bob fish


chapter 2.

Besides good underwear and an enticing bedroom, Chris also believed in the power of a good dressing gown. She threw on her robe (Xingese artificial silk), shoved a soft cap over her hair (which doubtless needed a comb through it) and felt instantly more dressed, and therefore, more in control of her life. Then she swept through to the kitchen to face a hungry, grouchy child.

Little Roy was back at his previous seat at the kitchen table, sitting cross-legged and looking solemn. His hair was sticking up all over the place. When he saw Chris, he screwed up his eyes for a moment, and then made them big.

"Where's Iris got to?" asked Chris. The kid looked confused. "Blonde, about so high" — she indicated her shoulder — "really annoying." Chris knew why she was rooming with Iris. She needed the money. Still, Chris would frequently find herself pointing out coffee cups that were growing mold or drying laundry that was left to go stiff for a week in front of the stove, and then she'd get some sass and a slammed door in return. That's when she would think to herself, 'why Iris, of all people?'

"She took my bed," said Roy. "And I can't open the door." Ah. She'd locked the little moppet out. Never let it be said that Iris wasn't all heart. "And I'm hungry," Roy added.

"What are you hungry for?" asked Chris.


"Anything else?"

"I like egg."

"Any particular kind?"


Geez, it was like having a conversation with a drunk. "Boiled? Scrambled? Gold-plated?"

Roy frowned at her. "And toast."

Chris checked the cupboards and the bread bin, and was not entirely surprised to find neither egg nor bread. This was one of those moments when you just had to throw money at the problem, wasn't it? Not that she had much to throw. "Roy, would you like to accompany me to lunch at Marie's?"

"Can I have egg?"

"Yes, I believe you may." Roy seemed delighted. "But first you're going to have to work on your appearance. I don't think Marie's will let you in with your hair like that." This was not strictly true. Marie's let hobos in.

A couple of minutes later, Chris found herself back in her bedroom with a basin full of water and Roy. She got him to wash his face, and he seemed very smug that he could do it himself. Then she wet her good hairbrush and tugged it through his hair while he stood on the chair with his lower lip out. She was starting to get the impression that children required a lot of maintenance.

In Marie's Coffeehouse, a block away from Chris's place, the coffee still cost half a cen and the cup was bottomless. Roy sat with his elbows resting on the table, and stared through the menu like he wanted to burn a hole into it. Ah, thought Chris, too young for school. I'll have to read it to the little guy.

Roy stabbed his finger into a spot on the menu. "Egg," he announced. Chris leaned over to look at his little finger — there was dirt under his nails. She'd have to get him to scrub his hands or something — and hey, sure enough, he'd found the eggs.

"So, you're reading, huh?"

"Yes." He got quiet again.

Chris took a guess and ordered a boiled egg and toast for Roy, and a farmer's breakfast for herself. She ordered herself coffee, and got Roy orange juice because it sounded wholesome. Now that she thought of it, she was starving.

Little Roy's egg arrived. He stared at it for a moment, and pressed the top with a finger. Then he said, "Mama puts the egg in a saucer. With chiyou sauce." Chris had absolutely no idea what that was, but she was fairly sure they didn't have it at Marie's.

She pulled Roy's egg over, and cut the top off for him. Then she cut his buttered toast up into fingers and pushed it all back to him. He ate silently and with intense concentration. Chris watched him, and saw more and more of Seth in him. She'd left home at sixteen. Her elder brother had been a lanky, surly teenager then, but he must have been — what, thirty, when Roy was born? Seth as a grown-up, Seth as a father, Seth not in the world at all ... Chris didn't know which was stranger to imagine. Roy's little frown looked like his, and the nose — had Seth been so round-faced as a child? Chris hadn't taken any family photos with her when she left, hadn't wanted any. She guessed she hadn't thought what never come back, never see you again really meant. Who can, at sixteen? Roy's hair was definitely much darker, though; it was poker straight and glossy, inky black where Seth's hair had been much like Chris's in its (seldom seen) natural state, brown with a little wave to it. Those lovely eyes must be courtesy of Seth's wife. She had to have been Xingese — and a real looker if the kid was anything to go by. But the stare — now Chris was remembering Seth as a little boy, arms folded, refusing to budge over some stupid kid row or other. Seth had always had that way of staring at you when he was digging his heels in about something. A sharp, burning pang rose up in Chris's chest. Heartburn. She shouldn't have eaten so fast.

They finished and paid. At home, Chris dug out a pack of cards, and spent the rest of the afternoon teaching her only living relative, tiny and silent, to play her at snap.

