“I’d like to sell my soul to the devil,” the boy says, firm and matter-of-fact beneath his scruffy brown hair. He reaches his small hands onto the counter, fingers smudging up the high polish of the salt-and-pepper granite. He’s maybe six years old, wobbling like he’s standing on his toes, and can’t quite see over the edge.
Gregory looks down at his dirty face, takes in doll-sized blue jeans and a fibrous red sweater more suited in size to an adult, or in condition for a dog’s kennel. He glances around the empty lobby, briefly, and finds no one to whom he might belong.
“How much I can get for it?” The boy asks, scrunching up his eyebrows.
“I’m afraid I don’t provide or facilitate that service,” Gregory says finally. He glances at his tablet, skimming through the ever-present scheduling app. The firm’s next appointment isn’t due for another hour, and the terse, informative note certainly makes no mention of small children.
“But you’re lawyers,” the little boy points out, which isn’t expressly true. Gregory is a consultant, though often there are lawyers involved. Often, there are many kinds of people involved.
The boy hops a little from foot to foot. He’s wearing a scarf, but no coat or mittens. “Dad said lawyers do the devil’s work. Can you tell me where I can find him?”
“Your father?” Gregory asks, at a loss.
“The devil,” the boy says, frowning. Then his face smooths over. “Dad died. Is the devil here?”
There isn’t a devil, Gregory almost says, but he’s not sure if that’s a thing you say to a child—that there’s no Santa Claus or Tooth Fairy, that there are no gods or devils.
“No,” he simply says.
“Oh.” The boy pulls his hands back, leaving a faint smear of grime that’s already causing Gregory to reach for the eco-friendly bottle of spray cleaner. There’s a soft, organic-cotton cloth beside it, because Gregory is very thorough.
The boy disappears. Gregory wipes down the counter, mops up the melted snow the kid tracked in, and ruthlessly organizes his austere work area.
At precisely two fifty-two, the three PM appointment makes an appearance.
“What have I told you,” Gregory snaps irritably, glancing past Ward into the empty white streets, “about using a false name at my places of employ.”
“Not to,” she says briskly. “But as evidenced by my numerous attempts to contact you, it is clear that you wouldn’t’ve seen me otherwise.” She hasn’t changed, really—her eyes are still fiercely hazel, her hair dark where Gregory’s is bright ash blond. Her skin a British-pale counter to the muddy complexion of his own absent forbears.
He’s always felt so dark next to her. He’d forgotten.
“I took a bullet for you,” Gregory says, his mouth stiff around the words that have been rattling around inside his head for the past six months. It’s not what he meant to lead with, but it’s what he has. “I took a bullet for you, and you left.” He does not say, You abandoned me like one of your marks.
“As I have bloody well attempted to explain on several occasions—”
“I don’t want to hear it,” Gregory says. His guts ache when it’s cold like this. There’s an ugly, rippled scar across his belly he’ll carry for the rest of his life. He still has physical therapy on Thursday nights. “If you will not leave, I will have you escorted out.”
Ward’s face shifts from earnesty to surprise to brief concern. But these things quickly fall away like shuffled cards until all she looks is angry. “Fine,” she says, in a clipped way he’s only ever heard her direct at individuals on the business-end of her Glock. Then she slams a slightly damp rectangle of paper onto the counter.
“It’s clean,” she says. The memo line at the bottom reads, For services rendered. “From the Cayman account.”
Then she brushes her hands down the front of her slim black peacoat, dusting the wool free of salt, and turns on her heel.
Gregory’s still thinking, bewilderingly, of calling after her when she pauses in front of the glass-and-steel doors to slide on her sunglasses.
She turns her head partway, the sunless winter sky a stark glow against the edges of her slightly-crooked nose and pink cheeks. She says, with an air of finality, “I left you at the bloody hospital, Turner. You needed to recover and I needed to lose a tail. But you know that already. I’d tell you to look me up if you ever pull your head out of your arse, but as I will no longer take pains for your ease to do so—,” she lets that hang in the air between them. Then she steps out into the afternoon.
Gregory closes the offices at three-fifteen instead of five. He can do this because he is the only person who works here, and because he pays his own salary.
