Chapter 26

Today was different – Tony didn’t come, and I was left with sitting on the doorsteps and staring up at the clear sky where a few bored clouds drifted by, shredding those nerves all by myself; and then with avoiding and hating on Polack’s inquiries when he was up with the nightfall and inclined to socialize. When he started to realize my evasion boarded on rudeness, I had to go outside and sit under the bamboos to be left alone before my unavoidable hostility put me in trouble with him. And there, and only then, I saw Tony’s shadow marching up from his stationed bike. This time he had actually come on business, he said, proud of not needing an excuse. He reached for a small letter inside his jacket and gazed at it carefully, then clutched it with the jealous fingers of a child about to be robbed of their candy when a pair of lazy footsteps resounded through the floorboards, marching our way.

“Ah – Tony!” Polack cheerfully declared, coming up from behind us “Your presence here is becoming one of those most convenient things! How are you this day?! And how are the boys? I have just received a call from your boss, I believe you have something of mine there?”

I looked at Tony expectantly and his eyes met mine with a disappointed glow before turning in the white envelope his hands had been securing.

“Thank you!” My superior professed, excitedly turning the wrapper before his eyes.

Then I detected what Tony’s disappointment was all about: he stretched his neck and surveyed, curious, quiet as a mouse, apparently hoping for the opportunity to linger unnoticed until Polack had opened it, all in order to know what was inside. I could easily see him suggesting we violate the mail in secret to put an end to the mystery, hadn’t Polack showed up so fast. Contaminated by such an intense curiosity as his, I soon got pretty interested myself and walked up to my superior on the doorway, gazing over his tall shoulder with some effort while he slowly ripped the envelope open with his index finger.

“Ah, what an honor! If you don’t have anything better to do right now Tony, I’d appreciate it if you’d stay here while I arrange something for you to take back to Jonah.”

We watched with eager expectation as Polack turned to go, but hopefully he deposited the envelope in my anxious fingers before disappearing into the kitchen. I opened it, pulling out the content: it was two strips of thick, colorful paper, like two party invites or movie tickets. Tony pulled them from my hands hoping to have more success in figuring out what they were, but being just as knew to Gloen I doubt he would have found any success, even if Polack hadn’t walked back to the door causing him to panic and shove the invites back to me.

“Here it goes, if you’ll please…” Polack handed out another envelope “Tell him it’s nothing, just a mere token of my appreciation for the tickets.”

“Tickets?!” Tony couldn’t help but excitedly ask, and then immediately regret the audacity.

Luckily, Polack laughed kindheartedly:

“Why, yes, tickets, you dumb children! Your kind boss decided to flatter me with a sample of his taste for art by offering me two tickets to a play three days hence!”

My heart seemed to stop beating then! The extremities of my body went so cold I could feel each capillary filling up with hot blood once more. Polack offered me the tickets, which I picked in trembling fingers, contemplating now the golden letters standing out on the soft paper as my stomach turned: there were two of them! Which meant I could go with him, if he’d let me. What would I have to do for that? How to fight with Howard over it? What to say?! Perhaps if I was the first to say it… like children do: finder’s keepers. If they were in my hands, perhaps they were already mine! I couldn’t lose this for the world…

“Ah… That. Tickets, huh?” Tony scratched the back of his head, visibly uncomfortable.

“This is a big deal, Tony, though your impulsive age might not yet know how to appreciate it: A fancy night out for two, in the gorgeous old center of Gloen! I myself can name few programs more thrilling than this…”

I felt my cheek burn with the anticipation, with the picture Polack painted. I was the same age as Tony… so how to come out and say I knew how to appreciate it? If I keep quiet, he would think I don’t care, switch it over to Mr. Howard, who’s older and wiser. But how to say it without compromising too much? How to say it specially after not properly talking to him for over a week now?! But this isn’t the time for pride – my brain surrendered – secure the ticket at all costs!! If I had this night alone with Polack… maybe that would mean something else… maybe then finally we could be… – the word died, shy behind my blushing reflection on the golden letters.

“Tell your boss I would love to go, but…” Polack started, his eyes slipping sideways to cast a quick, sneaky glance towards me.

“But, sir?” Tony insisted.

“I can’t make it, he’ll have to forgive me. Do you see my little friend here? She has decided she won’t speak to me ever again, that she truly despises me for some mysterious reason that won’t wear off!”

I blushed ardently, specially when Tony’s eyes traced me, standing, petrified, behind Polack’s shoulder. My heart beat fast again: I knew where he meant to get, and I was excited for it!

“Do you find me such an awful, heartless person, Tony?”

“N-no, sir!”

“Well, she does!” he teased cruelly. “And few are the times I take it to truly torment her, unless I’m irreversibly bored…”

Tony’s face briefly reflected the color on mine.

“But she doesn’t happen to tattle on any of that, does she? Come on, don’t be afraid to tell on her: a true gentleman doesn’t stand against good disciplining!”

Made uncomfortable, and unused as he was to my superior’s eccentricity, Tony didn’t know where to place his embarrassed pupils, which invariably ended up measuring the curb.

“Your color picked up! Are you feeling sick, Tony? Well, in any case, tell your boss I won’t be going – it shouldn’t be too much of a problem since he himself won’t be there. A pity and a waste, I know! And it would have been such a special night, too, if only this grumpy little one would let go of that frown and come with me …”

“I… I wanna go!” Finally mortified beyond mortal reason, I spoke.

“You do, really?!” Polack inquired, turning around and facing me with a pair of wide eyes “You have forgiven me then? That was easier than I expected, to be honest: the deed mustn’t have been of my worst ones…”

I frowned.

“But never mind any of that in any case, and go back to being mad, if you will: I was merely teasing you. In truth I don’t think I can make it either. You see, I am currently very busy… This next week will be just.. ooph!” And he pressed the back of his hand to his forehead.

“Maybe it doesn’t have to go to waste!” Tony’s voice broke out, cracking with contained excitement “Maybe I can keep it? If Mr. Jonah will let me…”

Hysteria drove me to walk from behind Polack and stand before him, facing his mirthful cold eyes:

“I-I’ll help you! With your work! I’ll do whatever you want!”

Polack enjoyed a mischievous chuckle while examining both our pleas:

“My, my, what a disposition! But… forgive-me, children: My answer is ‘no’, and ‘no’: Tony, I believe those tickets have our names in them, and are therefore non-transferable. See here? It says Jane in this one. And Jane … what has gotten into you to be so excited all of a sudden? Was the day I took you out so much fun? Why don’t you tell me these things?”

Tony watched as Polack approached me under the doorframe with his curious eyes engaging in prey mode. It made me all the more self-conscious…

“Why do you want to go so badly, huh? Tell me – I must know! Maybe then… and only then…” He was facing me, bending over me and cocking his head from one side to the other investigating my crumbling expression. My eyes all the while moved, peering from between Polack’s golden locks that fell over my face like a curtain to see Tony watching us like an awkward statue. Eventually noticing the cause of the anxiety that prevented his hypnosis from being effective, Polack looked over his own shoulders to see Tony standing there:

“You can be on your way now Tony: that will be all!”

“O…okay…” Tony declared, mortified as he was, but still not very willing to go “so… should I tell him you’re not going then?”

Polack’s face had busied itself scrutinizing mine again, so he didn’t turn to say:

“We’ll see about that.”

As soon as Tony went invisible down the road, Polack let go of me and walked inside. I followed him angrily. Night had fully set in:

“You’re teasing him on purpose!” I accused, then my decisiveness weakened as he turned his neck around to see me “…aren’t you?”

“I’m sorry if it seemed so…” He smiled sadistically “but if I’m going to

 have that kid scratching in my yard every day like that, I might as well check what his nerves are made of. It’s nothing personal, mind you: just making sure he won’t cause me any trouble…”

“But what if he’s dangerous?” Though I had little reason to believe so, it still seemed a plausible risk to take into account.

“Why, the old man must be really rubbing off on you! How dangerous could a kid like that be, Jane? Too bad we aren’t really going for this theater night: he seemed transformed with grief by the sheer thought of it!”

“We aren’t really going?!” Pride, once again, surrendered, kneeling down to my beating heart.

“Jane, don’t speak so, like a tragic kitty!” Polack pleaded, walking closer to me “It’s an awfully fancy place in town – going there would give us an awfully lot of work!”

“Like what?!” I insisted, ready to follow him around the house if, instead of walking closer and closer to me, he had been running away like his conversation did.

“I don’t think I have anything proper to wear, for one – neither do you have any dresses that I know of, unless you’ve been hiding something from me…”

“We could buy some!”

“Jane, Jane!” Polack sighed, comically tired “If you care that much for seeing me in a suit, I’ll wear one just for you.”

“T-That’s not it at all!!”

 What? You don’t want it? Look at you!” My nervous blushing reeled him closer, his great shadow towering me “You can’t even decide properly!”

At last his face hovered so close to mine, I thought I was being tested for how long it would take me to corner myself against a wall again – shamefully, it weren’t long, and Polack’s smile grew, sadistically amused.

 “Jane, if you keep coloring up so much to everything I say, I’ll actually believe you like me!”

My face burned in painful embarrassment

“I-it’s not that!! It’s simply because of the…” I looked to the sides, even more ashamed now that my motivations were so closely watched “…I just want to…”

Polack snickered between his closed lips – the delicate, pink skin around them shivered softly, stretching farther:

“You’ve never been to a theater, have you?” His eyebrows arched in a pitiful expression that made him look so innocently intentioned, I had no space left in my brain to feel insulted “Well, okay – Jonah is clearly trying to adulate us, so maybe I’ll take up on his offer and take you with me after all…” a tired sigh followed that decision, then his eyes sharpened up to me “It’s also a great opportunity to see what my little tomboy looks like when completely dressed up. I’ll have you wear something tight and elegant… are you okay with that?” His idle hand grabbed the cord of my hoodie, playing with it against my face now and smiling meanly at my feverish reaction “You shy girl!” And, as if finding a more attractive recreation, Polack abandoned the cord and grabbed a long lock of hair falling next to my ears, his fingers sliding slowly all the way down in a manner that the bones of his pale knuckle brushed against my heated cheek “Look at how you’re burning up! Jane… Are you sure you’re a grown lady? How can you burn this much simply because I’m touching you?”

“Polack…” I whispered, training asking him to stop, but half-drunk by how humid and soft his words sounded from so close a distance.

“What would your boyfriend say if he saw you reacting like that? I’m sure he would want to kill me…”

“I don’t have a boyfriend!” I replied with what little vexation my absorbed nerves could reproduce.

“You don’t have a boyfriend?” Polack laughed delicately, as if I had made a very naïve, very compromising comment “That’s your answer, Jane? What do you mean by that?”

His long fingers slipped up to the back of my head. I could feel them entwine against the roots of my hair, his palm playing, taking hold of my nape. If I closed my eyes, that touch would become too overwhelming, and my face too embarrassing… But in keeping them open, I saw Polack’s full lips stretching in a malicious, hungry smile that made them fascinatingly magnetic.

“Jane, these cloudy eyes of yours… what do they want to tell me? And what must I do to get you to speak?”

He gazed into me for a long, excruciating minute. My insides trembled every time he repeated my name in that soft, manipulating way…

“I am your superior, Jane! You must obey me, mustn’t you?” he laughed playfully, as if this was a most innocent teasing on his behalf, as if it wasn’t mortally dangerous to trust him then…

“No. I’m only…” I started nervously, but my vision grew blurred, my muscles weakened with how close his lips were.

“No? What a rebellious subordinate I found myself! Very well, if you’re not telling me out of respect for my position, then I’ll have to convince you some other way: Jane, if you don’t tell me, I’ll have to…”

Polack’s fingers held me by the chin and tenderly moved my face to the side then, sliding his head over my shoulder. I heard his lips parting – I felt his hot, humid breath encircle my ear and winced, bracing myself for the contact, for the electric current starting at the back of my neck ready to paralyze my body.

“Pole!” Mr. Howard’s most reproachful tone called before I could discover if I was about to get bitten or whispered to.

Polack turned his head, still holding a trembling, squirming me in place – My breathing heaved audibly now that I awoke to the awareness of his sway.

“Leave the girl alone!” Mr. Howard reiterated.

Polack’s hand left me so suddenly, I nearly fell on my weak knees, as if he had been keeping my feet off the floor.

“Ugh! What do you want now, you irritating old man?!” He moaned while his balanced legs moved him swiftly towards the kitchen. I meanwhile tried to gather the strength in mine to merely stand upright before someone noticed.

“I believe I heard the phone.” Mr. Howard mused cynically.

“You heard no such thing, you cheat! I’m getting familiar with all of your dirty tricks! I was just having some harmless fun…” Polack followed, pursuing a mild argument that faded into back noise in my perception as I struggled to gather my breath.

Of course, as soon as Mr. Howard and I were left alone, his reproachful eyes confronted me, and he preached once again: the usual mass of what a dangerous fox my superior was, and how I shouldn’t let my guard down near him. The more I reacted – that was today’s lesson – the more excited I would get him, and deeper into trouble I’d get myself. This time I endured only half of the sermon before kicking back the chair and storming to my room: It was always my fault if Polack managed to corner me and I couldn’t escape him, it was never his for playing with my feelings in such an inappropriate way in the first place!

Back in my room, however, I couldn’t deny that Polack had been encouraged further than usual by something I did – perhaps it was my denying Tony. Perhaps it was Tony himself: the fact that he wanted us to go to the theater instead of me and Polack. The thought made me want to smile, but later that night – or rather the next morning, for me, cause I had slept – when I went to Polack for money – as he instructed me to do before going back to his bedroom –, my legs still soft from our earlier interaction and my insides swirling by the fresh memory of it, his eyes barely acknowledged my entrance. He leaned over the desk, a small pile of bills waiting at the corner, towards which he gestured after a minute.

“Remember Jane…” He smiled without seeing me “…buy something beautiful! Something to make your boyfriend jealous…”

I scowled at the awful act behind his voice as it feigned interest and grabbed the bills at once, scoffing angrily in the process:

“Yeah, right…”

But before I could retrieve my hand to my side, his quick fingers wrapped around my wrist, securing it.

“Don’t be so cross, Jane: I am a bully by nature, but I mean you no harm…” A charming smile stretched up his lips “The old man keeps pestering me about you and Tony spending all your time together, so forgive me if I showed him a display of the dreadful alternative – which is me, gobbling you up: I couldn’t resist myself!”

I abruptly yanked my wrist free, then flexed the skin hurt by the trauma, my face reflexively curling into a scowl.

Polack smiled, his eyes sharpening up at the challenge and then softening with delight, before returning to his papers. How easily he did so, every time! It made my view sting cowardly.

“He’s not my boyfriend!” I repeated one last time.

 Back in my room, I let my anger fade as I counted the money – my money – and marveled at the amount I had received. It was but a small parcel of my weekly wage, according to Polack. Having never managed money before, however small that parcel was, it impressed me absurdly. I couldn’t have guessed, then, that confiding my frustrations to Tony would make me want more – demand more from my superior:

All through those last ill-intentioned visits Tony paid me I had begun to catalogue the benefits of talking about the stuff swirling injuriously in my mind, and this time was no different – or maybe it was actually the pinnacle of them, and how far I would ever get to telling him the truth: I knew Tony just wanted me to be his girlfriend or something like that, and I knew he had authorization to do so, and I knew he knew it… but regardless of how risky the soil I treaded on was, I exposed to him the “hypothetical” scenario I was going through, without fully admitting myself to be the protagonist: I wanted his opinion, him having a gender in common with Polack making it relevant, so I described the situation of liking someone – that kind of liking – , where the someone plays with you and reels you in, but ultimately treats you like a child, making it so all the courting and the flirting and the touching – though I used none of those words, I would blush to death if I did! – is but an innocent game that was never taken seriously by one of the parts, making the other feel stupid and confused about it. The final question was: what was a girl to do if she wanted to be taken seriously?

By the time I got to the direct question, Tony was wiping his sweaty forehead. A cocky, unnatural smile marked his expression while he told me, with an again unnatural confidence, that for a relationship to be serious, to leave the realm of innocent flirting and set anchor in the haven of dating, it needed to cross that threshold of physical intimacy. “You mean…” I stuttered, and Tony’s face turned red, but his confidence pushed on: ‘Yes, he meant sex’, he openly said, and I blushed, looking at the sides and molding the idea in my brain to see how well it would be received.

Me and Polack – having sex. The angry, confused thought terrorized me all day before I could feel the butterflies in my stomach peeking through the curtain of dread, swirling back to life – a trembling, excited, fearful one, however – its vitality fragile to the least detailed consideration. The idea had to be a blur to be tolerated: I must act rather than ponder, or cowardice will bury me alive. I might not necessarily want to have sex – was my closing argument –  although the idea didn’t sound half as bad as the first time I got there, when I resolutely vouched against it… But I wanted what Tony’s view of the situation promised would come after it. I wanted the relationship – the womanhood, to be a woman in Polack’s eyes!

So I devised a plan, combined with the earlier taste of freedom I had with counting my own money. I followed a busy Mr. Howard around asking the price of different objects, articles and trinkets that I guessed in my struggling mind could have a price similar to that which I wanted but could not reveal. I did this until I could get to a reasonable margin, any prospects of a more accurate assessment prevented by the old man losing his temper and scolding me for being so clueless, declaring that as my quota of questions for the day. Mr. Howard did always seem to have a word count beyond which he had to stop speaking, as if the act was more tiresome than his repetitive housework…

With a basic idea of how much I needed, my legs trembling and an undefined mixture of horror and excitement nauseating me, I barged into Polack’s room asking for more of my money. What followed was a playful interrogation as to why the interest all of a sudden, in comparison to how indifferent I had always been when it came to my wages. I dodged them gracefully: ‘I don’t know’ and ‘It’s not your problem’ annoyed Polack enough for him to open a drawer and take out a few more bills, toss them my way and ask me to leave before he decided to teach me some manners. My stomach gave a pirouette then: the hint, and the general idea stumbling towards reality. I felt like I could be sick, and renewed doses of adrenaline hit my bloodstream that day, tormenting me for so long my mind was eventually lost, and I felt like in a hallucinated dream.

Chapter 25

A week in which I barely saw Polack – with the exception of his occasional coffee breaks – passed swiftly by.

Mysteriously to me, the very reason behind my unwilling, antisocial mood showed up before me through the restaurant’s window where I sat musing over that fact and over the unbelievable willpower it took to sustain it so.

“Tony?!” I mumbled, picking my head up from my arms.

To see him park his exaggerated motorcycle next to the curb and get down from it caused me a delicate torment – a remembrance of the contrition in my chest.

“Jane!” He smiled, revealing his broad head with the messed up hair beneath the helmet.

“What the hell are you doing here?” I couldn’t help but frown, annoyed at his stupidly cheerful disposition that knew only worsening mine.

“Good morning to you!” he composedly put the helmet over the handle, turn the key, prepared to get down. I watched him bitterly. “I’ve come because Mr. Polack said he would have the files ready by today.”

“So?”

“So… Mr. Polack said Jonah should have them by today.”

“Stop calling him ‘Mr.Polack’… That’s not even his name, you know?” I sharply interrupted, my irritation overflowing the more untroubled his smile stretched.

“It isn’t?” And it widened still, impervious to my hostility. “Well, in any case, I came to get the files, if it’s okay with him.”

I examined him leisurely again: he seemed to derive pleasure from the mere act of our socialization, regardless of what I told him. I felt like insulting him to test that stupid smile he had on, but realized I was being unreasonable, even though the very cause of my pain was the cause for that stupid grin. As his eyes peered uncomfortably back at mine, I looked around the street:

“You’re alone. Should you be alone?”

He shrugged.

“The boys are all busy. Plus, they’re always telling me I should be more pro-ac-tive.

“Whatever…” I mumbled, getting down from the high stool.

“What about you?”

“What about me?”

“How are you doing with… you know, him. They said you’re also new to the business. I was just wondering if…”

“Better than you, I suppose! At least I’m pretty sure you shouldn’t be here on your own… But whatever! Polack’s the one to tell you that…”

I disappeared behind the wall, then returned to his bothersome view when I opened the entrance door.

“…And it’s your problem, not mine, so go on ahead!” I beckoned him.

Tony stared into the corridor, his eyes not so shiny anymore…

“Uh… so you mean…” He hesitated, uncertain.

I’m not going to give you anything, if that’s what you’re expecting. You’ll have to go in and talk to Polack or to Mr. Howard about it. So? What are you waiting for?!”

His otherwise puppy eyes stared at me like I was an evil witch, causing me to smile maliciously at his crippling intimidation as he struggled to set one foot over the first step.

“And be quick about it…” I poked mischievously “I don’t have all day. I’m not a gatekeeper, you know…”

“Eh? And what are you?” He asked with a puzzled expression, visibly stalling.

“What? I’m a… hum… an assistant, you idiot! Polack’s assistant… now move!”

“Well… if you’re his assistant… Then shouldn’t you take me to him?”

I frowned harder at his cleverness, resenting him all the more:

“Yeah… I mean, no! I’m… busy…”

“I won’t be long.”

“I don’t wanna talk to him right now, alright? In fact… I wouldn’t go down there for the world!”

“Why, is he in a bad mood?”

I chuckled, taking my chance:

“Yes, absolutely! Mad as a… uhh… hatter. ”

I couldn’t tell him I had been avoiding Polack for a while – specially not why. I just couldn’t give in and go down after so long either. Tony looking frozenly ahead of himself made my heart just a tad softer, however, so I decided to compromise:

“Just… come in, will you? I’ll take you to Mr. Howard.”

“Ah!! Thank you!!”

 “Whatever. Sure. Let’s go…” I shrugged.

My temporary good humor soon dissolved back into indisposition upon meeting Mr. Howard’s engrossed gaze by the end of the kitchen. He seemed to have been watching my conversation from afar, with his outstanding subtlety – which was now employed again to pretend he weren’t. He didn’t say a word about it though. Not a single reproach or suddenly urgent request ushered me away from Tony like numberless times they did when it came to Polack. Perhaps he, too, thought this was best. Perhaps he also wanted the boy interacting with me, ‘strengthening the ties’, since keeping me away from Polack was so damn important to him! …Maybe everyone there thought that way. – I bitterly concluded, and hated Tony a little more for it. And hated Polack, too.

“Can you call Polack?” I mumbled upon getting to the kitchen, immediately dropping myself on the chair to excuse myself from the task.

Mr. Howard was having none of that, though:

“Do I look like a page to you?” he growled.

I sighed another most disinclined sigh, rubbing the sleeve of my sweater on the surface of the table. Mr. Howard kept his eyes glued to his forged reading, and Tony stood behind me, utterly uncomfortable.

“Can’t you scream for him?” I bargained.

“No.” Mr. Howard distractedly answered. I studied another possibility…

“Can I scream for him?”

“You know just how he’ll like that!” Was Mr. Howard’s passive aggressive answer.

“Well, I don’t…!” I grumbled, unwilling. “What does he have against screaming?” I sighed “Well… it’s… eleven o’clock now? He’ll totally come up for lunch in a while… I think. You can catch him then!” I turned to look at Tony.

“Jane, what the hell are you thinking?!” The old man put his magazine down “Go to Pole downstairs: If there’s someone here to see him, you must let him know immediately, you fool!”

“I know, but – Tony’s not here for anything, anyway! It’s not like Polack will let him take the files…” I bargained, resorting to my pristine motives.

“It doesn’t matter, go to him!” Mr. Howard frowned “And I don’t see what the problem here is!” he reiterated as I unwillingly picked myself up with an insolent snort.

Tony, being unaccustomed to Mr. Howard’s mostly vague intimidations using Polack’s name, seemed more troubled still.

“Alright…”

 

Defeated at last, robbed of my peevish, unilateral feud with my superior, I crawled downstairs with an uncomfortable Tony silently following me, by now pretty much aware of my unwillingness. The corridor was dark with the exception of the light escaping through the breach of the door, slightly ajar.

I gave out a long, disinclined breath before knocking: I had successfully evaded much more inevitable socializations this past week, thus efficiently avoiding my superior and specially those dreaded snake eyes of his, the mere idea of staring into them torturing me after I had been so pathetic as to cry over his lap the other day when his cluelessness broke my heart. “Stupid Tony…” I felt myself ready to mumble again – I kept finding new reasons to dislike!

“Polack!” I called, as coldly and indifferently as I could affect, when the knocking produced no answers.

But, again, no answer, and I couldn’t hear a single noise coming from in there.

“Leave it, then. I’ll come back later!” Tony declared, now suddenly eager to leave.

“No way, I came all the way down here so now you’ll have to see him! And you’d better hope he’s not sleeping!” I whispered “He gets reeeeeeally angry when he wakes up!” I whispered, needlessly torturing the boy – truth is, now I was too curious to turn back without at least stealing a glimpse inside.

“T-then just forget it!”

“Wait here!” I whispered, silencing Tony’s plead, and gently pushing the door with the sweaty tips of my fingers. Looking in from the small breach, I could see his bed was empty…

“Strange…” I whispered again, and pulled violently on my arm when Tony tried to hold me from entering.

I pushed the door open – it creaked, moaning slowly. Tony stretched his neck behind me, stealing a curious, fearful gaze inside, too.

I surveyed the room: Polack wasn’t on his bed, he wasn’t on his desk either, though a lamp was on there lighting up a cluster of papers. Suspicious! Very suspicious! – I thought, brushing my chin as I sneaked inside.

As I stepped carefully, strangely wary already, my distraction blinded me from the obvious – and, coincidentally, I considered it simultaneously to hearing an altered breath heave almost inaudibly behind me, failing to fully contain a laugh. I gasped and turned abruptly: Polack stood behind the door, smiling like a triumphant hunter, and even posing like a stalking one. Cunningly, he pushed the door shut, locking a scared, unaware Tony outside; his hands out, ready to snatch me. The distant memory of how that touch felt scaring me into a fit:

“NO!” I screamed, attempting an escape.

“Why, if it isn’t that girl who lives here!” He joked, cornering me against the wall “What’s her name again? Jane, was it? Fancy meeting you down here after so long…”

“Let me go, you buffoon!!” I tried yanking his firm arm that pressed against the wall around me, like bars in a cage. Like said bars, too, they were unyielding, my efforts yielding but a laugh.

“’Buffoon’?! Availing yourself of insults – How unbecoming… Jane! Are you trying to bite me?!” He retrieved his arm to spare them an injury and I lurched forward at the cue. Before I could celebrate freedom, they were wrapped around my waist, pulling me back midair.

“Let go now!”

 “She has gone feral, at last! All those days of silent solitude, locked away in her little cave… They have broken her mind!”

Polack snickered deviously the more I struggled, and the more trouble I gave him the more entertained his speech:

 “Where have you been, Jane? What have you been up to, my devious deserter? Why, I thought you’d never speak to me again!”

“And I won’t! Now let me go!” I screamed, transmuted with stress.

“Only if you tell me what crimes I am guilty of, harsh punisher, for I have no clue!”

To prevent my thrashing’s effectiveness, his arm tightened around me, pressing me against his body. The heat went up to my face, and I struggled now with renewed incentive – it was as if my heart’s integrity depended on escaping; and, to be fair, at least its romantic health did!

“Don’t touch me, I h-”

“Hate me? Nonsense, Jane! You blush too passionately now, and struggle too fiercely! You have missed me infernally, haven’t you?”

“Of course not! I’ve never been so happy in my life!” I screamed, repeatedly forcing his arms away as they took turns holding me.

“You blatant, lousy liar! You have come for a truce and I know so… Now come here: if you won’t tell, I shall interrogate you.” He pulled me, playfully dragging me to his chair.

“NO! No it’s nothing like that, let me go!”

“It isn’t? Convince-me, then, and do it quickly before I start…” He held me firmly; his free hand sliding up and capturing my jaw between the large fingers, pulling my head up so that his scheming, malicious eyes could meet mine: “My methods are most unorthodox…”

The skin in my cheeks burned hotter, embarrassed to an extreme, and Polack’s smile softened while his eyes narrowed in my examination.

When Tony boldly opened the door, Polack held my now frozen body against his; one broad hand securing my head upwards, at the mercy of his manipulative lips, like they were really about to seize mine. The warmth of his nearly bare chest against my back made me flustered, dizzy; and the softness of his body so casually framing mine made my blood boil with nervous anxiety. My superior was the last to notice, engaged as he was with drinking the despair in my eyes. His fell back into a solid, natural color again, widening with surprise when he heard the boy’s troubled, uncertain speech:

“Ah… It’s… let her… It’s my fault, let her go!”

“Oh!” Upon lifting them, Polack’s eyes narrowed with understanding. “Tony, lad! For shame, Jane…!” He awkwardly unhanded me, removing one arm at a time and suddenly not quite knowing how to touch – or avoid touching – me “Failing to announce we had company!”

Half dizzy and half shaky with my own body’s exaggerate responses to my superior’s much too free caresses, I stumbled back to the door stressing over concealing myself while he turned and walked to his cushions against the wall, whereupon he released the weight of his body with a heavy, distasteful sigh.

“D-don’t punish her, It was I who made her come down…” Tony, only slightly braver than a second ago, tried to justify.

“It’s nothing like that, you idiot!” I stopped by his side, tucking my hands inside my pocket and sulking.

“Pardon me, young tony! I wasn’t punishing her. It has rather been the other way around for a while now, let us not indulge a misunderstanding: My little torturer here happens to be indebted to me, and I thought this the most appropriate time to charge her. It’s nothing I would have suffered you to witness in any case, had I had the choice… But don’t trouble yourself over the nature of it, it’s best not to try and understand it: I don’t, not anymore. Now, to what do I owe the pleasure of your calling?”

Expectation hung sharp and awkward as we both turned to face a quiet, sullen Tony.

“Jane, if you know, won’t you please tell me already? I believe I have other things to tend to…”

I scowled and investigated the boy, motivating him to speak. When nothing would come out of him, I sighed, staring at his dumb expression:

“The idiot came to get Jonah’s envelope. Tell him!” I bumped his shoulder with mine to move him out of his idiotic slumber.

“Uh… yes, but… d-don’t say it like that!” He finally found his voice. “I… I came because…”

I couldn’t condemn the guy: Polack’s tranquil, lazy eyes had that supernatural property of driving one mad with anxiety sometimes.  But I caught myself wishing Tony would come to a sudden fit of speech confidence like the last time, so we could get this embarrassing meeting over at once.

 “If what Jane’s sharp tongue says is true…” he took the opportunity to rebuke, and I looked sideways “…then at least some degree of foolishness you suffer from, to have come here all alone at such a time in the day!” A mocking seriousness masked my Superior’s face as he ran out of patience “I’m not handing you anything unless your boss gives you a signed authorization, kid! – Which I’m sure he won’t, unless he’s really short on personnel. If such is the case let me know at once, and I shall make the delivery myself: I have actually been wanting to meet him.”

I watched the muscles around Tony’s forehead tense, as did the ones around his bony knuckles. Eying him from head to toe, I shook my head with a subtle disapproval I was hoping he might notice. Lucky for him, Polack was distracted gazing down at a pile of papers he had now brought over his lap and didn’t notice the boy’s hotheadedness.   

“There are much better ways to try and impress a lady than risking my precious work like that…” he lifted his pale eyes to address us “So pray, go back! And next time, just woo the girl like a normal kid would, please! Who knows if that might work?”

I abandoned my survey of Tony’s unsettled state to stare at my superior with probably the same uncontrollable hostility that altered my nervous companion.

 “And wipe that cross look off your face, kid: You don’t want to make enemies over a mere misunderstanding, do you?” Polack’s serious eye regarded him derisively from the shadow of his hat. “Come, let us shake hands and be friends: I cannot tolerate any more hostility for today…” and his lazy eyes trailed me. I blushed. “I promise I won’t even tell your boss about it. Just come back when they’re not all busy…”

A merciful – intentionally mocking – smile stretched his full lips.

“Y-yes… Yes sir!” Tony lingered, but at last answered, falling back into his proper senses.

“Now, if you won’t mind…”

Overtaken with excitement, Tony saw himself out, while I stayed behind a second or two longer to angrily regard my superior.

“Enough with the glares, Jane dear…” he warned without lifting his busy eyes to measure my stare “…You hate me, etc etc. I know! Now off with you, too: make sure that stump of a kid doesn’t break anything on his way out!”

I obeyed – the true effort lying in keeping myself from thrashing the place.

“What the fuck is your problem?!” I greeted Tony with a slap to the back of the head, accidentally taking out on him more frustration than it was due.

“Ouch!” he shrugged “I’m sorry, okay?!” He climbed on his bike and picked the helmet. Staring at his reflex on it, he began, hesitantly “I lost it… I mean, it’s my fault. You didn’t wanna go down there in the first place, and he… well… I just…” His eyebrows tensed “I didn’t want you to get hurt because of me, that’s all…”

“Well, you’re twice that idiot then!” I cursed, threatening him with another slap, from which he shrank cowardly “It’s… It’s nothing like that! He wasn’t going to… hurt me or whatever. We were just…”

I hesitated, trying to find a not too humiliating term to describe how he was just playing around with me – cooly, casually, composedly playing around while I burned and crumbled with the slightest attention or hint of a touch. Tony’s eyes surveyed me anxiously – a distant gleam of hope removing the hostile aspect he had buried somewhere in there. I frowned, angry.

“Then… H-he wasn’t going to…” His color, like mine, picked up.

“Look, I dunno!” I turned my back to him, shoving my hands into my pockets, angered by the sheer truth he misinterpreted. I refused to speak it, suspecting I liked this version better. “Just… just forget all about it and do as he says, okay?! And don’t ever show him your temper again, you idiot!” I adopted Mr. Howard’s words, even though I did not fully believe him “He’ll kill you if you do…”

 


 

Tony returned again by the end of that week, this time accompanied by Matteo, like Polack suggested. His earliest bud of self-confidence had apparently been beaten to a pulp after the last event, evinced by how anxiously – and almost fearfully – his eyes traced Polack’s languid, apathetic constitution. A single casual, warm remark from the latter, however, was enough to bring the former back around: Everyone smiled like they were close friends again, but having tasted for the first time my superior’s scornful teasing would leave one of Tony’s foot constantly out the door.

With a foot there or not, he couldn’t resist coming back a third time that same week, nonetheless: Conveniently finding me looking out the open window over the counter, on a very sunny, very hot, very specific hour between morning and noon, possibly calculated to have both me already up and Polack still sleeping, he parked his motorcycle a few meters down the road and crawled up like seeing me there was a big unexpected coincidence that needed to be acknowledged with a proper greeting. He said he was on his way to an errand and decided to stop by and chat. While I rolled my eyes with what probably resembled despise a lot, his insecure gaze stole repeatedly inside, looking to see if his was a safe approach. I myself did the same eventually, and met with Mr. Howard’s piercing, blazing gaze reproaching me from the table. Again, his gaze escaped me as soon as I noticed it, subtlety remaining his priority despite the clear displeasure. I frowned, angry, and took upon me to be as friendly a distraction to Tony as I could, for however long it might take Howard to succumb to his disfavor and come break us apart.

 …But it took him long enough. In fact… he never did come. By the time Tony was both satisfied with how lengthy and prolific our conversation was, and late to return to his work, we had already actually become friends. Friends enough, even, for him to share with me his anxiety over Polack, which clouded the hope of returning to chat some more when he had the time – and friends enough for me to bitterly reveal that Polack didn’t really care. Surprised with that, and pleased to the point of ignoring my visible distress, Tony poked on, inquiring about that day when he was here alone, and about what Polack had told him last. I clarified that what he interpreted as a jealous challenge was merely him being granted permission to befriend me as he liked, that Polack in no way opposed our interactions. I wasn’t as bold as to tell him he even encouraged it, because it hurt too much to acknowledge, and because Tony was sufficiently stimulated as it was, and sufficiently puzzled in his own right, too: I saw his eyebrows tense in opposition to the quivering smile a few times yet, taking it in, not completely satisfied and not completely faithful either, but willing enough to play along.

Free from that shadow of discomfort holding him back, Tony’s visits became routine, nearing the point of madness to a stubbornly, strangely quiet Mr. Howard, and that of inconvenience to me, if it weren’t for the forty or fifty minutes of daily conversation turning out to be an actually pleasant distraction: Tony was both figuratively and literally on the outside of the restaurant, of everything that was going on between the three of us living there, and I liked how that rendered his vision oversimplified. What puzzled him then and still puzzled him now, and I never dared cast light upon, was specially my relationship with Polack: he couldn’t wrap his mind around Polack allowing him to flirt with me because he couldn’t believe there was nothing going on between the two of us. Whenever he gathered the courage to ask directly – or nearly as directly as he could -, I made an effort to come out with a truthful yet elusive answer that never revealed the nature of my one-sided, unreciprocated devotion, nor the hopelessness of it.

There was never a doubt in him that Polack was but my cynic abuser, and I couldn’t quite contradict him because it was what Jonah’s men were all led to believe, the base of the excuse for my being in that house. And if I didn’t look or act bothered enough, he simply assumed I was a jaded victim, one that didn’t care enough to fight back or brew hatred for her tyrant. This was something we never talked about, but something that hung pretty heavy and pretty obvious on the background of everything we said, on every careful choice of word, on the background of how we both only talked about Polack now, when no one was close enough to hear – and therein lay my pleasure in seeking Tony’s company, in shredding the individual strings of my infatuated nerves by always dwelling in the object of their affection, in savoring that idea of shameless closeness Tony had of my superior and I and our profane relationship, pretending it was real… And If I told him I loved Polack but wasn’t corresponded, to what solution would his over-simplifying mind come to? I was a girl, and Polack was a man… he would naturally want me, if I confessed. To tony, there was never a doubt Polack wanted me – that was a reality for him, and pretending it was the reality for me, too, made me feel good. Sometimes his face would burn with perhaps a small flare of jealousy, but then an undecided smile would quiver on the corners of his lips because of the explicit permission he had been granted to woo me by no one other than my keeper: At those times, his eyes gleamed with excitement as if I was a toy Polack was willing to share, and Tony’s submissive admiration showed he wouldn’t mind a hand-me-down from such a powerful man. The sting this idea in his head inflicted upon my pride was no bigger than the one I’d feel if he knew that in truth my passion was unrequited, so I bore with it easily enough. Sometimes, I even liked the picture it painted in my brain: of a menacing, lustful Polack holding me dangerously close – dangerous, as Howard promised he was, as Tony feared in his awe.

Chapter 24

I paced slowly among them with a dropped head – roaming, really: aimless, bored and perhaps even a little sad -, occasionally filling my cup with soda – a single, humiliating bottle of soda Jonah’s men brought along and laughed loudly announcing it was for the ‘kids’. Polack’s desk, on that occasion, had been converted into a bar, and from behind the variety of colorful bottle glasses he peered calmly like a meditative drunk man, raising his cup to his full, now unnaturally red lips every time the subject of conversation changed, as if to call back the mirth of talking which constantly escaped him because the night was so high.

The air stunk of booze and hung heavy with loud laughter and coarse voices. A constant hymn of low, almost melancholy music played on the background from Polack’s collection, marking the small, purposeless reunion as a friendly party, if it hadn’t been clear enough from the start, when my superior issued the invitation. Jonah, however, wasn’t there, but I don’t think Polack ever expected he would come – it was just the six of us who already knew each other.

 Words like “Strengthen the ties…” and “valuable allies”, as well as even a bold “keep your enemies closer” were thrown around in good spirits as the details of the party were planned between Mr. Howard and Polack; but if the choice of vocabulary then made me suspect the latter undertook a burden for the sake of appearances, his now pleasant, peaceful mood proved he rather enjoyed it. Mr. Howard on the other hand had brought down a book with him, announcing himself utterly intolerant to such pointless fraternization, but even he gave it up to engage in a monotonous-toned conversation with their side’s bulldog, Matteo.

As we went deeper into the night, I could recognize the party toned down to an even more proper get-together. The fever of the distilled beverages having cooled down, a group of happy gentlemen emerged, talking so merrily and so nostalgically that anyone could swear they had all been friends for a very long time. It was then, however, that my bored roaming attracted the general attention – or so it did after the happiest of them, Joey, loudly pointed out I was the only being in that room refusing to socialize.

Polack’s indulgent eyes traced me sluggishly in his torpor, and he offered a sarcastic chuckling smile that cleared him of fault for my dumb behavior.

“She’s not the only one though…” Matteo added, smarter than the amount of drink he had partaken in allowed “That boy hasn’t said a word all night”.

Truthfully, Tony sipped his soda quietly in the corner of the room. I had noticed him continuously for two reasons: The first, and most urgent one, because he was the sole reason behind my aching chest. The second was that his eyes did turn my way continuously, adding to the angry bitterness I now felt for him. In my own turn, I immediately sought Polack’s eyes as if wishing a magic fit of jealousy would protect me from their insinuations. Nothing was there to see, however, but the mellow eyes half closed under heavy lids and a silent, composed smile. If my expression showed injury, he didn’t realize: He raised his glass to me and nodded his head in the form of an incentive, and the next few minutes saw Tony and I being bombarded with comments and jokes daring us to talk to each other, tormenting my shyness almost to the point of physical pain and wrenching a silly smile out of the boy’s face that he in vain tried to hide.

I sighed and walked up to him – a choir of drunk roars celebrated, then quickly fell back into parallel conversation, at least giving us the space to be. It was a delicate torment to watch his countenance assume a happier light, in contrast to Polack’s uninterested smile that wished me but good luck on my upcoming relationship. “Strengthening ties” my brain repeated, causing me to sigh more often than it was healthy.

“Tony, huh?” I rudely started, pretending not to remember his name.

“Jane.” He said, touching his plastic cup to mine.

Mr. Howard’s eyes fell heavy on me there. His constant reproach annoyed me deeper into my bitterness – it was destructive in nature: I sighed again, and suddenly had a real motivation to talk to Tony.

“They won’t let you drink either, will they?”

“I’m driving tonight!” He proudly announced, raising his chest.

I raised my eyebrows and nodded, half impressed: “Mr. Howard would kill me before letting me drive his truck.” As a matter of fact, I’d first be a corpse on the cargo area before sitting behind the wheel – I thought about saying, but decided to spare him the drama.

The party carried on, now significantly less of a torture for me since at least some distraction could be found – and some solace, too, in facing my fear, just like everyone always tells a person to do. Polack soon fell silent on his seat though, seeming suddenly very tired and thoughtful as the alcohol wore off. The glass in his hand, half full, remained there, still, for over an hour without the grace of his lips sucking the liquid inside, without even his fingers shaking the cup as was his habit to do. When inquired after his philosophical disposition and the suddenness of it, Polack blamed a headache – my much too devoted, much too infatuated eyes turned quickly to map his expression during the complaint, probably making it pretty obvious to Tony how little I cared about our conversation in comparison to my handsome superior. Polack smiled, apologizing himself and slipping back into the general mood. His lazy green pupils had turned sharp, I noticed as he glanced briefly at me through the bottom of his cup while lifting it one more time. The drink in it had certainly turned nearly warm by then, the taste had also probably changed significantly from the two ice cubes melting completely into the liquid; I expected to see him frown upon the taste, but drinking he continued as if he hadn’t noticed it. He did, however, look like he suddenly hated being there. 

Chapter 23

Polack’s “regulars” did come after all – twice they did, a different group each time, and each responding differently to my previously unknown presence.

One was friendly enough, willing enough to accept whatever improvised excuse Polack gave for keeping me; The other group treaded on suspiciously as soon as the leader spotted me, and seemed ready to offer an advice similar to that of Jonah’s men in my regard, if given the chance. Their personalities, tastes and sense of humor – and tolerance to Polack’s sense of humor – varied greatly, but by the end of the night in both occasions they were harmless.

Watching silently from my position while the meetings took place, I tried out different poses, practiced my war face, trained my reactions mentally and had more fun than the situation naturally provided. Learning I was the proud beholder of my very own form of intellect, I quickly recognized a pattern present in all the men that came through the restaurant’s door. For one to talk freely, the other – or two more, at times – had to stand guard like a bulldog: sullen, silent and dumb like one, pathologically incapable of smiling, unresponsive to any outer stimulation, and stricken by temporary paralysis, too. They were an obvious visual threat, present in the background so that one party could engage in normal non-threatening conversation without running the risk of losing their importance. Since I didn’t talk – and actually did nothing but wait on Polack’s rare instructions, really – I took the liberty to promote myself to the house’s bulldog, and assumed my position behind Polack’s desk with stiff shoulders, puffed chest, arms crossed on the back and an ugly frown ten years of orphanage practice taught to wear like an invariable mask. Somewhat innocently, I was proud of it!

I wasn’t, however, big, or any strong, neither was I bald or the very least physically intimidating like those men I mimicked – now my profession colleagues. But weren’t snakes a bunch of physically pathetic, limbless worms; and weren’t they feared and respected by many a big predator? I’m sure their secret lay in their big talk, with all the hissing and the grimacing, and it was with that motivation that I denied politeness, replied to no greeting, shrunk my hand backwards whenever one offered to shake it, and resisted betraying emotions even when Polack turned his eyes towards me, laughed and shook his head with playful rebuke before returning his attention to his serious guests. But faithful I remained in my menacing pose regardless of my benefactor’s disdainful mockery. Benefactor… I liked that word! Someone there had used it to describe Polack’s relationship with me after his overly simplified explanation. I had read enough of the bible in my time to know some of the Latin in it, and with a warmed up heart and a blushing cheek I accepted the tittle as true, took it into my chest and repeated it in my mind a few content times, over and over… Benefactor… he did do me good!

 

Like Tony had anticipated, Jonah’s men came by the end of that week. They brought some helpful information that assisted in putting the puzzle pieces in their rightful place, as well as some new intel on unrelated subjects – to make up for the stolen files, they said. Polack was more than grateful for it, and they all stayed a little longer than usual discussing the progress of the hired service – in a very friendly, very relaxed way, I took the liberty to observe. At some high point in the night, the conversation turned into the typical insecurities and mistakes committed by a rookie, in which point even their side’s bulldog landed his coarse, thunderous voice to partake in a few laughs in what I believe was Tony’s expense. Soon it would be mine, too – I, too, was a rookie, and I too was laughed upon after a few merry descriptions Polack gave on my initial apprehensions and pointless rage. My ears burned with embarrassment and anger then, and I almost felt like creeping closer to Tony, who effectively hid his emotions under the shadowy corner of the room… But even through that anger, it felt good to be laughed at. It felt like I really belonged!

The general mirth eventually cooled away with the parting of the night, and the meeting was over. Polack had a smile for me, waiting until we had enough privacy. Mr. Howard lingered long enough to hear him say:

“I believe the boy suffers from some sort of dementia, Jane – some masochistic impulse that compels him to repeatedly seek those scornful eyes of yours, regardless of how many times they sting him into further rejection!”

“What the hell are you going on about?” I impatiently replied.

“Why, I’m talking of the boy that was just here a minute ago – Tony! Isn’t that his name?” his eyes narrowed. I felt like I was being tested…

“T-tony? I don’t know, is that it?!”

“Don’t tell me you didn’t notice him, Jane! Do you call that a good job? Where has your mind been all this time?!”

Touché! I blushed denial away: Tony it was, and I saw him alright… Admitting it seemed a better alternative to having my previous thoughts scrutinized.

“He is sixteen or so… No! Seventeen. And, Jane, he couldn’t take his eyes off you!”

“Bullshit!” I crossed my arms and turned away.

“He’s either an idiot or the contrary – a brave knight, maybe? Must be one of the two to attempt melting your hard little heart! If I remember correctly, he’s just as new to this business as you are…”

“And what the hell do I have to do with that?!” I harshly replied, feeling, however, my head begin to burn with anxiety.

“Why, there must be something the two of you have in common, I suppose! Something to talk about…”

“Are you encouraging her, Pole?” Mr. Howard threatened from his distant corner.

Polack sighed, dejected by the remembrance that we weren’t so alone.

“Absolutely not!” He maneuvered, throwing a keen smile my way “Miss Jane here knows there is no place for this type of fooling around under my supervision. Don’t you, Jane?”

Though clearly sarcastic, his statement came out rigid enough to put me at  doubt: How much of it was to throw Mr. Howard off, and how much was the real intention behind that subtle interrogation overflowing his cup of indifferent sarcasm?

“Actually…” he added before snatching an answer out of me “Only now that I hear the fear in your voice is that I realize the danger I’m in! Mr. Howard, you are a genius! What if the brat decides he wants me dead for desiring what belongs to me? Would you go with him then, Jane? Tell me at least this scanty little beam of loyalty I deserve! I haven’t angered you to the point of complete abandonment yet, have I?”

Mr. Howard’s eyes turned abruptly, suspiciously my way, so sharp I thought he might decide to really throw me out of the house. I hardened, facing him with an awkward, confused expression.

“But don’t you worry! You shouldn’t trouble your mind either, Mr. Howard, you prying bastard! I have no intentions of encouraging the girl, I merely…” His lazy green eyes turned to ogle me in search for the words. I flinched subconsciously, Polack smirked “…merely like to tease her for the sake of it. This is a mad kitty I have here, and yet I haven’t seen her flash me those sharp claws in so long, I’m going mad! Am I, too, compelled by some sort of masochism?” he teased, and the more uncomfortable I grew, the more intense his eyes pressed.

“Looks more like the other way around from where I’m standing…” Mr. Howard mutely, unwillingly said in my defense. Upon being accused with Sadism, at last Polack’s shadowy pair of eyes left me. I breathed.

“It’s either one or the other, I can’t seem to decide!” He sighed, mildly annoyed “But… go up, old man! It’s late, I’m tired and you deny me the little fun I can find in playing with Jane! And you will stay for a minute more or two, won’t you, dear? I’d like you to fill my cup one more time before I go to bed – somehow, the drink tastes better when you do it! And before you decide to answer me with that enmity you’ve been building up inside with the old man’s help, remember this much: You work for me…” he playfully threatened when Mr. Howard urged me to ignore the request by motioning that I followed him out. I cast him an apologetic glare and, without a choice, stayed behind.

Once we were alone, Polack’s eyes turned mild again – they silently, harmlessly watched as I poured whisky into his cup. The beverage curled up inside, then slowly waved into a flat position where it reflected my stern expression. The look I had then, compared to Polack’s open, soft countenance, made me self-conscious. I put the bottle away in its place and moved to the wall, supporting my weight against it and watching my superior, waiting on his patience.

In his turn, Polack waited long enough to guarantee we wouldn’t be heard by Mr. Howard still climbing the stairs; then he started with a sluggish, lazy tone that seemed completely absorbed with enjoying his drink, and only a little with igniting conversation:

“Jane, you didn’t tell me what you thought of that day I took you out…”

“It was… pleasant.” I replied, the choice of word – the word I thought I had so carefully chosen, that was neither ‘okay’ nor ‘perfect!’, as I would have preferred – made me blush, and I wish I could have gone back and switched it for something less passionate.

“Did you have fun?”

“Yes”. I surveyed him – his expression had changed.

“Well, get closer: There is no one else in here, no point in playing the guard dog now…” and he laughed delicately, poking fun at my posture.

I did as he said, approaching his desk until he looked satisfied – I fear he would have done nothing but stare, hadn’t I, uncomfortable as I was with being looked on so directly now that we were this close, decided to sit myself right where I stood, on the warm carpet, resting my back against the walnut desk where he couldn’t see more than perhaps the top of my head, and even then only if he leaned forward.

I heard him pick up his cup, swirl the golden liquid inside.

“Mr. Howard…” he sighed fondly “He always has the meanest things to say, doesn’t he?”

I was under the impression that he soliloquized, so I didn’t answer just yet, waiting for the unwrapping of his musings.

“He says you’ll really hate me one day, Jane… That you will be the death of me! I can’t deny that I often see the potential in you… it just so happens to make me more curious than scared!”

When Polack spoke of grim things under such a light tone, I classified him as being disturbed by an affliction he only occasionally shared through subtle hints. In times like those, he almost seemed to enjoy it, to be fair: the sadness, or whatever it was that made his thoughts bleak. His smiles turned more comical then, they came out more genuine, as if torture was entertaining when compared to his usual boredom. I was glad I couldn’t see him from where I sat…

“If you wanted to go back to the orphanage, Jane…” he started, then paused to smile at himself. My heartbeat picked up. “The very thought of it makes me laugh, so ludicrous the intention behind it but… To be completely honest, I think I would let you return. You put me in a serene, pleasant mood! Have I ever told you so directly?”

I was about to answer a suspicious “no”, undecided if I thought his revelation positive or negative, when he replied in my turn:

“Well, you do! It’s funny: I trust you, Jane!” His voice smiled, wondered.

I gasped, slightly overwhelmed by the feeling in my chest. My heart, which had been about to panic, kept the pace, but it seemed to assume a bright, incandescent warmth.

“I don’t know how, or why…” Polack carried on in his unusual lull “But I’d trust you enough to let you go, if you really wanted to… I trust you wouldn’t do a thing to harm me, even though you’d be far from my reach. Do you think I’m right or wrong in doing so?”

Though Polack directed me, it felt like I had just walked on him as he read a secret journal. It made breaking the silence on my part feel awkward, therefore hesitant…

“There’s a smart girl!” he complimented as I was about to open my mouth “Not compromising yourself with an answer. After all, I have told you, haven’t I? You shouldn’t trust specially those who say ‘trust me’, they tend to have an agenda…”

Protected under the shadow of the furniture, I started to anxiously entwine my fingers together – his point seemed, somehow, harder to anticipate than in previous times.

“Jane, I feel old…” I heard him smile as if it was a fun, brand new realization “I saw how that boy looked at you, and it filled me with one of those senior sentimentalities, like my heart had just expanded a little…”

I stirred in my position, shifting the weight. My bones were too agitated to remain so still in my troubled condition of good listener.

“How old are you now, Jane?” He asked peacefully.

I didn’t know where he tried to get; what he slowly, hesitantly confessed, or what he was about to ask of me; but my chest began to heave, grow – crack slowly, even – as if opening up to a swelling heart. My hands trembled, the entire body agreed upon interpreting his interest on the subject before pessimistic insecurities – or rather a realistic filter – could tone down my response. A pleasant, irresistible, hot and fundamentally terrifying sensation gripped me to the desk. I braced myself as if my torso was really about to explode. And what was that climbing my throat and tightening all the muscles on its way? What was it I wanted to say? …Be the first to say?

