She had been running for four days now, a harum-scarum tumbling flight through passages and tunnels. She was hungry, and exhausted, and more tired than a body could stand, and each successive door was proving harder to open. After four days of flight, she had found a hiding place, a tiny stone burrow, under the world, where she would be safe, or so she prayed, and at last she slept.
Mr. Croup had hired Ross at the last Floating Market, which had been held in Westminster Abbey. "Think of him," he told Mr. Vandemar, "as a canary."
"Sings?" asked Mr. Vandemar.
"I doubt it; I sincerely and utterly doubt it." Mr. Croup ran a hand through his lank orange hair. "No, my fine friend, I was thinking metaphorically--more along the lines of the birds they take down mines." Mr. Vandemar nodded, comprehension dawning slowly: yes, a canary. Mr. Ross had no other resemblance to a canary. He was huge--almost as big as Mr. Vandemar--and extremely grubby, and quite hairless, and he said very little, although he had made a point of telling each of them that he liked to kill things, and he was good at it; and this amused Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. But he was a canary, and he never knew it. So Mr. Ross went first, in his filthy T-shirt and his crusted blue-jeans, and Croup and Vandemar walked behind him, in their elegant black suits.
There are four simple ways for the observant to tell Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar apart: first, Mr. Vandemar is two and a half heads taller than Mr. Croup; second, Mr. Croup has eyes of a faded china blue, while Mr. Vandemar's eyes are brown; third, while Mr. Vandemar fashioned the rings he wears on his right hand out of the skulls of four ravens, Mr. Croup has no obvious jewelery; fourth, Mr. Croup likes words, while Mr. Vandemar is always hungry. Also, they look nothing at all alike.
A rustle in the tunnel darkness; Mr. Vandemar's knife was in his hand, and then it was no longer in his hand, and it was quivering gently almost thirty feet away. He walked over to his knife and picked it up by the hilt. There was a gray rat impaled on the blade, its mouth opening and closing impotently as the life fled. He crushed its skull between finger and thumb.
"Now, there's one rat that won't be telling any more tales," said Mr. Croup. He chuckled at his own joke. Mr. Vandemar did not respond. "Rat. Tales. Get it?"
Mr. Vandemar pulled the rat from the blade and began to munch on it, thoughtfully, head first. Mr. Croup slapped it out of his hands. "Stop that," he said. Mr. Vandemar put his knife away, a little sullenly. "Buck up," hissed Mr. Croup, encouragingly. "There will always be another rat. Now: onward. Things to do. People to damage."
* * *
Three years in London had not changed Richard, although it had changed the way he perceived the city. Richard had originally imagined London as a gray city, even a black city, from pictures he had seen, and he was surprised to find it filled with color. It was a city of red brick and white stone, red buses and large black taxis, bright red mailboxes and green grassy parks and cemeteries.
It was a city in which the very old and the awkwardly new jostled each other, not uncomfortably, but without respect; a city of shops and offices and restaurants and homes, of parks and churches, of ignored monuments and remarkably unpalatial palaces; a city of hundreds of districts with strange names--Crouch End, Chalk Farm, Earl's Court, Marble Arch--and oddly distinct identities; a noisy, dirty, cheerful, troubled city, which fed on tourists, needed them as it despised them, in which the average speed of transportation through the city had not increased in three hundred years, following five hundred years of fitful road-widening and unskillful compromises between the needs of traffic, whether horse-drawn, or, more recently, motorized, and the needs of pedestrians; a city inhabited by and teeming with people of every color and manner and kind.
When he had first arrived, he had found London huge, odd, fundamentally incomprehensible, with only the Tube map, that elegant multicolored topographical display of underground railway lines and stations, giving it any semblance of order. Gradually he realized that the Tube map was a handy fiction that made life easier but bore no resemblance to the reality of the shape of the city above. It was like belonging to a political party, he thought once, proudly, and then, having tried to explain the resemblance between the Tube map and politics, at a party, to a cluster of bewildered strangers, he had decided in the future to leave political comment to others.
