~ * ~
Howard tugged on his coat, doing up the buttons as he wandered from the partitioned-off bedroom to the front sitting room and back again. He wondered if he would see the beggar on the corner today. Vince, he thought he’d heard some of the other beggars call him.
He had seen him with some regularity these last few months on duty. Word on the street was he had just moved to this town because, since there were soldiers stationed here, there were more rations. The malnourished look of the newest beggar spoke of how untrue that was. No matter. Howard had a plan.
For now, though, he needed to prepare for his watch.
The last part of his uniform was the hat. Normally he set it straight, perfect angles. Today, he set it at a jaunty tilt, feeling saucy.
At the door, he paused, scanning his humble home. His eyes lit on the pie he’d baked yesterday with a few rations he had traded for. He remembered the last pie he’d given the beggar Vince: a trick pie filled with magical birds that were supposed to spell his name. Only, the birds had turned on Vince and hurt him.
This pie was different. For one, Howard had actually made it himself instead of buying it off the town’s shaman. For another, he’d heard somewhere that his beggar liked apples and he’d made it special for him.
On his way to his post, Howard passed his Commander.
“Sir,” he said. “Lovely evening.”
“Don’t bother, Moon,” the Commander said, eyeing him with a suspicious glare. “If I find out that you’ve gone after that corner gal again, you’ll be on vannaya duty for the rest of your natural life.”
“Yes sir, Commander Fossil.” Howard saluted, clicking his heels together, the hand holding the pie securely behind his back. Ensuring that Vince ate was more important than following the arbitrary rules of Commander Bob Fossil. It was part of why the Commander did not like Howard.
The Commander squinted at him before nodding and marching away. Howard breathed a sigh of relief and then picked up his feet, hurrying towards Vince’s usual corner.
Today was in his favor as he found the poor beggar seated on the ground, cloak wrapped all about him, only his pale face with large blue eyes and blue lips visible.
Howard paused, studying the huddled figure of his obsession. Vince shivered, the fingers of one hand curled under his chin, keeping his raggedy cloak closed against the bitter winter wind. He looked even thinner than last time, his face sunken as he stared fearfully at the passing people, none of whom spared him a single glace.
Howard cleared his throat. “Would you like a pie?” he asked roughly.
Vince jumped, eyes widening even more. Beautiful. Howard licked his lips. “No,” Vince finally said after a lengthy and frightened pause.
“But it is a good pie,” Howard protested.
“Nevertheless,” Vince said, “the last pie you gave me, when I cut into it with my tiny pie cutter, released millions of birds. They hit my eyes and temples. It was a trick pie.”
“Yeah, I know. It was supposed to be romantic.”
Vince turned to him, incredulous. “Romantic?” he repeated, his London accent slipping through—soemthing Howard had found refreshing when the only variations of accents were his and the Commander’s. “How is giving me a pie that hurts me romantic?”
“Obviously it wasn’t meant to hurt you.”
“Really? What do you call this then?” Vince stabbed a finger at his own face. If Howard looked closely, he could see a fading bruise on Vince’s forehead. He shrugged off the mantle of guilt—it was the shaman’s fault that the pie had been defective.
“This pie won’t hurt you,” he promised, smug.
Vince didn’t look convinced, staring suspiciously at him. “What are you playing at?” he demanded.
“What do you mean?”
“I mean exactly that. What’s your game, always coming ‘round here and giving me pie?”
“I don’t know what you’re on about.”
“Sure you do. Every day you come by here and every time I’m here, you offer me something to eat. Always with the fucking baked pastries from you.”
“Well that’s just how I show that I love you,” Howard stammered.
“Love me?” Vince studied Howard’s face, disbelief written on his own. “Love me? You don’t even know me.”
“I know enough,” Howard said. “I know you haven’t a home to speak of nor do you have enough to eat. I know we could be good together.”
“Good together?” Vince scoffed. “Get stuffed.”
“Why don’t you like my pies?”
“I just told you.”
“But it’s a really good pie this time, honest.”
