When she remembered it all years later, Chris couldn't quite decide which of the two had started everything: the kid or the bar. In the end, though, perhaps it didn't matter which of them had begun things? She'd met the kid, she'd walked into the bar, and at some point after that, things had started changing in her. By the end of those few weeks, she'd been someone else.
Chris would never say how old she was when she met the kid, but the truth was, she had been just the wrong side of thirty. She'd come to East City a decade ago by way of a bunch of other places. She'd arrived with no particular plan in mind, and found herself working as a nightclub waitress, then later in a chorus line. A couple of months ago, she'd finally gotten her own show put on, and it had been a roaring success right up until the city censors shut it down. Chris had then found herself heavily in debt to the show's dubious backers. She'd had to talk herself out of a forcible dip in the canal. Unfortunately, this had instead meant that she had herself into a job working at a very bad bar owned by her sponsors. She'd gone from working in a bad bar to the stage — then back again because some politician's wife had blushed at her script. Wonderful.
The very bad bar was called the Ace of Hearts, and it was open all night. When Chris worked on the late shift, she finished work around six in the morning. Then she would walk the ten blocks home, her heels aching, wrapped in the cheap rabbit fur that five weeks earlier, she'd been planning to replace with a mink.
It was spring, a couple of months since she'd started at the Ace of Hearts. In the East, spring mornings were very bright and cold, especially this early in the day. Chris kind of liked this time of morning: the hour that fishermen and captains of industry started work, and whores and security guards finished up. It was just quiet enough. Not much later, the streets would be full of good citizens heading to work, kids walking to school, and guys selling newspapers and coffee and pretzels. But right now, it was just Chris, her echoing footsteps, a chorus of birds in the trees getting frisky with each other, and a few people swaying home from very good parties (or very bad ones).
Chris had a bad habit of noticing things. So even if the street had been busy, she probably would have spotted the two policemen walking with a very small boy between them. In the half-deserted morning quiet, the little group really stood out. Chris wondered what the story was there. Her guess was that maybe the kid had done that thing where you run away from home but don't get any further than the end of your street. She'd been like that once, before she got ambitious.
A half-block from her door, Chris looked away for a moment to find her keys, and when she looked back up, the cops and the kid weren't there any more, leaving the street completely empty. When she turned into the little porch in front of her apartment, however, it was already full. One of the policemen was knocking her door.
Chris's current line of work meant that she was not entirely friendly with the cops at this time in her life; if it wasn't for the kid, she might have assumed trouble and just kept on walking until they gave up knocking and went away. She wondered occasionally, later on in life, what would have happened if she had walked on.
But she didn't. Instead, for reasons she didn't fully understand, she drew her shoulders back and asked, "Can I help you, officers?"
The policemen looked Chris over. They seemed to take in the key in her hand, the cheap fur coat, the sequinned headband, the paste jewellery, the make-up that was no doubt smudged and half-sweat off by now, and undoubtedly the fact that quitting time at her job appeared to be six in the morning. They did not look particularly pleased about any of this.
As for the kid, he didn't look particularly anything. He just stared.
"Christina Mustang?" asked one of the policeman. Too tired to think straight and just lie, Chris responded automatically that yes, she certainly was. That did for her first theory, which was that the policemen and the kid must have gotten the wrong door.
What could she do? She invited them to come on up.
Chris's apartment was located above a shop that sold fried, breaded pork. She regularly had to spray her clothes with perfume to get rid of the smell of cooking oil from downstairs. She showed the policemen up to the kitchen, which also doubled as a hallway and a parlour. Until very recently, Chris had enjoyed the genteel luxury of a cramped parlour, but when her landlord had agreed to a roommate, the high-backed floral print chairs had been swapped for a cheap iron bedstead, and Chris found she was back to the days of living out of a single room.
There was, as usual, a rail of laundry drying near the stove. The first policeman, the taller one, looked at Chris's smalls on the rack and curled his lip a little. This did not get him on Chris's good side. She prided herself on always, no matter how poor she got, having decent lingerie. It was good for one's morale.