“Seventeen?”

“Y-yes…” Was all I could utter through my shaky excitement.

“So young!” he chuckled charmingly, mildly. “Thirteen  years younger than me in a couple of weeks! And still, I…”

What was he going to say? Why had he paused? Should I be hiding, so quiet and so coward? Should I not get up like my trembling urged me to do and tell him that whatever it was he wanted to say… that whatever it was he thought he felt… I definitely felt it, too?! My extremities burned in feverish agitation. “Get up, Jane!” In vain adrenaline commanded “get up and tell him it doesn’t matter – nothing does!”

“Still…” Polack resumed after a long pause, followed by another one in which he smiled contently, tranquilly to himself. I could visualize his lips stretching up graciously, unclouded through the sardonic expression. How desperately I thought about them now! “I feel like I must have you around me. Near. Not necessarily at arm’s reach if it must be so, but at least close enough for me to know what you’re up to. Knowing you are constantly under my roof gives me such peace. I feel like I want to please you, amuse you, Jane, as much as you amuse me, so that you don’t decide to leave me anytime soon.”

I put both hands over my chest – the aching it produced demanded such aid with vital urgency. I felt it ready to burst open; excessive, confusing emotions tearing apart the fibers of my feverish constitution.

“And I would like you to keep me informed on how to best do so, okay?”

I shook and suffered in my scorching, hysterical bliss, all in silence.

“Jane? Answer me.” Polack demanded softly, tranquilly, basking in a completely different atmosphere.

“Y-yes!”

“Very well!” his smile widened.

Another pause ensued – and this time I struggled with my breath. Fast as it was, it failed to supply me with enough oxygen, and I dreaded being heard…

“I must strike you as odd today – odder than usual, at least! That’s because I’ve received an odd suggestion, and I’ve been feeling so ever since. A slap to awaken a distracted man and open his eyes, if you will. Though I rather enjoyed that slumber…”

I frowned, falling back from my high state to pay closer attention as Polack’s tone shifted.

“Joey suggested I take it easy on you. You’re too stiff, he says, you’re just a kid, he says… And so is that boy of his.” He stopped to chuckle  “He asked me to give you permission – did you hear that, Jane? Permission… As if I was really your master! In any case, he wanted me to ‘let up’ on you – the two of you. Let the kids talk to each other, exchange experiences, make friends and whatnot…  Now, that boy…” he stopped, apparently to look for adequate adjectives.

I wanted to get up and tell him it didn’t matter – to urge him to go back to what he said before, to forget anyone else existed, to say only ‘I’ and ‘Jane’ again… Him, and that cowardly, succumbing me!

“That boy knows how to make me feel old! I can see him there just as clearly as Joey does, dedicating thoughts to you in his confused teenage head. And he is a rather handsome fellow, isn’t he?”

Was that a test? How did we even get to that subject? I squinted my eyebrows together, only then noticing I was starting to feel angry. A subtle sting moved my eyes…

“I sympathize with him, Jane. As much as I sympathize with you! Both inspire in me some sort of fraternal condescension that strikes me at intervals. I would be very insulted if you saw me as such a monster as those people think I am… It was very insulting to be taken as one: the villain upon my little Jane! I am not the cause of your stiff, antisocial, rejecting nature, am I, dear? Why, how could I?” he chuckled indifferently “I have been the greatest victim of it!”

I looked over my shoulder, facing the shiny, polished wood of the desk, hoping it would give me some clearance on what Polack looked like or meant then. Something felt off – my beating heart announced, dreading an imminent fall from the high place his previous words put me in…

“I mean to say that I shall not oppose you…” he declared at last with a triumphant, proud yet smooth tone, rejoicing, so it seems, in his great generosity “That I won’t get on your way, Jane, if you decide you want to exchange glances with that boy… So… don’t fear me.”

Fear him? My eyes began to seriously sting… My chest, where the heart beat hot, violently, as if surrounded by loose chains, began to pant in an uncompassed rhythm – a trembling, cold, afflicting one that progressed and threatened to escape my control. A new awareness – cold reality made my veins start to freeze their way up to the core…

Do talk to him, Jane: you have nothing to lose! In fact, it might even strengthen our ties with Jonah. Don’t mind anything I said in Mr. Howard’s presence, and don’t mind him either – do only what you like. Make your heart content! What do you say?”

My jaw fell open to let out a deaf, short ‘oh!’, one that really welcomed the black fluid in. My eyes… I couldn’t see clearly now. Everything was dim, everything was wet…

“We might want to keep this conversation a secret from the old man nonetheless, okay? Do you agree?”

Yes… I agreed! Yes, I was ready to go against Mr. Howard, to defy his warnings, to hide a secret from him – one I’d hold dearly, like an intimate treasure nothing in the world could compare to! – or so told my bleeding heart. But this secret was not what I hoped for! It wasn’t bright, it wasn’t warm, it didn’t make me feel happy…

“Jane, you are so quiet down there! Come, show me your face! Let me try to understand it – my brain will melt if I ever do, won’t it, darling?”

There it was, manifested at last, the effects of the black cold liquid of despair finally reaching my heart, swirling around my gasping chest. There it was a dark desolation taking me over, freezing my loose, lethargic limbs, making me come undone!

“Jane? Do you hate me?” Polack smiled indifferently.

I did. I did hate him there! – I shrieked and screamed internally, trembling, taking the sleeves of my sweater to my eyes and noticing them drenching wet. I cried, sobbed, suffocated, all quietly …

“Well, what do we have here?” I heard him talk over my ears – the damned cat had sneaked around the desk, unheard.

I squeezed my face against my sleeves even harder, hiding my state. Polack smiled – I could tell by his voice – He didn’t do so maliciously however, but with the strange innocence of a child that wasn’t taught how to properly behave in such a curious case.

“Come here, Jane…” he demanded, dropping down on the carpet and crawling next to me, surrounding me in his arms “Don’t be like that now!”

Having adjusted himself, he laid my listless body over his lap and placed his hand on my head, fondling my hair lightly…

“I won’t ask you what you are hiding there under your hands, I don’t know if you are crying or not – Have I done something to offend you?”

I didn’t answer. I endeavored, too, to conceal my trembling, to quiet down the sobbing breath. In response to that, Polack sighed: however puzzled he was, he was still decent enough to respect my shameful concealment.

“Life…” he breathed out at length. Noticing I wouldn’t talk to him, he fell into a more tranquil, guiltless state “…It’s a strange trip, isn’t it? Specially for a girl in your age, I assume…”

Fascination marked his tone at first, but it subsided into a more mature, thoughtful wonder the more sighs he gave. His hand brushed me on, softly and sweetly… Sweetly indeed. It was sweet of him to hold me like that, and sweet of him to respect me as he did, to ask no questions. It only made my heart hurt all the more…

“What do you know about it?” I bitterly sobbed in a whim, burying my face on the soft, cold silk of his pants so soon it had come out.

His fingers chose a specific lock of my hair, entwined around it, played and pulled as if he was absorbed:

“About life, you mean?” He calmly, confidently replied, then smiled and mused in what felt a lot like the gladness of nostalgia.

I felt silly then: Of course he knew much more than I did. Of course he had had darker woes in his time… I should be embarrassed of myself, of my little fit, of the vague reason I found for feeling suicidal sadness crumble my chest: after all, what had happened to me of so awful apart from being an orphan? “Pathetic Jane!” I would have punched myself if my hands weren’t too busy hiding my eyes in a now even sorer shame.

 “Well, Jane…” he sighed “Look at me: I have built my life around safety, steadiness, absolute control over my own destiny and every circumstance leading up to it. I have freely, unremorsefully taken whatever it was I felt I needed, all to get where I am now – a comfortable position from where I can oversee how everything is going to play out for me. It was a long road here… A long road to get where I am, and build what I’ve built, so you can guess how much I prize the constancy of my situation – how much I shun surprises, and do my utmost to elude them…” A pause followed in which the warm tips of his fingers worked on pulling the hair from my forehead and revealing as much of my face as was possible for him. The result was a warm, affectionate, muffled snicker that shook his body under me “…and yet here I am, petting a girl on my lap whose swinging mood I can never understand, whose mere presence promises to put everything I’ve worked for at risk, who swears she detests me, and from whom I can’t see myself separated!”

The warmth of his hand grew as it rested over the side of my head, half covering my ears. “Jane, if you knew who your boss really is, you’d probably feel fear…”  he stroked me more firmly then “I enjoy being alone, for I despise people most of the time – but you’ll agree with me that there isn’t much to like about them, won’t you? The very first time we met I could see it in your eyes that you did… After all, your own mother left you! And that’s how they are, my dear: selfish, scheming, secretive, conceited… I dare say you yourself are many of those things, too: many of the things I detest the most. A little bag of raw, aimless hostility fed by self-pity alone, one that takes pride in its own degradation. And then there’s that ungrateful, ungrateful drama of young years darkening your every thought and clouding your perception, a burning ego bloating itself when it’s least needed, completely destitute of any true self esteem. All of that defiance, insubordination, arrogance and self-importance… Yes, Jane…” he caressed me affectionately, his voice growing warmer, smoother as it cruelly enumerated all of my flaws “I would have despised you from the start, had you been anyone else. But you are you, my fierce little thing, and that is all the explanation I can give. And while you tried so hard to earn my utter contempt – a very irresponsible decision in retrospect, I must warn you -, you’ve only managed to fascinate me. It is yet one of my favorite hobbies: trying to understand why. I have a theory, dear…” his voice drew closer as he bent forward over me, the back of his fingers now brushing lightly against my cheek “Do you want to hear it? It is that none of your defects were concealed under a vacant, sold smile. I didn’t have to resort to intelligence to find them; none of my bored mental faculties exercised on behalf of the conclusion that you were a troubled child. It’s almost disappointing! Everything you are, Jane, you wear on that angry scowl you have no scruples in showing anyone that crosses your path, self-preservation be damned! And out of so much detesting it, I adore it now: I love what I would otherwise love to tear apart.”

 Polack’s words had little effect to disturb me, so smooth, so glad was his voice. I closed my eyes, the tense muscles of my lids relaxing… And slowly I retrieved my hands. Polack smiled more happily, his warm fingertips captured the clumsy tears stuck between my lashes.

“Jane, you are so… bare!” he murmured softly through the air, getting to a conclusion “It fascinates me!”

He liked me – I sighed. He hated everything about me, but liked me: At least that’s what I understood from the revelation he made me that day, along with an unexplained interest in my romantic success with an Italian boy that came to his office. Those were two very important discoveries to be found in the same night, two equally unexpected: that I fascinated him, that he wanted me to get a boyfriend. It was up to me to understand how the two connected, and to decide if the pain of one could be neutralized by the comfort of the other. If I could be happy with the first while ignoring the latter.

…but I couldn’t! My heart was only sad!

Chapter 22

Had I ever felt so strong a conflict between negative and positive, both waging war inside my chest? I mused on it as I stubbornly scrutinized the fascinating complexity of the plain black asphalt beneath my feet on our uphill way. The trees shook with a cold dusk breeze, more vigorously than in the joyous hours of morning, sending occasional spectacles of dry, sighing dead leaves against us. They tempted me to look up and mark their descent against the gold-streaked sky that darkened progressively into night, but I didn’t dare: That had been the happiest day of my life! – and what a thrill on my chest to admit it! It felt like the death of pride, the death of something very strong and very crucial to my personality, but what a pleasant death it was! I couldn’t look up because I didn’t want to risk getting caught in Polack’s eyes then, for they would probably influence a silly smile onto my lips, and then I’d have quite some explaining to do…

“Jane…” Polack distractedly called from his aloof height.

If I hadn’t been paying enough attention, I’d have thought it a product of my imagination, so little did he move from his reverie to address me. But at length his lips stretched calmly:

“It’s getting late. Cold, too. Mr. Howard will be mad…”

I hesitantly examined Polack’s hands and blushed at my own intent – against my judgment, they were safely tucked inside his jeans pockets, and not about to forcefully shelter my cold fingers in their warm palms to rush me upwards.

“And speaking of Mr. Howard…” His eyes sharpened, narrowed, but did not turn my way just yet “…what he has said about me – for I know, Jane…” he sternly interrupted with a handsome smile when I opened my mouth to protest “…that you two talk of little else in my absence.”

I frowned, mostly annoyed by the confrontation, kicking a stone off my path:

“I know, I know… ‘Don’t listen to him’”.

“Much on the contrary, my pretty little lady:” Polack chuckled, returning his eyes to the steep road before us. I watched his enigmatic expression as it curled up with malice “Believe his every word!”

I frowned in confusion hard enough for a headache to start, and Polack marched on as tranquilly as he could – Even more purely his smile stretched in sheer contemplation of the naked sky now, as if his conscience was clearer, enabling him to freely enjoy little pleasures like that.

I, on the other hand, mused uncomfortably all the way, for what could I make out of a warning coming from the very person I adored as I was just about to surrender? – Cause, after the pleasant day I had, I was more than willing to surrender my heart to the aching favoritism it had placed on my mysterious superior’s persona, Mr. Howard be damned!

“Look lively!” He called me back, with little effect “We’re almost there now!”

 


 

Dusky sky had already changed into a late gown of Pale Navy as we reached the front of the house. The crickets chirped invisibly in the bushes, waking all the little bugs around to their night life. We barely made out, in the undecided darkness, the subtle movement of a shady volume leaning against the corner of the wall, sheltered in double invisibility by the bamboos and the tall divider.

Polack sighed tiredly as he took out a key and met it with the door, calmly enough for me to think I had been the only one to notice Tony’s short presence.  But with humorous meekness, Polack acknowledged him before stepping inside:

“You’ve a long way to go in your sneaking efforts if that was your intention, kid! I’d start by going without the smoke…”

The barely distinguishable face sucked harder on the cigarette, lighting its tip ablaze and casting a faint glow on the young man’s broad features. He coughed lightly however, and punched his own chest to prevent it from beckoning a fit as he walked into the light escaping the open door. His hair was slicked back with gel and he wore a black leather jacket over a red t-shirt. His eyes surveyed me briefly, but seemed to decide on not offering a greeting – instead they turned to Polack and grew visibly submissive in what I’d even call admiration, if his anxiety didn’t give away mingled hints of fear and envy.

“Mr. Jonah sent me!” he answered directly.

“How thoughtful of him! And what for?” Though constantly mocking, Polack’s tone bore no disrespect.

“Ahm… he said he’ll help you!” Tony looked uncomfortably on, trying to arrest Polack’s attention as the latter stepped inside. “Said he’ll… I mean…” His shoulders stiffened and his voice ascertained itself, probably realizing Polack wouldn’t listen otherwise “I was sent to inform you that Mr. Jonah is sending his men by the end of the week for a meeting. We have come across some relevant information…” his eyes turned to me, as if seeking my approval on the progress of his speech “…that he thinks might be of use to you.”

“Is that so?” Polack turned at last, towering over the boy “That is very considerate! Is it something on my stolen files?”

Tony’s eyes cowered. Again, they briefly turned my way as he embarrassedly declared:

“I’m… I’m afraid I can’t discuss that!”

“You can’t now, can you? Well…” he sighed, straightening his back and taking a step behind.

Tony breathed more freely now, his nerves too flaccid to hide how intimidated Polack’s closeness made him.

 “In that case, be on your way now: Make sure you transmit my appreciation to your boss, and tell the boys I’ll be waiting for them on Friday. Come in, Jane! And thank you, Tony!”

The boy smiled quickly, as if his now accomplished mission had been a mighty hard one, or as if he had received a compliment from a high authority. Now, more confidently, he nodded me a goodbye. The stupid cigarette he struggled with just as hard as I did that night on the sidewalk, hanging idiotically from his mouth, annoyed me – it was clearly meant to impress, combined with the ‘bad boy’ look he seemed to have put a lot of effort on. I boldly yanked it with the tip of my fingers and threw them down on the curb, quickly looking back ahead and fearing Polack would have witnessed the act and interpreted it as close friendliness. Luckily, he was oblivious, but Tony smiled in a more silly way than before.

Chapter 21

When I joined Polack outside on the sidewalk he looked like another man entirely, and we both now marched unhurriedly down the hill.

Whether it was the coffee, or the long bath, or the sheer excitement of doing something different, I didn’t know, but he looked more carefree, fresher still under the gentle wind shaking the unkempt locks of his fuzzy hair. I shrunk deeper between my shoulders whenever I cast an accidental glimpse at him, inspired by a newfound shyness his clear looks brought to light.

My superior wore a moss green Polo shirt, the collar hanging loosely, completely unbuttoned, over a grey long-sleeved cotton t-shirt that clung to his slim contours, pronouncing the soft muscles of his arms and the round, large bones of his wrists. Over his legs he wore a dark pair of jeans, slightly faded around the thighs, and a brown sports shoe on his feet. Whenever the sun escaped the soft clouds drifting slowly through the sky, he’d lift his hand to shield his squinted eyes, and their irises would shine nearly into transparency under it. I watched this, his tranquil pace and his unpretentious smile from a safe, silent distance, and my head soon began to feel foggy.

Just down that hill Gloen’s plaza lay in charming peacefulness – a mere thirty minute pleasant walk took us there. It had quite an artistic air to it, one that I couldn’t exactly discern in between my inexperienced eye and the varied decoration. Plenty of well-dressed people walked about, but so did children in dirty clothes and more simple folk. A bunch of small businesses of different sorts – restaurants, cafés, toy stores, markets – encircled a central square of gleaming green bushes and white flower beds, iron benches and water fountains. Humble and chic blended handsomely on the housings’ small, carefully crafted proportions, on the low lamp posts of old fashion and the cutely carved sculptures here and there framing the square. Down there the sun shone quietly from a comfortable distance, casting direct light only in a few selected spots as if to respect the freshness of the city’s air. I breathed from it with gusto, and maybe even with an awkward smile on the face, drawing inevitable comparisons between that small heaven and the cold mountains of dull colors surrounding the orphanage.

I followed Polack’s relaxed, slender figure as diligently as I could, though that isn’t to say much. Turning my neck to take everything in, I bumped onto his back when he came to a sudden stop before a small ice-cream machine in front of a shop. I glared at the flavors poster like a starving child.

 “Jane, you know what parents say about ice cream and other sweet pleasures of life, don’t you?” Polack turned to ask, pulling me from my dazzled contemplation “Oh!” – he reiterated after meeting my blank expression “Well, you don’t – I’ll tell you anyway! They say it’s not healthy having them before a main course. At least that’s what Mr. Howard would scold me with, if he knew I’d given you one. Should I trust a sneaky, smart little thing like you, Jane, to make a secret out of everything that happens in our little date?” He winked.

My previously distracted nerve took the blow with null defenses – I blushed violently and looked away, giving Polack the pleasure of a smooth laugh. “Ah, never mind it: I’ll buy us a couple of drinks for now… Your face says you’ll give everything away!”

As Polack waited for an attendant, I, having my embarrassed back stubbornly turned at him, wandered off, exploring the small distance around the ice cream shop. I leisurely surveyed the front of accessory stores and boutiques, but only stopped at an antique shop next to where Polack stood, holding the display window with open palms to allow my curiosity full release onto the strange little trinkets on display.

I measured every item in view, walking from one side to the other and back again to steal a glimpse of the ones in the back, until Polack jokingly scolded me:

“Don’t just stare inside like a dog, Jane: If you like it, go in!”

Excited with my superior’s leave, as if I had ever depended on it to do anything, I sprinted to the door… One sore look my way was enough to stop me though, and make me decide I had seen enough from the outside. I returned to Polack’s side, where I supported my back against a light post and tucked my hands in my pockets, sulking.

“Now what has ruined it for you?!” Polack spot-on asked as he eventually turned to go, holding two juice cups in his hands. “If you wanted to have an ice-cream so bad, you should have told me so, Jane: I’d be delighted by your defying spirit! You would have to take that secrecy oath however, and then how much more daring would that make me?” Noticing no effect on my grimace, Polack teased on “That’s just not how my cowardly – submissive, even! – little helper works though, is it?”

“Shut up!!” I shrugged, escaping his provoking mirth and walking ahead of him.

With a chuckle he followed my stray march, but only for a few meters before stopping to say:

“Jane, weren’t you going to check the antique shop?”

“I don’t want to anymore!” I mumbled.

“And why on earth not?!” He chased me down with laughing impatience, shoving one cup in my hand and holding my shoulders to a full stop.

“The shopkeeper was looking at me funny…” I grumbled unwillingly after Polack bowed down to search my eyes for the truth “He thinks I’m gonna break something… cause him trouble…”

“Nonsense, Jane! He was staring because he’s never seen such a pretty girl around here…”

“Exactly!” I added with renewed bitterness “He knows I’m not from here. He knows I’m from…”

No one knows you’re from the orphanage, my little troublemaker! Or have you been here before? Do you recognize this place at all?”

“I’ve never been here!” I answered with certainty, noticing, however, that Polack believed otherwise.

“Are you sure?!” His eyes narrowed, and his voice tone was a specially intimidating, specially careful one at that. I frowned, truly having no idea of what he meant:

“Yeah, I’m sure!”

“Never mind it then – you are starting to sweat, when there’s such a cool breeze out here!” Closing his eyes to scare away a trace of contrariety, Polack smiled again “Today is my turn to entertain you, as I have promised, for how much those tormented eyes of yours have amused me, so I won’t torture you into telling me the truth. I apologize: It was a joke, Jane! Don’t look so grave! Drink your juice!”

“H-hey, I’m not lying!” I insisted, following an ignoring Polack.

“And, Jane, I know you have professed to hate me a billion times before, but try to at least pretend you enjoy your time with me, please? Here, take my hand, or people will start thinking I have kidnapped you or something…”

Polack indifferently stood, holding out his open palm for me. I stared at it, feeling the heat go up to my cheeks, and answered after a brief delay, the heart taking the brain’s front: My fingers entwined with his, his hand clasped around mine. My heart beat fast and my lips twitched, wanting to burst into idiotic smiles.

“There’s a good girl! Now come, let’s go inside!” Polack’s warm fingers tightened around mine, increasing the trap’s efficiency as he pulled – or rather dragged – me into the antique shop.

“You’ll see how much of a respected man your superior is: No one will oppose your entrance if I’m around!”

I sighed shyly, crossed, annoyed… but so soft was his touch!!

My entrance was, indeed, not hindered – and I firmly believe it would have been, had he not been there. And where I walked with my shoulders and head dropping, looking suspiciously to the side, expecting to be kicked out, I received but a polite nod from the man behind the counter, the same that had cast such a bitter glance towards me the first time I ventured near the inappropriate ‘welcome’ rug.

“Fuck him though, I will not answer!” I boldly thought to myself.

Polack pulled me swiftly through narrow aisles, shadowed by tall shelves, until we were sufficiently far from the counter, where I could feel comfortable again.

“Now, Jane…” he laughed, as if I was really tremendously silly “No one’s coming after you, see?”

Our fingers came undone, I sighed and turned to the shelves, losing my eyes to the varied merchandise on display while slowly walking. Polack followed me with his peaceful, bored smile, occasionally brushing his fingers against an item, but generally not paying attention to them.

I stealthily glared sideways now and then to mark the look on his face, and blushed nervously when I noticed his lack of interest: He merely abided me to do as I pleased. But why? Did he like me like that? Were we really on a date, and was he trying to make me happy? I startled back to reality, noticing I hadn’t really seen anything but my own thoughts through the last few shelves we passed by, when Polack calmly declared:

“Won’t you choose something you like, Jane?”

“I’m fine!” I promptly answered, involuntarily picking up my pace.

“You could get something to your room, for instance – to help me with the decoration. What do you say?”

“I don’t have the money!” I moaned a random excuse.

“Jane, that is, first of all, a blatant lie: I’m your boss and I know just how much money you have! But that is not even what I’m talking about, silly: When someone offers you something, they’re the ones paying – Those eyes!” Polack burst into an irresistible chuckle when I turned to face him “A gift, Jane! Have you never received one? Pick something, come on: it’s on me!”

Polack’s gentle, affectionate, honest smile brought all those questions back again. I felt a shyness attack take over, and walked quickly around the shelves to the other side, to the dark end of the store, there where the lights just barely reached us. Polack chuckled on, sneakily following me. Before I had walked under a lamp again, he grabbed me by the wrist and pulled me back to the deep part of the store, pushing me against the junction between two shelves.

Everything that was crystal shook lightly, producing a full, rich noise of delicate glass singing everywhere at once. I scowled, rebuking my superior and immediately looking back between the shelves to see the shopkeeper stretch his neck in search for us, probably wondering what we were up to. And what were we up to? Realization hit me, and I froze. Polack held my cheeks in his fingers and pulled my face back to his view – supporting an arm over my head, he leaned closer, pinning me against the shelves with a mean, ill-intentioned smile.

“It is, to this day, the only effective way I have found of making you listen, dear…” he murmured seductively, hiding his head on my neck to whisper on my ears:

“Jane, I have one last test for you…” he came back to view, piercing my eyes with that pale, bored pair of his. My breathing heaved, compromised.

“If you fail to obey, then I’ll have to do something about you. A punishment, if you will!” his smile leaned closer, threatening, and stretched further at every sight of my reaction. I felt my inside organs detach from the walls around them, gaining way for a cold air to breeze through. A cold air that gave my throat a weird lump.

The air cracked, then turned into hot again when Polack’s hand surrounded and squeezed my waist. His lips came closer to my ear again after a long minute of staring, I felt their warm, humid propriety as they brushed against my lobe:

“I’ll need you to use those tiny hands of yours, Jane. I want you to steal for me…”

My eyes grew wide with surprise.

Noticing a suspicious approach, Polack clumsily pulled me closer to him, I crashed against his chest.

“But you can’t fail…” He kissed me quickly on the forehead, for show, and, letting go, he greeted the clerk with a smile and pulled him away with a question on how old were the golden lamps by the entrance.

I breathed out – the task at hand making my heart beat faster, more desperately, more bleakly than Polack’s absurd closeness in the dark aisles. I walked between the shelves, tracing their distance. My legs began to tremble profusely, and I felt nauseous too: Mr. Howard was right, Polack was a crazy man! He was going to get us both in jail!

…But then again, weren’t his crimes much worse than petty theft? Who was I to frown and be shocked only now? I was such a hypocrite…! I sweated and scolded myself, and maybe punched myself in the head a few times, before reaching out my trembling, nervous, hesitant hand to steal. The chosen victim was a copper fairy that strangely laughed at my cares from her fantasy world. It now seemed to assume a wicked smile very similar to Polack’s… very similar to me! A skinny little imp girl no one wanted, no one should trust… one that now, at last, took to stealing! I quickly snatched on her indecent promise of a thug’s life, and felt only doom! But the deed was done, and now to the walk of shame as I fumbled towards Polack, trembling through the aisles. The first pair of eyes to turn my way were the clerk’s, and I felt embarrassment for turning his initial suspicion on me true. He only smiled, however: Polack must have already befriended him. And speaking of the devil, his eyes were the second: they tortured, mocked, being the only one aware of my bad deed.

“Ready to go, Jane?” He stretched his arm, inviting me to hurry up and nestle under it.

The clerk walked back behind the counter, Polack pulled me to his side – his calm was of a lethal, cold, cynical nature, one no one could ever tell was there. A bitter taste crawled up my throat.

“Thank you very much!” Polack came to a full stop before the counter while holding me, nodding to the unsuspecting clerk. His free hand snatched my right fastened wrist, which was safely hidden in my hoodie’s pocket, pulling it into view.

I froze in fear. Polack shook my arm over the counter until I dropped the fairy, much like he would to a tree branch bearing a fruit. I clenched my teeth.

“We’ll be taking this as well.” He smiled charmingly.

The clerk nodded, luckily blind to my panic. I looked at Polack, turning frozenly to the side: he smiled warmly, entertained beyond measure, yet merciful enough to pity my current state.

“I would like you to wrap it up in your prettiest gift box you have, please!” he added, attempting to buy my forgiveness.

Polack deposited the colorful back on my arms, deposited his warm hand back on my shoulder and dragged my stiff legs out of that store. My cheeks burned violently.

“You are a delinquent, Jane!” he teased, torturing me further as we walked “And a damn rookie at that, too!” looking down, his eyes warmly surveying me “A foolish little girl that never belonged doing something like that, and anyone can see it from miles away!”

“T-then why… why did you…!” I stuttered, the rage in my mind failing to come out through my trembling composition.

“I had to prove a point!” He laid his palm on my head “That you are not what you think of yourself, Jane… not what others think. You’re a good kid – well, as good as a teenager can be, at least!” he tilted his head back, looking up to the sky and sighing hopelessly, mocking me “That, and… I was determined to buy you a gift – but you’re so awfully proud I had to forcefully bend your spirit into submission to do so. And, Jane…” he smiled meanly again “I appreciate the obedience! To be given an order such as that and set out to perform it without the slightest excuse…! My congratulations! If it had actually been a test, you’d have passed.”

He pulled me gently towards the square.

“I didn’t know I had a choice!” I accused, angrily at last.

“Oh, but you didn’t!” Polack snickered mysteriously, picking up my wrist and pulling it up to the height of his eyes, from where he examined my limp, unresisting fingers with a curious glare “And I had long wondered how skilled these little hands of yours can be. A useful knowledge, I say, lest they decide to turn against me…”

“Polack, I would never…” I quickly began to declare in an emotive burst of desperate fidelity, when Polack, letting go of my arrested hand, spared me the embarrassment of recalling the passionate promise later when my blood no longer boiled for him as much as then:

“Shh – don’t say it, Jane! “Trust me” is not a valid reason to give trust, is it? You’re brighter than that!” he softly rebuked, then sighed contently, inflating his chest and enjoying the fresh afternoon breeze. I surveyed him – his cool, confident expression – as we walked.

“You’re a strange child, Jane…” he declared without averting his eyes “Remind me of never letting you out of my sight…”

 


 

 

The sun shining mildly through thick, soft clouds, lending an unobtrusive glow to the sky, and the cool, slow wind chilling what little heat reached us there invited us to sit down and linger a while longer.

Polack insisted that I tried his favorite restaurant – as if my acknowledgement of his good taste was of any consequence – and now eagerly waited for our order, to then collect whatever opinion I was to form on the exotic dishes he chose for me. “Then you can have your ice-cream…” he sentenced in a scornful tone, playfully annoyed by the awareness it was all I cared about.

We sat outdoors, around a black round table of heavy contorted iron that, like three or four others, rested before the little restaurant, on the margins of the graceful square.

From our seats we could hear the comfortable gurgling of the great water fountain at the center of the plaza, mingling delicately with the sound of isolated footsteps drifting by. While I tried the weird-looking food the waiter had placed before me, each spoon proving more and more indigestible to my orthodox palate, I inadvertently revised the small, light word that Polack had so casually pronounced, which sounded without an echo of shame or decency… It had carved its way into my brain and wouldn’t get out, resounding imaginarily again at every other word the same voice produced: date!

“Little date” was what he said, to be fair, but still my shoulders stiffened in timidity whenever I recalled it, and my cheeks probably reflected in color the rush in my blood, for Polack always seemed to detect it when that same thought crossed my head: His eyes would look sharper, keen on poking until I had revealed what was the light casting that distant shadow over my expression, his smile would grow temporarily bolder and intrusive, forcing me to look away as if the truth could actually be stolen, manually removed like a tangible object his skilled hands secured. If I pretended to have had my attention suddenly stolen by an irresistible diversion, he would be pleased by the idea that I was having fun, and would calmly drop his improper pursue, so I did that to exhaustion, until it no longer worked and Polack no longer cared.

“You confound me, Jane…” He pronounced at length, fishing for small appetizers on his plate with a fork and taking it to his mouth. “I’m positive you’ve been here before, yet you look around yourself so often, it’s like we’re in a dream land!”

“I told you I haven’t!” I frowned.

“Is that really so? Do you swear? Why, I was about to get to that conclusion on my own, to be fair! At first, however, I figured you were lying to me – Only I wouldn’t punish you for it until we got home: I thought I might let you enjoy today first!”

After taking a big gulp of juice to swallow down the effects of his threat, I grew quickly annoyed by his indiscriminate use of them in that day, and exchanged yet another promise that I wasn’t lying for a more effective, more acid “Why the hell would you think that?”

“I was checking back on the orphanage to discover if they’ve forgotten about you yet – and the answer is yes, they seem to have! Delightful, isn’t it? – and found also that you little girls come here quite often in those… what do they call them? …When they take you out on a walk and such…”

“Ah – those!” I squeezed my eyebrows together, making sense out of it.

“Excursions! That’s the word!”

“Yes, they have those every now and then. Twice a month, I think – yeah, on the 5th and the 20th ! I’ve never been to one though: only the good students get to go.”

Polack held a spoon-full of what looked like a purple, slimy, disgusting tentacle next to his mouth, waiting to be gobbled up after the next sentence:

“Naughty girls don’t get the prize, I see! Some fine disciplining, Jane! Makes me wonder why they failed so hard at fixing you…”

“I never liked those stupid trips anyway!”

Polack quietly chewed, and covered his mouth behind a closed fist before pronouncing, with a scheming smile:

“And do you know what day is today?”

I had been sleeping mostly during the day, and fewer hours by night, in order to help him out on his business. My time awareness deteriorated in a rapid pace…

“It’s a Thursday… I think…” After an embarrassingly long delay, I answered.

“Yes – and a 20th!” he added soberly after surveying my uncertainty.

“Oh!”

“I thought I’d bring you here so you wouldn’t feel like you’re missing out on those little recreations – the few ones you were entitled to, anyway – but I suppose the accident makes me even happier, and the surprise all the more rewarding: You’ve never been here before, Jane!” Polack declared with the satisfaction of a toilsome discovery.

“Yeah – that’s what I’ve been telling you!!!”

“And those…” Polack looked mysteriously over my head with a delighted, fixed smile. Then I knew what awaited me, and I panicked! “…those must be friends of yours?”

I quickly turned my neck to see a marching line of girls in wine-colored uniforms, following in organized formation two young novices around the square.

“Oh crap!!” I gasped aloud, turning back just as quickly. I had, notwithstanding, stared at them long enough for one to spot me and elbow her neighbor in the ribs.

“What, is that a no?” Polack’s mocking voice sounded, speculating my alarm. “It’s hard to imagine it, Jane, but did they happen to pick on you back there?”

“No, it’s not that! I just…” I nervously tried to explain, but decided on a more efficient escape: I bent down, nearing invisibility, over my plate and rapidly began to eat away at its content.

“Hey hey hei!” Polack interrupted, stretching his arm over the table between me and the meal “What do you think you’re doing, Jane?” he rebuked “I want you to enjoy the flavor – eat slowly and individually each preparation, savor them! That’s what I brought you here for, can’t you tell? Now eat slowly! Do you suddenly want to finish and leave so badly?”

I blushed – knowingly my main response to most of our interactions – and swallowed the big knot of food in my mouth.

“Well, how is that?” Polack smiled, calmly surveying my face.

“I don’t like it!” I objectively replied, and peered backwards for a brief second.

“Jane, Jane! Well, it’s okay!” he sighed, feigning dismay “The first of many deceptions Howard swears you have in store for me, my private little devil! What do you say I put you in a bottle and carry you in my pocket? At least that will solve your anxiety to return home. You won’t be seen that way either. Now you are nodding: Jane, are you even listening?”

Polack’s hand pulled my chin back to his sarcastic smile. I shrunk back from his touch and deeper onto the chair, resisting the temptation to slip right under it.

“You don’t have to shun me so much – I was merely joking on how obviously you try to turn invisible to your friends. Do you despise them that much?” Polack’s fingers, which hovered close by from my rejected caress, pulled back and grabbed on his bony chin as he mused “I wonder what’s the urgency all about! I won’t rest until you tell me, Jane – you know that, don’t you?”

I cast my agitated glance around one more time.

“Jane, dear… Don’t make me use my persuasion on you…” I sensed Polack’s hands about to move my way again, and screamed before they could reach me:

“Okay, I’ll tell you!” …but regretted it as soon as they were back supporting his amused head.

It was embarrassing to say it… And what would he think of me? Sweat began dripping down my forehead as Polack patiently waited, a diligent torturer. “I might as well be quick about it so we can wrap things up and go back home” reason convinced me, and I sighed:

“Well… it’s just that… I just wouldn’t like to, uh…” I moaned, and sighed again, nervously searching for the words “I wouldn’t like them to see me… well… here!”

I looked around myself to prove my point: there was nothing but idle, romantic couples on the tables next to us, and specially now that my freak-out had won Polack’s interest, his bright, intense gaze wouldn’t leave me! Anyone that saw us would call that a date. And I would have liked that realization in any other circumstance that wasn’t this one…

…Because anyone that saw us there, would totally swear that we were… That we had already…

“Well?” My handsome superior inquired after a while, unsatisfied with my shallow clarification.

I decided to circle around the truth then, hoping I wouldn’t have to pronounce it myself:

“Polack, have you… lived here long?”

“Here?”

“Y-yes… In Gloen, I mean.”

“Hm let me see…” he pulled back the loose locks of his hair that had fallen over his eyes “I would say seven years or so. Why?”

“Oh…” I stopped to do the math. That was a lot of time after all. Time enough to know… Specially if the city was a favored spot for the orphanage excursions.

“I-in that case…” I glanced at them again, watching the dull-looking girls distance themselves from me and from each other as they examined the stores and the birds on the trees with composed, strangled curiosity. It’s no wonder they turned out to be such easy prey once allowed outside on their own… “In that case, you must certainly know it… or have heard about it, at least… right?”

“Heard of what, Jane?” Polack frowned, genuinely intrigued.

“Of… well…” I sighed, my blood heating up with embarrassment. It was such a painful, horrible, exposing subject… yet a pinch of curiosity moved me to go on:  after all, through my mortified shyness and  tortured upward glances, I would finally poke into the subject of my superior’s position on the matter. Maybe I’d even know what he got me for, and maybe even his intentions. I blushed fervently just by thinking about it, and regretted the obviousness on my face. “The… the awful reputation the orphanage girls have… You know it, right?”

Polack reflected for a long, anguishing second as he tried to understand. When he finally came to a conclusion, he smiled, I cringed, then he outright laughed:

“Jane, you silly girl! Of course I do!”

I hardened, holding the sides of my seat and bracing myself:

“Well then?”

“It’s not a reputation only the girls from that orphanage have! You see, all around the country, and the globe too I daresay, orphans are thought of as troublemakers. It’s a universal cliché! Jane, you’re like a country girl that doesn’t know better!” Polack laughed heartedly.

I sighed, uncomfortable and awkward for being on the other side of the innocence for once. Whether he knew it or not that the girls had a tendency to fall prey to their coworkers, I no longer had the courage to investigate…

“You, however, must be an honor to your merit, huh? A genuinely disturbed orphan girl, who shoplifts and attacks managers with swords!”

I laughed a little at his teasing, mostly out of awkwardness, then became inevitably grave. If he didn’t know… would he ever find out?

“You…” I started, taking a sip of my drink to swallow the lie stuck in my throat I got so close to revealing, and in vain “You don’t go out that much either, do you?”

Polack failed to understand what one thing had to do with the other, furrowing his eyebrows with a short, puzzled smile across his lips. I leaned back on the chair and could almost bring myself to relax under the progressively cooler breeze: Polack didn’t know, and how much lighter that made me feel. And how should he have known anyway? From what I knew of him, he socialized very little beyond his ‘underworld’ – would any of those people know about orphan girls? I guess I was the first one ever to work with gangsters. That felt so cool!

“And now, Jane, what are you all smiley about? You don’t think I’ll let you escape me so easily, do you?” He began, reigniting the conversation “Here, try some of this…” And he held up a spoon filled with a black, bubbly cream he had scooped from his own plate, probably the last resource he could find to employ in his campaign for my good taste.

I looked around briefly, making sure no one was close enough, or attentive enough, to notice the act of ingenuous intimacy, then leaned forward to accept it.

Polack pulled the spoon out of my mouth. I grimaced. He laughed.

“But… is that why you don’t wanna be seen, Jane?” He pulled a napkin from his lap and took it to his mouth, gently brushing the sensitive, pink pair of lips “Because you’re a troublemaker?” The last word was pronounced with mocking pleasure.

“M-maybe!” I replied, still choking on the awful taste of the last experiment.

“Are you okay there?”

I nodded, closing my eyes, cleaning my lips with the sleeve of my hoodie and urgently holding back a retch from hurling out.

“How curious!” Polack proceeded, laughing in spite of my state “I never would have thought troublemakers had such restraints! Unless it’s the idea of being seen with your superior what you despise so much?”

I forced my eyes open – he began to scrape closer to the truth.

“It is that, isn’t it, Jane?!” he read “Just like when I first met you! You were such an angry cat, do you remember? Now you don’t wanna be seen sitting in a civilized manner, enjoying foreign cuisine with the charming superior you swore you wanted nothing from!”

My stomach began to turn. Polack’s expression lightened up to each of my reactions, translating them into his evil enjoyment.

“A once wild beast, tamed! How demeaning, Jane!” He grinned.

“It’s okay!” I uttered, mostly to myself. After all, Polack wasn’t entirely right. He wasn’t entirely wrong either, though: Would I not look exactly like a tamed animal if the girls saw me now? And then, what they would think of me? …of us? My breathing picked up again, I placed my palms over my head.

“Jane…” Softly he began again, lowering his voice tone to a more merciful, more humane one – A truce, one carefully picked to end my pride’s ruthless crumbling. He leaned forward, supporting his elbows over the table and taking my cold, shaky hand in his. My eyes widened, his smile grew warm: “Would it help you if I pretended to be your boyfriend?”

My blood boiled. My lungs sped uncontrollably – I moaned, at last breaking out in terrible torture.

The next few seconds saw me embarrass myself with my head shoved inside a great trash can near the water fountain, where I vomited away all of Polack’s expensive “foreign cuisine”. After I was done, I lingered in there a while longer, coughing and nearly sobbing inside the dark can of humiliation.

Polack’s hands ran softly and sporadically across my back, at times holding my hair, at times awkwardly trying to pull me out and steal a glimpse of my state.

“Oh Jane…” He sighed, a distant hint of worry and guilt tainting his pretty voice “What a moody stomach this one of yours! What can I say? I feel bad… A dog is a dog, after all!” He still had enough composure in him to tease my degradation “Next time, I’ll buy you a hamburger.”

When at last I gathered the strength to leave the bin – I couldn’t wait in there forever, however tempting the idea might sound – Polack stood by my side, offering me a napkin and eyeing me suspiciously with a smile that promised mortification.

“Take care, Jane…” he gravely announced when I took hold of it, as if I had fallen for a trap  “A mere suggestion made you sick to your stomach: You hate me so much you just might end up loving me, dear!”

I blushed, yanking the napkin from his firm, inflexible grip.

A chuckle from him neutralized how thick the air around us had grown.

“Come on…” he turned slowly, smiling me into following him again “Let’s go home.”

Chapter 20

 

One week was how long the bad weather of either rain or clouds took to be gone – those days intercalated almost religiously, making being up during the day almost unbearable to my sleepy nerves. One week had also been exactly how long it took me to adjust again my clock in such a way that, when wandering outside my room after needed sleep, I would still get to see Mr. Howard sullenly working.

Two weeks, then, had been how long we had spent without saying a word to each other – I only realized it now as I looked back at him from the window I occupied, making out but a grumpy blur of his form due to the flashy, exalted perception staring at the mighty sun moving behind the tree canopies around the hill for too long caused upon my eyes. I could tell from what I knew of his habits, and from his eyes turning curiously my way when I turned to look back, that he coveted my position – since it was primarily his – and would have rudely kicked me out to enjoy the warm day that greeted the restaurant for the first time in so long, if the memory of our last discussion didn’t spike him into looking away from me as if his gaze was accidental. And, indeed, many other accidental gazes I met in looking back, and I could tell how much Mr. Howard regretted them every time I took notice, for each seemed to accuse him a little more of having forgiven me.

I at length relinquished the spot for the sake of his rare amusement, saying no word on it as to prevent offending either of our prides – but Mr. Howard wouldn’t show signs of being wiser than me in our stubborn dispute:  He ignored the beautiful day outside and dedicated the wholeness of his attention to the dishes resting with no urgency in the sink.

I sighed and, relenting even further – or rather giving up – dragged myself to the kitchen, sitting at the table and laying my exhausted chin on it. Now I shamelessly observed Mr. Howard in his tense, agonizing frown, and poorly resisted a smile when his furious gaze sought mine to then immediately escape it. I couldn’t help but giggle, holding my mouth too late to prevent the sound from coming out.

“To hell with this place if I’m going to be laughed at while you sit your lazy ass there and I work!” Mr. Howard roared, faking a severer anger than the one he felt.

I sat straight on my seat with renewed hope: If Mr. Howard was swearing at me, it meant we were speaking to each other again.

“I’m sorry! You didn’t ask for any help though…” I cynically replied.

Howard threw me a sideways glance, seemingly deciding if he was really going back to talking to me… He sighed and shook his head, the adult in him speaking louder at last:

“I’m done here anyway!”

But he still moved around the kitchen, doing stuff.

“You know…” I carefully started – he listened, or merely didn’t care to interrupt me – and that was enough encouragement “Polack says he’s receiving some different people tonight…”

On the first sign of Mr. Howard’s crude disapproval – for, after all, I reignited the very flame that saw us arguing the first time around – I reiterated:

“He called them regulars though – said they’re not as menacing, not as suspicious as Jonah’s men… He said I can watch if I want, that I’ll like them…”

I waited for his approval.

“They’re not dangerous, he said…” I pleaded further, but Mr. Howard was clearly more interested in tidying the cabinets. “Did you know it?” I carefully inquired, assessing whether or not he was even listening to me.

“No.” was the dry, unimpressed answer.

“He said if I join him, I’ll appreciate it more – understand more, for they aren’t as careful around him…” I tried to hold back the smile that automatically formed on my lips from enthusiastic anticipation. “Do you know who they are? I’m sure you do… Polack says they’re regulars, after all…”

“Naturally.” Mr. Howard replied as emotionlessly as he could muster.

“Well… What are they like, then?”

“You’ll meet them tonight, won’t you? So there’s no point in bothering me with all these questions.” He coldly silenced.

I stopped smiling immediately – the pang of being annulled stung my good humor into asking:

“Mr. Howard, why do you hate me so much?!” I eyed him gravely.

The large man gave out a long, tired sigh and pinched the bridge of his nose, holding his head down as if he resisted a stroke, before standing straight again in renewed vigor to pull the chair before me and sit.

“What do you want from me?!” He impatiently required, showing, however, an anger-motivated will to linger there and do whatever I wanted so long as I stopped bugging him. It made me pout unconsciously.

“I don’t want anything! I just…” I sulked, ready to throw the table’s contents to the floor and walk back to my room, when Mr. Howard was moved into hurried, derisive compassion:

“Look, I don’t have anything against you, okay?!”

“Then why-” I was about to inquire further, when my voice alone seemed to annoy him into another interruption, in a louder tone:

“I confess I had even less so before you started putting your snoopy nose where it doesn’t belong…”

I lowered my head and glared at him with a submissive frown. Feeling almost the same as being chastised by the nuns, I was led to regret my choice of a subject.

“You don’t think I do anything right!” I irresistibly mumbled, kicking the air and crossing my arms.

“I know! But you happen to do this thing you two are doing right now a little too well for my taste…”

“What, are you afraid I’m gonna replace him?”

“You think I’d be scared of that? Then you’re more foolish than I ever suspected… No! You’re just a little girl!” He eyed me down, acquiescing a degree and lowering his tone to, this time, properly acknowledge his motivation: “…And you don’t know what you’re getting yourself into, that is all!”

I scowled:

“I’m not a little girl! And the orphanage might look like the big mansion on the mountain, but it’s a hell hole and I’d choose living in this place and doing what I do a billion times over it, if I had to! You have no idea what they…”

“Hush!” Mr. Howard’s voice rose, unwaveringly, diminishing my fit to a wimpy mumble “Watch your tone, young lady, and don’t you be talking to me about your cares! This has nothing to do with your condition – which is a rather light one compared to many out there!”

Noticing the extinction of my paroxysm and increasing level of attention, he returned to a more composed state:

“I can bet you were no happy child in that place, but you received food, clothes and a warm bed to sleep at night. Can’t go using the fact that you don’t have parents to excuse laying your life to illegitimacy so soon. You’re downright starting a career on crime before even knowing there are other options out there, and to top it all, you’re proud of it!”

“But Polack…” I sobbed.

“Pole’s an irresponsible, impulsive, immature, sick man!” I eyed Mr. Howard angrily, and his severity didn’t yield “Hence the fact that he sees no harm in pulling you as low as his level. You can get murdered or arrested and not one of you cares. Do you think anyone will be merciful on you because of your age? …Or, that you can tell them you’re an orphan and that will somehow make everything forgiven?”

“I’m not doing anything wrong…” Again, I mumbled defensively.

“You know damn well that is not true!”  Mr. Howard roared.

“But even if I wanted to…” I shrugged and looked to the sides, hiding my curiosity in speculation “It’s too late, isn’t it? I’m sure you guys would kill me before letting me go…”

Mr. Howard sighed and his eyes turned momentarily invisible under his reflecting lenses, a sigh that said “not kill, but something just as bad…”

“Maybe if you weren’t so willing to help, I could find a way. I could talk to Pole.” He hinted in a rather hopeless tone.

I shrunk my eyes, stung by his failed attempt:

“I like having a tongue, thank you!” I sneered “And besides, I don’t know if I should trust you – you’re either betraying your boss by saying that, or testing my loyalty against him! In either case, I’m out! I mean, if you think he’s so bad, why don’t you go and leave him yourself?”

Howard’s eyebrows furrowed in a visibly repressed rage:

“Don’t go throwing around words you don’t know the meaning of, girl! Betrayal! Loyalty! Nothing of what I’m telling you I haven’t told him extensively throughout his entire life. But I have my limits too: I don’t go pouring my opinion where I know it goes to waste. You are in trouble if I decide to wash my hands on you the same way, and I’m about to: You should be ashamed of talking to me like that, defending that scoundrel excuse of a man as one defends their nation’s flag, with the eyes shimmering with wonderment and the bones shaking with thrill. Think about where your honor lies and ask if that is right: A mere crush is going to determine what you do with the rest of your life?!”

My eyes widened, perplexed out of words:

“C-crush?!” I stuttered, failing to come up with a quick enough answer to prove otherwise. ‘Prove’… why did it even make me so abnormally nervous? I held my scorching forehead, failing to convince even myself it wasn’t the case.

“C’mon kid, I’m old…” Mr. Howard declared wholeheartedly, earning my untainted attention “I’ve never been much and there’s no hope in changing that now, and I definitely don’t resent my fate, for I have done nothing to make it easier on myself – I’ve long since accepted that I’ll be doing nothing but follow that foolish boy around, trying as best as I can to reduce the damage he causes, and I’ll surely waste my life away under that burden. As a hopeless man I tell you with the little compassion I have to spare: You’re just a girl! Life will give you many places where to deposit that… ‘loyalty’ of yours, just don’t choose to place it on such a worthless man! And mind you don’t blush so shamelessly like that before him: Pole will eat you alive if you let him know!” Mr. Howard’s eyes softened, dropping slowly to the table.

I failed to react negatively to his cruel injustice towards our kind superior a second time, and for two reasons: Strangely enough, it felt like talking bad of him offended Mr. Howard just as much as it did me… And second… it no longer seemed like Polack was our superior. Mine certainly, but his… I frowned, revising his words in my mind.

“He wasn’t born bad, I suppose… But somewhere along the way he turned. Raised bad, for sure…”

 As Mr. Howard mused, reminiscing, it struck me:

“Wha – so… You! You really raised him?!” I pushed back on the chair, shocked.

Satisfied as if he had done his utmost to tell me in less than words, Mr. Howard nodded:

“Long enough to know him, yes. Long enough to tell you: Don’t trust yourself to him, girl! He’s smart, cruel and holds a generalized hatred on humanity you won’t fail to know if you show yourself too vulnerable.”

“So he…” suddenly, the curiosity matter became much more urgent “So he really killed his parents?!” I remembered to lower my voice at the last part.

Howard chuckled – it was something else to see him enjoy such a pure, shadowless laugh. His countenance changed, and I would have easily thought him someone else as the muscles on his face relaxed into a smile.

“He didn’t, I’m sure… But truth is, no one knows!”

I crossed my arms over the table and laid my chin on them, watching Howard fixedly. When his eyes traced me, his face scowled into the Howard I knew again, inconvenienced by realizing now there was no turning back, I would not settle for such a small teaser of my superior’s past with him.

A surrendering sigh opened his narration:

“I raised him, yes… One way or another. In short, I’m not responsible for all I see of bad in him, but neither do I have any merits in what he has of good, and I’m afraid I failed in actively pointing him the right direction. I suspect the boy was a magnet for trouble from the start, and I would like to know the circumstances of his birth and infancy to judge better… but those are stories only the Pole knows, and he has never been very inclined to share.”

Mr. Howard went quiet, the story forming in his head and altering his countenance again, as it now seemed about to assume a much lighter tone, of times he seemed to rather miss. No small wonder: things were much less complicated then, or so the dim light in his eyes told:

“I was single and lonely, too broke for a wife and too old for kids. It was a rural area down south of the country, near the border, where I worked for a transportation company with my only valuable asset: An old Mercedes truck. One morning I found the boy wandering around the courtyard, where we parked the trucks for loading. Daybreaks are cold – coldest hour of the night, if you ask me, and yet this skinny kid walked around with nothing on him but a beaten pair of crop pants. He wasn’t small though, nor did he look lost. Nothing about him expressed frailty, and yet I felt like walking to him and asking ‘Where’s your mother?’ He shrugged: turned out he had escaped his parents by breaking into one of the truck’s cargos and travelling God knows how many miles across the country. He didn’t come in mine, so I didn’t know how to return him, and the little devil was smart enough not to say who he came with, or disclose a single word on his original location. He declared with a determination that startled me, coming from such a young thing, that he didn’t want to go back. Strangest is… there seemed to be no pain in that decision. No trace of trauma or abandonment either – he behaved as if it was a mere walk on the park for a boy his age to decide to leave his parents.

