Horn and Hardart in Times Square, ca 1930s
Manhattan, April 1934
“Sir, I found this with the morning milk delivery. It’s addressed to you.”
“Thank you, Dora.” Wilson dusted the crumbs off his hands onto his napkin before accepting the postcard, and flipped it between his fingers. The image was immediately recognizable, the automat in Times Square. Given the economy, the first line of the message was ubiquitous, BROTHER CAN YOU SPARE A DIME?. He raised his eyebrow at the second, TODAY, 1:30, but it was the bold handwriting that made his heart do cartwheels in his chest.
“What’s that you’ve got, James?” Richard peered over his morning newspaper. “It’s too early for the mail.”
“Nothing.” Wilson tucked the card hastily into his robe pocket, and finished his coffee. “It’s supposed to rain this afternoon. Think I’ll go for my walk around lunchtime.” He bluffed, “Care to join me?”
“Some of us have to work.” Richard pushed up from his chair. “I thought you gave up that nonsense. Aren’t you overdoing it—resuming your walks? You should rest. And it wouldn’t hurt if you ate more, especially lots of red meat. You’re skin and bones.”
He had lost weight since his collapse. And a week ago he had spied a small article on the back page of the newspaper about a former doctor who was killed in a prison riot. Every instinct told him it was House. Ever since, all food tasted like sand. Under the pretense of his illness, he had stayed in his bedroom, sitting shiva, remembering every moment he spent with him. Now he had a reason to go outside.
“When the weather is good, I like getting out of this mausoleum as much as possible. I’ll be occupying one of my own soon enough.” Wilson huffed.
“You shouldn’t talk that way,” Richard said, sounding bored. He glanced at his watch. “I'm running late. Give Mother my love when she wakes up?”
“Will do,” Wilson said to Richard’s back as he left the room. When he was alone, he pulled out the card and ran his finger over the penned words. It was impossible.
Fifteen minutes early for his appointment, Wilson slouched against Horn and Hardart’s, chain-smoking the last cigarettes in his pack. He had checked inside. No one looked familiar.
He leaned against the storefront and waited. A blind war vet sat at the corner, rattling his cup of pencils at passersby. After forty-five minutes when no one had showed, he decided it must be one of Richard’s pranks, although it was surely too clever and too warped. Before hailing a cab, he scooped out the loose change from his pocket and dropped it in the beggar’s cup.
“Don’t I deserve as much as a bellhop?” the mound of gray rags mumbled. Alert and electric blue eyes shined over the smoky-colored spectacles.
His heart clenched and the air turned to syrup. He refused to give in to the tightness in his chest. “House? How…?”
He felt House’s hand clasp his wrist as he hoisted off the ground and unfurled to his full height, towering next to him. “Crap. I should’ve known you still read every inch of newspaper from beginning to end. Don’t fade on me now, Violetta.”
Wilson couldn’t help but smile.
“Buy me a coffee?” House said brightly.
Wilson shook his head and followed numbly as House went into the restaurant.
“So when Horsley got knifed, I called in a few favors. It was simple to switch identities—similar names and body types.”
Wilson remembered for the umpteenth time to close his mouth as he listened to House’s miraculous escape. “What passes for simple to you would drive Machiavelli insane.” He touched his chest. “And you think—?”
“I know,” House said confidently while he aimed his fork at Wilson’s potato salad and stole a sizeable portion. “I knew as soon as we kissed goodbye there was something wrong with Kimura’s diagnosis. That wasn’t a smooch from a dead guy. Sure, your ticker isn’t normal. It’s lost an abnormal amount of tread, but it still has lots of mileage on it.”
“You didn’t see the x-ray.”
“Just so happens I did.” House actually looked a little sheepish. “Machines can lie, you know. I contacted Kimura to check his equipment. Seems the tech forgot to calibrate it after the last storm.”
“I wondered why I wasn’t getting weaker. I thought it was a last minute rally.” Wilson looked away, feeling embarrassed. His doctoring skills were atrophying from disuse. He bit into his half of the pastrami sandwich. The paper-thin ribbons of meat were juicy and tangy. His stomach rumbled for more.
