Soon, soon the flesh
The grave cave ate will be
At home on me
- Sylvia Plath, Lady Lazarus
It was a lonely sight, Louis thought, as he peered over the counter at the customers dotted in each corner of the café. He absently cleaned the surface of the counter and glanced at the three elderly women beside the window. One of the women, wearing a tight perm and a gold ring with an enormous diamond on her gnarled index finger, seemed to be lecturing her rather meek-looking companions.
“I wouldn’t mind so much except for the fact that they forecast light winds,” she said earnestly. Her voice carried through the quiet café.
One of the other women piped up, gesticulating wildly at the monsoon-like downpour outside. “It’s quite a sight, though, my dear! April promises showers, does it not?” The woman had a hoarse, commanding voice that seemed at odds with her reserved demeanour. Louis liked her at once.
“Don’t be ridiculous, Lucy,” Gnarled Finger Lady said with a dismissive wave. “This is far more than a mere shower. I don’t know how I’ll even get home.”
Perhaps it was hypocritical of him, but Louis thought she was being very dramatic. The rain pounded against the windows, creating a gentle, almost rhythmic background to his banal cleaning.
Louis had spent the last four months – since one week after his birthday – working in the small, quaint café in Nassau Street, Dublin. His work was reliable, he knew all of the usual customers by name and could memorise their orders in a heartbeat. Most of them were elderly, or recently retired, and enjoyed his company. (He knew that they certainly didn’t come for the sub-par coffee.)
Louis invariably spent his days smiling and very convincingly pretending to be interested in the lives of every customer he met – Mr Garrihy’s arthritic cat who had a penchant for climbing onto the cupboard in the kitchen, Mr and Mrs Dobson’s bridge club members who were (according to their very subjective tales) serial cheaters, and Mrs O’Donnell’s four grandchildren who lived in Oxford, England. Apparently, Mrs O’Donnell thought that, with Louis being from England, he would be familiar with the family. Louis didn’t have the heart to tell her otherwise.
Louis prided herself on his ability to feign attentiveness. He was an excellent listener; he made appropriately sympathetic sounds in the right places and asked the kind of questions that prompted someone – usually Mr Garrihy – in the middle of a rant to declare quite gratifyingly “And another thing!”.
The bell above the door chimed and Louis glanced up with surprise. He supposed the rain would have ushered in more stragglers seeking shelter but he didn’t expect someone younger than sixty-five. The soaking wet figure, clad in dripping layers, stumbled inside. Dark hair stuck to his forehead and he shook it like a mane, sending droplets of water flying across the hardwood floors. Louis sighed, making a note to mop the floor after he had left.
The boy dragged his feet over to the counter and it was only then that Louis realised that he was about Louis’ age. Probably a Trinity College student, Louis thought bitterly. He would, predictably, be pompous, conceited and speak with a horribly posh accent that dripped with distain. He would also study something useless but pretentious, like Greek Literature and Philosophy, or Latin with a side in Environmental Economics.
It was then that Louis glanced up to find the boy smiling expectantly at him. Annoyingly, Louis was struck by how handsome he was. Aside from his dishevelled hair – which was dripping onto Louis’ newly-cleaned counter – he had pale, clear skin and his pink lips were curved deviously. He had the kind of alluring smile that attracted blame from teachers at school, no matter how innocent the student. With a cursory glance at the boy’s arrogant demeanour, Louis’ hazarded a guess at ‘not very’.
Trinity Boy was also looking at him with slight confusion, as though he had said something but Louis hadn’t rewarded him with a response.
“What was that?” Louis said, internally smashing his head on the counter for staring.
The boy grinned, as though it was something he was used to and, though a mild inconvenience, was an excellent ego boost. Louis pursed his lips.
“Could I get a tea and one of those almond croissants?” the boy said with that same infuriating smile. He was English, Louis realised. The revelation shouldn’t have caused Louis’ heart to flutter with anxiety. Logically, there were many English people in Ireland but, even four months later, Louis still found his breathing became breathy and erratic whenever a link was forged with home.
Louis nodded. “For here or take away?”
The boy’s lips twisted to the side and he sunk his teeth into his lower lip, as though trying to supress a smile. “Here, thanks. Don’t much fancy going out again in that weather.”
Louis sighed as the boy turned on his heel and sauntered to one of the rickety tables nearest to the counter. He brewed the tea, trying not to listen to the faint tune Trinity Boy was humming, and brought the tea and croissant over to him. Finding that he was busying himself on his laptop, Louis pushed them to the far corner of the table.
“So,” the boy said, glancing up at Louis’ name tag and testing out the name, “James. You a student too?”
Even four months later, the name didn’t sit quite right with him. James Alexander Floyd was his fully assigned name. It sounded foreign on his tongue, and he hated that the first thing he told anyone new he had met since December was a lie. Tentative friendships and strange companionships with what felt like half of Ireland’s elderly population built on a foundation of deception. The name was like a parasite that he couldn’t remove from his own identity and the more he resisted, the stronger it clung to him. And it was attached to him, an incessant reminder that he needed to keep his mouth shut and his head down, unless he was feeling particularly partial to kidnapping, brutally savage torture methods and certain death sentence.
Louis shook his head. “Just working here,” he said with a blithe shrug.