He continued, slowly, by a process of osmosis and white knowledge (which is like white noise, only more useful), to comprehend the city, a process that accelerated when he realized that the actual City of London itself was no bigger than a square mile, stretching from Aldgate in the east to Fleet Street and the law courts of the Old Bailey in the west, a tiny municipality, now home to London's financial institutions, and that that was where it had all begun.
Two thousand years before, London had been a little Celtic village on the north shore of the Thames, which the Romans had encountered, then settled in. London had grown, slowly, until, roughly a thousand years later, it met the tiny Royal City of Westminster immediately to the west, and, once London Bridge had been built, London touched the town of Southwark directly across the river; and it continued to grow, fields and woods and marshland slowly vanishing beneath the flourishing town, and it continued to expand, encountering other little villages and hamlets as it grew, like Whitechapel and Deptford to the east, Hammersmith and Shepherd's Bush to the west, Camden and Islington in the north, Battersea and Lambeth across the Thames to the south, absorbing all of them, just as a pool of mercury encounters and incorporates smaller beads of mercury, leaving only their names behind.
London grew into something huge and contradictory. It was a good place, and a fine city, but there is a price to be paid for all good places, and a price that all good places have to pay.
After a while, Richard found himself taking London for granted; in time, he began to pride himself on having visited none of the sights of London (except for the Tower of London, when his Aunt Maude came down to the city for a weekend, and Richard found himself her reluctant escort).
But Jessica changed all that. Richard found himself, on otherwise sensible weekends, accompanying her to places like the National Gallery and the Tate Gallery, where he learned that walking around museums too long hurts your feet, that the great art treasures of the world all blur into each other after a while, and that it is almost beyond the human capacity for belief to accept how much museum cafeterias will brazenly charge for a slice of cake and a cup of tea.
"Here's your tea and your eclair," he told her. "It would have cost less to buy one of those Tintorettos."
"Don't exaggerate," said Jessica cheerfully. "Anyway, there aren't any Tintorettos at the Tate."
"I should have had that cherry cake," said Richard. "Then they would have been able to afford another Van Gogh."
Richard had met Jessica in France, on a weekend trip to Paris two years earlier; had in fact discovered her in the Louvre, trying to find the group of his office friends who had organized the trip. Staring up at an immense sculpture, he had stepped backwards into Jessica, who was admiring an extremely large and historically important diamond. He tried to apologize to her in French, which he did not speak, gave up, and began to apologize in English, then tried to apologize in French for having to apologize in English, until he noticed that Jessica was about as English as it was possible for any one person to be. By this time she decided he should buy her an expensive French sandwich and some overpriced carbonated apple juice, by way of apology, and, well, that was the start of it all, really. He had never been able to convince Jessica that he wasn't the kind of person who went to art galleries after that.
On weekends when they did not go to art galleries or to museums, Richard would trail behind Jessica as she went shopping, which she did, on the whole, in affluent Knightsbridge, a short walk and an even shorter taxi ride from her apartment in a Kensington mews. Richard would accompany Jessica on her tours of such huge and intimidating emporia as Harrods and Harvey Nichols, stores where Jessica was able to purchase anything, from jewelry, to books, to the week's groceries.
Richard had been awed by Jessica, who was beautiful, and often quite funny, and was certainly going somewhere. And Jessica saw in Richard an enormous amount of potential, which, properly harnessed by the right woman, would have made him the perfect matrimonial accessory. If only he were a little more focused, she would murmur to herself, and so she gave him books with titles like Dress for Success and A Hundred and Twenty-Five Habits of Successful Men, and books on how to run a business like a military campaign, and Richard always said thank you, and always intended to read them. In Harvey Nichols's men's fashion department she would pick out for him the kinds of clothes she thought that he should wear--and he wore them, during the week, anyway; and, a year to the day after their first encounter, she told him she thought it was time that they went shopping for an engagement ring.
"Why do you go out with her?" asked Gary, in Corporate Accounts, eighteen months later. "She's terrifying."
