There had to be a pile of them by now, and Henry was going insane by their very presence. He'd thrown them into the ocean, down the garbage disposal, burned them, and discarded them in every manner he could think of. But still, day in and day out another would find its way into his sight, sending him into an unholy rage.
His teeth had ground themselves down so that there was a permanent grit in his mouth that he simply could not get rid of. This had to end sometime. She had to eventually give up.
Henry stared at the fresh one that had appeared stuck between the crevices in his living room window. The discolored face of the Page of Wands mocked him, as if daring him to be more creative with his refusal. He was running out of ideas. Nothing seemed to work. They still came back.
A knock on his door jolted him out of this conundrum, plotting revenge on something as fragile as a card. He peeled it from his window, thinking that he hadn't tried handing it off to a stranger yet, and answered the door.
"Excuse me sir," a dark, wide man warbled. His voice gave Henry the impression that his tongue could have been made of wine. "But I think that this is for you." Henry was handed yet another card, the same card. "Oh," the man exclaimed. "You have been notified already." Henry tried to swing the door closed, but it got caught on the man's massive foot.
"No, I think that you should come with me," he said. Henry's stomach became a stone as the man took ahold of his wrist. "You see, the police know where you are." He smiled, teeth a stark contrast to his dark lips, and Henry was pulled from his home.
"This one is opal," said the stand owner, moving the ring in the light to show off its iridescence. "Before they could create them in labs, so you know its the genuine article." He would know, of course: the man had all the features of a very old goat running a flea market stall and was probably running this business at the time that the ring was made. His glasses magnified his eyes to a point where they filled the lenses: a great expanse of grey-blue, much like the silver of the band between his fingers. "I've got the date of the band somewhere near the 1940's, real silver." He handed it over to Henry, who looked at it glow under the lamplight.
"I dunno if I believe that," Henry said. "I mean, I'll believe the setting is pre-lab, but you can easily put a fake one in the real setting." He eyed the stone with scrutiny. "It looks like a phony to me."
"I assure you, sir," the jeweler's aged voice cracked, rather exhausted by the claim. "The stone is genuine."
"I will only have the best for my fiancée," Henry said. His girlfriend, and soon-to-be fiancée Cindy, had never much been a fan of diamonds and she'd been jumping on the vintage craze that had swept the twenty-something demographic. And Henry had decided now that after three years of dating each other exclusively, he was ready to pop the question. She had requested, at the behest of her upbringing, that they not live in sin, not that that kept them from sinning of course. This would change soon, he felt: once he had the promise of until death us part. "And if you can't provide me with the best, then I'll have to look elsewhere. If this is all you have," he motioned to the five rings he'd been presented with previously: all of varying stones, shapes, and ages. "Your odds are not looking very good."
The old man put a finger up as defense, and then adjusted his spectacles as though it would help him remember. "I... may still have one that you have not looked at." He turned his back to file through a series of drawers. While the shopkeeper was thoroughly distracted, Henry slipped the opal ring into his pocket. Engrossed with inspecting the ring in his aged hands, the old man returned his attention to his customer none the wiser. "The only ring we seem to have left in size seven is this peridot. Circa 1950's. Not as expensive as the opal and a decade younger, however the craftsmanship is still quite lovely."
Henry eyed the peridot, but only passively. "You know, I'm not sure if this is what I want," he said. "I'll have to think about it for awhile before I make a decision. I'll come back though, if I don't find something better." He gave the jeweler a half-hearted wave, leaving the four rings on the glass counter in a pile and disappeared into the crowd.
He made a point of blending into the throngs of people because there was no sense in running and making a scene, particularly when the old goat-faced man at the counter was old enough to neither notice nor recognize his face. He was doing him a favor, anyhow. Little shops like this needed to learn a lesson in trusting people. The only way you could ever make money is if you never turned your back on anyone. If the old man hadn't learned his by now, there was no hope for him. So he dawdled, lingering at stalls like any other passerby before losing interest.
Until he came upon one that wasn't selling any merchandise: only a woman sitting behind a black table, shuffling her cards. She was fitted between two rivaling florists selling the usual seasonal fare: the first sunflowers of the season and the last shasta daisies before they all began to wilt. Compared to her surroundings, she seemed dull and small despite being built like an Amazon. But she sat there calm, content, and shuffling those generic cards in some meditative state. Well, while he was teaching people lessons...
"You don't actually believe in this stuff, do you," the man said as he approached the stall. If he was going to be honest, he was impressed with the woman on the other side of the table: she didn't seem to be the usual kind of bullshit. Her little card table was plain, she didn't wear peasant skirts and she didn't look like she'd been living in the wild for five years.
