A Short Story By Pamela Morris.
"I cannot think of any need in childhood as strong as the need for a father's protection."
Intrigue, Suspense and a look into a bleak future.
Ruby flipped open the lid, inserted the brass key and started cranking. Two, three, ten, fifteen, twenty revolutions before the mechanism clicked and the monitor flickered to life. A steady hum emitted from the wooden box on the floor as she said a silent prayer and hoped the device would run long enough for her to reach her contact in Syracuse. A soft, reassuring beep sounded as the screen began to glow a sickly green.
Propping the device on her lap, Ruby leaned back against the foot of the bed and unfolded the keyboard. Its copper-trimmed keys glistened in the light generated by the monitor that faced her and the oil lamp to her right. As her fingers danced over the keys, inputting the needed identification codes and passwords, the clock downstairs whirred and chimed three times. No wonder she was so tired, but it was imperative she get the electrified post sent. If anyone from the Alliance intercepted the data she’d be tossed in jail no matter who her mother was.
Ruby shuddered at the idea. Incarceration wasn’t like it had been in the olden days. Back then you got your own bed, clean clothes, three square meals a day, outdoor recreation, and sometimes even a college education out of the deal. Cruel and unusual treatments were normal now and political correctness was dead.
With a jab, Ruby hit the send button and held her breath. The green light on the face of the box’s keyboard blinked twice and the machine beeped.
Ruby only then realized how much her hands were shaking. Just as quickly as she’d gotten it going, she shut down. Alliance officials were everywhere. The green glow of the monitor at this hour was, as far as they were concerned, an open invitation to break in the door and drag you away.
What happened next was in the hands of her contact. Until she heard back from him, Ruby had only to go about her everyday life appearing as insignificant as possible.
Saul Blackwater rubbed the gritty sands of sleep out of his eyes and focused on the plaster ceiling over his head. He knew ever crack and ripple of that old thing. He should. He’d been looking at it every morning and evening for the past twenty-some odd years.
Sunlight lanced its way between the slats and around the edges of the window blinds. He needed a hot cup of chicory bad, but first he had to take a leak. On his way, Saul tossed a couple pieces of wood into the stove. Warm embers still glowed deep inside. It shouldn’t take long for the fuel to heat things up nicely.
In Saul’s opinion, the indoor water closet was the best thing that had ever happened to humanity. Even if they weren’t quite as fancy as they had been in his great-grandparent’s day, at least they’d not reverted back to medieval times. Saul didn’t bother to close the door. He lived alone.
Heaving a resigned sigh, Saul pulled the chain that dangled from the tank hanging on the wall above the rust-stained toilet bowl. A shower would be nice, he mused as he watched the water drain. There wasn’t time for that now though.
Saul poured cool water from the china pitcher into the matching bowl, tossed the washcloth into it and scrubbed his face. What he really needed was coffee. When was the last time he’d had a cup of real coffee? His grandfather had given him some, back when it cost only pennies a cup. Saul hadn’t liked it much then. By the time he was old enough to buy it, the stuff was so rare he could only afford it for very special occasions.
Back in the kitchen and now alert enough not to stumble over the cat that had decided to show itself, Saul was pleased to feel the heat of the stove filling the room. He hated the cold of winter. He tossed another log into the crackling flames beneath the cast iron surface he used for cooking. Saul filled his dented tea kettle with water from the hand pump and set it down to boil.
He should check his e-posts. The last transmission from White Dove had said she was close to a breakthrough with the Elmira Alliance. But he’d not heard from her in nearly a month. That made him edgy. He rubbed his cold hands together, breakfast first.
The thermostat that hung on the porch post just outside his kitchen window, read thirty-six degrees Fahrenheit. Poor chickens, he thought as he pulled on another layer over his t-shirt. He hoped there would be an egg or two for him to have for breakfast. He may not have agreed a lot with the Organics of yesteryear, but they had had one thing right, the Grid was dicey; the Grid would collapse; get yourself off the Grid if you could. Saul had found an old manual in his grandfather’s barn as a kid. The images of solar panels and windmills had fascinated his mechanically inclined brain. Grandpa had quickly hushed the young boy who’d brought that book back to the surface.
“They want us dependent on them, boy,” Grandpa’s voice was as clear in Saul’s head today as it had been back then. “Keep this to yourself, eh? Shoulda been burned with the others but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.” The old man had flipped through the pages with affection and loss in his fading eyes before handing it back to Saul. “Keep it hidden, safe. Things keep going like they are and you’ll be needing to know these things.”
Sooner than anyone had truly expected, Saul had needed to know them. He’d made a solar oven which worked great in the summertime. Black pipes ran back and forth across the roof of the house and did a pretty decent job of providing him with hot water most of the year. It meant he had to climb up there in the winter to shovel the snow off, but it was a small price for the luxury. A windmill would have been nice, but not practical for him. It would have drawn too much attention from the Alliance balloon patrols.
With puffs of breath billowing out from between Saul’s lips, he trudged to the chicken coop. In a small barn off to his right the two cows he kept rustled and lowed slowly. The pigs would want feeding soon, too and he knew he’d better get to harvesting and canning the last of his garden before the snow fell. It was going to be a very busy day. The computer and the outside world were going to have to wait. Personal survival came first.
Beggers could not be choosers. Ruby had learned that at a very young age. She couldn’t remember her father, whom she was apparently just like. His picture was not even allowed in the house and if Ruby asked about him, she was told in no uncertain terms to look in the mirror.
As a child and on into her teens, Ruby had spent a great many hours in front of her dressing table mirror. It wasn’t out of vanity, as her mother so often did while she primped and preened and even spoke to herself in the glass, but out of curiosity, searching for her father’s face in her own. Her eyes were shaped like wide almonds and brown like a deer’s. Unlike Regina, her mother, who had golden tresses that flipped and curled about her face, Ruby’s hair was jet black and hung straight as string. She kept it shoulder length with bangs that just covered her eyebrows. Her mother’s tight, thin lips faded beside Ruby’s that were full and a rich shade of pink. The only thing they did share was their uncommonly pale skin, white as the finest China doll in her mother’s collection. And where her mother was tall and regal, Ruby was never going to be any taller than the five-foot-three she’d reached by the time she was fourteen.
