by Tamara Sheehan
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appear in this issue.
They moved through the streets after Howie. Heavy clouds had covered the sky, the final flare of orange sunlight was lighting them up in the west. Night was coiling around them, creeping in from the east. Streetlights were coming on.
It was the first time Saul had felt unhampered. Toven and Howie trudged ahead of him, both of them silent, surly. For Howie it had been enough to hear the causal cruelty of Toven’s father coming out of the cheap receiver, for him to witness the impotent frustration, the conflict of fear and anger that he himself had known. He was done picking at Toven for the pleasure of it, and since the last phone call, his mind held nothing but thoughts of Bridget.
Saul wanted to drop back from them, let them move on ahead so they were shadows that he followed. He wanted to stand alone on the edge of Veteran’s Walk and look down at the Janion with its feet in the water, a great, empty shell being slowly, steadily eroded. He wanted to throw himself into the ocean and feel it close over him. There would be time for that sort of thing later, he told himself, though he wasn’t sure he believed it.
Judging by the quiet of the streets, it might have been well past midnight. There were few people out walking and fewer drivers. Those who came down Park felt the urge to turn up Fort, those who planned to walk down Twentieth felt suddenly that Nineteenth offered a finer view. He was going on instinct, but he’d done well; wherever they went, the city was almost empty.
He ducked under low-hanging chestnut trees, their spiky cargo a menace well into October, saw one or two curious faces peering out from apartment windows. The smell of supper cooking assailed him. He craned his neck and looked up at the tall apartment buildings.
Up there, Saul realized with a shock, people were going about their lives. Microwaving dinner, complaining about work, looking at the orange of sunset. Normal people doing normal things. He put his head down and followed Toven’s shoes, down toward Ninth Avenue.
By the time they arrived it was dark. Twilight had gone purple and fizzled out. The air was growing cold and wet, heavy with rain. Friday evening and people were packing the streets from the Fisherman’s Wharf market up to the restaurants and clubs on High Street.
It was impossible for Saul to clear the street. He stopped trying, hugged close to Toven while they snaked through stalls of meat and fish, tumbling green cabbages, mounds of sprouts. Steam billowed out from the mouths of alleys where kitchens left rubbish for the city rats, where cooks sat in greasy aprons and smoked.
China Town was a misnomer, it had been the place the immigrants had settled in the eighteen hundreds, crammed with Lebanese and Eritrean stores, Punjabi restaurants and Cantonese barbeques. It smelled of food, of sweat, of people pressing to get down to the water. Of perfume and make up and aftershave. Of incense, of concrete and sharp ozone. Too packed with people to allow the passage of cars, informal, unlicensed stands popped up in the street. Saul breathed in deep and smiled.
Ahead, Howie was wending his way through a group of young Arabic men, passed behind a stall and vanished. Toven froze. He looked over his shoulder at Saul with a worried expression.
“Relax, I’ve been there a thousand times.” Saul told him and took his by the arm, leading him through the crush of people.
He recalled the claustrophobia of the tunnels under the city and smiled at Toven. “You’re doing all right, hey?”
Toven nodded. “It’s OK.” He said sheepishly. “It’s all too surreal for me to really believe it.” As they stepped around a stall selling little jade Buddha figurines, his expression changed. “I did what I could, Saul. I’m sorry your friend got involved.”
The calm Saul had been enjoying was suddenly snuffed out. “Toven, do you think your dad, I mean...” he fumbled. “Would he hurt her?”
Toven nodded. He swallowed as if preparing to say something difficult. “Yeah, he would.” Was what he said instead.
Saul ducked under an awning, leading Toven along the brick face of a building toward Howie’s apartment. He was aware of Toven watching him from under his hair, thinking of Toven’s wild oscillations, from timid and small to spitting, swearing. From cringing in corners to walking in the chaos of China Town.
“It’s not far from here.” Saul gestured to him, swinging into an alley filled with boiling steam from the kitchens that backed onto it. Light from the kitchens striped the walls of the alley gold and black. The bricks were coated with a greasy black slime, the pavement slippery underfoot.
The sides of the buildings blocked out all but a band of darkened sky, reflected in greasy puddles on the alley floor. Garbage bags moved with rats. Hissing from shadows, from holes under the concrete made Saul’s nape prickle. “Rats.” He whispered.