Trinity Boy nodded, as though placated by Louis’ meagre response. “I’m Harry,” he said, flashing his canines. He dragged his tongue along his bottom lip in a way that was entirely too distracting in Louis’ opinion.
Louis nodded again, feeling like a redundant addition to Harry’s conversation. He didn’t look like a Harry, Louis thought, glancing at his leather satchel and listening to his aristocratic drawl. He was more of an Atticus, or Nathaniel Twisketon III.
“I’m studying English Lit,” he said, munching contently on his croissant.
Louis wasn’t quite sure what to do with this information, settling eventually on a half-interested hum.
“So, where in England are you from? It’s not every day you don’t feel like a stranger in a city like Dublin.”
Before Louis could consider his answer (or contemplate Harry’s absurd use of double-negative) the door chimed and Mrs Dobson marched inside and saved him from spluttering a reply. Louis deemed her a saviour in a purple overcoat and heavy rouge.
“James, my dear!” she called – and Louis had never felt happier hearing her shrill, demanding voice – “I need a strong brandy right away.”
“Mrs Dobson,” Louis said, repeating the practised response to her weekly request for brandy, “we don’t sell any alcohol here. I can make you a coffee, though. Just like I do every week.”
She heaved a sigh and collapsed into one of the chairs, as though Louis denying her brandy was the sole bane of her privileged life. “Coffee will simply have to do, then, James.”
Louis busied himself behind the counter and avoided Trinity Boy’s eye. He could feel his burning stare, however, a sharp pickle at the nape of his neck. He stole a glance to Harry’s table and found him deeply immersed in reading something on his laptop. Louis decidedly turned his attention back to making a strong pot of coffee for Mrs Dobson. It was going to be a long morning.
Louis pressed his forehead to the marble-tiled shower wall, sighing. His witness protection programme handler was, possibly, the most infuriatingly cheerful person in existence. How Liam ended up working for MI6, Louis did not know.
“I’m in the shower,” he called. “Be out in a minute!”
Louis massaged shampoo into his hair, relishing the way the small knots untangled and the searing hot water cascaded down his body. Liam could wait five more minutes. Louis shaved his face until it felt completely smooth before rinsing and stepping out of the shower and wrapping an enormous white towel around him.
“There’s some left-over stir fry in the pan, Liam!” he called. Louis heard a distant shout of thanks before he made his way into his shoe-box bedroom. Pulling on his threadbare sweats and multiple layers of mismatching jumpers, he dragged his feet back into the kitchen. He found Liam wearing a pristine grey suit and feasting on a generous serving of vegetable stir fry. The light above the kitchen table cast a dim light over him and the enormous stack of files on the chair beside him.
“I know I’m a little early,” Liam said with an apologetic smile. “I have to be back in London early tomorrow and figured you wouldn’t mind too much.”
Louis shook his head and smiled easily. He felt vastly underdressed but, with startling immediacy, realised that Liam had seen him in his worst possible state four months previously, half-naked, smeared in dirt and dried blood, and sobbing uncontrollably.
He heard the opening chords of Mariners Apartment Complex on the radio. Louis found it wonderfully appropriate.
“So,” Liam sighed, pushing his plate aside and heaving the pile of files towards him. “We have some good news and bad news. Which do you want first?”
Louis smiled despite himself. It was a running joke between them and one which elicited too many uncomfortable memories for Louis to consider in any great depth.
“The good news first, then,” Liam said, eyeing Louis carefully. “We found Foster’s location. He’s just outside Lublin in Poland. He’s apparently only with a small group of bodyguards – estimated ten to twelve men. We think he’s there for another sale.”
Louis’ throat was tight and constraining but he forced himself to nod. “The bad news?”
“New leads tell us that, once he completes this sale, he’s going into permanent hiding.”
Louis shot up from the table, his heart suddenly pounding in his chest. He balled his fists at his side to prevent them from shaking. “What?” he demanded. He didn’t miss the way Liam flinched but didn’t have time to focus on the heavy thrum of guilt in his chest. “Why can’t you just intercede the sale before he gets away with it and disappears?”
Liam hung his head and pulled the stack of piles towards him sheepishly, as though they were his own shield against Louis’ wrath. “It’s not that easy,” he sighed. “We have people watching from every angle at the moment but we need to get details of his sale up-and-front if we want to arrest him with sufficient proof. Otherwise his case will be thrown out of criminal rights grounds before either of us can open a bottle of champagne.
“It could take weeks to compile all the evidence that you need from that one sale, though,” Louis said, falling back into his chair.
Liam nodded glumly. “Exactly,” he sighed. “By which stage Foster will be gone without a trace.”
Louis dragged his hands down his face, pressing his palms into his eyes. “When’s the sale supposed to happen?”
“About two months,” Liam said. He smiled at Louis, sanguine and decidedly not reassuring. “We’ll figure something out before then. This isn’t something you need to worry about, you know. It’s our job.”
Louis nodded, resigned despite how utterly useless he felt. One of the terms of the witness protection program he had demanded was that he be consistently informed of any developments about Foster’s whereabouts and movements.
Ethan Foster was a murderer, a gangland crime leader who oversaw an underground drug trade throughout England and Louis’ former boyfriend. And now, he was going to disappear, which could only mean one thing: he was going to find Louis and rectify his rather careless mistake of not killing him four months ago.