“I offered to take him home with me – it was a single crumpled room I lived in back then –  and treat him to a meal in exchange for hearing some more about him, secretly hoping he would let something slip, but he was persistent on picking his own topics for discussion: a jolly, animated talk that was, though! He told me his name, and laughed when I couldn’t pronounce it right: It was polish he said, just like his father. I gave in to calling him “Little Pole”, and the nickname stuck. Judging from his talk, I assumed he was a child of nine or ten – innocence and resolve mingled unnaturally there, so it was hard to tell.

“The next morning I would have gladly left him sleeping on a spare bed I had arranged for him in my room to go to work, perhaps figuring, on my way there, what I would do with him… but the boy clung to my arm when he heard the door open and wouldn’t let go for anything in the world! Said he’d go with me, said he’d help me. I should’ve known better, I know… But I liked the little fella! In retrospect, I think he just didn’t want to be alone. I guess he was scared, but he didn’t look the part, he acted tough…”

Mr. Howard frowned, unsure of his choice of a word:

 “No! That was not it… he just acted like an adult, like he thought he was one. I think I found it cute and let him come with me, moved by some sort of curiosity to see when he would act his age. It never happened though, and that is probably why I kept him: had he been a whiny, soft one, I probably would have found a woman who wanted him – it wouldn’t be any hard, cute and sociable as the devil was!

“He rode with me on the truck for the next two years after that. Times were different then – no one told me to put the kid in a school, people weren’t forced to do that, so we were always together. And when something happened to make me leave him home, like a small sickness or natural indisposition common to children… Then did I miss his yapping!

“…But things changed rapidly then: The economy was shifting; a crisis hit the country and they didn’t need as many truck drivers anymore. I was out of a job. The kid was plenty happy with our days off, mindless of my depression: I was only then discovering the burden of bringing him along. After all, I could go without eating; skipping a meal or two a day meant nothing: I had always survived on little. But what of him? He was a thin, pale twelve year old then, he needed the food to grow strong! I took to travelling thirty miles all the way to the next town to buy cheap groceries straight from the farmers, it was then that the idea hit me – so I risked the little money I had left buying from the farms and building us a vegetable stand on the boardwalk; a tiny, barely profitable trade meant just to fill his belly until we could get back on the truck business. And it did just that at first…

“Soon the boy was old enough to go everywhere without me, and I sent him delivering groceries on a bike. That’s when the profit really grew! The kid charmed his way through town attracting customers and spreading the word of what we had in stock until we thrived beyond anyone’s expectations! He made us so much money we didn’t even think about driving the truck again!”

When I smiled, mimicking Mr. Howard, it was when he noticed his own mirth. Checking it, his eyebrows grew heavy with a saddened condescendence:

 “To be honest, I guess deep down the kid was an orphan himself, looking up to me and following me around like a lonely puppy as he did. You must wonder when all that changed? Does our relationship look anything like a father and a son now?” He gave out a sad, sarcastic chuckle “All that unconditional respect and love – I received it without quite deserving it, and that was duly noted before the kid turned fifteen. He had greatly surpassed me in intelligence then, seen and heard in that short life of his more than I had throughout mine. He met all sorts of people through our work – either waiting behind the stand, delivering groceries or advertising, his social circle grew to include the entire odd town. We had many infatuated wives who couldn’t see the boy for the brat he was, as well as angry husbands who weren’t much brighter coming in to sort things out. He was liked even by the local gangs, so when he couldn’t talk his way out of a good fight, a full-blown punch-out would happen between punks and the poor cheated husbands.

“We had many teachers and students coming in from work, all of which would relish in Pole’s talk, and from whom the boy would absorb as much knowledge to feed his curiosity as time permitted. By then, Pole had learned to speak fluent French from the farm boy who delivered us milk, greeted the big dons who surveyed the streets in speckles Italian, and even spoke to university students in equal terms, almost a foreign language in itself as far as I was aware. His biggest pleasures no longer came from toys or trips, or anything I could have given him, but from being around those who knew what he didn’t – from befriending them – and God knows that kid was everyone’s friend!

“But his eyes weren’t that sweet anymore then. They had grown relaxed, tranquil under the eyebrows, but ever moving, ever searching for who knows what. What had I to give him then? I had observed his pattern sufficient times to know for sure that Pole’s friends weren’t much to him once he had leveled himself with them, once there was nothing they could add to his knowledge… and neither was I. He didn’t understand or had any real interest in me anymore, and grew progressively bored as the new faces he collected and became familiar with turned into old again. He wanted to go away – always sighing at the distant mountains wishing to cross them, to hit the big city, surround himself with smart people and discover whatever else there was to discover. I pitied the boy as much as I pitied the old man he once adored in me, and when he could find no amusement in our town anymore, I decided I would let him fly, a loose little bird like when I found him fearless on the courtyard in a cold morning. I sold my old truck and gave him my savings – it amounted to enough money for him to travel and attend school. He was more than eager to go, and I was despondent – there was no last minute turn-around with teary eyes, the little Pole set off without looking back and I thought I’d never see him again.

“When life had gotten back to what it was before and I was quite starting to forget him – that was about two years later -, Pole wrote me from the other side of the country sending me twice the amount of money that saw him off. Whether he ever got around to getting that degree or not I don’t know – nor do I know what he did with the money I gave him. All I know is what I learned from that letter: I told you earlier that the boy was a magnet for trouble, so it should be no surprise to you by now. He must have surrounded himself with those gangs of his again, for soon the police caught up with him. I’ve also told you he was too smart for a kid his age – always was! You’ll be surprised to know that he got arrested by the age of seventeen, only to flip from one side of the table in the interrogation room to the other. That was all he mentioned: That the cops liked him. He knew a lot of people no one could ever get close to, spoke some dialects few in this country understand, had some sort of skills the agency needed, so he started helping them.

“He was but a scrawny boy of 18 when the Federal Intelligence Service took him out of the country and into the east to help them pin down some… big shot of sorts, I don’t know! Something went wrong after a couple of months though – their base was raided, exploded… A lot of men got killed and a lot of them got away. They were all militaries in there, so you can imagine they have their way around tricky situations like that… but Pole did not! They left him  behind – chose to: The boy was an asset, a ‘Brainiac’… but ultimately, he wasn’t one of them. Not yet, at least… Certainly he would have been, with more time and study.” Mr. Howard began to frown, tightening his eyebrows as the visions got blurry with the thick shadow of vagueness “He had a radio down there, in the basements – he told me as much. He called for help from the rubble, but he wasn’t something worth risking the secrecy of the mission for. Pole returned home one day: he had most certainly been killed in a friendly fire dropped by an airplane to keep information from leaking from the debris of that base… or so the government thought, and so they think to this day, I suppose! Treason is a felony punishable by death, and that’s what Pole would get if they knew he got away: The radio call for help got traced by the enemy, and lucky for Pole he had a lot of things they wanted in exchange for walking free from there. The rest is history…”

“What happened then?!”

Mr. Howard sighed. Treading more familiar terrains, the crease between his eyebrows softened, but there was no pride in it:

“Pole had his files, his codes… Access to as much information as it goes around, I suppose. He reproduced them before being cut out, wrote down and filed everything he knew, and came to me with a new ‘stand’ to open…”

The difference was clear on Mr. Howard’s face as the endearing little boy of his narration was taken, and then replaced by the shady, immoral Polack. No trace of the same patience crossed the old man’s face, but a distant root of affection still lingered there. He had no lenience left for me either, as evinced by the despise he still felt when he looked up, remembering the original reason behind his confiding in me, and possibly blushing from how sidetracked he got:

“In any case, Pole is no man for you. I can assure you of that! I hope you understand it …”

Getting up, somehow more crossed and frustrated than before we spoke, Mr. Howard turned his cold back to me, silently declaring the truce was out, regret reiterating the original offense I gave.

I remained seated, too much new information on my head to obsess about, too little space to worry for Mr. Howard’s mood. And the more I examined Polack’s past, the more gently I blushed, unmolested by my brooding companion’s rebuke now that he himself had fallen into a sullen meditation.

The conversation had left me surprisingly more curious than before, longing for details of what that scrawny boy looked like, what he did during all the unmentioned time, and how exactly did he come to be my superior.

“There you are, the two of you… And at it again!” My musings were violently halted by Polack’s sung voice as he slid through the floor in a lazy, stealthy march.

I skipped on my seat, the last thought in my brain making for a most chilling association.

“Are you listening to this old man, Jane?”

Polack pressed his two palms on the table around me and smile down on my face. I sunk back on the chair, shrinking away from his scrutinizing, invasive eyes.

“He likes to talk about me, the scoundrel!”

My forehead began to drip cold sweat; the ardent, almost innocent curiosity driven away in an instant by the dread impressed on me from Polack’s eyes. When he was done reading me, he walked tranquilly to the counter, picked a coffee bag from inside it.

“Y-you’re up early!” I nervously observed.

“Ah, yes! Refrain from complimenting my disposition, however: It’s currently witnessing hell, but only until I get a good serving of this…” And he shoved a spoon inside the foil, fishing for content in the very bottom of it “I had an alarm set for an hour ago…” he resentfully added.

“What for?”

Polack’s quick eyes turned to me, deep circles darkening under them and a scheming smile making the pair look positively mean:

“Get changed, Jane. I’m taking you out for ice-cream.”

“What? Why?!”

Polack disappeared behind me and I agitatedly turned my neck to the sides, looking to see him.

“I told you I’d reward you if you did a good job, didn’t I?” he teased, stroking my chin with a quick brush of his long fingers as he passed on to the next room to look for more coffee. “Well, today’s looking fine… Unless you still insist on that crazy idea that you want nothing from me?!”

I turned back ahead quickly to hide the blushing on my cheeks, intently facing the table and twisting my lips to hold in an embarrassed smile.

I had, then, forgotten not only every detail of Mr. Howard’s narrative due to Polack’s attention, I had also surrendered the very awareness of Mr. Howard’s presence over to the exaggerated delight caused by my superior’s. When I looked at him, remembering, Mr. Howard frowned at me with hard, hopeless disappointment – a hint of betrayal helping to darken it, too. I guess seeing me there, he knew it was too late for me: I was already – irresistibly – head over heels for the Polack.   

Chapter 19

Polack took out his string roll again, from which he now leisurely pulled, encircling his index finger in a distracted, automatic effort while his eyes faced intently the previous cord with our findings, deeming them useless.

“A failed attempt on his behalf…” He started, musing aloud “I did wonder why he would have asked for one file and taken another. What would you say of that, Jane?”

I sat on the computer chair, hugging its backrest.

“He just wanted to check where you kept them, and how, to make it easier to steal later.”

“My lack of pattern must have helped, then!” Polack chuckled “What he stole is of little consequence to us. At least for now. Well then…”

Polack proceeded to remove the lid of the boxes we had brought to the closet: they were three. I watched silently, waiting for the moment I’d be spoon-fed the truth which he already knew, but left hanging on the air for me. I had gotten used to the habit information had of lingering overhead, suspended, before connecting and hovering back down to my troubled comprehension. I didn’t even stress my brain trying to foresee Polack’s reasoning anymore, or attempting a read on his indifferent countenance every time a crease hinted some concealed graveness.

He was crouched down over the boxes, searching them with a half smile of peaceful pleasure. I watched lazily until he started choosing pictures and notes and handing them over to me.

“Ultimately, what did you think of our friends, Jane?” Polack picked up the conversation.

Friends?”

“What a brute bunch they were, huh?” he chuckled with a sigh as his fingers quickly ran through the folders “And just when I had made up my mind about making myself exceptionally friendly!” Another sigh followed, this time quickly replaced by a full smile Polack attempted to hide by dropping his head “…I guess we’re out of luck! They’re not the type of people you’d want to owe favors to. I wish we’d get this done as fast as possible, Jane: You can say I have a bad feeling.”

I got up from my chair and crouched down next to him, moved by his serenely declared sense of urgency, but once there, found it almost disturbing – If I didn’t know better, that is! – the excitement his face showed, contradicting his carefully chosen words.

“I should have you around for my other clients. I’m sure they’d love to meet you and vice versa. None of them act as threatening as Jonah’s men.”

I slowly collected and examined the pictures Polack handed out through his small talk. They showed places and people – they were old and new.

“Are all these police files too?”

“They are mostly composed by them, yes…” Polack vaguely replied, sighing and stretching up his legs again. From his tall distance his eyes sought mine and gleamed brighter with a smile at my expecting, curious glare. “These people, honey…” he clarified, tapping his index finger on the picture I held up “…shouldn’t be found.”

 “Why? And who’s hiding them?” I stood up too, anxiously surveying Polack’s amused expression as he glanced up and around himself at the six cords he had stretched over our heads.

Lucky for me, Polack was in one of his apparent good moods, in which answers came swiftly, however vague, and weren’t followed by a playful yet no less menacing death threat:

“Themselves… friends… the police…” He casually poured out, removing one picture from my hands and clipping it up on the cord. “They usually hide from the police. When the police finds them, they get hidden again…”

“By whom?!”

“Why, by the cops!” He chuckled as if it was mighty obvious.

“That makes no sense!” I blurted out, annoyed at my confusion.

“Justice Systems have the curious habit of not wanting to make sense, Jane, dear! You must think about it less like a league of super heroes prosecuting bad guys… and more like a gambling house welcoming new players, with the cards and the lying and everything!”

My eyes narrowed. Polack catalogued that, and his smile stretched:

“Gambling houses are places where men go to place bets and lose money on games of chance… Like a casino. You have heard of a casino, haven’t you?!”

“I have!” my pride angrily declared, but admittedly I didn’t know much of the topic.

“Though they are called games of chance, luck isn’t such an important factor for winning as intelligence is. Intelligence and a good poker face – that is your ability to invisibly bluff.”

“I know what a poker face is!”

Polack ignored me, moving on: “Courthouses aren’t that different from some of those games, really. Except that the stakes are sort of higher. But victory – and the spoils of it – goes to the one with the best cards in hand. Money plays an important part in purchasing the best cards – namely expensive lawyers, bribes, etc…”

“So they’re wrong?!” I tried to make sense out of it.

Polack giggled silently, stretching his arms up to the cord “I’m precisely saying it doesn’t matter. Wrong or right is not the point of the whole thing. There is no good or bad, only good hands and bad hands. Good liars and bad liars. Why, Jane! You keep getting more and more puzzled the more I chop it down for you!” he laughed, watching me burn my neurons with what he gave me. “Just tell me: Can you understand a poor man going to jail for stealing milk for his offspring?”

“Well… yes. I guess it’s wrong anyway…” I innocently replied.

“Yes – if you don’t see only his side, that is. There is the vendor who got robbed as well, who has his own family to feed… Well, Then we have a millionaire entrepreneur stealing from his employees and walking free due to a very obscure breach in the law books the best lawyer in the country managed to find. Can you agree with that?”

I scowled, ready to protest that hypothesis as unrealistic bullshit… But then a drip of sweat reminded me I knew nothing of the subject, so I just tried to pick the right answer, nervously:

“No!”

I must have still looked really confused, for Polack’s amusement didn’t let up.

“Another is the case with most of these people who can’t be found: The police takes an awfully bad guy off the streets, but in his trial he is cut some slack in exchange for information on another wanted criminal. Can you condone that?”

Things got more complicated! Again, I felt evaluated – when that specific state of panic kicked in, reasoning was seriously compromised. But two was still better than one right? I couldn’t get this wrong…

“Sounds… smart?”

Polack gave out a soft, composed laugh:

“It does, doesn’t it? I can’t disagree with you there… But I wouldn’t go around calling it ‘justice’ either.”

I blushed, slightly embarrassed.

“A criminal being given deals, a second chance… I can’t understand that, Jane! And that’s exactly what they get so long as they keep a card up their sleeves. They serve a petty sentence and are then hidden away in what we call protection programs, where they are given new names, new homes and a shiny, impenetrable shield against their former buddies – all courtesy of the government. A sweet life, I tell you!” Polack chuckled ever so slightly.

I narrowed my eyes and watched attentively the expression his face assumed, looking for signs of a personal offense resulting in his passionate opinion. But if one had incurred, it was now invisible behind his smiling lips.

“If you weren’t so innocent, you would think ‘If it’s worth it – if it’s to bring another man to justice, then I see no harm in cutting a deal and injuring two rabbits rather than killing a single one’, at least that’s an easy logic any person can come to. There is always a bigger fish in the sea, however. Always a greater evil against which the lesser one is excused…”

Sure, I was indoors most of the time and couldn’t really tell… But Gloen had stricken me as such a fundamentally safe place, I still couldn’t picture a deal being that bad!

“The smaller fish – or rather the slightly less fat ones – are given their new identities, their new chance and a pre-made good-citizen club card to help them blend in and get installed in their cozy little faraway neighborhoods where no one knows their location… No one but the federal police, that is!”

Polack’s concluding smile teased me in silence, challenging my wits.

“…And you!” I eventually came to a quick burst of insight, and rushed the answer out as if the logic could slip away.

“Very good, Jane! And before you ask: I have no scruples in turning them in to the first eager citizen full of ill-intent that comes knocking.”

He removed the rest of his files from my hands and proceeded to hang them too, while I was left wondering how he could hate a random group of criminals so much and then help another, when they were all one and the same. Still I watched his back while he swiftly moved, my vision shrouded by a misplaced sense of admiration. It surprised me to compare the initial impression I had of him with the focused man that now worked before me – he was not the weird, quirky and lazy manager of a nearly dead restaurant. Not the shallow, flirty pervert his jokes led me to believe either.

An intelligent, scheming, sarcastic man I now knew was what I had for a superior – handsome, vivacious, serene… and just a tad of sadism pulling the corners of his full lips into a constant smile. Such was the Polack I learned to know – to fear and like in increasingly similar measures. His sense of justice was immoral; his sense of humor was nefarious; all within a calm, composed and coherent personality. With all things considered, I had yet to find an adjective to describe him from a fundamental perspective. Was he kind deep down? Was he a monster? Mr. Howard was sure too ready to swear for the last, and was Mr. Howard inconsistent enough to be doubted? However hard I disliked his words, I couldn’t even pretend to myself that I didn’t believe them.

And speaking of inconsistency… there it was, a good enough adjective.

“Smile, Jane!” Polack commanded, poking me back from my sullen musings. Six strings crossed the ceiling, touching each other here and there in predetermined spots. Pictures of buildings, signs and men in suits of all sorts were hung next to handsomely scribbled notes. Post-its, forms and map shots helped comprise the complex timelines that somehow connected. Polack stood in the center beneath them, observing his progress with excitement “By the end of the night we will know all there is to know about these people. Hopefully, too, we can find the one person that connects them all…” He pointed to the portion where every line crossed each other. After a small lag, I figured, creasing my eyebrows:

“You’re hoping to find Jonah, too!”

“Wouldn’t that be a sweet leverage? To know what he so dearly tries to hide? There is surely no harm in trying, Jane, so don’t look so scared – and they expect nothing less from me, I guarantee!”

“Oh Boy! What if they come for you when they’re done with those?!”

“Less fretting and more helping, my little assistant!” Polack warmly silenced, giving me a handful of small year tabs. I looked up to his work again with fearful amazement.


 

Having briefly admired and taken in the details of his timeline, Polack sat on the floor against the back of the closet, resting his back on the wall. I followed, somewhat timid – short as I was, hanging time markers and dividers on the high cord made me dizzy, the back of my eyes stung from sleep deprivation and my legs shook lightly with exhaustion, but I didn’t want to leave him.

By the end of those couple of hours we had built five timelines together, one for each of the men Jonah sought, and investigated their different circumstances to look for the one event that connected all five to the same person, who should be Jonah’s real identity. Nothing of the sort was found, leaving a red, empty string stretched between the others, standing out with a mocking air that peppered my defeat and teased Polack’s determination. His bright, open expression instilled into me enough sense of accomplishment to make the moment decently pleasant, however. My head hurt, my chest was tired from breathing that stagnant air, I was hungry and my back ached, and yet my muscles shared that static jubilee that was so freely given to me, resonating in accordance to it with small excited shivers… And it was all because of Polack.

I couldn’t keep my eyes from secretly seeking him in that small, dimly lit room. My cheeks burned when I got away with contemplating him, for how beautiful he looked! Our shoulders touched – or, rather, my shoulders touched his arm as his superior height showed while we both sat side by side in the narrow space available. The warmth and embarrassment roused by the contact made me call back what his excuse was, uttered in half words, for keeping me by his side when Jonah’s main spokesperson, Joe, inquired over the subject. The conversation with Mr. Howard which I overheard also quickly came to mind, his enigmatic smile faithfully projected by my recollection.

 I thought that maybe… considering the work we had done, the freedom of his speech in my presence,  the darkness of that little room and how close together it brought us… I thought that maybe I could assume, and take some liberties. That maybe I could…

“Polack…”

“Hmm?” A half smile lingered there.

“Do you…” I searched the room for words “Do you know me well enough to consider me more than a stranger?”

The corners of Polack’s lips turned up, but his eyes didn’t move to look at me yet.

“I daresay yes. Why do you ask?”

“Because it’s something else what I’d like to ask. But you said it’s only safe to lie to strangers…”

Polack chuckled scornfully:

 “Go ahead, ask me anything, Jane!”

“You won’t lie?”

His eyes sought me at last, and a meek smile softened them in a friendly, warm way:

“I won’t, alright?”

I looked down at my knees.

“Why do you keep me here?”

Polack’s lips twitched, shrinking almost unnoticeably from the previous smile, as if he had been expecting a sillier question and now regretted his promise.

“I mean… If the restaurant is nothing but a façade, you could have…”

“Don’t call it that, Jane! Who said it was a façade?! I certainly never did…” He interrupted me with playful impatience and his eyes returned to mine again, overcasting my courage. “…or did I?”

I nodded a shy yes. Polack sighed.

“Well, it’s not as simple as you make it sound! The restaurant might have been a façade when I started. Now you have to reckon it’s more than that…” he paused every now and then to think “It’s like a dirty laundry I can’t toss away all at once. We still have the occasional customer, and the cops might be on our tail if we don’t look real enough… I figured hiring a new employee could help things settle down for a while until I decided what to do next.”

“But why would you pick me for that? I mean, what with how far I was, and with having to live here and all… There’s also the nuns and the visits, what would you do if they were as frequent as they should? It seems like a lot of unnecessary trouble…”

“And do without the overwhelming, irresistible idea of absolute control over a silly teenage girl who’s all alone in the world, like yourself?” Polack grinned, passing his arm around me and squeezing my shoulders against his side “You couldn’t pose a problem unless I gave you permission, so don’t be so full of yourself. You’re frowning, Jane! What, you don’t believe me? It’s every charming, seductive boss’s dream come true, and you fail to see the perfection in my plot?”

Polack expected an answer, but I looked away, sulking: He was lying, I could tell not because there was anything about his expression or voice tone that gave it away, but because of the major hole in his ‘perfect plot’: I had been encircled, latched, hugged and poked by those pale fingers and solid arms times enough to tell now – Polack didn’t like me like that. He didn’t “desire” me like I so petrifyingly feared in my first few weeks in that house. He didn’t want me dead either, however. And all the affection he showed? I couldn’t interpret it as anything beyond a warm, friendly – almost fraternal – compassion.

…Why did the idea of it sting my eyes and made my chest weight with such a despondent, bitter heaviness? Swallowing became suddenly very hard…

“Ah!” Polack sighed, soothing his voice into a velvet whisper “You don’t! You’re too smart for my own good, aren’t you, Jane?”

I looked farther to the side, so he couldn’t see the uncontrollable grimace curling my lips down. He had somehow felt enough in the air alone, and I thoroughly hated the pity behind his careful voice.

“Never mind that, Jane – you’re going to be helping me down here from now on. Isn’t it endlessly more fun?” He pulled me closer in a near shake, wishing I’d look at him “At least you seemed like you were having fun…”

I didn’t answer. After a brief wait Polack chuckled, looking back ahead, and sighed:

“Jane, Jane! Sometimes I think I love you! Sometimes I think you’ll really be the death of me, like Mr. Howard swears you will…”

I didn’t turn my face, now fearing he might see me turn red. The lump in my throat also kept me from promising I would be no such thing, however passionately I wanted to: my voice would sound feeble, shaky, and I might even break down and start crying.

“Hey… it will be alright, okay? Don’t worry that silly head of yours over anything now!” Polack insisted in a careful, mindful tone, while the arm I rested against reached out and framed my face in his large, hot palm. “Now come here, Jane…”

He gently forced my head over his shoulder, then encircled me once more, squeezing me closer to his ribs in a careless, innocent grip.

My thumping heart was contradicted by sadness then: It said I didn’t have to react with happiness or embarrassment, for Polack’s intentions were the best they could be. Much better than Mr. Howard’s would ever be, endlessly more harmless than the picture the latter painted of him. My silly, aching heart needed not fear his lips might suddenly turn and kiss me… I was safe from that evil, and a couple of bitter tears threatened to fall before I hastily checked their progress.

“It’s gonna be fine…” Polack repeated, stroking my arm.

I sunk deeper against his clothes and closed my eyes shut, at last allowing myself to enjoy the unsurmountable comfort his shoulder offered me. My insides almost hurt, twitching agitatedly, strangely. Since such a gentle nature moved him, I wished I had the guts to casually touch him, too… Casually stretch my arms and encircle his neck in an awkward hug I so strongly longed for. I began to fall asleep imagining how that might feel…

…I opened my eyes again some five or ten minutes later, when the concrete of reality had just begun to give way to the unreal realm of dreaming, having its thin edges smudged out by sheer exhaustion, when a scorching light stroke my closed lids into painful awakening. Raising them with a palm projected ahead for protection, I made out Mr. Howard standing at the bright corridor, holding the door wide open.

“What is it?” Polack inquired in a lazy, sloppy tone, giving away that he, too, had been napping.

“Customers!” Mr. Howard growled in a harsher than usual tone.

I slowly moved, pulling away from Polack – figuring, with little space for doubt, it was our closeness that motivated the old man’s choice of timbre and scowl.

“Of what kind?” Polack tranquilly asked, scratching his eyes and pulling his hair back.

“The type that would suit miss Jane here to serve!” His eyes glared furiously at me, as if I had broken some unspoken deal.

Are you sure you mean ‘miss Jane’ and not juvenile delinquent, thug sympathizer, hopeless disgraceful Jane?  I thought I might ask…

Polack sighed, still waking up. His clear, half closed eyes traced me with a drunk smile:

“You heard the man, Jane…”

I sighed and picked myself up, clearing the dust from my pants.

Polack yawned.

“You two go ahead, and close the door on your way out, if you will! I’m going to stay here and… study some more…” He laid back on the wall, crossing his arms over his chest and dropping his head. “Turn off the lights too, will ya? Thank you!”

Chapter 18

I leisurely rolled the chair around, both bored and anxious, but sprang quickly to my feet on the first crack of the doorknob turning, assuming a stiff position behind Polack’s shoulder before Jonah’s men had taken a step inside the room. The last two hours or so that I had spent there served their purpose in calming my anxiety – so I was reminded when, projecting beyond the trio of men in suits, Mr. Howard’s cold gaze found me from behind his glasses as he crossed his arms on his back and guarded the door.

I don’t think I ever felt genuine anxiety regarding the outcome of that night, and decided in that fierce, mute, undeclared yet no less certain glaring contest Mr. Howard and I had started against each other, that he had been purely dramatic in his previous attempt to manipulate me into fear. The affront passed unforgiven though, for none of us had exchanged a single word since it happened, and I was quite sure of having been ignored the few times I forgot about the cold war between us and tossed a remark or two his way.

Presently, Mr. Howard had only eyes for me – a reproachful pair, worse than usual, probably the result of having spent the last hours expecting I would turn tail and cower away from the meeting. They didn’t relent, not even as his suspicion was proved unrealistic by the fact that Jonah’s men were there and we were all still alive!

“Thought I told you to ditch the girl…” The short man playfully remarked, casting me a crooked smile I was too busy to notice.

“I appreciate the concern, but keeping Jane here as mine is one of the many perks of self-employment, do forgive the arrogance: It is my choice, and it has been made!”  A charming smile neutralized the straightforwardness.

From that pompous sentence I got a polite ‘you’re not the boss of me!’, and held in a laugh – a redoubled effort to toughen my shoulders and look menacing followed. Mr. Howard rolled his eyes, belittling my firmness, and I whispered “whatever” for him to read.

“It can’t be helped I guess…” the same man sighed “You might even say I’m jealous, but I’m not the only one…” he cast his glance to the side, which I failed to detect, being absorbed as I was in teasing Mr. Howard. “Still, It saddens me that such a little thing should take up as a big a portion of your regard as you lead us to believe, mister!”

“Would you be more comfortable if I sent her away? Give me a good reason why I should, and I might…”

My heart thumped. Mr. Howard’s face curled up as if he had a severe case of stomachache, and after some effort I realized he thought we were in danger!

 “Call me Joe. This is Matteo, and the boy hiding behind him is Tony…” He pointed to the side, then used the same finger to scratch his eyebrows as he talked “My boss is a bit of a softie. A good man, if you will: He hates killing innocent people, and isn’t happy with the idea of us offing an unfortunate orphan in case this turns into a mess…”

Polack chuckled, unaffected by the threat:

“Then I shall not let the girl quit my side ever again, Mr. Joe, and you’ve given me all the more reason to love her!”

I blushed and looked up, hearing their mutual laughs.

“That, and merciful as your boss might be, he still has his share on compromising the youth: How old is that lad? 16?”

“Who, that one? He’s seventeen, but don’t let that tarnish a good man’s name: He is but the ultimate proof of my Boss’s kindness. He goes so far as to force me to bring the kid along, when I see no talents spurting from that anytime soon!”

“The boy doesn’t seem to like being disrespected in public very much. I’ll be as bold as to say your previous comprehension of a teenagers’ trustworthiness – or the lack thereof – is nullified if this is the treatment you offer one forced to be your ally: I’m almost inclined to give him a knife with which to stab you in the back!”

“The kid’s alright… he knows I like him somewhere in me…” Joe turned to look at the contorting victim.

“I like to indulge the thought that I myself am a very generous man, and Jane has yet to contradict me. However, I must make a remark in regards of his talents, as you put it: I have seen him before, when he happened to come sniffing about asking where a certain ‘Polack’ lived. Not the keenest scout to have been assigned, I suppose!” Polack’s voice gave away no malice, only playfulness. Nonetheless, Joe’s face turned red with vexation.

Meanwhile, I at last turned my eyes to the subject of the talk, confirming his identity:

“That’s the motorcycle boy!” I let out, and blushed at the sound of my free voice articulating without my permission.

“The kid’s an idiot, I’ll give you that!” Joe sighed “We sent him to watch and discover where you lived without being noticed… The dumb boy must have been bewitched by that girl of yours, spilling the beans by accident! Boss would’ve cut his tongue if it was someone else, but I guess he really sees something in him. I don’t know what this weird deal is, of powerful people taking in these compromising brats, but you can probably understand it better than me…”

Tony blushed and seemed ready to shrink between his shoulders all the time, but no injury or offense marked his brow. Polack offered him a sympathetic smile now and then. I would have thought it cute on my superior’s behalf, if the light of his green pupils didn’t carry, along with the amiable pity I myself was very familiar with, an air of aware, arrogant superiority, almost as if he looked down on a bug he would love to accidentally step on. It was a scary mingle: One I didn’t think I’d be capable of noticing if it weren’t for obsessing about what Mr. Howard had said of him a few days ago. I squinted my eyes, firmly trying to understand where such dormant aversion came from, and why.

Apart from that, however, the mood in Polack’s office creeped closer and closer to friendliness as they switched to different subjects and the conversation moved from the news, to business, then back again. Even the big, grumpy guy called Matteo had a part in their conversation, letting out an occasional laugh – the kind that seemed almost capable of making the room shake, so grave its tone – and soon Mr. Howard, Tony and I were the only quiet, sullen people there.

For the sake of my boredom’s death, and the joy of my knees tired of standing so stiff for so long, late at night – or perhaps almost morning -, the meeting came to a close and Polack was left with five names to find faces – and information, whereabouts, etc – for. Joe, apparently having been given his boss’s excuse to trust Polack, didn’t have any reserves in saying Jonah wanted those men’s locations to hunt them down and kill them simply because they knew his past secrets. He also passed on his boss’s official apologies regarding the stolen files, guaranteeing the man acted on his own and that his existence would not be missed by the group; along with a sincere hope that they’d find in each other loyal comrades.

When they were all out the door – Mt. Howard included, to see them out – I again lingered a while longer in my default position, this time moved by an unconscious reverie – I studied Polack’s back as he sat behind his desk, trying to get whatever insight I could from it: I wondered how much of that friendly chat was for show, and how much of it was his actual nature – sociable, friendly and talkative, like he was to me, in spite of his cruel business. It gave me a knot in the throat to realize Mr. Howard was right about something: I didn’t know Polack.

What would have made me fearful in other times did only sadden me into a strange, inexplicable grief. Polack smiled and spoke, without spotting my eyes to see that they had sunk significantly:

“Jane… How tired are you?”

“Not much!” I promptly started back from my transient humor, and just as promptly lied. “Why?!”

Polack’s smile softened into a musing while his eyes grew more invisible “I’m rather anxious…”

“Anxious?!” I was glad he had the habit of announcing his moods, for I could see no evidence of them brimming on his countenance.

“Yes! What do you say we occupy ourselves with another little service, just until the night ends?”

I felt myself excite. 

Chapter 17

I lingered in the closet a moment or two after my superior left it, thinking about what he had said. Quickly returning to my senses when the lights were turned down, I chased Polack back into his room, but he showed no interest in explaining himself – only a half-smile mutely regarded my disturbance whenever I inquired after its cause.

And though he said we shouldn’t bother tormenting our brains with looking for answers when Jonah’s men were most likely to deliver them next, he still sat behind his desk and ran through faded, yellow pages in secret notebooks.

“Jane, would you mind fetching me a cup of tea since you’re here? …I’m sure things will look clearer then…” he asked at length, fully absorbed by his activity.

I nodded and readily climbed up the stairs. When the sunlight greeted me on the kitchen, I realized I had been down there for too long: Moved, most likely, by the addicting feeling of being useful. It gave me something as the delight of an accomplishment whenever I fulfilled an order, however simple it might be, and Polack chuckled – mockingly, for sure – at my promptness.

“Polack wants tea!” Proud, therefore, of my own sense of responsibility, I quickly, imperiously declared from the top of the stairs as soon as I spotted Mr. Howard.

…but, in my efficiency, I probably emulated the old man’s rudeness a little too much, causing an insult: He dumbly carried on with his previous task, now moving from the sink, where he had been doing the dishes, to the counter. Had he failed to detect the urgency of my request? Vexed, I repeated it:

“I said…”

“I heard what you said loud and clear, girl!” His hard look turned briefly my way, before turning back to the dishes he now diligently wiped with a cloth. The task, I observed, received a much more detailed attention than its simplicity demanded.

“Well, then?” I impatiently pursued, walking closer to him in short, agitated steps.

Howard sighed, taking his time to decide:

“Tell him to come and get it himself.” Was the indifferent answer.

I gasped with shock, but surrendered the urge to get mad over to a more appealing strategy: was Mr. Howard going to take out the unexplained dislike he had for me on Polack now? I was sure he couldn’t do so without consequences, and grinned meanly at the prospect of enumerating them:

“I think I will! In fact, I’m going right now, if you’re sure that’s what you want me to do! However, Polack is very busy, you know? I don’t think he will be very happy with that…” I peevishly declared, resisting a giggle that would ruin the importance of my scene.

“Good!” Mr. Howard grunted, unimpressed, as he once more turned his back on me.  

I grimaced.

“D-do you really want to risk it?!” I blurted out, finally angry that my competence should so depend on his, and succumbing myself into the pressure I in vain tried to transmit “Don’t you know what Polack can do to people who get on his way?!”

In retrospect… that was a very naïve statement. And I was asking for what came next:

“Much better than you, I do!” Mr. Howard turned abruptly, fed up with my attitude “In fact, I know exactly what he does. The real question is: Do you?”

I walked an automatic step back, but stopped in time to regain at least half of my arrogant composure:

“I-I’m not the one challenging him here!” I accused.

Mr. Howard, though sterner, was easier to confront – not only because I had already realized he was a big softy deep inside, but also because I had taken the liberty to assume we both stood at the same footing there, and age difference didn’t – as far as I knew – come before rank. Challenging that belief, Mr. Howard grunted what I think would have been a snicker, had he possessed any sense of humor. His lips were incapable of turning up into a smile – even one meant to mortify me! All he did was declare with measured irritation:

“’Challenging’! Just listen to yourself, you cocky little brat! It will be a thousand years before I fear that guy, and a thousand more before I put up with you talking all big and brave like that, whoever you got that attitude from!”

It wasn’t wounded pride that motivated his speech, but a comical form of annoyance that my posture alone seemed to motivate.

 “Now if you really want to steer away from trouble, go back down and tell that bum to come get his tea himself.” – Mr. Howard declared at last, transferring a teapot from the stove to the cabinet.

I remained there, thrown away from my sudden burst of confidence and now gently shaking, loudly cursing in my head. My visibly insurgent delay annoyed Mr. Howard beyond himself when he noticed my eyes ferociously tracing his figure:

“What? Didn’t I tell you to go?!”

The coarse voice stirred my wimp spirit into defiance. I grimaced, deciding:

“I don’t listen to you, old man!” As soon as the words left my mouth I would have started suffering with a guilty conscience, had not another almost grin entertained Howard’s tight expression:

“Who do you listen to then, the Pole?” his entire body turned, gladly confronting me again.

“Yes!” I shouted haughtily.

“Do you think he even cares about what you do with your time here?!”

Now he does!” I pursued, shaking violently – not from anger properly speaking, but from the agitation of rarely speaking my mind – “I am actually helping him! Meanwhile, what are you doing?!”

Helping him!” Mr. Howard repeated with a scoff “Is that what this is about? You were the quietest little imp to ever sneak around the corners of this house just a moment ago, but now that you’re helping him you must be some big shit?”

“Watch it!” I said, overtaken by rage – or at least started to, before Mr. Howard thrashed forward, sending me and my angst back a few paces before we could resume our gnarling.

“Look at you, talking big  because you think you found a bully’s to hide under and from where to bark. Listen, kid: The Pole doesn’t care about you, and he specially doesn’t care about what I do to you, so don’t get on my bad side…”

“That’s not true!” I fervently defended, my rage and voice tone coming in larger waves whenever Mr. Howard’s faltered, thorn between anger and scorn as he was.

“Isn’t it?! ‘Cause you would have starved to death in that room if it was up to him to remember your mousy little existence!”

“You say this because he likes me, because you…”

“Likes you?! Don’t make me laugh! Pole likes only himself…” Mr. Howard interrupted, the corners of his mouth threatening to stretch up in a smile, before he examined me with rebuking, heavy eyes that read right through me “Apparently, the two of you have that inclination in common!”

I colored, then frowned harder:

“That’s not what it is!!”

“Now, that man’s a scoundrel and there’s no hope for him, but you… You should be ashamed of yourself!!”

As I lagged in vexation’s mute pyre, Mr. Howard chided on like a true man in his age:

“Pole doesn’t like anybody, it would do you some good to start understanding that now! He might’ve killed his own parents as far as anyone can tell, do you think he’d give a rat’s ass over a mouthy little brat like yourself?! Tell him half of what you’ve told me here, with half as bold a tone, and he’d cut that tongue right out of your mouth!”

 I can’t pretend the mental image Howard’s words suggested didn’t sting me into a shock. Had I been less accustomed to the old man’s harsh descriptions of my superior, it might have silenced me; but as it was, I remained unconvinced:

“Polack is nothing like that! Nothing like anything you ever said of him! He cares about me! I’m going to help him with Jonah, and…”

“Jonah?!” Mr. Howard fiercely interrupted as I pressed an invisible button “Don’t go talking so naturally about things you don’t even understand! If Polack cared about you, you’d still be locked in that fucking room, oblivious to all of this! Now that you do know, you should be scared rather than so foolishly excited! You should feel injured, robbed of your safety and your values, manipulated into corruption, and not like you’re in some type of joyride!”

I frowned fiercely, but couldn’t keep my head from dropping before Mr. Howard’s earnest appeal.

“I should fill you in – while the two of you are all sunshine and rainbows downstairs, the reality is that Pole arbitrated and committed downright murder while you slept in the next room. That inconsequential murder – yes girl, assassination, with blood and gore and everything! – happened to piss off a mob, one neither of us know anything about. Now, if I remember right, those men didn’t leave this place in such good-terms with Pole, and their arrival wasn’t any amiable either. What you’re failing to see in all your bright, blind dazzle with how fun it is to live here, is that those men might just decide it’s not worth risking their identities with a friendly deal. They just might decide they’re coming back to kill us – you do remember they never said they wouldn’t, don’t you?! Look at me, girl – I see at least the idea of your death gets to you!”

I followed Mr. Howard’s movements with fierce, angry yet deferent eyes. A lump started to grow in my throat from all the apprehension he poured on.

“Pole is not worried. You’ll never see him fear a blood bath. He won’t move a finger to protect you either, if you are down there with him – and he won’t hesitate to use you as a meat shield if he sees fit. So don’t go walking around all high and mighty because he’s made you his pet – wise up instead: know the difference between being used and being appreciated…” he scolded at last, leveling his head with mine and pressing his eyebrows together, demanding my full attention with severity “…and, specially…” his voice toned down a bit as his eyes surveyed the ferocity in my face “…between right and wrong.

When Mr. Howard finally turned and walked away, I breathed freely – a spasmodic, trembling, apprehensive breath.

“Go to your room. Stop this nonsense while you still have the chance. You’re just a kid!” my torturer commanded softly, resuming his work on the sink “And don’t worry about him: Pole is a big boy, he can do things himself. He never needed you before, he doesn’t need you now.”

I remained in my position, pressing my back against the wall, with my shoulders undecided between coward trembling and a hard, protective shrug. My eyes sunk, staring into nothing to process the bitter taste left on the back of my tongue.  

“What could be taking you so long?!” I was pulled out of my reverie by Polack’s hands taking hold of my shoulders, moving me out of his way. I started and stared up at his face, which prompted his languid green eyes to immediately trace Mr. Howard as the cause for my change of aspect.

“Arguing again, were you?! It doesn’t matter…” he chuckled, apparently immune to the heavy atmosphere Howard and I shared “I’ll make the tea myself. But cheer up the two of you, do! It will be dreadful if Jonah’s men return to find my two companions looking so pessimistic and grim! It’s bad for business, you know!”

The old man’s eyes turned back to me, mutely imparting the whole extent of his disapproval and pressuring me into excusing myself from the mentioned meeting. And I well considered it, and had already started opening my lips to only then come up with a polite request not to participate, before Polack, shuffling into the next room, announced with a gleeful tone:

“Ah, Jane, I forgot to mention it: If you won’t object, I strongly insist that you stay by my side tomorrow when they return. I can ask you this much now, can’t I?”

The crease between Mr. Howard’s eyebrows deepened, as did the chill on my spine…

“So, Jane?”

…as did my willpower.

“There’s a good girl!” He smiled, reading the answer out of my dumb silence.

Mr. Howard sighed, quite literally and figuratively turning his back on me.

Chapter 16

“Fear of the unknown…” Polack panted, placing four boxes at a time on top of his desk. I rushed to his aid, making sure the pile wouldn’t collapse on him as soon as he had let go. “…That’s what drove them to resent you so instantly. Try not to fret about it too much…” he smiled gently, placing his hot hand on top of my head for a fraction of a second before moving back to the shelves.

“A natural, very basic instinct. Once confronted with the unknown, careful, smart people will always picture the worst scenario. That is why you tried to kill me, for instance…” he stopped to turn around and flash me a teasing smile that made me embarrass, before stretching his arms and reaching for the top boxes.

I could have easily argued that I did it because he outright threatened me… but I warmed up to being called ‘smart’ through that comparison.

“Is that a good thing?”

“It depends! An individual can think of it as a good way of defending against potential unpleasantries. But it’s not good for a business, definitely! Think of it as…”

Placing the box on the desk, he looked to the side, seeking inspiration for a good example.

“…think of it as the orphanage refusing to take in new girls once the older ones have left. Isn’t that a simple logic? What do you think of it now, Jane?” His eyes weighed on me.

“I think the orphanage would be a nice place with fewer girls in there…” I frowned at the parallel, struggling to see the negativity of it.

 Polack enjoyed a secret laugh.

“Genius in its own way, I must admit! If you were in my shoes, you’d prize constancy… Safety in seeing always the same faces, however scarce they grew. That is a tempting position even for myself… But I welcome new clients. I can’t fear them – no thriving business can. And hopefully, I don’t have to. Though they are unknown to me and I to them, I am sufficiently known elsewhere, and that provides me a safety net. You see? Knowledge is everything!” Polack emphasized, lifting an index finger to make his point clearer “No one wants to be kept in the dark, and that is why they found it so unpleasant to get here and see a lovely young thing such as my little Jane, when all they expected was two dastard fools – one older than the next.”

Polack removed the lids of the boxes, I peered inside them.

“As they dig more …” His pale fingers ran through the files “…they’ll soon learn you’ve been here for extraordinarily little time. Then they’ll get even more pissed about it. If they can ever bring themselves to trust me, then there will be the pressing matter of not trusting you – of not even trusting my judgement of you. So you’ll have to be a nice girl throughout these little visits, Jane…”

I earned another quick pat on the head – one that left me remembering Howard’s warning I overheard. I frowned, rejecting the idea that I would bring trouble to Polack:

“Well, you said it yourself: you said it was a good thing they didn’t know something about you! It can’t be that bad, the fact that they’ll fear you…”

“Ah, yes, Jane… It can’t be entirely bad, not when fear is everywhere, moving everything, really! I sustain the suspicion that all in our lives is based on it: violence, anger, tears, wars…” He drily explained, lifting his eyes to stare into mental pictures for a while. “If you’re weak, you’re afraid of the strong. If you’re strong, you’re afraid of looking weak, so you always subjugate because you can’t administer your own fear – and that’s pretty much how animals work. We all suffer from it, I’m sure, but the cowards are the ones to act on it the most – coward doesn’t mean weak, mind you! You can think of Jonah as a coward, whoever he is. Though I must say the idea of someone’s bones shaking in fear before my humble image isn’t a bad one, those men are all dogs with far too many teeth in their mouths… We don’t want to test their sharpness by risking a bite, so we’d better not poke them too much and leave them to their careful distances.”

As Polack’s eyes sought mine with a clarifying smile, I looked away, embarrassed by the recollection of our fight. If only I had kept a cool head like he did, instead of acting like a cornered animal… It made me feel silly now that I was out of danger.

Which led to the question:

“Well… you say that fear is everywhere, and yet… You don’t seem like you fear anything!”

A diffident chuckle moved him.

“I like to think my awareness of the whole ordeal provides me with a little advantage on the matter…”

What an unsatisfying answer! I would like to know what he feared, if anything, and carried on examining his face looking for signs of exactly that, while he went through the box. I could tell Mr. Howard’s greatest fear was the liability I represented, and I sort of understood it now that my presence alone had put so many important men on their guards. Did the same fear affect Polack, however? Did he trust me at all… or was he just that much confident on his own ability to neutralize me if I ever became a threat? I unknowingly glared, narrowing my eyes.

“Jane, that is discourteous! Make sure you never show our guests that fierce little side of yours…” Polack meekly warned without lifting his eyes to directly correspond my stare.

I blushed and looked away!


I had thought Polack would make me go through all the boxes with him again, but luckily that wasn’t his plan as he unloaded the shelves. By the end of the corridor outside his room, a small closet hid behind its racks of coats a dusty computer. Safety and top secret files weren’t the reason it was locked away in there, clearly suffering from little to no use, however:

“Sit down, Jane; operate it for me: I can’t stand these things!” Polack pulled an old faded chair. The wheels squeaked, refusing to roll as they dragged back on the floor.

I sat before the big tube monitor and looked for the roaring box right beneath it – Polack’s finger pressed down a button on a block standing below the desk, and the noisy computer started. The design looked modern to me – it was, in fact, one of the first few models to have a vertical CPU rather than the horizontal, big ones I was introduced to in the orphanage a couple of years back. The screen also seemed slightly more colorful.

As I sat on the back of the closet pretending to know what I was about to do on that thing, Polack turned his back on me and moved about with a string roll in his hand, from which he stretched a piece and hung it parallel to the ceiling, connecting one wall to the other. When that was done, he hung a few slips of paper there with colored clippers. I watched over my shoulders, and didn’t have to stop doing so when he turned: again, my insides swirled in composed excitement.

“What are those numbers and letters?” I asked.

“I would have thought you’d remember them after an entire evening of searching, Jane, but I suppose your memory of that day rests elsewhere, nervous as you were… These are the files that have gone missing.”

I ran my eyes through them, vaguely recollecting their sequence.

“Five have disappeared, stolen from someone we now know to have been hired by Jonah…” He mused aloud, stopping to contemplate the line he had created.

“…but not to steal you, they said.”

“But not to steal me…” Polack repeated, stroking his chin.

“What about them?” I called him back from his silence.

 “Now, more than ever, I’d like to discover what was in them!”

Polack turned, quick enough for me to vaguely register the cold, interesting look his eyes bore when they focused on an important matter. Before I could prepare for it, his hand held down my shoulder, turning me back to the monitor. It rested there for a while longer as he slowly leaned down on my back. I would have flinched, or made up an excuse to escape the unwelcome, uncomfortable intimacy he perused as his face waited next to mine, so close the pointy locks of his shredded hair brushed my eyebrows, if it weren’t for how gravely he examined the screen. The light parting from it made his eyes look brighter, and the small black pupils navigated lazily trough the static green around them. His eyelashes were full, my attention was easily drawn to them… I wondered why I hadn’t noticed it before, but after a moment longer of staring I figured it must have been because, like his hair, they were of a pale blonde hue. The proximity of his handsome face made me sweat with nervousness, and I blushed, realizing I had been looking for too long! Good thing he was so busy he didn’t notice it… I moaned lightly, poorly hiding my agony: If I asked him to steer away, or moved to the side myself, I’m sure he would tease my overreaction to something so ‘trivial’ or whatever, using that smile of his, and I would turn red and angry, making him eventually speculate why I felt like I did in those cases of harmless proximity – Though I didn’t quite know it yet myself, I could tell by the nature of it that it wasn’t something I would like the Polack to discover.

“Ah! Here it is! Click on it, Jane!” Polack smiled, and I got caught examining how his pink lips stretched upwards when he did so. The nervous lag must have made him impatient, for he laid his hand on mine, over the mouse – the touch made me exhale a longer breath.

“A while back Howard came up with this stupid idea…” he started, dragging the mouse around while he gently cupped my hand in his palm. “…of backing things up in some sort of system. The rascal couldn’t bring himself to do it however hard he tried, though…” Polack laughed, and again my eyes were on him “I couldn’t find that much motivation myself, so I ended up with this small index. Guess I was the stupid one after all, huh, Jane?”

I was started back to the subject, noticing I hadn’t been paying so much attention to what Polack was saying – not because I was distracted, but because his touch made me feel so nervous, and my brain worked so violently on figuring a natural way to react, his words were out of my ears before I could interpret them.

“Yes…?” I insecurely answered, hoping his reaction would give away what I had just answered affirmatively to.

Polack’s eyes fell sideways on me as he cocked his head to smile and sigh disappointedly:

“Is that so? You’re so ruthless, Jane! It’s on me, however: I shouldn’t expect you to have my back on this!”

His eyes returned to the screen, his hand cupped mine more firmly, squeezing my fingers as he clicked and dragged the mouse over the pad. His thick, cool index finger slid between mine and repeatedly pushed down on the sensitive skin of my interspaces as he scrolled down the mouse wheel. How long could that list be? I began to sweat nervously, the harmless gesture proving more uncomfortable than it would have been if my brain didn’t read so much intimacy on it.

“It’s a nice piece of work we have here: more than I would have expected, at least…” Polack sighed, finally letting go of my hand. I reeled it back in a burst, placing it between my knees and sighing with relief. “I’m hoping you’ll bring me luck and discover I have documented at least some of these files we’re looking for there. Can you do that?”

He leaned forward on the desk and surveyed my expression. I nodded mutely.

“There’s a good girl! I’ll hold you to that promise, now get to work!” Polack patted my shoulder, walking back to the codes hanging on the string.

I sighed away the dismay of having to once again run a search on them. A splinter of sunshine came in the form of interest made the task a little bit brighter, however: it was the fact that now fear wouldn’t hold me back from knowing what those files contained. In fact, I could even peek inside and read them before telling Polack. Thus I scrolled back to the top of the list and made my way down, avidly checking.

It was funny to discover that, upon spotting the first match – and only one, to be fair – curiosity was replaced by sudden anxiety to see Polack’s reaction – I was calling him to my side before my brain had properly made the decision, in a selfless burst of joy. Not much time was left for questioning the reaction either, for the next second saw Polack’s hand weight down on my shoulder, holding my back as he arched forward to level himself with the screen. His face stopped close to mine, where his soft lips stretched into a smile.

“Commendable detective work right here, Jane!” He uttered, and I smiled silly to myself. “Now click it… Let’s see what we’ve got!”

I turned my focus back to the screen and investigated while my cheek’s glow slowly faded away. Nothing inside the file proved worthy of my previous interest, however: There were no pictures of open bodies, gore or maybe even supernatural creatures, as I excitedly would have hoped if given the time.

Disappointment weighed down on my ears as I begun to scroll down looking for enlightenment. I mumbled to myself:

“It’s like a nightmare: Another list!”

Polack let out an amused chuckle as he gripped my shoulders and gently pulled me to his side, moving me out of the chair with a polite “Excuse-me Jane, will you?”. He sat and immediately took his fingertips to his lips, invoking thoughts.

 “Another list, yes… but what is this about?” Polack soliloquized, scrolling back to the header.

Just like he was doing before, I clung to his shoulder, holding the back of the chair.