As a matter of fact, she looked like someone he would have passed in the grocery store: rather drab by the looks of her, though she had a height and build that gave her more the impression of a man than he really felt comfortable assigning female pronouns to. This made him feel better about addressing her with such skepticism: he'd have had a terrible kind of guilt if he'd tried to insult someone who looked like they might have sensitivities.
But as it was, she had mannish mannerisms and this brought him great comfort.
"I would be a piss-poor tarot reader if I did not," she said. Even her accent was fake, wherever it was from: falling somewhere between fake French and fake Spanish. She reassembled her cards with her giant man-hands and they shuff-shuff-shuffed back into their deck. She seemed not to notice that he was still standing there, never looking up from her deck until she spoke again. "You do not have to have a reading. I will not twist your arm."
Henry still stood there in the middle of this flea market, staring down the fortune-teller's stall with both disdain and curiosity. It was hard, as he stood before the woman taking up far less of the stall than her build should suggest, to ignore his inner skeptic. Taking a look at her prices, five dollars? For something she didn't even have to spend a bit of money on to do, that was an awfully high price.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a security guard pick up his radio and hold it to his ear. The ring in his pocket suddenly felt heavy, as though it might be visible to anyone who looked at him. He could hide better amongst the crowd if he sat.
"Alright," he said, dishing out a five-dollar bill. "I'll bite." She motioned with one hand to sit in the folding chair directly across from her.
"What would you like to know," the woman said, nimbly reshuffling the deck.
"Tell me what the next week should look like," he said, taking a seat and folding his arms in front of him. He made it no secret that he was just testing her, with complete confidence that she wouldn't be able to tell him a single thing.
She gave the deck one final shuffle and instructed him to cut it, which he did. The cards flipped out onto the table: one, two, three, four, five.
Henry glanced at them, studying the images only briefly before deciding that there was no reason to care. The woman, however, poured over the cards like a teenage boy with a stolen Playboy.
"It looks to me as though your next week is going to be very eventful," she said, and Henry raised his eyebrows. That was no lie, of course, given that he was planning to propose. "An awful lot of trouble, it looks like to me." His eyebrows lowered and he leaned back in the chair, making the legs creak at the displaced weight. "You're planning on getting married?" She pointed to the two of cups, which had turned out reversed.
He thumbed the opal ring in his pocket like a charm. "I might be." For a moment, he thought it odd that she would mention something so specific. How odd. But there was an easy explanation for this: he had so many connections, that anonymity in this part of town was almost impossible. Almost every person had worked for him at least once and his relationship with Cindy was well-known. And how hard would it be to put a plant in the audience to overhear his conversation with that jeweler? No, nothing about this gave him the impression that she was doing anything more astonishing than wasting his time.
"There is a strong chance that it won't work out for you." He frowned. That was preposterous. "You have a lot of swords in your reading," she continued cryptically. She pointed to the eight and ten of that suit, positioned next to each other like gruesome brothers. He cringed at the ten swords piercing the figure's spine, and the eight trapping another like a cage. If he'd believed in any of it, he might have really feared what they meant. She pointed to the five of coins."I see here that you may have to leave your comfort behind, perhaps losing quite a bit of money in the process. And with your swords, you can expect a betrayal and even violence. All of this seems to be culminating in some form of imprisonment."
Henry made a sound of dismissal. All of that in one week? What kind of a fortune was this?
The woman looked up from her cards at the sound as though she had been interrupted, but otherwise didn't react. She pointed to the final card: the queen of wands, smiling and looming out of a backdrop of sunflowers. "Do you have any enemies, sir?"
"I make a point of never making enemies," Henry said.
"It seems that you can avoid losing your wealth, your freedom, and your marriage so long as you appease this person." She tapped the Queen. "I think that its important here that you try not to make enemies with them. They can ruin you, given the chance."
Henry leaned back in his chair, mulling over the words of this psychic. He gave her fortune some good, long thought before finally speaking his mind. "Well, this has made me decide at least one thing," he said. The woman's unkempt eyebrows built themselves into a peak and he leaned forward. "You're a fraud."
The reader seemed wholly confused by his words, as though he had just spoken in a different language. "You can't read the future. You can't even read facial expressions, which means you're not even a very good fraud." She didn't respond, but he could tell that her jaw began to tense at his accusation. "Look, honey: I know you probably don't have a lot of things going for you, and maybe you can fool other people. But you're a fake. I know it, you know it. Its as simple as that. I'd like my money back now."
Her expression was blank, but it was as though a silent heat was rising in her face. The security guard had disappeared from the entrance of the flea market. He had a clear exit, but he wasn’t done here. Not just yet.
"My money back or you really are a fraud." She sighed and retrieved the bill from her cash box, hesitating before finally handing it back to him. She gripped it firmly, as though she wasn’t done with it yet, and finally released it when he tugged hard enough to nearly rip Abe Lincoln in half. He stood and without another word, left.
