going to be seeing much of the money involved. City Hall had come down hard on prostitution a few years back, but there was always a way around the law. The Ace of Hearts and places like it charged its clients to enjoy the company of a pretty lady at their table while they took a drink - and if they wanted to enjoy her company elsewhere, it charged extra.
In other places, classier joints, a date like that might mean accompanying some banker or officer visiting from Central for a night on the town. Dates that originated at the Ace of Hearts, in Chris's limited but unpleasant experience, usually began in a dark bar with some piker trying to feed you triple gin-tonics and tell you they were 'only a little one.' They continued with him ranting about what a jerk everyone was to him, including his wife, and concluded in a cheap hotel, where the piker in question would probably get shirty when you told him to put on a condom. Chris had had five dates since coming to work at the Ace of Hearts. The worst one of them she'd had to escape by hitting the guy with the heel of her shoe and then climbing out the bathroom window. The rest, she'd just tolerated. Chris didn't think of herself as the kind of girl who quietly put up with things, but right now, she didn't have much choice in the matter: these scumbags had her pinned. For now, all she could do was survive and keep her eyes open.
At ten o'clock, when Iris started work, things were still quiet. Chris had flirted with a lonely insurance salesman, then she gritted her teeth over a couple of rich students playing tourist in the bad part of town. Now that she was between customers, Chris had plenty of time to head to where Iris was tending bar. Iris Futterman was little and curvy, with a lot of fluffy blonde hair that she claimed was utterly unaided by peroxide and a permanent wave. Nobody believed her. She liked chocolate malts and winning arguments with people, and not necessarily in that order. It was inevitable that she would have a lot to say about finding her bed occupied by a four year old.
"You starting up an orphanage now? Or are you gonna teach him to pick pockets?"
"What am I supposed to do, put him straight out on the street? He's my brother's kid."
"Or he could be a really little butler. We could put a tray on his head." Iris was chewing gum and talking at the same time. One of these days, Chris was going to work out how she did that trick. She leant against the bar, raised an eyebrow and waited for Iris to run out of lame cracks. It didn't take long.
"Maybe we should do that with you around here. Although we'd probably need to tape your mouth shut too if we let you out from behind here." Chris rapped the bar.
"Geez, it was just one stupid guy. He deserved a good belt in the eye, the rat."
"Uh huh, one guy. Plus the officer you slapped the week before when he pinched your butt."
"And the guy whose whisky and ginger ale you peed in. Oh, you thought I didn't know about that, huh?" Chris was on a roll now. "Kiddo, we're keeping you back here for your own good, until you're no longer a menace to the perverts of East City. And to yourself. Brannigan would have your head on a plate if he knew about some of this stuff."
Iris tutted. "Don't kiddo me, grandma."
"All righty. How about I just tell everyone here your real age?"
And that was that. Iris was biddable. She was a good kid, really, you just had to show her who was boss. Kid was, in fact, an accurate description of Iris. After a week of rooming together, Chris had managed to wrangle her real age out of her. She was fifteen. It had been good to know that after a decade of dubious city living, Chris still had some shockable nerves left somewhere in her body. Iris, on the other hand, seemed to think that fifteen was practically mid-life crisis time, but that didn't stop her telling everyone else that she was four years older.
"He's here," said Chris, "for a few days, until I can get someone to take him permanently. I'm not exactly in the market for a kid here."
"Days? But what are you going to do with the little brat?"
"I told you. We're keeping you behind the bar until you learn to bite your tongue a little." Oh, she'd walked into that one.
Iris rolled her eyes, but didn't even bother with a comeback. Chris said, "Mrs Torrado can have him when we're both here, but aside from that, you're just going to have to help take turns with me to look after him. Don't worry, you can have your bed back. I'll put him in with me. It's not like he'll take up much space."
Chris got home before six. The lights were still all off at Mrs Torrado's, so she sat up in the kitchen with a mug of tea, 101 Chess Problems, and her little chess set. At seven, the radio opened broadcast, and so did Mrs Torrado's apartment. There was the usual screaming kids, yelling adults, stomp stomp stomp across the floorboards. Chris abandoned her sleepy attempts to plot her way to checkmate in three moves, and went to pick up Roy.
It took three rounds of knocking before anyone heard her, then the door was wrenched open by a young girl with a toddler on her hip and a half-eaten bit of toast dangling from her mouth. She grunted something that Chris guessed might be "come on in" if it hadn't been muffled by a mouthful of bread. Chris came on in.
Mrs Torrado's hall was a riot of piles of shoes, bags, and far too many pieces of furniture. Figures of various sizes darted in between the little rooms, yelling at each other, and occasionally, in the direction of the kitchen, "Ma!"
In the little kitchen, Chris found Mrs Torrado stirring oatmeal porridge and breastfeeding a baby at the same time. Roy was sitting at the table with three other children who were all a little bigger than him. They were squabbling over the butter while he looked down at his empty plate. He looked the way he had at Chris's table yesterday morning, curled into himself, absorbed in his own thoughts. Chris couldn't fathom what might be going through the head of a recently orphaned four year old who finds himself in a very strange place.
Mrs Torrado nodded to Chris, but didn't seem to have time for much more. She set out bowls and started pouring porridge into them one-handed, while supporting the tiny baby at her breast in the crook of her arm. It was quite the feat, although Chris supposed that by this point in her life, she must have had enough practice to get it down.
Chris turned back to the table, and found that the boy next to Roy was poking him in the arm. Roy was looking down and frowning. He didn't seem to have noticed Chris at all.
"Hey," said Chris. Poke. "Cut that out." Poke. The boy blithely carried on.
A moment later, he had whipped his hand away, howling. "He bit me! Ma! Ma! The little nut bit me!" Roy was glowering at the other boy fiercely, his lower lip stuck out in a pout. It was funny to see the little oddball so expressive.
Mrs Torrado slammed the saucepan down and stalked over. The baby on her arm carried on having its breakfast, unruffled.
Roy looked over to Chris, his pretty eyes wide and and a look of outrage on his face. Chris quickly blocked Mrs Torrado's way to him.
"Your kid kept on poking Roy," said Chris. "I saw the whole thing."
Mrs Torrado turned on her own son. "Well, Tommy?"
Tommy flinched. "I never did!" The little sneak.
Little Roy had enough crap in his life already without being framed up by a snot-nosed bully. Chris leaned down and hoisted him in her arms. Just as he had done yesterday morning, he wound his arms around her neck immediately.
"Shame your kid got bit, " said Chris. "Maybe he'll learn something from the experience, huh?"
And with that, she navigated her way out of the kitchen and back to her place, holding her nephew tight in her arms.
Chris was on a short shift that night, so she got off at four. Roy was at Mrs Torrado's again. Louie still hadn't turned up. The atmosphere among the bar girls had been sour and resigned. It had made Chris mad as hell, seeing them almost expecting the bad news, shrugging it off in advance as if it was inevitable and impersonal, like bad weather. These girls were used to being pushed around: Chris was not. Until six weeks ago, she'd been her own woman and her own boss; now other people owned her, and how.
What she wanted to do was to walk off her troubles, to pound her feet around the silent city until her legs were numb. It was a bad time to be out on the streets, though. A week ago there'd been a riot in the Ishbalan quarter, a little mob of Amestrian guys angry about something or other. A bunch of houses were looted, four people killed and one of them a priest. Everyone was tense with waiting for the retaliation from the Ishbalans, whatever it was going to be. So no wandering around town for Chris - especially in this outfit. Besides, now that she was off-duty, she could really use that stiff drink she'd been not having all night.
There was a bar on a dark, narrow, cobbled side street on the edge of the oldest part of town. It could have been any bar. It was any bar. By this point in her life, Chris had learnt to sniff trouble out quickly and to make herself scarce when she found it; tonight, she was happy to wait until she was inside to give it the once-over.
Later in life, Chris always liked to say that Fate was a con, that things only happened for a reason if you made them happen. It was funny to think how much of her life might have hinged on the few steps she took, thoughtlessly, into an old pub late one night when she was tired and sad. Someone she knew would say, in those later days, that she had been primed for opportunity, and it could have been any chance that set her on her path. Chris was never sure what she thought, but then, she wasn't the sort to dwell on these things too much.
That night, Chris looked through the little smoked window panes just enough to see lights were on, then she strolled straight in and up to the bar. She ordered a measure of decent whisky, straight up, and a glass of water. The place seemed all right: mostly empty, red-fringed lampshades, a few tired working girls, a couple of quietly blotto old men in the corner. She swirled a couple of drops of water into her whisky for the sake of form, then took a far bigger sip than one should of good whisky. Then she drained her glass of water and asked for another, dug the book she was reading out of her handbag, and lit up a cigarette.
