The Cobalt Club was Uncle Wainwright's favorite place in the city, and Lamont was quickly coming to understand why. As the head of the police, he was considered by the proprietors to be a prestigious enough guest that they never charged him for his meals, while he in turn always left tips in amounts far greater than what he would have spent on the food, so no one who saw the special treatment was inclined to make accusations of corruption. The facts that the quality of the food and live entertainment were both above average did not hurt matters either.
The departing waiter was just a little too far away to call back to the table over the noise of the Cobalt Club in full swing, but Lamont sent a mental nudge in the man's direction to ensure his drink of choice would arrive with all possible haste. Uncle Wainwright was seated in his usual spot and already digging into what looked like the better part of half a roasted chicken with mashed potatoes and gravy with sweet peas and bread sticks on the side, and he was thinking even louder than he was chewing, so Lamont knew the moment he was spotted.
"You're late," Uncle Wainwright said. He somehow managed to use the same 'we all expected better of you' tone of voice (not the angry version, the tired and regretful one) he had used back when confronting Lamont over getting into yet another fist fight back in grade school, which was quite the trick considering his mouth was still half full of food at the moment. But then again, Uncle Wainwright had gotten a lot of practice using that tone of voice with Lamont over the years, so maybe it was second nature by now.
"Sorry," Lamont said, "I got distracted and lost track of time." It was, just as it always was these days, the truth but not the whole truth, but it wasn't as if he could come out and admit to New York City's Chief of Police that he had been down at the docks, dishing out vigilante justice to a gang of modern day slavers. And if Uncle Wainwright happened to think that Lamont eased himself into his seat with extra care due to having a lingering hangover from the night before rather than the actual cause of his pain, then Lamont would be the first to admit in the privacy of his own mind that he deserved the shame for having been careless enough to have let so poor of a fighter as Joey "The Weasel" Muldoon land a punch anywhere near his kidneys.
"Of course you did." Uncle Wainwright huffed out a sigh and then shoveled another forkful of food into his mouth. He ate a few more bites, if not in silence then at least without saying anything, and Lamont left him to it, turning to watch the swaying couples on the dancefloor for lack of anything better to do. Then Lamont's drinks arrived, and Uncle Wainwright took that as his cue to reengage in conversation. "So," he said, idly tearing a breadstick in half and dragging one end through his gravy, "how have you been settling in?"
"Oh, well enough," Lamont said and took a sip of his martini. Coming back to New York after so long away was almost as much culture shock as leaving it had been when Lamont first went to war all those years ago, but he was finding that getting used to having a family again, having people concerned for his wellbeing for reasons that had nothing to do with personal gain, was an even more difficult adjustment to make than relearning the ins and outs of his old stomping grounds while discovering all the dark corners he had never thought to explore in his younger days. He was more used to people worrying about what he might do to them, but now he was faced with people worrying about what he might do to himself, and he wasn't quite sure how to handle that. But of course he couldn't say any of that to Uncle Wainwright, so the nice, bland, noncommittal answer was the safest bet.
Apparently it was not safe enough, because Uncle Wainwright was looking at him doubtfully. Again. He had been doing that a lot since Lamont came back. "If you say so," he said. Come to think of it, he had probably been giving Lamont that same look a lot before he left, but back then Lamont had been too young to notice it very often and not yet psychic enough to hear Uncle silently wondering why he was avoiding yet another question.
Lamont sighed and took another sip of his martini. He really was trying to reconnect with the man, but it seemed like any subject of conversation might lead around to parts of his past and parts of his present he was not about to share with anyone. Conversation required two participants though, and he needed to start somewhere, preferably with something neither dishonest nor incriminating. Lamont thought a moment then admitted, "The house feels emptier than it used to."
"Yes, I suppose it would," Uncle Wainwright said, and if he happened to be thinking of family gatherings of decades past instead of army barracks, castles filled with hangers-on, or Buddhist monasteries Lamont was not going to contradict him. "That's easy enough to correct though," Uncle Wainwright continued brightly, "just find a nice girl to settle down with, start a family, and start filling the old place back up again. I could introduce you to some nice girls from good families. No trouble at all, I'd consider it my duty as your uncle."
And, okay, maybe Lamont needed to contradict him after all. "No," he said. "I'm not ready to settle down with anyone yet." He suspected he might never be ready, not with the state of his life and the inside of his head.
