Exactly one year later from the day she shook hands with Grumman, Chris was sitting in the back of a draughty car on a wet afternoon, huddled in her mink coat while the driver found somewhere quiet in the backstreets of Central to park. When the lights had been turned out and the engine quieted, she pulled a brown envelope from her bag and gave it to the driver. He swapped it with her for a smaller, thicker envelope which bulged squarely. As she dropped it in her bag, she quickly guessed the number of notes there must be in there from the thickness of it. Big tipper, nice. She supposed this had been an unusually tricky job, so maybe it merited the extra green — but then again, she always enjoyed the challenging ones.
"Turned out nicely," she said, "and I got some pictures for you too. I suggest you don't open that up in a moving vehicle, though. Wait until you're at home, maybe with a finger of whisky, glass of warm milk, whatever's your poison."
The young officer turned around and smiled wryly at her. "How's the family, Chris?"
"Keeping me busy. Give my love to Maria, won't you?" He grinned and saluted her. Then he dropped her just off the boulevard, and she hailed a cab home.
Home, for most of the last year, was a three-bedroom apartment in an eighteenth-century building in the oldest part of the city. Chris forgave the place the noisy plumbing and three flights of stairs for the pleasure of living in a little corner of the city's history. Every time she went walking around this quarter she found something new. Not that she had much time on her hands these days.
In fact, she had just about time for fifteen minutes with her feet up and a cup of tea before she heard echoing voices and feet stampeding up the staircase. Iris's keys jingled in the door, and then there was the sound of her shoes hitting the floor.
Chris wandered into the hall with her teacup to find Iris waiting for Roy to pull his shoelaces untied. He got one foot done, then pulled the loop of the bow instead on the other shoe. Iris went to correct him, but Chris held up a finger and she hovered instead, waiting for him to work it out. Roy corrected himself just in time, undid the shoelace the right way, then triumphantly yanked off his shoe. Chris and Iris gave him a standing ovation, and he bobbed up and down on his feet and grinning. He was sometimes verging on full of himself these days, thought Chris. She'd have to watch that, or he'd end up spoilt rotten.
"How was school, kids?" asked Chris.
"Great!" said Roy. "I finished my reading book, and we did the three times table, and at break there was a frog on the grass and I touched it!"
"Hellish," said Iris. "Two and a half more months and I'll be out of there like a greyhound with the runs."
"Only if you get your school certificate, you are. You know the deal." Once Iris had her certificate at sixteen, Chris had agreed she could pass up technical college and come work in the family business instead. She could use an extra pair of eyes.
Dinner was noodles, with meat sauce from the deli down the street. Afterwards there were apples from the bowl. Chris had instituted a rule about fruit with every meal, so the kid didn't get scurvy, and of course that meant they had to eat the apples too, to set a good example.
By the time they'd finished dinner it was time for Roy to go to sleep. Pyjamas, tooth-brushing, and then bed. While Roy stood on a little stool to brush his teeth, Chris padded quietly back out to the living room to discreetly check on Iris. She was sitting at the dining table with her books, but just like Chris had guessed, she had put down her homework and picked up the padlock and set of lockpicks that Chris had left on the table for practice. Iris brushed a curl out of her eye, selected a new pick and twirled it in the padlock carefully for a few moments, head down, concentrating so intently that she didn't seem to notice Chris watching her from the doorway. Then she sighed, blowing her bangs up. She shoved away the lockpick set with a visible effort, pulled over a book, and went back to the horrors of Cretan irregular verbs.
Chris smirked, and went back to tuck her foster son into bed.
Chris sat on the edge of the bed and brushed his hair back from his face. It sprang back. He giggled sleepily. "What can I get you tonight, sir?" She gestured at the picture books in the little bookcase by his bed.
"No, I want one of your stories," said Roy.
"All right, all right, let's see what we can do."
After all that trouble, it seemed her poor old play still had an audience. Chris scootched up on the bed next to Roy. "All right. Here we go. There was once a girl who came to the big city from a long way away, and lived there in a little room, all on her own. One day, she made a very big mistake. But the story isn't about the mistake. It's about what she did afterwards ..."