Richard shook his head. "She's really sweet, once you get to know her."
Gary put down the plastic troll doll he had picked up from Richard's desk. "I'm surprised she still lets you play with these."
"The subject has never come up," said Richard, picking up one of the creatures from his desk. It had a shock of Day-Glo orange hair, and a slightly baffled expression, as if it were lost.
And the subject had indeed come up. Jessica had, however, convinced herself that Richard's troll collection was a mark of endearing eccentricity, comparable to Mr. Stockton's collection of angels. Jessica was in the process of organizing a traveling exhibition of Mr. Stockton's angel collection, and she had come to the conclusion that great men always collected something. In actuality Richard did not really collect trolls. He had found a troll on the sidewalk outside the office, and, in a vain attempt at injecting a little personality into his working world, he had placed it on his computer monitor. The others had followed over the next few months, gifts from colleagues who had noticed that Richard had a penchant for the ugly little creatures. He had taken the gifts and positioned them, strategically, around his desk, beside the telephones and the framed photograph of Jessica.
The photograph had a yellow Post-it note stuck to it.
It was a Friday afternoon. Richard had noticed that events were cowards: they didn't occur singly, but instead they would run in packs and leap out at him all at once. Take this particular Friday, for example. It was, as Jessica had pointed out to him at least a dozen times in the last month, the most important day of his life. So it was unfortunate that, despite the Post-it note Richard had left on his fridge door at home, and the other Post-it note he had placed on the photograph of Jessica on his desk, he had forgotten about it completely and utterly.
Also, there was the Wandsworth report, which was overdue and taking up most of his head. Richard checked another row of figures; then he noticed that page 17 had vanished, and he set it up to print out again; and another page down, and he knew that if he were only left alone to finish it ... if, miracle of miracles, the phone did not ring.... It rang. He thumbed the speakerphone.
"Hello? Richard? The managing director needs to know when he'll have the report."
Richard looked at his watch. "Five minutes, Sylvia. It's almost wrapped up. I just have to attach the P & L projection."
"Thanks, Dick. I'll come down for it." Sylvia was, as she liked to explain, "the MD's PA," and she moved in an atmosphere of crisp efficiency. He thumbed the speakerphone off; it rang again, immediately. "Richard," said the speaker, with Jessica's voice, "it's Jessica. You haven't forgotten, have you?"
"Forgotten?" He tried to remember what he could have forgotten. He looked at Jessica's photograph for inspiration and found all the inspiration he could have needed in the shape of a yellow Post-it note stuck to her forehead.
"Richard? Pick up the telephone."
He picked up the phone, reading the Post-it note as he did so. "Sorry, Jess. No, I hadn't forgotten. Seven P.M., at Ma Maison Italiano. Should I meet you there?"
"Jessica, Richard. Not Jess." She paused for a moment. "After what happened last time? I don't think so. You really could get lost in your own backyard, Richard."
Richard thought about pointing out that anyone could have confused the National Gallery with the National Portrait Gallery, and that it wasn't she who had spent the whole day standing in the rain (which was, in his opinion, every bit as much fun as walking around either place until his feet hurt), but he thought better of it.
"I'll meet you at your place," said Jessica. "We can walk down together."
"Right, Jess. Jessica--sorry."
"You have confirmed our reservation, haven't you, Richard."
"Yes," lied Richard earnestly. The other line on his phone had begun to ring. "Jessica, look, I..."
"Good," said Jessica, and she broke the connection. He picked up the other line.
"Hi Dick. It's me, Gary." Gary sat a few desks down from Richard. He waved. "Are we still on for drinks? You said we could go over the Merstham account."
"Get off the bloody phone, Gary. Of course we are." Richard put down the phone. There was a telephone number at the bottom of the Post-it note; Richard had written the Post-it note to himself, several weeks earlier. And he had made the reservation: he was almost certain of that. But he had not confirmed it. He had kept meaning to, but there had been so much to do and Richard had known that there was plenty of time. But events run in packs ...
