“Auntie walked right up to him and pulled her gun,” Misha said, miming the action as Tom leant back in his chair, trying unsuccessfully to get out of the way as she zeroed in on him. “And she fired but she missed him. He ran away and jumped in his car, but she kept shooting.”
“This happened while I was inside?” Tom asked and Misha laughed at his confusion before taking another sip of her wine.
“This was a long time ago,” Wyn said. She was tired but wasn’t ready to go to bed, not yet. She surveyed the remnants of their meagre feast spread out on the countertop. Jena and Misha had managed to use every pot and dish she owned.
“I’ll worry about that in the morning,” Misha whispered to Wyn, winking at her over her wine glass.
“Not that long ago, thank you,” Jena said pushing her empty glass across the table and into Wyns. “If you wouldn’t mind, sergeant.”
“Yes, captain.” Wyn refilled her glass. She’d moved the bottle to her side of the table to keep it from her friend who seemed intent on drinking the pub dry.
“She didn’t miss,” Jena said to Misha and then tapped a spot on the side of her left arm. “It was only a graze, but she hit him.”
“I think I would have liked Auntie,” Misha said and took another drink before pointing at Jena. “You’ll know this. I tried asking but Wyn won’t tell me, and all Mo would say was that she liked her job too much to gossip.” She reached over and placed a hand on Tom’s arm. “You’ll meet Mo tomorrow, she’s lovely but don’t tell her any secrets or the whole market will know them before lunchtime.”
“Mo’s an institution,” Jena said with a warm smile. She took a sip of her drink and then leaned in toward Misha. “If she wouldn’t tell you, it must be something super-secret. What do you want to know?”
Misha glanced at Wyn suddenly unsure of herself, but her curiosity drove her on. “Why did Wyn come to live with her aunt?”
“Misha, maybe Wyn doesn’t want to talk about it,” Tom said. Out of them all, he had drunk the least. His face was bruised, and he struggled to sit in the chair, but he refused to go and lay down protesting he’d spent too long in bed and needed to get up.
“Nonsense,” Misha said loudly, her face flushed. “I have lived with this woman for three months. There is no one other than you that I trust as much with Alex’s life. I don’t think I’ve ever had a friend like Wyn.”
“She won’t tell you,” Jena said. “But I will unless she objects?”
Wyn stared at Misha, touched by the declaration of trust. “It’s not much of a story but go ahead.”
“Okay then,” Jena said taking a moment to gather the threads of the story in her mind. “Wyn’s brother was a virtuoso pianist. A real child prodigy. I heard him play once and it was beautiful.”
“Really?” Wyn said. “I didn’t know that.”
“Auntie sold tickets to a performance he did at the school. She practically blackmailed me into buying one, but I was glad I did. He played this tune that stayed in my head for days afterwards.”
“Can you play,” Misha asked Wyn.
“I haven’t got a musical bone in me,” Wyn admitted. “That was his thing.”
“What did you do then?”
“Played football and beat the boys up,” Jena said laughing.
“That only happened...” Wyn started counting on her fingers.
“I can imagine that.” Misha sat forward with her arms on the table, cheeks flushed. “Where is he now?”
Wyn stopped laughing and sat back in her chair. She’d found a red plastic owl on the table and turned it over in her fingers.
“Harry came to the attention of a talent scout from Central,” Jena said watching her friend carefully. “One of those quiet figures that watches from the corner and slips a card into someone’s hands. They wanted to enrol him in a Central academy, think of an old stone building where everyone wears capes and is gifted in some way. It was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Sounds cliché but it was a chance for a new life in Central. Would any of us turn down a chance like that?”
“I’ve crossed into Central three times,” Tom said.
“For training?” Jena asked.
Tom nodded. “Each time they sent a windowless bus to pick us up. A week spent at a facility surrounded by forests. It was all very controlled, tall fences and guards keeping us in order. A handful of instructors but you could tell that other groups had only just cleared the training centre. Central companies recruit from the militia, but I’ve never heard from anyone after they’ve taken them up on an offer. I guess they’re too busy enjoying themselves to write.”
“I was approached once.” Jena swirled her wine.
“What happened?” Tom asked.
“I got to spend a wonderful day, along with ten others from my unit, being prodded and forced to jump through hoops. We did get a nice lunch at the Vine though, so it wasn’t all bad. But at the end of the day, I was told that my physical age was outside their employment range. Thank you for your time but get lost.”
“Bastards,” Tom said.
“I’m glad in a way. Imagine how gutted I’d have been to miss the apocalypse.”
“Imagine not being here when that skylight finally gives in,” Tom said staring pointedly through the wall to where he judged the window to be. “If we can get up there and remove the debris from the gutter then the water should clear quicker. Just need the rain to hold off long enough to get the job done.”