That evening, Chris walked to work slowly, thinking. Iris was working later that night, so when Chris had to start work, she'd called in a favour from Mrs Torrado upstairs and asked her to look after Roy for the night. The woman had six kids anyway — or was it seven? — so it wasn't like she'd even notice an extra midget around the place.

At the Ace of Hearts, Chris hung up her coat in the cloakroom behind the bar and pulled her face powder and cigarette case out of her bag. As she checked out her face, Ava bustled in, on time for once, but looking a little peaky. "You hear about Louie?" she asked Chris.

"What about her?" Chris snapped her compact shut and leant against the wall, feeling her stomach curl up a little. She could see it now: this was just going to be one of those days that goes on and on until it's over.

Ava continued, "She missed the day shift today and yesterday. Boss was throwing fits over it. He sent the boys around her place and it turns out her landlady hasn't seen her for days." Ava wrinkled her nose. "And the old lady already called the cops."

Chris whistled. Brannigan would be in a filthy mood tonight. Some of the things that went on at the Ace of Hearts skirted the boundaries of the legit, to say the least. Brannigan wasn't a big man to his business associates: if it came to it, the real big hitters would throw him to the wolves, and everybody knew it. Any whiff of trouble therefore made Brannigan jumpy in the extreme. He got mean when he was jumpy, which in turn made everyone else jumpy.

"So, the story goes, she went out Monday night all dressed up, landlady never seen her since."

"Didn't she have a date? That guy with the nose ... I didn't like him."

This was one of the reasons Brannigan was right to be nervous around the cops. Louie's date hadn't been leisure, it'd been business. Not that she was going to be seeing much of the money involved. City Hall had come down hard on prostitution a few years back, but there was always a way around the law. The Ace of Hearts and places like it charged its clients to enjoy the company of a pretty lady at their table while they took a drink — and if they wanted to enjoy her company elsewhere, it charged extra.

In other places, classier joints, a date like that might mean accompanying some banker or officer visiting from Central for a night on the town. Dates that originated at the Ace of Hearts, in Chris's limited but unpleasant experience, usually began in a dark bar with some piker trying to feed you triple gin-tonics and tell you they were 'only a little one.' They continued with him ranting about what a jerk everyone was to him, including his wife, and concluded in a cheap hotel, where the piker in question would probably get shirty when you told him to put on a condom. Chris had had five dates since coming to work at the Ace of Hearts. The worst one of them she'd had to escape by hitting the guy with the heel of her shoe and then climbing out the bathroom window. The rest, she'd just tolerated. Chris didn't think of herself as the kind of girl who quietly put up with things, but right now, she didn't have much choice in the matter: these scumbags had her pinned. For now, all she could do was survive and keep her eyes open.

At ten o'clock, when Iris started work, things were still quiet. Chris had flirted with a lonely insurance salesman, then she gritted her teeth over a couple of rich students playing tourist in the bad part of town. Now that she was between customers, Chris had plenty of time to head to where Iris was tending bar. Iris Futterman was little and curvy, with a lot of fluffy blonde hair that she claimed was utterly unaided by peroxide and a permanent wave. Nobody believed her. She liked chocolate malts and winning arguments with people, and not necessarily in that order. It was inevitable that she would have a lot to say about finding her bed occupied by a four year old.

"You starting up an orphanage now? Or are you gonna teach him to pick pockets?"

"What am I supposed to do, put him straight out on the street? He's my brother's kid."

"Or he could be a really little butler. We could put a tray on his head." Iris was chewing gum and talking at the same time. One of these days, Chris was going to work out how she did that trick. She leant against the bar, raised an eyebrow and waited for Iris to run out of lame cracks. It didn't take long.

"Maybe we should do that with you around here. Although we'd probably need to tape your mouth shut too if we let you out from behind here." Chris rapped the bar.

"Geez, it was just one stupid guy. He deserved a good belt in the eye, the rat."

"Uh huh, one guy. Plus the officer you slapped the week before when he pinched your butt."

"So —"

"And the guy whose whisky and ginger ale you peed in. Oh, you thought I didn't know about that, huh?" Chris was on a roll now. "Kiddo, we're keeping you back here for your own good, until you're no longer a menace to the perverts of East City. And to yourself. Brannigan would have your head on a plate if he knew about some of this stuff."

Iris tutted. "Don't kiddo me, grandma."

"All righty. How about I just tell everyone here your real age?"

