“Number two will be to accompany Stalagmite to a tavern tonight and drink until you can’t see straight,” Ember said. Al wasn’t surprised she had managed to convince Aggie to drink. It was like convincing a fish to swim.
“What is that supposed to accomplish?” Al asked.
“It will get you out of your abode for an evening, which. from what Stalagmite told me, is in dire order.”
“I haven’t been out in a while, true. But, I can’t guarantee my wife will be home to watch Marnie.”
“She’s not a housewife, then, keeping the Gray household in shape? She needed to get a job herself?”
Al’s jaw set. He knew what she was implying and where that was going to lead the conversation. “She works as a clerk in the city.” He hoped his tone would stop her from making the point he knew she wanted to make again.
Ember paused. “I see. And where is your daughter now?”
“At her aunt’s house. She watches Marnie during the day. I pick her up after work.”
“Would she be terribly put out if no one took your daughter until tomorrow?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “I don’t think she’d mind keeping Marnie overnight, but I can’t imagine she’d be pleased about it. I always pick Marnie up. She’d feel abandoned if I wasn’t there to feed her dinner and read to her tonight. It’s what we do every night that I work.”
If Ember felt guilty at making a little girl cry, she didn’t show it. “Fine then, I’ll lean,” she said, annoyed. “Our mutual employers will be making their customary visit tomorrow, to check on their assets. I will tell them we have a switcher who could be making them a lot more money on Milxner’s side if you don’t do this.”
Al wiped his face with his hands, hoping she’d disappear when he removed them. No such luck. “Well, I have no choice then.”
“You do. I could even make it nicer for you by splitting your hours. You’d still get to do that sissy perfuming stuff that you love so much. You’d make more money by doing a few hours over here. Maybe just a day to start out. Does that sound fair to you, Alpine?”
And how long would that last? he asked himself. First a few hours, then a full day. Then every day, until I burn out or I quit. He stood up. “Just have him meet me at Grucker’s after work.”
* * *
Al had spent a good portion of an hour nursing a dark beer they called Chapman’s Water. Clearly the man had plumbing issues, since Al couldn’t see his hand through the clear glass. He’d chew it, but he was afraid of breaking a tooth. He’d had bread with less grain than his drink.
He was distracting himself with bad jokes. It would work for a few moments, then he’d remember that his best friend, the man whose chin impression was still on his knuckles, was going to enter the bar he was sitting in any moment. And he felt awful about it. Al had avoided him since the fight, but he noticed Aggie had as avoided him as well.
Al sighed and drew pictures on the table with the condensation that had dripped from the mug. First a bunny, then a wolf. He looked up when the door opened and smiled weakly at Aggie. Aggie registered him, but didn’t return the smile. He did sit at Al’s table, but said nothing until he had downed three Chapman’s Waters.
Al waited until Aggie relaxed a notch. “I can tell you’re angry with me. I’m sorry, Aggie, I shouldn’t have hit you.”
Aggie sniffed, then looked him dead in the eye. “You know, Al, you’re the only guy I knew in my whole life who wouldn’t hit me. I could let my guard down around you. I couldtrust you. But not anymore.”
“I said I was sorry. Look, I promise I will never hit you again. I’m honor-bound as a wizard,” he said, linking his two fingers and thumbs together like a chain and pulling. “I will not hurt you, nor will I try. That’s my word. Besides, I get the impression that if I made another attempt, you’d break my nose completely. I’m sort of fond of it straight.”
He took a swig from his fourth tankard, sighed, and “I shouldn’t have hit you in the nose. Cheap shot. I’m sorry, too.”
“There,” Al said, clinking his mug against Aggie’s. “We’re good. I’m glad, because I don’t think my face could take another round from you.”
Aggie’s sour mood finally broke and he cracked a smile. “You aren’t exactly beating the ladies off with a stick.”
“No, sir! Not this guy.”
“I mean, how does your wife do it? I bet you save a lot on candles in the bedroom.”
“Heh. Yeah, that’s a good one, Aggie.”
“Ha! I bet your daughter’s going to need a huge dowry.”
“All right, you made your point.”
This continued for a few more minutes, Aggie insulting Al’s looks in any way he could think. Al’s mood darkened, but he said nothing. He just drank larger mouthfuls of his beer, ordered another, and then another still by the time Aggie had finally calmed down and jovially slapped Al’s back.
Al didn’t mind the abuse. Most wouldn’t say Alpine was a bad looking man. He had a thick, black hair, an easy smile, and warm, brown eyes that shone with humor and intelligence. He didn’t appear Ghenian; most would know from his dark skin that he or his family was from Br’vani, but that didn’t stop flirtatious encounters with women every once in awhile. They were usually older, his honest face charming those who wished to pat his arm and laugh at his corny jokes. It was fair to say he did all right in the looks departments. Next to Aggie, though, it was very easy to forget Al’s assets and focus solely on his friend. Aggie turned fair heads with the physique he maintained by lifting things his weight or even double. On top of that, his chiseled face broke out in a charming and boyish smile frequently. Al had seen him hook many women with a combination of a look and a grin in the direction of a woman. It wouldn’t take him long to bed her and move on when he was bored.