“Do you know all these people?!” I innocently asked upon noticing they were all names, and fittingly received a chuckle for an answer.

“I could never… But do you see these dates, Jane? And this symbol? And what these fine prints say here?”

I squinted my eyes and inevitably leaned closer, accidentally brushing against Polack’s hair – a soft perfume escaped it. It made me slightly overwhelmed…

“It’s a list of arrests. All of which took place in this specific period of time: eleven years ago. Do you not recognize this logo right here?”

I looked closer – it was easy to ignore the fine print and mind only the slender female figure in the center, pointing down a dagger in one hand and flowers on the other, which she held close to her chest, probably in a weird pretentious symbolism of justice – the type that only the artist behind it really understands.

“No!” I bluntly, rudely answered, annoyed at my failure.

“Police Department of Auchstead. It’s the very city you came from, Jane!”

“Why would you have something like that here?”

“For no reason – it’s a public file, after all… easily attainable through databases. But if your question is why I would be interested in the calm little place my lovely Jane came from, the answer is simple: Gloen might be bigger a city in matters of commerce and recreation, but Auchstead has a greater population – those old hills house many great mansions like the one they use for your orphanage, and most of them belong to very old, powerful families. You’d find the two cities to be very intimately connected in that aspect, Jane: business, ‘downtown’ on one side; expensive housing and luxurious green fields on the other; as if both wanting cities formed a full one. It’s no surprise they surrendered you to me so easily…”

Polack enjoyed a smile on his inner thoughts before turning to the screen again and sighing back into reality, his lips withdrawing into a pensive pucker:

“In the endgame, this doesn’t help us much… Have you found anything else?”

It was hard to disappoint him further, but I did: I shook my head negatively.

“Well… If it’s not helpful to us, it’s certainly not of any use to them either… That’s a good thing!”

Them? You think they have it?!” I frowned.

“Why, yes! That little prick might have handed Jonah everything he thieved from me before going down. Or not… We don’t know if that’s what he was hired for. In any case, they are gone, Jane, and there is no prospect of retrieving them. No need to look so tragic, though!” He smiled reassuringly “This was just me trying to give us a head start. They’ll come to us eventually, and I’m betting they’re bringing us the names on those codes.”

“What are you going to do if that happens? You don’t have the files to deliver to them …”

I walked backwards, giving Polack the space to roll back the chair. He stood again, shadowing me under his height:

“It will be easier to gather information when I know what I’m looking for.” A carefree smile fed his confidence.

He walked past me and to the string again, giving it a last examination:

“I was hoping you would bring me luck, but… What a disappointment!” The inner tip of his eyebrows pulled up, feigning a sad expression his wet voice mimicked, provoking me.

I clenched my fists and growled:

“Well, it’s not my fault! Maybe you shouldn’t have gone and wacked the guy before taking your stuff back…”

Polack stopped under the doorframe, blocking the exit with his large back, and cocked his head to the side to glare back at me from over his shoulder. His eyes narrowed maliciously and his lips curled up, causing me to, for a second, think I had gone too far in my insolence!

“My, my! How scary!” A soft voice teased, chuckling lightly “It seems my little Jane is no longer impressed by the unpleasant subject of death!”

I shrunk my shoulders, flinching with the revelation like it was a spear to the heart.

“I daresay your skin has even picked up a livelier tone lately…” Polack turned, addressing me with conviction: “Look at what that uneventful existence you were ‘okay’ with leading has done to you, Jane: One single spark of excitement drops down from all this foul play, and you can’t help but enjoy it, however rotten!”

My eyes widened at Polack’s shameless malice, he savored my reaction to the fullest:

“Boredom does that to you, my dear: It lowers your standards scarily much!”

I gasped, tracing the carpet. Polack laughed himself out:

“Oh my! Those nuns wouldn’t want to see you now…

Chapter 15

I slowly paced the room counting the boxes in my head and, unknowingly, in a silent whisper that progressively annoyed Mr. Howard. When I turned, his scowl weighed rudely on me. I held back the urge to give him my tongue.

He detested it, but I was learning to thoroughly enjoy the freedom of coming and going, of casually listening to their secrets. Freedom – I could not call it otherwise, now that the overwhelming fear had left me… Even if it meant I could never leave their side. Polack had given me the two of them, respectively: Liability’s captivity, and the right to truly be so long as within its boundaries

And speaking of Polack… He sat at his desk supporting his elbows on the surface and holding his chin on his hands, meditating. Mr. Howard sat before him, and I paced curiously.

“I wonder why they’d send a random person to rob us instead of coming to me themselves…”

“Maybe the girl was right!” Mr. Howard cocked his head forward, pointing to me “Maybe he just played a smartass, acted alone. You know the punks: They see new people coming to town, they see a new opportunity…”

Polack’s eyes lazily shifted to me, then back to Howard with a sigh:

“So you don’t think they even knew me in the first place?”

Mr. Howard shrugged his dense shoulders.

“I think it’s a possibility.”

“And are you really buying it – that this super cautious boss of theirs would hire a random pawn to take care of the men in his past?”

Mr. Howard heavily observed my progress in counting the boxes, not bothering hiding his distaste for the fact that I should be present in the room, before choosing to ignore me:

“They were probably planning on killing the guy after the job was done anyway.”

“Or hiring him.” I added; then, when all eyes turned to me, fought the need of holding my mouth.

Mr. Howard grimaced, expressing he merely tolerated my presence but would absolutely not overlook an active participation. Polack, however, thought nothing of it.

 “Still doesn’t explain their carelessness. Not when they were so cautions that the presence of a mere girl gets under their skins!”

“Lessons were learned” Mr. Howard sighed, getting up “Of course they’ll be more careful the second time around!”

This time like in the previous one, Polack’s interaction slowly trailed into private musings. Mr. Howard must have been used to it, for he turned to go without a word. Without a word, too, he motioned his head urging me to follow, as if speaking up would seriously interrupt Polack’s train of thought. As I walked around the desk following Howard’s large back, however, I couldn’t help but throw a long glance at Polack’s statue-like position – his eyes looked so different when thus focused, I couldn’t resist examining them.

“Jane, why don’t you stay?” Unexpectedly, his voice interrupted me as I crossed the threshold. I glanced up at Mr. Howard halfway up the stairs, but no protests came from him.

“There’s a good girl!” he smiled, measuring me while I walked back into the room “You look like you have something to ask me. Come, tell: The old man no longer has his eyes on you.”

I tucked my hands inside my pocket and trailed the carpet with uncertain eyes, moving my knees back and forth slightly.

“Pondering on what made you restless is the way I found to beat the distraction of having you mumble random numbers for the last half an hour. Now that the damage is done go ahead, Jane, and tell me what’s ailing you.”

“It’s just that I’ve been wondering…” With a sigh, I gave in. “If these folks were ready to… well…”

Polack’s smile stretched, expectant that whatever I said would be amusing. I grew slightly red from the tension.

“…If they were going to kill whoever…” I shrugged, shaking off the discomfort “…after the job was done or so, well… I’m wondering what’s keeping them from going after you when you’re done!”

Polack dedicated long two seconds to a mute chuckle while he furrowed his eyebrows with a guilty pleasure. Though the display of pity and mockery annoyed me, I couldn’t help but feel slightly relieved that my concern was silly enough to be laughed at.

“So that’s what it’s been!” He placed a closed fist over his mouth and shook a while longer with restrained laugh, then his eyes relaxed, eyeing me placidly “But you haven’t been worrying yourself with my safety, have you, Jane? That would be so peculiar, I’d assume you fell from your bed this morning or something!”

“T-That’s not it at all!!” I frowned, turning my face away.

“Of course not!” Polack smiled “Smart girl as you are, you know they’d come for all of us, right, Jane?!” His eyes narrowed as I reluctantly glanced back at him.

“Hmm… Of course!” I felt my cheeks burn again – this time driven by the anxiety of telling a lie.

“If they decide to…” Polack sighed, leaning forward on his chair and picking up some papers from his desk “…They’ll kill all of us, Jane! It’s the right thing to do when one of those tough decisions is made…”

Casually, he pulled the lamp over his sheets, but a quick glance my way showed he was making an effort to scare me.

“Those people leave no one behind in case someone decides to seek revenge… And neither should you ever, Jane, you’d better start learning it now: Never know when you might need it! So… are you scared? You don’t have to worry about it though! I’ll protect you!” A conceited smile transformed his face into unrequited benevolence.

“I don’t need it!” I scowled, looking at him sideways “I don’t think they’d want me dead, it’s not like I have anything to do with you!”

“But you do now – that’s what I meant when I said I’d have to compromise you.”

I turned around with an expression that waited undecided between wide eyes and a grimace. Polack smiled, satisfied, leaning back on his chair, crossing his arms over his chest and lowering his head as to dwell in the shadow cast by his hat.

“I’ve told them you’re with me, and you didn’t deny it. Word travels fast: Before the end of the week, every single contact I have will expect to see you by my side, whether they like the idea or not!”

I moved forward, parting my lips to utter an apprehensive protest, when Polack calmly lifted his palm in the air and smiled, interrupting me:

“Fear not, Jane – I don’t need to fear for your silence, and you don’t need to fear anything else as long as you’re with me, too: See? Everything has its bright side, if you look at it close enough… Isn’t this a win-win situation? Take a seat, Jane… get comfortable!”

I scowled, doubtful, and Polack’s smile stretched farther across his shadowy face, enjoying the mystery he saw me struggle against.

“I ask you not to waste your apprehensive little thoughts on them. I’ll tell you why, but first I’d like to ask: What do you know about me?”

Again I pressed my eyebrows together, earning another small, muffled laugh from my sardonic superior.

“What do you know about me that makes you peaceful around me as you are now – for you are, Jane! Have you noticed?”

Indeed, I was. Sitting in front of him, I felt my fingers grow cold, as if I had been ignoring a threat. But was he still one? I looked up at him, brooding. His expectation made me worry about nothing but being reasonable, regardless of the pressing concern of whether my cleverness in the matter would be appreciated or preoccupying to him.

“I know you could have hurt me. I know you could have, if you wanted to, and yet…” The weird mixture of embarrassment and fear that respect conjured made me unwilling to speak further. Luckily, I had made myself sufficiently understandable.

“Very good!” Polack smiled amiably, like a praising teacher would, causing me to narrow my eyes – it was a strange feeling, to be complimented. “And what do you know about Mr. Howard? Why are you so cool around him?”

Again I meditated, carefully picking my answer. Saying I trusted him because he looked like he had a good heart beneath all that grumpiness wouldn’t do to please my superior and again earn a praise. I realized with sweating tension with what silly eagerness I hoped for another one!

“I know he answers to you, and he wouldn’t hurt me unless you told him to.”

His smile stretched, fascinated.

“And what if we wanted to hurt you, Jane? What then?”

The initial flinching reaction I showed forced a chuckle out of Polack, but I quickly recomposed and carried on to the thinking part.

“What weapons would you choose to defend yourself?” he reiterated.

My eyes automatically trailed their way to the swords hanging over the doorframe.

“Not those, no!” Polack smiled in a reprobative yet mindful way “Don’t tell me you would try the same thing again, Jane, when it worked so well the last time!”

I blushed, ashamed of the stupid thought that I didn’t have to externalize to be noticed. It was a hard question to answer, though… I feared I shouldn’t sound too smart on this one!

“You’d use exactly what you are using right now…” Tired of waiting, Polack clarified “You’re thinking, Jane. You’d use your intelligence, wouldn’t you? …Considering that your physical ability could hardly put up against two grown men such as Howard and I.”

“I… I guess so.” But how to apply it was still a blur. The suggestions and ideas fluctuated around me, making sense… yet they were still detached: I could never understand using intelligence against danger, when all I ever knew was to run faster than the nuns and aim well at the windows.

“You would use what you know of this place against us, in whichever way you could. You have enough to threaten us in return, Jane!”

Would I know how to do that? I eagerly listened, hoping Polack would tell me the step by step. Maybe he would even be willing to lend me a paper and a pen and let me take notes, just in case I might later forget…

“You know, for now, that you’ve raised the Police’s suspicion, and anything that came to happen to you would automatically be pinned down to me. Which would make… silencing you harder than otherwise.”

Taking mental notes!

“In the meantime, you could freely raise a list of proofs you have against me and let me know about it – let me know exactly how much of my secrets you know, and how much you could let out if you wished to. Now, tell me: What harming information could you provide the police with?”

I merely stared Polack back, by this point too intimidated to think about it or even consider answering.

He leaned forward once more, supporting his elbows on the desk and smiling an interesting, predatory smile that made my chest feel warm again. With a soft, almost whispered tone, he played:

“…Or you wouldn’t do that, Jane?”

“I-I wouldn’t!” I eagerly answered, immediately assuming it was the right one.

Polack leaned back again, laughing quietly to himself.

“Oh you would, Jane! I’d be disappointed if you didn’t!” He concluded without leaving any space for argumentation “You don’t swear your loyalty to those who promise you death, and that is all I have done ‘till now, as far as your imaginative brave heart is concerned! Don’t trust me just yet, please! Or at least pretend you don’t, for now…”

I blushed harder, embarrassed by the naivety Polack now laughed upon.

“Just think, Jane, and know I will appreciate it! And only appreciate it, rest assured! Now tell me: If you had one day and one day only to put my back against the wall…” The thought made me uncomfortable “…And threaten me so that I’d stop threatening you… what would you have for me? What do you know of me, that ties me to you?”

I examined him, uncertain and still slightly fearful.

“Okay…” I sighed, opening up my coward chest. I closed my eyes for an instant, calling back everything that I had spotted of weird since I got there. Unknowingly, I started to count them out loud: “The strange sign outside… few customers… No cook…”

Polack watched me silently form his position, waiting, confident and glad, seeming to appreciate each sign of progress in a very intimate way. It encouraged me to count further:

“The boxes… the nightly visits… the strange events, the late dumping…”

I started to feel overwhelmed by all the evidences put together, but Polack still seemed to wait for more.

I looked into his eyes, and they almost gave me the answer, expectant as they were.

“Ah! The boxes! Of course!”

“Very good, Jane! But what about the boxes? I don’t recall you ever allowing yourself to take a peek inside…”

I scratched my chin.

“Hmm… Some of the folders in there had a logo printed on them. I remember seeing it here and there again and again… could it be…” I frowned, wondering if it would sound stupid… “…the state seal?”

There it was again: the look of full satisfaction I secretly craved for. Another “Very good, Jane!” to warm my chest with that strange, fuzzy, exciting sensation.

“Great work! You might even have enough for them to issue a search warrant against me, and that is all they need. Keeping government security’s classified documents in one’s room is definitely enough reason for concern. Let’s just hope it’s not in your intentions to do anything of the sort in a near future…” He twisted his lips, trying to hide how truly pleased he was “There you have it, Jane! Compromise! We are both tied…” His finger casually picked a rubber band from the desk, stretching it between us  “…by a thin, yet firm agreement – One that should hurt each other depending on whoever lets go first.”

I frowned, studying the example – the rubber band stretched far between Polack’s pale fingers.

“It’s not a race, however, you see…” he moved, stretching the band farther to one side “If you let go first, Jane, I will know… Indirectly, the whip of the stretch would hurt you. And If I let go… well, there’s the police: they would certainly give me a hard time. As it stands, the two of us are comfortable enough…” He pulled on the band, straining it at intervals from one side to the other – …comfortable to trust each other, at least as far as this elastic band goes. In this stretch right here, we can do business!”

Contrary to my expectations that he would force the band until it snapped, Polack calmly returned it to his desk.

“So you’re saying that those guys…” I started.

“They could break the band on a random thug’s side and no one would know. But if they do so on mine, Jane…” Polack stopped to derive a snicker from the visualization of the consequence in his mind “Well, they’d have a lot of angry people on their tail!”

“Why so?”

“Let’s just say the services I provide are rather unique.”

I looked around Polack’s room, back to the boxes. I knew he expected me to by now: He knew a lot of things… from a lot of people. He had it all stored away in those files. “Jonah”, as those two men had called him, needed to find some people and get rid of them… But Polack said he had his limits, and the man said he would never want him for a hitman…

“You deal information…” I concluded out loud, measuring the full shelves.

Polack smiled in pleased silence.

“Compromise!” He reinforced, sealing our relationship.

 

As I eventually got up to return upstairs as well, a last thought occurred to me, one that seemed relevant to consult upon. Before closing the door, I turned back and asked:

“Polack…”

“Hmm?” Polack lifted his head, looking me diligently “Yes, Jane?”

“I don’t think it would be reasonable, and…” I slowly gravitated closer to his desk again “w-we’re just speaking hypothetically… as before! But…”

“But?”

“I don’t think it would be reasonable to blackmail you back, if it was the case of being threatened by you. You could just decide to kill me and get rid of a potential future problem, and why would I risk that much? I mean… Wouldn’t it be better for me to go straight to the police? Like… What’s keeping me, or anyone else who knows, from simply turning you in?”

“Ah, Jane…” Polack stood up and slowly surrounded the desk, walking closer to me. Once he stopped, his eyes measured me form his superior height with unshakable confidence. “…but then you would be wasting the opportunity of forming a good alliance. You’d be a sore loser, and no one likes that!” He smiled, watching me leisurely as if my attempt to solve that impasse was as fascinating as could be.

“But then…” the question finally formed itself, earning clarity “…what would keep you from killing me?”

His fingers reached out for my face, brushing lightly against my skin while they pulled a strand of hair away from my eyes. I had gotten used to how they felt like…

“Maybe I need you, Jane…” The back of his hand finished off by running down my cheek. Polack’s eyes narrowed “Maybe I need you just like they need me.”

“There would be no one to get really pissed at you…” I speculated.

“No, it’s true…” Polack smiled in a freaky, inward and meditative way, as if imagining the situation was sufficiently fun in itself. His eyebrows furrowed then, again with a pitiful, comical expression “…but I believe I would!”

  I half smiled, examining the situation I was in – the logic behind why one side wouldn’t attack the other, why Polack was safe, why they could work together on top of a threat, peace coexisting with war in such an intimate way… why we could… 

“So… they’d be really in trouble, huh?” I commented at last, returning the focus to mere analogies as we had been doing before.

“Yes, they would!” Polack smiled at me, somewhat proud.

I felt myself excite. I liked that sensation. I liked the feeling of my brain working, the taste of suspense… and how much it belonged to me.

That feeling was mine alone. I liked shredding it apart as much as Polack liked watching me do it.

“Are you scared now, Jane?”

I wasn’t, and he knew it.

Chapter 14

 It was past midnight when I rose again – my heavy lids, under the effect of Polack’s medicine, saw me quickly return to sleep once I was back in my room; no curiosity or unanswered inquisitions compromising it, however many they were.

I had been in Gloen for long enough now to know that Polack never slept at night, but rarely did I listen to actual evidences of it. This occasion was different. In fact, everything about it felt different: Waking up refreshed after a long sleep, but to a night, and not a new day; sliding open the panel doors and breathing in a chilly, perfumed night wind that pleased more than spiked my hot skin; seeing Polack standing under the threshold, holding the door open with his shoulders and watching the dark curtain covering the charming little neighborhood much like Howard favored doing during the day. The scene looked peculiar and exciting – excitement had replaced what would have been fear yesterday. Polack turned and smiled at me, completely relaxed: his legs didn’t swirl him around to come and nag me back into my room, his eyes didn’t disappear under his fringe to hide a secret. I was aware of it, or at least a little – I was aware of its existence, to be precise, and that was enough.

“’Morning, Jane!”

I walked closer to him, looking over his shoulders to the dark sky outside. Everything was quiet but the distant song of a lonely cricket hiding in some bush down the hill. It was as if the two of us who stood there were the only people awake in the universe, and though I knew nothing yet, a feeling of subtle grandiosity agitated my bones, overwhelmed by being let in on a secret the police couldn’t know about – something criminal, for sure. I shook lightly, but not from fear, perhaps a bit of cold.

As I passed under Polack’s arm and onto the sidewalk, his eyes followed me languidly with a lazy curiosity curling up his smile.

“Jane, you should be aware of how much a female face cheers up a quiet little house such as this one, shouldn’t you?” He commented, taking a step outside and stopping by my side. “How much the perfumed, pink-colored spirit and the delicate constitution put men slightly off their guards.”

Polack breathed in a long, invigorating breath of the chilly wind. His eyes got lost into the sky, narrowing now and then as he mused:

“Maybe it’s because they are all, primarily, children of women; Maybe because they feel they ought to protect your little frail kind… Or maybe it’s pure, raw veneration of the opposite sex’s curves, but how anti-romantic is that? I’d rather think it’s something that requires the complexity of psychology to be understood… Something Freud would try to explain. Isn’t the idea of ‘spirit’ much more attractive than that of flesh and biology? …Much more than a mere physical reaction of blood and hormones?”

As he soliloquized – for so he did when he talked out of the blue without minding my reactions, as I had learned to recognize -, Polack turned to the wall, facing intently the bamboo sign next to the door. He spun it around like I had seen him do before and ran his finger down the cloth, probably because he liked the texture against his fingers. I liked the sound of his fingers against the texture…

“…But of that you know nothing of, do you, Jane?” He mocked mysteriously, still addressing what he had said before. A funny, muffled chuckle escaped him when his eyes surveyed me and saw me standing there completely clueless to his words and focused on the attention the sign had been receiving. He seemed to like that.

“Do you know what this means yet, Jane?”

I nodded.

“It means ‘open for business’”.

“Good girl!” He smiled, proud.

We walked back inside.

 

I was having “breakfast” at the table when the clock struck two in the morning. Polack had been leaning on the wall with his arms crossed over his chest, and he smiled largely, picking his body up and moving it to the corridor. I heard him open the door.

It all seemed to happen very fast then, caught in a relaxed distraction as I had been – when I heard an excited, coarse male voice that wasn’t Polack’s cross the corridor, and when the lagged awareness hit me, I jumped up from my chair. I knew I shouldn’t be there, I knew I should be in my room, or  somewhere dark, somewhere I couldn’t see them. Like a cornered animal, I rushed to the corridor, chasing my retire even though, from where their voices parted from, I’d have to cross them to get to it. Polack was there, walking my way – as I almost crashed into him, he held me by the shoulders, spun me around and pushed me back to the kitchen with a silent smile.

“Who’s the girl?” The man whose voice I had heard walked from behind Polack and around the table, looking down at me with harmless excitement.

“This?” Polack tapped my shoulders, still holding them tightly “This is my little helper, Jane.”

The man nodded quickly, in an agitated way. He was short and bulky and he wore formal clothes. As he walked to the side, a second one appeared: This one was big and bald, with an ugly scar contouring his right eye and a big belly trying to escape the shirt he wore. His eyes met mine too, as if Polack held me before a line of people who were there to see me. I blushed with intimidated embarrassment with this second one: he scowled, deciding he didn’t like me.

“Follow me, will you, gentlemen?” Fortunately, Polack eventually let go of me and beckoned the two men downstairs. The first one followed with carelessness, but the second looked over his shoulder to me, as if I could stab him in the back in case he didn’t.

Was the first impression of me really so off-putting?

In any case, I was relieved the quick, torturing interaction was over and I could lock myself in my room to prevent seeing them on their way out again. Curiosity still pushed me to walk to the top of the stairs and watch them down however, which damned me: Polack waited on the first step, about to come back up. Upon spotting me, his face curled up in a pleased smile:

“Ah, Jane! Will you bring some cups down, please? The men must be thirsty. They’re right behind you on the cupboard. Make it quick, too!” Polack happily entrusted, then disappeared to his room before I could think of an excuse not to.

 

“One pretty front, the one you have there! I didn’t expect to see it even down here, though! Slightly exotic, slightly Asian-like décor, I reckon?!” The short man walked around Polack’s room with his hands in his pockets, surveying the walls, when I came in.

Polack sat behind his desk. Mr. Howard stood next to the door in a very stiff position, like a glorified body-guard. Looking at him there, it was easy to forget his elderly age under all those thick muscles and menacing expression. The big man in a suit stood before the desk, clearly not as relaxed as his companion, but still calmer than he had been in my presence. When he noticed I was there again, his ugly face scowled once more. Intimidated like I would be if I had to walk past a gnarling bulldog, I slowly circled the room, stopping by Polack’s side on his chair and feeling absurdly safe once there.

“Ah, yes. It has an interesting feel to it, huh?” Polack sighed, completely at ease in that position. I placed the tray I had carried down with three small cups on it and prepared to take the scary walk around the room again and escape before I had heard anything too compromising, when Polack’s finger hooked the belt loop on the back of my jeans and pulled me playfully to his side again. “But my restaurant is merely an ascending business; it doesn’t deserve to be called a front just because of that! It will yet bring me prosperity, you wait and see!”

I looked at Mr. Howard as he guarded the door, and he shook his head form one side to the other, reinforcing Polack’s decision that I shouldn’t leave the room. I sighed.

“Furthermore…” Polack’s hand distractedly played with the loops of my pants as he held me close to his shoulder in a very uncomfortable position of display “Whatever the business, I can see no reason that justifies the lack of a decent decoration in a man’s office. How can one work peacefully in an unpleasant environment?”

“Whatever!” The short man shrugged, still turning his neck around in the office.

“It’s hot in here, is it not? Forgive-me the lack of decorum, but I have already taken a seat. Jane, dear… will you do me a favor and get the boys’ coats for me?”

I looked at the two strangers, feeling specially antisocial, but nodded, walking their way. The short man watched my movements with comical interest, as if it was very clear I wasn’t used to that, but the large bald man had distracted himself with looking at the swords hanging above the door. As I made my way to his back and reached out for the shoulders of his tuxedo, he turned and seized my wrist in a rapid, angry response.

Polack stood up from his seat before I could register the reaction as scary and potentially dangerous, the chair rolling back behind him:

“Hei hei, what do we have here?! There is no reason to be so nervous because a pretty young lady is touching you now, is there?!” He dryly commented from his distance, observing us with care.

The man glared at me with rage-filled eyes, almost ready to bite. The analogy suited the duo perfectly then: It was as if one was the dog, and the other the master – One could relax in Polack’s presence, trustful the big, more aggressive part had his back.

“The thing is…” the big guy started speaking without, however, letting me go or averting his eyes from mine “…No one said there would be a girl here. Specially not one with such sneaky hands!”

The shorter one let out an amused giggled, apparently agreeing in intent with his partner and happy he didn’t have to be the one to bring it up.

“Who is she?!” The big man gnarled at my face, as if the question was addressed to me rather than the Polack.

“Don’t insult my little Jane, please! And let her go also!” he stated calmly, detecting the danger as gone “She is my little helper, as I have said before, and a friend, too, in the loneliest hours. And I am glad she is here to offer me this small window of advantage, boys: You see, it is quite a pain on my side that you know more of me than I of you!”

The man let go of my arm – or rather tossed it aside:

“The coat stays!”

I frowned, slightly annoyed, and Polack laughed subtly.

“As you wish my friend. And how about you, sir?”

The shorter man spread a big, confident smile and began pulling his own coat from his back, to then deliver it to me with a friendly grin. He also watched me as I walked to the coatrack.

“Nothing against those small beauties, Polack…” he sighed “But I must agree with my friend here, though I find his rudeness to the poor thing unforgivable: A blonde, shady Polack and a grumpy black old man – That’s all we’ve heard, that’s all it’s ever been as far as everyone’s concerned. Don’t hate us if we can’t help but find the situation… odd, at the very least!”

“No hard feelings, I assure you!” Polack smiled.

I was watched by the short, smiling man again as I walked back to Polack’s side.

“It’s a pretty girl. Where’s she from?”

I traced the carpet with my eyes and cleared my throat, uncomfortable. Polack’s hand encircled my waist again.

“I don’t know. Few people do: She doesn’t have anybody.” Was the direct answer, the convenience of the situation brightening up my superior’s expression.

“Well, isn’t that just ironic? That you of all people don’t know anything about her!”

“Oh, you don’t know half of it!’ Polack joined in the guy’s laugh “But I know enough, I assure you. Her past, or where she came from, are mere trifles. Now tell me: would you and your friend like to be served a drink by no one less than her?”

The bald guy threw me an angry stare again, but the shorter one merely laughed:

“I sure don’t mind! And neither will you, Matteo!” He punched the big guy’s shoulder, making him stumble to the side in an annoyed surprise “Make it up to the girl, do!” he frowned in a silent command.

“Jane?” Polack smiled affectionately at me.

Again, I had no idea what to do as I stood before the wine cabinet, staring through the glass door, deciding which bottle to choose from. I randomly made me right choice, however, for Polack seemed to derive great pleasure from the drink in the slow, occasional gulps that happened between his fingers turning the liquid around inside the cup. As the three of them started talking, their eyes stopped following me, Polack’s hand no longer held me close either – apparently, he no longer felt that need. My eyes gravitated, wondering, slightly bored, from Polack’s cup and the movement of the drink inside it, to Howard’s stiff statue-like expression, to the meaningless figures on the wallpaper.

“So, let’s get to business!” The shorter one sighed, standing more erect before Polack and shoving a hand in his pocket.

“Is that what we are here for?!” Polack asked, smiling cynically. “Well then! In what can I help you, boys?”

The man in question looked back to his partner, the two of them brooding.

“I don’t think you can, but let’s hope for your sake that you do!” he placed the empty cup back on the desk, drawing my attention to the conversation.

The air grew perceptively heavier and Polack’s smile came undone.

“You see, there was once this guy… No names, just think picture it for now…” he pursed his lips, looking for words “His story ends in a rather abrupt – violent, even! – way.”

My throat closed with apprehensive anxiety.

“I’m listening.” Polack encouraged as the man paused, apparently making sure he had been understood.

“Word around says you have something to do with it. My boss didn’t like that. He didn’t like that one bit.

In Polack’s presence, I had been somewhat trained to detect hostility and subtle threats in the air… but however apprehensive this new found skill made me, I still knew not what they were talking about. Mr. Howard’s face, however, stiffened in an entirely new way, and I knew from it that this was trouble!

Again, my superior reacted in a most natural way – did all his businesses start with references to violent ends and accusations?

“Who’s your boss?” Polack asked.

“I’m afraid I can’t disclose it right now…” his eyes traced me “Not with the girl here and all. We’ll just have to work around that somehow, Polack: I was told if I came looking for you, you wouldn’t disappoint me. I hate to be disappointed, because that’s when I disappoint the boss… He hates it even more than I do!”

“A curious circle! Maybe I should introduce your boss to my Yoga instructor?”

A punch on the desk neutralized the joke before anyone could laugh at it: The big man had walked forward to perform it, and he now stared Polack down as aggressively as he had done to me. When he lifted his chubby fist, under it there now rested a slit of paper. It took Polack a while longer to notice it, for his eyes were busy responding to the affront.

Only when his long fingers captured it, the calmer one resumed his speech:

“A smart guy. He was building up some reputation around these parts before he… disappeared. Now I have a couple of people ready to swear he was last seen doing business with you…”

I dropped all my thoughts and began paying attention – However hard Mr. Howard discouraged me with his eyes, there was no letting that go!

Having read what was on the paper, Polack crumbled it in his hand and put it aside, leaning back on the chair and hiding his eyes under his hat as he smiled his diabolical smile:

“I take it he didn’t like the food we serve?” He retorted with distinguished dissimulation.

“Very funny!” The short man replied, growing impatient “You’re a cautious fella, I can see that! I like it when people defend their own interests, when they’re smart to that point. No wonder you are so… strangely respected.” A hint of aversion pulled down the corners of his lips “I confess that when I found out about this place I was rather surprised… that such an important figure hid in this forgotten little hellhole. I also thought security would be…” he looked back, surveying the room and stopping his eyes on Mr. Howard before turning around again “…more impressive.”.

He walked closer to the desk, clearly examining me:

“And if you needed more help than that, why did you pick a girl barely out of her diapers?”

Though Polack’s hand didn’t touch me then, I could feel they were ready to – I had detected it was their interest in me what made his limbs so particularly jealous.

The survey lasted an uncomfortable little while in which my entire body was rushlessly measured. A malicious snicker concluded it, at last:

“Or could it be just a shameful weak spot?”

Polack smiled, and so did the guy. The two exchanged embarrassed chuckles then.

“You got me!”

“Yeah…” the man smiled more openly now, proud of himself and apparently softened. “She doesn’t look too happy about it, though!” The man’s eyes weighed perniciously on me again.

“They never are, at first!” Polack sighed, seizing my hips in his hands and pulling me, unannounced, until I had fallen on his lap.

“I guess no one’s perfect, huh?” Polack chuckled, placing a careful, scorching hand on my shoulder.

“We all have our shortcommings!” Slightly annoyed by the display, the short man walked a step back and his eyes said their farewell to me. “Not all of us can indulge on it, however!”

I couldn’t move! If I did, I was reminded of Polack’s legs resting under me, of the heat they shared with my now oversensitive skin through the silky pants, of his scorching hand on my shoulder, of the mortally embarrassing position of sitting on his lap. As his hand burned and squeezed my arm, I was sure the same anxiety moved him: That I could pretend as well as he did. That I didn’t react as extremely as my overheating body and my speeding breath told me to, for that would mean trouble for the two of us.

“What can I do? I’ll take my chances with the young lady, if she can learn to like an old fool such as myself!” He shrugged, his body moving under me.

“You’re no fool, however!” The man resumed the initial subject “You’re probably smarter than any and all of us together, and that’s why my partner here is so nervous! That’s why we can’t say it, and neither will you… But we know what you did.”

Mr. Howard squeezed his fists tighter. I avoided his eyes: looking at them would make me more embarrassed.

“This man…” Polack spoke up after a brief consideration. His fingers played with the crumpled paper on the desk “…Tell me: did he walk with you guys? Was he with your boss?!”

The two strangers looked at each other and sighed. Apparently, progress was being made.

“He owed us something. Big time, too! You killed him before he could do what the boss had hired him for!”

My spine shrunk involuntarily, away from Polack’s chest as my body stiffened. His hand moved up swiftly, caressing my shoulder and resting by the side of my neck to contain my reactions:

“Well, well! What a predicament!” Polack sighed, giving in “This… boy of yours. He stole some possessions of mine. I trust that’s not what he was hired to do?!”

“Not by us, it wasn’t!” The man bluntly replied “If he did that, he acted on his own accord.”

Polack stroke his chin – I could hear his finger brushing the beard stumps growing there.

“Well! Why don’t you tell me what this man owed your boss. I might offer you my services in whatever they can assist you. I trust your boss knows my reputation, however, and is fully aware I refuse to perform outside of it: This boy…” he mused. “…let’s just say I acted on my personal defense.”

“Don’t worry – we wouldn’t want you for a hitman!” He laughed, checking his partner for a similar reaction “But we certainly could use all that… vast knowledge to make amends with the boss.”

“On my part, I would like to know who I’m dealing with!”

“His name’s Jonah – that should suffice, for now.”

“Never heard of him.”

“He is a rather… careful man. Such as yourself. He’s been wanting to change businesses lately and he’d like to get rid of some people from his past. Problem is you killed the only man who knew where those are.”

Polack smiled confidently, sitting back on the chair. His voice sounded differently when he felt in control of the situation again:

“Well, if your boy came to me, then that’s clearly not true, wouldn’t you say so?!”

The man smiled back, having heard what he wanted to hear.

“I still think you’re smart. Make sure you don’t change my opinion on you, and the boss will be happy to contact you again.”

“I promise to do my best!”

The man turned around, giving his big friend a tap on the back and motioning the end of that strange meeting.

“Howard, will you see the men out, please?!”

Mr. Howard nodded respectfully – like he never did when no one was looking – and turned to guide them.

Before the three of them were out the door, however, the shorter man turned around again to add, directing me a quick wink:

“Next time I’d ditch the girl, if I were you. If you keep ‘em too close for too long, they’re sure to stab you in the back!”

“I’ll keep that in mind, and keep Jane where I can watch her…” His hand moved, stroking my shoulder “Good evening, gentlemen!”

The man waved, and the door closed behind them.

Supreme silence enveloped the room – My red, burning ears ignored even the loud thuds of steps climbing up the stairs, focusing completely on Polack’s still body. None of us seemed too willing to break the quiet spell. It took Polack a long, terrible minute to say anything, at least. When he did, a chuckle broke him out of his concentration.

“Jane…” His voice sounded awfully close to my ears. It spoke softly, too, as if a harsher tone could scare me away “…are you afraid?”

What did he want me to answer? My breathing took up, as did my overall temperature.

I watched the crumpled paper on the desk, the name of someone he had… Memories of his hand dripping flashed violently back, making me dizzy. Polack cocked his head to the side, measuring my expression over my shoulder with a mildly diverted smile. Was he expecting a repetition of earlier today? I decided to suck it up…

“Well… are you angry?” he asked, apparently seeing the resolve of letting go on my eyes.

“N-no…”

Polack chuckled mysteriously. His fingers brushed the skin on the back of my neck, lightly pulling my hair to the side. They ran down my shoulders in a casual caress.

“Are you comfortable, then?” A snicker followed, as if he couldn’t hold himself. I frowned.

“What?”

“This new seat you have found must be a very cozy one if you don’t want to part with it now that you have permission to…” he giggled on my ear; I could feel the fresh air of his breath touching my skin “Unfortunately, Jane, I’ll have to ask you to leave it: I must get up myself, you see?”

“OOOH!!” I shot from his lap to the floor, having, somehow, forgotten I had control over my own body for those first two minutes.

Polack laid the tip of his fingers over his lip to refrain a laugh. My face burned bright.

“You’re blushing, Jane: Don’t tell me you believed what I said about making you mine!”

“What?! No!!”

“I’m sorry!” Polack stood up and sighed, eyeing me with a comical pity “I didn’t mean to… objectify you. I had no choice in the matter. You do understand, don’t you?”

“W-whatever!”

He observed me longer with his amused pity – time in which I uncomfortably measured the walls. At a point, however, his expression grew grim.

I looked back at the crumpled paper on the desk, and at Polack’s boxes now that I was free to make the connection. Strangely… sickly enough, I felt bad for him.

“Jane, go get Mr. Howard, please. We have to talk!”

Chapter 13

I awoke slowly, mostly confused: it started with a few diffused thoughts that recollected my conversation with the cops, the affliction animating my breast as I sat in the corner of my room facing the paneled doors waiting for the time Polack would walk in, and, finally, how he encircled me inside his room much like a quiet predator would.

Throughout these half-dreamed recollections I stretched myself and rolled around the comfortable bed, getting caught in the silky sheets like a worm in a cocoon… but what felt like me hiding away in the safety of a closed shell turned into awful constriction when the remembrance of Polack’s hand rushing my way to deliver a blow returned to me. I squirmed, thrashed, fought desperately to earn my legs’ and arms’ freedom, and jumped up in despair as soon as I was free.

“Shhhh Jane! Don’t scream!” Polack’s warm finger pressed down on my lips. Where he was I couldn’t tell, neither how he looked like: the room around me was completely dark!

“Polack!”

“You’re finally awake!” He let go of me, a familiar smile warmed up the sound of his voice, making my chest warm with the strange feeling he often gave me. He sounded happy to see me!

I felt myself pulled down on the bed again, pulled back to sleep with a silly smirking expression that trusted it would be the sweetest slumber. Guarded by the Polack as I was, I didn’t even have to fear the darkness – to wonder why I couldn’t see his liquid eyes.

Perhaps the sickest part was that I remembered – I remembered the fight I had earlier with him, my nerves remembered the overwhelming fear he made me feel… but relief took over as soon as I heard his voice meekly surrounding me in small talk as it had always been, and I let myself believe it had all been just a bad dream!

…But I wasn’t in my bed – my room never got so dark, even in the dead of night. Those soft expensive sheets were not my sheets, and neither was the perfume they detained.

If I had dreamed, how else would I have ended up in Polack’s room? Why was I out, on his bed? I jumped back up, this time a new suspense terrifying me: I checked my body for binds, discontinued segments, wounds, anything that bled or anything that ached… Having found nothing, I risked myself in checking if any part felt particularly fondled…

“Jane, calm down!” Polack’s voice resounded firmer. He held me by the back of my neck and pulled me closer to his invisible body. My eyes, getting accustomed to the dark, made out his silhouette sitting on the edge of the bed:

“What have you done to me?”

“Nothing of what is usually done to little troublemakers such as yourself, silly girl!” He chuckled.

But if the joke was meant to break the ice – it always were! – I failed to detect it, and my breathing picked up again.

Polack’s hand weighed down on my shoulder, forcing me to stay still:

“Hey! I’m not serious, okay? Quiet down, Jane: You’re making too much noise as it is!” I saw his face anxiously turn to the door before returning to me.

“But what have you…!” I insisted, and Polack’s full palm pressed my lips together with decided firmness:

“If you want to talk, then we’ll talk, but as civilized people this time! Heaven forbid I get another dose of your earlier fierceness, Jane!”

Sounding truly distressed, Polack’s hand slowly let go of my mouth.

“What do you wanna know?”

Looking around myself, I felt the bed, the room… Took in the scene and recalled every bit of my previous predicament. Had he left all that behind?

“Are you going to kill me?” I asked bluntly, and suffered from not being able to see his eyes.

“I will not…” The dark silhouette answered, making no big deal about it.

The sincerity made me no more relieved than before. I waited in silence, for something in his tone suggested a few conditions had to be met in order for things to remain so.

“Is that what you thought about the whole time?” He eventually asked after my long, brooding silence.

“How could I have thought anything different?” I  nervously scowled. “Did you…” Like a flash, I visualized the last seconds in which I was awake “Did you hit me?!!”

“I apologize for that, Jane: I am not proud! I did what I had to do to make you listen, however! Small as you are, and angry as you were back then… Well…” he chuckled, entertained by the memory “If you happened to find something deadly enough, I would be at a real risk there! And yet, you will find no marks on you. No pain or traumatized tissue. I can’t say the same about me!”

I saw his dark hand rub his chin, where I had hit him with the scabbard. We both knew I had hit something else on which’s condition I couldn’t inquire without making the conversation weird, too.

“Is there… Is there such a thing in here?” I had him listening “Something… ‘deadly enough’”?

“Do you ask because you want to know it or because you want to have it, Jane?”

I felt it on his voice then: the first condition. But I shouldn’t read too much on that one: I guess anyone was willing enough to kill a person that threatens their lives!

Again, it was anguishing not being able to see his eyes. How much more of his intent were they giving out?

“The… first option. I guess.”

“Naturally, there is! A man in my position needs to take all the necessary precautions!”

A shiver ran down my spine as I pictured a gun inside the drawer of his desk.

 “And… what position is that?” I inquired, apprehensive – not, this time, because I thought my curiosity could kill me though: Polack welcomed it, encouraged it even. This time it was because I knew I  had to give up something in order to know his secrets… And I feared I already knew what that was…

“Now you are paying attention, Jane…” A smile framed his voice.

His hand ran down my hair, his fingers inevitably brushing against the skin on my cheek, probably as he tried to reinforced the harmlessness he declared. It made me flinch, however, as I remember what his touch felt like:

“No! I don’t wanna hear!” I quickly retorted, changing my mind.

“And I’m not going to tell you either…” Polack’s voice softly cut me, just as firmly and decided, but an ounce more trained in charming the unfortunate listener “…But that doesn’t change the fact that you and I have pending business.”

“We don’t!”

“As it is, Jane, I would have to compromise you before I could feel safe enough with leaving you out and about…”

“You wouldn’t!”

Polack chuckled at my growing despair.

“I would – Today’s demonstration made me… question my carelessness. Maybe Mr. Howard was right, after all! You see…” He moved on the bed, apparently sitting closer to me “I was so considerate as to not tell you anything, Jane. So considerate as to keep you from accidentally stumbling into something you shouldn’t…” his hand reached my face again, framing it in his long fingers “…I have been merciful enough to you in that aspect, and I wish you’d recognize my kindness seeing as I tried my best. Don’t resent me, my little friend… But you know it already. You figured it out by yourself…”

 “I know nothing!!!” I pleaded with fearful dismay.

“Enough!” Polack harshly interrupted me… then a smile smoothed down his tone “You know enough, Jane. Enough to put me in trouble, to be a liability, to plant that same seed of a doubt deepening the crease between your eyebrows into a more investigative mind. Like you did this week, as a matter of fact! Jane… you’ve put me in so much unnecessary trouble!”

“I’m sorry!” I eagerly, innocently apologized “But I know nothing! I’ll forget everything!!”

“They say ‘secrets must be kept’ because they can’t go so easily. If things were that simple, I wouldn’t have spent the last three days stressing my brains out over what I should do to you!”

The hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

“But you are paying attention now, so you are not dumb: That’s all I need for the moment! ‘Secrets must be kept’, Jane. If I ask you to keep one with your life, you’ll assume I’ll be taking it from you if you tell. I would be pleased with that, if you didn’t wear your fear upon your sleeve. You see, I can’t even threaten your life the way it is!”

“But you can!! You have!! I am scared!” I eagerly, thoughtlessly declared, earning an annoyed sideways glance from the Polack.

“I mean… I’m not! I won’t wear it! No one will notice!”

“Tone down, will you, Jane?” Polack nervously silenced me, then proceeded “We’ll talk about this later, when you have calmed yourself down! Just try to understand, until then, that in order to survive, I really must resort to some… preventive measures. In case you decide to turn against me.”

A second condition was made known to me, and two were plenty to neutralize what he had said about not killing me. My bones began shaking lightly:

“Are you going to do me any harm?”

His eyes weighed, surveying me in the silent darkness his room cast. Scary, anxious few seconds those were… but a benevolent smile seemed to melt my torturer down: he laid his hand on my head and rustled my hair around.

“I won’t, Jane… but I will have to compromise you!”

“What the hell does that mean?!” My voice nervously broke out.

“It means I can’t trust you…” he smiled amusedly. “…Not quite yet.”

Fair enough, I thought. I couldn’t trust him either.

“But…” I sought his eyes in the dark while he caressed my cheek with the back of his cold finger, brushing lightly against my nerves as if challenging them to flinch once more. “I always wanted someone to serve me down here. A personal assistant, if you will…”

I frowned, uncertain.

“We’ll see what we do, Jane!” He sighed at last, uncertain himself, too, and sounding quite troubled by it.

“Polack…” I called him back. When silent, I felt he was no longer there, and for some reason that seemed more terrifying than having him near.

“Hmm?”

“Can I… Can I go back to the orphanage?”

That wasn’t me asking to return – that was me speculating after my liberty to do so, and Polack knew it. He smiled silently, maliciously as he meditated for long. In that silence alone I read the answer: I could not. Freedom, as I had suspected, was the price of knowing too much.

Cold took over my chest again, but this time agitated despair didn’t accompany it: I was in his hands now; death penalty was out of the table so long as I behaved; compliance was mandatory. My life had just escaped me – I never felt like I had much control over the circumstances that transformed it, but this was just ridiculous!

I heard Polack’s lips stretching into a grin, then parting to pronounce my imprisonment. Before he could, however, the door was pushed open and the light switched on. I squinted my overwhelmed eyes and made out Mr. Howard’s large figure on the door:

“Here’s what you asked for, Pole” he casually declared, then his shoulders stiffened.

Finally regaining the ability to look around myself, I was sitting on the center of Polack’s bed with a mess of sheets, covers and pillow surrounding me… Polack sat on his office chair placed on the edge of the bed, his chest exposed through a completely unbuttoned shirt and an empty cup of whisky in his hand. Also, he leaned forward, closer to me, supporting his elbows on his knees, looking as careless as he always had. We had also been in the dark, as I shouldn’t have to remember…

“Wh-Wh” Howard stuttered “What the deuce is going on here?!”

“Give me that!” Polack stretched his arm and demanded, impatiently.

Mr. Howard’s eyes switched from the Polack to me – they weighed with the same disapproval as always, making me blush violently from rage much more than embarrassment: if anything had happened on that bed, the old man would blame me instead of his scoundrel of a superior?!!

“Thank you…” Polack received a blue bag of ice.

Having walked around the bed, Mr. Howard stopped to stare me into uncomfortableness from a close distant. I averted my gaze, embarrassed.

Polack quickly picked up the exchange of glances, and smiled as his eyes narrowed:

“I advise you not to say a word on the subject, Jane. There will be hell to pay if you do!”

Having thrown his worthless superior a glance, Mr. Howard’s eyes darted back at me, burning violently for an explanation almost like a jealous wife.

“Oh! The Polack and I… We… We didn’t…!”

“Not a word, Jane…” Polack sighed, getting up from the chair with what looked like physical discomfort. He placed the bag over his crotch and limbed away to his desk. Of course the strange scene didn’t escape Mr. Howard’s awareness: His skin grew a dark, furious red.

“This will hurt for a while still, Jane! I shouldn’t have explored it for so long: your appealing fears!”

Mr. Howard’s eyes widened and his throat twitched, hardened.

“I swear to God! I didn’t-”

After a deliciously long laugh, Polack clarified:

“It wasn’t anything as fun as what you have in mind, old man: The girl simply snapped. Tried to kill me.”

Luckily, Mr. Howard’s color returned to normal. But a new type of madness transformed his features:

“What?! I told you this would happen! This girl is trouble! And you… Why do you have to pick on her so much?!”

“Hush… I have a headache now, to top it all!” Polack massaged his temples, then reached out for his drawer “You should know better than to encourage her paranoias about me!”

“And you should listen to what I tell you!!” Mr. Howard’s veins began to pop out in rage.

“When will you learn I never will?” Polack sighed, walking back to us with a pill on his hand “Here Jane… take this, it will help you relax.”

I sought Mr. Howard’s eyes before accepting the medication – they looked benign enough.

“Don’t worry: It’s just a combination of chamomile, passion fruit and other natural relaxatives.”

“That’s precisely the behavior that makes you conquer all those enemies!!” Mr. Howard carried on talking despite being clearly ignored.

“What is life without them?” Polack’s eyes narrowed in a curious smile as he watched me gulp down the pill.

“I don’t like this!”

“You don’t have to like anything!” Polack sighed, walking back to his desk and picking up his hat “Now take the girl upstairs and have her sleep some more. It was an exhausting day after all, wasn’t it, Jane?” Polack smiled to me.

Howard turned his neck and I shrunk my shoulders.

“Come!” he ordered drily.

I jumped down from the bed and followed him out of the room while Polack resumed his seat behind his desk, picking up a few sheets of paper and studying them.

“Nighty night, Jane.” He sighed casually, without lifting his eyes.

Chapter 12

 When I saw the Polack again, four days had passed and my body had quite forgotten how to respond to those fear signals my brain insisted on firing every time a brief recollection of that day crossed my mind. How fast everything was remembered though! As soon as I heard his steps cross the hall, bones, veins and fluids danced in their orchestrated panic like they’d done when I was first confronted, and I, who had been busying myself with a sports magazine I cared very little about on the corner of the entrance room, shrunk against the pantry wall, squeezing my legs under the stool and burring my face on the two-paged silver mazda advertisement like I wanted nothing else from life!

Either my random ambition for expensive cars was deemed despicable, or I was really getting the hang of invisibility, for I earned a sideways, bored glance from the Polack, and nothing else as he walked past me and onto the counter, where he leaned over his elbows and watched the dull morning darkening outside.

That entire week was doomed with bad weather, and today wasn’t as an exception: A wet, cold breeze blew in from the broody sky and Polack frowned with distaste. I peeked from my magazine, cataloguing his reactions and hoping the ugly morning would send him back down for more sleep, but apparently he had had enough alone time down there, for he lingered a while still, and seemed even less in a hurry to leave when Mr. Howard joined us.

The two of them threw casual, small talk at each other long enough for me to lose interest and drift away in thoughts: Maybe having passed the angry period, the Polack was now just too discontent with me to care. Maybe he was too busy with whatever he had been doing for the last three days, sleeping when there was light out and getting up with the night. Busy doing what, exactly, while Mr. Howard managed the restaurant? “Manage” – I shook my head, narrowing my eyes – There was nothing to be managed up there! I hadn’t seen a living soul cross the street since the rain season began, let alone a single customer. Mr. Howard had rolled down the small iron door over the counter whenever he decided he had something more important to do around the house than to watch it and, in fact, the previous day it hadn’t been opened at all. I was sure not every business could allow itself vacationing whenever the weather frowned, and specially not one so naturally slow…

The metal doorknob of the pantry had the habit of cracking with the shifting in temperature – a quite scary thing to listen to in the middle of the night that gave me the occasional fright, I must admit – and it happened to do so with a gush of wind that brought inside the perfume in Polack’s hair. The noise made him casually look back over his shoulder. I saw him turn his head from the corner of my eye, and nothing else… Noticing it took too long to look back, I glanced at him, our eyes met: his watched me with a distinct hint of annoyance that made me immediately look down, my heart skipping violently.

Polack cast an amused smile and looked back ahead, but the damage was done: He had seen in me the exact same lost-in-musings look Mr. Howard so disliked!

“Close it up, will you?” the Polack sighed after a while in silence, picking himself up from the counter. “It looks like a good holiday opportunity, don’t you think?”

I couldn’t help my eyes from tracing him as he turned my way, then freezing back in my pretended reading as he passed by me and into the kitchen.

“Lock everything up, too!” he recommended with a lazy shout.

Mr. Howard did just that, with my careful watch weighting on him now that it wasn’t suppressed under Polack’s presence: That restaurant was unimportant to everyone but me, the only fool to have ever believed it was something other than a façade. A fake restaurant, with a fake cook, a fake boss and a fake contracted girl they knew not what to do with! Nervous, hot sweat scorched down my forehead as the somehow forgotten questioning returned to mind – what was I wanted for?  Breathing became a struggle…

It didn’t take long until my panicked brain personalized the scene of Mr. Howard putting a lock on the doors – until it made everything about me, suffering with a fit of claustrophobia as I saw myself stuck in there with those people.

The growing fit consuming my nerves and dimming my senses effaced, however, as soon as the menacing Polack walked back into view, smiling down at my state as if walking out had been but a trap to see it aggravated to the fullest. I looked up to him with a drooping mouth, covered by his tall shadow.

“Don’t think I have forgotten about you, Jane” his voice sung, seemingly much more composed than usual “After all, we still have to go through whatever you and your friends talked about that day… and I have to decide if I like it or not!”