There were no fewer than three accounts of what had become of Ruby’s father. Her mother claimed he’d gotten in with the wrong crowd, meaning the people who opposed The Alliance, and had run off in fear of his life to somewhere in Canada. The cook told Ruby that Regina had personally had him arrested and sent out west to one of the numerous re-education camps where, rumor had it, he’d died. And the chauffer led Ruby to believe that Mr. LeBlanc had left of his own free will, tired of his wife’s constant political and corporate back-stabbing as she clawed her way to the rank of State High Chancellor. Ruby suspected there were grains of truth in every account. Which grains, she would likely never know.
Apparently, Ruby was just like him whether she wanted to be or not. She’d never meant to be a rebel. It was just something thrust upon her when nothing else she tried to do had proven good enough for her high society mother. After a while she figured she’d never meet Regina’s high expectation so why even try?
Three weeks ago it had come to a head. Ruby had taken a bigger chance than she’d ever taken before. She’d joined an Anti-Alliance march. Her mother had quickly been informed and the humiliation of the whole affair had left Ruby standing in the streets without a single piece of needed paperwork to her name. Being homeless was not an option. The Military Police patrolled the streets constantly for stragglers. Curfews were strictly enforced. If you got caught outside after eleven at night and before five in the morning, you’ve better have the proper documents to prove you weren’t a threat to anyone, meaning the government. By some miracle, Ruby had managed to remain in hiding long enough to find Mrs. Lourdes’ boarding house. The landlady had taken pity on Ruby and let her have the last of her eight available rooms under the stipulation that Ruby help her with all the chores of the place. It seemed a reasonable agreement.
Hair brushed and face washed, Ruby stepped into the hallway to the heady aroma of bacon. Bacon!? Mrs. Lourdes must have won big at something to get bacon. Quickening her pace, she thumped down the stairs then into the kitchen.
“Why didn’t you wake me to help you?” The scent of bacon tingled the inside of her nose. Her stomach growled and her mouth pooled with saliva. “It really is bacon?!”
“Shush now,” Mrs. Lourdes whispered while scooping the still sizzling strips onto a towel-draped plate, “you’ll wake the whole neighborhood.” The older woman grinned. “As for why I didn’t wake you, everyone deserves a day to sleep in now and then and you’ve worked hard these past three weeks. Besides, if you’d helped me, this wouldn’t have been so much of a surprise!?
“Where did you get it?”
“I found it.”
“You don’t just find bacon, Mrs. L.”
The matron’s softly wrinkled face bloomed into an even greater smile, “Oh, but that’s just what happened. It was wrapped in butcher’s paper and string right there by the front door as if someone had slid it through the mail slot.”
“Do I smell bacon?” A warm, masculine voice cut into the conversation. Ruby and her landlady both turned just as Dr. Tucker lumbered in. His rotund form filled the doorway almost as much as his white-bearded smile filled the room.
“You certainly do,” Mrs. Lourdes replied.
“Then we are abundantly blessed this morning.” He gave the subject no further attention, making a beeline to the steaming tea pot and the cups stacked beside it. Ruby watched as he filled his cup and immediately suspected he was the one who’d brought the bacon into the house. “All we need now are real eggs and some coffee and we’ll be eating like high society.” His blue eyes sparkled over his wire-rimmed glasses and though he smiled as he looked at Ruby it made her uncomfortable. Cast out from the ranks of her social climbing mother or not, they all knew where Ruby had come from and somehow she always felt slightly more tolerated than liked by her fellow boarders.
“Did someone say coffee,” the shy voice belonged to Mr. Bronson, a sheepish-looking man who peered at the world from behind thick, black frames. As he entered, he dropped a heavy, canvas book bag on the floor by the door. He scanned the room expectantly then spied the heaping plate of bacon Mrs. Lourdes was just putting on the kitchen table. “Is that..?”
“Bacon, yes, it is.”
The next five minutes echoed the previous as each newly-arrived tenant entered the room. Each speculated the bacon’s origins. The old and stodgy Mr. Martin instantly assumed it was a case of entrapment. Government agents must have put it there and would, no doubt, come pounding on the door any minute and arrest them all for possession of illegal contraband. Mr. Thomas always waddled into a room with a smile that made you think he was up to something. This morning was no exception. It was impossible for Ruby to tell if the grin was because he’d been enticed by the bacony goodness his nose had detected or if he were in on some great secret as to its origins. Mr. Walters stumbled in; his blood-shot eyes appeared piggish through thick glasses. Tall and rail-thin, he folded himself into his usual chair at the table looking slightly hung over. He told everyone he’d been clean for years, but the drugs and alcohol had taken a toll on his body.
“Damn that smells good,” he eyed the plate as if it were a heap of the finest dope.
As always, they heard Mr. Reynolds before they saw him. He stomped, coughed, sneezed and hacked his way down the stairs then stopped at the doorway and stared, hanky poised and ready for use in one hand. “What’s that smell?” he grimaced.
His already twisted expression grew even more so. “Real bacon? Like, from a pig?”
“Here it comes,” Mr. Martin grumbled under his breath.
“Yes, from a pig,” Mrs. Lourdes said with an almost forced edge of cheer in her voice. She’d been very testy lately, Ruby thought.
Reynolds grunted and made his way over to his chair. “Doesn’t agree with my stomach. Gives me gas,” he said. He coughed into his handkerchief as if to emphasize his point.
“All the more for the rest of us then,” Mr. Thomas’ face beamed at the thought.
Ruby looked around the table and its occupants. Sure enough, there was still one place empty. “Where’s Mr. Arnold?” She really didn’t have to ask, but felt she should.
“Probably still sleeping,” Dr. Tucker replied. “I heard him up and about until almost three-thirty this morning.”
“Should we wait for him?”
“Hell, no!” Mr. Martin protested. “If he can’t get his lazy ass out of bed...”
“Mr. Martin! Language, please,” Dr. Tucker interrupted.
The old man glared at the doctor, crossed his arms and frowned. “We going to yap about this bacon business all morning or eat it before it gets cold? I’m hungry.”
“We’re going to eat it,” Mrs. Lourdes chirped. “Ruby, help me serve, won’t you?”
It was late in the afternoon before Saul realized he’d eaten nothing but snippets of green beans since breakfast. One more day of preserving should see as much of his harvest saved as possible for the long winter months. He’d butcher the livestock only as if needed. The rest of his protein would be had hunting and fishing. Gun ownership, beyond those held by the military, had been amended right out of existence, but Saul was a crack shot with a bow and arrow. He chuckled at the idea that in the eyes of the Alliance he was a criminal just for having the bow.