And that was that. Iris was biddable. She was a good kid, really, you just had to show her who was boss. Kid was, in fact, an accurate description of Iris. After a week of rooming together, Chris had managed to wrangle her real age out of her. She was fifteen. It had been good to know that after a decade of dubious city living, Chris still had some shockable nerves left somewhere in her body. Iris, on the other hand, seemed to think that fifteen was practically mid-life crisis time, but that didn't stop her telling everyone else that she was four years older.

"He's here," said Chris, "for a few days, until I can get someone to take him permanently. I'm not exactly in the market for a kid here."

"Days? But what are you going to do with the little brat?"

"I told you. We're keeping you behind the bar until you learn to bite your tongue a little." Oh, she'd walked into that one.

Iris rolled her eyes, but didn't even bother with a comeback. Chris said, "Mrs Torrado can have him when we're both here, but aside from that, you're just going to have to help take turns with me to look after him. Don't worry, you can have your bed back. I'll put him in with me. It's not like he'll take up much space."

Chris got home before six. The lights were still all off at Mrs Torrado's, so she sat up in the kitchen with a mug of tea, 101 Chess Problems, and her little chess set. At seven, the radio opened broadcast, and so did Mrs Torrado's apartment. There was the usual screaming kids, yelling adults, stomp stomp stomp across the floorboards. Chris abandoned her sleepy attempts to plot her way to checkmate in three moves, and went to pick up Roy.

It took three rounds of knocking before anyone heard her, then the door was wrenched open by a young girl with a toddler on her hip and a half-eaten bit of toast dangling from her mouth. She grunted something that Chris guessed might be "come on in" if it hadn't been muffled by a mouthful of bread. Chris came on in.

Mrs Torrado's hall was a riot of piles of shoes, bags, and far too many pieces of furniture. Figures of various sizes darted in between the little rooms, yelling at each other, and occasionally, in the direction of the kitchen, "Ma!"

In the little kitchen, Chris found Mrs Torrado stirring oatmeal porridge and breastfeeding a baby at the same time. Roy was sitting at the table with three other children who were all a little bigger than him. They were squabbling over the butter while he looked down at his empty plate. He looked the way he had at Chris's table yesterday morning, curled into himself, absorbed in his own thoughts. Chris couldn't fathom what might be going through the head of a recently orphaned four year old who finds himself in a very strange place.

Mrs Torrado nodded to Chris, but didn't seem to have time for much more. She set out bowls and started pouring porridge into them one-handed, while supporting the tiny baby at her breast in the crook of her arm. It was quite the feat, although Chris supposed that by this point in her life, she must have had enough practice to get it down.

Chris turned back to the table, and found that the boy next to Roy was poking him in the arm. Roy was looking down and frowning. He didn't seem to have noticed Chris at all.

"Hey," said Chris. Poke. "Cut that out." Poke. The boy blithely carried on.

A moment later, he had whipped his hand away, howling. "He bit me! Ma! Ma! The little nut bit me!" Roy was glowering at the other boy fiercely, his lower lip stuck out in a pout. It was funny to see the little oddball so expressive.

Mrs Torrado slammed the saucepan down and stalked over. The baby on her arm carried on having its breakfast, unruffled.

Roy looked over to Chris, his pretty eyes wide and and a look of outrage on his face. Chris quickly blocked Mrs Torrado's way to him.

"Your kid kept on poking Roy," said Chris. "I saw the whole thing."

Mrs Torrado turned on her own son. "Well, Tommy?"

Tommy flinched. "I never did!" The little sneak.

Little Roy had enough crap in his life already without being framed up by a snot-nosed bully. Chris leaned down and hoisted him in her arms. Just as he had done yesterday morning, he wound his arms around her neck immediately.

"Shame your kid got bit, " said Chris. "Maybe he'll learn something from the experience, huh?"

And with that, she navigated her way out of the kitchen and back to her place, holding her nephew tight in her arms.

Chris was on a short shift that night, so she got off at four. Roy was at Mrs Torrado's again. Louie still hadn't turned up. The atmosphere among the bar girls had been sour and resigned. It had made Chris mad as hell, seeing them almost expecting the bad news, shrugging it off in advance as if it was inevitable and impersonal, like bad weather. These girls were used to being pushed around: Chris was not. Until six weeks ago, she'd been her own woman and her own boss; now other people owned her, and how.