His eyes measured the liquid panic revolving in mine and narrowed, quite pleased.

“Come, let’s go down. Mr. Howard is a sensitive man, he doesn’t like watching discussions, isn’t that right, old man?”

Both our pair of eyes turned to Mr. Howard, and Polack’s intrusive, warm-fingered hand invaded my hair, holding with the grasp of one hand both my shoulder and the back of my neck.

I controlled the initial urge of struggling away as if he choked me, for the touch was too soft in nature to actually put me at risk. Still, that touch pulled me from my sit and pushed me forward through the corridor, stopping only at the beginning of the stairs for the Polack to look back and ask Mr. Howard not to interrupt us.

I looked back and sighed, watching Mr. Howard stay behind locking everything up.

“Come on, come on…” Polack gently encouraged “Don’t be scared now.”

The sound of my footsteps echoing down the stairs was the melody for thriller. For the first time I noticed: down there, I could hear only my own breathing.

 


 

“Come in, Jane!” Polack commanded.

I obeyed.

There was nothing different about his room – nothing was covered in plastic, no ropes or gloves awaited… but I turned around, and the Polack closed the door carefully, not to make noise. I felt myself freeze, and automatically assumed a post behind his desk in what was probably my basic instincts urging me to put some sort of obstacle between the two of us.

“I insist that you sit down!” he declared, walking around the desk and stopping next to me.

I limited myself to staring him back – not in a challenging way, but only because my mind was too agitated to process the order.

His hands weighed on my shoulder again and I felt myself forced down by the sheer influence they had over me rather than by actual strength. Having me crashed over the comfortable presidential chair, Polack’s fingers tracked the stiffness of my shoulders before leaving me.

He walked up behind me, to the coat rack, picked up his hat, put it on his head and pulled the brim over his eyebrows, hiding his eyes.

I thought it uncomfortable and indiscreet to keep turning my neck at every second and accompany his movements… but I did so anyway. The result wasn’t so effective nonetheless: Polack’s hands groped my shoulders from behind and I jumped on the chair, failing to detect his approach. Gently, his fingers began to squeeze me.

“Jane, why are you so tense?” he inquired, his voice softly, painlessly cutting away the silence like a very sharp and thin blade would.

“I… I’m not!” I clumsily mumbled through my choked voice, to which Polack chuckled:

“Oh, aren’t you? Cause anyone slightly skilled at interrogations could swear you had something to hide…”

His massaging hands approached my neck. I shrunk, unhappy under the firm touch.

“To… hide?! No way…!”

“No way, you say?” he lowered his head to look at me and smile “Jane, dear… tell me you weren’t as unconvincing before those cops!”

“Unconvincing?!” I started, urgently meeting his eyes with mine – was he about to admit he had a secret?

“Utterly! I mean, what would they think of me…” I felt his index fingers getting uncomfortably close to my throat and followed the impulse of placing my hands on my chest, waiting nearby to pull them back in case they started squeezing the air out of me “…if they saw such a scared little girl stuttering away her excuses?”

I heard him laugh, followed by his overwhelming touch leaving me.

“It’s no good! You’re stiff as a rock, Jane!” he mocked behind my back, his voice resembling the hissing of a snake.

“I… I think I’d prefer to stand!” I jumped from the chair and rapidly turned around, too tortured by the expectation of not seeing what he was about to do.

“Have your way, Jane! Do you want something to drink? Plan B for the failed back rub, I’ll have you know: helps you relax like nothing else!” he casually spoke as he walked to a small wine cabinet next to his bed, from where he pulled up a bottle “It’s my favorite: Canadian whiskey. Have you ever tried whiskey before, Jane?”

I moved my head negatively.

“Of course not! What a silly question! Where would you have the chance to do so in a house of saints? No – this baby here is a sinner’s treat: I don’t see anyone with a clean conscience appreciating its worth! It… makes the skeletons smile, I suppose.”

“Skeletons?”

“The ones in the closet…”

Polack laughed at my eyes automatically looking for said room.

“It will taste like hell the first time, I warn you…” he pulled up the cork and smelled the air around the opening. A mixture of pleasant and offensive showed through his face. “You’ll swear that you absolutely detest; that it painfully burns its way into you and that you’ll never try it again… But you’ll learn to love it!” His eyes lazily examined my reaction – or the lack of one “Do you want it, Jane?”

I repeated the previous answer.

“In that case, I won’t have it either!” he sighed as if disappointed, and put the bottle back in its place “I need all my wits about me, after all!”

“Why?!” I eagerly asked “What’s different?”

“Why, Jane! Because I’d hate to let you think you can fool me, it would  be awkward for the two of us. And here you are again asking questions! Didn’t curiosity kill the cat or something like that?” He approached me. I walked one step back, then decided it would be too risky to repeat it.

It felt like I was dealing with a cautious tiger when I looked at that stretched smile: Polack was acting cool and collected because I was a prey too scared to move; a still target! If I produced any sort of sudden movement, the truce would be out, war would be declared and in a second I’d have his teeth around my neck, my body caught between his hands, strained and helpless. Again, the air got too dense.

He stopped too close to me, placing my back against the desk and supporting his hands on the same surface, jailing me:

“Speaking of curiosity Jane, let’s get to the point: What have you told the cops?”

“N-nothing!” I quickly answered “What could I say, when I know so little?!”

Polack’s eyes narrowed.

“So little of what?”

“Of…” I started, looking to the side to search for the answer and realizing how deep of a grave I had dug “…whatever! Nothing!”

“Do you swear, Jane?” Polack’s eyes shrunk in shadows and his smile stretched. “Cause it seemed to me like you spent a great deal of time chatting before I interrupted you… And what would happen If I hadn’t shown up, I wonder?”

“Nothing, absolutely!” Again, I answered as quickly as I could.

“Good” he smiled “Good – it makes me satisfied, and thoroughly thankful. You see, Jane, I tend to detest people who talk too much. Is it too grave a fault?

 His eyes stared deeply into mine – they looked hard, sharp and scorching as they burned a threat into me and made sure I understood it. His smile remained a beautiful, crooked one that captured my senses in that awkward numbness they made me feel. I wondered if he did it on purpose…

“No…” I shook my head.

The Polack let go of me then – so it felt like, even though he didn’t physically hold me –and walked to the back of the room, stopping next to the bed and looking around, thinking. With a sigh, he began to expose the subject:

“Don’t think I have forgotten about you these past few days, Jane. In fact, I thought of little else! And, difficult as it might be, I think you deserve an explanation on the obvious conclusion Mr. Howard swears you’ve gotten to by now!” he chuckled lightly – a smothered, restrained little laugh that, combined with how he stood in the center of the room looking grimly my way, with how the shadows of his hat played about his face and with how the lamp failed to illuminate the two of us, made him look mature beyond his age, different from before and much, much more powerful and unscrupulous than I would have considered in my most paranoid anticipations of that moment. He turned his head, looking at me from over his shoulder, and carried on:

“You must forgive me, Jane… I didn’t mean to insult you: I merely tried to mislead your friends that afternoon. I would be offending myself if I considered you an obtuse girl whose only mental resources are those superficially developed inside an orphanage. No…” his smile stretched largely as the thought seemed to entertain “You’re smarter than I thought, and very spirited, too! Those are some valuable qualities…

He turned around. My body stiffened.

“…But you still have a lot to learn to make good use of that. I know, for example, simply by looking at you, that you are livid with fear in this very instant – In fact, you are so since I went for you upstairs.”

It made my faulty heart beat a single happy beat: to know the Polack had specifically gone up to get me, instead of doing so because I called his attention with some clumsy mistake. Yes… It definitely made the anguish of fear a degree more endurable – if my legs weren’t to stop shaking, my brain could stop condemning: it hadn’t been my fault!

Polack laughed quietly to himself examining my reaction as he paced from one side to the other in front of me.

“I know you want to escape from me with all you’ve got before I have the opportunity to touch you, but you’re too scared you’ll trip and fall, or get outrun, and then your secrets will be out and you think you’ll be more doomed than before. Tough decision!”

My eyes opened wider – I started to wake up to a more alert state of fear in which I could feel my boiling blood and shaking limbs being made useful. I started to calculate my chances…

“To any effect…” he paused for a sigh “You were right about me. I am not who I led you to believe I was. This restaurant is nothing, really! I don’t believe I have ever received more than three of four customers in my entire life! No one has ever heard of this place… But still, the most troublesome girl in the orphanage has been given to me. And with what eagerness did they do so! “Entrusted to me” is the right way to put it, Jane, seeing that they didn’t even want to check back on you! I intend to make it so that they will never show up here again…” He smiled.

The whole felt like an odd dream torturing my sanity: All my doubts flowed tranquilly out of Polack, confirming themselves. And what would be the consequence of formulating them in the first place? Above all, what would  be the consequence of having them so casually confirmed, of listening to a confession such as that one? Too late to close my ears and pretend I didn’t know… Polack’s lazy eyes traced the ground and went up to me, squinting subtly as they poured out a careless hint of his intent. Raw despair took over!

“So, Jane… Smart as you are; clumsy and careless, too…” he mused, deciding “Well, you leave me no choice!”

He began to move – my legs began to falter.

“You feel too much fear…”

“No…” I murmured, walking back.

“You let it control you… Let it show all over your face, and anyone can see it. Specially me.”

“Polack…”

“Trust me on this.”

He stopped his approach and turned around, turning his back on me one more time and ridding me of the heavy dominance his eye exerted over the cowardice of my limbs – I think that was my cue.

“You should have accepted that whisky after all…” he sighed in a pitiful tone.

But no! I shouldn’t! – So said my trembling, aching chest. I should have accepted nothing, I should have done nothing to make it easier on him to kill me! I was the worst girl in the entire orphanage. Howard read ‘trouble’ in me the instant the saw me, knowing I would be one – so I would be one! How fair of an ending would that one be, if I only sat and waited helplessly for my apologetic yet decided superior to end me? How fair, when I had spent my entire life breaking every rule possible? I absolutely had to try… regardless of what extra punishment failing should earn me!

I ran to the door, not bothering opening it though: Adrenaline heightened my mental processes, and it was easy to predict that if the Polack didn’t reach me before I could get to the stairs, there was still Mr. Howard to go through – whose long list of apprehensive glares began to make sense as a matter of fact. Instead of turning the knob, I jumped – my only shot at survival depending on that one plea for height. I reached it: down came the oriental sword I had grabbed, bringing along the support itself, the smaller twin and a scrap of the wall where the set had been nailed.

Polack turned around, only slightly alarmed by my commotion. I clumsily pulled the heavy weapon from its scabbard and threw it to the side, regretting, as I firmly held the grip pointing the blade his way, having chosen the bigger one.

Polack squeezed his eyebrows together, taking in the scene. When he understood it, I watched his face, for the first time, turn from sardonic to angry.

“Jane…” he murmured calmly, now without shadow or charm smoothing his voice. “what are you doing?”

He had never talked sternly before – I knew it now as I compared the result. Never had he taken me seriously, nothing he had said until then had ever been serious, except for that question. It spiked my fear to a whole new level – one where the most sensible part of me screamed ‘what the hell was I thinking?!’ If he caught me there, I would be history! The bravest part of me, however, assured me he wouldn’t do so as long as I held a weapon, and that was the same part that made me laugh with the ecstasy of having a chance!

“I’m proving myself, idiot!” I moaned through my clenched teeth, biting down on those words only three days of raw fear and fearful obedience made me conjure.

“Proving yourself an idiot? It does look a lot like it from here, but then again I think I misheard!” – He teased through a bleak cold voice. “Could you repeat that?”

“Say what you want, Polack! You won’t affect me!” I gnarled, desperately hoping his confidence wouldn’t so mercilessly crush mine as it had threatened to do.

He sighed dejectedly, shoving his hands in his pockets and, without alarm, shaking his head from one side to the other, disapproving of me.

Tsc Tsc Tsc… Jane, I am disappointed… and profoundly hurt! Give me that sword and we’ll talk things through…” He courageously stretched his hand ahead, taking a step my way.

Adrenaline was really a glorious thing, for fear answered in an automatic swing of the sword that almost chopped his hand right off the wrist before I could consciously react. The weight of the sword almost pulled itself out of my hands, but I resumed my firm stance after a second of unbalance, still pointing it to the chest that showed itself through that unbuttoned shirt.

Jane…!” Polack spoke in a tone of warning, pulling his hand back.

“Don’t get any closer than that!!” I threatened.

His eyes were invisible now under his hat – I believe he did so on purpose, so I couldn’t read his next step in them.

I heard him snort, followed by complaining:

“I think I encouraged you too much with that ‘spirited’…” he pretended to muse, rubbing his chin.

Realizing that he still had it in him to mock me, I grew considerably annoyed in my already short fuse. I squeezed the grip of the sword tighter.

“Jane, drop that before you hurt yourself!” He returned his hands to his pockets, repeating the threat with much more asperity now.

“What?! I’m not going to drop it! I won’t hurt myself either!” Incredulity responded upon realizing he actually believed that. “Do you think I am joking?!”

“If you knew how foolish and infantile you look from here, you’d understand why I should worry…” he comically observed, cocking his head to the side “One way or the other, you will get hurt if you carry this on…”

I felt the blood shoot up to my head as my burning spirit inevitably drank of his words, allowing a chill up my spine.

“Let me out of here!” I rushed, realizing I was being stalled “Let me out and I’ll drop it!”

“Out from where?” Polack asked, genuinely confused.

“From this place! Open the doors – all doors! Don’t lock me up again!”

I heard him laugh in his inward, concealed way yet another time; and from a comedy only he was sensible to. It angered me, for I knew that joke was me.

“Jane, darling… It was never my intention to lock you! I did try to keep you from stumbling by accident into a territory that would… embarrass our coexistence. But, sneaky thing as you are, you had to purposely chase after it, didn’t you? Did I really offer you so few distractions here, Jane?” He grinned, very little inconvenienced by the outcome. In fact, I could swear he liked it better!

And now that I knew – or at least knew there was something to know – what was his plan? I was glad I didn’t ask, for I would hate to hear the answer. That was awful! It couldn’t get any worse: my legs shook, I looked like I was about to cry and I definitely could not feel safe, regardless of how firmly I held to that sword: On the contrary, its heaviness felt a lot like an incontrollable weapon that could easily be taken over, and posteriorly used to bring my own end. My self-control, too, seemed to depend directly upon how courageous I felt: Soon my hands began to shake as well. The weight was big, and my palms were drenched in cold sweat.

“It looks like I have crossed some limit in exploring that puppy fear you so freely amuse me with, Jane… forgive me!” he pleaded, but still laughed internally – His pink lips grew a brighter hue as they twisted upwards in a smile, his voice more wet: “I could never have resisted, I must admit: You blushing at every threat of a touch, stuttering your every word, shaking subtly from seeing me…  Now…” The smile came undone, his face bearing the mask of stern irritation again “Now it starts to become a bother, so enough with the cute tricks, will you? Drop that silly sword and let’s talk!”

“No!” I answered.

“Jane, this is an order! Don’t make me repeat myself!” He advanced my way in an abrupt pace. I jumped back just as suddenly, followed by the impulse of receiving a shock, or dodging a bullet – the one that knows only multiplying dread as it suggests next time you won’t be so quick!

Polack smiled, apparently put at ease by my clear show of uncertainty and vulnerability.

Trying to remedy my emotional handicap, I walked forward again – rage, too, was reaffirmed by how cynical his expression looked, how untroubled by the fact I, too, threatened his life.

“Jane… I am mad!” he smiled in an intimidating way “I am very mad at you! Don’t think that I’m not only because I can’t keep from laughing: You are challenging me, and you outright refuse to obey me! I laugh merely because you look like a child pointing a toy gun at me. It’s gracious and comic, but it also makes me want to punish you severely for the audacity! – His voice pronounced the last word with asperity as his patience poured out “Now give me that and I promise I won’t have you face bigger consequences!

He knew how to be persuasive, I had to give him that. My breath lost rhythm: I looked at myself, at my unstable hands holding a heavy sword, at the tall, slender man and the dark expression covering his smooth features. I didn’t know what he would do to me if I failed, but I knew he promised it wouldn’t be too bad if I stopped now. I also didn’t know if he lied. More than before, it felt like I had been dreaming… Now my brave feat didn’t make the smallest sense!

“Come on!” Polack’s voice sounded meeker, pleasant and sheltering as he saw weakness begin to branch in me. He smiled, satisfied: “You don’t really want to do this, do you? Give it here, Jane, and everything will be fine. I promise we’ll pretend it never happened!”

It was tempting to give up – to deliver the damn sword and hope he didn’t do anything to me… Hope it didn’t hurt, at least. But how to believe, when he had revealed me so much? How to believe, when I really didn’t know anything about him? Oh Polack… – I implored quietly, to myself, wishing he’d leave me alone. Wishing he didn’t threaten me, wishing I could trust that hand he offered…

“Jane… Come on! Don’t make me fight you!” Was his impatient comment, and the pepper smeared over my fear. I couldn’t risk it – I would die.

One step – only one step was all it took for me to touch the tip of the sword against his exposed chest. I scowled to look more menacing – begging, really, that he would take me seriously, that he would feel threatened by me at least for a second…

Polack looked down on himself – to the blade brushing against his skin as it shook with my hands, to how decidedly I threatened him. He took a while examining it, as if refusing to believe, and then his eyes lifted up to me: They shone in a dense, dark green; swirling around like emerald lava and seeming almost ready to drip down the shadows of his face. His long lips twisted in an angst and his fists were clenched.

“You really do want to fight – what a masochistic little girl you are!” Was the threatening answer that sent shivers up my spine.

Subtly he began to move, and I despaired:

“Stay where you are! Don’t move!” I yelled, mostly begging than otherwise.

But Polack took small, fearless steps against the sword I held to his chest, forcing me to back away in the same speed if I didn’t want to pierce a hole into him.

“Stop! Stop right there!”

But he wouldn’t stop – he continued, and his eyes not once left mine. I kept turning around the room, walking back, daring to only avert my gaze every now and then to look back and make sure I wouldn’t trip on anything, then immediately looking at him again preventing the risk of being hit in that small fraction of a second in which I distracted my attention.

Panic’s mask began to materialize on my face: Polack didn’t fear me! Having a blade in my hands meant nothing… I couldn’t keep my will firm! I couldn’t look threatening! I couldn’t try to hurt him! And what would happen now? I panted heavily as my head got hot, my eyes grew dim and my lungs threatened to close…

I saw Polack begin to smile maliciously, almost mouthwatering from how dread sculpted my face in his favor. He did love to see it – I never needed his confession to realize.

His liquid eyes hardened, his smile grew larger and he moved with much more confidence now that my affliction surfaced, following me around the room like we were in a game, while my body boiled, squirming sporadically.

I was really smart, after all – and how tragic it was to only figure that out near the end!: Polack really did enjoy a psychological torture like I guessed he did. I sweated profusely at each step forward he took, and my fear only amused him more. Was the pleasure he felt in mortifying my shyness only a smaller sample of this one?

“And why am I so scared, and why is he so confident? Does he think I can’t do it?” My mind desperately processed, trying to make sense and luckily keep me from a nervous collapse “And can I do it?” I asked ferociously. The answer was a tragic, acquiesced “No”, when I thought about the physical strength I had to add to the grip if I wanted to pierce his flesh, and the willpower required to move on, to push forward even after seeing the first drop of blood. No… I could never do it! But I also couldn’t back down now, and I also couldn’t die!

I became overwhelmingly anxious: anxious to kill him, to escape and run, and survive! I held the grip with all my strength, forced my feet hard on the ground, squeezed my eyes shut… and invested forward with a light thrust. I heard the Polack moan subtly, being poked.

…but I most definitely hadn’t crossed him.

I opened my eyes slowly, uncertain… and a slap from the Polack threw the sword from my hand, tossing it aside. I advanced, trying desperately to pick it up again, but he kicked it away before my stretched hands could reach. He walked my way now, staring sternly, coldly, nervously… To me there was nothing left to do but back away.

“Please…”

“Have I never told you about this place?” he started in a sort of ending confession, like in the movies: the scene where all the secrets would be known, for the listener was about to get extinct! “These swords… I’m sorry to disappoint you, they are mere decorative items. Though I would love to brag, the sound decoration is not my merit: It was like this when I bought it – a treat to the good eye! And these swords…” he crouched down without peeling his eyes away from me, picking up the scabbard from the carpet “It wasn’t convenient to get rid of them, but they’re useless, really! Unless you’d use it as a club… or be a little more creative, like this…” he said, advancing and grabbing me with his long arm before I could run.

He held me by the sleeve of my blouse and pulled me to himself, my back crashing against his torso. Gently, he placed the scabbard under my jaw, touching my neck.

My heart skipped in a strange pace. It all happened so fast!

“But you could never cut me with them…” He laughed at my effort. Yes… I had indeed played a very silly role.

However, his strength against my neck was null. It almost felt like nothing but a demonstration. What had I to lose, then? I shouldn’t waste the frantic rhythm of my heart with just standing under his hands!

Taking advantage of the fact that the Polack only walked around the impeccable floor on his bare feet, I lifted a leg up, and then invested in it all my weight, stomping him under my shoe.

He moaned with pain and arched forward over me. I elbowed his ribs – the final blow, required so that he would let go of me… ideally.

But that didn’t happen! With the last attack, his body backed away, automatically taking the scabbard with him and squeezing it against my neck.

Polack stood erect again and, breathing heavily from the pain, he pulled me back against his chest, pulled the scabbard up and back, incapacitating me. I held it with both my hands, trying to breathe, and felt my feet being lifted from the floor. I thrashed against his hot torso, trying to regain control, but couldn’t…

“Congratulations, Jane!” I managed to think to myself, at the summit of my sarcasm “Every orphan girl has the bad luck of sleeping with their superiors… but you have to go and get yourself killed by yours!”

I felt my body grow numb, resting motionless against him as I got dizzy… I let go of the scabbard, and immediately saw myself slip down his clothes and onto the floor. My eyes opened up, alert again.

Polack panted from the slight inconvenience of having to use brute strength to hold me up; I breathed violently, alternating the effort with a few coughs.

Now you are listening to me!” He breathed sarcastically.

I panted on, held the cold silk from his pants as if I could fall even more if I let go, tried to look up to his face but failed.

I heard him throw the scabbard away – it produced a mute thud as it hit the carpet. Polack walked around my fallen body while I tried to recompose. I could barely think! Everything was a bright, dim image as if I was in the bottom of the ocean, drowning.

“Jane, I always knew you would react abruptly if you had your buttons pushed… But this is just absurd!”

He crouched down next to me, probably pitying my desperate attempt to look up at him.

“Am I that threatening to you?” He smiled amusedly and stroked my hair with his hot hand, lowering his fingers to my face and following the contours of my jaw to my chin. He brushed his thumb there, affectionately.

But I still wasn’t dead – and being so humiliated didn’t help keep me down! My lungs still stretched, didn’t they? They hadn’t burst yet… I got up on my knees, held his hands, invested in trying to push him back, away from me. I heard him laugh, moving his hands around, playfully trying to get rid of my grip.

“Jane, stop! Will you listen to me?” He half laughed, half ordered with a hint of irritation that was almost invisible through his amusement.

But I wouldn’t stop! He underestimated me so much, it killed me!! I growled, attempting against him.

In return, Polack pushed me back – all my strength amounting to not much to keep him. He laid me down on the floor and positioned himself on top of me, sitting over my hips and lowering his face to mine. He squeezed my wrists between his fingers, and held them down on the floor above my head. Having me motionless, he stopped for a long second to contemplate me with now relaxed eyes. Almost innocently, he laughed:

“You look like an angry kitty, Jane! How do I get you to stop trying so hard?”

I moaned and grunted, even more annoyed. I tried to thrash my already exhausted arms and legs and managed to cause some commotion to his large body sitting over me.

“Is that all?” He teased tranquilly, without for a second relieving the firmness over my wrists.

One small vacillation on his part, however – one small movement of his legs that leaned him forward and closer to me, so close I thought our lips would finally meet… One fraction of a second in which my hips were free from his weight, and I pushed myself away on the carpet, kicking his crotch on the first opportunity.

Polack lifted himself up, letting go of me to hold his wounded area as he staggered back, panting as if I had kicked his lungs shut.

“Jane…” he murmured through a coarse, chocked voice.

I got up as quickly as I could but, still dizzy with the commotion, I tripped and fell back.

“Jane…” Polack’s voice pleaded through weakness while he stretched his hand forward, attempting to reach me. Slow and confused as I was in my uncertain movements, however, and pain filled as he was, I easily dodged his grip.

I crawled to the scabbard. The Polack got back on his knees, recomposing.

“Jane!” he called me once more, softly, as if he asked me to stop.

I caught the scabbard. Polack stood behind me, put a hand over my shoulder and swirled me around.

I turned, hitting him in the face before I could see his eyes.

Sideways went his head. Tall as he was, it looked like a tree ready to fall down, so sharp the angle that saw him bend backwards. I watched with surprise as he didn’t fall, however. His face slowly turned back to the initial position, a red mark growing on his chin. He looked at me decided, and I felt fear.

“No!” I yelled, throwing the scabbard to the side and running for it.

The Polack swiftly held my wrist, stretched my arm back and strained it. I busied myself trying to get rid of his firm fingers, barely hearing it when he said “I’m sorry!”. I lifted my eyes in surprise, though – and all I saw was his free hand running up my arm to my face with an open palm. It hit me on the side of the neck so suddenly, I felt the touch but was out before I could feel the pain.

Chapter 11

 There it was, a childhood memory I swear I didn’t have, being forced back to recollection by sheer trauma shaking my nerves: I didn’t, but somehow the shaking cells of my body remembered the long hours between doing something I shouldn’t and the consequence of such. A broken vase perhaps? A crossed answer perhaps – my mother was particularly annoyed by those. Whichever was the case, I recollected waiting in the corner with much the same apprehension that held me during Polack’s long bath.  Only this time I was partially aware of how merciless the punisher could be!

I knew Polack – or at least the most superficial layer of him – enough to expect no spanking or sermon: he was too gentle, too meek, too delicate in his refined complexion for that… And what could I expect from him? I feared he might kill me! The color dripping from his hand that night shone brighter than ever in my brain, disturbing the ungrateful time in which I waited.

…But when I heard the doorknob turn – when I welcomed the shivers it sent down my spine -, Polack didn’t come my way to torment me as he promised he would. Instead, his steaming body crossed the kitchen. His dripping hair, his serious frown – all of him disappeared quietly downstairs without as much as a glance my way.

Relief? No, my nerves didn’t know how to feel it that day. I expected he would be back up before my shift could end – after that, if he hadn’t come, I could simply pretend to be asleep and hope it would work – or at least not hurt. It did look exactly like something his meek eyes would have him do: kill me so stealthily and so fast I couldn’t trouble him with any display of emotions. But the clock conspired against me with its two pointy hands: the hours wouldn’t go by, the night refused to fall…

It did eventually though – luckily, nature liked to be subtle in its ways of screwing me over, and wouldn’t give up such a recurring phenomenon for the amusement of watching me suffer. As soon as the lights outside were out, I dove in my bed and curled up under the covers. And what had I done to that clock to deserve so much hatred? The two hands raced now, pulling the few hours I had left of peace into the dawn of a new day in which Polack would certainly come to me… But could I call it ‘peace’, when my blood boiled so violently, when sleep refused to find me?

…At least only my thoughts tortured me – it was the answer inside my sarcastic mind. No physical force was applied, no attempt against my existence occurred, nothing like what the two cops insinuated through their lens as they reflected the sense of danger I ought to have.

But the Polack didn’t show up. Though I waited, and shuddered with a new gush of adrenaline hitting my blood with every sound of the floor boards cracking under a step, I didn’t see anything else of him for that day. Or for the next. Maybe psychological torture was his thing and that’s all – better than getting his hands dirty, even though such a small effort would be required of them to end me.

I eventually had to force myself to stop thinking – my thoughts knew only how to feed fear.

 

 

***

 

Two days had passed in which nothing but an exceptionally normal morning awaited me. In both days I cowardly creeped out of my room expecting to see Polack and rehearsing ways to look at his face or endure a greeting; in both days I had breakfast alone with a sullen Howard.

Nothing could be heard downstairs either, and in the shorts occasions that I happened to be sitting at the table I tried my best to detect any noises – sometimes even being so bold as to stretch my neck and attempt a glimpse into the darkness, but darkness was all there was.

The waiting, at last, became as much of a torture as the threat of heaving to face him. I sighed, Mr. Howard’s quick perceiving eyes tracked me, inquiring without a word to know what I was thinking.

“Is…” I started, uncertain about which words to choose – it felt like I hadn’t talked since that day! “Is the Polack in?”

Mr. Howard’s eyes narrowed in that offended fashion I couldn’t quite understand, glaring me ferociously. Having examined me from head to toe though, his ill-humor gave in slightly and his eyes dropped back to the plate before him:

“He is.”

I twisted my fingers under the table, and felt anxiety harden my shoulders.

“Do you think he’s mad?” The shy question, uncertain of whether it would help or worsen my case, escaped softly through my inconsistent voice.

His glasses reflected light as he lifted his head up to me:

“Just leave it be and everything will be fine.” Was the liberating answer.

I breathed again with my lung’s full capacity, after so long!

“Mr. Howard…”

“Hmm?”

He was warm enough now – diligent enough, though his eyes avoided me.

“Do you think that… I mean, do you know if…” I started the question, automatically leaning forward on the table so that I could lower my voice to a barely audible tone.

I looked around myself as I tried to find the correct words, gathering again all my doubts on how much that place didn’t look like a business at all. Meanwhile, Mr. Howard’s eyebrows tensed.

“…If this place is…” I resumed, but the question died out as soon as my eyes returned to my sullen companion: He scowled, his expression growing darker, more ominous by the second.

I stopped talking, surveying a massive threat thick as a cloud surrounding Mr. Howard. He didn’t ask me to continue either – the furious glare he directed me showed how little he appreciated my investigative spirit.

I focused my attention back on the coffee mug, hoping the steam would hide my eyes since the light in them seemed to offend Polack and Howard in a similar fashion.

 …But thinking was inevitable, especially when left alone. The more it was shunned, the more curiosity showed in everything I did – the more everything deserved my inquisitive contemplation.

That day was shadowy like the previous one. Dense, humid and terrible. A few thunders roared in the distance; the trees shook violently under a hostile wind. Soon the storm they had been brewing crashed down, and the restaurant was made deaf by the sound of heavy rain falling abundantly against the roof.

I watched the fearsome natural orchestra with curious, almost appreciative eyes through the counter window; Howard rushed in and closed it though, rolling down the metal door and locking it. Every other window was closed too, and we were left in the dark of an early afternoon.

With both left in idleness, it was easy for my mind to start swirling around on all I had gathered from the restaurant so far, and it was easier still for Howard to perceive it. Every time I looked around from another speculation my brain had just poured forth, I’d spot Mr. Howard eyeing me with a scowl.

He, too, suspected me. He, too, saw the shadow of doubt creeping from under me and growing larger at each thought, taking over the room. Speculation as good as materialized before his eyes and there was nothing he could do to prevent it.

 

After a few quiet hours, Mr. Howard returned from the kitchen and faced me with a tray on his hands. When I noticed his approach he was already upon me, and I was startled out of my musing – his eyes shone with reprobation.

“Wh-what is it?!” I asked, thinking, for a nervous second that he was treating me to a meal.

It took him a while to answer – he preferred to glare uncomfortably at me until it was clear that he knew I was snooping, advising me in his silent severity to stop.

“It’s for the Pole. I want you to take it to him.”

I felt my spine freeze.

“But… why me?!!” I protested.

His face became darker with impatience:

“Because moving your lazy ass will do you some good. It occupies the mind! Now take it…”

Having understood that I was as much as being punished for thinking, I carefully took the tray from his hands.

“And don’t take too long down there…” he advised next, spiking my fear as I reached the top of the stairs.

I had to stop for a second and think about the possible implications of not following the suggestion. Then, having swallowed hard, I went down feeling the most unfortunate sacrificial lamb of the herd.

That was only the second time I was there, in the eerie darkness of Polack’s luxury basement. Like in the last one, the only visible light parted from the small lamp on the desk – I could recognize its dim red hue.

From the corridor where I stood, I could see little through the half-open door. I waited for any noise – for the Polack to hopefully walk by and notice me through the small gap and walk out: it would be easy to disengage any conversation if it happened in the bothersome darkness of the corridor, and I wouldn’t have to fight so hard to keep my eyes from investigating, from drifting to those boxes and wondering what all those files meant. But the weight of the tray grew heavy and uncomfortable on my fingers, and there was no sign that the Polack was coming out any time soon.

I cleared my throat, and still the noise attracted no movements. Breathing deeply and accepting whatever fate was there, I walked in.

The room lay quietly under a comfy crimson hue. Warm and silent, I was again overtaken by how pleasant it was to be in there, what with the neat decoration and impeccable tidiness and, specially, the emptiness! No hint of the gorging rain outside reached me in that heavenly retire, and neither did Polack: He wasn’t there.

On my first steps, I couldn’t help but obsessively turn my neck to look behind in case it might be just a trap – he might show up at any time and lock me in with him, or strike me before I could see where the blow came from… but no! Apparently no one occupied that pavement other than me – it was awfully quiet, at the very least.

With the freedom to look around, I did so. Leaving the tray on top of his desk, I even noticed a slip of paper hiding under the base of the lamp. Checking the environment one last time, I seized it quickly and perused its content as fast as I could before anyone came in: Apparently it was a purchase bill discriminating a series of items in small black prints I had to lean under the lamp to make out. The information accumulated to nothing however, as the expensive items were unknown to me. I did read the word “suppressor” here and there, and after a moment of mental lag it occurred to me those were often used in guns.

To accompany the fright of sudden realization, I heard a very close rustling sound. Skipping away from my position over the desk, I hit my head on the lamp, dropping it on the carpet – the light went out.

I tossed the paper aside and desperately looked around in the dark, feeling myself about to smother: not a thing could be seen! Backing away in slow and cautious steps, hoping whatever was there couldn’t see me either, I crouched down fearfully and picked the lamp back up, placed it on the desk, turned the light back on and sought the source of the dooming sound: The Polack was there after all… under the sheets.

I stood and waited for a manifestation on his part, but it didn’t happen. I waited, then, for my heart to calm down. Carefully I shifted the lamp closer to the edge of the desk, bathing the volume over the bed I had only then noticed. Indeed, there he was, stretching his pale torso from under a thick black and red duvet.

The first reaction to follow a relieved sigh was to lean back on the desk and rest my shaky bones: Polack was fast asleep. Confident on my invisibility, I grabbed a toast from his plate and walked closer to the bed. As I took a crunchy bite, I examined him only to make sure he looked alive enough – His sandy hair locks fell over his forehead, his deep green eyes were buried beneath heavy lids, his lips – if I looked long enough – I could almost see moving as they framed a silent expiration, pink and humid. I lowered my eyes to his bare torso, to the stretched skin and the contours of his pronounced muscles… and I blushed violently, throwing my head to the side as the examination seemed to take a different turn from the one originally intended. But then it occurred to me that he couldn’t see me… That no one was there to watch me stare, if I wanted to. And I could do it long enough to perhaps capture one of those fleeting feelings as they skipped by. I turned back, my cheeks burning the entire time.

I liked his long neck there – a strip of muscle stood out, framing the gap under his trachea, pointy hair strands softly resting as if they hovered around his skin. In his deep, noiseless slumber, he had one of his arms up, hiding it under the pillow – it pulled back the thick muscle of his chest, making the individual lumps of his ribcage visible on that side of his body. I surveyed him as a whole then: the big volume he represented as he was laid down, the sour perfume of shaving lotion that parted from his fresh image… Capturing the transparent rabbits of feelings, I managed to make them out at last: I felt attracted to the Polack. His hair made me want to smell it. His skin made me want to touch him. His eyes made me want to call back those times when his face was so close to mine, and melt down so that he’d have to hold me up… and maybe let him do whatever. And what did however mean? My ears burned with the embarrassment, and I shut away the thought – after all, the Polack was asleep: it was easy to ignore the threat that just a short while ago strained me, when he looked this harmless. I swallowed whatever got caught in my throat from remembering what his eyes looked like when awake and stared at him just a while longer before pulling myself back upstairs.

It was definitely his long, exposed neck what drew me in the most at that occasion. It made the air grow denser and hotter as it entered my lungs.

Chapter 10

I might have repeated either “Polack” or “Handsome” a few inadvertent times throughout that violet afternoon that fell beyond the rooftops over the hill. Yes… – I sighed again – for in the middle of all the confusing emotions, the intimate aversion, the unsolicited proximities, dreaded anticipations of things that weren’t… In the middle of all those thoughts of dark or brilliant things stood out, colorful and sparking, the consciousness that Polack was a handsome man, possessor of a delicate charm and an unfathomable mystery that reeled me in as much as it creeped me out.

I don’t like to think about what aspect my face assumed during those thoughts, for I already caught myself sighing more than it was natural of my lungs to do, but, luckily, I had been sitting on the stool before the counter, with my arms crossed over it and my head lying between them, in a way that no one inside could perceive in me the manifestation of those unwelcome, untamed thoughts…

…The restaurant did receive other visitors that very same day though, and I only caught sight of them when they had already been soliciting my attention for a while!

“Miss?” They called a fourth time.

Lifting my eyes, I spotted a pair of men in uniforms – their police car parked just a few meters from the restaurant. From the way they stood, expectantly eyeing me, I figured it wasn’t a meal they were there for.

“Yes?” I lifted my head next, squeezing my eyebrows together.

The dark uniforms, caps and police car parked nearby were proof enough of their professions, but still my reception to them seemed to demand nothing else: They flashed me a pair of silver shields on a leather strip, namely their badges.

“What have I done?” would have been my question back in the orphanage, but I happened to know I behaved exceptionally well in Gloen, so I merely stared.

“Could you step out here for a moment, miss? We would like to ask you some questions…” The first cop started as his partner trailed away investigating the pavement.

I looked back, seeking both Mr. Howard or Polack whom, I judged, would be more suitable to answer to police inquiries than me, but none of them was to be seen.

“Yeah… Sure!” I sighed, and unwillingly stepped down on the sidewalk.

Satisfied enough with that answer, the first cop took out from his pocket a small notepad and a pen, laying the latter on the first, prepared to take notes on whatever I said. It felt… intimidating.

“What’s your name?”

“Jane…” I stated, uncertain.

“Jane what?” He inscribed.

“Jane Ch… Hey, what is this for?” I interrupted, bursting with agitation as I watched the other cop kneel on the curb next to me, investigating the tire marks scorched on the asphalt “…because if this is about that guy from earlier, you should be talking with him and not with me: He nearly ran me over with his stupid bike!”

“Tell me more about what happened.” The one that knelt asked, unsociably.

“This guy shows up asking for directions, before I can tell them he freaks out and tries to leave, losing control over his bike and nearly hitting me!”

“Hmm-Hm. We did hear something like that from the neighbors. They thought there had been a query… You’re saying it didn’t happen like that?”

Geesh, don’t they have TV or anything? I thought to myself, unnerved:

“No! Not like that at all! I hadn’t even seen the guy before in my life!”

“But… we did also find an emergency call registered to this address from a few days ago. Any idea of what that might be?”

I still had the heart to mentally criticize them for the delayed response – if I was to die, I’d be dead already! – before a half panic kicked in.

“Ham… Yeah, sure, that! I dialed the wrong number!” I shrugged, cold sweat beginning to drip.

“Well…” he took his time, taking a note of that, too “How long do you work here, miss Jane?”

I looked up, counting fingers.

“A month and a few days… Why?”

I guess I wasn’t in the position to ask questions…

“What would you say the movement of this place is like?”

Again, I had to think about it. I only remembered it receiving the nuns, a young couple and a lost man…

“Uhm… Slow…”

“Slow?” He repeated, eyes down on the notes.

“Pretty slow, actually…” I completed after further musing.

They looked at each other from their different positions. The noting guy took more notes.

Though the whole thing stroke me as fundamentally weird, I was happy enough to be off the hook, and easily judged the investigation as a mere formality for their files.

“Who is in charge of this place?”

“That would be the Polack!” I replied enthusiastically, hoping they’d ask me to call him.

“Does the Polack have a name?”

“I suppose so…” Again, I shrugged.

“Is he the one who cooks?” Finally having enough of interiorizing the tire marks into his brain, the second cop stood up and joined the discussion.

“Not really. He’s only the manager.”

“And who does?”

Again, the answer didn’t come easily. It surprised me to see how little I knew of that place, after so long!

“I don’t know, maybe Mr. Howard…”

“What is Mr. Howard’s full name?”

I shook my head negatively. They took a note on that, too.

I felt my forehead grow hot with nervousness. Concerned with what my dumb answers might occasion me, I tried to be more considerate:

“Well, I have only seen food stored in the fridge. At least that’s where it comes from when we get a customer.”

“So you’ve never seen them cook?” The question was uninterested enough to allow me space to wonder further.

“They’re actually divided into portions… and wrapped in plastic bags… So maybe…” I thought hard… It didn’t make sense, but having started that train of thought, I decided to finish it “…Maybe the food comes from somewhere else, I don’t know!”

I must have said something really absurd, for both their pairs of eyes returned to me with renewed interest:

“What do you mean by that?”

“Well… That maybe Polack orders food from another restaurant, to then serve it here… Again, I don’t know, I never really gave it too much thought!”

“Hmm…”

Those small intervals of silent scribing unnerved me.

“Do you think that generates a good margin of profit?” One asked. It sounded like a rhetoric question…

“No… I don’t think so…” I lifted an eyebrow.

“What do you think about your boss?”

“He’s okay…” I replied, distracted now that my brain revolved around the mystery they had just proposed me.

“Just okay?”

I blushed. Whatever else I thought of him, I couldn’t discuss it so openly:

“I guess!”

Certainly, they weren’t interested in listening to that other part. To the part where I liked his perfume, and thought he looked good…

…But maybe if I talked about the locked doors at night, and the movement coming and going, and Polack washing his hands on the sink in the middle of the night… Maybe if I talked about whatever it was they loaded in that truck, and the boxes with files. My heart skipped a bit as a distant suspicion threatened to reach consciousness.

“Jane, will you do some math for me?” The man who had been quiet for the last three questions suddenly started, frowning his forehead. “How much do you think keeping this place costs?”

I felt myself being tested. It was like when the nuns invaded the classrooms back in the orphanage, interrupting a lesson. They’d browse through whatever book the teacher was using, and would come up with a random question for a random girl – who, with a much too absurd frequency to be considered coincidence, was usually me.

“I-I don’t know!” I blurted, and why should I? “Look, I had no idea cops investigated that type of thing!” I accused them in response.

One cop placed a hand on the other’s shoulder, they shared a whisper: I hoped he was being so kind as to explain to his partner that a seventeen year old girl doesn’t usually pay much attention to the administrative aspects of her working site. Such being the case or not, the question was promptly answered anyway, and me, poked no further:

“This is a nice neighborhood, so I’m betting it isn’t cheap. How do you think a man can cover all those expenses with a movement you call…” he checked back his notepad to quote me with precision “’Pretty slow, actually’?”

I crossed my arms and looked down, intrigued.

“Use your head, kid” they suggested “It’s just a little math…”

That didn’t look like math at all… But yes, something complex began to pronounce itself through my thoughts as I tried to process whatever they were implying. Many of the black threads I had caught swinging in the air after one of Polack’s strange smiles seemed now firm enough for connection – I feared tying the knot though, as a cold feeling creeped through my veins, making my chest feel empty

 The idea finally occurred to me that Polack wasn’t a restaurant manager. That the place was but a façade! Whether I would have had the courage to announce my discovery to the authorities or not, I didn’t know: To seal the deal of dread becoming flesh, Polack’s sung, amused words filled the silence of our discussion:

“Now you are asking a bit too much, don’t you think, gentlemen?!”

I looked up, and there I saw my superior standing right behind me with a diabolical smile stretching his lips from ear to ear. He laid his hands over my shoulders – not as light as they used to be; they seemed to conspicuously oppress with firmness calculated to silence. “My little friend here isn’t the sharpest arrow in the quiver, forgive me!” He let out in just as friendly a tone as he would have directed me.

“I’m not stupid!” I replied, offended, anxious to show I had fully understood his insinuation.

Polack narrowed his eyes, but didn’t lower them to me: He never removed them from the men standing ahead, but he did murmur softly, with an intense, modulated voice:

“I don’t want to hear a word about that now, darling… Just be a good girl and go inside to run me a bath, yes? A very hot one: Work has been stressing me!”

With two taps on the side of my arm, he rushed me in.

“In what can I be of assistance?” His cheerful voice called again, directing the cops as I passed by him.

As soon as I had finished climbing the steps, however, the cops interrupted me:

“Miss Jane!”

I turned to look. So did Polack: he twisted his neck to direct me a piercing, investigative gaze. Though it did look like a threat, it wasn’t quite one – something more like a conformed expectation, I’d say, lingered there. As if he expected me to screw up, unconcerned, however, with the consequences. It gave me more chills than a verbal threat would have!

“…Is there something else you’d like to tell us?”

The falcon green eyes observed me from the shadow of his hat… they observed patiently, unrelenting… Did he see it when the shadow of doubt and fear crossed my face? I felt he’d kill me if I let him, and I couldn’t brush off the panic they inspired! I couldn’t defy them!

“No!” The choked answer ripped through my throat like live coal, loud and clear.

Polack dropped his head and smiled, tucked his hands into his pockets and turned again, facing the cops.

“Forgive the kid, she tends to be a little hasty! It does resemble rudeness, but oftentimes it’s completely artless!” he mocked from behind his pristine, thick armor of silly humor “So… Would you like to have anything?”

I turned and quickly ran inside, eager to escape the scene as soon as possible, but I bumped with Mr. Howard standing by the end of the corridor like a great wall! He faced me stiffly from his height in what looked like a hard rebuke. I walked a couple of steps behind, staring him back in a raw, bleeding cowardice:

“M…Mr. Howard?”

His eyes hardened further upon me, seeming to suddenly detest me like the trouble he always professed I’d become. He didn’t like me from the start, it’s true, and now he seemed to have a good reason for it: I just didn’t know which that was!

After staring me long enough to make a silent threat obvious, Mr. Howard did step aside to let me through, pressing his back against the wall. His eyes, however, didn’t leave me for a second as I marched into the bathroom.

Stepping inside, dread turned into rapid urgency and I slammed the door shut, locking it with shaky fingers. After doing so, and taking a long hard breath, I turned around and rested against it, as if locking didn’t grant me secure enough – then I slid to the floor with my legs’ firmness failing me. The tiles weren’t cold enough to prevent the obsessing thought: What would I do now?!

My brain bothered itself too long with repeating the question, leaving no time left to think up an answer as I ran out of time: five or ten torturing minutes later, the doorknob twisted and turned. Needless to say the noise startled me out of myself, and it was a relief to be reminded that it was locked. Still, I jumped away in an impulse and watched the door with fixed eyes for a silent moment after which a light knock shook it, echoing inside.

“Jane?” Polack’s voice sounded through, again soft as velvet, low and dangerous “Jane, open the door, will you?”

I held the knob, indecisive. What would happen to me if I did? – I considered asking, but couldn’t find my voice to do so: it had hidden itself too deep inside me to be summoned back without a ceremony. Good thing, too: could I believe whatever he said would be the consequence? I groaned a little, panicking!

“Jane…” Polack asked again with a voice so composed that seemed to try and caress my face through the door with warm fingers…

…but I snapped out of it. I needed all my wits about me to figure out what to do, and that included remembering only the weird menace he showed from time to time! If I recalled the smiles, the piercing eyes and convincing tone, I’d feel dizzy and vulnerable.

“You’re making me worried now…” he pursued in a cautious murmur, brushing the knots of his fingers against the door.

Was this one of those moments a person frowns upon in the movies, when the protagonist is about to deliver himself to a danger much too obvious for the entire audience? I had no choice but to open the door… There was no other escape, and I feared the longer I waited, the madder he would get, the harder to come up with any excuse to pretend I didn’t fear him – I didn’t suspect anything at all! My guts turned inside me, I slammed my head against the doorframe once, twice… no easy answer came forward! With a last broken, trembling sigh I opened the door…

Polack’s figure covered the entire exit, supporting his shoulder on the frame and eyeing me sideways; then he moved, standing erect before me and watching from above, without quite lowering his head…

“You were awful quiet in here!” he commented drily.

“The… lock jammed.” I gulped, looked away from his way, feigned indifference.

He stared behind me over my head, scanning the bathroom, then like spiky magnets his eyes returned to mine:

“I believe I asked you to run me a bath, Jane, and not start one yourself…” he teased, as he would have done anyway in a situation like that, but his voice still sounded different… The muscles in his throat, like mine, were tenser than the usual, and he couldn’t hide it well.

And if the Polack couldn’t… oh, how could I even hope to do so?

I pursed my lips, put my hands behind my back and looked around me innocently.

Polack merely smiled, scrutinizing the obviously nervous show I put for a long while.

“Consorting with the enemy, are we Jane?” he chuckled at last, twisting his smile sideways and putting an end to my farce.

“What?! I didn’t do that!”

His lifted hands closed in on me. My heart races as I observed them, following their course, desperately trying to predict what they would do… both brushed against the sides of my neck, wrenching a pang of psychological torture over me and, of course, a violent jerk Polack chose to ignore. Against my deduction that they’d kill me, however, his hands captured a couple of dry leaves that had gotten stuck in my jacket’s hoodie on my back. He flashed them briefly as he brought them back to his face, and destroyed them with his pale fingers, producing that very uncomfortable sound of autumn’s death penalty.

“What to do with you now, Jane?” He sighed at last with his amused smile, fueling my panic.

My heart was racing again – it desperately tried to escape through my mouth!

Polack began to slowly remove from his back his woolen coat – he stretched an arm and threw it behind me into the bathroom. Still, I didn’t move, I didn’t stir from the place fear had pinned me to.

“You’re like a magnet for trouble…” he added, his smile becoming a more casual, more serious form of the previous mocking version, as if he was growing tired.

I couldn’t decide between looking at his face or at his ever moving hands – the first one seemed like a more reasonable choice, considering that the last one… Well, I concluded that observing his movements wouldn’t grant me any sort of advantage over them in case he decided to attack me right there anyway… Plus, I assumed I could see the ultimatum of danger in his eyes seconds before it happened. But oh, why could I only think like that? My legs began to shake…

Swiftly, Polack pulled the sash from his green robe – it slipped through the silky cloth that fell open around his pale, long torso. Heat rushed violently to my face as my eyes inevitably fell to his chest. I then watched as he wrapped the sash around his right hand…

“I’ll think about it as I take my bath…” he sighed at last, ridding me of the torturous expectation.

He still held the sash with too much firmness in one of his hands, however. It still intimidated reason out of me…

“Go, Jane… Pass…” He said somewhat perplex, stretching his arm back to give me space “…Or I’ll think you want to share the bathroom with me!”

I rushed past him, being, however, so careful as to squeeze myself against the doorframe to avoid contact with his exposed skin – I irrationally feared that if I happened to touch it, I’d receive a shock and fall down, too vulnerable!

Polack followed my stray march with hard eyes for a while still, during which I decided with iron will not to look back to see him… He eventually went inside, and I heard him shut the door.

Finally closing myself inside my room and wishing to God the lock was on the inside – where it normally should be – I realized I had returned to square one: The square where I had stored my fears, apprehensions and insecurities about that place… The square that kept the vivid resolution that I should not trust Polack…

…A different, deadly disadvantage held me down now, however: A damned spell submitted my rage to him. Cowardice ordered me to wait patiently below his fingers – it said If I tried to run, it would be worse!

It was controlled by a long stare of those eyes!

Chapter 9

I dedicated that morning to sweeping the sidewalk from the autumn leaves the past week gathered there, and had succeeded in creating a quite decent pile of leaves by the curb… But the repetitiveness eventually distracted me out of the purpose of the task and, without realizing it, at some point I began to spread them more than otherwise.

Watching the mess I made happen – somehow looking worse than before I started –, I let out a surrendering sigh, slightly saddened by the recollection of Mr. Howard’s words from just a few hours ago: He said I was useless for that type of work and shouldn’t bother trying. In another occasion, he told me I was too bad for anything that demanded focus.

Blunt aversion aside, the manager said I was good for another type of job, which was apparently the true reason why he was keeping me. I wish I could ask what that was, for Mr. Howard was a very believable person: I had no clue myself of any useful skills I might possess.

And when would I be asked to perform it?  When I looked inside through the counter opening, I could see Polack and old Howard sitting at the table, in the kitchen, discussing something serious. If I took too long spying on them, I would receive Mr. Howard’s heavy reproachful look, censoring me to investigate any further. I looked back to the street and sighed.

Lifting my eyes from the dull-colored leaves blending with mud against the curb I noticed, on the other side of the street, a boy on top of an old, beaten motorcycle. The only reason the scene deserved my fleeting attention was because, in general, it was rare to see anyone crossing that silent street. I might have wondered on the fact that the boy looked too young to drive, too… But if the attention had been randomly earned, the interest had not: He held a sheet of paper in his hand and looked around himself, clearly searching for something. He must have been lost though, for he waited there for a good whole minute not knowing where else to go, when he turned his neck and spotted me.

I lifted my chin as high as I could without looking positively stupid and turned away, but the person’s stare persisted on me.

“Fucking yokels…” I cursed in a murmur, looking back at him and hoping he would accurately interpret the extension of my hostility.

He might have been dumb for all I knew. That, or my frown had been severely unpracticed, for he flashed me a puppy smile and started turning his motorcycle, changing to the other side of the street and slowly reeling the thing next to me, moving it with his leg rather than with an active engine.

He stopped next to me and said a strangled “Hi”, a clumsy smile now changing his face.

I must have grimaced in response.

“I’m Tony. Who are you?”

I examined him: he was a short, robust guy with black curly hair and thick eyebrows. Maybe I couldn’t deny he had some sort of exotic charm to him, but I found the fact he was talking to me offensive.

I looked behind myself, making sure Polack wasn’t around to scold me for being rude:

“Nobody!”