Vince shook his head, a lock of dark hair coming free from his cloak to fall over his brow. Howard yearned to reach out and brush it back, tuck it behind Vince’s ear. “I don’t believe you. I’ll take my chances on my own. Thank you very much.”
“You don’t have to, that’s the thing,” Howard insisted. “I want to take care of you.”
Vince scoffed again, waving dismissively at him. “As if,” he said bitterly. “You’ve not got anything I want.”
“Not even pie?”
“Especially not pie.”
“Very well then. If that is what you desire.”
“Then I shall leave you alone. Good day, kind sir.”
Vince blinked slowly. “Did you just call me sir?” he asked. “Everyone always calls me a woman.”
“Well, you are a man, yes?”
“Yeah. But don’t think that means I’m going to let you get away with your pie tricks.”
“I am sorry about that,” Howard said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
Vince bit his lip. “You won’t give me a trick pie again?”
“No. I won’t.”
“And you’re not going to pressure me to have sex with you?”
“What!? No! Why would I do that?”
Vince shrugged. “No reason.”
Howard wanted to press the issue but Vince was shivering, huddled under his cloak. He needed to get out of the wind. Howard offered a hand, pulling Vince to his feet and shoving the pie at him.
“What’s this for then?”
“You need food. It’s just an apple pie. I baked it myself.”
“I’m okay, yeah,” Vince said but his eyes tracked the pie hungrily. If Howard was right, he hadn’t eaten yet this week. Or last week either. At this rate, there wouldn’t be enough left of him for the wind to blow through.
“It’s yours now. Go ahead and take it. I’ll see you tomorrow, yeah?”
Vince nodded. “Yeah okay. See you, Howard.”
“See you around, Vince.”
Howard turned on his heel and marched away, resolutely refusing to glance back at Vince. He needed to get to his post before his commander realised he’d not been yet. He didn’t want Fossil to follow through with his threat and reassign him.
He reached his post at the same time that he caught sight of Fossil approaching from the opposite direction. Trailing behind him was the shaman who’d sold Howard the defective trick pie.
“Moon,” the Commander said.
“Naboo here says you were talking to that tart on the corner. You know you’re not supposed to interact with the peasants.”
“Not even if they’re starving?”
“It’s not your job to care for the peasants. Your job is just to march around and enforce the rules. Or did you forget?’
“I haven’t forgotten. I just really think we should be helping the citizens of this town.”
“And the fact that you want to dabble in the corner gal’s sweet place means nothing, right?”
Howard opened his mouth to protest and snapped it shut again when the Commander’s eyes hardened.
“Leave her alone,” the Commander said, and it sounded like a threat and a promise all rolled into one. What that threat or promise was, Howard didn’t think he wanted to know.
“Of course,” Howard said. He wondered though if he could sneak off after a bit and find Vince. There was a cold feeling in the pit of his stomach that had nothing to do with the cold winter air he was breathing and everything to do with the way the Commander was staring him down.
The longer Fossil stared at him without saying anything, the more unsettled Howard felt.
Suddenly the assurance that he would see Vince again, tomorrow, was not enough. He wanted nothing more than to find Vince again and share the pie and his meagre warmth with him.
“I know you, Moon. You can’t keep your hands off a pretty young thing like Vince Noir.” He shook his finger in Howard’s face. “You’ll have to go to the vannaya now.”
“No sir. I won’t see the corner girl again.”
“Swear it to me, Moon. Swear to me that you won’t ever seek out that hot piece of ass again.”
“I won’t,” Howard promised, fingers crossed behind his back. “You’ll never hear about him again.”
Commander Fossil grunted and Howard got the distinct feeling that he didn’t believe him. It didn’t matter to Howard as long as he still got to see Vince. Fossil couldn’t take that from him. Of course, Fossil could probably make Vince disappear more easily than he could punish Howard.