“You are not going up on that roof in the middle of a storm,” Misha said with an impatient wave at her husband. “I want to know what happened to Wyn’s brother. Did he go to Central?”
“They accepted,” Jena said. “They’d have been mad not to, but the catch was that Central only gave them three visas. One for her brother and the other two for her parents.”
“No,” Misha said. “No! How could they? Wyn, did they go without you?”
“They did,” Jena said answering for her friend. “Wyn went to live with her aunt when she was fourteen.”
“Thirteen,” Wyn corrected. “She lived on the same estate, so it wasn’t too much upheaval. I was only there a year before she bought this place.”
“Your mother left you?” Misha said, her hands to her throat. “I could never leave Alex, just the thought of it makes me sick. I’m so sorry, Wyn.”
“I don’t think about it that much,” Wyn said. “Besides, they had their chance and took it. I don’t blame them for wanting a better life.”
“Did you ever hear from them again?” Tom asked.
“No,” Wyn answered. “And I don’t want to, not from them at least but I sometimes think about my brother and what sort of life he had. He was a good kid; I hope he’s happy wherever he is.”
“Was he younger or older?” Tom asked.
“Two years younger. It’s strange, in my head he’s still eleven but I guess he’d be thirty-eight by now.”
“Old enough to have his own family,” Tom said thoughtfully. “I’m sure he thinks about you.”
“I hope he doesn’t. I want him to have forgotten me and got on with his life.”
“How could anyone forget you?” Misha said with such earnestness that it brought a moment of silence to the table. They listened to the steady drumming of the rain on the market roof and the intermittent outpouring from the skylight, the water dropping all the way to the lower steps and the bucket set to catch it.
“Auntie would be proud of you,” Jena said. “When I first saw you, it was in the bar downstairs. You were so awkward.”
“I was a teenager,” Wyn protested. “Everyone’s awkward at that age.”
“She had these gangly arms that seemed to go everywhere,” Jena said and waved her own around in demonstration. Misha laughed and Tom smiled good-naturedly. “You were so shy that if anyone even looked in your direction, you ran off, but look at you now. My brave and loyal sergeant.”
Wyn rolled her eyes and reached for Jena’s wine glass. “If you’re going to tell me you love me you can get out.”
“Oh, but I do!” Jena said grasping Wyn’s hand dramatically. “What more could a woman want in a partner? Smart, fearless, with two medals of courage,” Jena held up two fingers to emphasize her point. “Two.”
“Wow,” Tom said genuinely impressed. “They don’t give those out for nothing. I’d like to hear that story at some point.”
“And the winner of the police marksmanship award three times,” Jena said.
“Four actually,” Wyn said quietly.
“And stunningly beautiful,” Misha added.
“Isn’t she though,” Jena said.
Wyn pushed her chair back. She could feel her cheeks burning and wanted to escape the scrutiny but couldn’t come up with an excuse. She knew they meant well but Wyn had never been comfortable being the centre of attention.
“I noticed you got a message on your phone over there,” Tom said coming to her rescue. He nodded to where the handset was sitting on a shelf, the charging cable dangling down to a plug. “Is that on the gov network?”
“No, it’s a private phone.” Wyn tossed the plastic owl into the empty fruit bowl. “The landline downstairs still works intermittently. Early morning is your best bet if you want to make a call.”
Jena craned her neck to study the handset, sleek black glass with a ruggedized case. Not a model she was familiar with and definitely not police issue.
“Who do you want to call?” Misha asked confused by her husband’s question.
“Why? He wanted nothing to do with us.”
“He sent word to me while I was in prison,” Tom lowered his voice. “We’ll talk about this in private.”
“I haven’t got any secrets from, Wyn, or Jena.”
Tom coughed into his hand and winced at a pain in his chest. “He offered to help us if we need it.”
“Well we don’t,” Misha snapped. “We have everything we need here.”
Another outpouring of water cascading from the skylight interrupted Misha from what she was going to say next. Tom gave her a pointed look and pushed his chair back.
“This has been good, but I need to go to bed,” Tom said struggling to his feet.
“You have to let me help, Tom,” Misha said jumping to her feet and taking his arm. “Lean on me.”
Tom put his arm over her shoulder, and they walked together to the door.
“Night,” Jena said.
“Wyn,” Tom said stopping in the doorway with Misha at his side. “I’ll never be able to fully thank you for what you did for my family. I just want you to know that it means a lot to me.”
“Misha and Alex being here has been no bother at all,” Wyn said. “I’m happy you’re both out.”
Misha stood with her arm around Tom smiling at Wyn. “She’s part of the family now, and Jena too.”
