And yet, for all our worries and jumping at shadows, nothing happened.
In the morning, after restless hours of disturbing dreams, I went to the hospital. I had hoped the morning sun would make everything normal again, but if anything, it made things worse. There was still that sense that the city was holding its breath, but now there was a blazing blue sky to mock our fears.
When I reached the hospital, I could tell something was up. There was extra staff on duty. Cots lined the corridors, and nurses darted between the rooms and huddled in doorways, whispering. I looked for Sara, wondering if she had been called in early and could explain all this to me, but they said she wouldn’t be in for another couple of hours. I got Ishkin’s breakfast from the sullen lady in the cafeteria, and took it upstairs.
I could hear Ishkin’s coughing and labored breathing before I got to the room, but to my surprise, he looked a little better. His eyes had lost their glassy look, and his skin didn’t seem quite so dark. The thought that he might be able fight this thing gave me hope. I sat down with his tray and tried to feed him.
“You know,” I told him as I bathed him afterward, “You never did tell me your name, or anything about your family.”
He made a gesture of annoyance, and doubled over, coughing. “We need money?” he asked, when he had regained his breath.
“I just thought you might have kin you'd want me to contact.”
“So you can tell them when I die.”
I covered his wasted body with blankets. “If you tell me who they are, I’ll let them know if you die, but I asked because I thought you might want them to know how sick you are. You might want to go stay with them when you get out of here. It’s going to be a long recovery.”
He jerked his head and looked out the window.
“Don't you want to at least tell me your real name?”
“What’s that?” He pointed toward the window, where a curl of black smoke was rising from behind some buildings to the west.
“It looks like it’s near where I worked last night.” I was leaning on the window sill trying to get a better look when an explosion rocked the building, set the glass to trembling and brought down a rain of plaster dust. I dropped to the floor as three more explosions went off, the last one sounding like it was only a few blocks away.
I scrambled to my feet and looked at Ishkin. His eyes were huge, his hair was gray with dust, and he was struggling to breathe. Outside, I could see flames from several clusters of buildings in the distance, and smoke was blackening the sky. Crowds began milling in the street below.
At the sound of racing footsteps in the corridor, I peeked out the door. The whole floor had burst into activity, although I couldn’t tell what purpose was being achieved by all the running back and forth.
I went back to the bed and started brushing Ishkin off. Since that seemed to only bring up more dust for him to choke on, I dampened a rag and used that, instead. “Looks like you get another bath today,” I said, trying to sound like I wasn’t worried.
“I have no idea, but none of it is nearby. It only sounds close. We’ll be fine.”
For the next hour I kept finding little things to do around the room, trying not to look like I was spending a lot of time looking out the window. The agitation in the streets was growing worse, and the first of a line of evacuees from the burning neighborhoods on the west side of town started passing through.
I was wondering what I should do when Vince and Sara showed up. “We heard there was a good view of the fireworks from this room,” Vince said.
I ignored his attempt at humor. “What’s going on out there?”
“It’s just a mafia fight. It shouldn’t move too far beyond where it is now.”
“Isn’t El Duque going to put a stop to it?”
Vince laughed, and while Sara fussed over Ishkin’s tube and drip bottle, he put a hand on the back of my waist and guided me to the window. He pointed to different areas of flame and smoke, describing strategic landmarks and sites of old grievances. “Me and a few of the guys are going to go see what we can get out of it.”
“Are you insane?”
Behind us, Sara said, “Yes, he is.” Then she walked out of the room in disgust.
I tried not to show my unease. Riots and close fighting between rivals were dangerous spots to be in. In Unitas we had been taught to avoid such situations at all costs, and I had always thought it a sensible rule. “Are we going right now?”
“I am. You’re staying here.”
I lifted my chin. “I work for you and I’m going with you.”
“You work for me and you'll follow my orders. I’ve got a sister in this building, and you’re going to stay here and look out for her, in case there’s trouble.”
“I thought you said the fighting wouldn’t come here.”