The growing sense of horror made Howard’s stomach twist in on itself. What if Fossil decided to send Vince away? What if he declared him an enemy of the state? Vince was so thin and malnourished that Howard knew he’d never survive the prison camps. Hell, he likely wouldn’t survive this town either.
He bit his tongue to keep his pleas locked behind his teeth. He didn’t need to give Fossil any more reason to target Vince. Besides, if he could get Vince off the streets, then Fossil wouldn’t be able to go after him. It’d be worth the anger of Vince to ask him to move in with him. For a beggar with nothing, Vince seemed to be proud and certain that he could provide for himself.
Naboo stared at him long after Fossil left. “You know he’s going to hurt Vince just because you fancy him.”
“Yeah, I figured.” Howard sighed. “I just wish I could protect him. He’s so vulnerable and susceptible. I can’t let the Commander hurt him more.”
Naboo smiled. “I can help you,” he offered.
“Oh yeah? Like you helped before? No thank you, sir. I can do it on my own.”
“Listen, you chucklehead,” Naboo lisped. “I’m trying to help you.”
“Seriously? Your pie was awful. Did you know that it hurt Vince?”
Naboo chuckled. “Yeah. It was a trick pie. It’s supposed to do that.”
“Well, it was frankly rude, that business. See if I ever try using your help again.”
“Hey, it’s not my fault you’re so gullible.”
Howard bit his tongue. Now was not the time to protest. He could do that later when he was assured of Vince’s safety. “Whatever,” he returned belatedly. “Are you actually going to help this time?”
“Yeah. Vince is like a son to my familiar. It’d be a shame to see him run off by the Commander.”
“Then it’s agreed, we save Vince from the streets.”
“Shake on it,” Naboo said, spitting into his palm and offering it to Howard. Grimacing in disgust, Howard grasped it firmly and pumped twice before letting go and wiping his hand on his jacket. Naboo smirked again, a disconcerting look to be sure.
“Right then. Shall you meet me at Vince’s corner? Say, half past five?”
“All right, Howard. See you then.” Naboo shuffled off, hunching over as the wind blew bitterly. Howard watched him go, not certain how exactly the shaman was going to help and still not certain he wanted the help either.
He sighed loudly, trudging back to his post to officially begin his watch. Vince would have to wait for now.
~ * ~
By the time Howard was off, it was dark and had started to snow. Vince wasn’t at his corner, but with the way the wind cut right through his coat, it didn’t surprise Howard that Vince wouldn’t have stayed at his begging place.
Now he really would have to wait until tomorrow to see the little tart again.
Howard shrugged off his coat as he stepped through his front door.
He froze in place when he noticed Fossil sitting at his table.
“Commander,” he said tonelessly. “To what do I owe this pleasure?”
“It’s come to my attention that you’ve been in contact with the corner gal. You’re going down, Moon.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m talking about you talking to Vince Noir after I told you not to. Punishment is in order. For you and that waif.”
“You can’t do that, sir,” Howard protested. “Vince didn’t do anything to deserve punishment.”
“He associated with you, didn’t he? That’s reason enough to send him to the prison camps.”
“No, it’s not. You can’t hurt him just because I like him.”
“Actually, Moon, I can. You see, there was someone else who liked Vince too.”
“And who would that be?”
Almost before he got the words out, Howard realised that it was the Commander, Bob Fossil, who fancied Vince as well. And suddenly he understood Vince’s reluctance to accept food from the soldiers. And also why no one appeared willing to help Vince earlier. To do so would bring Fossil’s wrath down on them.
Fossil didn’t answer him, instead sweeping a hand against the meagre books Howard had managed to salvage from his fellow soldiers, sending them crashing to the floor where they lay in a jumbled heap waiting to be picked up again.
“For Vince’s sake, I’ll give you one more chance to stay away from him. If either of you go near each other, even if it’s because of your patrol, you’ll be demoted and he’ll be sentenced to the most physically demanding labor I can think of. Is that clear?”
“As a window, sir.”
Fossil swept from the room, a contemptuous sneer directed at Howard.