With a cup of herbal tea, Saul headed over to what appeared to be nothing more than a treadle sewing machine. The plain, wooden case on top had housed such a thing once. As he’d done with so many other things, Saul had adapted this device to better suit his needs.
Every now and then the urge to surrender invaded Saul’s mind. Life could be so much easier if he just did as OWA, One World Alliance, wanted. He’d been a wealthy and powerful business man once with everything the Alliance promised at his fingertips. Follow the rules and all would be well. Instead of ending the day with dirt crammed under his fingernails and his back bent in pain from hauling wood or bending over crops, he could be living the high life, drinking real coffee instead of what amounted to a cup of leaves and twigs.
Saul stared at the sewing machine box and released the doubts he’d been holding with his breath. No, he had done the right thing. He would continue to do it regardless of the price he’d paid. Saul was in too deep to turn back now.
Beneath the wooden cover a flat screen monitor awaited the spark of life. A drawer at the front of the cabinet pulled out. Where wooden pegs had once held spools of colorful threads and bobbins, now rested a cobbled together keyboard. The local dump never failed to disappoint. Saul could not have been more pleased the day he’d hauled a manual typewriter back into the light of day. Though caked with dirt and grime, every black iron key was perfectly intact.
The cast iron wheel, treadle and belt no longer moved a threaded needle but hooked to a small generator. Once the wheel was going and Saul was firmly in the rhythm of the device, he had no trouble powering it for an hour or more. It was plenty of time to read and send his e-posts. People bragged about their portables, but the crank time was simply too short to be of use to Saul. Luckily, OWA hadn’t mastered the art of scrambling basic wireless waves yet.
Soon he’d logged into his account and was scrolling through the messages. There were a couple of very high priority, sent by the upper crust of the Anti-Alliance, but none caught his eye faster than the sight of the screen name Little Dove. He’d feared the worse for that girl. The nearly month-long silence that had followed her insistence that she was going to join the march in Elmira had been agonizing. She was a sharp, bright young thing and a huge asset to the cause. Saul double-clicked to open the message.
“RLB1324,” the first line read. It verified to Saul that the writer and sender of the message was who it claimed to be. “Dismissed by Regina,” it continued. Saul felt himself blanch and almost lost the connection as his feet slowed. “Living on own. Woodland Drive Boarding House. Room and board for work. Seven others here. Several seem warm to idea of Anti-Alliance. Need to make sure before I approach. Still need proper papers. Mrs. Lourdes, landlady, doing best to get for me. Await word on how to proceed. RLB1324.”
The screen dimmed, flickered, brightened, dimmed again then blinked out entirely.
Saul’s chest constricted until a pathetic, “No,” wheezed helplessly out.
Dr. Tucker, his paper-bag lunch clutched in one hand, was the first to leave. He’d spend the day at the Free Clinic. Mr. Thomas had somehow convinced Mr. Martin to quit looking on the dark side of life all the time and join him for a game of checkers or two at the nearest community center. Begrudgingly, Mr. Martin had gone but had whispered a paranoid, “Watch yourself,” to Ruby before leaving.
In his tweed jacket, black trousers and black tweed waistcoat, Mr. Bronson had donned his best bowler and said his good-days as he headed out to the library where he worked. Ruby wasn’t exactly sure what he did there all day as there were so few real books left. Mr. Reynolds packed the pockets of his great coat with no fewer than three handkerchiefs before adding a scarf, gloves and a hat to his attire. He’d stop at the chemist’s shop one street over first to see what new pharmaceuticals may have arrived overnight. Then he’d make his way to all the others in town. Ruby wondered what exactly it was he did for a living. She suspected it had something to do with the black-market sale of homeopathic remedies.
Mr. Walter’s worked at the men’s shelter and was a part-time counselor to others who suffered from the alcohol and drug-addictions he’d overcome. It didn’t seem wise to Ruby to have a man of his issues residing with someone like Mr. Reynolds. But, of course, Ruby could be completely wrong about all of it. Mr. Arnold was still sleeping. He’d sleep until well past noon then come stumbling downstairs, blurry-eyed and groggy. He worked third shift at the nearby salt mine.
Eventually it was just Ruby and Mrs. Lourdes, and the landlady was not going to stay long herself. “I’m off to the fish mongers,” she said, heaving her generous body to standing. “You’ll be alright on your own, won’t you?”
Mrs. Lourdes left Ruby alone whenever she went to the market. Without the proper papers, neither dared let her stray too far from the front stoop. “You know I will. There’s plenty here to do.” She scanned the remnants of breakfast on the table. The kitchen counters and stove behind her were in an equal state of disarray.
“Good, and,” Mrs. Lourdes dug into her purse, “take this.” It was a twenty dollar bill. “Get whatever you can from the fruit and vegetable vendor. She should be by today. I thought an apple pie might be nice for dessert tonight, so get some apples.” Once her cloak was on, the landlady tied a scarf over her graying hair and headed for the door, basket in one hand, pocketbook in the other. Out of habit, Ruby followed her to the door. Mrs. Lourdes paused as she stepped out into the brisk, autumn air, the turned and looked at Ruby. “And don’t let anyone in but our own,” she warned.
“I never do.”
And she was gone. Down the cracked and worn brownstone steps she went, left towards town and the marketplace by the Chemung River. Ruby watched until Mrs. Lourdes’ form was little more than a speck and the cold wind drove deep into Ruby’s bones.
Winter was surely almost here. She’d not be surprised at all to see snow on the ground one of these mornings. Ruby went back inside to stoke the stove and began her cleaning duties.
Mrs. Lourdes waddled her way into town as quickly as her arthritic legs would take her. The best fish of the morning would be snatched up all too quickly and with the extra money she’d soon be getting, she could surely buy something extra special for her boarders. The idea of having to make even one extra stop was not at all to her liking.
‘Mirror, Mirror’ wasn’t the sort of place she normally would have entered, but today she was waiting anxiously outside the door when the young clerk flipped over the sign and gave her a nasty glare.
She went in anyway, trying to pretend she didn’t notice how neatly groomed he was compared to her hand-me-down attire. His suit was spotless. His hair was trimmed. His mustache properly waxed and curled upward at the edges. On his narrow nose, which directed his gaze downward at Mrs. Lourdes, rested a pair of wire-rimmed spectacles. He cleared his throat with annoyance before speaking, “May I help you?”