He locks the well-oiled lock and pulls on the handle three times to test the latch. Then he turns east and almost trips over the little boy.
“What are you doing here?” He asks, frowning. The boy has his hands under his arms, his chin tucked into his scarf. When he looks up at Gregory, his cheeks and nose are very, very pink.
“Waiting for the devil to come by,” the boy says, his teeth chattering. It’s hardly thirty degrees out.
“Who do you belong to?” Gregory asks, staring up and down the block. The woman who owns the flower shop across the street is hanging the holiday-themed version of her usual sign, and several stores down there’s a small group of people going into the bakery.
“I don’t know. Will he be here today?” The boy asks, biting his lip. It’s very chapped.
“Where do you live?”
“There’s some empty houses on Wicker,” he says. “Sometimes Anna or Roscoe have a fire and it’s warm, but sometimes it’s Black Jack and he doesn’t let me sleep there.”
Gregory pulls out his phone and calls the non-emergency police number. He spends five minutes on hold, another five being transferred, and finally ends up speaking to a kindly, half-senile woman who apologetically tells him the shelter is full for the evening, but to call the non-emergency number for the police and they should be able to keep the child overnight. She says with surprising pointedness that they cannot legally allow a minor to wander the streets without a guardian.
Gregory stares at his phone blankly, then looks down at the cold child. He puts his phone away. He goes to the back lot and starts his car.
If the kid’s gone, he thinks as he waits for it to warm up. If the kid’s gone by the time I pull around.
Five minutes later, the kid is not gone. Gregory rolls down the passenger window and says what he should have said at the beginning. “There’s no such thing as a devil. They’re just stories.”
The boy stares at him, his eyes big and blue. “Oh. Really?”
“Yes. Really,” Gregory says. The kid gets to his feet, awkward and stiff with cold. Gregory is about to roll his window up, but the problem with that is he’s still watching the kid.
The kid, who’s glancing left and right, and shaking, and has snow in his hair and wet jeans on and is almost certainly homeless. Lips pressed together and shoulders hunched, he looks lost in a way he didn’t before, and Gregory knows what it’s like to have your safe, careful plans slip through your hands like smoke.
He unlocks the passenger door before he has a chance to think about it. “Get in, kid,” he says tiredly. “You’re showing early signs of frostbite.”
The kid looks at him nervously, his breath puffing in the air. Gregory waits. The kid gets in the car.
Didn’t anyone teach him not to talk to strangers, he wonders, resigned.
“Do you have any family,” he asks.
“No,” the boy says, folding low over his knees to get closer to the heat vents. He put his seatbelt on, though, and his clothes aren’t too dirty or torn up. He hasn’t been on the streets for very long.
“Where were you staying last week?”
His eyes cut to Gregory’s face, then back to the space beyond his hands. “Shelter.”
Gregory unbuttons his coat and the top three buttons of his shirt one-handed, easing his car out into city traffic, and bumps the heat up the rest of the way. He starts to make a mental list: several changes of clothes, shoes, a toothbrush, gloves, a coat.
“Um,” the kid asks.
“What’s your name?” Gregory says.
“Alex,” Alex says, his shoulders starting to unhitch.
“Turner,” Gregory replies. “Gregory Turner. What would you like for dinner?”
Gregory’s apartment has two bedrooms, not because he can’t afford something larger, but because he’s never needed more from life than a place to sleep and a place to work. He does not have the sorts of friends that result in even the occasional houseguest. But, after reviewing the product specifications of the loveseat in his office, he finds that his memory is correct, and that it pulls out into a serviceable sofabed. The mechanism is stiff from disuse, but the mattress includes the original factory sheets, and he supplies it with a spare pillow and several blankets. He feels it is acceptable for now.
He’s already moving the kid’s clothes, old and new, from the washer to the dryer by the time Alex comes out of the bathroom, damp in the way kids are after they’ve dried their hair but neglected basically everything else. He’s wearing one of Gregory’s old tee-shirts and a pair of draw-string lounge pants pulled tight enough to more or less stay up, and there’s toothpaste on his lip.