A shadow of anxiety touched his heart. “Morello is still a big shot crime boss. You can’t stay in New York. Too many people will recognize you.” He tried to quell the panic and despair seeping into his voice. He was overcome with joy that House was alive but he would soon be leaving and gone from his life. “Nowhere is safe—“
“There’s one place.” House scratched the stubble near his ear. “I want you to come with me.”
Wilson knew he should be suspicious. Ask questions, but he didn’t care. He opened his mouth…
“Before you agree, hear me out.” House looked grim. “I guarantee you won’t like my idea."
Malecon Drive, Havana, Cuba
Havana, January 11, 1935
Not wanting to risk life and limb crossing the alley, he waited until the reckless motorists zoomed down the street, leaving behind clouds of dust. Burnt exhaust clawed at his throat.
Standing on the tobacco shop’s threshold, Wilson unwrapped a stick of gum and chewed, unlocking the cool mint. After the dark interior of the shop, his eyes needed to adjust to the bright sunlight. He blinked as the whitewashed and festively colored storefronts came into focus.
Not until the gleaming hood ornaments on the cars were too far away to identify did he position his package snugly under his arm and cross the street.
The rest of his journey was uneventful. He strolled down a long stretch of boulevard lined with buildings that faced the Gulf until he reached a three-story building graced with an arched colonnade and a simple wood door. He pulled out his key. Crossing the lush courtyard oasis with its burbling, tiered fountain, he paused in the cool lobby and checked two mailboxes. His contained a rent receipt and two bills from the telephone company. The other was empty. House must have come down earlier.
Although his apartment was on the second floor, Wilson took the elevator. One flight of stairs no longer winded him, but for House’s sake, he performed an informal weekly inspection of the wheezing cage by riding in it. He listened for unusual noises or hitches that might predict a mid-floor standstill. So far, it behaved like the first day he had moved in: noisy, dead slow, but steady.
He hung his Panama on the hatrack right inside the entry. On the way to the bedroom he adjusted a lamp that was two inches too far to the right. It was Thursday. The maid had come. To give the place a lived-in look before her next visit, he rearranged and mussed the accent pillows on the couch. He stepped away to survey the room. It was disappointing. There was only one way to make his apartment appear lived in, and that meant spending more time here.
In the bedroom, he removed the gum from his mouth, folding it into the saved foil wrapper, and tossed it in the wastebasket. He exchanged the suit he was wearing for a casual pair of pants and rolled up the sleeves of his shirt. Grabbing his package, he pushed the clothes aside in the wardrobe and ran his fingers down a thin crack in the back panel until there was a soft click. It slid to the side. He climbed through to another bedroom.
He was home.
While the twin version of his bedroom was tidy and clean, it showed wear and tear. He tugged at the light blanket as he moved through the room, but there was no hiding the telltale sag in the bed. He couldn’t prevent the corner of his mouth tweaking into a smile. The valley was a reminder of the many intimate moments spent there.
In the hall, he sniffed the intoxicating scent of cooked onions and garlic.
“Hey,” he said loud enough for House to hear over the cooking noises. Before going into the kitchen, he pulled out two newspapers from the brown paper sack and sorted them into the proper stacks in the entry.
House was sautéing chicken. Wilson pecked the rough cheek, and was rewarded with a quick glance as he grabbed a paring knife and set to work peeling a potato. “Dropped in at the tobacconist. Picked up German and British newspapers.”
He worked in companionable silence. When the chicken was done, House brought out a dutch oven from under the counter. Wilson took over, arranging the chicken, vegetables, and potatoes in the kettle, adding broth and a little wine. House came from behind and bumped playfully into him, sending an extra splash into the pot.
After the food was in the oven, House tilted Wilson’s chin up and bestowed a lingering kiss. “Strayed beyond the newspaper racks and picked up cigarettes as well.” House smacked his lips. "Three. Spearmint gum can’t hide your smoking."
“Only two,” Wilson huffed defensively. By the gleam in House’s eyes, he realized he had fallen right into his trap. He sank into the couch and folded his arms. “When I smoked like a chimney you never said a word.”
