Chicago Nights Ch. 02bySirThopas©
The time between shifts passed the way it always did: without merit. Adrian had a series of mental exercise packets he had found in a used book store. They were similar to the ones the hospital had given him after his accident, perhaps a little harder and varied. The one he was on now had the words "FIFTH GRADE" in big blue bubbled letters across the front. Happy cartoon children graced the upper outside corner of every page.
Adrian worked through a few dozen problems each morning before showering and going out for a walk. He tried to leave for work at least two hours before his shift started, so that he could meander and roam through the area. Just walking by people, seeing one or two faces often enough to warrant a nod, felt like a connection of some sort. At least it didn't feel quite so lonely.
He kept to short sleeves year round, leaving his arms currently exposed to the winter. Other people huddled into themselves, trying to hide from the frigid bite. They would bundle into coats and scarfs and hats, and when that wasn't enough they would make a physical effort to simply shrink, to somehow become less.
Adrian, by comparison, embraced the cold. And he would not become less.
He always kept a little notepad in his coat pocket, full of crudely drawn blue pen maps. On the occasions when he became lost, he would consult it. Inevitably, he would be able to find his position on one of them. This, of course, meant that he had been by that area at least once before, and ought to remember something of it, but he tried not to dwell on that. He didn't need to be reminded of the swiss cheese condition of his memory. It was the one thing he never, ever forgot about.
The morning after Hunter Kaufman made his deal with the devil, his only male employee wandered the streets of Chicago gleefully reciting a riddle to himself. He said it over and over again, and found that he couldn't stop smiling. He rubbed his fingers together, walked like someone in a hurry, and talked to himself.
The riddle excited him. It tickled his brain in a way no exercise packet ever had. It occupied him endlessly. It meant something.
Adrian Burke felt focused, freshly awake, when he recited the words. On this particular morning, he wandered the streets for hours and did not become lost.
His good mood was not long for this world, however. It vanished as soon he entered the bar.
Hunter was on top of the new girl, pushing into her silken center and studying the twisting motions of her sobbing face. But his mind was elsewhere.
He had spent half the morning trying to teach her the most entry level tricks. Try as he might, push her though he did, nothing seemed to sink in. The little Latina just didn't seem to get any better.
Oh, she was trying. He could see that much. But even when he had Rhonda break down the different techniques used to enhance a blowjob it didn't help. The girl watched, asked careful questions, moved in to try it herself, and failed.
Rhonda. Shit. Now there was a cocksucker. He glanced over at her as he pumped. She sat on the couch, watching impassively. She noticed his expression and shrugged apologetically. She knew it, too. Ella was turning out to be a piss poor whore, and if she didn't start getting better soon he was going to have to hurt her.
He stopped pumping, sighing and moving off of her.
"Alright," he said. "Let's talk." He beckoned to Ella to stand up, and she shakily climbed to her feet. Her hands instinctively went to her lady parts, covering them shamefully, and she bit her lip nervously. Hunter slapped the hands away. "You're not much of a fuck," he grumbled, "and it's not getting any better. The least you could do is let me look."
He waved the stumbling apology away. "Don't apologize to me. Apologize to Rhonda. She's here, doing her best to give you the help you need, and you're just wasting her fucking time."
Rhonda bit her lip. She'd been with Hunter long enough to read the signs. She sat up straight, talking fast. "Hunter, it's okay. Really. I don't m-"
"Shut the fuck up," he snapped. Then he turned back to Ella. "You let me down today. So I'm going to hurt you. And when I'm done hurting you, you're going to get me hard again so we can finish what we started. Understood?"
Ella didn't move or speak. She just stared at him in wide-eyed terror.
Rhonda was hugging herself. "Hunter, please. She-"
"Are you gonna be my warm-up?" he growled over his shoulder.
She closed her eyes. "No," she whispered, her shoulders quaking.
"Good," Hunter reached out and grabbed a fistful of Ella's hair. "That's real good." He yanked viciously, jerking the girl's head close to him.
And that's when the screaming started.
The glasses were clean. The tabletops, too. The floor was swept and mopped, the windows all wiped, and every other available surface checked for dust.
Adrian glanced at the clock. Almost noon. He went around and inspected the lights, the pool tables, and even the bathrooms, hoping to find something else that needed doing. For a moment, he even considered rooting around to try and find the source of that ever-present stink.
Finally, though, he had to accept the truth: there wasn't anything left to preoccupy him. Nothing here was distracting enough to help him close off the outside world.
And that girl was going to go right on screaming. There was nothing left to take his mind off of it.
Or, almost nothing. He closed his eyes, his mouth moving silently.
"Two children are lost in the woods..."
Adrian concentrated on the story, trying to picture it in his mind. He saw the children as small and round, brightly colored in the way of cartoons. Like the children in his exercise book. Yes. That was it. They were featureless, mindless; their bodies cast no shadows. Their clothes were geometrically designed and crayon colored, red triangles and blue squares.