A few more pages into the siege of Cameron, and a few more sips into her drink, Chris felt someone looking at her out of the corner of her eye. She turned.
A little further up from her at the bar sat a strong-featured woman in her fifties. Her bobbed hair was iron grey and her cloche hat was pulled down over her eyebrows, but her coat was a sprightly, youthful velvet number with a high mink collar, and her lip rouge was a deep, flirty magenta. She was looking at Chris with frank, unembarrassed curiosity.
Was she hitting on her, or just wondering if Chris was a hooker? Chris supposed, these days, that if someone were to ask her that question, it wouldn't be entirely honest of her to say no. She raised her glass to the grey-haired woman. "Here's mud in your eye."
The woman raised her glass of sherry, solemnly. Then she said, in a low, smoky voice, "Did you know, that's one of my favourite books you're reading?"
"The Hundred Wars of the Medieval Amestrian States? They're a fun bunch, these medieval dukes. Lots of smarts, no morals. I like 'em." She winked at the grey-haired woman.
She giggled, then looked at Chris knowingly. "Learn anything useful from them?"
"Besides never trust a man further than you can throw a piano?" The woman giggled throatily again. "How about don't besiege a city that's spent the last century preparing for it? Those guys in Cameron were living it up for months while the chump invaders from the West sat around wondering how they were ever going to pay all those Aerugan mercenaries."
"And the trouble with an unpaid mercenary," said the woman, "is that he's likely to go freelance and help himself." She added, "Funny time of night to be catching up on your reading in a dark bar."
Chris raised an eyebrow. "I just got off work and needed a stiff one. Sure you know the feeling. I'm at the Ace of Hearts, you ever hear of us?"
"I'm afraid not."
"Good for you. You seem like a sensible kind of girl." Although actually ... Chris took in the bobbed hair over the woman's jawline, too long to be fashionable; the strong nose and chin; the high collar, neck scarf and gloves; the thin ankles. The very large shoes. It was a decent outfit, put-together and discreet, a touch of glamour, without being too obvious. Chris was impressed.
"And you seem too smart to be working for the sort of establishment that gives you a yen for liquor and medieval massacres at 4am." The grey-haired woman met her eyes; she'd picked up that Chris was onto her, and apparently didn't have a trace of embarrassment about the thing.
"What's your name, doll?" said Chris.
"You can call me Maria."
"I'm Christina. Call me anything you want, so long as it's complimentary." She stuck out a hand. Maria shook it, genteelly.
They sipped their drinks and talked military history for a while. Then Chris hopped down from her stool, and saluted her new pal. She headed out, somewhat bolstered, to face the cold night, and hopefully to get at least an hour of shut-eye before she had to pick up little Roy and find him some breakfast. So maybe he wasn't going to be with her for more than a day or two, but it was good manners to feed your guests.
Chris called the number the policeman had left her to send for Roy's things. The woman at the end of the phone, Jemima Campbell, had apparently been a friend of Seth's wife. She had actually been pretty chatty. It turned out she had been babysitting Roy at the time of the accident. "When the police turned up at my door, I thought it was Seth and Lee back from the movies already. It was me who had to tell the poor kid. I ended up hanging onto him until after the funeral, when the police told me they'd found your address. Roy's a bright little spark, but I've got four of my own, I don't know how we could have stretched to feeding another." There went one potential solution. "And Lee didn't have any family still alive in Amestris. They're all back in Qiongya." And there went Chris's other bright idea about who might take care of Roy.
It was a small stroke of luck, though, that Roy's mother came from the Qiongya province of Xing. Any other clan, and the name would have gone right over Chris's head, but she had been pals with a Qiongyan girl back in her cabaret days. This meant that Chris knew a few restaurants where she might be able to get that funny egg dish Roy had been asking for. She also knew that the three mainstays of Qiongyan culture were, according to her pal at least: chicken rice, good white tea, and endlessly telling everyone that the Chang clan were useless bums from bumfuck.
After she got off the phone, Chris decided to test out her information.
"Hey, kid," she said. "What do you think of the Chang clan?"
"They're stupid," Roy sneered with utter contempt. Well, that worked.
"How about chicken rice?"
"Yum! Are we having chicken rice?" He bounced up and down on his chair.
Chris's sources hadn't let her down. "Not tonight, kid." His eyes widened, his mouth turned down at the corners, his shoulders slumped: from cheerful to the picture of depression in an instant. Were all kids this good at making people feel guilty?
Three days later, Chris picked up a box of Roy's things at the post office. It was a good thing they'd come when they did. Yesterday, Chris had had to run out and spend the previous night's tips (hidden from Brannigan in her corset) on clean underpants and shirts for the kid. As she unpacked the box in the bedroom, Roy lay on the floor, drawing pictures on the back of a bill. There was a pile of Roy's clothes, a few picture books, a small pile of documents and photographs, and a stuffed toy rabbit. Roy's reaction to the rabbit was dramatic.
"Cat!" he yelled, and scrambled over to snatch the rabbit out of Chris's hands. He curled up with it jealously, as if she might try to get it back.
"Your bunny's called Cat?"
"Yes," said Roy, with great dignity.
He flopped back on his tummy to continue his drawing, with the rabbit tucked under one arm. At least the rabbit might distract him from asking about chicken rice again. Ever since she'd mentioned it, he was on her about it five times a day. Maybe she should find out how to cook it or something? Poached chicken and rice, couldn't be that hard.
While Roy drew, Chris dug into the folder. Much of it was boring, useful stuff, like his birth certificate, doctor's records. Then - ah - his parents' death certificates. Seth had died right there in the car from a broken neck, and his wife - whose real name was Li Hua, apparently - had lasted another hour before packing it in at the hospital from internal injuries. There were a few family photographs. Geez, Seth had really put on some weight. Li Hua next to him was a tiny little thing, pretty and round-faced. Chris found herself wondering about the woman almost more than she was wondering about Seth. Perhaps it was easier to think about his wife than Seth himself: she was rapidly finding herself boiling mad with her dumbass brother. Why did he have to be such a showoff high-hat and get an automobile in the first place? And why bother to get the thing if he didn't know how to get out of the way of other idiots on the road? And now look what he'd done.
"Chris?" Roy was looking up at her. She checked out his drawing. It was a scribble haired person eating a pile of scribbles in a bowl. Here it came. "Can we have chicken rice?" He kicked his heels back and forth.
Chris supposed she could always just carry on telling him no, like she had done the last fifteen times. But - what the hell, the kid had had a rough ride recently. "You know what, let's go get some tonight. I know a place."
"Yay!" He did a dumb little dance with his shoulders, and squeezed Cat. Damn, but he had a cute little smile. Chris hoped fervently she hadn't just been played by a four year old.
The Jade Cliff Teahouse was packed as usual. From the looks of the menu, they'd put their prices up since Chris was last here. She hadn't expected taking care of a kid would involve so many restaurant bills. Maybe it would help if she could cook worth a damn?
"Hey there," said the waitress. Chris couldn't remember her name for the life of her. "Haven't seen you in a dog's age. Who's the little one?"
"This is my nephew, Roy. He's a fan of Qiongyan cuisine, and I'm treating him a little."
"Ni hao," she addressed him, pressing her hands together.
Little Roy put his hands together neatly and bowed from the shoulders. Mom had brought him up nice. "Nin hao," he said. Was that the polite form or something? Then he followed it up with a whole stream of chatter in Xingese. Huh.
The waitress chatted back to him, patted his cheek and fussed over him. Chris had never seen the kid talk so much.
After a couple of minutes, the waitress broke off to mutter to Chris, "He told me his mom just died in an auto accident. That true?"
"Yeah, his dad too, poor little mite."
She tutted. "Too cruel, to go through something like that so young." She leant forward and dropped her voice further. "Then he said that you're going to take care of him now like his mom did. He seems to think the world of you."
"Huh." Chris abruptly found herself feeling like a complete heel. She'd been leading the kid on, winning his affection, and soon she was going to throw him out on his ear. She looked down at Roy. As she'd kind of expected, he was looking up, fascinated with the adults whispering secrets over his head.
"I think you're such a trouper, taking him on like that. I mean, I like kids okay, but I wouldn't know the first thing about taking care of one." And before Chris had worked out how what to say to that, the waitress was off, called over to another table with a snap of someone's fingers.
Roy's unusually cheerful and talkative mood continued throughout the meal. Bringing him here had been a good move. The waitress brought them a plate of dumplings on the house, and then shrimp rolls too after Roy asked about them. The waitress was completely smitten with the kid. As he chattered back to her in between bites, Chris began almost to suspect that he was playing up to it.
As Roy shovelled up rice with his chopsticks. Chris looked at her watch. "Damn," she said. "Work in two hours." Roy looked up at her quizzically. "I don't like my job," she said.