“Rinse your mouth out again. I put some take-out menus on the kitchen table, so just circle what you want.”
Alex trudges back into the bathroom, heavy-footed on the polished wooden floors. There’s the sound of the sink running, and Gregory remembers that he’s home now and can loosen his tie.
He’ll change out of his suit when the food is ordered.
Alex comes out again, awkward in too-long pant legs that gather around his feet, and Gregory says, “Your clothes are in the dryer.”
“Thank you,” he says in a rush, like it’s something he kept forgetting, was rehearsing for the half-hour he spent warming up in the shower. “I could’ve worn the new ones, you didn’t have to wash them.”
“Ridiculous,” Gregory replies. “What do you—”
There’s a pretty sturdy round of knocks on his front door, interrupting his repeat-prompt about dinner. This is alarming for several reasons, not the least of which is that his apartment complex has very high security and no one has called up about visitors.
“Open the fucking door, you wanker, you know I know you’re in there.”
Gregory’s heart sinks like a handful of packed earth through a stream, falling all over itself on the way down.
His door clicks open. Gregory half-turns while Alex moves nervously behind him, and in the doorway there’s a familiar hand slipping a familiar set of small metal tools into a familiarly placed bespoke peacoat pocket. Then Ward is shutting the door behind her and raising her eyes sheepishly. “I changed my mind, I wanted to—oh. Hello there.”
“What the fuck,” Gregory hisses, but Ward raises her eyebrows and a hand.
“Hypocrite,” Gregory snaps.
She crouches down about three yards away from them, and her voice is kind. “What’s your name, sprog?”
Alex peeks out from the vicinity of Gregory’s waist. “A-Alex.”
Recognition passes briefly over her face, but she mostly just looks friendly. “What have you done to terrorize this child?” Infuriating and friendly.
Gregory starts, “I haven’t—”
“He’s—Gregory’s ordering dinner,” Alex says brightly. “I didn’t have a house. He’s very, he’s, he’s nice.”
“Dinner,” Ward says, sliding off her jacket as Gregory’s panic and fury ratchet up another notch. Something about the rustle of fabric gets her smell in the air—the soapy lavender wash she’s been using as long as he’s known her, which was great when they worked together because her smell always meant safety, but now it just means danger and pain and goddamnit is Turner still angry.
And she still manages to dress like a shabby teenager, even under a three-thousand-dollar Burberry.
“Great,” Ward smiles, with teeth. “What are we having?”
Wordlessly, Gregory goes into the kitchen and grabs the menus off the table. He all but shoves them in her face.
“You seem tense,” she mentions, waving Alex closer.
“Why are you here,” he hisses.
“To profess my undying love, clearly.”
“I will actually kill you.”
Ward pats Gregory affectionately on the shin, still of a height with Alex to help him with the menu. It’s kind of hard to stay mad at her after that, since it’s something Gregory wouldn’t have thought about—that five-year-olds can’t read very well, that they might not be used to pan-Asian cuisine.
She hands over their orders (chicken fried rice, ma po tofu, veggie egg rolls) and proceeds to pull out a deck of playing cards.
“This one says you’re going to face a challenge of the heart,” he hears from the kitchen, “but you’ll be strong enough to overcome it.”
“Why do you talk funny,” Alex giggles.
“Those aren’t even Tarot cards!” Gregory shouts as the call connects, hastily following with a clipped apology to the woman who answers. He places the order, grudgingly adding in a second ma po tofu. It’s his usual anyway. But Ward has a way of coming into a room and filling it up until there’s no space for anything else, until you feel like something you’ve always done was her idea just because she picks it up, too.
He puts the phone down and waits, counts down from ten, but when he turns around she’s in the kitchen with him. She hadn’t made a sound. He can’t have forgotten how quiet she can be, it’s only been a few months, but Ward’s greatest deception is that she’s only loud and brash when it suits her. That’s always been the case.
“Ten seconds,” she says coldly, and he finally registers the barely-there but ever-present angle of her Glock, shoulder-holstered beneath the fabric of her open hoodie. “Kid’s in the bathroom. What the fuck are you doing with Vadim Bagodanovic’s dead bloody son?”