“Pouting, are we?” House limped over and joined him, leg pressed against his. “You weren’t my property then, and you thought your life expectancy was shorter than a housefly in a flyswatter factory.”
“It was a tough day.” Wilson sighed and decided to deflect. “Where were you? You were needed.”
“For what?” House scoffed. “Bandaging tourist’s booboos while they complain about Arawakan Revenge, which the idiots richly deserve if they’re stupid enough to drink the water?”
“Because today we picked up cases from the hospital overload. One of their doctors, Nuñez, came over and supervised. He told me about a case that was baffling him.”
He nodded at the finished crossword on the coffee table. “I know how much you like puzzles. This case would interest you. A 29 year-old female lost the ability to speak a month ago after her first seizure. She babbled like a baby.”
“Boring. Brain tumor.”
“Nuñez ruled it out. He could use your help, House. It would be a chance for you to get on the regular hospital staff.” Wilson played his ace. “No more clinic hours.”
“Why would he listen to what I have to say about the patient?”
“Because no other doctors can diagnose heart conditions from a kiss,” Wilson said, dryly. “Look, the man is desperate, and when the doctors and nurses at the clinic aren’t pissed at you, they’re willing to admit you pulled a menagerie out of your hat to correctly diagnose the occasional non-standard case.”
House stared out of the open balcony window to the blue sea beyond. The furrows on his forehead softened. “Playing the happy homemaker is wearing a little thin, as are my earnings from the racetrack.”
“Most people call those winnings,” Wilson answered. “We’ll stop by the hospital tomorrow and I’ll gag you before doing the introductions. We’ll see how it goes.”
Wilson returned to the kitchen, glancing at the chicken and savoring a sense of accomplishment. He spotted a bottle of champagne on ice and carried it to the living room with two glasses. “Don’t tell me you’re clairvoyant and had a vision about your new job?”
“Waste good champagne on a supernatural job offer? Never. I heard from Swifty.” House pulled an envelope out of his pocket and waved it before putting it away. He plucked the bottle out of Wilson’s hands and began unwrapping the cork. “You should sit down.”
“Something went wrong?”
“No. But it’s not easy hearing about your own wake.”
Wilson got comfortable and crossed his legs. “I’m ready. Shoot.”
“On New Year’s Eve, Swifty got a seat at the bar so close to Richard they shared elbows. Heard everything he and Donahue talked about.” House popped the cork and carefully filled the glasses. “There’s no doubt they believed we were dead.”
“That’s what we wanted, right? No one coming after us?” Wilson replied, but he had to clear his throat to get the words out. The finality did hurt. He tried his best to shake it off. “For someone who doesn’t have any friends, you know how to accumulate favors.”
“The two are mutually exclusive. But it didn’t hurt that I could spread your money around, and you lived in New York where everyone was on the take. Bribing meat wagon drivers and buying off the coroner were ridiculously easy. Some bum got a beautiful funeral.” House brought the glasses to the coffee table, sat down, and put out his hand. “Pay up.”
“Swifty rigged the mirror to break exactly the way I asked him to. He said it went off without a hitch. Those dumb bastards, Richard and Donahue couldn’t lift their jaws off the ground.”
Wilson counted out ten dollars, hoping he successfully concealed his pleasure over House’s stunt. When he handed over the bills, they toasted with champagne.
Over his glass he noticed House had that look as if he were studying him under a microscope. Wilson steeled himself for more. “What?”
“Can you live with being a corpse? I mean, dead to your family?”
Wilson smiled. “Do you have to ask? Sorry to disappoint, House, but if Richard had told the family about us, they would have declared me dead while I was still breathing. You gave them what they wanted, a loving memory without complications. I have no regrets about my choice.”
He was about to add You’re my family, but caught a warning glint in House’s eye and held his tongue. Romantic sentiments could come later, in bed. For now, he leaned forward and kissed House long and deep and tenderly.
Meat wagon = ambulance
The case Wilson presented to House was Rebecca Adler from the Pilot. :)