Howard couldn’t be bothered anymore. Either he would be demoted or he would desert with Vince safely in tow. Fossil wasn’t going to be able to stop them.
Howard knelt down and gathered his books back into a neat pile. It pained him to do it, but he needed to leave them behind.
The longer it took for Fossil to realise that he was gone, the farther he and Vince could get. They would leave tonight, Howard decided. After all, there was nothing tying him to his post, and Fossil had threatened Howard’s love. A man had to stand up for what he believed in, even if he was running away at the same time.
Besides, Howard was looking forward to going somewhere warmer.
He packed quickly, leaving everything he couldn’t fit into his pockets where it lay. Then he found his non standard-issue coat. It would be too large on Vince’s tiny frame, but surely it would be better than the cloak he had now.
By the time Howard was ready, Naboo was outside his door. Behind him, looking like a bedraggled teddy bear, was a gorilla.
“Where’ve you been hiding that?” Howard hissed.
Naboo shrugged. “I don’t hide him,” he said, petting the gorilla’s arm. “He stays in my hut mostly. All right, Bollo?”
The gorilla grunted, and Howard pulled a face. “Do you really expect him to speak?” he asked.
“Yes,” the gorilla replied.
“Let’s go get Vince before that ballbag decides to stop us,” Naboo said. He turned to Howard. “You do still want to rescue Vince, right?”
“Of course I do, but don’t you think dragging that ape around isn’t going to make us even more suspicious?”
“You’re stealing Bob Fossil’s love interest. Don’t you think that makes you the most suspicious?”
“Fair point,” Howard conceded. “Very well. I’m all packed. Are you? We won’t be returning to this barren wasteland ever again.”
“I just need one more thing,” Naboo said. “Take Bollo and go get Vince.”
“You don’t give me orders here,” Howard said. Naboo shook his head and swept away, almost gliding over the snow packed ground. Howard turned to the gorilla. “We’d better get Vince now.” Bollo grunted, shuffling after Howard as he hurried towards Vince’s corner, hoping that the beggar would be there this time.
With his head down, Bollo looked like any other bundled soldier, and they were uncontested on their journey.
However, when they reached where Vince was usually crouched, trying to keep the wind from digging icy fingers down his cloak, Howard realised Vince wasn’t alone. The relief that he felt at Vince’s appearance vanished almost immediately, doused in the realisation that Commander Fossil had the beggar backed against a wall, one hand pressed to Vince’s chest to keep him from moving while the other dug through the folds of his useless cloak.
Vince was squeaking indignantly as Fossil’s fingers delved deeper.
“Gerroff me,” Vince said, smacking an open palm against Fossil’s ear. The Commander pulled back, staring at Vince with an expression Howard had seen twice—once when Fossil had first arrived and one of the soldiers had spit at his feet, declaring him a useless ninny and again when that same soldier was found dead, scarf wrapped around his headless neck.
It meant, to Howard at least, that Fossil was not one to tolerate his person being assaulted.
Vince realised it too when Fossil’s hand moved from his chest to his neck and he was slammed back against the wall hard enough that something in Vince cracked.
Fear made Vince’s eyes widen as he clawed at Fossil’s unmoving hand.
The other hand crept lower, and Vince sobbed through his strangulation as Fossil’s fingers closed around him.
“Hey!” Howard shouted. Fossil turned to face him, that stone cold look still upon his face.
Vince sagged against the wall, gasping loudly as Fossil released him.
“What do you want, Moon?” Fossil demanded.
“Our duty is to protect the citizens of this town.” Howard’s voice was much calmer than he felt, but he was relieved when Vince scrambled around Fossil and ducked behind him. “If you harm this man, do you think your soldiers will still follow you?”
“I don’t know, you tell me,” Fossil said. “You’re still my soldier, aren’t you, Moon? Would you still follow me if I killed this slut?”
“No,” Howard said. “That’s the point, though. I’m leaving now, and I’m taking Vince with me.”
“Oh yeah? You and what army?”
