Beta: the marvellous and very patient enemytosleep
Artist: he03. Check out he03's Deviantart account here for more awesomeness and a delightful metric ton of Bradley love.
Word Count: 7698
Characters: Madam Christmas aka Chris Mustang, Roy Mustang (aged four), Grumman
Warnings: gangsters, innuendo, sleaze, dominoes and a lot of jazz age slang
Summary: Twenty-five years ago ... Chris Mustang is having a very bad month. The censors killed her show, she's in debt to a couple of very dubious businessmen, and she's working as a hostess in the worst bar in town. As if that wasn't enough, her estranged big brother seems to have gotten himself in an auto accident, and some nut decided to make her guardian of his four year old brat.
Notes: Written for the 2009-2010 FMA Big Bang Challenge. Grumman's taste in underwear was inspired by a one sentence fic from evil_little_dog. Check it out here.
Chapter One: in which bad news comes in threes, and Chris gets an unwanted gift.
Chapter Two: in which Roy flirts with his first waitress, and Chris meets a woman of means.
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.
Onward to the epilogue!