Sylvia was now standing next to him. "Dick? The Wandsworth report?"
"Almost ready, Sylvia. Look, just hold on a sec, can you?"
He finished punching in the number, breathed a sigh of relief when somebody answered, "Ma Maison. Can I help you?"
"Yes," said Richard. "A table for three, for tonight. I think I booked it. And if I did I'm confirming the reservation. And if I didn't, I wondered if I could book it. Please." No, they had no record of a table for tonight in the name of Mayhew. Or Stockton. Or Bartram--Jessica's surname. And as for booking a table ...
It wasn't the words that Richard found so unpleasant: it was the tone of voice in which the information was transmitted. A table for tonight should certainly have been booked years before--perhaps, it was implied, by Richard's parents. A table for tonight was impossible: if the pope, the prime minister, and the president of France arrived this evening without a confirmed reservation, even they would be turned out into the street with a continental jeer. "But it's for my fiancee's boss. I know I should have phoned before. There are only three of us, can't you please..."
They had put down the phone.
"Richard?" said Sylvia. "The MD's waiting."
"Do you think," asked Richard, "they'd give me a table if I phoned back and offered them extra money?"
In her dream they were all together in the house. Her parents, her brother, her baby sister. They were standing together in the ballroom, staring at her. They were all so pale, so grave. Portia, her mother, touched her cheek and told her that she was in danger. In her dream, Door laughed, and said she knew. Her mother shook her head: no, no--now she was in danger. Now.
Door opened her eyes. The door was opening, quietly, quietly; she held her breath. Footsteps, quiet on the stone. Perhaps he won't notice me, she thought. Perhaps he'll go away. And then she thought, desperately, I'm hungry.
The footsteps hesitated. She was well hidden, she knew, under a pile of newspapers and rags. And it was possible that the intruder meant her no harm. Can't he hear my heartbeat? she thought. And then the footsteps came closer, and she knew what she had to do, and it scared her. A hand pulled the covers off her, and she looked up into a blank, utterly hairless face, which creased into a vicious smile. She rolled, then, and twisted, and the knife blade, aimed at her chest, caught her in the upper arm.
Until that moment, she had never thought she could do it. Never thought she would be brave enough, or scared enough, or desperate enough to dare. But she reached up one hand to his chest, and she opened...
He gasped, and tumbled onto her. It was wet and warm and slippery, and she slithered and staggered out from under the man, and she stumbled out of the room.
She caught her breath in the tunnel outside, narrow and low, as she fell against the wall, breathing in gasps and sobs. That had taken the last of her strength; now she was spent. Her shoulder was beginning to throb. The knife, she thought. But she was safe.
"My, oh my," said a voice from the darkness on her right. "She survived Mister Ross. Well I never, Mister Vandemar." The voice oozed. It sounded like gray slime.
"Well I never either, Mister Croup," said a flat voice on her left.
A light was kindled and flickered. "Still," said Mr. Croup, his eyes gleaming in the dark beneath the earth, "she won't survive us."
Door kneed him, hard, in the groin: and then she pushed herself forward, her right hand holding her left shoulder.
And she ran.
Richard waved away the interruption. Life was almost under his control, now. Just a little more time ...
Gary said his name again. "Dick? It's six-thirty."
"It's what?" Papers and pens and spreadsheets and trolls were tumbled into Richard's briefcase. He snapped it shut and ran.
He pulled his coat on as he went. Gary was following. "Are we going to have that drink, then?"
Richard paused for a moment. If ever, he decided, they made disorganization an Olympic sport, he could be disorganized for Britain. "Gary," he said, "I'm sorry. I blew it. I have to see Jessica tonight. We're taking her boss out to dinner."
"Mister Stockton? Of Stocktons? The Stockton?" Richard nodded. They hurried down the stairs. "I'm sure you'll have fun," said Gary, insincerely. "And how is the Creature from the Black Lagoon?"
"Jessica's from Ilford, actually, Gary. And she remains the light and love of my life, thank you very much for asking." They reached the lobby, and Richard made a dash for the automatic doors, which spectacularly failed to open.