“This army,” Naboo said. Howard craned his neck to stare at where the diminutive man was hovering above them on a carpet. He wasn’t alone either. Several other less diminutive people surrounded him, each of them brandishing effigies of strawmen.
“Bob Fossil,” a bald man, feathered coat that did nothing to stop the wind around his shoulders, a thin circlet of golden chain upon his brow, said, “your reign of terror has come to an end.
“No,” Naboo said, whispering into the man’s ear.
“Oh,” he said. “Sorry. Howard and this army is leaving with Vince.” In an undertone, he asked, “Why can’t I punish this fool? Surely he deserves it.”
“It’s tied into using our powers selfishly,” Naboo explained.
“And this isn’t?”
“We’re rescuing a poor, defenceless chap.”
“Who’re you calling defenceless?” Vince demanded. “I’m a Cockney bitch, I’ll have you know. I’ll slice you up faster than you can breathe. The other beggars will strip your dead body for food—” The gorilla pressed on Vince’s back and he subsided with a sharp cry.
“Just get on the carpet, you fadeway,” one of the other men said. His goatee quivered with indignation as he spoke. “There will be plenty of time for you to come back and stab this idiot once you no longer look like a wet spaghetti noodle has more strength than you.”
Vince grumbled but allowed Naboo to pull him onto the carpet.
The gorilla pushed Howard aside and was hauled up next. As Howard went to climb aboard, he felt Fossil’s hand close around the collar of his jacket, and he was jerked backwards. Fossil slammed his fist against Howard’s jaw, and it momentarily stunned him.
“Get up, Howard!” Vince yelled, voice muffled as he struggled around the gorilla’s grip on him. “Come on, Howard! You can take him!”
Howard didn’t think he could. Fossil was angry and, as an officer, he had better access to the food stores, as evidenced by his growing belly at a time when everyone else was punching new holes in their belts just to keep their trousers up.
Howard was strong, but Fossil was stronger.
“Oh enough of this,” the man who had condemned Vince snapped, hopping down from the carpet. “Surely you know something of the crunch.” He stabbed his strawman into Fossil’s face and shook it. Fossil stumbled back, clutching at his throat. “There. The crunch is over. Up you go. Mind Tony Harrison.”
“Mind who?” Howard asked.
“Me,” a pink ball sac whinged with a nasally voice that grated on the ears as Howard almost sat on it.
He stared at it and then shook his head. It was not the weirdest thing to happen today—that would be the flying carpet. But he had known Naboo was magic. Of course he had a talking gorilla as a familiar and traveled through the air with an entourage.
He was beginning to be more grateful that Naboo had offered his help.
“Is this it?” Vince asked. “Is the story over?”
“No it’s not, little man. We’ve still got to get you out of this frozen wasteland and away from Fossil.”
“Yeah, but why me? Why’s Fossil so obsessed with me? I mean, I haven’t done anything to get him all riled up.”
“Fossil had a lover when he was stationed at the Front,” Naboo said. “He was killed in action. He looked just like you, Vince. Maybe that’s why.”
Vince looked thoughtful before his face scrunched up. “When I was little, my dad was in the army. He went away and never came back. Hey, Howard, do you think my dad was Fossil’s lover?”
“It’s possible. But it doesn’t make him any less of a threat. I’ve no doubt the man is suffering from a complete mental break. I’m beginning to think we should have let the shamans destroy him.”
“Oh yes,” the pink ball sac cried ecstatically. “We could have had a right execution. I would personally have advocated for that. Dennis, you berk. Why did you let Naboo decide what we were going to do to the human?”
“Tony Harrison,” the shaman, who had dispatched Fossil, said, “you would execute your own mother if we let you.”
“Can you blame me? I mean, that woman is a right menace. Always going on about how she raised me better, and not to travel so much if it makes me sick. But my wife loves travelling, I tell you. Always wants another honeymoon.”
The pink ball sac drew in another breath, and Howard rushed to talk over him, not sure if any of them could withstand his blathering much longer.