What she wanted to do was to walk off her troubles, to pound her feet around the silent city until her legs were numb. It was a bad time to be out on the streets, though. A week ago there'd been a riot in the Ishbalan quarter, a little mob of Amestrian guys angry about something or other. A bunch of houses were looted, four people killed and one of them a priest. Everyone was tense with waiting for the retaliation from the Ishbalans, whatever it was going to be. So no wandering around town for Chris — especially in this outfit. Besides, now that she was off-duty, she could really use that stiff drink she'd been not having all night.

There was a bar on a dark, narrow, cobbled side street on the edge of the oldest part of town. It could have been any bar. It was any bar. By this point in her life, Chris had learnt to sniff trouble out quickly and to make herself scarce when she found it; tonight, she was happy to wait until she was inside to give it the once-over.

Later in life, Chris always liked to say that Fate was a con, that things only happened for a reason if you made them happen. It was funny to think how much of her life might have hinged on the few steps she took, thoughtlessly, into an old pub late one night when she was tired and sad. Someone she knew would say, in those later days, that she had been primed for opportunity, and it could have been any chance that set her on her path. Chris was never sure what she thought, but then, she wasn't the sort to dwell on these things too much.

That night, Chris looked through the little smoked window panes just enough to see lights were on, then she strolled straight in and up to the bar. She ordered a measure of decent whisky, straight up, and a glass of water. The place seemed all right: mostly empty, red-fringed lampshades, a few tired working girls, a couple of quietly blotto old men in the corner. She swirled a couple of drops of water into her whisky for the sake of form, then took a far bigger sip than one should of good whisky. Then she drained her glass of water and asked for another, dug the book she was reading out of her handbag, and lit up a cigarette.

A few more pages into the siege of Cameron, and a few more sips into her drink, Chris felt someone looking at her out of the corner of her eye. She turned.

A little further up from her at the bar sat a strong-featured woman in her fifties. Her bobbed hair was iron grey and her cloche hat was pulled down over her eyebrows, but her coat was a sprightly, youthful velvet number with a high mink collar, and her lip rouge was a deep, flirty magenta. She was looking at Chris with frank, unembarrassed curiosity.

Was she hitting on her, or just wondering if Chris was a hooker? Chris supposed, these days, that if someone were to ask her that question, it wouldn't be entirely honest of her to say no. She raised her glass to the grey-haired woman. "Here's mud in your eye."

The woman raised her glass of sherry, solemnly. Then she said, in a low, smoky voice, "Did you know, that's one of my favourite books you're reading?"

"The Hundred Wars of the Medieval Amestrian States? They're a fun bunch, these medieval dukes. Lots of smarts, no morals. I like 'em." She winked at the grey-haired woman.

She giggled, then looked at Chris knowingly. "Learn anything useful from them?"

"Besides never trust a man further than you can throw a piano?" The woman giggled throatily again. "How about don't besiege a city that's spent the last century preparing for it? Those guys in Cameron were living it up for months while the chump invaders from the West sat around wondering how they were ever going to pay all those Aerugan mercenaries."

"And the trouble with an unpaid mercenary," said the woman, "is that he's likely to go freelance and help himself." She added, "Funny time of night to be catching up on your reading in a dark bar."

Chris raised an eyebrow. "I just got off work and needed a stiff one. Sure you know the feeling. I'm at the Ace of Hearts, you ever hear of us?"

"I'm afraid not."

"Good for you. You seem like a sensible kind of girl." Although actually ... Chris took in the bobbed hair over the woman's jawline, too long to be fashionable; the strong nose and chin; the high collar, neck scarf and gloves; the thin ankles. The very large shoes. It was a decent outfit, put-together and discreet, a touch of glamour, without being too obvious. Chris was impressed. This guy had obviously been a girl a few times before.

"And you seem too smart to be working for the sort of establishment that gives you a yen for liquor and medieval massacres at 4am." The grey-haired woman met her eyes; she'd picked up that Chris was onto her, and apparently didn't have a trace of embarrassment about the thing.

"What's your name, doll?" said Chris.

"You can call me Maria."

"I'm Christina. Call me anything you want, so long as it's complimentary." She stuck out a hand. Maria shook it, genteelly.

They sipped their drinks and talked military history for a while. Then Chris hopped down from her stool, and saluted her new pal. She headed out, somewhat bolstered, to face the cold night, and hopefully to get at least an hour of shut-eye before she had to pick up little Roy and find him some breakfast. So maybe he wasn't going to be with her for more than a day or two, but it was good manners to feed your guests.