“I’m honoured,” Jena said reaching out for Tom’s hand and clasping it tightly. “We’ll talk in the morning.”
“I suppose I shouldn’t feel nervous about sleeping under a detective’s roof,” Tom said half-jokingly.
“We’re locked up,” Wyn said, “but I’ll do the rounds before I turn in.”
“Thank you, Wyn. Goodnight.”
“Night,” Misha said. “Leave the washing up until the morning.”
“Night.” Wyn turned her attention to the beer bottle, Jena watching her closely.
A door shut on the landing and Jena leant in towards Wyn. “Are you alright?”
“Yeah, just tired.” Wyn stretched and did her best to ignore Jena’s inquisitive look. “I’m going to go and check we’re locked up before turning in.”
“That’s not what I meant.”
“Jena, I’ve been barely holding it together and I don’t think I can anymore.”
“Huh,” Jena gave her drink a thoughtful look. “I never realised how hard it must have been for you out here.”
“I don’t mean it like that. I can only imagine what it was like for you inside.”
“Wyn, you misunderstand me. In there you adjust, there’s nothing you can do but get on with it.” Jena turned her glass in her hands, letting the slim contents coat the sides. She set it down and pushed it away with her index finger. “Boredom’s the biggest killer. Three months of the same shit every day but you were out here having to deal with everything that’s happened. I was serious when I said Auntie would be proud of you. I know I am.”
“Don’t make me cry,” Wyn said. She could feel the tears welling up and fought them back. “I’m afraid if I start, I won’t stop.”
“I’m here now if you need anything.” Jena reached over and clasped Wyn’s wrist. “In the morning you can catch me up on what’s been happening, and we’ll figure out what to do. I don’t know everything, but I spoke to some people when I was inside and got an idea of just how awful things are. If the governor has given up, then we’ll have to start doing things for ourselves.”
“None of that matters,” Wyn said drinking the last of her beer.
“Of course it matters. The government is locking people up and those Lancaster bastards are roaming the streets killing with impunity. Someone has to take a stand,” Jena said sitting forward. She glanced at the bedroom doors before continuing. “Sona’s people reached out to me on the inside. I’ve been talking to the Arcists—”
“Jena, I don’t want to know.” Wyn stood up, grabbing the phone from the shelf and pulling the charging cable out. “I need to check downstairs. You can have my bed tonight; I’m used to the sofa.”
“What network’s that on, Wyn?”
Wyn slipped the phone into a pocket and stood behind her chair. “They were the only ones willing to help. The government abandoned us, the Arcists were all in hiding, and I didn’t have anyone else to turn to. The Temple of the Peripheral has been poisoning people and Lancaster are the only ones that give a shit.”
“Lancaster, you’re working for those bastards?” Jena hissed. “Have you forgotten what they did? They killed our friends and invaded our homes. They’re the enemy.”
“It wasn’t them, Jena. Things have been moving quickly since the militia took you away. If it wasn’t for Agent Douglass interceding with the government, you and Tom would still be locked up. Nobody else would even talk to me.”
“What did you trade for us? How deep in with them are you?”
“I didn’t trade anything. Who do you think I am? I’ve been helping with their visa programme, that’s it.”
Jena shook her head horrified at what she was hearing. “Wyn, how could you? They took your family from you and now you’re doing the same thing. I thought better of you.”
“You don’t get to judge me.” Wyn could feel the anger bubbling just beneath the surface, eager to emerge. She’d held it in for so long, scared to let it go, fearful that if she gave it a voice it would leave her empty. “The pub barely made enough to keep the lights on, let alone pay for the lawyer we hired to try and get you and Tom out. Agent Douglass was the only person that took my calls.” Wyn lowered her voice aware that they were both getting worked up. “He’s helping me find Tay and the temple, that’s it. I would never betray my oath to the people of this sector.”
“I think I should go home in the morning.”
“No, Jena. It’s not safe to be on your own.”
“Is it safe to be here with an informant?”
Jena looked about to apologise but instead left the kitchen. She grabbed her bag off the landing and went into the lounge, closing the door behind her.
Wyn gripped the back of the chair until her knuckles turned white and then flexed her hands. She stood on the landing, looking from the lounge to the spare room. She should have been happy they were both back but a part of her wanted to go back to the way it was.
A torrent of water spilt from the skylight, splashing into the bucket and soaking the stairs. Damp was climbing up the walls and soon the pub would become a hazardous place to live. Wyn didn’t know what they’d do once that happened. She gave the lounge door one last look before slipping her boots on and going downstairs to do the rounds. The building might have been falling apart but it was still her home. Auntie had fought tooth and lacquered nail to keep the Magdala and Wyn wasn’t about to give it up, not without a fight.