“I’m not a psychic.” He kissed me. “Stay here with your friend and keep an eye out for Sara. I’ll be back around eight to walk her home. Hopefully she won’t have to work an extended shift.”
“What if you’re late getting here, or what if you don’t come back at all?”
“I’ll come back, Rustiquita.”
I spent a strange afternoon at the hospital. Most of the time I sat by Ishkin’s bedside, reassuring him as the sounds of explosions, shouting and gunfire came closer, faded away, and came closer again as bands of fighters moved through the city. Even with the window closed, the room became hazy from the drifting smoke of the burning neighborhoods, and Ishkin choked and coughed up a greenish blood-flecked mucus that filled me with both disgust and pity.
I tied a strip of dampened pillowcase across his nose and mouth to keep out the worst of the smoke, and tried to take our minds off the situation outside by reading. I had brought The Last of The Mohicans, and I read page after page aloud, although I couldn’t have said what they were about, and I think Ishkin was too consumed with fear and sickness to care. Eventually the sounds of fighting died away and Sara came in with some medicines to help Ishkin sleep.
“They aren’t really good for him in his condition,” she apologized. “But he has to rest a little. It’s the only way his body will heal.”
I continued to read while Ishkin dozed, hoping the sound of my voice would soothe him. The streets were quieter now. Either the riots were dying of their own inertia, or someone had taken the matter in hand. Sara slumped in a chair, her hair escaping its ponytail in little tendrils.
I thought Sara was asleep like Ishkin, and started to close the book, when she said, “You went to bed with my brother.”
I held my breath, not sure what to say. She wasn’t mad at me, was she?
“It’s okay,” she said, as if she could read my thoughts. “I’m mad at him, not you.”
“Don’t be. He hasn’t promised me a thing, and he knows I’m leaving soon. He’s been straight with me, and that’s all I ask of anyone.”
“Sometimes honesty hurts.”
“Never as much as a lie.”
“I wouldn’t be so sure about that.” Sara sighed and stood up. “Well, I guess I need to get back to my rounds. I've got no business taking a break on a crazy day like this.”
After she left I dozed a little, waking around suppertime to get Ishkin his tray. The soup was thin and barely warm, but I woke Ishkin up and made him eat it. Then I read to him some more, his coughs punctuating every sentence.
Sara came back a little before eight. Things were quiet now, and she would be allowed to end her shift on time, but we waited and Vince didn’t come.
Eight-thirty, and we tried not to let on what we were feeling. I kept reading, no longer with any idea what words were coming out of my mouth. Sara fidgeted, jumped out of her chair, looked out the window and sat back down, only to start squirming again and begin the process over. We were both at about the limits of our endurance, each afraid to meet each others’ eyes and ask the question on our minds, when we heard new footsteps in the hallway.
We looked up together, and Vince strode in, grimy and smelling of smoke. Sara flung her arms around his neck, but I hung back, cradling my book and waiting.
“Here,” he said, handing Sara a bag. “I got you some stuff.”
Sara peeked in the bag. Her shoulders slumped, and all her previous worry and sympathy vanished. “Why did you do that? This is expensive. I told you—“
“Let me take you home, and if you still want to fuss at me, you can do it there.” He looked over at me. “Come on, Rustiquita. Let’s take my ungrateful sister home.”
The dormitory was so close I wondered if Vince’s concern wasn’t a little excessive, but when we got outside and I saw the people camped in rings around the hospital, I understood. These people had been burnt out of their homes with nothing in the world but what they could carry on their backs or in a bag. Now they were trying to get food and treatment for their wounded. Even though there was extra hospital security tonight, some of the characters in the crowd looked tough and wily. Vince and I kept our hands on our weapons and moved Sara quickly through the crowd to the door of her building.
“Want to come up?” she said.
“No, you look tired, and we need to get back to base.” He gave her a peck on the cheek. “I or one of my people will be back tomorrow to walk you to work. Don’t go alone, all right?”
She brushed a lock of hair out of her eyes. “You worry too much, but I’ll wait until someone comes for me.”
After she went inside, Vince gave a jerk of his head. “I need a drink. Want to come?”