"You have to start somewhere."
"Not by jumping straight into marriage, even if you did approve of my hypothetical wife's family."
"Fine, fine," Uncle Wainwright said, laughing it off. He had never been terribly serious about the idea, merely hopeful. "There are other ways to deal with too many rooms in a mansion and not enough people. You could throw a party and invite everyone you know, maybe some of your old college friends. Have you looked up any them yet?" And there they were, right back into dangerous territory.
"No." Forget sipping, Lamont downed the rest of his first martini in a single go and immediately reached for the other.
Why not? Well, for a start, a significant percentage of them were probably dead, which Uncle Wainwright surely knew, because that was just the statistical reality of the Great War. And of those who had survived, they were unlikely to have anything left in common with each other after all this time beyond the killing, which Uncle Wainwright probably knew, though if he ever got an inkling of the real reason why Lamont might want to avoid that topic he would lock him up instead of share an evening out with him. And finally, even if they somehow managed to skip over those particular reminiscences, they were bound to ask questions about those mysterious seven years that Lamont would not account for even to his closest relatives. Lying would be easy enough but would be a shoddy foundation to rebuild a friendship upon, so why bother at all?
Not that he should say any of that. Fortunately, Lamont was saved from answering or needing to force a change of subject by the return of the waiter, who this time arrived at the table bearing a folded note on his silver tray, which he presented to Uncle Wainwright with a flourish and an apology for the interruption.
Uncle Wainwright read the note and muttered a curse under his breath. Lamont did not need to be psychic to know that someone must have finally discovered his handiwork down at the docks, but he needed to play along.
"Trouble at work," he said with as much bored disinterest as possible, not even letting the statement become a question.
"Yes, for the third time this week, too."
In truth, it was the fifth time this week, but Lamont was not supposed to know that, so he kept his mouth shut on the subject beyond a noncommittal, "You don't say."
"I do say," Uncle Wainwright grumbled, more to himself than to Lamont. He reread the note once more then crumpled it into a ball and shoved it into a pocket. "I hate to cut short our evening together, but this is probably going to keep me busy for hours. Here," he said, pointing at his barely started meal, "you'll have to finish this for me."
"For God's sake, eat something," Uncle Wainwright said, pushing his plate in Lamont's direction. "I swear, Lamont, sometimes it seems like you're living off of nothing but alcohol and cocktail garnishes."
"I ate before I got here," Lamont said and pushed the plate back toward his uncle.
"Whatever the most recent over-spiced and unpronounceable thing you found in Chinatown this time doesn't count as real food. Half the time I'm not sure it's even edible enough to count as fake food." Uncle Wainwright pushed the plate forward again.
"There are quite a lot of Chinese people in the world who would disagree with you." Lamont pushed it back.
"But they aren't going to look out for your wellbeing, and from the looks of things you aren't either so it's up to me. Just eat it, Lamont. We don't need you wasting away to a shadow of your former self."
There was genuine concern behind the ridiculous statement, so Lamont let the matter drop. Besides, people at nearby tables were beginning to stare. Once not so very long ago, Lamont would have slaughtered them all for having dared to witness such a moment, but now he found himself oddly charmed that he not only had someone who cared what he was eating (even if his opinions on the matter were wrong) and everyone could see it. Shoving that thought aside for the moment, Lamont rose from his seat as Uncle Wainwright did and caught his hand to give it a quick but firm shake, saying, "I'm sorry you have to go running off like this tonight."
"I'm sorry too, my boy," Uncle Wainwright said, "but you shouldn't act like any of this is your fault. It's just part of a day's work. Let's try this again next Wednesday. Maybe we'll have better luck then." And then he was gone, heading for the coat check attendant, who was already proffering the desired items, having long ago learned to recognize the look of Police Commissioner Wainwright Cranston in a hurry.
Lamont was left alone at the table with the remains of his uncle's dinner and knuckles that were still sore from punching Joey "The Weasel" Muldoon and his three accomplices into submission earlier that evening. He sat back and sipped his second martini, contemplating next Wednesday. He couldn't say he would look the other way if evil reared its ugly head on that day or any other, but next time he could at least make sure that no one found the aftermath until well after dinnertime, and maybe then he and Uncle Wainwright could finally have a proper conversation.