“They’re all right.” Toven said. He was walking close behind, hands in his pockets. He smiled. “They were my early warning system. Anytime anyone was coming, I knew about it. When you were above me, I knew from the rats. I kind of like them.
“Hey Saul,” he said it too casually.
Saul turned, peered down the alley at the revelers beyond.
“No, I was, you know, just wondering if Bridget’s, you know, your girlfriend.”
Saul let a little laugh out through his nose. “Not exactly. She’s just been a friend for a long time. I met her as a client, but we sort of hit it off. She’s a sweet girl. You’ll like her when you meet her. Why?”
“No reason.” Toven shrugged. “She’s Howie’s girlfriend then?”
“Not if she can help it.” Saul stopped walking and turned. “Why this sudden interest in Bridge?”
“Just don’t know anything about her.”
Saul set off again. “That’s fair. She’s just finishing up law school, getting ready to take the bar exam as soon as physically possible. She’s a little ball of fire. Five foot nothing, a hundred pounds and as volatile as a molotov.” He looked over his shoulder at Toven. “You’d like her, I’m sure of it. Ah, we’re here.”
At last Howie’s apartment came into view. Lit by the Dong May’s sign, the building was bathed in red neon, the moldering carpet lolled like a tongue out into the street.
Saul felt a wave of nausea. He realized he hadn’t eaten in hours, that he’d not slept well for days. He’d crawled through sewage, picked up god knew what sort of bacteria and disease.
Toven hissed and caught Saul’s shoulder.
“What is it?”
“There.” Toven pointed. Under the sign a man was waiting for someone at the door to Dong May’s. He was tall, slim, wearing a light coat against the impending rain. He leaned on a car while sucking on a cigarette.
“That’s Ian Underwood, Mbeki’s rat catcher.” He heard Toven scrambling back into the alley. “Judas Priest,” he whispered, sagging down between bags of reeking garbage. He wrapped his arms around his stomach. “I can’t go. I can’t.”
“Shhh.” Saul whispered, dropping down by him. “This is probably a coincidence. No one knows Howie was involved except Mbeki, and how would he know his name?”
“No they’ve come for me again. For me.” He spoke in a strangled whisper. Saul turned to look again at the man but Toven caught his arm. “Don’t, don’t. You have to run. You don’t know what he’s like. You don’t know what he does.” There was no air in his lungs, he gasped out what he spoke, clawed at Saul’s arm.
“Toven,” Saul spoke as loudly as he dared. “Audel has my friend. Howie has gear that can help us get to her, but we have to go into his place to get it. That man is probably meeting someone for dinner. It’s probably not even the guy you think it is.” He got to his feet, shaking off Toven’s arm, and peered around the alley.
The lit place under the Dong May’s sign was empty, the man and his car were gone.
“There, look. He’s left.” Saul pointed. “See. It’s OK.” He offered a hand and pulled Toven to his feet.
Toven peered toward Dong May’s. He breathed in a deep breath, his face relaxed. He touched Saul’s arm with one pale hand, the other covered his eyes for a moment. He groaned.
“He was the one who came with Mbeki to Shier to get me.” Toven spoke breathlessly still. “Saul you can’t even imagine. You can’t imagine.”
“You could show me.” Saul said, touching his hand to his temple. “Then I’d know.”
Toven recoiled. He stared at him as if Saul had lost his mind, then shook his head with a noisy exhalation and moved around Saul toward the mouth of the alley.
To the left and right along the road there were people. Snatches of conversation filtered up into the alley and died away. Dong May’s was a constant clatter of plates and voices. He looked back at Saul. “Should we go?”
Saul folded his arms over his chest and sucked his lip. “Look Toven, no offense, but you’re pretty unstable about your dad’s guys.” He said it as reasonably as he could. “When we get to the plant, are your going to be able to help us, or are your going to freak out?”
He felt guilty as soon as he’d said it. Toven’s wide eyes grew wider still, he looked down at the slimy alley floor with a pained expression on his face.
“You have to understand Ian.” He said defensively. “You’d freak out too if you’d seen him work. If you knew.”
“So show me.”
Toven frowned and slowly, almost imperceptibly, he nodded. Saul reached out to read the memory.
To be continued...
Copyright © 2006 by Tamara Sheehan