Mrs. Lourdes straightened her back as best she could. There was nothing to be ashamed of. She was here on official business. “I would like to see your best mirror, Sir.”
He scanned her homespun clothing with distaste. “Our best?”
“You’re very best, if you please,” Mrs. Lourdes continued. “One fit for a queen.”
His eyes brightened, “Ah…I know exactly what you’re looking for. Follow me.”
Saul sat paralyzed with fear. Should he reply to the e-post? Should he contact those nearest to Little Dove and pray they weren’t stopped at the door, or sooner, before they could reach her? Maybe he should go to Elmira himself? Thought the slowest method, he had to do something to warn his young contact.
Saul pumped the computer back to life and typed as quickly as his old fingers would allow.
It certainly didn’t look like liquid gold, but Ruby knew the bacon grease could be sold for a hefty price on the black market. Mrs. Lourdes wanted it saved for the boarding house though. Ruby scraped it into a small, glass jar, twisted the cap into place and set it aside. The cast iron pan Mrs. Lourdes had used to fry the delicacy was the last thing to be scrubbed and Ruby was just heaving it onto the top of the stove to dry when she heard a female voice shouting in the distance.
“Fresh veggies! Fresh fruit! Fresh veggies! Fresh fruit! Pumpkins, tomatoes, apples and pears. Get your onions, potatoes, parsnips, turnips, and carrots here. Fresh veggies! Fresh fruit!” The banter would repeat itself up one street and down the next until all the goods were gone.
Ruby fetched the money the landlady had given her and a basket from atop the cupboard, pulled on a heavy sweater and went to the curb to wait.
“Fresh veggies! Fresh fruit!” the old woman called. Now that Ruby was outside, the voice was much clearer and distinctly different from the one she knew so well in the past. Someone new must have taken over the route. As the mule-drawn wagon of goods got closer, Ruby stepped out and gave a wave.
“Good morning,” Ruby said with cheer.
“Morning, Miss. What would you like?” The cart owner was hunched and shuffled as she walked to the side of her wagon.
“My landlady would like some apples for a pie,” Ruby told her, then asked, “What has become of the other vendor?”
“Fell ill, I’m told.” The woman made her way to the back of the cart. “Apples for a pie, you say? You’ll want something sweet then, and crisp.”
Ruby nodded, watching as the woman’s gnarled hands passed over and dismissed numerous apples that looked perfectly fine to her customer. Ruby scanned the other fruits and vegetable. What else should she get? The vendor placed half a dozen large apples into Ruby’s waiting basket, setting them in as delicately as if they were eggs. “Anything else, dear?”
“Nine potatoes and nine carrots, too.” With the weather turning cold, Mrs. Lourdes would want to be making more stews. “And an onion, no, two onions.”
The peddler grinned. “You’re my best customer this morning,” she chirped as she selected the items. “That be all?”
Ruby nodded, waited for the woman to tabulate the cost and took the change. “Thank you,” she said as she took back the laden basket.
“Thank you!” The old vendor was just about to gather up the lead reins of her patient mule when she paused. “Wait a moment, Miss,” she said.
“Is something wrong?”
“Oh, no, no.” The saleswoman made her way back to the apple crate and dug around in it so much Ruby half expected the whole lot to tumble out and go rolling down the street. With a gasp of delight, the gnarled hand pulled out a huge, golden yellow apple the likes of which Ruby had never seen. “There she is. What a beauty.”
“Mine? Oh, no. I can’t.” Ruby drew back.
“A present for the prettiest customer on the route.”
“I can’t just take it. Let me pay…”
But the woman was persistent. “It’s for you, free and clear, from my very own orchard. Don’t tell the Precinct police now, will you?” She pushed the apple firmly into Ruby’s hand.
“I won’t tell,” she promised.
A toothless grin spread across the peddler’s face. “Good. Now, it’s just for you to make a fine little tart with, understand? Our little secret.”
Speechless, Ruby gave a slight nod and watched as the fruit cart was set back into motion with a flick of the mule’s reins and soft whistle from the vendor’s aged lips.
“Fresh veggies! Fresh fruit! Fresh veggies! Fresh fruit!” The call began again as the wagon creaked slowly around the next corner.
The steam locomotive had been packed with passengers and their luggage. Someone’s infant had squalled on for hours, leaving the unfortunate mother looking shameful and afraid. At least they’d passed laws against the transportation of livestock in the passenger compartments though Saul was certain he’d heard a well-hidden chicken cluck a few times.
By the time Saul disembarked, every muscle in his body was screaming in pain. So much for the common courtesy of surrendering a seat to the elderly. His shuffling gait was no act and the nearest bench on the platform wasn’t near enough. Saul eased himself onto the weathered, wooden surface and let out a groan of relief. He’d arrived during rush hour and the hoards of commuters pushed, shoved and growled their way around him.
Previous dealings with Lorraine Lourdes, whom he’d grown up knowing as Lorraine Masters, had left a bitter and angry taste in his mouth. It hadn’t always been that way. Lorraine was an old friend and had been a sweet, shy young lady. He’d almost asked Lorraine to marry him until he realized they’d never see eye-to-eye on what was happening to this once great nation. He cared. She didn’t. She was the perfect citizen, the sort that OWA loved. To Saul, Lorraine represented what so many in the world had become in the last fifty years, mindless cattle doing only as they were told. Lorraine had been easily manipulated by the likes of the High Chancellor and if Saul knew anything about Regina LaBlanc, manipulation was what she did best.
Saul heaved himself up from the bench with a groan, grabbed his carpet bag, and headed towards the front of the station entrance.
The market was unusually crowded, rough, and loud. One cranky and hurried person after another pushed up against Mrs. Lourdes as she made her way from the fish mongers stall towards the butcher’s. Normally she let the buzz of gossip wash over her, but today the drone of it was impossible to ignore and when she heard mention of the High Chancellor, Mrs. Lourdes started to pay attention. The first claimed they had heard from one of the Chancellor’s cooks who had spoken to one of the guards that had been told by one of the MPs that he had seen a suspicious person lurking outside the gates of the Chancellor’s house the night before. The second piece of speculation insisted that the Chancellor had been assaulted in the night and left for dead. The next retold how the Chancellor had suddenly slipped away to join the Anti-Alliance. Mrs. Lourdes knew for a fact the High Chancellor was not in the least bit dead, assaulted, or intent on switching sides. As for the lurker, that was anyone’s guess. She had no interest in adding to the stew of gossip. She knew what side her bread was buttered on.