“Shit,” Gregory says, after.
“Right,” Ward says, nursing her porter. “Plan?”
It’s getting on eight PM. Gregory has finally managed to peel himself out of his day clothes, vulnerable and exposed now in a black, long-sleeved compression shirt and loose gray sweats, and Alex has fallen asleep on the sofa beneath a couple of spare blankets. They’d watched half of a movie after dinner, the three of them, Gregory too keyed-up to pay attention to the cartoon thieves dancing across the screen, but Ward keeping a running commentary that left Alex scandalized and breathless with laughter. The take-out containers have since been discarded, and Ward has been filling him in over a couple of bottles of after-dinner beer in the kitchen.
She’d only raised her eyebrows at the presence of the untouched six-pack; Gregory’s always preferred wine or the occasional IPA. They both know this.
“WITSEC,” Gregory replies. It’s the most straightforward option. “Armed legal custody at a government facility until a willing relative can be found or a legal guardian established.”
“Right, because your government has really got it together when it comes to civilian safety,” Ward chastises. She’s slid up onto the granite countertop without asking, her knees open and her eyes thoughtful. Her hair, loose and dark around her pointed face, gleams red where the light filters through at the edges—dye from a previous job, blacked-out now like permanent marker on a redacted file. It had been blonde in Prague, before he’d been shot. He’s seen it in dozens of lengths and styles, and likely hundreds of shades, but none of those are ever what come to mind if he thinks of her. When they met, she’d had her hair—whatever color it was—tucked up under her Royal Marines beret, and that was the image that stuck with him.
“That’s hardly fair.”
“Do you have any idea,” Ward says around her bottle mouth, “how many ‘protected citizens’ I’ve—extracted—from WITSEC?”
Gregory could hazard a guess. He was involved with a lot of the paperwork. “Then what are we going to do with him.”
Ward opens her mouth, but doesn’t say anything. Gregory raises his eyes to her face, puzzled, but after a beat he hears it too: the rustle of blankets on the couch, the soft sounds of sleep-talk and a child-sized deep breath.
“We?” She asks quietly, amused. She’d only shaken her head, earlier, when Gregory had told her about finding the kid outside his office. He’d grabbed the beers after the movie, after Alex had fallen asleep; after Ward had told him about the father, and put up her holster.
“Yes,” Gregory murmurs sharply, dropping his voice a few octaves to skirt curious ears. Ward shifts stiffly. “He said didn’t have any family. Do you think he knows about his uncle?”
Ward polishes off her bottle, leaning her shoulders back against the cabinets. Her leggings, which had looked like proper pants from the knees down, look like pajamas without her peacoat. “Legally speaking, Ivor Bagodanovic hasn’t been implicated in the takeover. Legally speaking, the Bagodanovics are not traceably affiliated with the River Trail Industrial Park, or any alleged illegalities thereof associated. If Alex suddenly turned up, legally speaking, Ivor would be his next-of-kin.”
“What kind of system would you call it,” Gregory asks, setting his half-empty beer aside, “where the properly legal thing to do is to hand over a child to the man who murdered his father for possession of a money-laundering franchise?”
“The one where you follow the letter of the law over the spirit.” Ward slides down off the counter, her sockfeet making almost no sound on the kitchen tiles. “The one where you draw a line between ‘justice’ and ‘vengeance’, and that line is whether or not you’re sanctioned by a governing body. I don’t get paid to speculate on the law, Turner. I just get paid to do my job.”
Gregory follows her into the living room, because that’s where she goes, and frowns severely as she leans down to kiss Alex on the side of his head. “G'night, sprog. Keep an eye on that nutter for me, yeah?”
Alex opens a sleepy eye. “Leaving?”
“I’ll be back,” she says. Gregory watches them with a dull ache in his stomach that he struggles to identify the source of.
At the door, Ward says, “I’ll give you a call at fourteen-hundred. Unless you dummy up some adoption papers, it will most likely be foster care. But it won’t be his uncle.”
Her coat is on, and her boots, and her hand is on the knob.