It was a full week until their anniversary, and Henry had made reservations at a restaurant with red lanterns and white tablecloths, waiters who wore ties, wine lists with tiny print. He'd told her to put on her very best, which in this case was a short little red dress that showed off her curves in ways that could only be improved by taking the dress off. Henry, of course, was the one who had bought the dress for her. He only barely trusted her to pick out clothing that would suit his tastes. He did this because he loved her, of course, and tonight he was going to show it.
They were seated beneath a divinely-crafted wood relief, depicting the helm of the restaurant owner's family crest: a lion's head between a pair of dove's wings. The gold-rimmed wine glasses sat side-by-side on their table, half filled with a sweet moscato. They clinked glasses. "To us," he said, and the blonde nodded her head. While she was properly distracted with the wine, he squeezed her hand and reached into the pocket of his suit jacket. The ring had been concealed properly in a black velvet box: the kind which snaps shut with a satisfying climph sound when given proper force. Her face flushed a deep red.
"Cindy," he said, and she shifted uncomfortably in her seat. "We've been together for awhile now and I've been thinking. Will you marry me?"
She looked down at the sparkling ring, her eyes obscured by thick, fluttering false eyelashes, holding the box in the candle light. She was silent for a long time as she turned several shades of pink.
"Good-bye, Henry," she said, getting up from her seat. Henry didn't move from his chair, dumbstruck. He grabbed the velvet box and chased after her, reaching her not long after she left the building.
"Cindy," he called, and she didn't even turn around. "Cindy, I'm talking to you." She spun around, her blonde hair twirling in a perfect spiral, her hands landing on her hips and nails clicking against each other while she anticipated what he might have to say to her. "Why," he asked. "Why won't you marry me?"
"Because, Henry," she said. "I've been cheating on you."
"I've been trying to break up with you for two weeks, but you've been so oblivious that I just...," she threw her hands up in defeat. "I just gave up. I've been cheating on you for like a year now."
Henry's jaw tightened and his eyes began to burn hot. "With who?"
She threw her hands up again. "Oh my god, like everyone. Seriously? It doesn't matter who I've been sleeping with because I'm leaving you." She turned to leave him, standing bewildered on the street corner.
"Why," he called after her. "Just tell me why you don't love me and I swear I'll fix it."
But she just kept walking. "Good-bye, Henry."
The street lamps flickered on as night came, and she disappeared into the darkness, only the diminishing sound of her heels giving any indication that she was still there at all. He ran his thumb across the velvet surface of the ring box and shook his head.
"Who needs her," he said to the ring, which had nothing to say in return. He stuffed it back into his pocket and stalked off to his car. At least now he didn't have to tip the waiter.
Henry arrived to a dark and empty home, just as he always did. But there was something about this dark emptiness that tore him apart, knowing simply that the lingering smell of her from nights ago was the last of her. He sat on the edge of his bed, trying to decide if he was angry or simply sad.
He ran his fingers through his short hair, knotting it around his knuckles as he became more and more angry. The simple fact that she wouldn't tell him why, wouldn't tell the man she had been with for three years, why she cheated on him, what he was doing wrong... clearly that meant that none of this was his fault. It had to be hers: the little slut.
He'd done everything right, after all. He'd dated her, he'd called her beautiful, he'd invited her into his home. Oh, and it dawned on him. It dawned on him just why she had never agreed to live with him. Upbringing indeed.
Regaining the strength to stand, he got up to turn on the lights and found himself staring at the lock on the liquor cabinet. He was always well-stocked with hard liquor: favoring whiskey and scotch of course. He found it difficult to sleep at night without a shot, which he deemed self-medication rather than addiction. It simply left him restless to sleep without a night-cap, and this was the only way he could still his mind and body long enough to forget what dreams haunted him.
But now? Now a shot would simply not do.
"That bitch," he mumbled as he poured liquid amber into a scotch glass, immediately knocking it back to wash out any lingering taste of her kiss. "Whore."
Henry stared at his bitter reflection in the whiskey, looking for an answer of what to do now. She had been his life for three years, and a pit formed in his stomach to think that he would have to start all over again.
"That bitch was gonna be my wife," he mumbled, working his face into a snarl. He took another swig of his drink and watched as his reflection in the mirror began to twist and distort while the alcohol began to settle in his stomach. "MY wife," he affirmed, pointing at himself. "Not whatever numbskull piece of shit she's throwing herself after right now."
"I bet he seduced her," he assured his reflection. His reflection nodded in agreement. "Yeah. She's not very smart, you know. I bet this bonehead piece of shit came along and he seduced her. Didn't know a good thing when she had it."