She was only doing what she’d been told to do. As much as she liked her newest boarder, the needs of the many must come before the wants of a few. Mrs. Lourdes couldn’t afford to take risks as her age. After all these years she was just happy to comply and live her life. If living more comfortably meant doing as OWA asked of her, then so be it. Failure would be fatal.
With a shove, Mrs. Lourdes was spat out in front of the butcher. At her sudden appearance, he looked up and gave a nod of recognition as he finished his current transaction with another customer. It was just after noon and already his stock was not as Mrs. Lourdes had hoped. Damn the delay and that silver-backed glass. Technology was an amazing thing except when it put her off her shopping schedule. But when Regina told you to go to “Mirror, Mirror” you went. And you stood there and you waited patiently for as long as it took for the device to boot up, ask you its questions, listen to your report, before sending you on your way with another assignment. The only things that smoothed her unraveling nerves were the two gold coins that lay tucked protectively inside one of her gloves.
“You’re late this week, Mrs. Lourdes,” he said by way of greeting as she finally stepped up.
“Early errands, I’m afraid.”
The butcher smiled and leaned forward ever so slightly, “What can I get for you?”
From the kitchen the sound of a key slipping into the front door lock was distinct and clear. The hallway acted as a sort of amplifier. Ruby looked up from the cutting board and listened. The lock clicked. There was the rustle of bags, soft footsteps that took only a few steps into the entryway then the door shut with uncommon gentleness. Whoever it was seemed to have paused as if listening to the silence that shrouded the place when everyone but Ruby was away.
The grip Ruby held on the paring knife tightened.
Her shoulders sagged as the pent up tension instantly slid away. “In here, Mrs. L,” she replied then went to the doorway where she could actually see the front door. “Do you need help?”
Mrs. Lourdes looked as if she’s just seen a ghost, her white knuckles wrapped tight around the handle of her canvas bag. Ruby rushed forward just as her landlady muttered a strange sort of sigh, “You’re, you’re here, there. Yes. Of course you are.”
Ruby took the bag from her. “Where else would I be?”
“I, I thought maybe upstairs is all.” Mrs. Lourdes studied her for a moment then seemed to recover from whatever strange thought had distressed her.
“Are you alright?”
Mrs. Lourdes smiled. “Yes, fine. The market was crowded today and the cold, it’s getting to my bones more and more these days.” She started to shrug off her coat. Ruby stepped in to help and hung it on the wooden pegboard nearby. “Did you get the apples?”
Ruby beamed with pride. “I did and I was just peeling the last one to put into the pie you wanted. I was hoping to have it in the oven by the time you got back but the bed sheets took forever. Mr. Thomas has been eating up in his room again.” She grabbed the market bag from the floor and headed to the kitchen. “Would you like some tea?”
Mrs. Lourdes followed her in. “You’re making the pie?” She scanned the apple cores and skins and remnants of pie crust and flour that lay scattered on Ruby’s work surface.
“I meant for it to be a surprise,” Ruby said then frowned seeing the somewhat confused scowl on her landlady’s face. “Are you upset with me?”
“No,” Mrs. Lourdes said but somehow Ruby wasn’t convinced. She’d done something wrong. Maybe the pie wasn’t meant for them. Maybe she’d misunderstood what her landlady had said about them having it for dessert tonight. Mrs. Lourdes nodded her head slightly as if coming to some silent conclusion then looked up at Ruby and smiled, a genuine smile this time. “No. No, I’m not upset with you at all, my dear. You’re a wonderful help around here.”
Ruby’s shoulders relaxed. “I like it here. I like helping you and I even like Mr. Martin, grumpy as he may be at times.”
The landlady chuckled, “They are seven, funny old men, aren’t they? And yes, I would love a cup of tea.”
It was dark by the time Saul made his way to the eastern end of Woodland Drive. Long ago, his grandfather had told him, maple trees and pines had lined the roadside. In autumn the smell of the turning leaves would just about take his breath away. Saul took in a deep breath and smelled only the stale, dirty scent of a greasy city. He bowed his head against the stiff and biting wind and moved on.
“That was incredible, Mrs. L,” Mr. Bronson said while wiping his mouth.
“Found a bone in mine.”
“Fish is an excellent source of Omega-3s. We should have fish more often.”
“Very good, yes, very good, Mrs. Lourdes. A person could get addicted to having such wonderful meals too often.”
“It was stupendous,” Mr. Thomas, his napkin still tucked up under his second chin, chuckled. “And I know I smelled apple pie earlier.”
“I’m allergic to shellfish you know, Mrs. Lourdes? I’m so glad you didn’t get shrimp or something like that.”
“Yes, I know you are, Mr. Reynolds. There wasn’t any shrimp at the market anyway and had there been it’s hardly affordable to us.”
“It’s too bad Mr. Arnold had to eat and run,” Ruby rose from her place and began to clear away the dinner plates. “He barely got up in time to leave for work. And yes, you did smell pie, Mr. Thomas. I made it myself!”
“Oh, great,” Mr. Martin grunted, “another baking experiment.”
“No one is forcing you to eat it, Mr. Martin,” Mrs. Lourdes finally spoke up. She looked around the table, “No one is forcing anyone to eat it.”
Even though the landlady was smiling when she spoke and Ruby was sure she must be making a joke of the last time Ruby had tried her hand at baking, there was something in the way Mrs. Lourdes said it, an edge to her voice almost as if she were warning the others.
“Well, I’m going to have a piece,” Dr. Tucker said. “Aren’t too many things left in this sorry world of ours that are better than fresh, apple pie.”
With Mrs. Lourdes’ help, the table was cleared in no time and the plump, golden brown pie was presented to the boarders. Ruby sliced it carefully into nice equally sized pieces while the landlady went to the cupboard for seldom used dessert plates.
“If only we had a pot of real coffee,” Mr. Martin sighed nostalgically. “My mother used to make the best coffee you can imagine, until those bastards…”
“Mr. Martin, I’ve warned you before about your language,” Mrs. Lourdes scolded.
Mr. Martin went silent as the plates were filled and passed around. The angry lines in his forehead grew deeper and his frown more pronounced.
“Alright everybody, dig in!” Ruby said as she gave herself the final plate.