"Because I don't like my boss."
"Because he's a fu - a jerk."
"Why do you go if you don't like it?"
"Because I need the money for chicken rice." Chris topped off her cup of tea. "You know," she said, "I used to have a job I liked, before this one. I was a singer, then I wrote a play." She'd been picked out for the chorus line when the nightclub she was waiting tables at found themselves short of girls. This was back in the days when she'd had good legs.
"What was the play about?"
"It was about - well, it was about a girl who makes a big mistake. She gets into a lot of trouble, and she spends the whole play getting out of it."
"Are you the girl?"
"Nah, I'm getting a little heavy for juvenile leads. I played a famous singer. She looks after the girl. Sage advice, blue jokes. I sang a few songs." She was sort of hoping Roy wasn't about to ask what the songs were about.
"Did you like writing plays?"
Geez, the questions never stopped, did they? "Yeah, kid. I loved it. I wanted to write more."
"Why didn't you?"
"Because my show got censored. You know what censored means?"
He shook his head. "It means some busybody doesn't like what you're saying, so they call the people who run the country. And then the people who run the country make you shut up."
"Why didn't you make any more plays?"
"Because to make a play you need money. So you have to find some guys with money to lend it to you. Then when your play does well, you give 'em their money back with some extra. But you see, my play got shut down, so I couldn't give the guys their money. So now I gotta work for them."
"That's not fair." Roy scrunched his face up. "Why don't you tell them?"
She laughed. "Yeah, kid, I did, but they weren't very nice about it. They're not very nice men."
"Why did they give you money if they're not nice?"
"Because - well, because their organisation works like that. I knew what they were, but I really wanted that play. When you want something big, sometimes you've got to take a risk to get it."
"What's a risk?"
"Like when you toss a coin." Chris fished a cenz piece out of her purse, flicked it into the air, caught it on the back of her hand and slapped her palm over it. "Heads or tails, kid?"
Roy leaned forward and tried to sneak a look under Chris's hand. When he realised he couldn't, he said, "Heads."
Chris lifted her hand. Fuhrer Bradley smouldered on the coin in profile. Roy grinned and bobbed up and down.
Chris raised a finger. "You were lucky." She held up the coin and turned it over for him. "But look, half the time the coin falls the other way, and you're not lucky. That's how it goes."
"Do it again." Chris flipped: heads. She tried again: tails. Roy stared at the coin, fascinated. It was funny, being around a kid. When Roy was in the mood to talk, she got all kinds of questions thrown at her, and she ended up considering things she hadn't thought about for ages: probability, why water falls down and not up, and what the hell she was going to do with the rest of her life. Right now, she was trapped at the Ace of Hearts. But would she get a chance to flip the coin one more time?
Two weeks later, at 1am, Chris turned the mattress for the third time that week and spread a fresh sheet over it. A sleepy, miserable little boy was sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching her do it. "What we need round here, kid," she told him, "is an oilcloth."
"Mama puts that on," Roy said. He sat very quietly for a few seconds longer, and Chris watched him while she tucked the sheet corners quickly and automatically. She'd noticed the present tense, and considered reminding him of their recent conversations about Mama and how she was no longer a present tense person - but looking at Roy, it seemed he'd remembered. His eyes were very wide and moist, and his lower lip was gradually pushing outwards into a wobbly pout. Chris saw it coming. She stopped, went over, and crouched by him. He wavered for a moment longer, looking down at his folded legs. Then he climbed into Chris's arms and muttered into her chest, "I want mama."
For a few moments, they sat quietly together in the dark. Chris rubbed circles slowly on Roy's back. Then, suddenly, Roy sucked in a deep, sobbing breath, and the waterworks were unleashed. He shook, and sniffed, and made painful little gulping noises, soaking her robe in tears and snot while Chris stroked his back. He didn't howl, though. The near-silence of his crying fits had been eerie at first, but she was getting used to it now. And despite the silence, there were something reassuring about the tears. They turned him from a little changeling into a normal brat. Relatively speaking.
Chris hadn't done any crying herself, not over her brother or either of her parents. She wasn't entirely sure why, but she tried not to think on it much.
Chris continued to be a little taken aback that Roy was still living in her apartment. Part of it, she reasoned, was the murderous hours she worked at the bar. Between that, taking care of Roy, arguing with Iris about the basics of civilised housekeeping, and trying to fit in a little sleep here and there, she hardly had any time to consider what she was going to do with him. Mrs Torrado had started demanding money after the first couple of times babysitting the kid. It was probably the first bed-wetting incident over at hers that had done it. Chris was working a few extra hours here and there to cover Mrs Torrado's demands.
At first, the city orphanage had seemed like the most practical of the solutions as to what to do with the kid. Then she'd mentioned this to Alberta at the bar. Alberta had been raised in the city orphanage. After a couple of choice stories from Alberta's memory book, Chris found herself crossing the orphanage off her list of options. This left two other possibilities. Either she could find some rich, childless type to raise Roy, or she was stuck with the task herself. Obviously, she couldn't keep him. There was her job, and her life, and - well, her. He was a nice enough kid, if you liked them spooky-eyed and far too smart - which apparently she did - but still, Chris wasn't exactly mother material. She'd never really felt the urge to procreate. Babies had always struck her as messy and demanding more than anything else. And didn't a man or two give you enough of that anyway? No, even if she could find a way out of her current crummy situation, she would do a terrible job of this. She was just going to have to employ all her smarts and find a way to get someone more maternal or paternal or something to take in the kid.
Chris's apartment was starting to get as loud as Mrs Torrado's place. Right now, the radio blared in the kitchen, and Iris and Roy blared over it. That kid got louder every day. Iris had, in a move vastly magnanimous, agreed to take charge of Roy so that Chris could kick back for a bit. Well actually, it had sounded something more like: maybe do one of her dumb chess problems, read one of those boring books she liked, have a lie down because her back was probably hurting being so old and all, but Chris was too grateful to care. She'd just ruffled Iris's hair and then left the room before she had time to change her mind.
Chris was, however, not getting a lot of reading done.
"Our girls and boys in the North are going to be grateful to the boffins every time they peer through their binoculars. The National Alchemy programme has come up with another clever idea that's -"
"No, don't touch it, you'll do it wrong!"
"- centre began its work today helping thousands of wounded soldiers return to duty fighting fit! The doctors, mechanics and nurses are already hard at work, and -"
"Listen, kiddo, I've been building houses of cards since you were nothing but a tadpole in some guy's ballsack. You're gonna mess it up. Watch and learn."
"- our dashing young Fuhrer, once again showing the common touch that has made the Amestrian people take him to its heart -"
"No. I want to do it -"
"You're gonna - now look at that, that's your fault, you brat!" Pot, meet kettle, thought Chris. Maybe there was some natural food chain thing at work here. She called Iris a brat, Iris called Roy a brat ... so who got to be brattier than Roy? Babies? Cats? Spermatozoa?
She popped her head out of the door. Roy and Iris were sitting on the kitchen floor, scowling fiercely at each other, and despite the fact that one of them was a blue-eyed showgirl and the other was a tiny Xingese imp, they looked like they could have been siblings.
"You're both brats," yelled Chris. "Iris, let Roy build the house of cards himself. Roy, learn to keep your temper. And both of you, turn that radio down, and for the love of Herne dial yourselves down while you're at it."
She slammed the door and flopped back on her bed. A moment or two's bickering later, the radio went quiet and silence reigned. Chris smirked and opened her book.
The next night at the bar, Chris was feeling the strain of it all somewhat. Her heels were aching an hour into her shift, and she'd already had to restrain herself from slapping at least two grabby customers. Things hadn't even gotten busy yet. From his spot by the stairs, Brannigan caught her eye and nodded in the direction of a table in the corner. When she didn't move straight away, he snapped his fingers at her. She wouldn't have minded snapping them right off.
Chris weaved her way over to the table. The man sitting there was alone. He was somewhere in his late forties or early fifties, with eyeglasses, receding salt-and-pepper hair cropped short, an impressive nose and an equally impressive waxed moustache. He had to be from the military.
She put one hand on her hip. "Evening, honey. You look like the kind of high-roller who could buy a girl a highball." He stuck out a hand to her. She took it with her other hand, and he brought it up and kissed her knuckle showily - but he was looking at her with a sharp, speculative expression.
"I'm Christina." She took a seat in the chair he'd pulled out and let him light her a cigarette. Iris was already fetching her a fresh club soda. Chris was letting her out from behind the bar tonight, as an experiment. Mind you, she liked having Iris behind the bar. Not just because it kept her out of trouble, but because for some things, she was reliable. One of those things was catching Chris's eye signals, knowing when Chris meant she needed a drink brought over and when a customer was trouble. Another thing was that when a client ordered a mixed drink for Chris, and Iris was working the bar, the drink would arrive all soda. Not letting the clients get you blotto was a constant struggle for the bar girls - apart from the ones who just gave into it. In a place like this, you needed your wits about you.