Chris called the number the policeman had left her to send for Roy's things. The woman at the end of the phone, Jemima Campbell, had apparently been a friend of Seth's wife. She had actually been pretty chatty. It turned out she had been babysitting Roy at the time of the accident. "When the police turned up at my door, I thought it was Seth and Lee back from the movies already. It was me who had to tell the poor kid. I ended up hanging onto him until after the funeral, when the police told me they'd found your address. Roy's a bright little spark, but I've got four of my own, I don't know how we could have stretched to feeding another." There went one potential solution. "And Lee didn't have any family still alive in Amestris. They're all back in Qiongya." And there went Chris's other bright idea about who might take care of Roy.

It was a small stroke of luck, though, that Roy's mother came from the Qiongya province of Xing. Any other clan, and the name would have gone right over Chris's head, but she had been pals with a Qiongyan girl back in her cabaret days. This meant that Chris knew a few restaurants where she might be able to get that funny egg dish Roy had been asking for. She also knew that the three mainstays of Qiongyan culture were, according to her pal at least: chicken rice, good white tea, and endlessly telling everyone that the Chang clan were useless bums from bumfuck.

After she got off the phone, Chris decided to test out her information.

"Hey, kid," she said. "What do you think of the Chang clan?"

"They're stupid," Roy sneered with utter contempt. Well, that worked.

"How about chicken rice?"

"Yum! Are we having chicken rice?" He bounced up and down on his chair.

Chris's sources hadn't let her down. "Not tonight, kid." His eyes widened, his mouth turned down at the corners, his shoulders slumped: from cheerful to the picture of depression in an instant. Were all kids this good at making people feel guilty?

Three days later, Chris picked up a box of Roy's things at the post office. It was a good thing they'd come when they did. Yesterday, Chris had had to run out and spend the previous night's tips (hidden from Brannigan in her corset) on clean underpants and shirts for the kid. As she unpacked the box in the bedroom, Roy lay on the floor, drawing pictures on the back of a bill. There was a pile of Roy's clothes, a few picture books, a small pile of documents and photographs, and a stuffed toy rabbit. Roy's reaction to the rabbit was dramatic.

"Cat!" he yelled, and scrambled over to snatch the rabbit out of Chris's hands. He curled up with it jealously, as if she might try to get it back.

"Your bunny's called Cat?"

"Yes," said Roy, with great dignity.

He flopped back on his tummy to continue his drawing, with the rabbit tucked under one arm. At least the rabbit might distract him from asking about chicken rice again. Ever since she'd mentioned it, he was on her about it five times a day. Maybe she should find out how to cook it or something? Poached chicken and rice, couldn't be that hard.

While Roy drew, Chris dug into the folder. Much of it was boring, useful stuff, like his birth certificate, doctor's records. Then — ah — his parents' death certificates. Seth had died right there in the car from a broken neck, and his wife — whose real name was Li Hua, apparently — had lasted another hour before packing it in at the hospital from internal injuries. There were a few family photographs. Geez, Seth had really put on some weight. Li Hua next to him was a tiny little thing, pretty and round-faced. Chris found herself wondering about the woman almost more than she was wondering about Seth. Perhaps it was easier to think about his wife than Seth himself: she was rapidly finding herself boiling mad with her dumbass brother. Why did he have to be such a showoff high-hat and get an automobile in the first place? And why bother to get the thing if he didn't know how to get out of the way of other idiots on the road? And now look what he'd done.

"Chris?" Roy was looking up at her. She checked out his drawing. It was a scribble haired person eating a pile of scribbles in a bowl. Here it came. "Can we have chicken rice?" He kicked his heels back and forth.

Chris supposed she could always just carry on telling him no, like she had done the last fifteen times. But — what the hell, the kid had had a rough ride recently. "You know what, let's go get some tonight. I know a place."

"Yay!" He did a dumb little dance with his shoulders, and squeezed Cat. Damn, but he had a cute little smile. Chris hoped fervently she hadn't just been played by a four year old.

The Jade Cliff Teahouse was packed as usual. From the looks of the menu, they'd put their prices up since Chris was last here. She hadn't expected taking care of a kid would involve so many restaurant bills. Maybe it would help if she could cook worth a damn?

"Hey there," said the waitress. Chris couldn't remember her name for the life of her. "Haven't seen you in a dog's age. Who's the little one?"

"This is my nephew, Roy. He's a fan of Qiongyan cuisine, and I'm treating him a little."

"Ni hao," she addressed him, pressing her hands together.

Little Roy put his hands together neatly and bowed from the shoulders. Mom had brought him up nice. "Nin hao," he said. Was that the polite form or something? Then he followed it up with a whole stream of chatter in Xingese. Huh.