The room was silent for a moment as poised forks were lowered into what appeared to be nothing more than a flaky crust and well-cooked apples cradled in an oozing pool of caramelized juices and cinnamon. Ruby stuck her fork into the tip of her piece and glanced over at Mrs. Lourdes, eager to see if her landlady approved. Mrs. Lourdes had not yet taken a bite. Instead she was looking around the table at each of her boarders. Her face had gone a doughy white and the hand that gripped her fork did so with such intensity the utensil shook.
“Mrs. L., what’s the matter?” Ruby asked.
The others at the table looked up. Mr. Thomas grinned around the pieces of pie shoved into his mouth. “Don’t be afraid. It’s really very good.”
Mr. Martin nodded his head with rare approval. “Go on. Try it. Ruby did a great job this time.”
Mrs. Lourdes swallowed hard before looking down at her untouched pie piece.
A heavy, sharp rapping erupted at the front door jolting Mrs. Lourdes’ hands so hard she dropped her fork.
Ruby had never seen her landlady move so quickly as she raced to the door.
“What are you doing here?” They could all hear Mrs. Lourdes’ voice clearly but they couldn’t quite hear whoever must be standing on the outside stoop. “You’ll get us all put in prison being here.” Ruby pushed back her chair and stood up. “Go away or I’ll call the MPs.”
“Where is she?” A deep, male voice suddenly broke over the landlady’s screeching.
Scuffling sounds erupted from the front hallway. By now every resident of the boarding house was out of their seat and moving towards the kitchen door with Ruby at the front of the pack. A short man wearing a green knit hat and layers of clothing rushed at them. Black hair poked out from under the hat. His eyes, dark and piercing, found Ruby in an instant and he came at her. Ruby pushed back against her friends with a start. It must be some homeless person who’d escaped the searchlights of the police. He was unwashed, unshaven, and wore the most ragged clothing Ruby had ever seen.
Dr. Tucker stepped protectively to the front of the group, guarding Ruby from this madman. “You have been told to leave,” he said.
The stranger, whose eyes had gone wide and wild, seemed not to have heard any of it, staring long and hard at Ruby.
Mrs. Lourdes marched up behind him, fury in her voice. She put a hard and heavy hand on the man’s shoulder, spun him around with apparent ease and struck him so hard across the face Ruby almost felt the pain herself. “Get out of my house!” the landlady spat out the demand as if it were poison on her tongue.
Ruby nudged her way forward.
A red mark had already brightened his left cheek as he turned to Mrs. Lourdes, his head hung slightly down in shame. “May I please have a moment with her, alone?”
“No,” Mrs. Lourdes stood her ground. “Absolutely not. Now, get out of my house or I will have someone run this very instant to the nearest Precinct office.”
The stranger lifted his head and turned back to Ruby. His eyes scanned her face, seeming to studying ever centimeter of it before turning away. “Alright, I’ll go.”
“No,” Ruby interrupted. “Let him talk. Who is he?”
Mrs. Lourdes charged around the intruder and glared down at Ruby. “One more word to this felon and you will find yourself turned in as well, Miss LeBlanc. I have housed you and fed you and provided you with a job for a month now. I have even put my own good standing at risk to inquire about getting you the proper papers so that you can walk about the city. I will not have you fraternizing with the likes of that man. He is a criminal and he’d best go back to whatever God-forsaken corner of Hell he’s crawled out of.”
Ruby was just about to speak again when a desperate glance from the stranger closed her mouth.
“I’m going,” he said.
“And don’t let the door smack you too hard in the ass!” Mrs. Lourdes followed him back to the front door. The landlady yanked it open and stepped aside. “If I see you again consider yourself turned in.” The door slammed so hard it rattled the windows.
All the happiness that Ruby had been feeling while making the pie and serving it to her friends had evaporated. The boarding house was just starting to feel like home to her, more than she’d ever felt at home when living with her own mother. Thoughts of leaving and taking her chances back on the street invaded her head. And with those thoughts were mixed endless questions. Who was that man and why would Mrs. Lourdes be mixed up with a felon?
With a heavy heart, Ruby went back into the kitchen, ignoring the voices around her, intent on clearing the table.
“I’ll do that, Ruby,” Mrs. Lourdes said, her voice returned to the kind, grandmotherly tones Ruby had grown to know and love.
Ruby didn’t feel like arguing. Some of the others had already left, a few had retreated to the front sitting room to listen to the radio, read the evening paper, or smoke.
“I’ll go up to my room then,” she said.
“Ruby,” the landlady paused in her cleaning, “It’s for the best we not associate with the likes of that man. I’ve seen him around before and he’s bad news. None of us wants to go to prison and we will if we’re seen with the likes of him.”
This didn’t make sense. “Trust me, ma’am. I’ve never seen that man before in my life.” Who, other than her mother’s people, would be looking for her? Ruby sighed. “Good night.”
In her room, Ruby lit the single lamp that sat on her dressing table then flopped down on the bed to stare at the ceiling. Outside, the wind howled around the corner of the building and darkness was well settled into place.
Ruby sat up and hugged her pillow to her chest while her gaze settled on the flickering glow offered by her lantern. She kept the biggest lamp right in front of her vanity mirror, two flames for the price of one. Beside the light, the golden apple the peddler had given her that morning waited. Ruby pressed her lips together and made her way across the small room to the dressing table. The apple was huge, twice as big as the ones she’d used in the pie. She’d not even gotten to taste the pie and no doubt Mrs. Lourdes had taken the remains and tossed them all in the trash by now.
Frustrated, Ruby sat down at the dressing table and looked at her reflection. She looked so sad, so much older than her twenty-three years. Was better to just go along with the Alliance? She could get a real job then or go to the University. She’d be able to hold her head high and dress in something other than thrift store clothing. Ruby straightened in the chair and studied her face in a way she’d not studied it in a long time. There was a sense of beauty there, somewhere under the worn and tired frown of rejection. Her mother had only ever wanted the best for her and Ruby had tossed it all aside for this anti-government nonsense, but there was the apple to deal with. It had been entrusted to her.
Something hauntingly familiar reflected back at Ruby as she let herself smile for the first time in hours. She tipped her head slightly, straightened it then looked at herself in three-quarter profile. Despite her mother’s cruel words that Ruby wasn’t really all that pretty, Ruby knew better. The echo of her mother’s voice hung in the air and with sudden, wide-eyed wonder Ruby finally understood everything.