There was definitely something familiar about the guy, she thought, as she leaned into the match he was offering and inhaled. She turned her face, blew a smoke ring and then turned back to look his face up and down slowly. Assessment in the guise of flirtation: it was a trick she'd found handy often enough. Then she realised where she'd seen the fellow before, and her eyebrow raised up into her headband.
He smiled wryly.
"Nice to see you, Maria. What do you do about the moustache?"
He leant forward, gave her a sneaky grin, then took it by one tip and peeled just the edge off.
"Impressive," she said. "It doesn't peel off in the steam room at the Cretan bathhouse?"
"That is a drawback," he said, and pulled a little face. "I try to spend most of the time there lying down. My name's Colonel Grumman." He winked. "How are the Aerugan mercenaries?"
"Well, when I left them, they were rampaging across the country, helping themselves to virgins and silverware. The good old days, huh?"
"Yes. Now that we're a civilised, unified nation, we just throw lit bottles of kerosene through our neighbours' kitchen windows."
"Huh? Oh, there was an attack today?"
"Yes, it was quite a senior local policeman. It was in all the papers. Or do you stick to reading about historical bloodshed?"
"Nah, I was just on nights this week. Funny, most of the military men we get in here want a break from politics."
"My dear lady, there is no such thing as a break from politics. The damn stuff gets everywhere." He took a swig of his drink.
It was a very strange conversation. Chris had dropped her usual patter almost as soon as she recognised the colonel as Maria. For some of it, they talked books, swapped titles, recommended favourites. Then it turned out they had the same favourite poem. "In the fell clutch of circumstance," intoned the colonel, "I have not winced nor cried aloud. /Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed." He said it with feeling. Briefly, Chris wondered who it was who'd bloodied his head for him.
"So, what's the wife think of Maria?" She looked significantly at the pale band of skin on the ring finger of the colonel's left hand.
"Oh, they got along splendidly," he said. "She used to take Maria out on shopping trips, it was rather fun." He sounded a little wistful. "Twenty-nine years. We're currently in the middle of a rather tedious divorce, but we had a lovely run of it while it lasted. Have you ever been married?"
"Twice," said Chris. "Last time was to my manager. "I caught him skimming off the top. I fired the bum on the spot from both his positions in my life."
"I used to be a nightclub singer, before I worked here. Long, tedious story. Like your divorce, probably."
"I'd really like to hear it," said the colonel. "If I might be so bold. Perhaps somewhere a little more salubrious than-" He gestured at the dingy bar with his eyebrows.
"Ah," said Chris. "You may be so bold, but sadly, I am not a free woman. I can be had, though. Long as you book a date through my boss."
The colonel looked at her quietly for a moment. "The chap by the stairs in the cheap bowler hat? How annoying for you. Let me see what I can do."
He ambled over to collar Brannigan. Well, this was one date Chris might actually look forward to. She wondered whether she'd be meeting the colonel or Maria. They were both pretty interesting people.
In which Grumman shows his hand, and Chris decides if she should buy herself in to the game.
Chris supposed that she was on a date. She wasn't sure what else to call it.
They were in the classy lingerie department of Beatty's Department Store, and a coiffed store lady was giving Chris's ruffled red crepe day dress and wide-brimmed hat the up-and-down. Chris had managed 'decent,' but clearly not decent enough to be married to a colonel. Grumman was out of uniform, but the moustache screamed military man from twenty paces.
Of course, they weren't here to shop for her.
"... And the filet lace and satin drawers in peach, duck egg blue, and - what do you think, dear lady?" Chris looked them over - not too shabby.
"I like the taupe," she said. "In fact, I'd quite fancy a pair myself."
The sales lady burst into ringing, false laughter. Grumman and Chris joined her.
"Allow me to treat you, my dear," said Grumman, and pulled an extra pair off the shelf.
"You wear those under the uniform?" asked Chris. The colonel nodded cheerfully. "Right now?"
"Oh, all the time. They're marvellously comfortable, I find. And there's nothing quite like the feeling of silk against the skin, don't you think?"
The sales lady was in stitches, one hand held genteelly over her mouth. "You're such a card, sir," she managed to choke as she rung up the till.
Afterwards, they lunched in the grand back room of a café on Unification Square. The colonel ordered a whisky seltzer with an orange slice; Chris ordered a pastis. Grumman watched sceptically while she added water to the liquor and stirred it to a cloudy green.
"You should get used to this stuff if you're sticking around here," she said. "Easterners live on it."
"Cough medicine," said Grumman. "I was ceremonially greeted with the stuff my first day at HQ, and I'm afraid I had to pour it into a potted fern. The poor thing died."
"So what brought you here anyway?" Chris knew she was being cheeky - but she'd been dying to ask. From what she knew of the military types who came to the Ace of Hearts - and most hoped no one would find out that they did - you got promoted from East to Central, not the other way around.
"Ah," said Grumman. He curled his lip, and his moustache twitched. Then he raised his drink in an ironical salute. "That would be the question. I tell you what, my dear, how about a bargain? If you tell me how a clever young lady came to be working at the Ace of Hearts, I'll tell you the story." He leant forward and stage-whispered. "It's not a very good deal, I'm afraid. It's a very dull story."
Chris considered. The kid was with Iris for the afternoon, so hopefully he'd be able to restrain her from playing with matches or sliding down the bannisters. Why not?
"Well, you already know that before this, I was a singer," she began. "I started in the chorus line, then I did a few solo numbers, then I started writing my own songs. Well, lyrics mostly, to other peoples' tunes. This time last year I'd gotten to the stage of being a reliable draw at a few of the better clubs in town. You know the Hyperion? I was there a lot. Then I rewrote a musical revue for someone else. No credit of course, just money for the script polish, and the show went well. So I thought, why not? And I wrote my own show. Just my usual brand of stuff: wisecracks, a little politics to keep it topical, and as much spicy stuff as I could get away with." It was funny talking about it like this, as if it were another historical era of her life. It had only been a few months ago, but Chris supposed it was a different age: she'd been writing after work in the early mornings and watching the dawn with a cigarette and a longhand notepad. Her diamonds had been paste, but she'd had plans.
Chris sawed into her pepper steak. The colonel seemed to be taking the whole 'play financed by a bunch of gangsters' bit of her story pretty calmly. Was he slumming it? She thought about the kind of bars Maria seemed to like, and thought, well, maybe it's more complicated than that. Then again, she was getting the impression that Grumman was a little nutty. Which was pretty simple, on second thoughts. She wondered if he'd ever done it as Maria? A pal of hers had once dated a guy who'd been such a tiger in the sack when he was wearing her stockings that she'd let him carry on stretching them out, expense be damned.
"So, how was it to find yourself suddenly in charge of everything?" asked the colonel. And wow, wasn't that the real question? Was that how he worked? Put you at ease by being an affable, crazy old bird, then stuck you when your guard was down? She wondered what a guy like that was doing out in the sticks instead of up in the brass.
"Loved it. It was like when you slip into a hot new frock in the changing room - the one you thought you'd never fit into it, but what the hell. And then it fits you just perfect, and you know you have to have it." Chris had auditioned the cast, hired the crew, made everyone rehearse until 1am and then took them all out for Cretan food. She went to bed with her male lead, and then had to recast him after he proposed to her two weeks later. Grumman laughed so hard when she told him this that half the café turned to look. He didn't seem to notice.
"The funny thing was, I wasn't even the lead. I can't really get away with the chorus girl look anymore" - Grumman flapped his hand in protest and gave her cleavage a lascivious look - "so I cast myself as the heroine's mentor. One-liners, sage advice, winking at the audience when the heroine finally gets her man. I kind of liked it."
"So, what happened to your show? Why aren't you touring it all over the country right now?"
"Oh, it sold well enough. Reviews were okay, but it was word of mouth mostly. Started slow, but the place was packed to the rafters after two weeks. It was called Notorious. Did you see us?"
"I'm afraid not," said Grumman.
"Ah, we were probably out of business before you got here. We were shut down by the city council's Decency Board two and a half weeks into our run. That was nearly three months ago. Feels like longer." How funny it felt to dredge it up. First the kid and now the colonel were making her chew the whole thing over. Chris had been too busy trying to keep her head above water to think about it, but now it really hit her again fresh. For a few months, she'd been her own woman and her own boss; now other people owned her, and how.
Chris sucked hard on her cigarette holder, exhaled through her nostrils, and watched the smoke expand and drift towards the high ceiling. "So, I told you mine. What brings you here?"