"I gave her everything, you know," he continued to argue. "She'd never have to worry about money or shelter or anything ever again. And she throws that all away because she's dumb enough to pick some jackass over me." He pictured her new suitor, but his imagination was stunted when he became aware of his uncertainty. She never... she never really talked about what she liked about him, how could he imagine what kind of man she would leave him for?
"I'm gonna find out," he told his reflection. "I'm gonna find out who this fucker is and I'm gonna punch him in the face and she'll see who the real man is." He propelled himself off the bed, intent on showing this bastard who he was dealing with that very minute, but his ankles fell limp as he tried to take another step forward.
Sunlight seeped through his closed eyelids and he squeezed them tight as if that would delay the morning a little longer. It was when a shadow fell over him that he dared open them again. With his face smeared on the carpet and his vision still impaired from the whiskey and possible concussion, it was difficult to see what exactly cast that shadow over him.
But he was conscious enough to register a pair of red pumps.
"Of course you've been drinking," the red-shoed shadow said.
"Cindy," he said, sounding hopeful. "Cindy, you came back to me."
She loomed above him, her blonde hair little more than a blur from this distance, hands still on her hips. "Don't be an idiot, Henry," she said. "I came here to get my things." She stepped over him, her long legs seeming like they could take forever to end. He followed their trail and slowly brought himself to sit up, watching her rummage through his drawers to find the things that were hers and throwing them in a box.
The haze of alcohol slowly settled and words came to his mouth before his lips could register what they were. "What's his name?" He said, the words feeling too big for his lazy tongue to lift. "Who is he?"
Cindy's shoulders hunched as though she were not prepared to answer. "Henry, I don't have time for this," she said, wadding up one of her sweaters and tossing it in the bin.
Henry steadied himself, bracing against the bed and trying to stay his reeling mind. The man could hardly stand up after the night on the floor, and the hangover didn't help at all. "I know him, don't I," he sputtered. She looked over her shoulder briefly before whirling around and stalking over to the closet and throwing a multitude of dresses into the box as well until there was little to see of the container beyond the layers of fabric. "Say his name, Cindy."
"I'm not playing this game with you," she said, taking her box out of their bedroom and out into the hallway.
Henry scrambled to his feet and followed. "You don't understand, Cindy: I'm not playing games either." He caught up to her and nearly slammed into a corner trying to cut her off. "I need to know who he is. Now."
"Get out of the way, Henry."
"No. This is my house: I say who stays and who goes." She dodged right and he matched. Left and he matched. "You're not leaving until I get a name."
Cindy closed her eyes and let loose a long sigh out of her nose. The box landed at her feet with a muffled foomph on the beige carpet. "Your house? Your house," she exclaimed. "Paid for with whose money?"
Henry's face was a stone. "My money," he insisted, but she just shook her head.
"This is exactly why I'm leaving," she said. "You don't even see what's wrong with what you just said."
His face turned a vivid puce. "ITS. MY. MONEY," he said through his teeth. "MY MONEY. MY HOUSE."
Cindy shook her head. "Just look at yourself," she said, picking her box back up. "Are we done here?" Giving up on trying to play polite with him, she pushed past and down the stairs. He followed, of course, nearly falling down the stairs after her.
"You know where you'd be right now if it weren't for me," he threatened, holding onto the railing. "Still living with your parents and working in that hole in the wall diner, barely making it on tips. That's where you'd be." She dismissed him, pretended that he wasn't even there. "I gave everything to you, and all I asked was that you be mine. You know what this makes you?" They reached the bottom of the stairs and stumbled to make himself stand erect like a human being. "That makes you an ungrateful little slut!"
Immediately, her palm collided with his cheek and he was thrown back against the door jamb of his foyer. "You don't GET to talk to me like that," she spat back. Henry straightened his knees and lifted a hand in warning, but without giving him time to even dare she yanked on the collar of his day-old shirt, pulling him down beneath her.
"You listen to me, Richie-Rich," she whispered, leaning in close so that not even the security cameras would pick it up. "I know where you got that money. Knowing what I know, do you really want to be talking to me like that right now? You don't want to make me your enemy: I will ruin you." She let go of him and left him there, adjusting his collar and trying to ease the choking feeling she gave him.
He didn't see who drove her away; only that he drove a rattling blue pickup that wasn't worth one of his car's tires. "Fuck," he said, still fixated on knowing that man's name.
Her words began to seep into him like roots and he began to feel very afraid. How much did she know, exactly? Of course, there were things that she probably could have never ignored, even if they did live in separate places. He'd assured himself that she was either dumb enough not to notice or smart enough not to say anything and in any case she would never connect the dots. But the way she spoke had left him feeling that maybe he was the one being fooled.
It was those words she used. 'Enemy.' 'Ruin.' He hadn't thought of that fraud in the flea market all week, but here she'd repeated those words like it was part of some script.