"It's after six, Mister Mayhew," said Mr. Figgis, the building's security guard. "You have to sign out."
"I don't need this," said Richard to no one in particular, "I really don't."
Mr. Figgis smelled vaguely of medicinal liniment and was widely rumored to have an encyclopedic collection of soft-core pornography. He guarded the doors with a diligence that bordered upon madness, never quite having lived down the evening when an entire floor's worth of computer equipment upped and left, along with two potted palms and the managing director's Axminster carpet.
"So our drink's off, then?"
"I'm sorry, Gary. Is Monday okay for you?"
"Sure. Monday's fine. See you Monday."
Mr. Figgis inspected their signatures and satisfied himself they had no computers, potted palms, or carpets about their persons, then he pressed a button under his desk, and the door slid open.
"Doors," said Richard.
The underway branched and divided; she picked her way at random, ducking through tunnels, running and stumbling and weaving. Behind her strolled Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, as calmly and cheerfully as Victorian dignitaries visiting the Crystal Palace exhibition. When they arrived at a crossroads, Mr. Croup would kneel and find the nearest spot of blood, and they would follow it. They were like hyenas, exhausting their prey. They could wait. They had all the time in the world.
Luck was with Richard, for a change. He caught a black taxi, driven by an elderly man who took Richard home by an unlikely route involving streets Richard had never before seen, while holding forth, as Richard had discovered all London taxi drivers will hold forth--given a living, breathing, English-speaking passenger--on London's inner-city traffic problems, how best to deal with crime, and thorny political issues of the day. Richard jumped out of the cab, left a tip and his briefcase behind, managed to flag down the cab again before it made it into the main road and so got his briefcase back, then he ran up the stairs and into his apartment. He was already shedding clothes as he entered the hall: his briefcase spun across the room and crash-landed on the sofa; he took his keys from his pocket and placed them carefully on the hall table, in order to ensure he did not forget them.
Then he dashed into the bedroom. The buzzer sounded. Richard, three-quarters of the way into his best suit, launched himself at the speaker.
"Richard? It's Jessica. I hope you're ready."
"Oh. Yes. Be right down." He pulled on a coat, and he ran, slamming the door behind him. Jessica was waiting for him at the bottom of the stairs. She always waited for him there. Jessica didn't like Richard's apartment: it made her feel uncomfortably female. There was always the chance of finding a pair of Richard's underwear, well, anywhere, not to mention the wandering lumps of congealed toothpaste on the bathroom sink: no, it was not Jessica's kind of place.
Jessica was very beautiful; so much so Richard would occasionally find himself staring at her, wondering, how did she end up with me? And when they made love--which they did at Jessica's apartment in fashionable Kensington, in Jessica's brass bed with the crisp white linen sheets (for Jessica's parents had told her that down comforters were decadent)--in the darkness, afterwards, she would hold him very tightly, and her long brown curls would tumble over his chest, and she would whisper to him how much she loved him, and he would tell her he loved her and always wanted to be with her, and they both believed it to be true.
"Bless me, Mister Vandemar. She's slowing up."
"Slowing up, Mister Croup."
"She must be losing a lot of blood, Mister V."
"Lovely blood, Mister C. Lovely wet blood."
"Not long now."
A click: the sound of a switchblade opening, empty and lonely and dark.
"Richard? What are you doing?" asked Jessica.
"You haven't forgotten your keys again, have you?"
"No, Jessica." Richard stopped patting himself and pushed his hands deep into the pockets of his coat.
"Now, when you meet Mister Stockton tonight," said Jessica, "you have to appreciate that he's not just a very important man. He's also a corporate entity in his own right."
"I can't wait," sighed Richard.
"What was that, Richard?"
"I can't wait," said Richard, rather more enthusiastically.
"Oh, please hurry up," said Jessica, who was beginning to exude an aura of what, in a lesser woman, might almost have been described as nerves. "We mustn't keep Mister Stockton waiting. "
"Don't call me that, Richard. I loathe pet names. They're so demeaning."