It was time to go home, face the High Chancellor and hope for the best. And, gaze falling to the apple, Ruby knew exactly what she was supposed to do.
On Monday, Ruby woke early, washed, dressed and headed down to the kitchen. Even Mrs. Lourdes was not up yet, but that was the whole point of it. She’d brought the apple with her and quickly set to work slicing it just as she had the others for the pie. When finished she added the needed spices then covered the bowl and tucked it in the back of the icebox.
Once the woodstove was going, Ruby busied herself preparing breakfast. It would be French toast today, she’d decided. Everyone loves French toast with just the lightest dusting of cinnamon and sugar on top. Setting the bread and egg mixture aside, Ruby went to the pantry and got out the ground, dried and roasted chicory root. Mrs. Lourdes always bought the roots whole in the market then did all the preparations herself. It was cheaper that way and she said it made a much better drink.
Ruby filled the brewing pot with water and was just adding the chicory to the filter basket on top when she heard a creak on the staircase. “You’re up early.” It was the landlady.
Ruby stuck a smile on her face before turning around. “I wanted to surprise you. I’m making breakfast and I don’t want a bit of help.”
The landlady smiled back, “Why ever not?”
Ruby took a deep breath and let it out slowly before speaking. “I’ve thought a lot about what you said on Friday after that man was here. You’re right. I’ve been very misguided and I want to make things right with my mother.”
Mrs. Lourdes’ face beamed her approval, “Oh, Ruby! That’s wonderful!”
“You don’t think it’s too late, do you?”
“Oh, no, no. It’s not too late. I’m sure it’s not.”
“You’ve been so nice to me, Mrs. L. I’ve taken advantage of your kindness. I didn’t mean to and I’m so grateful you didn’t turn me in. I just want to be given another chance, to prove I can be the sort of person OWA wants me to be.”
Mrs. Lourdes could not have looked more pleased, “I’m sure you can be. Life will be so much easier for you.”
“I’m glad you approve,” Ruby chirped and to prove her gratitude gave Mrs. Lourdes the sort of hug Ruby had always wished she could get from her mother. “I’m done being just like my father. I want to be more like my mother now.”
When everyone else was gone and the figure of Mrs. Lourdes was well out of sight, Ruby headed back inside to put her plan into action. With the oven already heated and ready to go and the landlady gone for at least three hours, there would be more than enough time. From the back of the icebox, Ruby retrieved the tiny treasure she’d been working on earlier. As it baked, she hurried about to finish her chores and then some.
At half past twelve, she donned her heaviest cloak, draping it over her backpack, Ruby stepped outside. One of Mrs. Lourdes’ small market baskets dangled from her gloved hand. As she bowed her head against the cold, she said a silent prayer. This had to work.
Ruby headed in the direction of the Market. She saw others, similarly clad as she, loaded up with empty baskets and canvas totes. Some were trailed by reluctant children too young for school but old enough to help with the shopping. Ruby fell into step behind one such woman. She was less likely to be stopped and questioned if she were seen with others. But, she couldn’t stay with the crowd for too long.
The center of the County Alliance and her mother’s workplace and weekday home loomed ahead. It was a huge castle-like structure constructed of blocks of gleaming white stone. A ten-foot-tall chain link fence had been constructed around it and it was heavily patrolled. Ruby had never cared for the times they’d stayed here. It was closer to school and convenient, but it had never felt like a home to her. It had felt like a prison.
Ruby held her basket a little tighter as she approached the fence. Without papers, there was no way they’d let her in the front door, no matter who her mother was and the less attention she drew to herself, the better. Ruby passed by without gaining anyone’s interest, hoping she still had a friend in the County Alliance kitchen.
Safely tucked behind a dumpster, Ruby watched a delivery wagon unload its goods at the loading dock. She took a deep breath and approached the activity. Her mother’s own personal chef suddenly stepped through the loading dock door. He spoke to one of the workers then glanced up, his eyes landing directly on Ruby.
A brief smile flashed across his lips then snapped back into a stern, all-business countenance. “Well, well. What have we here?” he asked.
Ruby winced inside as the delivery man’s eyes turned towards her briefly. “Hello, Mr. Deetz.” She kept her voice low, adding what she hoped was a gravely undertone.
He signed whatever document was on the clipboard the workman held out to him, “This looks fine. Go ahead and have it all brought in,” he said then turned his attention back to Ruby. “What have you got there?” he asked, climbing down the narrow flight of stairs to the pavement, as if it were perfectly natural for her to be there.
Ruby trembled inside and waited until he was close enough so she could speak to him and not be heard by others. “Something for the High Chancellor.”
His eyebrows arched up. “Oh? Let me see?”
“Of course. I know how fond she is of apples.” Ruby’s covered fingers pulled back the small towel that covered the contents of her basket. “This was made in Mrs. Lourdes’ kitchen.”
“A fruit tart?”
Ruby looked at how pathetic the little thing was. “Apple, actually. I made it just like you taught me.” Ruby slid it out of the basket and handed it to him. “Please, just give it to her with my best regards.”
“Just like I taught you?” Mr. Deetz eyed the palm-sized pastry. Ruby nodded and held her breath until the rye and knowing smile touched his lips. “I’ll see she gets it, ma’am. Thank you.”
“Thank you, Mr. Deetz.” Ruby did not dare stay any longer. This was the best she could do under the circumstances. “Good-bye, and a good day to you, sir,” she added. She turned and moved away, going slow, unassuming. The shaking in her knees could easily have been mistaken for the instability of old age.
Lorraine walked home with an uneasy feeling in her stomach. What kind of chaos would be there when she arrived? What if that horrible man had returned and tried to talk to Ruby? Lorraine should have gone to the Precinct office and reported him. Maybe then the High Chancellor would have done with him what should have been done years ago. He was a menace, a foul, little menace.
It was quarter past two when she inserted the key into the front door of the boarding house. It only took half a minute to realize something was wrong. The place was dead silent.
“Ruby?” Mrs. Lourdes set her filled shopping bags on the table. The dishes had been washed and neatly stacked in the drainer. The kitchen was spotless. Maybe the girl had gone upstairs for a nap. She’d looked exhausted that morning. Probably hadn’t gotten a lick of sleep worrying about that horrible creature. Mrs. Lourdes went to the foot of the stairs and called up a second time, “Ruby? I’m home!”
Silence was the only reply.