There were only two chairs at the little kitchen table. The first policeman took one, and the little boy sat in the other. The second policeman stood behind the kid's chair. Chris leant against the kitchen cupboard, watching them warily and attempting to formulate new theories as to what the hell was going on. She was coming up with nothing. There were plenty of reasons she might have had two strapping policemen in her apartment first thing in the morning, but none of them involved a tiny, grouchy kid sitting at her kitchen table and scratching the dirt out of the woodgrain with his thumbnail.
The second policeman kept looking between Chris and the little boy. Chris thought at first he was going to do some polite introductions, but instead he just looked back and forth, as if he was expecting them both to do something. That was odd.
The kid himself was skinny and, as Chris had noted before, very small indeed. She couldn't have taken a guess at how old he was. Five? Eight? What she knew about kids wouldn't cover the back of an omnibus ticket. He was wearing shorts, a neat shirt and a dark green duffel jacket — not exactly street urchin wear. After a few seconds, he seemed to pick up that Chris was watching him and looked up to meet her eyes. And then he just carried on meeting them, staring and staring and staring. He had big, pretty, dark almond eyes, and apparently, no need to ever blink. Chris was vaguely reminded of the spooky little kid in a mystery movie she'd seen a couple of years back, in which he'd turned out to be poisoning ma and pa by soaking the arsenic out of fly paper. Cute.
"Miss Mustang," said the first policeman, "I'm afraid we've got some bad news for you." Chris observed that he really didn't sound too cut up about it. "Your brother Seth and his wife were involved in an automobile collision. I'm sorry to tell you they've both passed on."
Chris noticed that neither of the cops had offered her a seat. Her brother had an automobile? High hat, huh. Wait, her brother had a wife?
Seth, she thought. It's been a while. And now — well, it was going to be a substantial while longer. The policemen seemed to be expecting some kind of emotional show from her: crying, hair-clutching, maybe a little light hysteria. The kid redirected his stare to the grain of the kitchen table. Chris was beginning to get an inkling of what he was doing here in her apartment.
"Boys," she said, "I haven't heard from my brother for fifteen years. Sorry I can't give you a better performance, but right now, I'm bushed." She pulled the cigarette case from her handbag, got out a cigarette and lit it with the first match. It was a good plan. She felt her pulse slow with the first drag — and besides, it gave her something to do with her hands.
The first policeman said, "This is your nephew, Roy." He sounded personally offended by it all.
Chris marched over and popped her smoke in the corner of her mouth in order to hold out a hand to Roy. He didn't take it, didn't even look up. He just carried on scratching patterns into the ingrained dirt on the table.
"Hey, kid," Chris said. "I'm" — she considered for a moment — "your pa's sister, Chris." She'd decided against Aunt Chris. It sounded a little on the old side.
The second policeman said, "Young Roy is here because it looks like you're his only living relative. Lucky boy."
"Why didn't you just take him to my parents?"
Neither of them said anything. Chris had spoken without thinking: now she repeated the last couple of lines of the conversation back to herself in her head. Only living relative. She was way too tired to process all of this, but there had clearly been some sort of mistake here, that much she could see.
Policeman One said, "Well. Seth Mustang's mother died a couple of years back."
"My mother," Chris said. Whom she didn't like. And had never been planning to see again. Her parents and Seth had known for a long time pretty much where Chris was and what she was doing. They might not want to invite her round for Sunday dinner and parcheesi, but they could have damn well told her that her ma had passed. She squeezed her eyes shut, pinched the bridge of her nose. This was all becoming a little much. "What about my dad, then?"
He said, "You tell me." When Chris evidently wasn't about to tell him, he reached into his bag and hauled out a brown cardboard folder. He leafed through it. After a couple of minutes, he raised his head and said, "Apparently your father died of pneumonia eleven years ago."