Aggie began surveying the room, his gaze landing on each woman, single or not, and moving on when none were biting. Al’s friend moved on to complaining, something he was well practiced in. Apparently, Aggie’s wife was starting to catch on to the discrepancies in his pay and hours. It was about time; they had been married for seven years and Aggie had been cheating on her for six years and eleven months. Essa had started nagging him about where the money was going and Aggie was running out of excuses. Al listened, nodding occasionally and pretending like he cared, but really he hated hearing about his friend’s adulterous ways. He tolerated it, but he didn’t encourage him, either.
Al also said nothing at Aggie’s blatant hypocrisy. He whined with an increasing slur about Essa and how she was not trusting enough, then would talk about any of the dozen women he was seeing. His wife had every right to be suspicious because she was correct. Aggie was wasting money on loose women that could go to his wife and children, money that was meant to convince his mistresses that they were the only one or that he was about to leave his family. Essa didn’t have to worry about the last part; for all his infidelity, Aggie still claimed to love his wife and had no intention of leaving his family. He had never heard his friend speak about any of the women he bedded in the way he spoke about his wife.
Al listened and finished his beer, thinking he could end the night on the early side and stagger home. Aggie ordered another beer for both of them and four shots of kimpaso, a strong liquor from Elebtor. Al was stuck drinking a sixth Chapman’s Water. He had been coping before, but that last tankard did him in. When he finally stood to pay the bill, he could barely make it to the bar without clutching to any nearby chair.
“Goin’ home, Aggie. Nice night. You’re nice, too. Go home and go to bed,” Al said as he passed by the table. Aggie embraced him in a side hug and dragged him outside the bar and down the street. Al didn’t have the capability to fight him, so he staggered along. “Where’re we goin’?”
Aggie pulled them a few streets over to the dockside. Whitney, like most cities with a port, answered the question “are foreign criminals lazy?” with a continual demonstration at the wharf. It was easier not to find a place to do dirty work far from the boat you just left. Rarely a night would pass by without a bloated body washing ashore or a brutal shanking reported in one of the alleyways. And those were the crimes with victims; the docks were a hotbed of activity involving gambling, loan sharking, prostitution, and drugs where any man could find a good time.
That’s just what Aggie wanted. Al had protested feebly, but in the end felt it was easier to just let him take control. That involved walking at a stumbling pace down Brownbury Street until they two women who were walking towards them.
“Whores or piscarin?” Aggie asked.
“I hope it’s a whore,” Al responded. “Anything but a piscarin.”
The prostitutes immediately spotted them, waving and catcalling. “Look at that hunk of meat. I’ll take him, if you don’t mind,” one said to the other.
“We might both need to take him!” her friend said, the both of them laughing.
Aggie bumbled across the street towards them. Al looked on, confused, until he realized what Aggie was doing. Before he could speak up, one of the whores had taken Aggie down an alley.
“And what about you?” the other one said as she approached Al, looking him up and down. He shook his head stupidly, staring at the mouth of the alley. “Sure I can’t do anything for you?”
He bobbed his head her way, then pointed to his wedding band. She laughed. “Like that’s ever stopped anyone before. You change your mind, you let me know.”
Al closed his eyes, both so he didn’t have to look at the dizzying sights and to give Aggie privacy. As for the latter, it was more he didn’t want to watch. Aggie had always bragged about his conquests, but since he never mentioned names or descriptions, Al had held onto the hope that Aggie was exaggerating or maybe lying. Seeing him actually break his marriage vows was disappointing.
The whore next to him thought this was amusing and began describing what Aggie was doing in detail. “If I pay you, will you shut up?” Al asked.
“Of course,” she purred. “What I do and what you pay are always negotiable.”
He reached into his pocket and withdrew what remained of his tips for the day, three coppers. Al handed them over to her and closed his eyes again, enjoying what blessed peace he could find amidst the random shouting from drunks, the laughter from bars, and whatever cacophony drifted to his alley.
Aggie walked out of the alley, tucking in his shirt. Al stood up and turned to leave when the woman behind Aggie loudly asked if he was going to pay her.
“Go ahead. Do it. Les get outta here,” Al said, starting to feel a little ill from the near drowning he’d had at the bar.
“She said she liked me!” Aggie said.
“Yeah, they all say that. Pay her.”
“I thought it was free.”
“What? Come on, iss never free. Pay.”
“I don’t have any money.”
Al tensed, swaying a little to stay upright. “Nothin’? You don’t have nothin’?”
“Nooo…you pay her.”
“Aggie,” Al hissed loudly, “I don’t have anythin’ left.”
Up until that point, the prostitute had been sternly watching the two with her hands on her hips. When she heard those two words, she started yelling. “What? You’ll pay or you’ll really pay. He owes me a silver, five.”
“We don’t have anything,” Al said. “We can go to our work and get some money and come back. We promise we’ll be quick about it.”
The woman took in a lungful of air and yelled, “Ikadi tonnarit!”
Al was confused until Aggie grabbed him by the arm and yanked him down the street. “Run!” he yelled as several men started staggering out from their businesses.