The waitress chatted back to him, patted his cheek and fussed over him. Chris had never seen the kid talk so much.

After a couple of minutes, the waitress broke off to mutter to Chris, "He told me his mom just died in an auto accident. That true?"

"Yeah, his dad too, poor little mite."

She tutted. "Too cruel, to go through something like that so young." She leant forward and dropped her voice further. "Then he said that you're going to take care of him now like his mom did. He seems to think the world of you."

"Huh." Chris abruptly found herself feeling like a complete heel. She'd been leading the kid on, winning his affection, and soon she was going to throw him out on his ear. She looked down at Roy. As she'd kind of expected, he was looking up, fascinated with the adults whispering secrets over his head.

"I think you're such a trouper, taking him on like that. I mean, I like kids okay, but I wouldn't know the first thing about taking care of one." And before Chris had worked out how what to say to that, the waitress was off, called over to another table with a snap of someone's fingers.

Roy's unusually cheerful and talkative mood continued throughout the meal. Bringing him here had been a good move. The waitress brought them a plate of dumplings on the house, and then shrimp rolls too after Roy asked about them. The waitress was completely smitten with the kid. As he chattered back to her in between bites, Chris began almost to suspect that he was playing up to it.

As Roy shovelled up rice with his chopsticks. Chris looked at her watch. "Damn," she said. "Work in two hours." Roy looked up at her quizzically. "I don't like my job," she said.


"Because I don't like my boss."


"Because he's a fu — a jerk."

"Why do you go if you don't like it?"

"Because I need the money for chicken rice." Chris topped off her cup of tea. "You know," she said, "I used to have a job I liked, before this one. I was a singer, then I wrote a play." She'd been picked out for the chorus line when the nightclub she was waiting tables at found themselves short of girls. This was back in the days when she'd had good legs.

"What was the play about?"

"It was about — well, it was about a girl who makes a big mistake. She gets into a lot of trouble, and she spends the whole play getting out of it."

"Are you the girl?"

"Nah, I'm getting a little heavy for juvenile leads. I played a famous singer. She looks after the girl. Sage advice, blue jokes. I sang a few songs." She was sort of hoping Roy wasn't about to ask what the songs were about.

"Did you like writing plays?"

Geez, the questions never stopped, did they? "Yeah, kid. I loved it. I wanted to write more."

"Why didn't you?"

"Because my show got censored. You know what censored means?"

He shook his head. "It means some busybody doesn't like what you're saying, so they call the people who run the country. And then the people who run the country make you shut up."

"Why didn't you make any more plays?"

"Because to make a play you need money. So you have to find some guys with money to lend it to you. Then when your play does well, you give 'em their money back with some extra. But you see, my play got shut down, so I couldn't give the guys their money. So now I gotta work for them."

"That's not fair." Roy scrunched his face up. "Why don't you tell them?"

She laughed. "Yeah, kid, I did, but they weren't very nice about it. They're not very nice men."

"Why did they give you money if they're not nice?"

"Because — well, because their organisation works like that. I knew what they were, but I really wanted that play. When you want something big, sometimes you've got to take a risk to get it."

"What's a risk?"

"Like when you toss a coin." Chris fished a cenz piece out of her purse, flicked it into the air, caught it on the back of her hand and slapped her palm over it. "Heads or tails, kid?"

Roy leaned forward and tried to sneak a look under Chris's hand. When he realised he couldn't, he said, "Heads."

Chris lifted her hand. Fuhrer Bradley smouldered on the coin in profile. Roy grinned and bobbed up and down.

Chris raised a finger. "You were lucky." She held up the coin and turned it over for him. "But look, half the time the coin falls the other way, and you're not lucky. That's how it goes."

"Do it again." Chris flipped: heads. She tried again: tails. Roy stared at the coin, fascinated. It was funny, being around a kid. When Roy was in the mood to talk, she got all kinds of questions thrown at her, and she ended up considering things she hadn't thought about for ages: probability, why water falls down and not up, and what the hell she was going to do with the rest of her life. Right now, she was trapped at the Ace of Hearts. But would she get a chance to flip the coin one more time?

Two weeks later, at 1am, Chris turned the mattress for the third time that week and spread a fresh sheet over it. A sleepy, miserable little boy was sitting cross-legged on the floor, watching her do it. "What we need round here, kid," she told him, "is an oilcloth."