"Coincidence," he assured himself as he sank back into the safety of his home, making extra certain that he locked the doors and windows. That extra bit of security would ease his mind at least a little.
"Dumb bitch," he mumbled, pouring himself another drink. "She's bluffing. I bet she doesn't know what she's even talking about." He felt along the line of his jaw, still burning from where she'd hit him. She'd gotten him with her nails as well, he could feel it, but he didn't appear to be bleeding. His hangover had given him a visibly short fuse and there was little doubt that in his disoriented state he might temporarily forget his moral standing on hitting women. "Damn right, she's lucky," he mumbled into his tumbler.
There was a knock on the door and Henry sighed, wincing at the loudness of it. The pattern of knocks, in a one-two-three-four-five succession made it clear who was at the door. Henry groaned in exasperation, wanting desperately not to do anything else stressing today if he could help it. He refused to get up, hoping that the knocker would assume he wasn't home and just go away, but there it was again: one-two-three-four-five. Knowing that he shouldn't keep them waiting, he came to his feet again and trudged back towards the door.
"What do you want, Clark," he hollered before answering the door.
"Please, Mister Peters," muffled a slow-moving voice on the other side of the door, the owner of which seemed to be trying very hard to pronounce everything correctly. "It is important."
He opened the door and was greeted by two familiar men. The tallest was a whole head taller than him, looking down on him with tiny black eyes. His head had been shaved clean and even though the way he dressed indicated that he wasn't poor he always gave the impression that he was close to starving. Poking out from beneath the collar of his shirt was the tattoo of a turkey feather: some kind of dedication to Clark's Cherokee heritage that Henry doubted he even had.
The man on his right only came up to his shoulders, putting him just below Henry's eye-level. Jack had a fat little face and a large, bulbous nose which would have been the most striking feature about him were it not for the heavy brow that gave him the impression of well-fed neanderthal.
"I've had a very bad morning," Henry said to Clark. "So if you've got some bad news, I want you to word it very carefully, do you understand?" Clark was silent and became even more gaunt. "Its bad news, isn't it?"
"You said, sir, to come up with a plan if someone got an ink-uh-ling," Clark said slowly. "And we've gotten some words on a mole." Henry's face washed white. Cindy had told the police, he surmised, and it filled him with rage. No wonder she'd left him: she was probably skipping town before they linked anything to her.
"Well what, sir?"
"Your plan? You said there's a mole, now what's the plan?"
Clark was silent, and he looked to his vertically-challenged partner for support. But Jack was silent, what with being a mute and all. "You're coming with us," Clark said quietly.
"Not on your life," Henry retorted. "I know what you people live like."
Clark reached forward and tried to put a comforting hand on Henry's wrist, but he pulled back. Sincere or not, it was difficult for Clark to look more comforting than a reanimated corpse. "Please, sir." He lowered his voice. "Its more than the money. They've found the murder weapon."
"You said they couldn't link it to me," he growled. "You told me they'd closed the case when we pinned it on that crazy homeless man."
"If you will forgive me, sir: the case is likely to be re-opened upon these new a-alle-gations. We have a s-safehouse you can stay at until we f-find witnesses for your alibi. But we must leave now."
Henry stared into Clark's tiny, but soulful eyes. He wanted to stand his ground, thinking that he could handle whatever the police threw at him. After all, the first round of accusations had fallen short and he'd gotten off scott-free. He'd manage, or at least he did two years ago.
But now that Cindy was gone, there went his most believable witness.
"I'll go with you," he said. "But it needs to be made clear that I'm innocent, you got that? I'm not hiding from the law. I'm hiding from slander."
"Take me to this 's-safehouse' of yours," Henry demanded. Clark backed his way out of the door, appearing not to notice the jab at his speech impediment, and escorted him to the red Crown Victoria: opening the back door for him and motioning with one hand that he should take a seat. Jack drove, pulling the car out of the driveway in a very smooth, very calm manner.
"So what exactly is this safehouse we're going to," Henry asked Clark, straightening his tie and trying to make him look like he had not lost the love of his life and possibly his freedom in one fell swoop. In the process, his hand ran over the rounded corners of something hollow within his pocket.
The engagement ring. He grated his teeth at the thought of it sitting in his pocket like some sick joke, and yet the velvet box brought comfort to his shaking hands.
"Did you hear me, Mister Peters," Clark asked, turning his head to look at him, his poppyseed eyes imploring so earnestly that Henry himself found it rather pathetic.
"I'm sorry," he said, removing his hand from the ring box. "Go on."
"We're t-taking you to the edge of town," he repeated. "There is a woman who lives out there and takes in all types: criminals and falsely accused alike. She can c-coach you on what your next move needs to be."
"I don't need coaching," Henry retorted. "I know exactly what I need to say. All I need is somewhere to stay until we can get Cindy to stop running her goddamn mouth."