“Nobody?” He insisted, somewhat perplex.

“I’m Jane, alright?!” I groaned against my will.

“Ah, Jane! Where you from?!”

I squinted my eyes: How could he know I wasn’t originally from Gloen? Did he assume I was from the orphanage? Then, without a doubt, he knew about the terrible fame of Saint Mary’s girls and based upon it his daring socialization. I squeezed the broom’s cable inside my angry fingers.

“Nowhere that matters you!”

“Oh, I’m sorry!” He started, justifying himself in a clumsy way “I just need some information and thought you might know this area and… Maybe… Maybe show me around?” he lifted an eyebrow and flashed me a smile calculated to befriend: made me want to punch his teeth.

“I’m not leaving this spot!”

“Hmm… is that so?! Well…” he mused nervously, putting his hand around his chin and wondering. “Then… Then I guess there is no harm in asking, right?”

Something about the way he pronounced his T’s stroke me as odd, so I figured he might be a foreigner. That, however, didn’t explain the strange nervousness with which he pondered if he should ask for the damn directions or not.

“Listen, it’s not like I know this stupid city anyway, so just fucking tell me!”

“Right!” He agreed, apparently out of pressure. “I’m looking for… Well, it’s this place….” He supported his weight on a leg and leaned forward, stretching his arm and showing me the scrap of paper he had been reading “And it shouldn’t be far from here, right? I mean…”

I bent over, too, reading the scrap.

“Anything wrong, Jane?” Polack’s lazy voice echoed through the corridor.

The boy snatched the paper away and watched nervously as I looked back – Polack leaned on his chair.

“Well, you’re lucky! This is the place. It’s Polack’s restaurant.” I replied, looking back to him.

The information didn’t make him as happy as I would have expected though – his hands quickly returned to the handle of the motorcycle, squeezing it firmly.

Polack paced our way – I heard him push back his chair.

“I’m sorry! I… I have to go!” He stammered as he started to kick down on the throttle.

“Go where?” I inquired, confused.

Agreeing with the motorcycle’s beaten appearance, however, the engine didn’t seem to want to start, which seemed to render the guy terrified.

“C’mon… C’mon, you thing!” He bit his lip as he twisted the handlebar from one side to the other, stomping the accelerator.

The bike eventually answered his frayed efforts – he wasn’t quite expecting it when it did, though, for he lost control of the handles, climbing the sidewalk and nearly hitting me with a furious roar of ancient engine coming to life. I jumped back, falling over the doorsteps – the guy staggered the motorcycle around, but inevitably fell himself a little farther down the street, with the vehicle falling over him. Before I could get up to watch justice being served, however, the broom fell on my face, hitting the bone below my eye and producing a poignant pain.

“Hei, hei, hei!!!” Polack’s always composed voice sounded just a pitch higher than its usual frequency “What’s the meaning of this?”

I held my face, trying to keep it from hurting as I clumsily attempted to pick myself up with only one hand. I opened my teary eyes and saw him standing on the door, by my side.

The clumsy boy picked himself up, breathing heavily.

“I knew you were too quiet out here, Jane!” He declared, facing the boy inquisitively “Who’s your friend?”

“He’s not my friend! And I don’t know what his problem is!” I replied angrily.

“We’re open on week days until seven – be a good kid and pass that on to whoever sent you here, will you? Now, you have one chance, and once chance only to tell what you want here, or get yourself up and go!”

“I… I just wanted to…” he started, lifting a finger and half-pointing it my way… but I guess he realized in time that it wouldn’t help his case to declare any harmless interest in me when he had just nearly squashed me under his bike’s front wheel. “N-never mind!” He concluded.

“Yes, yes, leave it be…” Polack murmured to himself while he watched the boy climb his motorcycle and drive away faster than I could count. A sleek smile crossed his face, then: “These orphan girls are a fierce type, you wouldn’t want to mess with them. Isn’t that right, Jane?”

He stretched his hand to me – his big green eyes seemed entertained, naturally, but also slightly disappointed with the scene.

“…This time you must concede you could use a help…” was his reply to my delay “…And there isn’t much room for pride, when you’re sitting on the floor with a bruise in your face now, is there?”

I took his hand to prevent further humiliation – it was warm, soft as it surrounded mine. With a gentle and firm pull, he placed me on my feet. The speed made me dizzy and temporarily unbalanced.

His hand slid down to my waist, almost completely covering it, as he kept me from falling back down. I felt the blood go up to my face making, in its turn, the recent wound on my cheek burn more.

“Expect it to turn purple…” Polack commented, lowering his head closer to mine and watching carefully the borders of my small scratch.

I wasn’t scared to look into his eyes then: they were too busy examining the wound with impenetrable concentration. I lost myself in them a little, my breath growing in rhythm… When I came to, I still had his right hand holding my waist, and my wrist still firmly detained inside his left one. The heat of his body close to mine was predominant, making me feel strange… His face was so close, I could tell we breathed the same air.

Polack smiled a meek smile then, and his eyes narrowed, more peaceful. He slowly let go of me, as if he could tell I would fall back down if it was too sudden: I would be dizzy and in lack of oxygen, not because the broom stick had hit me in the head, but because he had held me for too long…

 “Don’t worry: You’ll survive. That’s my diagnosis…” he chuckled, then sighed gladly, much too pleased with that outcome: “Ah, but I told you so, didn’t I, Jane?”

Now that I was free of his touch, and of his overwhelming proximity, I remembered the pain burning down on my check bone, and tried to sooth it under my hand. I called back the embarrassment, too, and felt my eyes sting with welling, inconvenient tears I in vain tried to control: They usually followed a vicious cycle where the more their presence angered me, the more abundantly they flowed! Thus vexation slowly grew out of hand, like a frayed train, and my chest started panting, at first subtly, then evolving into full sob, cold and desperate.

Polack giggled at my state, not missing a single piece of it. He laid severe fingers on my face, pulling back, almost impatiently, a set of locks that got caught in my eyes. A rough thumb pulled back my tears, spreading them through my hot skin.

“What did I tell you about staying out here when it’s late?” He asked, lowering his head and smiling into my eyes a mocking smile “I said it was dangerous, didn’t I? And you acted as if I was an overprotective fool and you knew so much better! Now what would you do if that boy returned later and I wasn’t here?”

“He didn’t do it on purpose!” I groaned, drying my tears in my sleeve. It wasn’t that guy that I protected, but my wounded pride. “And if he did it, I’d kill him!!”

Bitterness sounded like a pathetic plea through my teary voice, and Polack wouldn’t let that go unnoticed: he laughed amusedly.

“No you wouldn’t… But I compliment you on your bravery! Jane, my dear… You can’t always fight against boys!”

I lifted my hands, started to scratch my eyeballs trying to keep the tears from coming.

Polack tried to remove them – he wanted me to look at him while he spoke. I resisted and carried on hiding them.

 “…It’s not like in an orphanage where there are only ladies! Boys are stronger… see?” He held my wrists and pulled them apart, exposing my face in a minimal effort on his behalf. His smile grew larger by the scared expression I hid in there.

“But you don’t have to worry about that either…” He stood straight, laying a hand on my shoulder “As long as I’m here, I’ll keep you safe…”

I felt my heart grow warm in that strange sensation again… But nervousness was just around the bend and the humiliation too fresh upon my skin: It still had its dart prickled in my flesh, and it still had more poison to pour:

“I don’t want it! I don’t need you to play my father!!” I retorted.

“Your father?!” Polack laughed cynically, luckily never affected by how daringly I talked back to him. His thumb pulled back another tear that rolled down my cheek, exactly where the scratch was, making it burn with his rough caress “Don’t be ridiculous, Jane! I’m too young to be a father, especially to a daughter your age! Was that what you thought of when I scared that kid away? It just so happens that girls usually like to show off older guys as their boyfriends… But forgive me! I forgot you are a fierce little one that hates the opposite sex!” He taunted me with relaxed eyes and a long smile “Why! You seem to despise the idea much more than I suspected! Look at you, Jane: You’re red as a pepper!” he laughed.

In a fit of anger, I pulled myself away from his invading scrutiny. Curiously, in that moment, I had completely forgotten the scene that happened out there – it was something else that put me so out of myself! But, in my urgency, I tripped over his large feet that surrounded me against the doorframe and fell on his chest.

“Jane… Are you feeling ill?” He asked now in a hint of bothered worriedness.

I lifted my face as if taken by paralysis and surveyed his warm, diverted smile. I blushed, then… Too hot. Too much. Too much to even move! His arms surrounded me, keeping me from falling as if I was an invalid! And his chest… How hot the skin there scorched my shyness!

“Why don’t you go inside and wash yourself, huh?” He held me still, patiently suggesting I leave him, as if I was unwilling to do that, rather than paralyzed by embarrassment. “C’mon, go. Before you turn that into an infection…” He meekly insisted, not realizing my brain had fallen into some sort of breakdown.

“Y-yes! Sure!” I declared, finally gathering back the firmness of my limbs and pulling me from his embrace. I heard him laugh still, certainly amused by how ardently I “despised the idea of pretending to be his girlfriend”.

He waited until I went inside, and then stayed behind to watch the street for a while longer, as if he actually still tried to protect me…

 

The steam parting from the hot tub clouded my view. I rubbed the dimness out of the mirror and contemplated my reflex on it: The angry expression almost constantly scowled, the face marked by a small bruise and a couple of scratches where the broom had hit me: These little shadows of distaste were no strangers to my complexion, and yet… My heart skipped a beat as I asked myself in what I believed was the first time in all those years, whether I was pretty or not. And what had caused such type of inquiry? …I specially wondered what Polack thought about it. What did he think of, when he held me in his arms and looked me so close in the eyes? I felt my naked body tremble and creep, the coldness squeezing my skin increased…

…It was a coldness that remembered the warmth of being held by him with an easy richness of detail!

I got into the tub and sighed long, slowly, expelling every excess of oxygen my lungs had gathered while I breathed so violently in Polack’s presence.

Polack – I repeated in a few murmurs, smiling at the nice sound it had for me. He was really, really a handsome man!

Reluctantly, I believe that, deep down, I’d love to be his girl!

Chapter 8

My eyes began to open lazily; calling me back to reality was his hand running down my hair. I turned quickly, scared… But if the Polack had been there a moment ago, he no longer was.

Now fully awakened, I could hear his voice parting from the other room, brought to me by the empty corridor. I looked about myself and noticed his woolen jacket covering my back. A pleasant perfume parted from it. I believe the day had begun to set…

“You lied to me!” I heard Mr. Howard’s most daring voice tone accuse.

“Why… That is like saying I have lied to myself, dear friend…” Was Polack’s collected answer, entirely unaffected by the confrontation. “…And I don’t remember having decided to do so!”

I rose from my chair in silence and sneaked about as far as the pantry’s door. There, I half concealed myself behind the wall, where I could see them as they talked: Polack sat on the high stool with his arms crossed over his chest and his back resting against the cabinet. He relaxedly rocked his body back and forth, challenging gravity.

Mr. Howard stood by his side, facing him intently:

“You didn’t tell me you would be keeping her here!” The old man pursued in an upset, offended voice tone “On the contrary, you said that…”

“I know what I said” Polack interrupted with haste; his smile faltered as he urgently silenced Howard’s sentence, then it returned “But I don’t think that’s the case anymore, old man. I think I might have found some use in her…”

He moved his hand to his chin, then smiled, apparently finding some sort of amusement in his thoughts.

“And what the devil are you talking about now?!” Old Howard angrily inquired.

“I wasn’t lying when I said she was an interesting kid…” He laughed meekly, recollecting the short event “I believe she has some traits I could use in my advantage… For something other than this foolish housework you have her doing!”

“Listening to you now, it sounds like you did it all on purpose! Like you brought her here with a plan in mind!” Howard’s indignation growled, as if there was something fundamentally wrong with me and, therefore, fundamentally wrong with that choice!

Polack answered with an amused, proud short smile, pulling his hat closer over his eyes.

“I couldn’t be so smart even if I wanted to!”

My eyes sunk, afflicted by incomprehension.

“How do you expect this will end?” Howard inquired “They told you about that girl: She’s a troublemaker! The worst in that entire place… They were more than eager to get rid of her!”

“Come on, you have seen her!” Polack protested “A spirited one, yes…” his eyes wandered “Defying, always… but never did she disobey me!

“What makes you think she won’t?”

Polack mused on the answer, then smiled to himself:

“Do you see how she looks at me? What a spicy pleasure she feels in staring, challenging my gaze with those sharp little eyes? It’s like she’s willing to test the limits of my patience for curiosity’s sake alone, but fear is always there to stop her– just enough fear to prevent her from becoming a threat.”

“That was one quick change of heart…” The stoic old man judged.

“Isn’t it human nature, the egotism’s undisputed reign, to love the transformations imposed by oneself? I can’t get enough of measuring the results of my own actions on that rough little thing…”

“Ridiculous logic! Is that your only reason?!”

Polack, then, seemed to distance himself momentarily… I believe the same degree of expectation animated Howard’s breast and mine, for we both glared with fixated urgency, from our opposite positions, waiting for the end of his placid, almost melancholy reflection.

Finally, his lazy green eyes looked about himself, staring at the roof, walls and windows.

“I like this place…” he sighed “Don’t wanna have to leave it…”

“You’re digging a very deep trench, Pole…” Howard concluded, lowering his head and crossing his arms in an irreducible disapproval, but having surrendered the argument “I hope you know what you are doing…”

“Me too!” Polack smiled childish and excitedly, the blue tail of worry painting his expression.

 

***

 

 

At night, the neighborhood lay quiet as a tomb. No signs of sentient life threatened to break that city’s peaceful rest. Still, I couldn’t fall back to sleep.

His exposed chest must have really impressed me, earlier in the kitchen, for, in the disturbed sleep I found before awakening halfway through the evening, I reproduced in dreams the appearance of his body with much too rich details and a much too vivid imagination: I remembered the light clothes covering him, more open than usual. I saw flashes of the bed in which he slept, too – the sheets that entwined his body, that received his fresh perfume, and where everyone in the orphanage must swear I should be by then! But those were mere reproductions –it was the imagination part that really impaired further slumbering: I had my face against him – My cheek pressed on his bare chest. I felt the heat of such contact warm me, the subtle moisture of his skin being transferred to mine, and that was almost pleasant. Then, I felt his arms fold around me. They surrounded and squeezed…and suddenly I couldn’t move. And I suffocated!

The stars in the sky shone with exceptional intensity there, like I had never seen them shine back in the orphanage. I sighed, finding some pleasure in watching as the smoke I exhaled interposed between me and the view of the infinite sky – it made it look nearer, more tangible and concrete, less like a blue greatness that threatened to swallow me in its lack of visible end or start, in which I’d be rapidly forgotten. The same could be said about the reality to which I had gotten used to, and for a careless second I felt I no longer drowned.

I sat on the sidewalk, resting my back on the cold wall of the house, under the moonlit shadow of the two bamboos, contemplating the sky through its sparse leaves. I removed the cigarette from my lips and frowned, wondering how much was left of it. I hated the taste and the dry feeling of the smoke dancing around my throat, but I wished I could finish one…

“Where did you get that?” His smooth voice sounded through the air in perfect resonance with the lull of the night.

I turned my neck: There he was, my manager, comfortably resting his shoulder on the doorframe, standing on the first step. Something about the softness of his voice, or the tranquility of his demeanor, told he had been watching me there for some good minutes at least.

“I found it. In the drawer.” I replied, looking down from his eyes.

“Give it here!” Polack demanded, stretching his hand.

I handed him the pack and the individual one I had been smoking. He squeezed the small box in his hand, then shoved it into his pocket. My cigarette remained between his fingers.

I returned to gazing at the stars.

“It’s cold out here… I would like you to come inside.” He remarked peacefully, with an usual care I had learned to recognize behind every request, which, I was sure, was meant to mask the fact that he bossed me.

I looked down to the asphalt, upset. What an annoying defeat, being granted the freedom to trample over the nun’s authority, but still having to answer to him.

“Jane… Obey me, will you?” He somewhat pleaded with a mixture of firmness and pity.

My eyes grew heavy then, my head drooping down more and more until my hair had fallen over my face, hiding it like a curtain.

Polack sighed like one who has a problem in his hands he just doesn’t know how to deal with, and he sat on the first step, next to me, probably surrendering for a moment of quiet contemplation.

“I know it must feel strange… being so far away from home…” he carefully started, gently, gradually breaking the night’ silence.

“That wasn’t my home!”

“Wasn’t it? Well…” He smiled, thinking to himself “I see you around here nearly every day with the same expression. Makes me wonder if you don’t feel lonely…”

I looked down, not moved by further sadness, but having to consult myself for the answer.

“This is a friendless place you got sent to. No one to keep you company…”

“I’m okay with being alone!” I darted, maybe expressing a little too much anxiety on the subject, for Polack chuckled to himself.

“You are just like me, then…” Harmless warmth poured forth in a friendly smile he shamelessly flashed me. I looked away, disturbed. “But I still don’t believe you never feel lonely…”

“I said I’m okay!” I emphasized.

“Precisely!” Polack mused, watching me carefully through narrowing eyes “But is it enough? Just being okay? Why, I can see you don’t quite understand what I’m talking about! Your eyebrows get dense when you don’t – Jane, my dear, have you lived your life so accustomed to merely sustaining existence that you ignore there is something else to it?”

“Shut up!” I frowned angrily – Polack smiled fascinatedly again, deriving fun from how utterly different I was to anything he had known.

“I’m talking about having fun, Jane…” he chuckled “of being fine instead of okay… of loving something…”

I glanced sideways, trying to frame what his face looked like during those words and hopefully figure out what they implied, and blushed simply by beholding his bony jaw as he smiled to the sky, far away in thoughts.

“I understand that you can give up on such little pleasures back in your old home, but here…”

“I told you it wasn’t my home!!” I growled a second time.

“Was it not?” His eyes quickly, firmly pressed me down, mocking and subduing. “I challenge you to look less cross then, Jane… From where I’m standing, it looks like you’ve left a very darling place!”

I scowled and looked down – it was all I could do, for when his eyes pierced mine as they did, I found myself dumb for answers… but I could still feel angry.

“Tell me…” Polack relented, his smile coming undone and an uncertainty of whether he wanted or not to ask pervading it.  “Was it such a horrible place?”

I had to check my feelings again – remembering didn’t stir great distress… I concluded it hadn’t been such a traumatic event: having lived there for almost my entire life. I just didn’t like it!

“No. It wasn’t…” I concluded, surprising myself.

“Did you have many friends there?” Polack snooped on.

“None that didn’t want something from me…”

“I see…” Polack sighed, distracting himself with turning and examining the cigarette he had stolen from me.

I watched the scene with agitating curiosity as his emerald eyes lay on the thing… Then he pulled it nearer, enclosed it between his lips, and I blushed violently.

“Hmm?” Polack commented as he noticed with what intensity I jerked my head to look away. After all, my mouth had been around that cigarette his lips possessed just a few minutes ago – in an inward, childish way, it felt like he had just stolen a kiss from me.

“Jane!” He called, to which I only twitched my head farther from his scrutiny “You are red!”

“Hmm? What? I’m not!” I quickly interjected, and Polack settled for a laugh.

Dumb, scowling, uncomfortable silence reigned again – My superior flashed his constant half smile to the night, I stubbornly looked the other way fighting back the warm nervousness that possessed my veins just by recalling that dream.

“How old were you back then?” His smooth voice eventually broke the silence.

The chilly night wind had succeeded in tranquilizing my heartbeats – Polack had been so quiet and so still sitting next to me, it was easy to sink into thoughts without his interference.

“Back when you were taken to the orphanage.” He added in response to my delay.

“I was old enough to know stuff…” I replied sharply, growing annoyed. “I know they made a file with all they knew of me. I know that you’ve read it, too, so you have no reason for asking!”

Polack smiled and dropped his head in a way that made the hat hide his eyes.

“Jane, how rude!” He playfully pronounced, affecting disapproval though clearly about to laugh, then he lifted a long index finger between us and waved it from one side to the other “If that’s the education the nuns gave you, I might have to reinforce it!”

I’d like to see you try!” I thought to myself, and then felt the color pick up on my face again for imagining how that would turn out to be, and I had to hide it again.

“It’s called small talk, you fierce little pup!” he reproached “But I do want to know it! Was it seven again? Eight?”

I shrugged, not very sure myself.

“And your father, what was he like?”

“I know as much as my mother did: nothing. Or so she’d tell, but that can’t be entirely true…”

“And where is your mother now?”

I shrugged again.

“I don’t know. I never heard of her after she left me. She always wanted to live abroad though.”

Polack laughed, then relieved me of his heavy attention.

Looking at him now, I realized he no longer peacefully contemplated the night, though he looked straight ahead: He examined thoughts, and rested his thin fingers on his lips while doing so.

“Strange girl…” he concluded, and looked at me again like he did before taking me to his room – A sharp, pungent interest turning him scary, like a wild animal who’s just realized he’s hungry.

As if giving voice to the mental image I formed around that comparison, an ominous snicker shook his breast.

“You don’t have friends… You don’t have parents… And the nuns definitely don’t like you, Jane…” It wasn’t a question, but rather a conclusion that seemed to make him more pleased than it normally should.

“So what?”

He laughed mysteriously once more.

“I just perceive that… There is no one else to whom you have to answer but me, at the moment, isn’t that right?”

I blushed, this time anger and vexation stirring my blood.

 “I know it is, Jane: Don’t even try to lie to me…” He replied in face of my hesitation “And, old as you are right now, would you have to return to the orphanage eventually?”

“How would I know? You’re my employer!”

“Hmm…” he brushed his chin, contented by my reply “I could extend the contract. Make it a longer one. Would you still have to go back then?”

“N-No! I mean… I don’t know!” I said, the words spilling out faster than I could think “Maybe! It depends… Depending on how long it takes, I might really be too old…”

“Then that’s just what I’ll do!” His smile stretched as he silenced my anxious speech, his eyes yet invisible. “Are you happy?”

My heart raced inside my chest in some sort of ecstatic agitation – yes, I was happy. Strangely enough, I was! I had never felt something like that before…

After all, it had never been my intention to be removed from the orphanage – mostly because it was a probability that didn’t exist – and to think I might not have to return to that mansion again… to think I might not return to its teachers and rules and smothering collectivity that plagued me so! To feel that someone wanted me, an individual rather than a mass of interns? I had never felt it before…

Then the sort of smile that threatened to rip its way across my face interrupted itself, coming undone – Polack’s invisible eyes as he conveyed the happy, spontaneous news inspired me so as apprehension swirled around his image: He wanted me. Didn’t that word mean everything I feared? And why was it so important to him that I never return to the orphanage? Why such a rush? Why didn’t he want the nuns to return here?

What did he plan to do with that time? And why did my heart skip so fast?

“I… I don’t know why you’d make such a rash decision right now!” I replied, subtly surveying him “I mean… Wouldn’t you have to… get to know me better first?”

Get to know me better!

“Ahhh! No, not that! I mean… Not know me better, but…” I moaned nervously, incapable of fixing my speech and beginning to sweat profusely.

Polack laughed, certainly detecting my embarrassment:

“I suppose I know you well enough for now, Jane…” he clarified with pleasure “I especially like the fact that you don’t have anyone in your favor… It’s…” he smiled, savoring the word “…convenient!”

Secretly, then, he dwelt in the thrill of being the only one to know what that meant.

I squeezed my eyebrows together, intrigued.

“I might have to work a thing or two out first, but… Details! Mere details!” He sighed, musing out loud.

…And he mused on, stretching his smile every now and then and reacting to the different ideas that came up in his mind and which I couldn’t detect, however avidly I tried to unravel him.

“Very well, Jane…” Polack sighed after a minute or two, picking himself up all of a sudden.

He slapped his hands together, cleaning the dust, and walked back to the door. Before going inside, though, he turned the sign on the wall once more.

“Do you know what this means yet?”

I shook my head.

“Then you shouldn’t be out here smoking!” he threw the cigarette on the sidewalk and squeezed it under his shoe, then he stretched a hand to help me up.

I watched his sardonic expression…

“Come on…” he rushed me “Don’t make me repeat my order that you come inside: It’s nothing personal, I simply wouldn’t want to be another person for you to rebel against, specially not now – that would be dreadful!”

I decided I would feel safer getting myself up without his help, and so I did. Polack merely chuckled and removed the hand that in vain waited for mine, tucking it under his pocket.

“Come, get inside: It’s dangerous out here!”

“To whom?” The words cowardly and accusingly escaped before I had time to measure them.

“Jane, Jane…” Polack comically rebuked, holding the door open. Whenever I succeeded in annoying him the slightest, he seemed to grow more pleased!

With my head dropping, low, half looking around myself, half expecting a trap, I walked under his arm and into the house. Polack’s eyes followed me attentively.

“You remind me of old Howard right now – No sense of humor…” he closed the door, passing by me and leaving a small laugh on his way “No sense of danger either!”

“Good night, Jane!” He murmured, now eager to drop the previous innuendo before I had time to inquire him about it.

The unscrupulous, delighted smile he wore remained as he turned his head to wave me goodbye.

“Good night, Polack…” I replied, filled with suspicions.

 

The night ended and I returned to my room with even more motives to fear my strange superior and the strange secrets he liked to suggest me. Still, I couldn’t keep a decent degree of excitement from shaking me as I jumped on my bed, crossing my hands under my head and hanging my thoughts on the ceiling – it twisted my stomach and shook my bones: not going back to the orphanage!

That room could continue being mine – and be mine for perhaps a very long period of time, if I could only behave myself and work well enough… But could such a blessing come freely?  No – I was taught that miracles only come when you ask and toil for them: feasting, promising not to do this, or to do that for a year… those were the small sacrifices to offer saints when you required something from them. What about the easy delights that came forth promising worlds of wonder and bliss? Those were said to be signed for in the form of a contract… Those were always the devil’s deed.

And what would be the consequence of not having anyone “in my favor”? Perhaps that meant there was no one around to keep me from signing it.

I turned to the side, my eyes fading into apprehension in the dark. Soon enough, though, an alien volume on my pillow stole my attention: I forgot to return Polack’s woolen jacket – the one he had lent to me earlier on, in the kitchen.

In an undecided act of curiosity, I approached it to my face, being so careful as to look around myself first and make sure I was really alone. I felt his perfume there again: It was a pleasant, vigorous fragrance, somewhat sour, somewhat spicy… To think I had that scent covering my back throughout the entire day today made my stomach swirl around and my veins get cold. Suddenly, too, the half dream, half nightmare made sense: Of course I would think he was right there with me, when I slept with his concentrated perfume on my pillow!

I laughed of all my foolishness and of all the distress that simple jacket caused me…

…But then again, I couldn’t help but touch the soft fabric now, appreciating its texture with unacknowledged warmth. I couldn’t toss it away either…

I ended up falling asleep with the thing squeezed between my arms, thinking it would be fun – no, it would be curious – to dream of Polack once again.

And I did.

He tortured me!

Chapter 7

 don’t recall much from that early evening: I laid my head on the pillow, under the comforting dimness of my unlit room, to call back the odd events of that day and try to grant them meaning… But I suppose that there and then, my previous state of full, unnerved and unbreakable awareness took its tow, for the next thing I remember is waking up in late in the night without even realizing I had slept for the past six hours or so.

I focused my drowsy attention on what had interrupted my sleep: A light came forth, painfully invading the darkness that had nursed my nap, unbroken for so long. It was a golden gleam invading through the thin crack of the doors, lighting up the panels as if it they were on fire.

In those first numb seconds, I merely watched it, letting the image blend in with the dreamy projection of my yet slumbering brain. Then I scratched my eyes, narrowed them, waking up to reality: I watched as faded shadows circulated, walking back and forth, close and distant. I soon could hear proof of their veracity in the form of light footsteps crossing the wooden floor of the corridor outside.

After making sure I was really awake, and that so much agitation couldn’t belong to Polack and Mr. Howard alone, I approached the door,  slowly tried to slide it: It was locked once more, as it had been in that day!

I crouched down on the carpet, peeking through the crack: I saw them pace quietly, so quietly I could hear the sound of the leather of a shoe cracking above the step itself. There were at least three people transiting under the illumination of the paper lanterns.

Next, all the movement ceased, as well as any sound! The Polack must have taken them downstairs, to his red office… “Former employees”, as he said, or were they “clients”? What could they want so late at night, or so early in the morning? And why did my door have to be locked?

I laid my bones trembling with agitation back in bed, and stared at the distant gleam of the lanterns while my brain worked and waited. I had decided to stay awake until they crossed the corridor again, until I heard them leave… Perhaps I could hear Polack unlocking my door once more, perhaps something about that noise would give it sense… And so I remained, hearing only the sound of my own breath.

I felt the minutes drag, and no clock gave me a clue of how much time had passed, but it must have really taken forever, or not even happened at all: I ended up falling into a sort of trance, a state before actual sleep, from which I’d wake with the most subtle of sounds, for so I did: It was a different noise this time. No one was leaving. No one had crossed that part of the corridor.

It was but the distant shuffle of water running.

I crawled my way to the doors, curiosity startling me into full awareness, and pressed my ear against the wooden panels – indeed, I could hear an open faucet streaming abundantly, occasionally splashing, crashing over an obstacle. Mr. Howard wasn’t so diligent an employee that he would be washing the dishes before the sunrise, nor was Polack ever seen operating the kitchen sink…

I returned to my bag in careful excitement, trying my best not to produce noises – I silently ripped a few pages from the volume Polack had given me, folded them until they were firm enough in their thinness and introduced them between the two doors. With much care, I slid them upwards – I felt it when they met their obstacle, and the metallic hook of the lock moaned quietly, brushing against the hatch. I interrupted myself, waiting with cold sweat for any possible reactions… But nothing different in the sound of the running water! I resumed my effort, sliding up the sheets until the hook was released, and I was again unlocked.

I gently slid one of the doors, miserably increasing the gap between them. I peeped with one eye – there was no one to be seen there. I slid them farther, now enough to put out my curious head. Looking towards the kitchen, there he was, the Polack, with his back turned to me, washing his hands on the sink. Some sort of relief sigh should have possessed my breast and put its unpleasant excitement to rest, for it was only my superior producing late noises… but, somehow, the discovery only made me the more nervous. For what would he be doing there at such an hour? What could he be washing? It was too dark to tell… too dark to actually see the dark red blending with water and washing down the sink, dripping on the white porcelain and falling to the floor with Polack’s persistent scrubbing… but my brain managed! And whether it was only vivid imagination that made me think I saw him washing a pair of bloody hands or not, I definitely no longer felt curiosity to know. I desperately wanted to erase, unsee whatever information I had just gathered on my superior.

In that brew of dreadful despair I tried to pull in my head with more speed than the hush of the night allowed – the effort came back negative as I found myself stuck between the doors and lost my balance, stumbling forward and landing with my open palms against the floor.

  Even through the sound of water running over his stained hands, I believe the Polack could hear the loud clap of my hands holding my fall: I was completely exposed, completely vulnerable, scattered on the corridor with half my body inside my room, and all I could do as raw fear froze me was look at Polack and squeak in panic as he stopped moving, slightly tilting his head to the side, probably looking for the trail of what had called his attention.

One long breathless second of that, and my body returned to function – I pulled myself inside as quickly as I could and slammed the doors shut, forgetting, of course, of investing in it the same delicacy I had upon opening them. The deed been made, all I could do now was wait motionless in the center of the room, dwelling in the irresolute, thin sense of security I gained from being separated by mere panel doors from him, not daring debate with reason that the beast I hid from was one capable of attributing the distinguishable noises to the one person residing that floor other than him. All my wit told me there was that moving would confirm my presence, and that if I didn’t, I might go unnoticed…

Pale bare feet marched noiselessly, drawing near. I saw their shadow invade through the gap as it now stood facing the corridor. There he lingered for a few seconds, possibly looking for the source of the noise, assuming it had come either from the street or from the entrance door. Relief allowing stupidity to overtake me once more, I approached the doors again, closed one eye and peeped out…

Polack’s hands dripped a pink, diffuse trace of the deadliest color. The stench of copper filled the air instantly, oozing from sordid imagination, as did the metallic taste climbing my throat. I gasped, enslaved by panic, and Polack’s feet turned to my door.

I stumbled backwards, panting violent and uncontrollably. I could see his dark shadow against the panel, darker than the rest… He could definitely see me! He definitely knew I was there, awaken…

I breathed heavily for a while with a hand over my mouth and nose, trying to contain the noise of my lungs gasping for air, refusing to move a single muscle that wasn’t attempting to supply that need… But eventually, Polack’s stiff silhouette seemed to relax, his shoulders dropped and he started walking away…

Now the sound of the air being sucked into me was all I could hear as I weakly, slowly lowered my hand… It sounded off. My lids grew instantly, heavy; and from blurred, the image before my eyes turned dark. Then, inevitably, I blacked out. 


 

 

Had it all been a dream? It certainly felt like it, now that the Polack I knew paced around the kitchen, and no sign of the previous threat he represented marked his face. The dim memory still lingered though, and his stretched smile, that night, disturbed me into an endless nightmare where the darkness of his eyes buried under his hat kept watch over my sleep. He did so without a word…

Said memory was enough to conjure back the feelings from then and make my breathing staggered as I sat at the table trying to hide the inevitable reflection of my thoughts on my face and its effects on my hysterical chest. Every door and window was shut; the day outside was so cloudy it resembled night, and the Polack walked around in front of me preparing his tea. In some unbelievable carelessness, he had forgotten to button up his shirt – not an inch of how much his bare chest unnerved me reached him… Or rather, if it did, he didn’t care. To make matters worse, for some sort of destiny’s play, Mr. Howard wasn’t home. Waiting anxiously for his return was beyond me, since Polack had already had the sadistic delicacy of telling me he wouldn’t return any time soon.

Sheltering myself in my room had also been prohibited – so I was made aware in my first attempt at getting up:

“Oh, you wouldn’t want to go now, would you, Jane? And spend the afternoon all alone again? No – Stay!” He smiled, narrowing his eyes at the sight of my torment “Mr. Howard did insist I kept my eye on you…”

Stupid old man! I wish I could make him regret… But maybe I didn’t have to! Maybe Polack himself would pull it off by deciding my vulnerability too convenient to let me go unharmed – his casually undressed chest insinuated to my fear.

The heavy book Polack had given me was now placed on the table, and there I sat motionless as a statue pretending to peruse it. The quieter I remained, though, the more bored Polack grew, yawning occasionally, staring at me every now and then…

Damned Howard! Because of him, I might end up… It could happen of Polack wanting to…

I cringed, scowled and expelled the thought with a wave of my hand, too scared to even finish it. After all, my superior seemed tranquil enough, invested enough in his own task, and only rarely noticing me. I was the only agitated one there, unable to keep my eyes from marching up and measuring his exposed chest with torturing curiosity. I’d avert them quickly whenever his eyes threatened to meet mine, and nervous sweat dripped while I tried to conceal it. The one-sided torture was great, alone in that house with a man I had just discovered to be unmistakably dangerous: I believe my brain bled!

I slept – or rather turned on my bed after passing out – for less than two hours that night after witnessing the weird event with Polack at the sink, and was rudely awakened, at an even darker hour than the previous one, by an impatient Mr. Howard shaking my shoulders back and forth. He told me harshly, as soon as I had opened my lazy eyes, that he and Polack had to go out to sort some things, and that they couldn’t leave such a tricky child as me behind, alone at the restaurant – so there was nothing left for me to do but tag along. “Where to?” I asked, sleepily, getting up with difficulties. “You don’t wanna know, Jane!” Polack appeared on the door and smiled amusedly before Howard could have the chance of answering me. They slammed the truck’s door, locking me inside the cab. I kneeled over the back seat and watched through the rear window as a heavy volume was loaded onto the cargo area, lifted by the two of them with significant effort. Polack’s eyes shone worrilessly in the dark… I received a wink from them when he noticed my troubled exam. In response, I chose not to peek when the truck stopped and the two men got out to dispose the disturbing burden: I felt I had already been more than sufficiently compromised into their strange businesses! As we returned home, the dark sky had begun to blend with the dawn.

“Here it goes, Jane…” Polack’s pale hand appeared before me, violently interrupting my wonderings and wrenching a fright out of me. His firm fingers deposited between me and the book I attempted to read a mug. I watched as his hand slowly pulled away, now moving to the loose locks of his hair “You seem to need something to help you relax…” He smiled, his face carrying an expression much too aware of my current state – the one I desperately tried to make secret.

I shrunk in both shyness and dread.

The scented fumes of the tea went up to my head, serving as an instant numbing. I was quite sleepless, after all… Maybe I could ignore the gift came from someone I deeply despised and partake in it, for I could use the heat the contents of the mug promised.

“You know…” He started, walking up behind me “Howard wanted to take you with him… Said he needed your help with the shopping…”

I gulped, missing the courage to turn my neck and look at him. Not knowing what he was doing back there increased the sensation around my spine.

“…But I said you’d better stay! You do look awfully tired, if I must say so… I suppose last night was an eventful one for you, wasn’t it?” He chuckled, and his voice assumed a more merciful degree “My bad, Jane!”

His long, quiet pace brought him back to my view again. He arched his eyebrows in his pity expression and smiled gently, charmingly… It made me scared of his intentions.

“I thought you’d be better here, resting with me! And did I do wrong?” He sat himself sideways on the table border, capturing my gaze in his.

One glance at those liquid green eyes, and I felt the cold grow inside me. I looked down at my cup again, consequently drawing his attention to it, too.

“What’s the matter? You’re not touching your tea… You should, really: very few know the privilege of having me prepare them something!” And he smiled his large, little-girls’-prince smile again.

I wondered how many who had such privilege awoke a second day… Specially, how many of those had seen something they shouldn’t? I surveyed his face, looking for a clear sign that he had seen me spying on him last night… That he knew… Nothing would be made visible to me, though: he was the one doing the investigation, I was sure… Or the threatening… or the cleaning…

I held my head in my palm, as it was ready to burst!

“My! What has gotten into you today, Jane?” He picked himself up with a trace of playful impatience, and sat himself in front of me, on the chair. Seizing his own mug, he took a slow gulp from it. “You’re white as milk. Could you be  more tired than I suspect? Or is the reading such an unpleasant one it bores you out of health?”

There he was, trapping me again! I focused my view on the beverage, trying not to compromise myself even further as I prepared to lie… A few tiny white petals fluttered around the stained water, moved by the steam. I believe they were chamomile…

“This book sucks!” I feigned passion, but it failed through my weak voice.

“Hm!” Polack grumbled “Give it here…” With long and swift fingers, he pulled the book to himself. He eyed it with a serious expression while he flashed a few paragraphs. “I have many others downstairs. There must be something that suits your tastes, right?  If you want to check them, come with me…”

I blushed quickly: the image of his great red bed returning to my conscience with a subliminary insinuation was one drop too many into my cup filled with chaos. I couldn’t go down… Not when his eyes silently surveyed me, not when he looked so aware of me… His plot seemed to have shown the tiny tip of its tail, and it sent my heart thumping.

“Come on, no need to be shy now! It’s just the two of us in here.” He half laughed, probably by the sight of my color change.

I was tired, strained… The vapor parting from the mug made me sleepy and, specially, simply looking at Polack’s vulgar image made me dizzy. What would he do if I followed him down in such a state, too weak to fight back? My face ached from how hard the muscles scowled…

More than ever, I was afraid of him! Of how cunning, how perceiving he was! I couldn’t even bring myself to drink a single gulp of his tea: I would be falling easily into his trap. With this decision in mind I returned the mug to the table right when the hot porcelain had begun to touch my lower lip.

 I hadn’t seen Mr. Howard since the truck ride. However rude and awful he was with me, I didn’t need to be very bright to realize that his behavior seemed always shaped around shielding me from an invisible danger that resided in my superior – invisible, but now almost tangible, almost heavily exerting its pressure over my shoulders just by standing in front of me as he did now, expecting me to drink the tea he had served me or follow him down.

“I don’t want it! And I’m not thirsty, either!” I snarled, thinking of how tense Mr. Howard would be if he was there – the compass to our weird superior’s depravations.

I believe I came off as too hostile, motivated by those thoughts of declared war, for the Polack laughed silently to himself as one laughs at a fool child, followed by a very meek sigh parting his chest… Nothing like the sudden, brute reaction my stretched muscles were ready to receive.

“As you wish, Jane, as you wish. I don’t mind these little trifles any more than you do!” He began to stand up “It’s not like I need you to relax…” he mused “It would just be… The most advisable scenario. A painless one!”

I clenched my fists tightly.

“And here I was about to offer you a back rub, when you won’t even trust your superior enough to drink the tea he prepared you with so much zeal…”

His fingers approached, picked up my cup before I had the time to overreact… Drank its content in one go, his eyes all the time measuring me… mocking my suspicion.

“Your loss, dear, your loss only…” He moved his head from one side to the other “But… don’t be upset. There must be something else we can do to help you relax. We’ll find it out eventually, won’t we?” He grinned and winked at me, challengingly. It stirred inside me an angst that had been put to sleep by fear. I felt it sting with annoyed rage.

“Well, well…” he yawned, completely dropping the tense atmosphere he had built up, as if he himself had never been a part of it “It’s getting late, Jane. You know where to find me, don’t you? That is, if you decide you need me…”

He brushed his hand across his face, sliding his fingers over his bony jaw, rustling against the beard stubs adorning his chin, in a very tired gesture.

“Now be a darling and behave yourself, okay? I’m letting you off the hook, but I’ll never hear the end of it if you do something wrong… Now, if you’ll excuse me…” he turned, following down the stairs before obtaining an answer “It was a long day…”

Slowly he disappeared, dropping one step at a time.

As his silhouette easily combined with the darkness downstairs, I examined him in retrospect: There were daring innuendos in his voice, defying accusations and an intimately felt threat. In my distress, I could swear he wasn’t afraid of what his provocations could ensue because he thought me too dumb to even grasp them.

“To hell with you! And to hell with this stupid place!” I grumbled, stretching myself over the table to pick up the phone on the counter.

I was smart enough to realize there was something strange going on with that place, and that I was being slowly dragged into the mystery whether I wanted it or not. It was with that thought that I observed the number pad, thinking before acting. “If there’s something unlawful happening, it’s my duty to report it, right?” I told myself, trying to convince me.

“Duty!” I rolled my eyes and sighed, despising my own hypocrisy. Duty had nothing to do with it… I wasn’t decent enough to care about whatever harm Polack caused others, so long as it didn’t reach me. That was just me contemplating, upon dialing the Police, an opportunity of discovering what type of people I was dealing with there, and at the same time escape unharmed through their fingers.

I sighed, now casually typing the numbers without space for big decisions or alarm. Still, my breathing picked up when I heard the buzz of the dialing line. The wait was long… too long for an emergency call!

While I waited, I contemplated my empty mug, the wet mark of Polack’s lips drawn around the border where his mouth had been… The delicate petals resting at the bottom with the final drops of the concoction. I held fast the handle, regretting having rejected it… My intention began to waver.

After all, what was I to tell the cops, once they picked up? I forgot to sort that out… If I were to keep true to myself, I would say something like “Hey, I’m working for this weird guy, who receives visits in the middle of the night, washes his hands at the sink just as late… Carries suspicious loads on his pick-up truck and looks at me in a peculiar, entertained way… almost as if I was interesting. Almost as if I was… somebody.” I shook my head, recognizing how foolish and partial I was being. And all because he had made me tea? Because he had such bright and green eyes? …Because they were at times so cold, but at times so warm?

Dangerous influence, the one he seemed to exert over me! And I would tell the cops precisely about it, I decided. Upon further reflection, I would also tell them I didn’t want to have to deal with Polack anymore, that being near him made me nervous, made my body feel funny… That his talk embarrassed me, that I hated  him… But that I also didn’t want to return to the orphanage. Maybe they had some sort of restraining order that kept him far from me, in a way that I still got to keep my room, the comfort and the silence, and maybe even those attentive smiles that sometimes crossed his sarcastic lips?

I felt myself want to laugh: I didn’t want any of that, really! I didn’t want to compromise my superior, when I actually knew nothing of him, or about that place. I couldn’t report on him just because he annoyed me…

…I didn’t want to.

I just hoped I wouldn’t regret it bitterly…

The last few drops of tea, and the mark of his lips both looked suddenly too appealing to my curiosity. Almost numb, almost hypnotized by the awareness of not wanting to denounce him, of not wanting to be parted from him, I lifted the cup… I slowly brought it to my lips, aligned, decided… I closed my eyes and all I could see there was his stretched, full smile… my chest grew warm…

“What’s your emergency?” A female voice inquired, from the other side, arresting my thoughts.

“Hello?!” The voice repeated through my panicked lag, in which I tried to think up an answer.

“Ah! Hello!! Uhm…” I started, now fully decided, in a clumsy, still apprehensive way, that I had nothing to tell them.

“What ‘s your emergency, ma’am?” the voice coolly repeated.

  I sighed. It felt an annoying lot like defeat…

“Nothing! I’m sorry, I…” I started, but interrupted myself suddenly: I could hear Polack’s languid feet climbing up the stairs again.

I turned off the call, dropped the phone on the table and, as the only fast enough way out of that situation, crossed my arms on the surface and buried my flustered head between them, pretending to sleep as soon as Polack reached the kitchen.

“Silent… Deadly stealthy!” I thought to myself in apprehension, trying to listen to every sound around me to detect and predict his movements. Did he hear I was on the phone? Was that why he came back? Did he suspect me?

That was it! – my panic kept telling me. If he found out, I would certainly be killed! “Great job on not denouncing him, you moronic brat! I don’t wanna hear a single complaint, and don’t you dare cry: you brought this on yourself!” Cold sweat began to drip and I struggled against sobbing, panicked moans that squeaked out of my phlegmatic lungs.

The air dislocated around me, and that was how I knew he had walked past me – His steps would never betray him! Since he hadn’t interacted with me in that short period of time, I allowed hope in: Maybe he was convinced I was innocently sleeping! I was smiling upon the perspective of choosing to believe that, when the phone rang right next to me. My spine froze, and if Polack had been watching, he would certainly see my back arch, harden, bracing itself…

It took him a decent lag until he decided to pick up the phone – Maybe he was contemplating its strange position next to me on the table… Maybe he was remembering he hadn’t left it there!

“Yes?” Polack’s softest voice sounded, much more polite and harmless than I knew it to be.

I dare say I heard a smile stretch through his enigmatic face:

“Why, it must be some sort of misunderstanding, madam!”

I squeezed my eyes and fought my noisy breath: could it be the police returning the call?

“I do appreciate the intention nevertheless! Safety! It’s never too much, is it?” His enticing voice captivated, calculated to dissuade… it sounded pretty damn capable of it, too: It occurred to me that even if I had said something about him, confused and infamous as I was, he would have no trouble in convincing them otherwise, and then I would be in a really awkward situation…

“You too! Goodbye!”

There was another lag, and then I heard the beep of his finger pushing down the button and ending the call. Silence… Unpredictable silence set in again! Without being able to lift my eyes to see him, not having any clue of what his face looked like and what was going on through his mind, why he was so quiet and so still standing next to me… I considered myself as good as gone!

I heard a long sigh, followed by a small laugh:

“What do we have here, Jane?” his voice was overtaken by a comical, harmless tone. He didn’t sound mad… maybe I wasn’t in such terrible danger…

Now I was left with deciding what to do: swallow – or rather assassinate and bury – pride, pleading for forgiveness like I had never, ever allowed myself to do before – but then again, never did my life depend on it! – or face it like the brave girl I thought I was and at least go out with style… but I’m sure Polack would love that! Either way, I was about to lift my head and stop making a fool of myself as I pretended to sleep, when his large hand weighed on my head, covering it completely.

The touch was unexpected: it gave me goosebumps and it instantly immobilized me. His fingers, then, not meeting any form resistance or protest, began to softly move from one side to the other, brushing against my hair and paying me what I learned to recognize as a delicate caress… I found my eyes were wide with amazement all the while!

“Such a lightweight…” he criticized with a sigh, pulling the book in front of me closed with his other hand. “No more reading for today, I guess! Just go ahead and sleep…”

He let go of me, and I felt his heat approach me from behind, breaking the air from both sides. I squeezed my eyes shut, and then something warm surrounded my shoulders and enclosed my back, covering me. It was light and comfortable…

“Sweet dreams!” He said at last, and returned to his underground before long. Still, the few minutes in which I pretended to be asleep were enough to put me in fact drowsy. My heart began to beat very calm and rhythmically, my breath flew out with ease… I felt light, and the comfort he gave me made me want to smile. I dwelt in it until I saw myself actually starting to sleep…

 


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Chapter 6

 

Regardless of nuns, documents, inquiries after safety and musings of possible future confrontations; regardless specially of the Polack’s ill-humored jokes that afternoon, the night was a good one, of a very solid slumber. In the morning, my eyes didn’t weight upon noticing my surroundings, neither did the blood in my veins suddenly change its course for realizing I was far away, distant from what I used to know as a home.

A feeling of relative trust began to overtake me. I could feel my brain fluctuating inside a cool, static fluid in my head, keeping it from inflaming. I could almost… almost even feel safe.

Life, just like I recently discovered my superior to do, liked to tease me in those aspects… 

 

Rain poured heavily that morning in a long-lasting, full storm. The clouded sky threatened to never show signs of having even dawned.

I felt myself stuck in an endless daybreak, with my limbs heavy with laziness and creeped with cold, and my senses made slow and romanticized by the dark blue shade pouring down with rain.

“Slow girl!” Mr. Howard rebuked, interrupting my melancholy distraction of watching heavy clouds roll. “Take this…” He picked a large cardboard box from the floor and brought it to me “Why don’t you leave this on the top of the stairs for the Pole to get?”

I sighed, accepting the order – Mr. Howard had been showing himself quite fond of them in the last two days. I stretched my arms, anticipating the weight… It was still bigger than my effort. I grunted, recovering my balance, and the old man watched mercilessly, positively annoyed by my physical weakness:

“Try not to drop anything!!!” He reinforced, running out of patience as I stumbled across the corridor of the dark house, now lit only by an occasional lightning that crashed down the sky.

Stopping before the stairs to catch my breath after dropping the box with little delicacy, I stared into the darkness that waited down there in an ever-present, very subtle form of curiosity. I saw, then, Polack’s poorly defined silhouette appear on the first step. However fast and obscure the product of that glance, I could still notice that something about his movements and the general aspect of his face had transformed from the last time I saw him.

Taken by childish panic, I ran back to the counter and squeezed myself in Howard’s side, ignoring the averse look he gave me.

“Good morning, old man… Jane…” Polack’s lazy comment pulled Howard’s eyes from me. He stopped before the box that blocked his way, tucked his hands inside the pockets of his pine green jacket and contemplated it, lost in thoughts. He subsequently seemed to wake up, only then remembering what the box represented.

“Found anything?” He passed by Mr. Howard, leaving the question.

“Nothing.” Was the old man’s short answer as he moved to the kitchen, giving me no free explanations.

“My, my! How strange!” He let out an upset sigh and threw himself on top of the stool by which’s side I timidly sneaked.

It didn’t take long until his lazy eyes found me, and they watched as if they were willing to make a new source of distraction out of me.

“Jane!” Mr. Howard’s grave voice interrupted the stare I had just begun to correspond, albeit with some dread “Why don’t you go to your room?!”

“Sure!” I answered immediately, anxious to escape the scene.

…But that one was also a short-lived joy, for the Polack interrupted me before I could walk two steps away from him:

“No, stay! Actually…” He brushed his finger through his chin, musing far away “Old man, you’re not doing anything useful with the girl right now, are you? Mind if I borrow her for today?”

I looked at him, anxious for his answer. I believe Mr. Howard felt my expectancy, for he looked immediately nervous:

“Actually, Pole, I was thinking of having her wash the bathroom…”

“With this cold?” Polack laughed, apparently seeing through the other’s bullshit “She’d definitely get sick!”

“There is a lot else to be done around here…” Howard tried.

“It mustn’t be too hard to get by without her… You did declare numberless times that you didn’t need her help, didn’t you?”

“Still… I don’t think it’s a good idea…” His voice became mild and apprehensive, disturbing me as he seemed to fall into a darker subject.

Polack, however, pretended not to hear the last comment:

“Come over here, Jane!” He called me.

I stopped before him. His eyes were finally leveled with mine because of the stool, but even from that height they managed to intimidate.

“You know when you look at the same picture for too long, and you soon lose the ability to make out its different colors?” He smiled, explaining gently.

I squeezed my eyebrows, failing to understand.

“Things stop making sense after too long a period of contemplation, wouldn’t you say so?”

He pulled down the brim of his hat and lowered his head, laughing briefly to himself in face of my ignorance:

“Come with me and I’ll make you understand.” He stood up again.

“Mr. Howard?” I turned to the old man, confused and potentially scared, using it as a last resource. His eyes corresponded my feelings, and that was the worst part!

“Forget him. You’re working with me today, Jane!” He smiled, resting his arm on my shoulder and pulling me to his side in a forced friendly way “Or have you forgotten that I’m your boss, and not this guy here?” and he pulled me, leading me away with him with his eyes firmly locked on mine, trying to transmit that illusive tranquility all his demeanor seemed constantly programmed to show.

Mr. Howard watched us, and as we got to the stairs, his anxiety got the best of him, and he stretched a hand ahead, asking agitatedly without, however, having the courage to finish:

“Ah… Pole, you’re not going to…”

I won’t…” was the fast, almost annoyed answer the Polack gave, followed by a neutralizing, polite smile “…do anything regrettable, old man. Trust me once, will you? And you too, Jane…” His eyes weighed down on me, disapproving my declared indisposition with a smile that only made him scarier. “Now let’s go… “

I assumed an uncertain step ahead, and Polack’s hand slid to my back, where his palm slightly pushed, guiding me. It was, at last, time to know what was there in the lowest floor… Time to know what density reached the shadows always lurking down there. I sighed through a trembling chest, but followed: The image of his smile echoed through my head as I desperately tried to interpret it. I felt myself given in a sacrifice that I had only partially begun to understand…

 

The first thing to catch my attention even before my inscrutable host turned on the lights was the difference in the atmosphere, which made me instantly aware that that was no regular basement: It was warm and silent down there; the rain could not be heard nor could be felt the coldness invading from outside, as it did upstairs. The carpeted floor was fuzzy and perfectly clean, adding to the comfort; and a short, empty hallway greeted us by the end of those stairs, opening up only to a spacious bedroom-office combo in which all that floor’s area had been invested.