“I wanted to say thank you for rescuing us, and if there’s anything you ever need from us, just say the word.”
“Yeah, and Howard’ll do it,” Vince added.
“Actually, that might work,” Naboo said. “I’ve got this shop in Dalston, and I can’t be bothered to run it. Not when I’m always off on shamanistic business.”
“How is the horse’s behind of Russia shamanistic business?” Howard demanded. Vince shushed him.
“Anyway, I’ll pay you to run the shop for me. Knickknacks and the like. Easy to sell. Even an ape could do it.” Bollo grunted, glaring at Naboo. “What? You are an ape.”
“If it’s so easy, why doesn’t Bollo do it?” Vince asked. “I don’t want to be stuck in a shop. I’m a free spirit. You can’t make me.”
Howard slapped a hand over his mouth, muffling the rest of his protest. “How much would you pay us?” he asked.
Naboo shrugged. “Ten Euros an hour. Forty hours a week. I need you to do it ‘cause Bollo travels with me. He’s my familiar, see?”
Howard stuck out his hand. Currently, as a soldier, he made less than five Euros a week, most of his pay going to things like rations and uniforms, and Vince made nothing as a beggar. In fact, Vince had so little to his name that if Howard hadn’t taken a fancy to him, he’s almost positive that Vince wouldn’t have lasted the winter.
Naboo shook his hand.
Howard took off his hat and dropped it onto Vince’s head. He smiled indulgently at his sidekick, his apprentice, if he could be so kind. He cut a dashing figure in his cloak and Howard’s hat. Like a child playing at dress up. Like a starved waif dwarfed by his mother’s drapes and his father’s cap. Howard tugged the hat down more firmly to block the wind from Vince’s face.
He couldn’t wait to return to England and see Vince actually eat a solid meal. Perhaps he could even persuade him to eat some pie.
Fossil would have to be dealt with; certainly he was mad enough and dangerous enough to hunt them down, their mode of transportation notwithstanding. But Howard was certain he could trust the shamans to handle it. The pink ball sac seemed particularly in favor of stopping Bob Fossil permanently. Well, either way, Howard’s concern now was Vince.
Vince smiled at him, leaning back against him. “This is a right adventure, isn’t it?”
“Yes it is. You’re all right with it?”
Vince shrugged. “I’ve only ever known that land. I grew up not far from where you were stationed.”
“How can you be a Cockney bitch if you lived all your life there?” Howard asked, wondering also at Vince’s English accent.
“My mum was from South London. She did her best to impart her wisdom to me before she died.”
For some reason, it had never occurred to Howard that Vince may have been an orphan. Perhaps he really was dressed in his mum’s drapes, having no other warm clothes that would fit him.
Vince shivered suddenly. “We’re not ever going back there, are we?”
“No,” Howard promised. He handed Vince his spare coat, gratified when Vince wriggled out of his cloak, pulled the coat on, and rewrapped his cloak about him. “Besides, I’m a deserter. If I go back, they’ll put me to death.”
Vince’s eyes lit up. “Are we going to live on the run always? I mean, it’s only a matter of time before someone checks Naboo’s shop. Can we have an adventure around every corner?”
“Would you like that better than staying in one place for the rest of your life?”
Vince nodded. “I’d like to go somewhere warmer. I’m tired of the snow and cold.”
“Naboo,” Howard called. The tiny shaman nodded at him. “Can you drop us on a tropical island?”
“Vacation first, eh?” Naboo grinned at them, a laconic smile. “I like it. We can do that.” He tapped the head shaman on his feathered shoulder, speaking directly into his ear.
Howard put an arm around Vince’s middle, letting the gentle bobbing of the carpet relax him. He knew they weren’t really safe, but it was hard to believe the danger they might be in when he had everything he had ever wanted practically sitting in his lap.
The more he thought about it, the more he realised it was an inspiring sort of story, his life, especially these last few months on duty.
If he ever wrote down his memoirs, maybe turned it into a deep, penetrating form of theatre, he would call it simply Pies.
~ The End ~