Returning to the kitchen, the landlady set about the task of putting away the groceries. That poor girl, she thought. Let her rest awhile longer. She’d go up and check on her in a few hours.
Saul settled into one of the centrally located cars. Sitting in the back trying to look inconspicuous would only draw more attention. He’d bought a newspaper and went about the task of reading the front page. Government propaganda or not, Saul had not read a current paper in ages so it didn’t take long for him to become genuinely involved in what it had to say. More passengers moved into the car. An older woman in a fancy black hat sat across from him. He glanced up only long enough to acknowledge her existence with a nod. She nodded back then looked out the window.
In Binghamton, Saul switched trains. This time he had the seating area to himself as the whistle called out and the train jerked into motion. All he could think of was Ruby. All he really wanted to do was jump right back off this train and return to Elmira.
“You can’t do that, Saul,” he muttered to his reflection in the glass.
“Let us take care of her. You’re too valuable to lose.” That’s what his friend had told him last night. They’d stayed up into the wee hours of the morning talking. “We need you up North. LD is in safe hands. .We’ll send word soon.”
Eli Arnold thumped his way down the stairs and into the kitchen just as Mrs. Lourdes was putting the kettle on to boil. He rubbed his sand-infused eyes with the knuckles of his fists, yawned and smacked his lips. He was a tall, gangly man with perpetually rumpled hair and clothes. “Hey, Mrs. L.,” he mumbled.
“Good afternoon, Eli.” She got down a second cup for her boarder. “Is Ruby upstairs?”
“Ruby? I dunno. Don’t think so. Her door is open.” Eli slumped into one of the kitchen chairs and yawned again. “God, I hate working this shift. Feels like I’m sleeping…”
“Her door is open? And she’s not in there?” The knot that had held Lorraine’s stomach hostage all morning in the marketplace returned with a vengeance.
Eli shrugged. “I dunno. I didn’t look. I assumed she was down here with you.”
Mrs. Lourdes raced to the bottom of the stairs and looked up, fear and dread filling her. “Ruby!” she called much louder this time. “Ruby, are you up there?” When there was no reply she hurried up the stairs, fearing the worst. “Ruby! Where are you?”
The dresser and closet were devoid of clothes. All of Ruby’s toiletries were missing as was Ruby’s backpack, the only piece of luggage she had.
Heart racing and hands shaking so hard she could scarce hold onto the railing as she descended the stairs, Mrs. Lourdes rushed back to the kitchen. “She’s gone. Ruby is gone. We must contact the Precinct police. Eli, run to the station. Bring them back here right away.” The landlady collapsed into the nearest chair. “Dear, God. When the High Chancellor hears that I’ve lost that girl…” She couldn’t finish the sentence, couldn’t even finish the thought.
Saul pinched the bridge of his nose just as someone plopped down in the seat beside him. He didn’t bother to look. He was too tired, too distracted and if they saw that in his eyes all they’d do is ask questions. Saul started to open his paper again.
“Father?” A soft voice spoke to his left.
Saul knew who it was before he even looked.
“Ruby? How… what are you doing here?”
“I... in the train station. I saw you. I didn’t know you’d be there, but,” she swallowed hard and looked past him out the window. “I knew if you knew I was there and planning on going to Syracuse, you’d try and stop me.”
He sat stunned, unable to take his eyes off her face. “You shouldn’t have.”
“I had no other choice,” she said finally looking him straight in the eye and reaching out to take his hand. “I wanted to get to know my father. After all, I’ve always been told I’m just like him.” She gave his hand a knowing squeeze.
Saul couldn’t stop the tears this time. “How?”
“After I met you, all I had to do was look in the mirror.”
“The High Chancellor will come looking for you, for us.”
She smiled again, but this time it sent a shiver down Saul’s spine. It was like her mother’s smile, very, very wicked and knowing.
“Ruby, what did you do?”
“Followed orders,” she said with an impish wink.
Eli hadn’t even gotten his shoes laced to do his landlady’s bidding when the thunderous raps hit the front door. Mrs. Lourdes nearly jumped out of her skin.
“Precinct Police! Open the door.”
Relief washed over Lorraine. They had found Ruby. It was alright. Everything was going to be alright. She made her way to the door and swung it open with a smile. Ruby was not with them. “Yes?”
“Are you Lorraine Lourdes?” the officer in charge queried. There were two others with him who stood down on the sidewalk.
“Yes, what’s wrong?”
“May we come in?”
“Yes, yes, of course. Is this about my boarder?”
“Your boarder? No, ma’am. I believe it’s about you.”
He nudged his way in followed closely by the other two men. “May I see your kitchen dust bin, Ma’am?”
Confused, Mrs. Lourdes led the way into the kitchen and pointed to the bin.
The man slid on a pair of gloves and began poking through the trash. Lorraine couldn’t see what he was doing, only that several items were removed and placed into black bags.
“I must ask you to come with me to the station, ma’am.”
“Questioning, Mrs. Lourdes, in regards to the poisoning death of Regina LaBlanc.”
Her knees almost gave out, “The what?” She clung to the door casing for support.
“The High Chancellor is dead, ma’am. Poison, cyanide to be exact, found in an apple tart. We have reason to believe it was baked in this kitchen.” He held up the bags, one in each hand.
News of Regina’s death spread like wild fire even to their remote location. Though he felt sorry for Lorraine, knowing she was innocent of the murder itself.
There had been two witnesses, the driver of the delivery wagon and the High Chancellor’s cook. The wagon driver hadn’t remembered much, just some hunched woman with a shopping basket delivering something while he unloaded goods. The cook had told him it was a gift from one of the Chancellor’s old friends and had then taken it inside to be served later. The cook confirmed what the driver had said and it eventually came out that the tart had come from the boarding house of Mrs. Lorraine Lourdes.
Mrs. Lourdes’ own tenants confirmed that their landlady had been acting strange the night before. A corked bottle of rat poison found in Mrs. Lourdes’ apron pocket and an empty bottle of cinnamon in the trash, both covered with her fingerprints, hadn’t helped matters. Ruby’s name never came up over the radio waves. Saul reckoned it was the Alliance’s way of covering their incompetence. It wouldn’t look good if it were known that the High Chancellor’s own daughter could be behind it.
“Breakfast is ready, Dad,” Ruby stepped out onto the front porch.
Dad, he thought with a growing smile. He liked the sound of that word.