“Come on in!” the Polack invited without ceremonies, taking a relaxed step ahead.

It was clearly his room! A large, tall bed stood against the most distant wall, ironically the first item to draw my much too aware attention. Opposite to the door I had just come in from, a small set of red and golden cushions lay on the floor, apparently serving as some sort of seat under a great engraving, painted on what looked like very thin and ancient paper. A desk stood in the center between these two walls; the one by my right was covered by pitch black shelves, all of them completely filled with cardboard boxes like the one I had just left upstairs. The entire room seemed, to me, like a great work of art, accustomed as I was with only saints for decoration.

No light was on down there but the one from a small lamp resting on the desk, which only cast deeper darkness around it. The room seemed, however, made to harmonize with such lack of light: ornamental wallpaper, dark red with details in gold, covered the walls and transformed the illumination, reflecting in it its own color.

“Be my guest!” Polack’s sudden voice startled me out of the distraction his room’s elegance surrounded me in. “I’ll be right back…”

I walked to the opposite wall, where the great painting was hung: It was a juniper tree with a long trunk, more sinuous and turned than it was possible in nature, portrayed in different hues of black, with no color to give it life. On the back, a steep ravine pronounced itself, dry and sterile under a smoky sky. It gave me the chills!

Brushing my arms with my hands, I turned around and contemplated the rest of the room: I made sure to register a set of two swords hanging right above the doorframe – one small, one longer. It served as some very subtle form of consolation to think I had weapons so close by in case they were needed, but my sadistic brain soon clarified that the Polack must be really confident in his physical strength to leave one around, if he was planning to cause me any harm. I shook my head, scaring the silly thought away for, somehow irrationally, I feared its concretization in case I lingered in it. My eyes ended up lying on the desk – Verifying first if I was really alone, I moved across the sheets upon the lustrous surface, subtly sliding them my way looking for the mystery about what they had hinted earlier…

“Am I not a careful man, Jane?” The voice, made intense by the silence, echoed through the spacious room, making me skip in a fright. “And aren’t you a curious little girl?”

Polack emerged from the door – A sufficiently harmless smile adorned his face, suggesting I wasn’t in trouble. He held in his hands two steamy mugs… he offered me none, however: Leaving both upon the desk by which’s side I stood like a statue, he silently crossed the room until his bed, removed his hat and hung it on a coat rack, repeated the act with his coat, then turned around.

I felt myself blush and looked away: A thin white shirt now poorly covered his torso, his large shoulders were much too visible under it; his chest, as always, was vulgarly exposed!

However, it wasn’t entirely my superior’s imposing anatomy what made me look away so promptly: his fingers lazily pulled back the loose strands of hair that charmingly brushed against his pale eyes – I had been too used to the hat’s shadow hiding them, in a way that it felt strange to watch as the light was directly reflected in those watercolor irises.

“Go ahead!” He interrupted my thoughts; checking my sideways, cautious glance “Read it!”

I looked down at the sheet, and then back at Polack’s face, trying to foresee a trap. I saw him smile secretly.

“That’s what I brought you here for, after all…” He stretched his arm, beckoning with an open palm to the desk, giving me the liberty to approach it and, now, even seeming to pressure me into doing so.

“Good to know…” I breathed to myself in relief as I couldn’t help but glance at that large bed’s direction and back to his partially exposed chest, connecting things and calling forth bothersome tickles on my stomach and a hot rush to my cheeks that I chose to ignore for fear of what I might discover if I shunned it. “…Exactly what for I was brought here…”

The nervous feeling of danger didn’t completely abandon me however – I did pick the sheets from the desk, but I couldn’t keep my eyes an entire second away from my mysterious superior and the unfathomable expression his face bore. I feared what might happen if I actually read it…

I must have provoked him too much in my coward delay: The Polack walked slowly to me, getting close enough for my heart to start racing. Without prior announcement, his eyes penetrated mine and paralyzed me strangely, perhaps in the same way a snake succeeds in paralyzing its prey.

And though I could swear his eyes surveyed my face with wild intentions, at the end the interpretation was nothing but an exaggeration of my disturbed mind: Polack stretched his arm, surrounding me and locking me between his body and the desk, but all he did was retrieve one of the mugs for himself, pulling away without even touching me seconds before I expressed my alarm with an utter I hadn’t thought about yet, but had already began to part my lips to perform. 

He did, however, smile to himself almost imperceptibly as he turned and walked away, surely inspired by the excess of my reaction.

“Sit down, Jane…” he chuckled lowly, disappearing behind me “Don’t be shy now…”

I obeyed, dropping my weight on top of the high back office chair – the black leather squeaking with my movement. I supported my elbows on the shiny mahogany surface and whispered in surrender, laying my sight down on the sheets, only to contract my face in surprise:

“There is nothing here but…”

“Codes, I know! Didn’t I say I was a cautious man?!” He laughed comically like a young boy, pleased by having fooled me. “They are file numbers, Jane…” He clarified, stretching his body and picking up a box from the shelf “File numbers I need you to look for inside these…” Placing it next to me, he removed the lid. I stretched my neck inside, curious.

“I can do that!” I replied with some enthusiasm, having quickly examined the interior and found nothing but brown folders labeled with similar codes as the ones printed on the sheet.

“With all these boxes…” He added in reply to my excitement, stopping before the shelves to measure my reaction. I believe it was frozen and clueless, but still he sighed: “It won’t be an easy task, I ‘ll warn you! It might take the entire day, Jane: I hope you are willing to dedicate so many hours to your unworthy superior…”

I blushed and quickly glued my eyes back on the list. Polack giggled to himself, pleased.

One by one, then, I proceeded to verifying the folders inside those boxes, initially emptying them, then once more returning the content to its original place before switching for the next one. Polack, meanwhile, lazily sat on the carpet with his legs half folded under him, and there he drank his hot beverage in slow gulps.  He’d occasionally get up and snatch a file I had already verified to peruse after resuming his seat, tensing his eyebrows and teasing my curiosity as to what kind of information each of them held.

“An ungrateful task, I know: It’s no wonder that you didn’t want to come down with me, Jane…” He observed from the static shadows, startling me at first, upon noticing that my view, after a while, had started to desolately wander about the shelves, counting how many boxes were still left “I have executed it twice, with no success! I am hoping you will bring me more luck! In the meantime, I’ll apologize if you had something more entertaining in mind: Business… – he sighed, turning the pages in his hands – is a boring thing, indeed!

 His voice had changed: I was starting to discover it could sound soft, mellow… like the touch of smooth cloth against the cold skin. It did so specially when a sarcastic tone didn’t accompany it.

I was discovering, too, that my arms shook in his presence when he was thus serious.

“You don’t have to be nervous… Nothing bad will befall you if you can’t find them!” he added from his quiet corner.

I nodded timidly with my head and escaped his eyes. I didn’t know why I sweated so much, why I trembled, or why my stomach turned and twisted so ruthlessly, and all because he sat there, easily attainable in my visual field.

Focusing again on the content of the box, and less on his fresh, tranquil image as he sat with his legs crossed against the wall, I wondered what made those folders so important… A nervous anxiety prevented me from opening them for a peek.

 

I didn’t know just how many hours had passed with me inside that silent room where a feeble light struggled with red, when I laid the last box on the desk. My arms were made weak by the repetitive effort, my mug of hot chocolate had long since turned cold, the vapors no longer swirling up and interposing my view to the Polack, from where he watched me indolently.

And I must have lifted my eyes and stared him back too many times! Now it wasn’t so painful the sting of timidity I received upon doing so. When his lips stretched into a sideways smile I didn’t know how to decipher, and his cautious eyes looked deep into mine, I now felt slightly dizzy, and that was all.

“Found it!!”

I had just finished checking the folders in that box, and was returning them inside, when I glanced down and spotted a code I had read a million times in that list.

“You did?” Polack stirred, a pleased surprise framing his voice “Bring it here!”

I ran around the table and up to him, moved by the enthusiasm of finally seeing the product of all that long, unnerving effort. Caught in this strangely satisfying agitation, I accidentally allowed the folder onto the floor before delivering it to Polack’s stretched hand – the content spread through the carpet: a handful of old, time-stained sheets of paper; some written by hand, some typed in those old machines, lay scattered at my superior’s feet. Two polaroids fell closer to me. After a few seconds of automatic contemplation, I felt myself freeze in place, and quickly looked the other way, reminded by survival instinct of what usually happens to people who find out secrets…

“If you need to know, jane…” Polack’s focused voice resounded as he picked one of the sheets that had landed on his lap and started reading it, not giving much importance to my scene. “I somehow lost the files in that list. Didn’t you find anything else?”

“N-no… Nothing!” I replied quick and nervously.

“Hmm…” I heard him meditate, then sigh –my view still stubbornly invested in surveying the walls “I have no idea where they might have gone…”

Since he didn’t react negatively to my curiosity – and, in fact, didn’t even seem to notice it – I decided to take the pictures from the floor and, still without looking or even turning them, I stretched my arm as far as it went and offered it to him.

“I thought I might have misplaced them, but… Hmm” He interrupted himself, taking the pictures from my hand without looking their way: something about the paper he read had caught his attention “Jane, why did you hand me this folder again?”

I turned to see him with the feeling I had done something wrong.

“Because I… It was on the list! I’m sure of it!” I nervously justified.

“Was it now?” Polack moaned, reacting to laziness, and stood up again, walking back to his desk, where he picked up the list and verified it.

“Hmm… as I suspected!” He smiled “You have been looking at the same picture for too long now, just as I did…” a despondent sigh shook his breast “These codes don’t match.”

“Impossible!” I walked up to the chair, from where I examined the desk upon which I had spent my last hours “It was right here… Maybe in these other sheets?”

Polack handed me the original list so that I could check it, too… And he was right: I was wrong about the code.

“Why, don’t look so cross!” He removed it from my hands again, interrupting my disturbed stare “Specially because…” he covered his mouth with his fingers and once again took to his view the contents of the folder. “Curiously, the last time I touched these boxes it was to precisely hand over a file to a client…” His eyes quickly cast a glance at me, then back to the sheet “I mean, a former employee… And I believe this was precisely the file he had asked me for!”

 I squeezed my eyebrows, trying to make sense of the situation he described.

“But it is here… And all the other ones aren’t!” It was the conclusion of his stressed musing.

Looking back to the list, my mistake was now justified, and I thought it was relevant to point it out:

“You know…” I grunted as rudely as politeness allowed.

“hmm?” He groaned in return, not lifting his eyes to me.

“The code you were looking was BP2403… That one is BF0413.”

Polack flashed me an amused, derisive smile..

…Not only were the codes fairly similar to my saturated eye, but the folder in question was actually inside a box where all the others started with letters such as G, J and H…

“Maybe… Maybe you didn’t lose them!” I dared to guess, eager to make myself sound reasonable.

Polack’s lazy eyes followed me with a trace of disdain, as if he now decided whether he should listen to a good-for-nothing orphan girl such as myself. I felt my cheeks burn with growing anger, and struggled more violently to express my logic:

“Maybe they were taken!”

“Maybe I’m just mistaken…” He lifted an eyebrow, bargaining.

“Maybe he stole them! On purpose!” I insisted, clenching my fists.

What was cause for indifference turned into another source of amusement then, and Polack smiled, lowering his arms and walking closer to me:

He, Jane?”

“Your former employee!” I retorted.

“Why would you think that?” He sat on the desk before me.

“Because it’s strange! Why would he ask for a file, leave it, and another that was probably in the same box would disappear?” Polack’s smile remained, as if the joke got funnier and funnier and therein laid his interest in listening to me. I found courage in the will to prove him I wasn’t being unrealistically silly, and gnarled daringly: “And… I’ve never even seen you leave this place with any of those damned boxes! How else could you have lost it?”

“Well, you might be right!” He tranquilly chuckled, lifting the folder and supporting it against his lips to hide the delicate amusement I served as.

I scowled, genuinely irritated.

“I mean it!!”

“And why do you think “he” would do that, Jane?” he laughed under his breath, dropping his view and shaking his head from one side to the other in a playful reproach. “Why would he simply steal from me, when he could ask for the file he wanted in the first place?”

I snorted angrily and looked around myself, choosing my arguments.

“I don’t know… Maybe he wanted to open his own restaurant! Maybe what was in those folders was too important to you, or would make his intention too obvious… Maybe he was only trying to fool you!” I half screamed, giving in to that strange and sarcastic man’s provocations.

His eyes, then, hardened sharply, and for a second there were no smiles or laughs, or any mockery in his expressions… only bleak seriousness. I braced myself, thinking I might have crossed some previously unknown line…

“Well…” Polack sighed, once again smiling, but now too placidly “His own restaurant, is it?” then his eyes grew distant, meditating rushlessly.

 

When I was finally allowed out of that somber room – which happened after a few minutes of Polack diving deep into his own thoughts without me having the courage to interrupt him – I thought the full light of day would temporarily blind me, for I had been completely deprived of it… But there was no light at all when I reached the top of the stairs – the day had sunk quietly without my noticing, and it was already past seven o’clock.

Mr. Howard sat at the kitchen table, napping with his chin supported on his chest. He awoke in a decent fright when I walked around him; and when Polack joined us, reaching me – for he walked slowly behind me -, Howard’s eyes followed him anxiously.

“Found anything?” He asked, feigning less interest.

“I did, most certainly…” The manager smiled enigmatically.

“And what is it?!” Howard stood up rudely, nearly knocking back his chair.

“Why, hush, my old man…” Polack looked back to enjoy a torturing smile, then resumed his pace, walking up to the sliding doors on the corridor “Don’t you know it isn’t healthy to worry so much?”

There he stopped, waiting for me. He didn’t have to verbally manifest his will that I retired to my room for me to do so, half unwillingly.

Once I was inside, Polack began smiling distantly, plotting. His mood, for some reason, had transformed entirely – he looked excited, the exact opposite of the perturbation that ailed him that morning.

Howard stopped by his side, surveying him sternly; then both pair of eyes looked expectantly at me:

“I discovered that Jane is indeed an interesting child…” Polack let out, then dropped his view to appreciate a quick laugh on the expense of Howard’s consternation “Good night, Jane…”

He closed the door attentively. His smile lingered though, extending itself through my fascinated mind.

Chapter 5

Now that distraction could be found, the week passed quickly by: I personally chose and executed my own tasks every day – It’s true that no one had told me what to do, or how… But now there was no one telling me not to either, so I casually set my book aside one bright morning and started doing something in the fashion of cleaning and tidying.

The change startled Mr. Howard at first, who looked me on with surprise and disapproval, but even though his hostile, evasive attitude still lingered, he no longer would disobey Polack by sending me away. Tolerance or the opposite, then, slightly began to ebb as he rudely, with three-worded, dry commands, would subtly guide me into doing something the right way. In my own turn, I’d pretend I didn’t notice he was being nicer to me, and held a laugh when one wanted to mock his melting hardness.

And speaking of my superior, I hadn’t seen much of him for the week, which contributed to the cowering of my revolt: Never had the subject of the locked doors been brought up by either parties, and the strange happening also didn’t repeat itself after that, so the memory of it slowly drifted farther and farther, dissolving away the feelings of suspicion and apprehension it had inspired in me – both seemed now subdued to merely the sour aftertaste of a random dream.

But that Polack guy… he was still strange!

It is true he had shown no sign or evidence of the interest I suspected – dreaded, really – a man in his position would have in me, for I rarely saw him up, and rare were the occasions he actually stopped to talk to me. When he did, he did so in a lazily entertained way, as if I was nothing but another one of the dull distractions he chose for himself, one he simply hadn’t tired out yet because it was relatively new. Now standing at the end of my third week there, I should consider myself safe enough… but I could never: I felt my safety lying in convenience alone – If he ever got truly bored, he would decide to pluck my wings for fun: Such was the way his eyes would look at me when they’d spare only a smile, such was the way they’d make me feel every time they’d leave me, his sadism satisfied with only social awkwardness for a torture, as if he was saving the best for last.

A cool breeze blew through the empty street – it made the neighboring trees sing haltingly, it spread through the sidewalk the falling leaves I had been gathering with a broom. Still, I didn’t get mad: Its pleasant arrival stole the heat my forehead had been building up, pulling me back to the moment. I lifted my head, letting it muss my hair as well, and closed my eyes to hear the wind chimes ringing and the sound of the scroll being made a flag of by the welcome phenomena, the pieces of wood that sustained it banging against the wall.

I could run away – so I thought, lifting my eyes to acknowledge that one as a beautiful day and automatically facing the end of the hill, where the streets twisted and turned, leading away. But though I had been stressing myself out with pessimistic thoughts, the consideration wasn’t a feverish or afflictive one; it was rather something more like a test. And how did my nerves respond to the idea?

…Poorly… Lethargically, like I had known them to be. The sudden change had weakened my spirit; I wasn’t the same person anymore. The thick nerves of comfort and anxiety were both continuously intertwining in that place, and I no longer could tell one raw string from the other. I didn’t know if it felt so bad anymore, didn’t know if I actually hated it… Didn’t know if I would really like to go back!

“Useless thoughts! They won’t take me anywhere!” I said to myself, resuming my sweeping now with an angry, burning frown.

Particularly in that morning, the manager paced about the upper floor: He had been there since I woke up, a very unusual thing by itself. I could guess it was only the pleasant day that put him out of his mysterious den, but I couldn’t be so optimistic. Also, I had seen Mr. Howard contemplate the beauty of a morning before, and the Polack didn’t look anything like dazzled: If I turned to look at him, he would be hunched over or lying on top of either table or counter, yawning tediously by the minute. It was something else that kept him awake and bored, but obligatorily present.

If I wanted to run away, that wouldn’t be the day! – and so I excused my cowardice, giving myself a good enough justification to silence the stressing argument in my thoughts about where my will had gone to. It was much easier not having a choice, as it had always been: And it wasn’t any different now – I thought, looking my superior’s way and automatically squeezing the broom’s cable in my hand.

His facial expression looked rather serious – upset even, but that could be just his declared sleepiness’s doing. Still, whenever he’d catch me looking at him, he’d smile and struggle to make some strange comment in the manner of a joke:

“So, so crowded!” he added at last, shaking his hand before his face when, finishing his yawn, he saw me watching him from outside “I’m exhausted!”

It didn’t take long for me to notice he held fast and constantly a few folded papers – In his boredom, he opened it from time to time, rereading its content. The unmistakable logo of the orphanage was stamped in the heading, and I wondered why something like that should be a cause for stress.

Contaminated by my superior’s succession of tedious sighs, I sighed myself, dropping the broom and examining the street. My view was drawn by a rare movement ascending the hill: a set of distant, very familiar colors approached. Connections were made into sense in my brain:

“Polack…” I started, still measuring the apparition.

“Hmm?” he murmured, distracted with something insignificant where he had focused his attention.

“Are you, by any chance, expecting someone?”

“Maybe. Why?” Polack’s voice picked up and he lifted his head, smiling interested.

“I think I see nuns!”

He rose from his seat on the counter, agitated by a decent excitement shaping his face into an awakened one.

“You do? Where?”

 He crossed the threshold and stood at my side, placing his hand over his eyebrows to shade the sun as he looked down, spotting them.

I watched the hair from the top of his head flying back with the gentle wind – from his height, I reflected, he could probably see them much better than me. His lips stretched and he laughed lightly, scheming – the visit was more than expected, he confirmed it with his snicker.

I followed him, confused, as he rushed back inside. Upon realizing my stalking presence, he stopped halfway into the corridor:

“It seems like today you will have your very first customers, Jane!” He explained without turning around. I could perceive the sound of a large smile in his voice, but I couldn’t see it “This will be fun!” And he resumed his steps towards the shadow in the end of the house.

I returned to the counter and waited there, stretching my neck now and then to count their proximity and attempt to make out their faces. As expected, I eventually recognized them as the nuns from the orphanage.

Now, much more urgently than wondering why they were there, it was time to take up again the abandoned matter: If I was given the chance to return, what would I do? My breath grew in rhythm.

In a few minutes, Polack returned again, holding a folded cloth in his hand. I walked in and he stretched it before me: It was a grey apron with a red checkered ruffle garnishing the seams. I surveyed the piece, trying to focus my thoughts again and normalize my anxious breath.

“Why are you so red, Jane?” Polack inquired, observing me fixedly.

“It’s nothing!” I snorted, failing in trying to conceal it “Wh-What is this thing?!”

“This?” He looked down, holding the delicate garment “You should know! After all, you do work here, don’t you?!”

I blushed.

“It’s just a joke, Jane: I’m not going to punish you! What’s gotten into you today? I feel cold, and you… you are decidedly sweating!” He spoke with a smile that quite effectively neutralized the suspicion his voice gave away… but didn’t fully convince me. In his defense, nervousness made me weirder than usual.

“Come on, put it on!” He suggested, seemingly impatient by my slow comprehension “Dear… Just come here!” He added in face of my uncertain delay.

Passing it through my head, he held my shoulders and turned me around. I grunted, surprised. I heard the delicate waistbands brushing against each other under the soft movement of Polack’s finger as he tied them around my waist… Feeling the knot closing, tightening against my back gave me goosebumps. Turning back around, I was too embarrassed to offend the thing for looking idiotic.

“Now… for a finishing touch…” He bent forward and his hands approached me, again without warning or excuse: He passed a white ribbon around my nape and took his time modelling it on my neck. It took his skilled, swift hands only a few seconds actually, but they felt like long minutes during which I didn’t know where to place my eyes while his face was so close to mine!

When he was done, a silly bow adorned my chest. I looked down, feeling extremely silly for wearing it.

“Well, well… Where did that sullen girl I hired go?” He said enthusiastically, mocking my angst “I see only an adorable little waitress! Have you seen my employee around here, my beautiful lady?” And he held the brim of his hat between his fingers, moving his head from one side to the other like a fool, pretending to search for me.

I eyed him, feeling awkward and annoyed.

“Don’t be shy now – Do you come here often?”

I sighed, tensing the muscles on my forehead.

“You can tell him…” Howard’s coarse voice sounded.

Both of us stopped what we were doing to look around, until then unaware of his presence.

“You can tell him it’s not funny, girl…” Mr. Howard added with a very grave expression about his face, referring to his manager’s poor staging. “It will only do us some good!”

I stared at him in silence for a while, surprised by such a spontaneous interaction with me. And though he didn’t stop what he was doing in the kitchen to look me back, I could feel some warmth parting my way… It was curious!

“What do you think you’re doing, old man?!” Polack rebuked in a false tone of irritation “You don’t need to incentive her any further!”

Mr. Howard rolled his eyes – by now a default answer to Polack’s declared authority.

Contented enough with his failed scold, the manager looked back at me, resuming his smile: it seemed almost cheerful then. He put a hand on his waist and sighed; I grew more timid under his stare.

“You don’t expect me to get you a uniform or something, do you? I would have to order one tailored for your size, so small you are!

I shrunk farther into my shoulders, embarrassed by that stupid outfit and how exposed it made me feel – but I moved my head from one side to the other, accepting the apron and the bow as they were.

Polack crossed his arms and carried on observing me – in which time I didn’t know if I had been excused to leave his presence or not.

“But you’ll have to change that attitude of yours, Jane! I don’t know what’s gotten into you since you’ve seen those two!” He sounded crossed “You’re quieter than when you first got here! Almost like a cat that ate its own tongue… Come on, say something!”

And he waited, smiling expectantly.

“Cat’s… They don’t speak… with or without their tongues.” Still intimidated, I allowed myself to take that small cue to mortify him; much like Mr. Howard had given me the liberty to do.

Polack answered with a curious, wordless expression of confusion, apparently still processing the fact that I even answered him. That silence lasted for two seconds or so, after which Old Mr. Howard grunted a weird, unrecognizable sound. It happened once, twice… Then he burst out into laughter, failing to hold it at last – and concerned as he was with his callousness, I’m sure he tried really hard! The scene was too much… It wrenched a smile out of me.

“What? Who cares about such things?!” My superior gnarled playfully as soon as he comprehended he had been made fun of. He turned me around and pushed me repeatedly on the shoulders, rushing me forward and hiding the satisfaction he felt in seeing me relax, apparently for the first time, in his overwhelming presence. “Come on now, get going! You’re acting too smart for an orphanage girl!”

I giggled at last, in spite of all my efforts to contain it: Polack’s feigned frustration was funny! His smile looked thinner, warmer, gentler than it had ever been…

Before I was out, though, he stopped me. A trace of amusement still curled up his lip, but I knew he was being serious now: his eyes shone in a sharp green light again.

“Now, I know you haven’t seen any customers around here before, but you must forget about our previous deal and just go ahead and serve them. There is no secret to it, and…  They must be your friends after all, mustn’t they?”

I felt dismayed by the use of that word and took a glance outdoors, where they already waited.

“I must tell you: They are here at my special request, which means they’ll probably be in a particularly good mood!” his eyes narrowed and his smile stretched. I couldn’t tell if he used sarcasm or not “Treat them kindly, and they’ll definitely come back! I’ll also have you give them this. Tell them it’s signed, at last, and that you wouldn’t have agreed to returning it otherwise – this should make them even happier with you!”

And, bowing down to convey those whispered instructions, Polack put on my hands the paper he had been holding since morning.

“Oh… and one last thing…”

I lifted my view to him and saw it there again: the same rare, hard expression polluting his eyes – the one that made them, for a second, seem to consider me a potential enemy, one he would have no trouble destroying if I should prove him right, regardless of the warm smiles and heartfelt interactions… I felt my veins turn cold.

“This is your home now Jane, is it not?” His voice was even, intense, coercive… “I trust you won’t try any funny tricks to return to that awful place. Tell me: Am I being wise in trusting you? …Or should I watch you very, very closely?”

My eyes drifted between the different parts of his face, looking to see if he was being serious or if he was merely trying to scare me for fun.

“Well, just go…” he sighed, standing erect and rushing me again, then turning his back and disappearing into the kitchen.

I stumbled forward with the haste he had passed on to me, but stopped suddenly to look back and watch him a bit longer: his strange march, his hardened shoulders…

I unfolded the papers – the orphanage’s coat of arms marking the emitter, as I suspected, recognizable at first glance. I brushed the much too formal words with a quick examination, making out as much as I could from it in the few seconds separating me from greeting the nuns. In it, the orphanage attested that a sort of audit had taken place – That my installation, well-being and integrity had been verified in an obligatory visit a mere week after my arrival. The concluding paragraph said, in short, that I was alive and well and that the contract had been, therefore, approved. The superintendents’ signature confirmed it, and demanded my superior’s too, with which the formed contract was to be returned to the orphanage to be archived as an important document.

The date signed in it was from two weeks ago.

I laid down the letter bitterly and walked out to face them in the same mood. Was it all a plot from Polack to make me hate them too much to let them in on how mysterious and potentially dangerous he seemed to be, killing, in the process, any nostalgia-inspired will I could have of returning? Whether he smiled cunningly now or not, their part in the deed was made no less ugly: The nuns wanted his signature on a safety report without even knowing if I still lived! And was it only out of spite that he demanded an actual visit before signing his part?

Certainly, they would be happy to see me…

 

Though I failed to recognize them in the distance, I could now attribute that plain pair names: They were Sister Monica and Sister Mary Agatha from the orphanage, and I promptly forgot each and every ghost of longing that briefly haunted me since I came to Gloen by merely setting my eyes on their faces: The twin expressions of bitter and sour combined and then divided between the two. One of them was old and spiteful, the other was yet recently promoted from novice. Sister Monica, the first, was the bitterest, for she remembered the times when the orphanage had some sense of order, and thoroughly despised the products of the new organization. Whenever she could, she’d make things her way, against the principal’s orders, especially because she knew this last one didn’t exactly care. Sometimes she’d try to make me memorize a long book of prayers – it worked on the other interns, but never on me, for I knew it was no longer my obligation, and not her right to force me to. – And it was with that attitude that I earned a special hatred in her esteem.

It wasn’t any surprise to see Sister Agatha accompanying her: She had been a perfect assistant when she was a novice, and was now a declared minion to the old hag; Rumors said that when she was a little girl in the orphanage, she was so shy she could barely talk. I believe she found in Monica’s firmness a version for her own, one that inspired new actions and courage for speeches, for, next to the old evil nun, not a sign of the previous timidity unrumpled her face. Out of so much witnessing and making endure the sister’s despicable actions, and out of so much being put subject to her absurd ideas, I believe that Agatha had turned, on her on account and too early in life, an equally bitter and spiteful woman. Her face furrowed in my contemplation much like the vampire’s painful squirming, melting when having to face a cross.

“Well… Hello, Jane!” Greeted Monica in a languid, unwilling voice; observing me from head to toe.

Holding fast the signed document in my hands, the paper felt heavier, and I felt silly for letting myself be surprised or shocked about it: The way Sister Monica’s lips curled down in poorly hidden disgust should have been more than sufficient proof that no one in that place would care to lift a finger for anything that concerned me.

Mr. Howard worked in the kitchen while all of this took place – A harsher, louder thud coming that way called my attention back form the sort of staring contest I had started with my former caretakers: I looked back, and the old man scowled fiercely, tossing his head up and down like a horse, ordering me to answer them.

I sighed and looked back, my rage efficiently cooled down by submission. And when it felt too painful to be nice to them, I remembered that I currently had no obligations in the orphanage; that I no longer belonged there, no longer had motives to confront them, and didn’t even need to call them sisters!

“Good morning Agatha… Monica!” I answered, and a pleased smile spontaneously manifested in me by the pang of disrespected authority they showed.

The restaurant, as I should have supposed in my very first stay at the place, didn’t have any interior space for customers to have their meals. Few small, foldable wooden tables were kept in the kitchen’s closet, which Mr. Howard helped me install on the sidewalk, next to a small square of dirt where a pair of bamboos grew, hiding under its green leafs a tall divider fence which separated Polack’s property from the neighbor’s.

In that position, the round little tables also lay exactly under the wind chimes descending from the roof, adding to the scene a pleasant chirp of bells that always sounded farther than it really was, as if the wind itself produced it by nature. The front of the restaurant, then, turned into a really charming, really relaxing place to enjoy a meal, capturing and reflecting most perfectly the homely beauty Gloen had of best.  Discovering it now, those bitter nuns seemed undeserving of it.

“What do you recommend, child?” Monica sighed, annoyed, having snatched the small plasticized sheet of the menu from my hand and now surveying it with spiritless eyes.

“Anything that sustains the stomach is good enough and fully worthy of gratitude, isn’t it?” I retorted avidly, making reference to the orphanage’s unsavory meals “Regardless of such trivialities as taste!”

The two of them cast me a glance that teased nostalgia – like the good old times!

“You seem to be well!” The older one sighed her stress away, moving around the chair “Still have time to read the bible as I can see, and remember the teachings of your home!”

I rolled my eyes.

“It makes me wonder why it was so important to you that we came here! Do you happen to be in trouble?” And, reluctantly, her eyes laid on me again “…Are you still in accordance to our dogmas?”

I only half understood what she implied – or rather my passion did, while reason still fluctuated around it, for I blushed and felt the blood go up to my face.

“What do you mean?!”

“I wonder…” she said, turning her eyes back to the menu. A remaining sneer proved it wasn’t concern for my physical integrity that drove her curiosity “…what type of a man he is, this boss of yours…”

“I’m sure you must know better than me, having verified that beforehand, right?!” Fury answered.

“Is there something you want to tell us?” She lifted her head, asking with confidence.

I started to feel a buzzing, constant noise fill my ears, my fists clenching tightly. I knew now what they implied… I felt offended, vulnerable; my reaction gave away too much emotion. Pride urged that I proved them wrong before they could think such things of me.

Before I could recompose and talk reasonably, however, Polack attended to the last question, for it concerned him. I didn’t notice his silent approach, which couldn’t be attributed to carelessness of my altered state alone: Slim as a cat, he was also stealthy as one when he wanted to. I felt him on the air behind me a second before his hands weighed down on my shoulders, and though I could swear that was only the second time he had touched me, I could recognize the warmth of that contact as being his… Or rather the lightness of his large hands, cautious and soft.

Still a fright made me skip as if an electric current had just ran down my body. This reaction, of course, wouldn’t go unnoticed by my former tutors, who cast the same derisive glare I earned under their cares to my superior. Looking up, I saw he smiled, his hat falling over his eyes.

“Why, I see you haven’t made up your minds yet!” He pronounced gentle and friendly “Maybe you are all too busy exchanging news, is that it?”

I yanked myself from his hands before it could look like they had any control over me.

“So… what are you going to order?” Polack smiled as he crossed his arms over his chest, ignoring my little angry fit.

Angrier than I had been before he showed up, I took that as a cue and stomped back inside, but was stopped by Howard at the kitchen. Standing before me, he eyed me intently:

“Friends of yours?” He inquired, keeping me from hiding away.

“They hate me and I hate them!” I bitterly poured out, lowering my eyes which invariably started to overflow when the rage was too great.

Even though I wasn’t even remotely used to it, I must have considered, in a subconscious level, my reaction deserving of a warm solace, or at least an empathetic silence, for I was surprised when the man offered no pats to the head:

“Well, go back there and serve them, without the fuss!!”

His harsh tone startled me!

“Polack is here to give you a hand, not take it off from yours! Stay there, girl, and don’t push your luck…” He cast a brief glance over the door, as if to make sure he wouldn’t be heard “If he gave you something to do, go ahead and do it… Do it outstandingly, too: You will want to have a reason to remain here”

I looked back to the subject of the talk: My superior stood in the distance, smiling largely, openly like one with no secrets – his face always youthful, always tranquil; even under the nuns’ hostile lens they remained so. If there was one thing I was sure of him by then, it was that he couldn’t be trusted. Mr. Howard only confirmed it through a hint that answered no questions, only raised more. I gulped hard!

Watching the scene from a distance, I realized that, if they wanted to find in me signs that I had already been taken to his bed, they must have found plenty! First, my eccentric superior’s own appearance did nothing but emphasize what a much too careless, much too fearless type he was:  The large, loose garments; the bare feet; the pale beard stubbles across his chin; the unruly bangs falling over his face… A sarcastic lounger is all he looked like, the type to obey no rules and admit no consequences for his carefree acts; An unscrupulous “Do what thou wilt” wanton that wouldn’t have his oblivious conscience pained by seducing an underage girl like me, and wouldn’t have his changeless tranquility moved by lack of consent either, and would smile the entire time…

But maybe it was dread and overanalyzing that made me think so – Maybe they wouldn’t read so much into that gentle smile and uniform voice…

However, even if they didn’t see in him what I saw, how would they interpret the way I reacted? My body shaking under his touch in an exaggerated response, then freezing for a second, then running in? Would they interpret it accurately as my skin marveling at a touch not frequently received? …Or would they deem it a raw sign of fear and trauma? I grunted in intimate contrition!

I wanted to run back there – to run back and prove he hadn’t touched me! Prove I still had control over my own body, that it still belonged to me! …Except that I wouldn’t use the word “still” – it would only clarify that the Polack hadn’t tried anything, serving me no merit: I could be brave when not presented with a challenge. I could be fierce as long as there was no real threat to face. Otherwise… how could I? My bones felt the heaviness of his intimidating impression over me.

The smiles soon had run out. Polack had crossed his arms and, with his head dropping, calmly thinking, he walked my way, back inside. I waited at the same place, slightly frozen by my overwhelming thoughts.

“What are you waiting for?” He inquired “Get over there.”

I nodded, recollecting Howard’s words, and hurried back out – challenging him for pride’s sake would have to wait another day.


When the whole deal was finished – When the documents I didn’t even know existed had been delivered, my safety now duly attested (but not at all guaranteed from there on) and the nuns’ stomach satiated; when I waved an obligatory goodbye to my former guardians and watched them disappear downhill, I went back into the house.

By that time morning had turned into afternoon, and a mass of clouds that happened to drift by blocked the sun for a few minutes, making the interior strangely dark.

The Polack had his back against the cabinet with his arms crossed over his chest and his head down, hidden under the shadow of the corner of the room. He was quiet upon my entrance – I hoped he would be too absorbed with some thought to notice it, in which case I’d silently slide to my room…

“Tsc Tsc Tsc!”

I stopped, hearing his clicked tongue’s echo.

He hadn’t moved – he hadn’t lifted his head enough to be able to see me beyond the hat he wore. Still, I didn’t pass unnoticed.

“I am absolutely disappointed in you, Miss Jane!” He added gravely, never lifting his eyes.

I looked around, feeling the heaviness growing in the air. Funny how quickly I had learned to seek Mr. Howard with my eyes, deeming him the only sensible person in that place: he soon took a step out of the pantry, interrupting his work – it wasn’t curiosity that urged him to come, but a visible, contagious dread.

“Wh… What have I done?!” I asked, surprised with how quickly my voice disappeared, and my veins flooded with a hot gush of apprehension.

Howard walked up to us in a strange way, moving his eyes from me to his boss in rapid succession, as if ready to take action against one or the two of us.

What did he think I needed protection from?

Most importantly… Was he really willing to offer it, in case it was needed?

Polack’s shoulders hardened, he lifted his head and rose, standing – now I could barely see his face, only the unfathomable smile I could swear was fueled by sadism.

“You have been out there for too long, in your friends’ presence…” he started calmly “And whatever happened? They seemed to have asked you a lot of questions, Jane… You seemed quite answerless…”

I swallowed the dry lump in my throat, but it never went away!

“Wh… What’s wrong with that?”

“Well …” he interrupted, smiling with intensity “I allow you to stay outside and deal with them for all these hours, and still they leave here more than pleased with your services!”

Howard and I glanced at each other, both probably seeking clarification in the other’s eyes – but none knew anything.

“I thought I had made it very clear that if you treated them well, they’d most certainly come back…”

Nervous sweat dripped down my forehead as I failed to understand.

“You’ve made it so I’ll soon have to deal with the unpleasant duo again. Are you proud?” he laughed lightly, as if to himself “And here I thought I could trust that resentful little troublemaker in you with so simple a task!”

His stillness scared me!

“You held your own out there with extraordinary composure, against people you really hate! Such a well-behaved little parole convict…”

“I thought I’d be in trouble if I didn’t!” I justified in my mind only, too paralyzed to actually articulate it.

He lifted his eyes, finally making them visible: They glowed in rich amusement, a warm light surrounding the irises.

“For that, I might reduce your penalty. Perhaps I’ll even let you walk free…” he mocked.

Mr. Howard’s eyes grew wide with surprise, then he exhaled an enclosed breath, relieved. It was only through his reaction that I accepted it had all been a joke – it still took me a minute to relax my much too aware sense, and untie my stretched nerves, time in which Mr. Howard got amazingly mad:

“Dastard fool!” He gnarled “What the hell are you thinking?!” and, throwing a piece of cloth he had been holding against the counter, he walked back into the pantry.

I allowed myself to sigh, too.

“What?” Polack laughed with cynicism, very much aware of his deed. “Have I lied?”

I placed the plates and napkins on the balcony next to Polack, my legs only now starting to shake with the aftermath of distress.

My superior enjoyed a good laugh as he gave up on starting an argument with either of his employees. He got up from his seat and walked up to me, his smile and eyes melting into a warm light of hard-earned satisfaction.

“You must pardon me, Jane…” he twisted his lips “It’s just that you have shown such zealous dedication! It’s almost enough to make me jealous…”

His examination weighed, expecting a promise to offer him the same services, I suppose.  I would have frowned at him for an answer, if my nerves had already recovered from their recent shock.

“Leave the girl alone!” Once more Howard pleaded for me, breaking the cold gaze my superior had locked with mine.

“Very well… You are dismissed for today, Jane! You did do a good job, after all…” he sighed, collapsing lazily upon his stool again and meditating with a degree of disappointment “I have nothing to hold against you!”

I crossed the corridor and into my room in a numb state. I closed myself there, and I could still hear him: A laugh shook his boredom:

“My! What a sense of humor you two have!!!

Chapter 4

 Two days now were past in a silent, swift course – they weren’t any miserable though: the quietude of sullen Howard sitting at the counter and of the still sky descending solemnly into night encouraged me to keep reading: not a natural disposition of mine, but it didn’t feel like I was being forced either. At times, I felt a rare curiosity to what the next page had of information waiting for me.

 Once back in  my room, I’d stop and – specially today – wonder about my condition in that house: I didn’t have any distractions other than the book they had given me – I didn’t bring my own from the orphanage, I didn’t even have a notebook whereupon to write my annoyed thoughts; No form of activity whatsoever!

The Polack had said I could do whatever I wanted with my free time after I was done with the expedient… With me being seventeen years old, I wondered if he would see any reason to stop me from going out into the street, though there was a clause for prohibition in the contract. Maybe he hadn’t read it thoroughly… Maybe he didn’t care… Maybe he thought I was too old to be treated like a little girl, and was that good or bad? I could escape if I really wanted to…

Walking to the front of the house, I allowed the orange, blazing light of the setting sun to reach my eyes and blind me momentarily, then I sat on the curb and looked downhill: From where that restaurant was located, I had access to a privileged view of a small extension of the city of Gloen shining under the dusk. The clouds that shadowed those most distant parts seemed, also, to be at the same level as my head, its fluffy contours gleaming prettily in a fluorescent version of the crimson color tainting the sky, letting through only a selected few rays of heavenly light, all of which blended with the hills in their different intensities as they watched the earth, like a glass kaleidoscope.

If I climbed to the roof, would I be able to see the shadow of the great orphanage mansion, distant, on those big vacant mountains down south? And if I could see it… Would I really want to go back?

Soon a pair of steps reached me there, sparing me the trouble of unraveling those sore thoughts, for I was no longer alone, and the company, such as it was, wasn’t one to leave a person quiet. I looked to my side and there stood Polack’s long legs in front of the door. He smiled as he looked ahead, his clear hair locks moving graciously under a weak breeze, so light were their strands! His skin reflected the sun, borrowing its health and looking fresh and relaxed.

He held, in one of his hands, a bowl, and seemed to have forgotten what he had brought it for, or suddenly no longer care about its purpose: He looked pleased enough just staring ahead, into the rich color the sky congregated, for a few minutes.

“Haven’t you seen my little friend around here somewhere, Jane?” He sighed with the wind climbing the hill, breaking the silence.

“I saw nobody.” I turned my head so I no longer had to look at him. His eyes disappeared unpleasantly in shadows when thus positioned under the twilight.

“Are you sure? She usually comes every day, faithfully!”

I refused to repeat my answer, annoyed by his presence.

“Maybe your frown drove her away? What have I told you about making faces and scaring the customers?” he teased playfully, his voice tone expressing neither an order nor an actual rebuke.

Again, I didn’t answer. With a surrendering sigh, Polack crouched down next to me – when he did so, his large, loose robe opened up even more around his chest, and the wind moving gently expanded the opening farther… Glancing sideways, I took a peek: The entire, long extension of his torso was made visible, descending and stopping only at the elastic waist of his pants, which was positioned rather lowly. His skin was opaque, pale, stretched upon a set of discrete, yet toned muscles on his abdomen and chest. His collarbones stood out, prominent, as did his Adam’s apple.

I must have taken too long in my observation of the impressive, obscure opposite sex’s anatomy, for when I lifted my eyes to his face, it smiled at me, completely aware of my exam. He didn’t seem to intercept my thoughts, however, which inevitably swirled around the uncharted territory of sex and all it had of scary: His eyes seemed too calm, too harmless now for someone who thought about anything involving that already so exposed trunk being forced against me. But being a mature man as he was, would the idea disturb him enough to make itself visible in his eyes? I should not let myself be fooled by them…

I looked away, angry and blushing, and he laughed lowly, placing down the bowl he carried in the space between the two of us.       

I examined its content: A steamy piece of lasagna teased my stomach with its fresh aroma. I felt my mouth water.

“This isn’t for you!” Polack laughed as soon as he noticed it, taunting me “Come inside and eat at the table, like a normal person! This one is for my friend… I’m sure she will show up at any instant!”

“Maybe she’s dead!” I couldn’t help but comment bitterly.

“What? Don’t say foolish things, Jane, or I’ll suspect you’ve done her wrong!” he replied tranquilly, standing up with a lazy sigh “She’s around, waiting for you to stop looking so mean so she can approach you. It’s a cat, if you must now: they are careful, suspicious and hard to melt…” he glanced at me, narrowing his eyes and enjoying the fun of an insinuation that passed unnoticed by me.

I didn’t look him back, or said a word – I thoroughly disliked his nonstop efforts to socialize and break the ice column I carefully planted between me and him daily. Polack sighed, turning around and contemplating a cloth scroll that served as a sign for the restaurant, hanging right next to the door.

“It isn’t mine – the pet!” he smiled in a much too amusing reminiscence “It just showed up at my door, and I ended up keeping it. Do you think I will regret it someday, Jane?”

His eyes fell to me, unclouded and green, and he smiled before giving me the time to show I wouldn’t answer, apparently getting used to my stubborn silence. Looking back to the sign, he slid his fingers down the tissue, idly contouring its embroidery and producing a comforting sound.

 In a careful movement of his hand, he spun it to the other side, where a few foreign words were inscribed. Though I didn’t know what it meant, it was easy to assume it symbolized no more business for the day. Nonetheless, Polack faced it intently.

I glanced briefly at the clouds basking in light, in an ungrateful farewell, and picked myself up to return inside.

“Dinner’s served!” He announced with vivacity as I passed by him, and followed my entrance with warm eyes.

The house was still very dark, for the night stole silently in, gradually diming the rooms in a too subtle pace for those inside to realize the need of light. I stopped before the kitchen, by the end of the corridor, and turned to look out again: Polack stood there in his loose silky robe, his hair falling back in pointy locks as he looked up at the sky – cold rain had suddenly begun to fall with little announcement, showering him. But… that rain, unlike all others that had come to greet me in that place, didn’t blow on my face the sour breath of instant depression… Instead, it looked gracious: each drop gleaming fast, picking up the sky’s lively color, before exploding on the asphalt and running downhill. I didn’t wonder, then, why my superior remained there, watching and feeling it against his skin as if it was a very decent sort of pleasure people were used to enjoying…

…I wondered, however, what crossed his mind in all that careless serenity, and what did it feel like to live like he did. It seemed to me, more and more strongly as the days passed, that the Polack did only what he wanted to do, and lived exactly in the way he wanted to live. It was intimidating to be around a person like that – so concluded my evaluation every time I saw a proof of it in him – But on that occasion, I couldn’t see the threat my brain continuously warned me against… I could only envy him, wishing I was still out there in the rain, too.

…But was it really envy, when my heart felt so warm? I suddenly wanted to be there by his side, yes… but there was something essential missing to classify such longing as a feeling that would fit into the nuns’ long list of sins. I guess it was just that I had never admired something so pure as the rain before. Or someone so strange!


 

We dined together, the three of us, around the small kitchen table. Occupying my attention with surveying the surroundings during the meal, the three chairs earned special scrutiny: One of them, I noticed, disagreed with the rest of the set, being of a different color and different proportions. Upon examining it, I suspected it had been placed there especially for me, and my eyes stung, moved by a strange sentiment…

Silently, a feeling of comfort started to associate itself, in my heart, with that place: with the small, well administered space; the clean decoration; the shadowy lightings and the homely mood… Specially, with my superior’s placid silence now that he didn’t invest in making me uncomfortable with jokes and hints I couldn’t yet interpret. The thought occurred me, most naturally, that if he decided to take me…

…that if it couldn’t be helped, maybe it wouldn’t feel so bad. It couldn’t be, when he’d strike me as so fundamentally delicate!

I didn’t know men could be like that. That they could talk in such low, amiable tones; that their voices could sound so smart and composed; that they could walk so solemnly, and smile so neatly… I didn’t know their faces could be so fair, with such soft well-sculpted lines; and that their bodies could be so long and evenly proportioned, as If they’d come straight from a painting. I wondered, with an ill-acknowledged trace of curiosity, when the day would come…

 

Having everyone at the table eaten leisurely, the meal was done: My superior took a napkin from his lap and pressed it to his full lips – the act carefully watched by me and judged strange. In realizing it, he chuckled in his usual mockery – the one that replaced pity –, finding it just as strange that I knew so little of life outside the orphanage. But he didn’t say a word on it, and I’m sure Mr. Howard would have intervened and offended his terrible taste for humor if he had: It was only his eyes that said so when they amused themselves so much in cataloguing my different reactions.

I got up from the table, dragging my chair through the floor – breaking the silence as I did must have felt profane for the two of them, who looked my way almost surprised. They followed me then, leaving their seats. I walked to the corridor, and once there I stopped, for the Polack approached me with an unreadable expression and a subtle smile.

“I hope it’s not too early for you to retire to sleep, Miss Jane?” he recommended in the dark “Little girls should  be in bed before eight, as far as I know…”

“I’m not a child!” I answered between my teeth.

“Oh, aren’t you?!” He sung in his carelessness.

I felt myself blush.

“I mean, I…” Trying to undo my mistake, I started, but couldn’t finish it. I was half afraid of what declaring me an adult could occasion.

But Polack said nothing, his smile remained unchanged. I merely stared at him, looking to see in his eyes what type of evil deed crossed his mind – useless effort! The night had fallen, the lights were still out all around us.

“Very well!” He calmly declared, almost in a whisper “Now, go inside… Make yourself comfortable in your little room, and let me know if you need anything!” He slid the door, holding it open while he expected me to comply.

Strange insistency! I walked in, eyeing him with suspicion from the corner of my eyes, then turned to face him: The Polack guarded the door, still holding it with one hand and now blocking my way out:

“They said you were a troublesome little girl… But children get older, don’t they, Miss Jane?” He asked evasively, his voice giving away a sort of reluctance in justifying himself… Still, he seemed to be doing so. He dropped his head when he spoke, and kept it that way so I wouldn’t catch even a single glimpse of his eyes “Well, you won’t mind it if I take a measure or two against it in any case, serious lady as you are! Don’t get me wrong, will you?” He smiled one last time – a quick, different, lying smile “Good night, Jane!”

He slid the doors quickly, slamming one against the other. I watched his shadow through the thin panels waiting a little longer, hesitating still… I didn’t comprehend it! Why did it look like he apologized?

…Then I heard a click. The shadow sighed, and soon it was gone with its drooping head.

I sat, hugging the soft volume of my pillow and staring at the door, thinking about what that meant, and why had he done it. I preferred not to get up and verify: it would cause me a mortal apprehension that would certainly hinder my sleep.

But some hours later, when there was no longer a single noise filling the house, I still hadn’t managed to put it out of my head. On my knees, I dragged myself through the carpet, stopping before the doors. I supported my hand against the cold wood, squeezed my eyes…Swallowed hard, gathered the courage and tried to slide them open… It would not do! The door creaked, shook softly in its frame, but never gave in. I was locked inside!

Quickly and silently I crawled back to the end of the room, moved by an urgent fear that the attempt alone might be heard and yield serious consequences! My breath grew in rhythm, my brain inflamed – again the question rose, screaming louder among a tumult of thoughts:  What did I get myself into?

Chapter 3

Going back to sleep was impaired not by lack of will, but because a gentle excitement shook my bones after my last encounter with my – now properly called so – superior. And despite the meekness, the care with which he stopped and censored me, I wished deep down he would never again have to exert his authority as he did then, for his eyes made me feel too strangely confused, his appearance transformed too greatly into more of a man his age, less like an inconvenient and scary buffoon such as I liked to regard him.

Morning came with the sun and I was up with it, now enjoying the freedom of being out of my room and immune to the old man’s protests and glances – he, too, well aware of the deal transpired between Polack and me last night, didn’t invest so ferociously in chasing me away with his ill-humor.

And when Polack appeared, I was sitting on the tall stool, enjoying, like he did a few days before, and like Howard did daily, the gentle, curtain-like rays of light that invaded through the opening above the counter. I must have looked happy, for I did feel almost like it!

“Ah! There you are again, up and about, as promised!” He remarked, announcing his entrance – for no one, it seems, could hear his approach.

I looked at him – he had forgotten his hat somewhere, and a messy set of pointy locks fell unruly over his eyes and ears, gleaming in a pale yellow light as he pulled them back. The lack of headwear made him look younger, less intimidating, but under his eyes a dark pair of circles showed him less fresh than I had seen him earlier, before the sunrise. He still wore the beaten woolen jacket from then over his usual loose robe, and looked more like he was about to go to bed than that he had just risen from it.

“In better spirits too, I hope!” he met my gaze and chuckled, a distant pink reflex reached his cheeks as he mocked my long examination of his figure.

I remembered to look away quickly, first too embarrassed to show anger, but that soon followed, too.

“I’ll tell you what…” he approached in light steps, stopping right next to me – his voice was warm and soft, young and cheerful… but it always seemed to hide something else. It reminded me of a white tiger I once read about in a fable for children: its stripes were so charming and illusive to the zebra, that the latter ended up between the first’s teeth.

“Why don’t you show me what you have done? That’s a good start for today, isn’t it?” He continued, cocking his head to the side with a harmless curiosity.

His eyes lingered there, expectant.

“I…” I started, breathing courage into my answer… but then it struck me! I hadn’t done anything yet!

“You…?” He rushed playfully.

My eyes dropped, searched the room afflicted.

“Howard, translate the girl!” He cynically ordered.

“She says she doesn’t want to talk! She wants to return to her room!” Was the old man’s assertive answer; to give it, however, he kept his eyes glued to a magazine he had been reading. “Send her back at once…”

‘Not such a good liar as the manager must be’, I examined with curiosity as Howard grew uncomfortable, waiting for the effect of his attempt.

“Then it’s you again, isn’t it, you scoundrel?!” Polack accused in an annoyed mockery, shifting his attention and walking towards Mr. Howard.

And while my heart automatically began to race, anticipating a fight, Howard sighed rather irritated than worried, not even bothering lifting his eyes from his current distraction to answer to Polack.

“What side are you on, old man?!”