Chris looked at the cop, thinking the cheek of him, saying it all casual. He looked pretty tall all of a sudden. Then Chris realised that she was now sitting on the floor. She was still holding her cigarette pointing straight upwards in her right hand. It was still lit. She took a long suck on it, held the smoke in her lungs for a moment to get all the goodness out it, then exhaled it forcefully with pursed lips.
The kid scowled at Chris. "Why are you sitting on the floor?" he said.
"Because I only got two chairs, and you already took one."
There was a little silence after that. During it, Policeman One and Policeman Two did a lot of talking with their eyebrows. Chris didn't really follow it at the time, but afterwards, when she realised it had been something of a significant conversation, she imagined how it might have gone. She decided that One had thought that there was no way in hell they were leaving a child in the hands of this woman, and that Two was getting a headache and just wanted to get out of here and get his coffee and cruller.
Two won the eyebrow-argument. Chris occasionally wondered in later life what might have happened if he'd had his breakfast before knocking on her door.
Policeman One stood up and left the cardboard folder there on the table. Chris stood up and started flipping through the documents. Roy's birth certificate. Doctor's notes. A memo from Seth's local police branch about the accident. Seth had still been living in her hometown, apparently. Pfft, why? It was such a dump.
It suddenly hit Chris with full force what it was that these two guys were attempting to pull with her and the little boy. Only living relative. Shit, they were really going to leave him here, weren't they?
"What if I don't ... " Chris didn't even know how to finish up that sentence. Did she look like the sort of person who could take care of a kid? Did she look like the sort of person you'd even let your kid speak to?
The two cops were already shuffling in the direction of the door.
Policeman One said, "Just bring him on back and we'll take him to the City Orphanage."
"Does he come with any clothes?"
"At the address in the file. That's the lady who was looking after him when your brother passed."
"Why didn't she take him in?"
The second cop shrugged. "Ask her."
The door slammed behind them.
Chris looked at Roy. Roy folded his arms and looked down.
Thus far, it was a pretty damn indescribable morning. Some feeling or other was smashing into her like a wrecking ball with every beat of her heart. She hadn't looked too closely into it yet; so far, she was keeping it at bay with nicotine and exhaustion. She could work it out later, after some sleep and a strong cup of coffee — and maybe a couple of highballs. She'd lost the brother she'd never gotten along with, the father she was still angry with, and the mother who was just plain insufferable. Plus some sister-in-law she'd never met. And in place of these people, this lost family she had never been planning on looking up anyway, she had a very small nephew. If Seth hadn't gone and crashed his auto, then Chris never would have met this spooky little creature. Now, apparently, he was all hers.
Well, that wasn't going to happen. Even the remnants of Chris's brain still functioning right now could work out that much.
Mind you, it wasn't as if she could turf him out on the street on the spot.
Chris sat at the table and finished off her cigarette. Little Roy had got back to scraping all the dirt out of the cracks in the table with a scowl on his face. If her morning was a bust so far, Chris thought, his was looking a hell of a lot worse.
"Kid, you want a cup of coffee or something?"
He shook his head without looking up. Something vaguely stirred at the back of Chris's mind. What age had she started drinking coffee? It was a long way to think back.
"How old are you?"
"Four." What did four year olds drink? Hot milk?
"Hot milk?" Chris tried.
He nodded. Chris felt very pleased with herself. Then she headed to the kitchen window to check if they actually had any milk that wasn't off. She hauled open the window and looked over the three bottles of milk cooling on the sill along with a pat of butter. One of the milk bottles was full of semi-transparent liquid and lumpy curds. She dumped it straight into the sink. Goddamn Iris, that girl needed housetraining. If it smelled bad, she'd just put it straight back on the sill. Even the simplest parts of decent roommate conduct seemed to go over that girl's head. Chris carefully sniffed the remaining two bottles, deeming them probably safe for human consumption. Chris did, in fact, have a proper icebox. It just didn't have any ice in it right now, so it was currently more of a cupboard, really. She and Iris kept sleeping through the iceman's morning round.