"Spare any change?" The man sat in a doorway. His beard was yellow and gray, and his eyes were sunken and dark. A hand-lettered sign hung from a piece of frayed string around his neck and rested on his chest, telling anyone with the eyes to read it that he was homeless and hungry. It didn't take a sign to tell you that; Richard, hand already in his pocket, fumbled for a coin.
"Richard. We haven't got the time," said Jessica, who gave to charity and invested ethically. "Now, I do want you to make a good impression, fiance-wise. It is vital that a future spouse makes a good impression." And then her face creased, and she hugged him for a moment, and said, "Oh, Richard. I do love you. You do know that, don't you?"
And Richard nodded, and he did.
Jessica checked her watch and increased her pace. Richard discreetly flicked a pound coin back through the air toward the man in the doorway, who caught it in one grimy hand.
"There wasn't any problem with the reservations, was there?" asked Jessica. And Richard, who was not much good at lying when faced with a direct question, said, "Ah."
She had chosen wrongly--the corridor ended in a blank wall. Normally that would hardly have given her pause, but she was so tired, so hungry, in so much pain.... She leaned against the wall, feeling the brick's roughness against her face. She was gulping breath, hiccuping and sobbing. Her arm was cold, and her left hand was numb. She could go no farther, and the world was beginning to feel very distant. She wanted to stop, to lie down, and to sleep for a hundred years.
"Oh, bless my little black soul, Mister Vandemar, do you see what I see?" The voice was soft, close: they must have been nearer to her than she had imagined. "I spy, with my little eye, something that's going to be--"
"Dead in a minute, Mister Croup," said the flat voice, from above her.
"Our principal will be delighted."
And the girl pulled whatever she could find deep inside her soul, from all the pain, and the hurt, and the fear. She was spent, burnt out, and utterly exhausted. She had nowhere to go, no power left, no time. "If it's the last door I open," she prayed, silently, to the Temple, to the Arch. "Somewhere ... anywhere ... safe..." and then she thought, wildly, "Somebody."
And, as she began to pass out, she tried to open a door.
As the darkness took her, she heard Mr. Croup's voice, as if from a long way away. It said, "Bugger and blast."
Jessica and Richard walked down the sidewalk toward the restaurant. She had her arm through his, and was walking as fast as her heels permitted. He hurried to keep up. Streetlights and the fronts of closed stores illuminated their path. They passed a stretch of tall, looming buildings, abandoned and lonely, bounded by a high brick wall.
"You are honestly telling me you had to promise them an extra fifty pounds for our table tonight? You are an idiot, Richard," said Jessica, her dark eyes flashing.
"They had lost my reservation. And they said all the tables were booked." Their steps echoed off the high walls.
"They'll probably have us sitting by the kitchen," said Jessica. "Or the door. Did you tell them it was for Mister Stockton?"
"Yes," replied Richard.
Jessica sighed. She continued to drag him along, as a door opened in the wall, a little way ahead of them. Someone stepped out and stood swaying for one long terrible moment, and then collapsed to the concrete. Richard shivered and stopped in his tracks. Jessica tugged him into motion.
"Now, when you're talking to Mister Stockton, you must make sure you don't interrupt him. Or disagree with him--he doesn't like to be disagreed with. When he makes a joke, laugh. If you're in any doubt as to whether or not he's made a joke, look at me. I'll ... mm, tap my forefinger."
They had reached the person on the sidewalk. Jessica stepped over the crumpled form. Richard hesitated. "Jessica?"
"You're right. He might think I'm bored," she mused. "I know," she said brightly, "if he makes a joke, I'll rub my earlobe."
"Jessica?" He could not believe that she was simply ignoring the figure at their feet.
"What?" She was not pleased to be jerked out of her reverie.
