CHAPTER THREE: The Ship
It was four days before Christmas. This meant almost nothing to the inhabitants of Out-Shift, including Aidan, but while he was busy preparing to meet the mystery that called itself Sir Hugo, there were two people, not all that far away, to whom the day meant much more. They were waiting in a shop, keeping out of the weather and keeping an eye on the people who came and went. They were both alive, and one of them—the girl—was having a birthday today.
Lori was turning nineteen in the middle of a blizzard in a strange part of England which she had never seen, with a man she hadn’t seen since she was five, while waiting for another man whom she had never met. She felt a dull pang of guilt as she stirred her coffee. She had left behind an aunt and three cousins who had begged her not to go. They had taken her in with open arms, looked after her ever since she was five, and given her every opportunity they could. She was all too aware that this was a poor way to repay them, but it had to be done.
As kind as they had been, they had not been listening. Even the police had written her off. Only the brown-haired man sitting across from her had bothered to listen, and even that had been tinged with reluctance. He was her god-father, and the way his face was drawn into grim lines betrayed him; he was having second thoughts about bringing her here.
“Foxe,” Lori said. His first name had never been important; she had always been taught to call him ‘Foxe’ or ‘Uncle Foxe.’ After she had gone to live with her aunt, he had vanished out of her life apart from the occasional letter or email. They had never discussed the one thing she had always wanted to understand—her father’s death. It had sat on her young mind like an anchor, and she had begged him to tell her what he knew. It had taken her running away from home and showing up on his doorstep to get him to cooperate.
He looked up and she cleared her throat, determined not to seem apologetic about the situation. “Do you think he’ll be here?”
Foxe shrugged, his gloved hands clamped firmly around his cup of half-finished tea. “Honestly, it would be surprising.”
“But we have a decent chance, right? I mean, he’s been seen here every other day for the past three weeks.”
“We wouldn’t be here if we didn’t have a decent chance.”
“So why do you look so pissed?”
“Are, too. What’s wrong?”
He sighed and took off the gloves, letting the warmth of the cup seep into his bare skin. “Lori, what do you expect to happen if we do find him?”
“I expect you to arrest him.”
Foxe shook his head. “Seattle police don’t exactly have jurisdiction in England.”
“So they’ll extradite him or whatever.”
“I don’t think you’ve thought this through.”
She mimicked his shrug. “Well, you’re the responsible adult who brought me here.”
The regret on his face deepened and she felt bad for a moment. But only a moment. That was part of what nobody understood; she didn’t need to be sheltered. People only ever worried about her because they couldn’t handle the idea of death or danger for her. Her aunt was a great woman and plenty strong in her own right, but she had never looked at death quite like Lori—had never seen it up close. It scared her, and so she assumed that Lori must be scared, too. Foxe evidently felt the same, although he ought to have known better. Death was a monster that followed you in the dark. It made noises to frighten you, scraping its nails along the alley walls and laughing under its breath until you were frantic. But when you finally saw it…it wasn’t terrifying at all. Just an empty cloak in the night—all form and no substance.
Lori had done her time in nightmares. She had spent years reliving her brush with death—seen it every time she closed her eyes. Now she was ready to do something about it. Foxe must have understood that on some level, or else he would not have brought her here when she had asked. Either that, or his guilt was worse than hers.
It ought to be, she thought with no small amount of bitterness. Her most vibrant memory—the one which had plagued her for years—didn’t paint him in a favorable light. She could see him in his police uniform, sprawled on their couch next to her father, high as a kite on the day everything ended. She could see herself, all missing teeth and fuzzy braids, viewing the half-present presence of her father and god-father as normal.
“Daddy,” she called through their fog, “we only have one piece of bread.”
“So have an…a…you know,” her father struggled. “Open sandwich.”
“Open-faced,” Foxe said helpfully.
“That’s the one.”
Lori finished making her sad sandwich and put it on a paper napkin for a plate. She hopped up on the couch next to her father, her legs dangling off the cushions. She was already tall for her age, long and lanky and not at all like him. He draped an arm around her and asked for a bite of the sandwich, which she gave him.
“So like I was saying,” Foxe yawned, “I can’t cover your rent this month. In fact, I’m going to need the last three checks you owe me. As soon as possible. As in, now.”
“Tonight was supposed to be a good night, Foxe,” her father complained.
“You said that last week. Every night can’t be a good night.”
“Sure it can.” He raised a half-empty glass to him and drank, but Foxe’s eyes were beginning to look a little clearer than usual and he only sighed.
“I’m in pretty bad trouble. I need what you owe me.”
He set the glass down and sank back into the couch. The arm around Lori tightened a bit. “I’m working on it.”
“Yeah? Did you talk to that guy I sent to see you? The man from England?”
Her father nodded and ran a sleeve across his mouth. “With the weird face? Yeah. He liked what he saw. I think he’s going to buy some of my paintings.”
“Well, he’d better buy them soon.”
Lori couldn’t remember much of the conversation from there—only that it had gone on and on and gotten louder and louder until she had been yelled at and told to go to her room. She had made it as far as the hallway before Foxe had left, slamming the door shut behind him. Her father hadn’t come to tuck her in that night.
She had slept for a while, a few hours maybe, but her dreams were interrupted by a strangeness. Even today, years later, she couldn’t explain what had woken her. It wasn’t the light, or the smell—just a feeling. It drew her out of bed and into the living room, which was burning. Everything was washed in bright orange flames and the stench of crumbling furniture and canvases.
“Daddy!” Her scream went unanswered. She ran to the kitchen, her bare feet sweating against the tiles. He wasn’t there. He wasn’t anywhere. Hers was the only bedroom in the apartment; he usually took the couch.
Shielding her eyes, she coughed her way back into the living room and squinted through the flame and smoke. The couch was an island of fire and on it was a dark shape wreathed in the stench of burning flesh. Her final scream for her father was smothered by smoke.
She had been found in her bedroom. The fireman who came to the rescue knocked her door down and carried her past her father’s charred corpse and out into the dimly lit Seattle streets. He had put her in the back of an ambulance and given her a mask that helped her breathe, but she couldn’t answer any of his questions. She could only watch the dying lights in their window, hoping against hope that her father would look down and wave to her. Everything would be all right. Everything had to be all right.
Before long a man did appear and look down at her. But he wasn’t her father—even the half-light of the street was enough for her to see that. He was too tall, too white—much too white, in fact. She thought he was wearing a mask at first, but it moved like his face as he smiled with black lips. Two black crosses were painted over his eyes.
The ambulance had taken her to the hospital and from there she had gone to her aunt’s. That was where life had abandoned her and where she had learned that she could never forgive her father for dying, out of the many mistakes he had made. But now, for the first time, she wanted to understand. She wanted to know what had beaten him down so much and why it had eventually brought the painted man to their apartment. Foxe had to have at least some of the answers, but his response to her questions when she hunted him down had been to bring her here, to the banks of the Tyne, where the man with black crosses over his eyes had been last seen.
(Stay tuned for part two of this chapter next Thursday evening! In the meantime, follow us on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook @companyofsouls!)