I ended up spending an uncomfortable night trying to sleep in the waiting room, where the staff didn’t seem to mind that I brought in my tarp and blankets. It was noisy in there, and I slept badly, but it was safer than wandering the unfamiliar city at night, trying to find a hotel I probably couldn't afford anyway, or looking for an abandoned building that wasn’t already full of hostile squatters.
In the morning I checked on Ishkin. He didn’t look any better, but at least they were giving him something for the pain, and the grumpy nurse on duty told me that the tube in his arm was feeding him nutrients. This didn’t seem likely to me, since the liquid dripping into the tube was clear, but I decided it was best not to argue. Maybe the nice nurse Sara, the one with the bad skin, would be back later on, and I could find out everything from her.
I wasn’t sure what to do now, but since I hadn’t eaten a proper meal in nearly two days, I decided the best thing would be to find some food. Since I didn’t know what to do with the horses, I left them in the hospital lot, after tipping the new guard to keep an eye on them. And then I started walking toward the tall buildings, just like Margie had suggested the day before.
Being downtown was like being in a canyon, with big stone buildings blocking my view and making it hard for me to keep track of where I was going. Some of the streets had signs with names, but others didn’t. Some buildings were in good repair, others were boarded up or showed signs of fire or bullet and shell damage. The streets themselves were clean, but only because street cleaners had shoveled the filth and trash onto sidewalks when they ran out of room in their carts.
I peeked in the windows of a couple of restaurants, but although the smell of coffee and frying potatoes and bacon was tempting, I bought from a street vendor instead, which I knew would be cheaper. I found a relatively clean stair to sit on in front of a burned-out building, and ate my breakfast, watching people, horses, bicycles and even the occasional car or motor scooter go by.
It was obvious that I was going to have to find some paid work to do. I was rapidly running through the last of my change from the gold piece I used to pay for Ishkin’s first two days of treatment. I would have to pay again tomorrow, if they were to continue to care for him. In the meantime, I needed to eat and find a place to sleep, and the horses needed to be properly stabled in a safe place. Surely there were plenty of jobs here. Cities always had jobs, right?
I spent a few discouraging hours going into shops and diners, asking for work - any kind of work. If the proprietors were kind, they asked a few questions about my skills, recommended other places I could try, and wished me luck. Most of the people I talked to weren’t so nice. They looked at my dusty, country clothes and took me for an uneducated rustic, which I suppose I am, since I’ve always lived in the country and have never been to school. But I’m not stupid, and I’m certainly not without feelings. Since a person can only stand so many insults, rude suggestions and mean looks, I finally decided to go back to the hospital. I bought some lunch and ate it on the way, wondering what my next move should be.
After I had been in Ishkin’s room for awhile, nice Sara came in. She smiled in a friendly way and I thanked her again for letting me watch the fireworks with her and her friends. Then while she gave Ishkin his medicines and switched out the bottle for the tube in his arm, I asked about the treatment he was on. “Do you know how long this will take?” I asked. “I don’t have much more money. Is there some way to do this cheaper?”
“Some patients make arrangements to do their own nursing,” she said. “Right now, we come in to check on him every two hours, we bathe him, change the sheets, empty the bedpan and clean the room.”
This last made me look around skeptically at the grime on the window and along the baseboards, but I figured it was best not to argue with her.
“If you want to do all that yourself, you can pay just for us to give him his medicines, and of course pay for the doctor fees,” she went on. “If you have nursing training, you can choose to do everything yourself, if you sign a waiver.”
I didn’t bother asking what a waiver was, since I had no nursing training and wouldn’t know the first thing about tubes and bottles.
“But cleaning up after your patient yourself won’t really save you much money. The best thing is to bring in your own medicines. They charge double and even triple the street price here.”
“Where could I buy medicines?” I asked. “And what does he need?”
Sara finished adjusting the drip bottle and pulled a pen and paper out of one of her apron pockets.
“Do you think he’ll be here a long time? Is there maybe some other work I could do here? I’d like to have a proper job.”
“What can you do?”