 “She doesn’t know how to do anything, in any case!” – was Howard’s liberating answer “And that’s what she’s trying to say. I’ll have no use at all for her around here! Give her something else to do, if you want!” And he turned the page.

Polack’s green eyes flashed back to me, weighing.

“What do you mean she can’t do anything? She looks just as healthy as you!” He inquired, growing angry – but at least his angst was entirely directed to Howard, or so I hoped as I kept quiet on my stool trying to sink so deep between my shoulders they couldn’t see me anymore.

“She didn’t do anything, therefore she doesn’t know how to do anything!” Howard poorly clarified, showing the full extent of his indisposition to say anything else on the matter “I said I didn’t need help, and I don’t.”

I don’t need help!” Polack repeated in his strange sarcasm, moved by a subtle and diabolic rage or by pure indifference, I didn’t know – they had the weirdest boss/employee relationship I could have imagined, and none of it made sense.

With a surrendered sigh, the manager looked back to me:

“Tell me: what do I do with you now, little girl?”

He surveyed me with those eyes surrounded by shadows – I flinched.

“Come on, Jane: Don’t make me poke you, dear! I know it’s the most assured way of getting you to answer me with that angry voice that pleas disobedience!” He walked closer, fluidly – once standing before me, reminding me of his height, I felt intimidated again.

His fingers stretched my way, pulling a hair lock from my eyes. I lifted them, facing him.

“Much better!” he smiled “If you haven’t done anything at all, then at least tell me you’ve kept your promise: Have you figured out what you’re giving me for my birthday?”

“Absolutely nothing!!” The answer crawled out before I could choose to, then I immediately silenced myself.

The Polack laughed a free, delightful laugh,  his face picking up some color during it.

“I really like this girl!” He mused.

“Because she hates you?!” Was Howard’s rude answer.

“Because she has spirit!” Polack added, looking at me with a different interest glowing in those bored eyes. “Well!” he sighed, straightened himself before me, tucked his hand inside the coat’s pocket “You’re not giving me anything, and you don’t want anything from me either… You wanted work, but you have done nothing… There’s also this despicable old man who won’t accept your help…”

He reflected upon those conflicts after listing them, while sliding his fingers down the contours of his chin. His expression looked so carefree, so excited there, that I was afraid of what solution he would come up with.

“Well” he sighed, putting his hand on his waist and dropping his head to smile in defeat “I can’t make you truly useful to me with all those impediments, but I won’t leave you to do as you please either, for then all you do is stay quiet…” he walked to the kitchen and I heard him disappear downstairs.

Soon he was back: he cast a large, dark volume my way before I could figure out what it was.

“Here… catch!”

I seized it from the air: It was an old book, it smelled like mold.

“I understand all your education happened in the orphanage, so you’re no alien to teaching yourself: Use your free time to study!

I opened the thing, already annoyed by what the title suggested.

“I don’t want any nuns coming to my door to supervise your educational performance, so you’ll have to make sure it doesn’t drop!”

“I don’t think they’d care…” I murmured with a hidden bitterness.

“Well, I’d rather not risk it! You do understand, don’t you?” He smiled warmly at me – in that way I considered scary “Howard here swears I can’t trust you. If it depended on him, I’d get rid of you real quick! The fool thinks you might randomly decide to kill me sometime in the night… What do you think about that?”

I eyed him without moving – I was starting to realize the intention of intimidating me behind those subtle little jokes, and decided not to provide him with such pleasure… Not visibly, at least!

I sighed and flipped the pages with laziness… then I dropped the book on my legs, faced it angrily.

“Who cooks?”

“Come again?!” Polack smiled, and Howard lifted his head from his reading.

“I haven’t seen anyone cooking around here, and this is supposedly a restaurant… So I was thinking…”

Polack’s eyes gleamed with pleasure, listening patiently.

“Couldn’t I do that?”

Howard glanced at Polack, curious for his answer – when he started chuckling, the old man resumed his reading, losing interest.

By the end of his laugh, Polack’s hand fell on my head – it weighed there for a split second, then moved, messing my hair.

“I don’t know, could you?” was his answer, framed by a strangely satisfied smile “Learn to ask me that in a new language, and I might give you an answer. For now, only do as I told you…” he ordered in a friendly tone, then turned back to the old man in an entirely renewed mood “Mr. Howard, for today Miss Jane will be sitting right here in this stool, where she’ll study quietly for the rest of the day. If we get any customers, let her watch you closely, but do nothing, for now.”

“And you, miss!” he turned back to me, bending forward and supporting his hands on his knees “You must call me in case of this old man pestering you… After five, you are dismissed to do as you please, as long as you don’t interfere with my business…” he smiled gently “Are we clear?”

I took my time eyeing him back – his eyes weren’t embarrassed, weren’t even made uncomfortable by looking so deep into mine.

“Yes!” I answered drily.

“Very well! Have fun, you two!”

And he returned to the end of the house. I heard his bare footsteps echoing down the stairs in a lazy, sleepy rhythm.

 

Chapter 2

On the following day, waking up felt just as strange as sleeping. I rose slowly, and, caught up in a long slumber’s haziness, my surroundings were particularly odd: I wasn’t in my usual bed. The scent I felt filling the air wasn’t anything like the smell of a room crowded with girls; I couldn’t hear their whispers or their bodies moving through thin and uncomfortable mattresses upon cold iron beds, all perfectly identical, lined up in the spacious attic.

The illumination wasn’t predominantly brown either – as were the old wooden structures holding the orphanage’s roof – though a softer, sweeter version of the same color constituted the sliding panels; A cold grey or blue, with a hint of the orchid’s lilac reflex, covered the clean walls around me; notwithstanding this simplistic idea of decoration, I felt, in my numb confusion, I had been sleeping in a small doll’s house, or any of those neat, charming little rooms the magazines show.

I got up – breathed the warm air the panels retained, analyzed the decent sunlight invading through the gaps, and concluded I had slept in. And how different it was, being allowed to do so! For the past eleven years, I had been forced to rise before the solacing star, learning to doubly appreciate its heat after enduring the parting dawn’s persistent bleakness. That I didn’t let myself be mistaken, however: considering last night’s demonstration, I could assert with decent confidence that it wasn’t out of niceness that my strange colleague and his stranger boss let me stay in  bed until noon… They most certainly had forgotten about me!

The suspicion was quickly confirmed when, sliding open the doors to my room, I came across Mr. Howard, the grumpy old man from yesterday, who flashed me a no less grumpy expression – in fact, a much worse one reproached, with eyes alone, my daring step to the corridor. The mood hadn’t changed: whatever it was my superior had hired me for, he – Mr. Howard, that is – wanted nothing to do with it, and that included so much as seeing my face. My subdued spirit wanted no argument, and pride had undergone a much too cold night to care… so both sank quietly back into my chest, as I in my own turn sank back into my room, closing the doors I had just opened.

So I waited in silent seclusion for that day’s hours to go, just like I had done in the previous day, knowing not what for. No voice or conversation filled the restaurant’s quietness this time – which, in fact, didn’t look like a restaurant at all, I had taken the liberty to observe. – and no one came to give me a now very much expected task.

Only when the evening had descended my existence was again taken into account, but even then in the most neglectful and distant way they could muster: I slid open the door, and found a tray of cold food waiting on the corridor before me. If it had been hot when it was left there I didn’t know, but it tasted delicious anyway, and the amount was also calculated to satiate the hungry stomach that had given up on pleading since yesterday. Who had left it was also a big mystery: I couldn’t picture grumpy, hate-filled Howard lifting a finger to prevent my starvation and the end of his problems; but the strange manager couldn’t had left it without stopping to announce his presence and make me uncomfortable with his persistent interactions either. Whichever was the case, depression mocked my state of complete surrender to their mercy, and the mood was enough to mortify me out of the shyness that kept me a willing prisoner – I decided that if I was to be starved again, I would seek my own survival in the kitchen!

…But demanding my food had, luckily, become unnecessary the next day: This time the sullen employee was too busy to censor my existence as he leaned on the counter, watching the slow movement of the street outside.

I walked out and stopped a little behind him, stretching my neck so I could look out, too: There were no people there. A few taller trees could be partially seen from behind the neighboring roofs, different birds hovered and whistled around their canopies where they built their nests. Mr. Howard’s poorly visible eyes shone meekly while he contemplated the image outside, but they hardened upon hearing my step on the floor. He cast me a quick, hostile sideways glance, to which I answered by stiffening my shoulders and expecting a fight… But he merely sighed, falling into a sort of surrender, and walked past me to the other side of the room, resuming his cleaning work.

“Go on to the kitchen…” he started with an unusually low voice – one that just didn’t scream, that is. “Grab something from the fridge… eat… help yourself…”

It wasn’t difficult to tell how reluctantly he said so – and how passionately he invested in his scowl after that, trying hard to maintain the initial impression I had of him.

I moved on to the kitchen, opened the fridge without ceremonies: An amount of varied packages kept different dishes inside. My catholic-orphan self was hesitant at first, wanting to ask which of those I could have… But judging by the torture my presence inflicted on Mr. Howard, I figured – as convenience encouraged me to – I would be doing him a favor if I just ate whatever I wanted silently!

I served myself of an interesting spaghetti with vegetables – still unaccustomed to how tasty the food outside of the orphanage could be, I ate with gusto, only being so careful as to make sure no one was looking to see how fiercely one fork followed the other into my mouth.

All the pasta had been devoured, but the pleasant sauce still filled the bottom of my plate – I didn’t think twice before lifting the porcelain to my mouth and turning it, drinking what was left of my meal. When I returned it to its initial position over the table, finally satisfied with how much of a pig I had proved myself to be, I noticed a great shadow standing next to me. I chocked, coughed and felt the hot blood flow up to my face!

The manager’s hard eyes weighed upon me with distant coldness and a calculating exam… He laughed a composed laugh, however, after seeing my reaction:

“I’m glad the food is to your taste! You don’t have to feel so embarrassed, little girl!” He chuckled.

I grew nervous, feeling mocked again, as his voice constantly suggested; but this time I was too ashamed to answer him.

The strange man, then, followed to the small counter, and there he took his time serving as company to his sullen subordinate. Few casual words were exchanged between them, and the same silence that had been there before he arrived didn’t take too long to reign again: It was easy to decide I didn’t want to join them – I didn’t want to be a part of the uncomfortable silence and have those strange eyes gazing unashamedly on me like they had done on the first day. The feeling was so uncomfortable I could feel myself sweating by simply recollecting it! With that thought in mind, I waited on the kitchen almost as long as they waited in silence on the next room, anxiously twisting my fingers and hoping the Polack would find something to do and distract himself with it long enough for me to pass them and return to my room unmolested…

But that didn’t happen: the two men seemed too placid to sustain any intention of moving from that spot for the next couple of hours – I eventually became aware of that and sighed, agreeing with my rarely manifested reason that if I took much longer on the kitchen’s hard seat, I would attract the attention just as efficiently as passing by them; So I courageously got up and followed to the corridor.

Two pairs of eyes turned to detect my approach. Both, apparently, equally bored, for they were too instantly caught by as subtle a movement as the ones I had produced. The old man reacted as the usual, and I had learned to expect just that: he scowled, stung deeply by my appearance. The other one, though, smiled with what looked like the polar opposite of the first’s indisposition. My memory had failed to make justice of how uncomfortable that look made me, otherwise I probably would have risked just staying in the kitchen until evening. In any case, my reaction was to quickly escape their glances.

“Jane!” The soft, sung voice of the youngest lazily manifested itself before I could disappear into the corridor “I must admit I have almost forgotten about your existence again, so quiet you are!”

I stopped and looked his way – he was sitting on a tall stool next to the wall, his elbows comfortably supported on the counter behind him and his large chest showing between the loose clothes. Once more, I couldn’t quite see his eyes.

The old man cleared his throat loudly, cutting the air that grew dense around me while the silence installed itself again – I could swear I perceived Polack’s smile falter for a second: he eyed his companion quickly, and then sighed impatiently:

“You can return to your room, if you want…” was his disappointed conclusion after what now looked like a reprimand from the old man, sadly sighing in defeat as a child who had just given away an exciting toy that promised to rescue him from boredom. “But if you want, you can also stay and talk…”

I felt my face burn, and it probably grew red as a pepper, too. I looked at the two of them – to the strange smile in that mysterious man’s face, to the rude scowl Mr. Howard directed me. Was there any doubt of how utterly unpleasant the idea of lingering in their company seemed to me?

“So, Jane?!” Polack’s smile stretched anxiously as he bent forward, the shadow of his hat falling over his face and hiding it.

I ran to my room so fast I ended up hitting my shoulders through the walls and thresholds there. I heard, on my way, the manager’s impatient sigh.

 


 

One of the few distractions I found in my more than willing seclusion was to lay on my bed and stretch my legs against the wall, pretending I was standing upside down – but that, too, only happened in sunny days, when the sunlight would invariably invade my room despite my constantly closed doors. When it rained, I liked to just cover myself and watch thought follow thought in the gloomy atmosphere reflecting the clouded sky outside. On those days, I barely felt alive at all…

The sun would set and raise again the next morning – it did so two, four… five days without failure, disproving my most intimate hopes that I wouldn’t wake up – I did so again and again, and on each day the same routine awaited me: I’d leave my room whenever I was hungry, and Mr. Howard would stop frowning at me: he had by then learned that I would return to my room as soon as I was done, and was pleased with not having to look my way or direct me a single word. Once back in my room, I would wait for the time of my next meal… Sometimes I would nap, sometimes I’d stay up and think… Whatever I did, I always made sure to leave room for depression, for she was always there, and it seemed impolite to allow myself forgetting her!

Finally, a week had passed and I was now used to the nothingness filling my days in Gloen; so much so, that I had forgotten – my numb brain efficiently ignored the essential, primitive questioning of what was it I had been hired to do, when my only task so far had been existing – one hard enough to accomplish with passion given my circumstances there, I have to say.

It was with that thought insinuating itself, scraping lightly the back of my mind, still unnoticed, that I rose one late night of broken sleep and wandered into the kitchen, scratching my eyeballs out in the vacated darkness – or so I thought it was!

I bumped into a soft, warm wall whose shadow I couldn’t distinguish from the ones around me. Hitting my head against a fuzzy wool coat, however, invoked an already familiar perfume my nerves had learned to respond to before the memory of to whom it belonged: a small, panicked fright saw me down as I staggered back, but he turned swiftly, quietly, and a pair of long-reaching arms held me from falling as lightly as if they had been only sheets moved by the wind.

Being just as quick to release me as he had been to secure my fall, the manager pushed a switch on the wall and turned on the lights in the kitchen, revealing himself with a wide awake expression:

“Oh!” he smiled, recognizing me “Good morning, Jane! You’re up early today!”

I looked back, seeking to see, beyond the entrance door, any sign of the sun coming up. If it was morning, it must be something around four or five, I thought to myself.

“How was your night of sleep, little miss?!” He called me back to his attention “Good enough so that you can talk to me, I hope?”

I blushed, not knowing how to answer him.

“And how were your dreams tonight?” He carried on asking, as untroubled as if we were having a two-sided conversation.

A peaceful yet present enthusiasm moved his smile there and expressed itself freely in his voice and intent: He was particularly sociable and optimistic, and it seems I wouldn’t get away with being silent this time.

I had little memories of my dreams from that night: Only that, once again, I thought I was home – in the orphanage – waking up from a weird dream. Dissuading my brain from such illusion took longer than usual due to the darkness, and it felt bleak to be alone. None of which I was willing to discuss with him!

Yet there he stood, expecting my answer as if he had promised himself that today he would yank a word out of me. I gave him one calculated to dismiss all the others:

“I’m still tired!”

A light of fulfilled goal did shine across his countenance for a split second, it’s true… But it disappeared just as quickly, replaced by an ill-hidden frustration. I turned him my back and started walking.

“Humph!” he breathed with a sarcastic chuckle and, with a too subtle, too silent movement to match its speed and size, his body stood between me and the threshold, an arm stretched blocking my way and half-pinning me to the wall, where I couldn’t escape his face closing in on mine:

“Back to your room again, are we?” he accused, both voice and countenance altered by a hint of impatience, but a subtle smile still stretched there, more intimidating than ever: “With that old man’s excuse, I hear that’s all you do around here!”

His eyes were clear now, too close to be missed: A deep green emerald melting and blending with shadows under heavy lids. They didn’t look mean as they shone into mine so piercingly now, but I did feel for the first time an insinuation of his authority over me – one, I could read there now, he had been reluctant to show all through our last interactions. It felt twice as intimidating, twice as painful on the pride, but twice as evoking of submission.

His hand slid down the wooden threshold; my body shrunk, fearing his touch.

“Where is that girl from day one?!” He inquired with a firm, low tone “Shouting with the most active voice I have seen in a girl your age, and all because she wanted something to do?”

His eyes narrowed accusingly, but it wasn’t fear they wrenched from me now, but rather embarrassment, and quite effectively: my cheeks glowed warm and I looked down, no longer so courageous to look him back. My subdued, depressed spirit had been spotted at last, the brave girl from day one he so professed he had liked proving herself a fake.

“You are not helping me, Jane…” He added playfully in his seriousness, and then a milder smile curled up his lips and his eyebrows dropped: he observed me with amused pity, then sympathetic compassion:

“Hey…” he softly called back my eyes “Don’t look so down, okay?” a thumb quickly brushed through my chin, lifting it “Cheer up! Find yourself something to do, anything, and you’ll see that strange depression will efface!” he added, reading me like a book, his voice being careful not to scare me upon doing so. “What do you say?”

I glanced sideways, uncomfortable, hesitant, then nodded a silent ‘okay’.

He sighed then, a mixture of pleasure and worry escaping his chest as he moved back, giving me back my personal space. Though warm, his smile now hesitated, too: An old intention had died, and he had just settled to a new one, seeming to wonder, now too late, if it had been wise. My eyebrows tensed automatically, trying to read him: Whatever he had hired me for, it still wasn’t clear – what looked clearer now was only the feeling that he himself didn’t know, and that there, moved by some foreign goodness, he had just decided to direct me an act of charity, which was to incentive me out of my room and let me do whatever.

Whether the morning had, by the end of that decision, advanced enough for Howard to leave his bed, or if he had just come attracted by the noise of our conversation I couldn’t tell, but he showed up from the shadows of the dark corridor eyeing us with strangeness.

“Ah! There he is, the scoundrel!” Polack instantly resumed his previous mocking mood “Don’t let this old man bully you Jane, I tell you! Only I can do that!”

Mr. Howard stepped into the kitchen, confused.

“Do we have a deal, then? Don’t disappoint me, dear…” he quickly inquired from me in, again, a different tone from the one he had used when we were alone. “Now go back to your room if you still want to catch some sleep before morning comes; it will be a tiring day! Good night, Jane!” He winked and smiled largely, nearly pushing me away now.

As I walked to my room, looking back from time to time to observe and wonder on what had just happened, Mr. Howard looked my way in quite the same way: this time it wasn’t anger or aversion that folded his face into a scowl, but rather surprise and curiosity, as if he tried to understand something utterly unexpected.

Chapter 01, part B

That day, it rained.

I could hear fast, numberless hard drops crashing against the roof. A blueish light invaded through the paneled doors which shook lightly, noisily in their frame as a cold breeze blew in from the corridor. What strange, stagnant hours those were! What a friendless silence surrounded me in that cold little room.

A confusing grip threatened my heart’s health – a hand could, in fact, almost be felt tearing into my breast despite the lack of wounds or noticeable cracks. The invisibility of such a constant and cold blow made me want to cry inwardly. I had felt depression before – the heaviness of its blue reign being no stranger to my stormy days in the orphanage -, but never one so afflictive, never one so submissive and so helpless, lurking behind my every thought and discouraging every little movement from happening.

All my first hours were sleepless in that room, though half of that time was spent on the narrow bed, hiding under warm covers from the cold atmosphere creeping from the walls. The fact that the previous dawn was almost entirely spent traveling in anxious vigil wasn’t enough to lull me into a long awaited sleep either: I stayed wide awake, comparing now to yesterday, and yesterday to days before that – dreading, in a dumb and not very imaginative way, the prospects for the future. Many times I thought destroying the lone orchid would slightly remedy my state of nerves… but even the little dignity I found in being a troublemaker abandoned me to the feeling of strangeness that change alone could conjure.

As evening descended, the blue gleam lighting up the panels and reflecting inside my room transformed into darkness. It was only then that I heard voices – the first sound other than my breath and my body moving through the sheets to be heard, really:

“A cold night!” he sighed: Though the voice sounded differently from when it was mocking me, math assured me it was the manager’s – Howard’s was coarse, grave and clearly distinguishable.

“I’m closing up already” – the thunder voice cracked through the corridor as the oldest apparently moved to the counter, where the metal sound of the window being rolled down filled the silence.

“Oh?! They’ve gone and defaced the Wanderer’s statue at the square again!” The manager’s voice picked up a tone of surprise, but it sounded fundamentally bored.

“Damn punks!” Mr. Howard groaned.

“Kids… I’m sure they’re simply kids!” another sigh resumed their casual conversation.

I must admit that however hard I hated the duo, the mere sound of voices attracted me out of my room. I carefully slid open the doors and walked out, seeking to end the feeling of a deaf dream that evening had inspired upon all my senses.

Stopping and standing on the corridor was close enough though – it was dark again, now partially lit by the lights in the kitchen where they talked: The Polack, as he had been introduced to me, supported his back on the wall, next to a set of descending stairs: he held open a newspaper that he read with quick eyes.

Mr. Howard sat at a small round table with his arms crossed over his chest – his eyebrows were so tense, they seemed to fall over the lens of his glasses. And though he seemed to look my way, none of them saw me. Not being noticed only added to my strangled agony.

“This town is weird!” A playful tone threatened to curl up my superior’s lip, but didn’t. Tired of how numb I felt and everyone else around me seemed, I walked brave two steps ahead.

“You!” The old man was the first to notice my movement. It wasn’t a reproach he had for me though, he rather seemed to struggle to remember my name.

“Oh?!” Polack looked up from his newspaper and his eyes went wide with surprise, as if he didn’t even remember I was supposed to be there. “Jane! …isn’t it?” He declared, first with certainty, and then faltering, again, caught in the confusion of forgetting about my existence.

“I have to go to the bathroom!” I uttered, now in a hurry to escape both their staggered glares.

“Hmm. Of course you do!” Polack’s eyes softened, taking me in as he smiled. Something like sympathy, something like pity played about them now.

I had by then learned that my face assumed a special kind of angry frown before such displays of unwanted compassion people used to direct me. I knew it did so because of the reaction that always followed in their eyes, wrenched by me: I always saw it when pity turned to scorn, to aversion, and sometimes even to fear. Though it never did me any good to earn those feelings, I eventually learned to prefer them over pity – being hated, so judged my pride, placed me at a better rank.

His eyes, however, reacted differently: they squinted with that sting of antipathy, and at first seemed to quite deem me as a little blunt animal deserving only of scorn … but the insult ultimately thrilled him, and he laughed to himself, teased. I felt myself forced to look away, scared of whatever thought crossed his mind there, for the reflection his face showed was plain dark!

“Aren’t we the worst hosts, Mr. Howard? Let her pass! The bathroom is right there, dear…” he alleviated, lazily pointing to a door behind Mr. Howard, squeezed between a small oven, a sink and wooden cabinets matching the ones in the counter room.

They exchanged no other words with each other while I was in there, and when I returned to the kitchen, the manager awaited with a smile and a gentler, more subtle form of the interest he had shown in the morning. Mr. Howard seemed just as tense in my presence, looking to the other side as I passed him and trying to ignore me as best as he could.

“Well…” Polack sighed, scratching the loose, messy locks of his hair and contemplating me with a slightly lost look “What to do with you now? I suppose you do know…” he hesitated, apparently wary of hurting me with the truth “…that you won’t be returning to the orphanage tonight, right?”

I looked away, placing my eyes as far from his as I could, and clenched my fists:

“Yes.”

“…For a while, actually.” He added, smiling cautiously.

I sighed.

“What a dreary place, huh?! Simply delivering you to me like that… And all for what? Thirty percent of an already poor enough salary?!” He chuckled, his voice assuming a heavier tone “Well! I’m glad I had parents! So what if they liked to hit me every now and then? Here, honey… don’t look so sad…” He advanced, capturing my face with gentle fingers and turning it so I looked into his eyes: “If you can behave like a good girl, and keep from arguing with this dirty old man, I promise to pay you some good changes… you’d only have to keep this a secret from the orphanage, okay? It would characterize what they call a breach of contract.”

My eyes grew heavy, welling in the warm feeling his hand left in my skin and the persistent concern in his face as he smiled at me. Mr. Howard watched us silently, carefully examining the scene: his hardened face, too, had melted. And why was I so deserving of all that? What had I done to earn it? Nothing but being an orphan! I felt the color return to my face, burning my cheeks intensely! I yanked myself from his fingers, and held back the urge to spit in his face: Though I wanted to, something about his gentleness and the relaxed freedom with which he interacted with me kept me from it: It felt like he could easily strike me with a slap if I pissed him off, without remorse or fear of a rightful punishment to stop him – his carefree eyes said he was used to following only his own rules.

But my anger had always been too explosive to be so easily reasoned with – I spit in words, since I couldn’t offend him in any other way:

 “I want nothing from you!”

“Angry kid…” He smiled as his eyes narrowed “I decidedly like her, Mr. Howard!” And, after looking at his friend to consult his expression, he returned again to me: “Well, I won’t give you anything, Miss Jane, if that is your wish! Even if you beg me for a kiss! I’ll let you know that girls do so eventually… Tell her again, Howard!”

The old man rolled his eyes.

 “Envy alone silences him, don’t let the villain fool you!” The Polack retorted, moving his head from one side to the other, disapprovingly.

I could appreciate his attempt at humor was only meant to help me relax and make being in his presence less unnerving… but it didn’t work.

“No smiles? You are off to bed then, Miss Jane!” He sighed, standing more erect “I believe you have already successfully installed yourself there, so I don’t need to show you around now, do I? And don’t tell me you can’t sleep alone…”

I furrowed my eyebrows. He laughed.

“In any case, have a good night of sleep! Call Mr. Howard here, if you need anything…” He offered the man an ironic glance.

Mr. Howard grimaced, unwilling.

As I walked back to my room, they observed me. When I stopped before the doors, closing them, Polack smiled. He was handsome, I confessed to myself now with little struggle, for it was of no consequence… Or, rather, of a negative one:

Though I had known very few personalities out of the orphanage – though I knew nothing of the world outside it, really – something very deep and very primitive alerted me against that man ­– especially against his good looks. It felt as if its presence excused or altogether prevented the development of other fundamental qualities that turn a person into a decent, harmless one – such as morals, scruples and humanity. I could not bring myself to interpret his smiles and his occasional gentleness as anything other than intimate amusement and deceit. The annoyance his socializing, intruding ways inspired me only half covered the fear those languid eyes inflicted when they shone as lightly as they did now. I calmly retreated, happy to be once more hidden in that silent room’s seclusion.


My first night of sleep there felt crude, lonely and cold, in spite of the heavy covers. And though I was safe, though I was locked away in my own lonely room, there was no space in my heart for gratefulness. Heavy drowsiness didn’t take long to find me however, and I must have passed out from exhaustion rather than fallen asleep – at least then thoughts didn’t have too much spare time to torture me.

And whether it was a joke or not my superior’s preoccupation over my ability to sleep alone, it seems he did come into my room in the middle of the night: I was too far gone in my sleep to properly register the feat, but I thought I had opened my eyes at some point and witnessed a slender shadow, half-real and half-dream, that quite resembled him. It was crouched next to the panels, over my suitcase, and it smiled at me – little surprised or troubled by the fact that I saw him there – before carrying away my belongings.

They were all back in the morning though – and my clothes inside the suitcase as neatly folded as when I had packed them. Nothing seemed to be missing, except for, maybe, a small pocket knife that I wasn’t entirely sure if I had brought with me or not.

Could it be that his own suggestions of me being dangerous made him wary? …I couldn’t picture that sarcastic face feeling fear though, however little I knew its beholder.

 

Chapter 01, part A

Gloen

I clenched my fists tighter still, nervousness alone making it possible. Once more I lifted my finger, and once more I saw myself hesitate before the round, white button of the bell standing out against the dark doorframe. A sigh followed – My lungs ached when filled with the chilly air the morning swayed – and I allowed my hand to cowardly retreat again, this time being so reasonable as to swear it would be the last.

Making good use of my courage’s lag, I stopped to carefully contemplate my surroundings – I had done so from inside the cab before, but now that I was on the other side of the tinted windows, the task seemed more promising, both because everything looked clearer and because it would grant me more time do linger on my cowardice: That particular day in my life was an example of a long and grey dawning, barely distinguishable from night. A light haze stalked the asphalt, adding to the coldness of the empty air and area.

The houses around me were elegant and small, spreading numerously across the quiet hill. They mostly followed a pattern of narrow space separating one from the other; of bushes and petite, trimmed trees adorning the limited area between sidewalk and house; of two or three steps leading into a welcoming entrance door; and walls painted in soft colors. My first thought upon examining it was that I had never been to such a pretty place… But, actually, I had never been to many places other than the orphanage – not in the last ten years at least, but anything that happened before then was too lost into my foggy memory to be so casually recollected for the sake of comparison.

The conclusion such digressing thoughts reached was that I liked that hill. I liked the way that mysterious city looked, with its small houses and trees hiding the crude mountains stretching beyond, with quietness and mist blending under the purple sky, with little “welcome” rugs scattered here and there before the doors…

…But that didn’t make things easier!

Learning I liked the city of Gloen didn’t help me summon the courage needed to ring the bell and solicit entrance. If there was a trace of fascinated smile upon my face, it came undone as I returned to the matter at hand, sinking again into the initial apprehension. After all, regardless of how pleasant the neighborhood looked like to me, I couldn’t just stand outside all morning! The taxi had left almost before I had had time to close the door from which I jumped out, so I was completely, utterly alone! I had to go in!

I sighed my last sigh, and invested in my last attempt, too: I squeezed the button before I had time to think – I heard the late thoughts of regret stir my mind, simultaneously with the vibrating buzz that echoed through the morning, scattering the silence and intimidating me.

I had come straight from the girls’ institution “Saint Mary of Grace” – according to the driver, that was some 30 miles away from my current position, the silent city named Gloen.

My mother – as I remembered her – was a daring, very decided sort of person: She took me out on a stroll on a certain April day and, with a small slap to the back of the head that didn’t hurt, she told me to “take off”. The spontaneity of her demeanor must have left a strong impression on me, for I promptly obeyed, and wondered the neighborhood she had left me in for a few adventurous – happy, even – hours. I eventually found my way into an abandoned train station, and as soon as I started to enjoy the freedom of doing whatever I wanted, I got captured and taken by force to the old orphanage.

My first two years in St. Mary of Grace marked infancy as a grey time, with too many tasks and too little sleep; too many saints and too little solace: As rigid as any catholic institution can be, the orphanage was governed with an iron fist by the old Mrs. Margott, the principal – a woman that managed to represented a far more dreaded authority on the interns than all the ideas of God, the devil and hell the nuns might transmit. I particularly remember those years as a time of heavy bibles carried under my thin arm and Sunday mornings spent in fasting upon the cold church bench. Now the humid, vaporous scent of dawning sent me back to those days in a not so pleasant recollection.

Mrs. Margott, after all, tried with such ardor to turn her girls into true examples of saint figurines, that she must have died out of so much working – or so much failing, as far as I was concerned! – Thus she left her precious institution under the commands of her eldest daughter, a woman that couldn’t care less about continuing her mother’s legacy.

The young Margott daughter – also known as Miss Isabel – chose only one department of the orphanage upon which to pour all her zeal: The Treasury, of course! She hated the idea of taking money from her own finite fortune – the one she had inherited, and had been spending since then, without adding much to it – to supply the multiple needs of the orphanage. She started by firing half of the teachers – deciding 10 was more than plenty for 500 interns, which left major gaps of free time in our otherwise exhilarating schedule, and little to no obligation at all with the parochial duties.

Her second innovating strategy to cut down the expenses a mansion filled with girls generated was to implement a new system of contribution and symbiosis: In their last year at the orphanage, seventeen year old girls would assume small, part-time jobs throughout the town, preferably in one of the many establishments serving the orphanage, in order to generate discounts and benefits to the institution. Apart from that, the “fair” portion of about 30% of a girl’s payment should be delivered to the Principal as a way of “paying back for all the orphanage had provided them so far”.

It was around that time – the time of the changes, the gaps and the new system – that I ended up discovering the pleasures of setting free my inner monster: I watched my insurgency grow and burn freely, no longer bound by the chains of exhaustion all those lessons and all those tasks imposed – and though I smiled upon remembering the small amusements I entertained myself with, such as setting fire to curtains, clogging toilets with paper and organizing window-shattering tournaments on the grounds, the consequence of such ill-behaving finally caught up to me, on that chilly hill:

After all, if it wasn’t for the terrible fame – the one I took so much pride in -, if it wasn’t for my honorific titles of incorrigible, beyond hope and devilish… Alas, if it wasn’t for all of it, I wouldn’t be in that distant city, before a stranger’s door without knowing exactly what awaited me inside! I would get a “normal” occupation at a nearby small business, like all the other girls; but instead I got pushed into a deal that had never been made before in the orphanage, and one the nuns would never have allowed, if it weren’t for all the hatred I had conquered in their chaste little hearts: The city of Gloen happened to be too far away, too inaccessible, too cold! Unlike the other girls that worked half-shifts, I wouldn’t return to the orphanage every night. My lodging would have to be arranged right there at the working site, if it was in my employer’s interest to keep me. For a frightening, incomprehensible reason, my superiors’ decided it was worth to deal with all the trouble such contract imposed on them, and here I was.

Of course the stories were many! What good could come out of naïve, secluded seventeen year olds going into the world for the first time, without much in the form of preparation? The memory was unfortunate: it made my heart race again, trying to climb my throat in a silent and poorly contained despair: It was normal for girls to turn out pregnant, tricked into adulthood by devilish bosses, seduced by colleagues or even store customers. Most of the girls got married before the end of the contract, with little knowledge as to what they were doing, sometimes even without the freedom of choice. The word “Abuse” would be heard every now and then in those conversations… a word that cast a bitter taste into my mouth, a repulsion in my stomach and a distinct weakness at the knees.

It wasn’t easy to be the incarnated image of pristine innocence and vulnerability that a catholic orphanage girl had. Unaware or not, Miss Isabel turned Saint Mary of Grace into a house for men to prey on their own innocent little girls.

And there I was, completely powerless: at the mercy of the unknown, without a clue as to what sort of predator was the inhabitant of that enclosed den into which I now solicited entrance; no knowledge of how to fight him blessed me either, and, worst of all, no perspective of escaping him by the end of that day. The back of my neck sweated profusely in spite of the low temperature.

All I knew – all that repeated itself nervously through my mind – was that I didn’t want to be touched. I didn’t want to be “abused”.

“I don’t want to!” – I hurriedly whispered to myself in an intimate plea as I noticed the door moving.

The place I stood before was a small house – supposedly a restaurant – of which no one in the orphanage had ever heard. A verification must have taken place before I was sent: “I think it’s oriental food they sell… Or Mexican… Maybe Thai!” was the evasive answer the nun gave me when I inquired information.

No Asian man answered me though – or Thai, or Mexican, as far as I knew! A black man opened the door: he was big, large and muscular; something about the way he stood before me hinted the fact that he was in his sixties, but nothing else: his facial expression and appearance were undistinguishable due to the darkness outside and the lack of illumination inside.

“Who are you?!!” A grave tone asked after impatiently surveying me with squinted eyes.

“I’m Jane!” I sharply replied, meeting his hostility with my own, as I had learned to do.

“Humph! Come on in!” He grumbled against his will, turning his back to me and walking inside through a small and dark corridor.

I breathed before following him – something I had forgotten to do for the last few seconds.

Once I was positioned inside, the man stopped halfway through the corridor and slid a door on a thin, wooden panel that composed the right wall, revealing what seemed to be a small and cozy living room.

I stretched my neck inside and examined it with curiosity: A low, small wooden table stood at the center, with a few cushions of violet tones surrounding it; a warm, greyish carpet covered the floor; a lone orchid flower hung from an arched sapling at the corner of the room, watching the sleep of a narrow, improvised bed at the opposite wall.

The sound of the front door slamming against the frame scared me out of the intimidating contemplation I had assumed upon examining my new abode. Looking behind myself, I saw the man turn the lock and once again cross the dark corridor – he wore a pair of small round glasses that reflected I don’t know what light as he approached, shining sharply. I involuntarily assumed two steps into the room and out of his way, fearing he might stomp me if I didn’t.

“The manager is not up yet.” the man growled before disappearing into another section of the house.  He didn’t look the least inclined to explain anything to me, but was rather forced to do so by my unyielding stare.

“You mean you’re not my superior?!” I inquired, slightly shocked that there was still someone else I had to meet.

His eyes flashed my way quickly and he hesitated, as if in doubt. It seemed, simply, that he didn’t want to have to tell me a single word, and had now to find the most effective way to ignore me:

“Yes, yes… your superior!” – clarified his evasive maneuver.

“Who is he?!” I followed him briefly, stepping out of the orchid room.

“Stay in there and you will meet him in the morning, in a pleasant way!” he turned, making sure to check my march in the process “Make noise, and you will meet him now, but you won’t like him…”

The blunt answer fell on my chest like a blow, making my heart give a quick race and then seem to stop beating: it felt to me at the time that the strange man standing before me, clearly making an effort to intimate me into invisibility, only confirmed my fears and heightened my apprehension.

I walked back into the room, my legs ready to start shaking. I must have collapsed upon the cushions rather than decided to sit down. Unaware or insensitive to my expression of horror, the man simply left me, treading cautiously through the floor and disappearing into the dark. I stayed behind, wishing, with a distant, stagnant eye, that I could return to the orphanage and to its many tasks.


I had never left the walls of Saint Mary of Grace before. And though I had always been considered something like a wild, rabid animal inside, I now found that I had lived my life in a pet’s captivity: I had been brave in those days, courageous, fierce, solid… but now, with my knees folded upon the warm cushions, in a small room with a great sliding door, I could hardly perform my most natural task of breathing normally. I didn’t want to be there! I didn’t want to meet the manager!

“Maybe it’s not as they say” – I tried comforting my sore pride, which shrunk quietly, scared of waking up such man – “Maybe it’s not a rule, a terrible and irremediable prospect that every St. Mary’s girl would be desired by her superior, in case of wandering off the institution’s wall. And even if he happened to desire me, that didn’t necessarily mean I’d have to give in to his wishes… Or that I would be forced to if I didn’t.

But every perspective pointing out to those softer options I saw melt and dissolve under that phrase, and therein lay my torment: Make noise, and you will meet him now, but you won’t like him. What a despicable… – I groaned, moaning slightly out of fear and cold – what an awful person he must be!

And what was there to say about the man that had answered the door? He clearly despised me! Perhaps too much to even try to cause me any harm, which was good: I would always prefer that to the accentuated interest men in Auchstead felt for the orphanage girls. Maybe this place was different – this Gloen city. Maybe I was just unpleasant to the eyes: I didn’t have the innocent facial expressions my peers liked to show, but rather an angry one, always scowled into deep wrinkles of unrequited irritation, paired with a tight fist expecting a fight.

“Well, I must look adorable this very instant!” I thought to myself in ironic despise “…half-crying, half-panicking like a little kid, only because I might end up having sex with the restaurant’s manager. What was the big deal in that anyway?” – I whispered, using the last resource at hand to try and calm my desperate heart. It shouldn’t be a big deal… Everyone had it at some point in their lives, right? Would the lack of interest really make such a big difference? …Would the lack of consent?

It turned out I wasn’t as good at denial and fooling myself as I thought –  my stomach was smart, got the best of me: I closed my mouth with my palm, inflated my cheeks and held it in. One second longer of that thought, and I would have thrown up!

 

A small, fading ray of light could now be perceived, invading through a crack between the doors that kept me safely isolated inside that room. I got up, slid them just enough to be able to peep through: I could see the old man lighting up a set of paper lanterns on the next room, making it brighter. Next to the entrance door there was an open window to the outside; a white wooden board positioned upon the sill transformed the opening into a counter. A rusty, small roll-up door awaited halfway up on the window, the man having probably chosen to leave it that way to avoid any customers for the time being. Though I had seen very little of that house, it was easy to decide the establishment was a small one.

Having finished lighting up the room, the old man picked up an apron from a wooden cabinet – counter, cabinets and two high stools were all that room possessed. After putting it on, he picked a hay broom from the corner and started sweeping the floor. As he turned and moved, diligently performing this task, I examined his now visible expression: It was hard alright, I wouldn’t have expected anything else… but something about it greatly challenged the hostility with which he received me. He reminded me of a man – one of the few I had met throughout my life; one to whom girls used to babble away weekly because – most of the times – they were forced to; to whom our weirdest thoughts had to be told in order to earn a place in the land of tomorrow; I never did tell him much though: The Priest.

Though he was hard and often rude, even for me – the most excitable spirit there – it was hard to hold for him any hatred. I didn’t like him, but I didn’t necessarily dislike either – maybe because he was old and placid, maybe because he always looked like he was being tortured by thoughts. I remember thinking I wanted no heart of a saint: they were too easily broken by an act of wickedness, however small it was. The old man before me looked angry, moody and antisocial… but, somehow, I couldn’t help but think he was the same. Perhaps he was being tortured, too.

Finding some of my lost courage, I assumed a few steps out of the room… I promptly interrupted them upon receiving a hard glare from the man, but he didn’t insist on it: quickly his eyes were lowered back to his work, reinvesting in ignoring me.  Taking that as a much wanted break, I snuck into the kitchen, looking around myself and assimilating the position of the cabinets with a bored curiosity.

I supported myself against a wall and crossed my arms upon my chest, declaring a truce to the conflict between me and my harmless colleague – I took the liberty to judge him so. The act only wrenched a heavy sigh from the sullen man however, and when I thought he would say a word to send me away, validating my existence in the process, all he did was drop the instrument back to its initial position and return to the window, leaning on the counter with his back perfectly turned to me.

I turned away, too, now spited by his rejection. My fingers distracted themselves with picking up the broom. I observed it, turned it, then imitated the man’s movement through the floor, almost studying how it worked…

“What?! Give me that, you…!” Noticing my curiosity, he turned quickly, his voice thundering in a rage that had been brooding there since before I picked the object of his jealousy “Give it back to me at once! Didn’t I order you to stay quiet?!”

“I am quiet!” I protested, walking back and meeting for the first time a mix between irritation and fear.

“Give it back and return to your room right now!” He yelled, stretching a long arm and seizing the broom’s handle.

I squeezed it tighter between my fingers, growing just as defensive over it.

“What’s so wrong in doing what I’m doing?!” I questioned nervously “Didn’t I come here to work? Shouldn’t this be my job, too?!!”

“Nonsense!” the man’s coarse voice thundered again, this time too close to my ears “You won’t do anything until the Polack sees you, now give me that!”

My eyes grew wide with surprise, and in this distraction I ended up allowing the broom to be yanked out of my hands.

“The Polack?” I repeated in an apprehensive thought that swirled around the growing mystery of my torturer’s identity, now that it had been mentioned.

“Yes, the Polack!” he retorted impatiently, then clarified, having remembered the word I used previously: “Your superior, girl! Now go back to your spot until he comes up and decides what he’ll do with you.”

If I had almost given in, by the end of that sentence I decided to invest with renewed efforts: I jumped at him, seizing the broom’s handle again, and now we both held it inside four hands, pulling it like dogs.

“What is it this time?!!!”

“Let me do it! Let me do it!!” I defended vehemently, almost desperately “This is my job!”

“I already told you, dammit!” he growled, holding my shoulder in one hand and pushing it back, while the other still tried to retrieve the object “You don’t have any job!”

“But maybe if I do it…” I pleaded “then maybe this can be mine! Maybe if I’m already busy with something, I won’t have to see the manager…”

“What about the manager?” A third voice resounded through the empty house in sleepy calmness – it was uttered in a low, soft tone; one that could easily have passed unheard, lost inside our argument… but it still had the property of immediately silencing the two of us.

I first sought the answer in the old man’s eyes before gathering the courage to look back: they said “Apprehension”, and then I knew the voice belonged to the manager…

I turned.

“This… This weird creature, Pole! Came straight from the night and set her mind on stealing the broom!”

I watched him emerge from the shadows of the back of the house in a languid pace: It was a tall and slender silhouette, raising a long-fingered hand towards the mouth, yawning serenely.

“You never know what to expect!” he started, lazily passing by me and picking up a small coffee bag from the upper cabinet “…they want brooms now, is that it?!” a subtle laugh seemed to have shaken him.

“They?” The old man inquired, confused.

They: The delinquents! Tell me, dear: is it something you plan on using as an escape vehicle in a bank robbery or something? – he turned around and looked at me. It was only then that I caught a decent glimpse of his face:

He wore a borsalino hat, beige, from where unkempt locks of a thin blonde hair escaped, falling in a long fringe over his eyes and ears. His eyes were poorly visible under the shadow of the hat’s lap, but I could still tell their color: dark green and shiny. His face was long, framed by a bony jaw, and a mouth of full and stretched lips smiled at me. The pause I was forced into by contemplation struck him as no surprise: he was used to it. At last, the whole formed a beautiful-looking set: he was a handsome man… Somehow, his appearance only added to my apprehension. Moved by such thought, I eyed him back, angry and fearful.

“Delinquent?!” The old man jumped “Is that what you are?! I thought she was the orphanage girl! Otherwise I never would have let her in!” By the end of that shocked utterance, the man quickly and brutally pulled me by the collar of my shirt.

“Let me go!” I screamed in terror as he tried to pull me out.

The blonde and languid man started laughing of the pandemonium he himself had raised, apparently on purpose, and no distant sign of moral rushed him into telling his subordinate to let me go. On the contrary, he seemed inclined to sitting down and watching for as long as it lasted.

Luckily for me, the distraction eventually bore him, and he sighed, pronouncing a calm “leave her, leave her…”.

I adjusted my clothes, nervously scowling at the faces around me.

“So this is the orphanage girl?” He explained to himself, picking his body up from the corner and walking up to me.

The languid man arched forward to look me closer: he was terribly tall, and though his figure looked slender and stretched, he had large shoulders, followed by a chest of similar proportions. Disagreeing with this physical evidence of height, strength and health, his skin was a pale white. “She’s cuter than I expected her to be… Much shorter, too!” was his indifferent conclusion.

The strange smile and bored eyes with which I was examined intimated me!

“And… What an angry child!” He laughed, standing erect before me once more “Do you see how she looks at me, Mr. Howard? Darling, leave those eyes behind: You’ll only conquer enemies with them!”

“Screw you!” The answer escaped my lips in a panicked frenzy.

Before I had the time to properly regret the dangerous insult against a stranger, in a potentially enemy territory, he started laughing, much too amused by my hostile demonstration:

“And you thought she would be a sweet, innocent church girl, you old fool! We have a dangerous one right here!” he carried on laughing, looking at his friend.

I frowned, my face starting to burn in rage, vexation and shame for being so freely mocked. Breathing, too, became unnatural… but all that growing fury effaced when his long, cool fingers casually seized my chin, without ceremony, lifting my view to his. He crouched down, lowering his face as close to mine as possible, and smiled in a strange contemplation of my physiognomy.

His eyes piercing into mine paralyzed me for an instant: they were tranquil in a scary way, confident… Like a predator more than used to dealing with such a type of prey. I lowered my eyes as an answer: it was too unbearable!

He wore, apart from black silky pants, a dark green robe of the same textile – the sash, tied around the lowest part of his waist, was a little too lose, resulting in a cleavage that fell all the way to his abdomen. The naked, pale chest showed itself, and this small spectacle of nudity was enough to scare me back into his eyes, where I hoped I wouldn’t show how much I feared him then.

…But my body must have trembled, or my eyes faltered. Some sort of sign I must have given, for his eyes narrowed and he smiled, satisfied. Having found whatever he sought in me, he let go, standing up again.

“I like her!” he sighed, concluding with a calm smile.

“Pole!” The old man reproached, transmitting, in his pitch alone, some serious message I didn’t detect.

“Why, I’m just having some fun, my old man! There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?” The manager sounded slightly annoyed, but carried on smiling, even more amusedly so when his eyes returned to me: “Come on little girl, do as I do, and not as Mr. Howard, absolutely! How do you think business around here goes with this moody bruiser walking around? Not good, not good at all, I tell you! Tsk Tsk!” and he turned his back, walking around through the kitchen and smiling at his own staging while he attempted to look serious and worried. “But we get by here…” he turned back to me, my body automatically retreating in response “…miisssss…

The word was dragged through the air, waiting for my answer.

“Jane.” I moaned.

“Jane, hmm?” His hand caressed his chin, moving the small, yellow beard stubs growing there “A pretty name… I like how it sounds!” was his most recent conclusion. “Well, see here, Jane: Rule number one is that you’ll never wake the Polack up, as my friend has probably told you…”

My muscles tightened – was it an imminent punishment what that scary smile conveyed?

“I still can’t believe it!” he groaned “The two of you making a fuss so early in the morning, fighting to see who would clean the place! Oh…” The serious face he feigned came undone, and a short smile stretched there “Forgive-me Jane, It was merely a joke: Don’t look so grave! Do you see how the color has escaped her face, Mr. Howard?” he mocked on.

“It escaped because she’s a shameless one!” The old man gnarled mercilessly, still angry at me “And you shouldn’t incentive her so much!”

“Well, Shameless Jane…” Polack’s scary eyes turned back to me “You’re gonna need to call me something, won’t you? I am popularly known as Polack, Polish, Pole… I-Swear-I’ll-Kill-You-Devil – some customers insist on calling me so!” he clarified “Sexy-Young-Manager to the most intimate… Uh… I mean, the ladies! God knows they love me! Tell her, Howard…

“You wish, Polack!” He replied in an inpatient tone.

“Dirty old man… I don’t know why I don’t fire you!”

Said man rolled his eyes in disdain.

“Well, pick one, Jane! You can call me whichever you choose, but I warn you: I’m the only one who can call old Howard here a dirty old man, are we clear?”

I looked at both of them, confusedly frightened.

“What’s it gonna be?!” he rushed with a large and confident smile.

‘I-Swear-I’ll-Kill-You’, I thought to myself only, but my eyes apparently made it visible:

“All but that one you’re thinking about! After all, I don’t owe you anything… Or do I?” he cleared his throat “Tell me how much, little girl, and I’ll pay up…”

“Hmm…” I moaned, made embarrassed and overwhelmed by that excess of interaction.

“Howard, my friend…” he paced back with a suddenly stressed expression weighing down his smooth features “Help me out here! I tried my best ones, and I can’t make her laugh!”

“You don’t have to make her laugh! In fact, you don’t have to say anything, just leave the kid alone! Go girl, back to your room! Can’t you see you’re only scaring her?!”

“Scaring her?! I should scare you, you buzzkill, for talking to me in such a manner in front of the subordinate! Sometimes I forget who is who in this place… But tell me, little Jane – can I call you so? – What is the orphanage you came from like? Is it true the older girls pee on the young ones’ beds? Did you have many friends?

Again, the excess overwhelmed me. The questions were too many, too  many words were needed to answer them. My brain couldn’t think, split between the two strange figures in front of me.

Polack’s eyebrows softened, dropping, and a small amused chuckle he tried to hide from me parted his lips:

“Can you at least tell me how old you are?” His voice, too, came out softly, being careful not to scare me.

“Seventeen.” I scowled.

“’Seventeen, Mr. Polack!’ would have said a decent subordinate, shrinking with embarrassment inside her uniform… But it isn’t shyness what makes you so quiet, is it? Angry little one…” he mocked “Well, I’m turning thirty in only a few months, can you believe that? Feel free to use that information as you like, and perhaps even devise what you’ll want to give me then.”

I saw Mr. Howard’s face twitching, his muscles tensing into a hurtful grimace. Polack’s face remained as calm as they had been before, showing no sign of the gravity moving the other. Whatever was the insinuation behind that suggestion, one thing was as sure as the blood rushing to my face: I knew what I wouldn’t want to give!

“Come on, smile… You’re not in the orphanage anymore, doesn’t that make you happy?!” His grin stretched, almost saint-like: the full, pink lips standing out against the pale skin, the sharp eyes peering intensely into mine… everything contributed to a very unpleasant first impression. “I won’t allow that grimace here, in my business…” his voice again assumed a softer tone. A long and pale finger poked my chin up “You’re going to scare away the customers.”

I suppose he expected me to comply to his recommendation, for he lingered, smiling at me in a strange and expectant way. That was probably something like his first order, to both test my obedience and stablish himself as my superior, thus demanding respect in spite of his earlier demonstration of goofiness. The latter, his hard eyes now showed me, was only meant to make me feel more comfortable… to win me as a friendly ally, it seemed, and dispense having to use whatever he was hiding behind his sardonic expression. It wouldn’t do, though: for the life of me, I couldn’t smile for him.

“Well…” he sighed, seemingly tired, moving his eyes away, and then his body “Expect no clients today, Mr. Howard, and hide the swords, too…” he walked past his companion, stopping to cast me a last sideways glance and a mysterious, slightly annoyed smile “There will be blood today if you don’t!”

And just as calmly as he had come, he returned to the shadows by the end of the corridor. Mr. Howard’s hardened, angry eyes fiercely returned to me, and proceeded to measuring my size, possibly trying to calculate my physical strength, unnerved by the threat his superior suggested.

…Or should I say “our” superior? I clenched my fists, and couldn’t keep my lip from shaking a bit, from tensing in nervous agitation.

Mr. Howard didn’t like how much my appearance agreed with what the devilish man advocated. He picked the broom from the wall again, this time as cautiously and as nervously as if he was about to sweep out a dangerous snake with it:

I work…” his voice shook “You disappear!”

I eyed him back with the same passion burning me, now in declared affront.

“GO!” He pursued, stomping forward “Back to your room and out of my sight!”

I vanished behind the sliding doors.

“…Bird of ill omen!” He muttered to himself, when alone.