Grumman was looking at her intently. There was a cunning spark in his eyes that reminded her of the look you saw in a professional gambler at the blackjack table. "I'll tell you next time. Am I going to need to book you through that man in the cheap hat?"
Grumman didn't have all his cards on the table. Chris really wanted to know what he was holding back - and she had a feeling she didn't want her boss in on this. It was a risk, but what the hell.
Had the kid really been here a whole month? Chris looked at the calendar again. He had. Then she looked over to where Roy was sitting, swinging his legs at the little kitchen table and fiddling with her chess set. He loved that thing. He loved anything he got the impression he wasn't allowed to touch. Chris had found him standing on a chair playing with the gas stove the other day. She'd had the fright of her life, but in the end, she'd restricted herself to pinching his ear and giving him a forceful lecture about how dumb he'd look with no eyebrows. He'd been so much less trouble back in the silent, spooky days. He still didn't talk much at Mrs Torrado's. The other kids seemed spooked by him, but from what she'd seen, they mostly left him alone. Which was good, because if she caught one of those brats bullying him again there was going to be trouble, and then she might find herself short of a babysitter ... unless Mrs Torrado's need for extra cash won out.
Roy had carefully removed all the pieces from the board on which she was working out mate in five moves. He was sorting them into little groups by type. It was a good thing she'd started noting down her moves in a little pad.
"What's this one?"
"That's a rook, honey."
"What's this one?"
"And this is a horse!"
"No, kid, that's a knight."
"What's this one?"
Wow, he was just unstoppable when he got like this. Chris wandered over to the empty board and started showing what the pieces did.
"The king is the strongest?"
"No, you see, the queen is the most powerful piece." She showed him how the queen was taller and broader than the king. "The king is the most important, but he can't move so far. See, he normally stays back here, behind his army. But the queen can go nearly anywhere." She moved the queen back and forth in different directions to show him.
"So the queen's best because she can do anything? And the other pieces aren't as good?"
"Not quite, kid. There's a role for all of them, and even the pawns have a couple of tricks the others don't have. But this guy" - she waved the knight - "is sneaky. He can move in a special way that none of the others can." She set a white knight out and moved it, tracing the L-shaped path it took for Roy's benefit.
Roy leaned forward, fascinated. "Is it cheating?"
"No, darling, it's just clever. Subtle difference. Look, and he can jump over the other pieces. And you see, because he moves different, he can hit even a queen, and she can't reach him to hit him first. She can only get out of the way." She got the queen and a couple of pawns into position, and moved the knight again, to show him. Roy leaned further forward. Then she did the same in mid-air. He grinned, and giggled. So she made another mid-air move, and landed it on the tip of his nose. "Oh no! You've been taken, kid!"
"Aaaa!" He did a big fake scream, then flopped back in his chair, pulling faces and laughing his head off. Chris reached over and tickled his side. He curled up and screamed with laughter, nearly knocking his head against the table. Chris got her hand to his forehead just in time.
"Watch it, kid. You almost hit your head. You'll get a big dent in the front, and people will look at you funny." He cracked up again. Chris realised she was grinning so broadly herself that her cheeks hurt. Then it hit her: she'd done exactly the thing she swore she wouldn't do. She'd gone and got attached. She was crazy about the little mite - and he had started to slot her into that big empty space in him his mom had left. Nature abhors a vacuum. How could she keep him? There was no way - and for now, there was nowhere else to send him. But despite the impossibility of the thing, Chris was finding herself starting to dread the day she did find a solution, and feeling like a heel in the meantime as she let him in close.
Roy didn't like it when she left him alone. He followed her around the flat, sometimes, from room to room. She'd asked him about it when he was feeling talkative, and he'd told her what she knew she was going to hear, that he was scared that if she went away, she wouldn't come back. So now every day, when she left for work, she looked at him and said, I promise I'll be back. And every time she said it, she schooled her face and felt like crap.
Five days after the lunch date, Chris met Grumman in the park. She lent him a book on medieval Aerugan mercenaries, Albali and the Devils' Brigade. He lent her The Assassination of Duke Humphrey. They strolled together through the park along a broad avenue lined with trees. Along either side of the path, under the shade, old men were sitting at trestle tables playing chess. The colonel found an empty park bench, and abruptly stopped, his left hand held up and a grin on his face. Chris quirked an eyebrow at him.
He sat down on one end of the bench, opened his briefcase on his lap, and pulled out a portable chess set. "You play?" he said. "I had the feeling you did. Or that you should. I'm not sure which." He shrugged, and grinned at her.
That was downright weird. Chris was sure she'd never mentioned the chess problems. She nodded at Grumman and gave him a little smirk. She hadn't played against another human being for years, but she didn't want him to think she was a pushover. This could be an interesting afternoon - perhaps she could find out by its end what the hell he was leading up to. Something perverted, she expected. Ah well, maybe she'd get a funny story to tell out of it.
The colonel talked as he set the pieces up. "My wife," he said, "Or rather my ex-wife, I should say, is originally from Aerugo. She was a very pretty girl when I met her. Her father was the conductor of an orchestra." He had put the white pieces on Chris's side of the board. She moved out her first pawn.
The colonel carried on talking, in a low, cheerful murmur, as they played. For the first few moves, they mirrored each other's strategy. A little pile of taken pawns, both black and white, started to accumulate in the box. "The early days of our marriage", he said, "were terribly happy. I learnt a new language and she was terribly tolerant of my quirks. In fact" - he wiggled his eyebrows -"we had rather a lot of fun with them. I've always been an ambitious man, and she bore with that very well too. It was really only the last few years that we'd quarrelled badly. Three children. The twins, Solomon and Bill, and our daughter Amelia. We don't see our daughter any more," the colonel went on, as his hand hovered over a piece. His tone was still light. "She was engaged to a very nice chap, a young lawyer, and then she went and ran off with her university tutor. Exceedingly disagreeable man. Untrustworthy, an obsessive personality, and far too thin. We attempted to convince her of her mistake, but negotiations broke down." He snorted violently. "I could have five grandchildren now and I wouldn't know about it." Grumman looked at Chris. "I expect you'd be able to tell me Amelia's side of the argument."
Chris just shrugged. She'd left her bishop open, a few squares from his king; Grumman took it with a pawn. She lined her rook up with his queen. The pawn he'd moved had left his king exposed to a winning check from her other bishop; he had to move. Chris took the colonel's queen. From that point, she had him on the ropes. But the more she pushed him towards checkmate, the more he seemed to be looking at her with something approaching triumph.
"I suppose what you're really wondering is why I'm here." He tapped a finger on his chin, then shifted a pawn forward. "About six months ago, I was offered an opportunity by my immediate superior in Central. We had a chat about things, and I found myself turning him down. And then I found myself here. My wife was on the point of divorcing me anyway. After the troubles with Amelia, I'm not entirely sure if my misbehaviour was the reason or the excuse." His face was harsh; the frown lines around his mouth stood out, and you could see how he'd gotten them.
Chris watched him, then put a hand to her remaining bishop, and took Grumman's own. "Tough break."
"This might be indelicate of me to say, but East is generally considered a bit of a sink of an assignment. Half the region's practically in a state of civil war, it's a hopeless mess in my opinion, you couldn't sort it out without generations of work - or perhaps a very large bomb. Every soldier has to do a tour here, no one wants to. I'm being trained up to replace the current fellow when he's put out to pasture. If you're in charge of a region, that's it. There's no further up the ladder you can go, short of treason. In short, my career stops here. I'll be dealing with this quagmire for the rest of my life."
Grumman shifted his rook out of the reach of Chris's bishop, and looked at her. "I bet you're just itching to know what I did to annoy the brass."
Chris arched an eyebrow at him, and drew her queen across the board to trap the colonel's king into a checkmate. He blinked for a moment, then without a trace of warning, he threw his head back and roared with laughter.
After they'd packed away the chess set, he hailed a hackney cab and dropped her outside her apartment, and was gentlemanly enough to pretend not to notice that it was above a fried pork shop. After he handed her down, he said, "Christina, my dear, might I ask a favour? I'm sorry to have missed your play; I should love to read it."
"I got a few mimeographed copies left over," said Chris. "Wait up a minute."
She was down a couple of minutes later with a copy hauled out of the box on top of the wardrobe where she kept the remnants of her writing career. The colonel took it from her and winked. Chris winked back. She'd find out what his game was, she said to herself, before he got around to telling her - she'd be damned if she didn't.