That was a tough one. I had a feeling no one here needed riding lessons or needed any enemies killed. “I can read and write,” I offered. “I can clean things.”
“Any actual skills? You know, training?”
“Does this place need any guards?”
Sara’s expression changed slightly. “What did you do for a living before you came here?”
“Raised goats. Trained horses.” I considered a moment, then decided I might as well tell the truth. “I also fought in the civil war. I can spy, run messages, guard people and deliveries, and do assassinations.” I lifted my chin and looked at her steadily, waiting to see how she would react.
To my relief, Sara didn’t seem upset or disbelieving. “We need no guards here. The hospital pays a protection fee to El Duque and to two lesser mafia groups.”
“I have a good horse. Maybe. . .”
She shook her head. “No. But I know someone who could use someone like you. It could be dangerous, though.”
“I don’t care. Most of life is dangerous.” I gestured toward Ishkin. “All he did was have a dumb accident in a stable. If the money is fair and I won’t be asked to aid a rebellion, I won’t turn down a job just because it’s dangerous.
“Oh, it’s not a rebellion,” Sara assured me. “At least not in any sense like what you mean.” She handed me the paper on which she had written the names of Ishkin’s medicines. “I work until eight o’clock. Meet me here then.”
I spent the afternoon and evening making arrangements to handle some of Ishkin’s care myself, paying for another day of treatment, and finding food and water for the horses. When I was done, I still had a couple hours to kill, so I sat vigil by Ishkin’s bedside, reading my book.
Finally Sara arrived and we walked to a nearby building called a dormitory. It was full of rooms like apartments, but you had to work for the hospital to be allowed to live there. According to Sara, the rent was cheaper than other places in the area.
While Sara changed out of her nurse’s uniform, I washed up, re-braided my hair, and tried to tidy my clothes.
“Here,” she said, handing me a clean shirt and a sweater to go over it.
I thanked her and tried them on. They fit well and when I looked in the mirror, I felt a lot better. I don’t care about fancy clothes, but everyone likes to be clean.
After a little while, there was a knock on the door, and Sara let in a young man whose hair looked too black to be real. He was dressed like a soldier, but decorated in all kinds of jewelry, and he had an odd blue stripe on one cheek that looked like a tattoo. He looked so out of place in Sara’s neat little nurse’s room that for a moment, I could only stare. Then he looked at me with the most intense blue eyes I had ever seen. He would’ve been frightening, except that in that moment, he smiled like an overgrown kid. “Is this my new mercenary?” he asked. He bounded over in a very un-soldierly way and shook my hand.
Sara gave me an apologetic look, as if she knew what a strange situation this was. “This is my brother Vince. He runs a . . . distribution business.”
“Hey, don’t be afraid to say it." He looked at me. “I’m a delivery guy. Drugs, guns, contraband of all kinds. My team operates strictly within the city. We don’t do deals with Texas or Mexico, or even with the rural areas outside city limits. We’re sort of the go-to folks for the guys who need to move stuff in town, but who think there might be too much heat on them to close the deals themselves. We also guard the places where stuff is stored, if someone needs that sort of service, although generally things move too fast for anything to stay in one place long.”
Great. From aiding a revolution to now aiding a drug and gun-runner. When all this is over, maybe I should go back to Unitas. The civil war is looking more and more appealing by the day. “What do you need from me in terms of proof I can do the job?”
“Want to come with me right now? I’m on my way to meet my team and coordinate a job tonight. We can talk about what you’ve done on the way, and you can stand lookout for us.”
To my surprise and relief, Sara butted in. “No. She’s tired and deserves at least one decent night’s rest. We’re going to have supper and get some sleep.”
We talked awhile longer, but about less serious subjects. After Vince left, Sara made some quesadillas on a funny little grill in her kitchen. She shared some whiskey with me, which I figured was probably a gift from her brother since it was so good, and then she made me a pallet on the floor. Luckily I had brought my diary with me, but even though I have a lot of thoughts about what happened today, I don’t think I have any more energy to write about it. Sara was right—I need at least one decent night’s rest.
I guess it's my fate to be a mercenary forever. Happy New Year to me.
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