He knew better than to come by the front. They would be watching him. Not that they wouldn't be watching the back entrance too, but it was getting dark and he had a much better shot at melting into shadows by the dumpsters then ringing the front doorbell. Ariel Sheldon was good at not being seen when he wished not to be. Through the rubbish and dumpsters, and he was through a back window, up the familiar spiral concrete stair with its dead EXIT signs still over every doorframe. The windows had long been blasted out here, whatever the war hadn’t done the riots had, but he could see that oilcloths had been painstakingly nailed on the sixth floor windows. The floor for the 'critical patients' in modern gentle language, or in more basic cruder terminology, the dying. Done by someone who how it was lying hour after hour with the smells of the street coming in, waiting to die.
He pushed into the corridor, dimly lit by floating kerosene lamps, each attached to a nurse walking among the beds. By the north pillar he stopped and watched her. She was standing by a bed washing out boils on an old man. By the kerosene light he saw her brow furrowed, her lips moving in words of comfort as the man flinched with the washing. Her dark hair slipped out a little from her kerchief. His trained eye could read the sweat lines etched down her face and the weariness in her movements. It had been a bad day, probably some deaths. But her eyes were bright.
Finally, the old man settled down. She put her rag back into the water. He saw her hand hesitate a moment a few inches above the sleeping face, and knew she was making the sign of the cross. She did that. He hadn't stirred, but she suddenly looked up, knowing she was watched. She came toward him with her lamp, her face tense and brave. Quickly he shook his hood off.
“Mary, its me”
A smile broke out across the weariness, like sudden dawn.
“Ari” was all she said. Closer, he could see how exhausted she was, probably hadn't sat down since dawn. Probably was fasting. Again.
“I thought I would come see you, before heading out.”
“They're looking for you again.”
They were both tired, just standing there. She was definitely fasting, he could read it in the way her hand holding the lamp trembled. She caught his look, and steadied it against the pillar.
“Mary, did you eat anything today?”
“Did I? It’s been such a day—“ She faltered. Mary had never been good at lying.“Mrs. Gallenham died this morning. And Rose. I had to.”
Rose, the abandoned baby. No wonder. Mary took to fasting like most people took to drink. His hands were already going through his satchel for beef jerky.
“And it gives me strength. Clearer head.”
His hands froze on the buckles.
“They came here? They were questioning you?”
She waved her hands dismissively, his eyes remained locked on hers and read there enough.
“It was nothing. Just words.”
“Don't hate them. They are so pitiful. I offered it up for their souls.”
He dug through the pack for the jerky, his hands shaking with rage. The mental image of those bureaucrats who think they are gods, who destroyed her hospital, those idiots, harassing, barking at, threatening her. Her, forced to stand, hour after hour to endure the petty rage, the suspicion, the mockery, right on the heels of the death of the baby she named. Her, hungry, weak, not even hating them..... He glared into the pack at his hands finding the jerky and wrenched it out of its stubborn container. He was angry, raging angry. And hoping she did not read the fear in his eyes.
She put a small hand on his arm, trying to say what words couldn't. He couldn't meet her eyes, for fear of the fear she might find there. Instead he gave her the beef jerky, and a granola bar.
“Please eat it”
“Thankyou! I'll save it”
“No, really, Mary you need it.”
“But I really am not so hungry now, I'll eat it soon”—she tried to cram it into her apron pocket, in whatever space was left by 12 yards of gauze wrap, ointment, stethoscope, and her battered copy of Modern Saints. In what deeps of the past, he wondered, had the author chosen that title. That strange term ‘modern.’ But someday people would remember this time as some dark age in the mists of the past. He hoped.
But back to the beef jerky, he knew that if it went there, she would have a bite to keep her word, but it would end up fed to some patient. Meat was a rare treat in this part of the city these days.
“Have you eaten yet this week?”
“Yes, I had some jerky before I came here” (a couple bites, to make it true if she asked)
“Have you eaten yet week?”
“Oh, yes. A few days ago. With the men”
“I'm going to go eat. Would you like to come?”
In his minds eye he could see the old priest and the odd assortment of nuns and dying who had nothing left to lose (or be taken), crammed into the old janitorial closet, or air duct, or whatever else they had. He could hear the prayers, whispered from dozens of lips from fierce memory, a blend of English and Spanish and Latin, and feel the life coursing in him again, like water.
“I can't---there's somewhere I have to be” He thought of his contact, waiting at midnight by the old power plant, he couldn't miss that rendezvous. But there was a very good chance it was a trap, only he couldn't miss it even if it were...It was about 9ish now, and if he made good time...
“When are you going to eat, I mean, in how long?”
Mary could read his face at least as well as he could hers. They worked, in a way, together, these last 10 years, which was a lifetime in this world. Her hand imperceptibly tightened on his arm.
“This place you have to be--- its dangerous?”
“Since when isn't it? Since when is anywhere not? Here is--”
“Ariel, I know your face. You have to meet someone?”
He did not speak. It was better that she not know these things.
“Ariel, are you sure---I mean---just now, you looked like when Padraig was—was--taken”
He thought of a dozen diffusing words that were not quite lies, but that could deceive. But all words were lost as sudden wave of intense weariness washed over him.
“I have to trust, Mary. It’s, it’s not just my life that’s---look, Mary, I can't tell you these things. No, don’t look at me like that. It’s different then when we worked together, you were an unknown then. Now they know who you are, where to find you. It’s better for us all if you don't know”
“Ariel, I won’t talk”
And he knew she meant it to, and knew what that really meant.
“I think I should know. If it’s a matter of judgment----”
“Can you trust my judgment here?”
She shut her eyes. He trusts people too much, Padraig, I knew Padraig was an informant all along, no proof, just felt it. But Ariel trusted him because of what he had done, and the past they had shared. In the end, Padraig had spoken before his handlers killed him. But Ariel was playing his life in his hands, they both knew it.
“Can you just trust God on this, then?”
She was silent.
“How long till you eat?”
And now he was preparing for death, should it come. But from somewhere she heard her voice rise strong “Soon. We can make it sooner if you come.”“I'll come”
Together they walked to the hall. She put on her coat, and they disappeared into the shadows, winding their way through the abandoned cars in the junkyard by the side. So it wasn't in the closet or the air duct, he wondered why. She was taught and alert as a cat, listening, moving slowly across the field, flitting from shadow to shadow. But he could see her limbs shaking, she wouldn't be able to make it to the river. Crouched by the crumbling frame of an SUV he caught her ear
“I think God wantd you to eat the beef jerky”
“How do you know?”
“I jud know, I jud know—I have thid feeling,”
He could feel the warmth of her smile even in the darkness.
As she ate the jerky, he looked up at the clouds flitting across the stars. A good hour till moonrise, and midnight was only an hour after that. He should be getting back to the old power factory soon---but he wanted this, this time with Mary, and the blood of God in his mouth, to face that meeting with. He knew it well might be his last.