He sticks the gun behind his belt and goes to the girl, squatting before her to take both her hands in his. She’s shaking like an aspen leaf in an autumn wind, but she meets his eyes without fear.

“Aye, you’ll do.” Rising, he sees the old woman standing in the entrance to the hall. “What about you, Grannie?”

She doesn’t answer right away, but goes to tend the screaming child. Being held in familiar arms with a familiar voice crooning to him soon sets him right, and he sticks his thumb in his mouth.

“I ’spects I’m in better shape than anyone else,” the old woman says. “You better scat, boy. Ima call the police to take care of this mess. Don’t want them to find you here. But what I’ll say to them…”

“You tell them the truth.”

“’Spects I will.” She nods, and a gleam comes into her eye, making her look fifty years younger. “But I may be a little vague about what ya’ll looked like. I don’t see as good as I did when I was young.”

On impulse, he swoops to her side and kisses her withered cheek. “I’m obliged to ye.”

“Go on. Git.”

He doesn’t need her to tell him again. In half a dozen steps he’s out the door, the night air cool on his hot face. It’s a long walk back to his squat, but he expects it will do him good.

Halfway down the block, his legs give out. Trembling, he sinks to the curb. His gorge rises, and he has just enough presence of mind to turn his head aside and vomit into the gutter, so he doesn’t splash his boots and jeans. The stink of it rises around him as he hangs his head between his knees, breathing deep, trying to get some blood back into his brain.

In a little while he gets up and goes on. At the corner, a trio of emergency vehicles roar past, lights flashing, sirens breaking the night into pieces. But they pay him no mind, and he barely notices.
He’s written his own death warrant with his actions tonight. He didn’t need Suede’s oblique warning to know it. Suede might wait a bit before telling the Afghani, as much because giving the boss bad news is always an unpleasant experience as to give his former partner time to get away. But tell he will. And the next time Suede comes to the squat, it won’t be to collect him for a job.

Or perhaps the Afghani will do him the courtesy of sending someone he hasn’t worked with and doesn’t know.

Or perhaps he’ll use a different method. There are so many. Arranging for Carlo to sell him bad junk, for instance.

It would be the better part of wisdom not to return to the warehouse at all. To walk in the opposite direction and keep walking, all the way out of this miserable city. But he can’t think of anywhere else to go, and he’s so tired. He used everything he had left saving that family. Not a scrap remains with which he might save himself.

All he can do is choose his own time and manner of going. His fingers fumble in his pocket after the baggie of black tar. He thinks he has enough to do the job. Enough to send him into a sleep beyond waking.

Two hours later, he leans against the warehouse wall and stretches out his legs, rig dropping from fingers already going lax as the last shot flows through his veins. He made no concession to death except to take off his boots. It deserves no more drama than walking from one street to another. But he saw no reason to be uncomfortable on the journey.

In his final conscious act, he drives his rig into the cement warehouse floor, breaking the needle off halfway down its shaft. One way or another, he won’t be needing it again.

* * *

He’s not sure how he came to be sitting beneath a tree, or what it is that presses close beside his legs, thrumming. The vibration isn’t unpleasant. On the contrary, the steady rumble soothes something jagged in his soul, something that’s hurt him a long while. Like a belt sander smoothing out a board of rough-cut lumber, he thinks, and the image is so absurd that he laughs. Or tries to. Instead of a laugh, all he can manage is a ragged gasp followed by a cough.

That’s when he realizes he hasn’t been breathing.

Breathing is such a struggle. He isn’t certain he wants to continue. On the exhalation, he lets go, meaning to stop. The rumble at his side deepens into a threatening growl. It doesn’t frighten him; fear would be too much work. Still, he decides he’d better keep breathing. For a little while.

Overhead, gold pierces a scattering of green leaves. Oak leaves: he recognizes their shape. They flutter in a wind he can’t feel. The tree’s spreading branches make a canopy between him and the free air, shutting him off from the sky.

A dark blob hops along one of the branches and thrusts a sharp beak in his general direction. A feathered head cocks, fixing him with a glittering black eye.

“You’d better hurry.” The voice comes from his side, from the same source as the purring. A deep voice, definitely feminine, halfway familiar. For some reason, it reminds him of stars.

“I can’t keep him going forever.”

“A little longer,” croaks the blob. The word for it springs into his head: Raven. “Not far now.”

“Hurry.” The being at his side twitches. Something lashes through the scattered leaves at the oak’s base. It brushes his outstretched hand, a furry snake.

“Soon.”

The Raven launches itself into the invisible blue. The being beside him resumes its constant rumble. Making an effort, he lifts his hand, extends it an inch farther, and drops it. It lands on warm fur with something solid underneath. His fingers explore the ridge of a haunch.

“Ah. You.” His fingers tighten in the fur, and he drifts. Every so often, he remembers to breathe.

In time, a cold rain begins to fall.

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