She poured a little of the milk that she decided was newer onto a spoon. Having tasted that, she located a milk pan in a pile of dirty dishes, scrubbed it out at the sink, and dried it with a relatively clean cloth. Then she poured in some milk, popped it onto the gas stove, and lit it with a match. While it heated up, she found a coffee mug in the dirty dishes and washed that up too. The coffee mug was the heavy white kind you get in diners. In fact, it had 'Marie's Coffeehouse' printed on it cheaply in curly script. Iris was an expert at leaving bars and cafˇs with more dinnerware on her than when she'd entered. That was why none of their spoons matched.
The kid's eyes followed her through the whole performance. It was, Chris thought, a solid demonstration of why leaving a child in her care was a nutty idea. She wished she'd thought to do this in front of the cops.
Finally, Chris plonked down a mug full of hot milk in front of young Roy. He looked a little sceptical. He leant forward and put his nose to it without picking it up. After a few ginger sniffs, he wrapped his small hands around the mug, then, with an air of intense concentration, tipped it towards his mouth and slurped some, still without picking it up. A few sips in, he took it up with both hands.
"How's your drink?" asked Chris.
The kid turned his big, kitten eyes on her and nodded soberly. Then he got straight back to nursing his milk like a barfly on his third bourbon. 'Thank you' would have been nice,' thought Chris, but then she waved the thought aside.
She lit another cigarette. They sat for a while in silence, Roy with his milk and Chris with her smokes. Then, without preamble, the kid put down the mug, drew his legs up to his chest, folded his arms around them, pushed his nose between his knees, and went straight to sleep, just like that. The whole business must have taken less than ten seconds.
Well, that solved the question of what to do with him for the morning. Chris ground out her cigarette, stood, and went to shake Roy. He snuffled, but didn't fully wake.
"Come on," she said, "Time for a nap." She knelt down and shook his shoulder.
Then he put his arms around her. That was weird. They were barely on speaking terms. The kid couldn't be properly awake.
Chris wasn't sure exactly how to pick him up, but she put her hands under his butt to support his weight and hoisted. It seemed to go okay. Her heels didn't give out, so she walked him into Iris's room, and popped him into her roommate's unmade bed without even turning the gas lamp on. She drew the covers over him. He was out for the count, which, coincidentally, was the exact condition in which she was hoping to be herself in five minutes' time.
Chris's own bedroom, unlike Iris's, was neat. The cheap bedspread was made up, her sheets were good cotton, and the floors were clean. Chris's beliefs about the morale boosting powers of an inviting bedroom went along with her belief in always wearing silk panties and good stockings. If she was in the black, Chris would have preferred something a little more decadent and a little less decent — but unfortunately, silk sheets and a good set of boudoir furniture were much further out of Chris's budget than fancy undies. Right now, though, all she cared about was the bed. Everything else in her life could wait. She stepped out of her heels, shimmied out of her frock and hung it up. Then she unhooked her stockings, rolled them up and threw them into her laundry bag. She dealt with her corset and laid it flat on the wardrobe shelf, and pulled off her drawers and threw them in the laundry too. Standing in just her slip, she breathed for a moment. Then she stood at the washstand, pulled the pins from her hair and combed it out. She took off her paste jewels — heavy earrings, a necklace, two rings on each hand — and put them into a painted wooden jewellery box. She poured some water into the bowl, rinsed off the night's make-up and washed the prickly sweat out from her armpits. She dried up, then opened the window, shouted a quick warning, then splashed the soapy water out into the alley. A little boy whistled at her. She raised an eyebrow, gave him a freezing look and then slammed the window shut. She pulled the curtains, slipped into her narrow bed and was fast asleep by her third breath.
Some time in the afternoon, Chris's roommate came and shook her awake to ask why an unidentified little brat had just kicked her out of her own bedroom.
"That's Roy," Chris said. "I just inherited him. I was thinking I might keep him around and train him to attack burglars."