Chris's voice was hoarse from shouting, and her cheek smarted. She'd just got off the day shift at the Ace of Hearts. She walked a few blocks vigorously, until she calmed down a little, then stopped by a shop window to pull out her compact and inspect her face. Her cheek was coming up red from Brannigan's slap, but the scratch from the signet ring wasn't too bad. She plastered a few layers of powder on and blended it in. Hopefully that would cover it up pretty well. Iris was pretty observant, but with any luck when she met them she'd be too distracted by bickering with Roy or answering his unending questions about the universe.
The trouble that day had started when Chris had picked up the newspaper on her way to work. Her missing colleague Louie had finally turned up - in a hospital morgue. She'd been found in a hotel room by the porter, one month back, with two stab wounds to the abdomen and no ID on her. At the hospital, Louie had lived a week, but she hadn't been talking. Chris hadn't even known she was there. She'd checked all the likely hotels in an afternoon, but of course they'd denied all knowledge to her, the assholes. After a whole month of lying in the freezer room of a hospital mortuary like no-one in the world gave a damn about her, Louie had finally been identified by her sister. Louie's sister had gone straight to the papers. They'd jumped all over the sob story. There wasn't really much of a question about the culprit - that rat of a client. But he'd given a false name at the hotel, and she doubted the cops were going to exert themselves too much to pursue him. The bastard was all set to get away with it, unless Chris looked him up and put a few holes in him herself, which right now was a pretty tempting option.
Brannigan had found out on his way in to the bar at lunchtime when he'd hit a newsstand to buy some smokes. Louie's line of work had been common knowledge, although it was a stroke of luck for Brannigan and everyone who had to work for him that her landlady didn't know the name of the bar. All morning they waited for the shit to hit the fan when he showed up. Perhaps the worst of it was, this would blow over. Chris couldn't say she'd be remotely sorry to see the back of either Brannigan or the Ace of Hearts, except that her job here was the only thing between her and serious trouble with the men to whom she owed money. In other circumstances, she'd have considered snitching on Brannigan to the cops just for Louie, despite the risks - but she had Roy to think of now. Her life wasn't quite her own to gamble at the moment.
Given that, Chris really should have known better than to lose her temper with Brannigan that afternoon. However, it had been increasingly difficult to keep a lid on herself over a whole afternoon of Brannigan alternately sitting silently with his foot jiggling as if he needed a piss, scaring the girls out of spite, and talking pompously with his cronies about damage limitation. One smart remark, it flew out of her mouth before she could stop it: that if Brannigan was dumb enough to treat his possessions like crap, he shouldn't be surprised when they got broken. For a moment, she thought he was going to beat hell out of her, but he contented himself with a backhander that wrenched the muscles of her neck, followed by a good long laugh at her along with the guys he was drinking with. Now Chris was even angrier than she had been before, her cheek was throbbing, and she was skating on thin ice with the boss.
Iris and Roy were sitting on a park bench, or rather Iris was sitting, and Roy was skittering around her as if he couldn't keep still. They both had ice-cream cones, although Roy's looked to be mostly smeared all over his face. Nice of Iris to get the kid an ice. Chris waved to them, and pulled a handkerchief out of her pocket. She took a seat next to Iris. Roy looked to be done with his ice cream, and uninterested in the wafer cone. "Kid," she said, "Go put that cone in the garbage if you don't want it. Then report back to me."
He ran straight there and back, and stood in front of her, bobbing on his heels. Chris spat on her handkerchief and set about scrubbing the chocolate ice-cream off his face while he squirmed.
"Something's up," said Iris. She really was too sharp for her own good.
"Yeah," said Chris. She had one eye on Roy as he ran around, oblivious. She lowered her voice. "Louie turned up dead. Seems like we were right to assume the worst about that date."
"Wow." Iris paused and seemed to look inward. "Still, guess I was expecting that." Iris's voice was a little higher and sharper than normal. "Louie was sweet, but she was dumb as a box of rocks." Translation: Iris was reassuring herself that this was never going to happen to her. She might be smart, but she really was still a kid.
"You know," said Chris, "You'd already know this if you read the newspaper."
Iris shrugged. "Why buy it when I can borrow yours after you're done? The news isn't going anywhere."
"Maybe not, kiddo, but there are times when it pays to get the drop on people."
"Yeah, I can see that did you a lot of good with Brannigan." Iris flicked her eyes over to Chris's cheek.
"What can I say? Apparently, I got a big mouth."
Iris gave her a slightly shaky grin.
Roy ran back to them and climbed up on the bench. "Chris! I saw a little dog and a big dog and the big dog was trying to get on top of the little dog."
"Uh-huh." Here it came.
"Because they were making friends," said Iris.
"Why did the lady with the little dog shout at the big dog?"
"Ah," said Chris. "She must've thought the big dog would be a bad influence on the little one. You need to pick your friends carefully, you know."
"What's an influence?"
Chris set about explaining. Roy's hair was in his eyes again. She pulled a comb out of her handbag while she talked, and combed it out of his face. It sprang back within seconds. It really needed a trim all over; she should take him to the barbershop sometime soon. As she stood, a woman passing with a pram and a little girl slightly bigger than Roy met her eyes and gave her a quick smile. Chris smiled back without thinking. Then she realised what the woman had seen: a family. That woman had Chris pegged as a fellow mother.
What was more, she was right.
And wasn't that just the weirdest thing? Chris had told herself for years that she didn't really have a family. A month ago, she feared the lie had finally become a truth. It still hadn't seemed real. Maybe that was how all the stuff with taking care of Roy had got started, by making friends with the kid? Maybe she'd just been looking for a way to distract herself from the fact that she really had lost her parents and her brother? Now, finally, she knew it had happened. Hell, she'd been an idiot. They'd been idiots too, she supposed. Her parents had known enough about her whereabouts to get in touch if they'd wanted.
She closed her eyes tightly. When she opened them again, she saw that Iris had gotten up and had started chasing Roy around the grass. She was leading with her head, her index fingers pointed up like horns. Chris guessed she was being a bull or something. Roy ran from her, giggling hysterically.
Chris pictured Seth and Lee in their smashed car. She pictured Louie, bleeding out in that crappy hotel room all alone. Then she looked over at Roy. And out of nowhere, she found herself thinking, fierce and savage, I will kill - maim, torture, kill! - anyone who tries to hurt this child.
She looked at Iris. She was such a smart kid - and such a dumb kid too. She realised now what she'd really been doing with her insistence on putting Iris behind the bar, keeping her away from the customers. She was trying to protect her from her own brave, cheeky little mouth. This need to protect, to watch over people: when had it started? Had Chris always been this person without realising it?
And to think she'd always said she had no maternal instincts.
The café they went to this time was pretty grand. Chris had pointed out that the more times she met the colonel, the greater the probability that someone from work would spot her and realise she was dating off the clock, and by implication robbing the boss of the takings. Grumman's solution had been elegant: to make their meeting place so upscale that the probability of seeing someone she knew decreased back down to near zero. She'd have asked what would happen if someone the colonel knew saw them, but she was getting to know Grumman well enough by now to know he didn't give a damn.
The decor here tended towards cream and gold, with a high, elaborately moulded ceiling, columns, and an awful lot of curving, gilded plasterwork. A piano player at a white grand discreetly pattered out a tune to which Chris, back in her cabaret days, had once written rather spicy new lyrics. As Chris picked apart a towering, many-layered slice of cake topped with candied orange, the colonel told her about the woes of his recent love life. Apparently, he'd gone and fallen for his aide.
"... Hot and cold, you see, that's the problem. We've had a few rather enjoyable little interludes in the stationary cupboard, but I never know how she's going to take things. For instance, the other day she came into my office to drop off some paperwork. She put it down on my desk, and I gave her bottom just one cheeky little pinch, and the next thing I know, she's marched out and slammed the door!" The colonel shook his head at the mystery of woman.
"Have you tried getting Maria's opinion?"
"She's no help whatsoever, sadly. She can't understand it - she always welcomes a cheeky little bottom-pinch."
"Maria's kind of a bad girl, isn't she?"
"Her vices are modest, but she does very much enjoy them."
Chris laughed. "All right, about the ass pinch. Did it occur to you who's got all the power in this situation? She's probably thinking you don't respect her."
"Oh, that's completely wrong! I have the utmost respect for her abilities. She's a very clever girl. Far more organised than I am, and she speaks a good bit of Ishbalan, which is the most tremendous help. I'd be delighted to take her out to dinner, but she's turned me down three times now. And yet the stationary cupboard liaisons continue, on and off."
"Yeah, but - you see, you're her boss. You're holding most of the cards here. The only thing she's got to play is herself, so she's keeping that back in reserve. She certainly sounds smart."
"But how do I win her trust?"
"Well - I got bad news for you. You may have to stop grabbing her butt."