“Where are you staying?” Gregory asks. He’s not sure why.
“Seeing as your couch is otherwise occupied and I’ve an early morning,” she smiles crookedly. “Probably the Motel off ninety-fifth.”
He knows her eyes are a muddy gray-brown-green, but they look colorless in the smear of bleed-through light from the mood lamps a room over. She’s actually a bit shorter than he is. He always forgets. He can never get a good read on that sort of thing when her bulky personality fills up every inch of conceivable space—as though it would be impossible to look down at her.
“I hear they have a nice continental breakfast,” Gregory says at last.
“Cheers,” Ward replies.
He does not sleep well. While normally a fairly heavy sleeper, and secure within the trappings of his own home, it seems as though every other sound wakes him—Alex sleeps through the night, but something about the water pressure shifting in the pipes when there is another body breathing in your office puts you on edge.
Gregory gives in around five-thirty, sets out clothing for the day, showers, dresses, and then sets out clothing for Alex. He figures seven is a good time for a child to wake up, and has an approximation of breakfast—cereal and orange juice and half a bran muffin—set out around six-fifty-five. The couch blankets rustle at six-fifty-seven, and after a couple of minutes in the bathroom, it’s five after the hour by the time the kid wanders into the kitchen.
“Hungry?” Gregory asks, gesturing to the food without look up from his tablet.
“Yes. Thank you,” Alex says. He stirs the corn flakes for a few moments before digging in. Belatedly, Gregory hopes that he isn’t allergic to the soymilk.
“Your clothes for today are on the counter. Are you in school?”
Alex glances at the washed and folded stack of socks and a shirt and jeans, and then looks back at his cereal. “Homeschooled.”
Gregory takes a careful bite from his half of the bran muffin, minding the crumbs. “That makes things simpler. Year two?”
Alex nods, then bumps his orange juice a little when he reaches for it. It doesn’t spill, but Gregory’s thumb twitches reflexively, accidentally closing his browser window and the seven working tabs contained therein. Resolutely, he sets the device aside.
“If you can try to summarize what you’re currently studying in what subjects,” he starts, grabbing a mechanical pencil and one of several spare notebooks from his office. But Alex starts to look a little panicked, so Gregory stops. He waits.
“What does ‘sumrize’ mean,” Alex hazards.
Gregory pauses. “It means to tell someone about a thing,” he says carefully, reducing as he goes, “without spending too much time doing it, but still making sure you cover the important parts.”
“Okay,” Alex says. “I don’t know what ‘subjects’—”
“‘Kinds of things’,” Gregory supplies.
“Tell about the kinds of things I’m, um, learning about?”
“We mixed colors for face-painting.” Alex’s face visibly relaxes. “I can do green from yellow and blue, and orange from yellow and red.” Then, softly, he adds, “Dad put whiskers on my face and I was a fox.”
“Okay,” Gregory says, neatly side-stepping the trauma as best he can because you have to start with what you can handle. “What else?”
“Writing numbers to fifty. Telling time. I can tell time if it’s just an o’clock, but not with the minutes yet.”
“How about reading?” Gregory asks.
“Sometimes,” he says grudgingly. “But mostly just copying the alphabet.”
“Thank you. Just a moment.” Gregory pulls up the browser on his tablet again and does a quick search. After a few minutes, he finds suitable PDF files and sends them to his office printer. He clears away the dishes, wipes down the table while Alex watches him bleakly, and retrieves the worksheets.
“This first one is basic addition. I want you to try to work through these the best that you can. Come get me when you’re finished and I’ll check your work.”
“Okay,” Alex says. “Am I going to live with you now?”
Gregory goes still, but only for a moment. “I don’t know yet,” he says. “But you aren’t going back on the streets. So you’ll probably be here until we can figure out something more permanent.” He glances uneasily at Alex’s small, round, nervous face. “Are you agreeable to this?”
“What does ‘greeable’ mean?”
“‘Agreeable’ means ‘okay’.”
Alex looks at him with big, blue eyes. He starts to smile, like someone has told him he’s about to get a toy, but also like someone has told him that several times before and the toy never appeared. “Yes. I’m agreeable.”