He pointed to the sidewalk. The person was face down, and enveloped in bulky clothes; Jessica took his arm and tugged him toward her. "Oh. I see. If you pay them any attention, Richard, they'll walk all over you. They all have homes, really. Once she's slept it off, I'm sure she'll be fine." She? Richard looked down. It was a girl. Jessica continued, "Now, I've told Mister Stockton that we..." Richard was down on one knee. "Richard? What are you doing?"
"She isn't drunk," said Richard. "She's hurt." He looked at his fingertips. "She's bleeding."
Jessica looked down at him, nervous and puzzled. "We're going to be late," she pointed out.
Jessica looked back at the girl on the sidewalk. Priorities: Richard had no priorities. "Richard. We're going to be late. Someone else will be along; someone else will help her."
The girl's face was crusted with dirt, and her clothes were wet with blood. "She's hurt," he said, simply. There was an expression on his face that Jessica hadn't seen before.
"Richard," she warned, and then she relented, a little, and offered a compromise. "Dial 999 and call an ambulance then. Quickly, now."
Suddenly the girl's eyes opened, white and wide in a face that was little more than a smudge of dust and blood. "Not a hospital, please. They'll find me. Take me somewhere safe. Please." Her voice was weak.
"You're bleeding," said Richard. He looked to see where she had come from, but the wall was blank and brick and unbroken. He looked back to her still form, and asked, "Why not a hospital?"
"Help me?" the girl whispered, and her eyes closed.
Again he asked her, "Why don't you want to go to the hospital?" This time there was no answer at all.
"When you call the ambulance," said Jessica, "don't give your name. You might have to make a statement or something, and then we'd be late ... Richard? What are you doing?"
Richard had picked the girl up, cradling her in his arms. She was surprisingly light. "I'm taking her back to my place, Jess. I can't just leave her. Tell Mister Stockton I'm really sorry, but it was an emergency. I'm sure he'll understand."
"Richard Oliver Mayhew," said Jessica, coldly. "You put that girl down and come back here this minute. Or this engagement is at an end as of now. I'm warning you."
Richard felt the sticky warmth of blood soaking into his shirt. Sometimes, he realized, there is nothing you can do. He walked away, leaving behind Jessica, who stood there on the sidewalk, her eyes stung with tears.
Richard did not, at any point on his walk, stop to think. It was not something over which he had any volition. Somewhere in the sensible part of his head, someone--a normal, sensible Richard Mayhew--was telling him how ridiculous he was being: that he should just have called the police, or an ambulance; that it was dangerous to lift an injured person; that he had really, seriously upset Jessica; that he was going to have to sleep on the sofa tonight; that he was ruining his only really good suit; that the girl smelled terrible ... but Richard found himself placing one foot in front of the other, and, arms cramping and back hurting, ignoring the looks he got from passers-by, he just kept walking. And after a while he was at the ground floor door of his building, and he was stumbling up the staircase, and then he was standing in front of the door to his apartment and realizing that he had left his keys on the hall table, inside...
The girl reached out one filthy hand to the door, and it swung open.
Never thought I'd be pleased that the door hadn't latched properly, thought Richard, and he carried the girl in--closing the door behind him with his foot--and put her down on his bed. His shirtfront was soaked in blood.
She seemed semiconscious; her eyes were closed, but fluttering. He peeled off her leather jacket. There was a long cut on her left upper arm and shoulder. Richard caught his breath. "Look, I'm going to call a doctor," he said quietly. "Can you hear me?"
Her eyes opened, wide and scared. "Please, no. It'll be fine. It's not as bad as it looks. I just need sleep. No doctors."
"But your arm--your shoulder--"
"I'll be fine. Tomorrow. Please?" It was little more than a whisper.
"Um, I suppose, all right," and with sanity beginning to assert itself, he said, "Look, can I ask--?"
But she was asleep. Richard took an old scarf from his closet and wrapped it firmly around her left upper arm and shoulder; he did not want her to bleed to death on his bed before he could get her to a doctor. And then he tiptoed out of his bedroom and shut the door behind him. He sat down on the sofa, in front of the television, and wondered what he had done.
Copyright © 1997 Neil Gaiman.
All rights reserved.