The colonel looked crestfallen. "The days will seem long," he muttered. "But I trust your judgment, my dear, so I will do my best to give it a whirl!" He smiled at her brightly. Then, without further warning, he reached into his briefcase and pulled out Chris's playscript. "This was marvellous, by the way," he said, brandishing it. "I laughed so much that my lovely aide came into my office and scolded me back to work."
"Thanks. Everyone but the Decency Board seemed to get a kick out of it at the time."
"Ah," he said, and leaned forward. "About that. I think I can tell you with a fair amount of certainty exactly how you annoyed the censors."
"Me too," said Chris. "Sex."
The colonel shook his head with a smile and flipped to a page where he'd underlined a passage in red ink. Chris read.
(reading the newspaper headline)
Fuhrer Bradley Presses On South: Aerugo Ready to Yield Disputed Territory.
I have to tell ya, I admire our Fuhrer's stamina, but the approach is a little brusque. Aerugo may be all ready to roll over, but I'm betting the results are going to disappoint him. Now, if I was advising him, I'd tell him that you need to soften 'em up a little first, pay attention to the whole picture instead of just going straight to the territory you want and firing into it. Things would end up a lot nicer for all parties.
And you'd say that to the guy's face?
What, you think I'd just giggle behind my fan? Let me tell ya, honey, if you want to persuade a man of your cause, you gotta look him in the eye and be bold about it.
And what if he didn't like the sass and decided to stick you with his sword?
Aw, I been on the end of a sabre enough times in my life. Sure, his is pretty impressive, and the word is he's a real artist with it - but still, mmm, I reckon I could handle it.
"What," said Chris, "the sword gag? People sure are sensitive. I thought it was fairly complimentary to the man. I mean, look at him." She nodded towards the portrait of Bradley on the wall. Somewhere in his thirties and aging well, debonair and intense, high cheekbones, broad shoulders ... mmm. She might not always like the man's politics, but really, you had to stand up and salute that. "Oh come on," she said as she caught Grumman's tut, "Everybody's thinking it. And it's hardly as bad as that line about the jelly roll at the end of the second act."
"No," said the colonel. "I think the problem here would be your character's plan to point out to the Fuhrer the flaws in his foreign policy."
Chris folded her arms and tutted. "You're dead wrong, honey. In my experience in showbusiness, the crowd likes a little politics. The censors only get involved when it takes up more room, and half the time then they only cut out the worst of it, they don't take off the whole play."
"The reason it goes too far is that you're right. The brass is chasing its tail over this exact problem as we speak." He followed Chris's darting eyes. "Please don't concern yourself, my dear lady. I've not been followed, and no-one around here knows me yet. Anyway, my guess is that the person who spotted this was probably a playgoer from the military."
"In other words, I went and told the truth. One accurate comment, one line in the wrong place and I'm stuck in the Ace of Hearts for the rest of my days?" She leaned forward and whispered fiercely. "I got a kid to take care of now. If little Roy had come to me and the play had still been running, I could have taken care of him fine! We were making money hand over fist, people were talking to me about the next show already. Now what's that kid's future gonna be like? If I can't find someone to take him, it's the city orphanage or me and the Ace of Hearts, until some bum sticks a shiv in me." She felt as if something hard and aching were stuck in her throat. She felt like stomping her foot like a child. It was against everything she thought about how the world should work. One little slip-up in the wrong place, one little piece of bad luck, and she was trapped and damned. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, then relaxed and tried to school her face. Her make-up better not be running.
"Don't mind me. I guess I know how you feel now. One little slip-up and you're damned. But - it's tough to take it in. There's just something - I can't just lay down and accept this, you know? I'm smart, I'm funny. I can sing, I can read people like a book, these days I can even stop a four year old child blowing up my apartment. This is it?" She shook her head. "I won't take it. There's gotta be something. It's just, with little Roy, it's hardly as if I can wait for opportunity to come knocking, is it?"
For a moment, she thought he was going to say something, was going to finally reveal why he was so damn interested in her. She didn't know what the hell it would be, but still, her pulse drummed in her throat. He didn't, though. He just stirred his coffee, and smiled at her, and made arrangements to call on her sometime next week.
In the early evening about a week later, Chris was playing dominoes with little Roy - or rather, she was helping him set up the dominoes on their end in a long looping trail around and under the kitchen table, ready for detonation. Roy would periodically sneak over to the first domino and go to touch it with his finger. Chris frowned at him mock-fiercely when he did this, and said, "All good things come to those who wait, kiddo." Then he'd giggle. The giggle was a new development. It was pretty cute.
They were sitting on the floor together setting up the last few pieces in the chain when the bell at the front door rang. Chris opened the kitchen window and leaned out. The colonel was standing in the front door in his civvies, bowler hat under his arm.
"I'll just be a minute," she said to Roy. "Think you can wait for the big finish?" She winked at him. He nodded, and gave her a funny, sneaky, little grin.
She returned upstairs about five minutes later with an invitation to the both of them for a walk in the park and an early supper, and found Roy just as she'd left him: sitting cross-legged, back straight like a little emperor, staring intently at the dominoes.
Chris winked at him again, and circled her finger and thumb in an 'A-OK' sign. He was a good kid. Together, they set up the last three dominoes. Then together, they hovered their index fingers just by the final tile.
Chris whispered, "Three - two - one -" Roy grinned at her hugely.
They tapped together. Then they cheered and whooped as the spiral chain of dominoes rattled neatly, rapidly down.
Roy dunked a chip in egg yolk, then in ketchup, then ate it with an air of great achievement. Chris put together another judicious forkful of chicken in cider and chewed carefully, watching the colonel. Really, it was amazing how that moustache never fell off.
"So, you're getting acclimatized after all?" She waved at his mutton with white beans, then at her own plate and the cider they were drinking with it. The faded lacework and peasanty lacquer-on-wood paintings on the walls, the table of old women smoking pipes in the corner - this was the whole of the old-fashioned little Eastern bistro they were sitting in.
Grumman raised his glass. "Ever hear the joke about the three men on a sinking ship? One prays for rescue, the second resigns himself to a watery grave - and the third teaches himself to breathe underwater."
Chris guffawed. "C'mon, Eastern food isn't so bad. And you can't deny we've got some culture in this city."
"No, I suppose not. Maria's getting rather fond of life here. Very annoying of her." Grumman looked at Roy and then quickly half-unpeeled his moustache, then stuck it back.
Roy stared for a moment and looked like he might get a fit of giggles. Then he dropped his eyes back down to his egg and chips. He was still pretty quiet around strangers.
The colonel turned to Chris, shrugged and smiled wryly. Then his expression shifted; he wore that speculative, cunning look again. For a moment, Chris thought to herself, now we're getting to it. Finally, but then he just turned back to his food.
After the plates had been cleared, Chris ordered Roy an ice, and she and the colonel both lit up a smoke.
Then he said, casually, "I've had this place checked over, very thoroughly. We can speak frankly here."
"So we didn't come here for the mutton with beans, then?" So here it was, then. She'd been waiting for this. Chris blew a smoke ring and waited.
"Back in Central," said the colonel, "A general asked me if I would be interested in a little scientific project he was running. I turned him down. It was the wrong answer."
Chris took a moment to turn the words over. "Scientific project, huh?" Military alchemy? If it was that, why was he being so cagey about it? Chris smelled taboo. "And that's how it happened? The guy you gave the wrong answer to - was he in charge of hiring and firing?"
"No," said Grumman, "Not personally. You see my problem?"
"One or two of the high-ups have people experimenting with things they shouldn't?" Chris got the words out, but her throat seemed to have thickened and closed. She hadn't been expecting this.
"I don't know how far it goes. I don't know who ordered my transfer. In fact, I had the impression that the man I spoke to hadn't done a thing. I think he was just speculating - but in a very dangerous direction. Some of the people near the top of this country," he said, "could be trying to get themselves mixed up in some very dark business indeed. I don't know what it is, and it might take me a very long time to find out. But I will. But even if it's only one bad apple, that's one too many. Our Fuhrer is being badly advised."
"But what if -?" Chris stopped herself. Not here. Even in a supposedly safe place, she wasn't even going to speculate about the alternative.
"Then," said the colonel carefully, "I will just have to cross that bridge when I come to it." He suddenly brightened, and tossed her a grin. "But I doubt I ever will. Bradley's straight as an arrow."
Roy looked up at the whispering with great interest. Chris ruffled his hair. "Eat your ice-cream, honey. We're talking about dull grown-up stuff. Taxes, mostly."
The colonel continued. "I've been thinking, you see." He tapped his forehead with a finger. "And to that end, my dear clever girl, there's a little job that I hope you might help me with. It involves meeting some people, and gathering a little information for me. Just enough to know if I'm on the right track. It's a delicate job, and a risky one. But I think you're up to it. 'It matters not how strait the gate, / How charged with punishments the scroll, / I am the master of my fate; / I am the captain of my soul.' Remember that poem?" He sat back in his chair, smiling as if he'd won her over already.