We went to a bar he knew—a dark, smoky place lit by candles and oil lamps. It was populated by hardened street types in leather and expensive-looking jewelry that they guarded with the guns and knives on their hips. Vince ordered us some vodka and we took our glasses to a corner table. I sipped my drink, watching the people in the room and waiting for Vince to speak.
“It was hell,” he finally said, as if I had asked a question only a moment ago, and out loud.
“Were any of our people hurt?”
“No, thank God, and we did really well.” He took a big gulp of his vodka. “But whenever ordinary civilians get mixed up in these things. . .”
I knew exactly what he was talking about. “It’s one thing to see dead and wounded combatants, but when it’s old men, women and kids. . .”
“There’s some really sick motherfuckers in this world, you know that?” He slammed back the rest of his drink, waved a waitress over and ordered another one. “No, wait. Bring two more. Let's not waste time.”
We talked for what seemed a long time. I tried not to pry, and gradually the whole ugly story came out. “But we scored pretty good off the deal,” he finally said.
I wasn’t sure it was anything to brag about, profiting off other people’s misery, but someone would’ve ended up with the goods and I suppose it might as well be Vince and his gang as anyone else. Better than everything ending up in the hands of the people who started all the trouble, at least.
“What are you going to do with it all?” I asked.
“Piss it away drinking and gambling. Give some of it away in impulsive gifts and charity. If there’s anything left over, I'll buy a little food and maybe pay off a creditor or two.” He grabbed my hand across the table. “I’ve got a present for you. Finish your drink, and we’ll go someplace I can give it to you without everyone watching.”
I tossed off the last of my vodka and stood up. “Is it like yesterday’s present?”
He guided me out onto the street and we walked along a bit before ducking into a hotel.
I had never been in a working hotel before, and was surprised at how tidy it was. Our room had a real bed with mattresses, sheets and pillows. There was a bathroom with questionable running water, but there was a pitcher of clean water set out in case the city pipes failed. The carpet was worn, but swept reasonably clean of dust and debris, and the curtains had been neatly mended.
I threw myself onto the bed while Vince fumbled in the deep pockets of his coat. “Close your eyes and hold out your hands.”
I did as he said, feeling silly, then I felt two things placed in my hands. They were smooth and light, but didn’t feel delicate. “Can I look?”
I opened my eyes and saw a pair of brown leather wrist guards. Not at all romantic, but just what I had been coveting, since they were the fashion in Vince’s gang. These were nice ones of good quality leather, stamped around the edges with a little pattern of leaves and stars.
Vince was watching me carefully. “You didn’t strike me as a ribbons and jewelry type.”
I shook my head and tried on one of the cuffs. “These are perfect.” I traced one of the leaf and star patterns with a finger. “I hope I don’t actually have to wear these in a fight. I’d hate to get them messed up.”
“Silly. You’re supposed to mess them up.”
He took my other wrist, the one that was bare, and pressed his lips against the place where the vein jumped. Then he handed me a small cloth bag. “This is for you, too.” He ducked his head, as if embarrassed. “Money is kind of obvious on the road and I figured maybe you could hide these somewhere, like sew them into the hem of a jacket, you know. That way you’ll have something extra, just in case.”
I opened the bag and pulled out several gold and silver chains. “This is too much,” I said. “These are expensive, and—“
“I stole them. They cost me nothing.”
“But I feel like you’re trying to buy me.”
He sat next to me on the bed. “I’ve never thought you were the sort of girl who could be bought, but if it makes you feel any better, think of it as money I owe you. You saved my life the other day.”
I wanted to protest again, but he started kissing me, and pretty soon I’d forgotten what it was I wanted to argue about.
It was late when we got back to our headquarters, but everyone was so busy drinking and smoking things that I don’t think they much noticed the time. I was exhausted, but since everyone looked like they planned to make an all-night party of it, I told Vince I’d take guard duty. I needed a little time to myself.
Judging from the sounds coming from the other room, I have a feeling I'll be the only one not hungover in the morning.
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