"Mama puts that on," Roy said. He sat very quietly for a few seconds longer, and Chris watched him while she tucked the sheet corners quickly and automatically. She'd noticed the present tense, and considered reminding him of their recent conversations about Mama and how she was no longer a present tense person — but looking at Roy, it seemed he'd remembered. His eyes were very wide and moist, and his lower lip was gradually pushing outwards into a wobbly pout. Chris saw it coming. She stopped, went over, and crouched by him. He wavered for a moment longer, looking down at his folded legs. Then he climbed into Chris's arms and muttered into her chest, "I want mama."

For a few moments, they sat quietly together in the dark. Chris rubbed circles slowly on Roy's back. Then, suddenly, Roy sucked in a deep, sobbing breath, and the waterworks were unleashed. He shook, and sniffed, and made painful little gulping noises, soaking her robe in tears and snot while Chris stroked his back. He didn't howl, though. The near-silence of his crying fits had been eerie at first, but she was getting used to it now. And despite the silence, there were something reassuring about the tears. They turned him from a little changeling into a normal brat. Relatively speaking.

Chris hadn't done any crying herself, not over her brother or either of her parents. She wasn't entirely sure why, but she tried not to think on it much.

Chris continued to be a little taken aback that Roy was still living in her apartment. Part of it, she reasoned, was the murderous hours she worked at the bar. Between that, taking care of Roy, arguing with Iris about the basics of civilised housekeeping, and trying to fit in a little sleep here and there, she hardly had any time to consider what she was going to do with him. Mrs Torrado had started demanding money after the first couple of times babysitting the kid. It was probably the first bed-wetting incident over at hers that had done it. Chris was working a few extra hours here and there to cover Mrs Torrado's demands.

At first, the city orphanage had seemed like the most practical of the solutions as to what to do with the kid. Then she'd mentioned this to Alberta at the bar. Alberta had been raised in the city orphanage. After a couple of choice stories from Alberta's memory book, Chris found herself crossing the orphanage off her list of options. This left two other possibilities. Either she could find some rich, childless type to raise Roy, or she was stuck with the task herself. Obviously, she couldn't keep him. There was her job, and her life, and — well, her. He was a nice enough kid, if you liked them spooky-eyed and far too smart — which apparently she did — but still, Chris wasn't exactly mother material. She'd never really felt the urge to procreate. Babies had always struck her as messy and demanding more than anything else. And didn't a man or two give you enough of that anyway? No, even if she could find a way out of her current crummy situation, she would do a terrible job of this. She was just going to have to employ all her smarts and find a way to get someone more maternal or paternal or something to take in the kid.

Chris's apartment was starting to get as loud as Mrs Torrado's place. Right now, the radio blared in the kitchen, and Iris and Roy blared over it. That kid got louder every day. Iris had, in a move vastly magnanimous, agreed to take charge of Roy so that Chris could kick back for a bit. Well actually, it had sounded something more like: maybe do one of her dumb chess problems, read one of those boring books she liked, have a lie down because her back was probably hurting being so old and all, but Chris was too grateful to care. She'd just ruffled Iris's hair and then left the room before she had time to change her mind.

Chris was, however, not getting a lot of reading done.

"Our girls and boys in the North are going to be grateful to the boffins every time they peer through their binoculars. The National Alchemy programme has come up with another clever idea that's -"

"No, don't touch it, you'll do it wrong!"

"- centre began its work today helping thousands of wounded soldiers return to duty fighting fit! The doctors, mechanics and nurses are already hard at work, and -"

"Listen, kiddo, I've been building houses of cards since you were nothing but a tadpole in some guy's ballsack. You're gonna mess it up. Watch and learn."

"- our dashing young Fuhrer, once again showing the common touch that has made the Amestrian people take him to its heart -"

"No. I want to do it —"

"You're gonna — now look at that, that's your fault, you brat!" Pot, meet kettle, thought Chris. Maybe there was some natural food chain thing at work here. She called Iris a brat, Iris called Roy a brat ... so who got to be brattier than Roy? Babies? Cats? Spermatozoa?

She popped her head out of the door. Roy and Iris were sitting on the kitchen floor, scowling fiercely at each other, and despite the fact that one of them was a blue-eyed showgirl and the other was a tiny Xingese imp, they looked like they could have been siblings.

"You're both brats," yelled Chris. "Iris, let Roy build the house of cards himself. Roy, learn to keep your temper. And both of you, turn that radio down, and for the love of Herne dial yourselves down while you're at it."

She slammed the door and flopped back on her bed. A moment or two's bickering later, the radio went quiet and silence reigned. Chris smirked and opened her book.