Chris snapped. "Don't try to get around me with poetry. I know what you're asking me. I get unlucky, I'd be hanged for treason. I have a child to take care of. That kid's got nobody but me. Why should I?"
"Ah, but you know why. You're a chess player, my dear. How much debt are you in?"
"100, 000 cenz. I don't know if that sounds like so much to you, but it's a hell of a lot to me. It might have gone down a little since I started at the bar. Frankly, the repayment schedule my creditors worked out is a little crooked."
"If you do this for me, there'll be ongoing ... needs. In Central, mostly. It might entail a change of scene. I'm trapped out here. I need a pair of eyes I can trust. Which is why it would only be fair to pay you a retainer fee. It would write off your debts and leave you enough to get started in the big city. What do you say?"
Well, damn. If Chris wasn't Chris, she'd have leapt all over this. But still, the more attractive the offer got, the more thoroughly she felt like she had to poke at it. "This wouldn't be an act of charity, here, now would it?"
"Of course not. You know the risks. Handsome compensation for them is standard in that line of work. And there aren't many people around who are good at this. If you know someone who can do this kind of thing, if you've got any sense, you hang on to them."
"Well. If you want me full-time, getting me out of the Ace of Hearts could be a little complicated. The gentlemen I'm in debt to might well consider getting paid off so quick to be a loss of face. I think humiliating me was half the attraction for them. It's probably how I got them to go for the idea in the first place, instead of just putting a few holes in me and dumping me in the canal."
"Ah. That's a challenge."
"Isn't it now?" She knew the offer had been too good to be true. Good job she'd held herself back, hadn't given into hope yet. The crash would have been something awful.
The colonel leaned forward. His smile went all the way up to his eyes. "I like a challenge."
Was he serious? He was just enough of a nutcase that he might be. Still ... "You sure? It's a real risk for you. Get on the bad side of those guys ..."
"Oh, getting on the bad side of those guys has been on my to-do list since I got to this city. I might not be able to pull East City from the brink of civil war, but since I'm stuck here, I may as well do a little pest control on the gangster population, even if it makes them inclined to take aim at me. Let them try. I'll be ready for them."
"So, here we are, then," said Chris slowly. "Risking our lives for each other."
Chris counted up the moves she could make from this position. It didn't take long; there were only a few options. She plotted ahead a little, to how each of them might pan out. What she could lose, what she could gain - and what Roy might lose and gain. In the end, probability rarely meant anything. Either an outcome happened, or it didn't. She'd always preferred games of skill to games of chance.
Chris had decided; she knew what her next move was going to be.
The colonel reached a hand across the table. Chris shook it.
Next to them, Roy clattered his spoon intently in the bottom of his ice-cream bowl, trying to get out the last dregs.
Chapter 4: Epilogue
In which Chris takes on a new career in a new town.
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Exactly one year later from the day she shook hands with Grumman, Chris was sitting in the back of a draughty car on a wet afternoon, huddled in her mink coat while the driver found somewhere quiet in the backstreets of Central to park. When the lights had been turned out and the engine quieted, she pulled a brown envelope from her bag and gave it to the driver. He swapped it with her for a smaller, thicker envelope which bulged squarely. As she dropped it in her bag, she quickly guessed the number of notes there must be in there from the thickness of it. Big tipper, nice. She supposed this had been an unusually tricky job, so maybe it merited the extra green - but then again, she always enjoyed the challenging ones.
"Turned out nicely," she said, "and I got some pictures for you too. I suggest you don't open that up in a moving vehicle, though. Wait until you're at home, maybe with a finger of whisky, glass of warm milk, whatever's your poison."
The young officer turned around and smiled wryly at her. "How's the family, Chris?"
"Keeping me busy. Give my love to Maria, won't you?" He grinned and saluted her. Then he dropped her just off the boulevard, and she hailed a cab home.
Home, for most of the last year, was a three-bedroom apartment in an eighteenth-century building in the oldest part of the city. Chris forgave the place the noisy plumbing and three flights of stairs for the pleasure of living in a little corner of the city's history. Every time she went walking around this quarter she found something new. Not that she had much time on her hands these days.
In fact, she had just about time for fifteen minutes with her feet up and a cup of tea before she heard echoing voices and feet stampeding up the staircase. Iris's keys jingled in the door, and then there was the sound of her shoes hitting the floor.
Chris wandered into the hall with her teacup to find Iris waiting for Roy to pull his shoelaces untied. He got one foot done, then pulled the loop of the bow instead on the other shoe. Iris went to correct him, but Chris held up a finger and she hovered instead, waiting for him to work it out. Roy corrected himself just in time, undid the shoelace the right way, then triumphantly yanked off his shoe. Chris and Iris gave him a standing ovation, and he bobbed up and down on his feet and grinned. He was sometimes verging on full of himself these days, thought Chris. She'd have to watch that, or he'd end up spoilt rotten.
"How was school, kids?" asked Chris.
"Great!" said Roy. "I finished my reading book, and we did the three times table, and at break there was a frog on the grass and I touched it!"
"Hellish," said Iris. "Two and a half more months and I'll be out of there like a greyhound with the runs."
"Only if you get your school certificate, you are. You know the deal." Once Iris had her certificate at sixteen, Chris had agreed she could pass up technical college and come work in the family business instead. She could use an extra pair of eyes.
Dinner was noodles, with meat sauce from the deli down the street. Afterwards there were apples from the bowl. Chris had instituted a rule about fruit with every meal, so the kid didn't get scurvy, and of course that meant they had to eat the apples too, to set a good example.
By the time they'd finished dinner it was time for Roy to go to sleep. Pyjamas, tooth-brushing, and then bed. While Roy stood on a little stool to brush his teeth, Chris padded quietly back out to the living room to discreetly check on Iris. She was sitting at the dining table with her books, but just like Chris had guessed, she had put down her homework and picked up the padlock and set of lockpicks that Chris had left on the table for practice. Iris brushed a curl out of her eye, selected a new pick and twirled it in the padlock carefully for a few moments, head down, concentrating so intently that she didn't seem to notice Chris watching her from the doorway. Then she sighed, blowing her bangs up. She shoved away the lockpick set with a visible effort, pulled over a book, and went back to the horrors of Cretan irregular verbs.
Chris smirked, and went back to tuck her foster son into bed.
Chris sat on the edge of the bed and brushed his hair back from his face. It sprang back. He giggled sleepily. "What can I get you tonight, sir?" She gestured at the picture books in the little bookcase by his bed.
"No, I want one of your stories," said Roy.
"All right, all right, let's see what we can do."
After all that trouble, it seemed her poor old play still had an audience. Chris scootched up on the bed next to Roy. "All right. Here we go. There was once a girl who came to the big city from a long way away, and lived there in a little room, all on her own. One day, she made a very big mistake. But the story isn't about the mistake. It's about what she did afterwards ..."
1. Qiongya province, where I had Roy's mother hail from, is, as you might expect, a made-up place. In case you're feeling curious/geeky, the snippets of Qiongyan culture and food are based on a combination of Fujian and Hainan Provinces in China, and I imagined Qiongya is located in a place in Xing roughly analogous to Fujian. "Qióngyá" is an old name for Hainan, and means "fine jade cliffs". Also, I don't really know what I'm talking about, so it's fully possible that there are five errors in the four words of Mandarin in this fic. People who know that part of the world may already have guessed from Roy's love of Hainanese chicken rice and half-boiled eggs with soy sauce that I have family in Singapore. And like food. Fact: 50% of the research for this fic comprised me stuffing my face in Lau Pa Sat hawker centre and various branches of Ya Kun Kaya Toast.
2. The chess match between Grumman and Chris in Chapter Three is loosely based on a real game, Saint-Amant vs. Staunton, Paris, 1843 - because my own chess is far too poor for me to just make stuff up without reference. There's a full playthrough here if you're interested.
3. Credit for Grumman's choice of underwear, as I've said in the intro notes to Chapter Three, goes to evil_little_dog, who was nice enough to allow me to use the fanon from her one-sentence fic on the subject, which you should go and enjoy here.
4. Finally, my depiction of Chris herself and her history owes a great deal to the wonderful Mae West. Chris's play, Notorious, wouldn't exist without Mae West's most famous play, Diamond Lil, and its heavily censored but still terrific film adaptation She Done Him Wrong. Go and worship her genius a little on Youtube right now.
5. Let us all now bow down and praise the Great Cow, who creates minor characters like Madam Christmas (and my darling Rebecca) and makes them so interesting and complicated within the space of about ten panels that it's easy(ish) for crazy fans like me to go and write 20, 000 word short stories from their point of view. Amen.