Clark seemed puzzled. "What's happened between you and Cindy?"
"She's the mole, isn't she? It has to be her," he insisted. "She told me she knows everything, but I don't know how much she squealed." A growing hate for her formed in his belly where desperation used to cling. Cheating on him, leaving him, and now this?
"We don't know," he said. "Just someone tipped the cops off and its time to go." Clark turned to look out the window and Henry did the same. The safe and quiet suburbs had begun to diminish and houses became scarce amongst trees. A groaning sound welled in his throat as he realized that they were moving further and further out into the country, into parts only just inside the city limits. It was understood that this was not going to be a lifestyle of comfort, that much was for certain.
Their car began to take a slow turn down a long, winding drive surrounded on all sides by maples, beech, and pines. He'd never been to a place this far out, and goodness: how far out was this? Which direction had they even taken him in?
They slowed to a stop, the brakes squealing unpleasantly at their arrival. Clark removed himself from the front seat and immediately swung around to the back to open the door for Henry. In many respects, Clark served the role of a butler, or would have if it were any kind of smart move to have the man who does your dirty work on record as working for you.
Henry stepped out onto the gravel drive, his wingtips offering very little traction. The humid air of summer filled his nostrils with a cloying scent and he made a sound of disgust at the presence of wildlife. This was an old, abandoned house: probably built in the 1970's, though its lack of upkeep gave it the impression of being much older. The wood porch was in desperate need of treatment, having both the afflictions of appearing rotting and bleached. Some of the windows were made of stained glass, and he was given the impression that this old farmhouse had once been used in a religious manner. It wasn't uncommon for folks in need of faith to convert a house into a place of worship: a thing that both hillbillies and nuns were known to do in times of desperation and economic decline.
He did not think that this might belong to hillbillies: the porch was devoid of lawn mower parts. For this, he was thankful. Spending however many months or so in hiding amongst the company of the slack-jawed was the very worst torture he could imagine. It was his opinion that even if he was to be off the radar, that didn't mean he couldn't be picky about it.
The screen door opened and the three of them were greeted by a rather short woman sporting a trim black bob and the blond man who could not have been much older than twenty in a sweater vest who trailed behind her. Henry wondered how the boy could stand to be wearing layers in this weather.
"Ms. Krauss," Clark called, bowing his head respectfully. Ms. Krauss lifted her hand gracefully, as though giving Clark the option to either kiss it or shake it. He chose the former.
"Mister Swaim." She looked up at the man who towered over her and yet somehow it seemed that she was the taller one. This was a thing that Henry hated about strong women: they hardly had to work for their respect. All they needed was a pair of breasts and that gave them power. Men had to work for the respect they had, or at least that was the way that Henry saw it. He couldn't help but think of Cindy, who suddenly had the gall to speak to him as though they were equals when he was the one that provided for her, and again was made aware of the ring in his pocket.
His face burned.
"I understand you have a... situation," Krauss continued. "Is this him?" Henry straightened.
"Y-yes ma'am," Clark concurred. "The victim of some awful slander in town. We appreciate your assistance in the matter."
The woman leaned to the side as thought to get a better view of Henry. Raising her heavily-penciled eyebrow into a high arch, she looked him up and down. He positioned his hands at parade rest, but he felt as though he was being appraised like a piece of meat. .
"What is your crime," she asked him. He looked down on her, refusing to let her appear taller than him as he had with Clark.
"I don't have one," he replied instantly. "I am the victim here." The blond boy squinted, Henry noticed.
Her lips twirled into a cruel little smile. "Well that's good because there are certain sorts of people we simply will not protect. Did you bring your things?"
"I had to leave in a hurry."
"I c-can go back and-"
"That won't be necessary, Clark. Thank you, though." She held up a hand and he stopped moving immediately. "You will be staying awhile, and if you don't mind me saying: you don't look like the sort of person who dresses in a way that will blend well out here. Mister Worth will take your measurements and tomorrow we'll get you better camouflage. Just trust his tastes." The blond behind her beamed, and it was clear to Henry that this was Mister Worth. "But let's go inside," she continued, swiping sweat away with the back of her hand. "No use sweating through the clothes you do have."
Krauss turned and motioned that they should follow her into the house. Worth allowed her to surpass him, giving Henry a curious eye as he passed before joining Jack at the rear.
Trust them? Of course he didn't. The fruit might seem harmless and Krauss herself seemed like she could easily enough be bent, but given what had happened in the past twenty-four hours, Henry was not set on giving up trust to anyone he didn't know. Clark and Jack... those were people he could trust. Clark was so firmly under his thumb that he was resembling his fingerprints and Jack... Jack was mute and illiterate. What was he going to squeal about? Neither of them were smart or assertive enough to cross him, so he supposed that if he must trust something in all this it should be their judgement.