The next night at the bar, Chris was feeling the strain of it all somewhat. Her heels were aching an hour into her shift, and she'd already had to restrain herself from slapping at least two grabby customers. Things hadn't even gotten busy yet. From his spot by the stairs, Brannigan caught her eye and nodded in the direction of a table in the corner. When she didn't move straight away, he snapped his fingers at her. She wouldn't have minded snapping them right off.

Chris weaved her way over to the table. The man sitting there was alone. He was somewhere in his late forties or early fifties, with eyeglasses, receding salt-and-pepper hair cropped short, an impressive nose and an equally impressive waxed moustache. He had to be from the military.

She put one hand on her hip. "Evening, honey. You look like the kind of high-roller who could buy a girl a highball." He stuck out a hand to her. She took it with her other hand, and he brought it up and kissed her knuckle showily — but he was looking at her with a sharp, speculative expression.

"I'm Christina." She took a seat in the chair he'd pulled out and let him light her a cigarette. Iris was already fetching her a fresh club soda. Chris was letting her out from behind the bar tonight, as an experiment. Mind you, she liked having Iris behind the bar. Not just because it kept her out of trouble, but because for some things, she was reliable. One of those things was catching Chris's eye signals, knowing when Chris meant she needed a drink brought over and when a customer was trouble. Another thing was that when a client ordered a mixed drink for Chris, and Iris was working the bar, the drink would arrive all soda. Not letting the clients get you blotto was a constant struggle for the bar girls — apart from the ones who just gave into it. In a place like this, you needed your wits about you.

There was definitely something familiar about the guy, she thought, as she leaned into the match he was offering and inhaled. She turned her face, blew a smoke ring and then turned back to look his face up and down slowly. Assessment in the guise of flirtation: it was a trick she'd found handy often enough. Then she realised where she'd seen the fellow before, and her eyebrow raised up into her headband.

He smiled wryly.

"Nice to see you, Maria. What do you do about the moustache?"

He leant forward, gave her a sneaky grin, then took it by one tip and peeled just the edge off.

"Impressive," she said. "It doesn't peel off in the steam room at the Cretan bathhouse?"

"That is a drawback," he said, and pulled a little face. "I try to spend most of the time there lying down. My name's Colonel Grumman." He winked. "How are the Aerugan mercenaries?"

"Well, when I left them, they were rampaging across the country, helping themselves to virgins and silverware. The good old days, huh?"

"Yes. Now that we're a civilised, unified nation, we just throw lit bottles of kerosene through our neighbours' kitchen windows."

"Huh? Oh, there was an attack today?"

"Yes, it was quite a senior local policeman. It was in all the papers. Or do you stick to reading about historical bloodshed?"

"Nah, I was just on nights this week. Funny, most of the military men we get in here want a break from politics."

"My dear lady, there is no such thing as a break from politics. The damn stuff gets everywhere." He took a swig of his drink.

It was a very strange conversation. Chris had dropped her usual patter almost as soon as she recognised the colonel as Maria. For some of it, they talked books, swapped titles, recommended favourites. Then it turned out they had the same favourite poem. "In the fell clutch of circumstance," intoned the colonel, "I have not winced nor cried aloud. /Under the bludgeonings of chance/My head is bloody, but unbowed." He said it with feeling. Briefly, Chris wondered who it was who'd bloodied his head for him.

"So, what's the wife think of Maria?" She looked significantly at the pale band of skin on the ring finger of the colonel's left hand.

"Oh, they got along splendidly," he said. "She used to take Maria out on shopping trips, it was rather fun." He sounded a little wistful. "Twenty-nine years. We're currently in the middle of a rather tedious divorce, but we had a lovely run of it while it lasted. Have you ever been married?"

"Twice," said Chris. "Last time was to my manager. "I caught him skimming off the top. I fired the bum on the spot from both his positions in my life."

"Your manager?"

"I used to be a nightclub singer, before I worked here. Long, tedious story. Like your divorce, probably."

"I'd really like to hear it," said the colonel. "If I might be so bold. Perhaps somewhere a little more salubrious than-" He gestured at the dingy bar with his eyebrows.

"Ah," said Chris. "You may be so bold, but sadly, I am not a free woman. I can be had, though. Long as you book a date through my boss."

The colonel looked at her quietly for a moment. "The chap by the stairs in the cheap bowler hat? How annoying for you. Let me see what I can do."

He ambled over to collar Brannigan. Well, this was one date Chris might actually look forward to. She wondered whether she'd be meeting the colonel or Maria. They were both pretty interesting people.