And it seemed that there was no choice in the matter, regardless. He didn't have any better ideas.
The interior of the house was not much better than the outside, but much to his surprise there was at least air conditioning, even if it was from a few window units. They greeted him with a droning hum as he walked into the house and he hid his disgust at his new surroundings. The old two-story house was clearly not meant to be a permanent living space; neither for him nor the two that seemed to live there under whatever situation they seemed to be in.
There was no television in the small living room, but that didn't matter much because there was no couch. Instead there was an arbitrary set of chairs that seemed as though they would offer some median-level comfort and an outdated stereo system. A few pillows took up space atop the cushions as though in attempt to make them more comfortable, but it was clear by the way they sagged over the arms that they offered little. The stained glass windows cast a comforting but eerie golden glow upon everything.
"We were just getting ready for some lunch," Krauss continued as they made their way through to the kitchen, which they had to walk through to get to the meager dining room. "Have a seat, we'll make another bowl of soup for you boys." She indicated the adjacent room: a cheaply-made table and matching chairs that only barely looked like they could support a grown man's weight. The petite woman and her companion, perhaps, but Henry was surprised to see that Jack's girth did not compromise its stability.
They left the three men alone to take their place amongst the pots and pans.
"Who exactly is this lady," Henry asked Clark, trying to make sense of the patterns in the wallpaper: more golden-yellow roundels that made him think of money, somehow matching the motif of the stained glass. The alcohol had long worn off, and now it wasn't decided whether the headache he was experiencing was from the hangover or from the lack of food. Regardless of the condition of this old home, at least whatever soup was cooking in that pot smelled comforting.
"This is your diplomat, s-sir," Clark began slowly. "Ms. Krauss is an expert; very well-connected. If there is someone who can get you out of a jam, its her."
"And her little argyle buddy?"
"He, like you, is in hiding."
"Hiding from what?" Henry stole another look at the man, who was unabashedly donning a blue apron that hung on a peg by the kitchen door. "I can't imagine a harmless little fruit fly like him being in trouble with the law. What is it? Some white collar crime his dad did?"
Clark stole a glance at Jack, who furrowed his eyebrows but of course said nothing. "We don't know, sir. But we do know that there are m-more things to run from than the police."
"Worse things, sir." Clark leaned back in his chair and Henry did the same. Worth teetered his way into the kitchen, humming something indistinct, and carrying a tray that looked far too big for his tiny, delicate hands to manage.
"We've made a clam chowder," he said, and Henry was shocked that his voice was burdened with a heavy accent. "I apologise if there isn't enough. We are quite a drive from the nearest market."
Henry narrowed his eyes. "Where are you from, kid?"
Worth seemed almost offended, but it was swallowed with a blank expression. "Leeds, sir. I'm from Leeds."
Henry's lips moved to one side of his face in disbelief. He couldn't help but feel that he'd just been told a lie, but having only been to England once or twice in his life he couldn't justifiably make that claim. He would allow the boy to pretend. After all, he didn't intend to spend too much time in this dump. One month or however long it took for the heat to die down and then he could get out and relocate.
He'd figure out a way to get his money out of the bank without drawing suspicion. Maybe he'd go to Belize, where land was cheap and no one needed to know who he was.
"Where did you learn to cook," he asked Worth, both an attempt to charm his hosts and to coax more untruths from him. The chowder was clearly made from a can and made to feed five by adding extra potato and cream, which Henry assumed was just about all that was in the cupboards. That aside, it wasn't completely terrible, though in need of pepper.
"London," he said timidly. He looked as though he was going to explain further but thought better of it, and then changed his mind again. "My f-father had me run kitchen duty and I learnt to improvise." Another stutterer. Between him and Clark, a conversation must take twice the time it should.
"I thought you said you were from Leeds."
"I am," he said, his weak eyebrows stretching to meet in the center. "People move in the states, don't they?"
"What did you move for?"
"That is quite none of your business," Worth said blandly, staring into his gloopy soup. Ah! So he was hiding something. Henry smiled, convinced now that he wasn't the only one here that was guilty.
Worth stood, excusing himself, and took his bowl into the kitchen to be washed. Krauss' eyes followed him, showing a hint of concern for the boy. Something about the petite woman seemed slightly on edge, as though setting Worth off in the wrong way would only result in trouble for her. She turned her attention to Henry.
"It is in your best interest to, in the future, avoid bringing up Worth's time spent in London," she said.
Henry leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers together. "Why is that," he asked.
"That is not my information to divulge," she said. She tilted her head to the side in that way that females do when they’re trying to give the impression that there is nothing to worry about. "Nor is it your concern."
"And do you... live here as well," he asked her.
"I have several properties, but at this time: yes. I will be staying here with you and Mister Worth until certain factors are taken care of. Consider me your ambassador off the property. I will be taking care of your needs until a more solid plan arises. Your two friends," she indicated Jack and Clark. "Will be helping me, since they have a better handle on your situation than I do and we can't have them be seen with you after today and risk further incrimination."
"Exactly how are you going to be helping me, Krauss," Henry asked, hiding his frustration. At least she was to the point and he appreciated that aspect of her, but it grated on him that his life and future were in the hands of a woman who looked like she could break in half simply by a strong wind. "How can you help me clear my name?"
She raised an eyebrow, forming a perfect arch on her tiny face. "Well, to know that I would have to know what you've done."
"I haven't done anything," he insisted. "I'm innocent. I've been set up."
"Then tell me what it is you're innocent of, Mister Peters," she said. "I told you that I'm going to help you; there's no sense in getting defensive."
Henry's shoulders relaxed and looked to Jack and Clark for support. "Embezzlement, extortion," he said. Jack rolled his hand forward as if to indicate that he should continue.
"Its alright, b-boss. She's here to help."
Henry took a deep breath, as though saying the next word out loud was more of a confession than he wanted to make. "Murder."
He expected her to gasp and pull away from him, but she didn't: simply finished the last of her soup and set the spoon in the bowl as though murder were only a daily occurrence. "Nothing we can't clear up with enough time and effort." Worth skittered back into the dining room and removed their bowls from the table to wash them. "We've helped worse people." The blond stole a glance at her as if his ears were burning. "But I think that should be enough for now. We'll focus now on getting you settled here." She excused herself from the table and followed Worth to the kitchen, once again leaving the three of them alone.
"You're certain I can trust these people," he asked them again, butting his finger against the tabletop percussively as though that would make his point. "Absolutely certain?"
"Do you remember four years ago when that Mayor from upstate was accused of d-drowning his wife?" Henry nodded. "He disappeared for four months and everyone thought that he had run off to the B-Bahamas. By the time he showed up on the radar again people had moved onto a different s-scandal. Evidence had mysteriously gone missing, people had changed their minds, even supposed 'witnesses' weren't sure anymore."
"You're saying that was Krauss' work?" Henry checked to see if either of them were dangerously close and lowered himself to near the same level as the table. "Andersen was innocent, though."
"As are you," Clark insisted quietly. "She will make you innocent."
Henry began a curious smile. "Clark Swaim, you have no idea how glad I am that I hired you."
The bald man beamed. "Likewise, sir." His eyes wandered out towards the road. "But we should be going, sir. There is... work to be done before we can e-even start working on proving your innocence." They all stood and shook hands before parting. "Everything will be as it should," Clark assured him. "Just you wait and see."
As the red Ford disappeared beyond the trees, Henry felt absolutely alone. A giant among peasants: these two were not going to be much company. There was too much power in that woman, and what would he even talk about with a teenager like Worth? It was going to be an agonizing month. As he turned back towards the house he focused on the one thing that might make this exile bearable.
"What's the policy on alcohol here," Henry asked. After the day he'd had, he needed a drink. His hangover had long waned, but he still tasted the whiskey on his tongue: enough to make him want more.
Krauss looked up from the disappearing car. "Policy?"
"Yeah, like is this a dry county or something?"
She shook her head and laughed. "No, of course not. That would be hypocritical of me. I just won't fund it. If your boys come back with some of your money, we'll do a run for you."
He leaned forward. "I have some very specific tastes. How about I just... go with you?"
"You are not allowed off the property, Mister Peters. Do I need to remind you that you're being tried with murder? Going anywhere where you might be seen or recognized, and your friends tell me this covers a rather large area, not only puts yourself at risk but everyone else involved. I'm sorry, but what we gather from the closest shop will have to suffice."
He imagined a tiny road-side liquor shop that likely only carried four kinds of beer and wine at six dollars a bottle. The closest they might have to his drink was probably Jack Daniels, which was the common people's whiskey. And thinking now... he only had five dollars in his wallet at the moment- intended to be a tip for the waiter at the restaurant. Not even terrible liquor was that cheap.
"What if," he bargained. "I asked my boys to retrieve something from my home? They'll be in town, I don't see any harm in having them swing by my place."
"You would be willing to risk them for a bottle of what, exactly?"
"Scotch." Worth's attention snapped up as he walked by the screen door. Henry's lips twitched: at least they had a shared taste in liquor.
But Krauss only shook her head. "They might have their reasons for their loyalty, but most people would draw the line at self-sabotage. I'm sorry, but you'll have to make due with what we can get." She turned and began to head inside. "In any case, you have bigger issues to worry about than alcohol. Consider the weeks to pass a time to improve yourself." That seemed to be the end of the conversation. Krauss had a knack for that.