By contrast, the thick forest that surrounded them was heavy paint and complicated textures, rolling with dark tones and elaborate patterns. The trees were impossibly tall, looming over the foolishly interloping minors in the way that angry adults or nearby mountains might do. Adrian tried to focus his attention back on the children, to see them and to understand them, but found himself getting drawn into that forest...into the lined acrylic bark and towering black maze.
He opened his eyes, suddenly aware of something.
The screaming had stopped. The bar was absolutely silent. He looked at the clock. 12:43. Jesus. Had he been lost in that forest for almost an hour?
He wondered what was in there.
The door to the office creaked open, and after a moment Hunter came ambling out. He was sweating, his sleeves rolled up. One of his regular girls followed him...one that had been around since well before Adrian. He tried to remember her name and could not. She looked ill, or maybe just tired, and she refused to meet his eyes.
"Adrian, my boy," Hunter affected that friendly barkeep tone that failed to blend with his God-given voice, "I've got a little favor to ask you."
Adrian didn't answer, but he didn't show his boss any animosity either. Instead, he let the witches' soup of dark emotions filling up his veins flow out through the slight dances of the muscles in his jaw.
Hunter was typically unaffected the lack of response. "That new girl...uh, Ella...well, she's had a bit of a hard day, it seems. You know how tough new jobs can be. There's just so much to learn. Right, Rhonda?" He turned around and raised his eyebrows. Rhonda shrank away, but nodded. "Anyway, she's going to spend the afternoon recovering in my office. Mostly she just needs to rest, but she might need the occasional glass of water or..." he shrugged. "Just check in on her from time to time. I'll be back to pick her up around seven." He turned to go, then stopped. "And no touching. Alright? Maybe later, but not today."
Adrian nodded, glancing at the woman standing there waiting for Hunter's command and feeling nothing. He thought that maybe he should be experiencing sympathy for this lost creature. She was down in it, if anybody ever had been. Little more than a slave, really, not even capable of looking away as Hunter destroyed something pretty.
But sympathy didn't come. He just saw the woods again, tall and shadowed, filled with some pretense he did not understand.
Anyway, who was he to look down on the unfortunate? What was so fucking great about Adrian Burke?
Andro's voice came to him uninvited, as if whispered in a dream. "Even a child can recognize danger," it insisted. But Adrian didn't know why his malfunctioned memory had decided to review that particular line, so he brushed it off and went about looking for something to do.
It was four o'clock before he bothered to check on the girl in the office.
Actually, it wasn't that he couldn't be bothered. It was that he'd forgotten about her completely. Like everything else in his life, she was made of fog. Once his eyes adjusted to her interference, he stopped noticing that she was there at all.
The sobbing brought her back to life, though, and there was no ignoring that. He was mopping the hallway when he heard the quiet, muffled sound of crying from inside Hunter's office.
Opening the door, he peaked his head in. Ella was lying on the couch in her underwear, curled up like a fetus in a too-small womb. Her body shook as she wept. There were several clustered patches of bruises on her exposed skin, but other than that no real sign of exactly what Hunter had forced her to endure. Adrian knew that the man had a number of methods for hurting the girls without damaging them. He waited to feel something in response to that thought, but nothing came.
Still, he'd been told to look after her. "Can I get you anything?" he asked.
She jumped, something like a squeak coming out of her mouth as she backed away from the sight of him. "I'm sorry," she said, but it came out like breath. "I'm sorry."
"Don't be," he shrugged. "I'm just the barman."
"I...oh..." But she didn't relax.
He waited a moment to see if she'd say more, then repeated the question.
She shivered, reaching up with a quaky finger to touch chapped lips. "I'm...thirsty."
"I'll get a water."
She drank it fast when he returned, so he didn't bother leaving.
"Want more?" he inquired, as she handed him the emptied cup.
"No. I don't...think I do." She kept her eyes lowered and, for the first time since he'd peaked his head into the room, showed signs of concern regarding her state of undress. Adrian glanced around, but didn't see any clothing anywhere.
"Okay, well...if you need anything else..."
"I'm sorry I bothered you," she said. "You must be busy."
He couldn't help laughing. "Not here. Not ever."
"Oh. Okay." She looked up suddenly. "I hope he forgets about me." Her eyes were pleading. She wanted reassurance. "He could, couldn't he? I mean, just until tomorrow?"
"No chance of that," Adrian admitted. "The only person around here who is any good at forgetting is me."
Ella studied his face. "That's not true. I am good at forgotten things, as well. Maybe we are alike."
"I don't think so. I forget so many things..."
She blinked. "I forgot my whole life."
He thought about that, and frowned. "I don't understand."
Scooting up next to him, she hugged her knees and rocked gently. "I was in a place. In...Mexico, I think. And a man found me there. He took me with him, brought me here."
"And before that?"
"Before that..." she shrugged again. "I forget."
"You're telling me you have no memory? Of anything?" She shook her head, and Adrian frowned. "How do you know your name, then?"
"How do you know yours?" She brushed a stray hair from her face. "Some things are deeper than just memory. Some things are yours."
Adrian sat down on the couch, on the opposite end of where she sat, and put his hands on his knees. He thought about the scars on his face, the woman he'd called his wife, and the stranger now at home in his head. "Some things are deeper than just memory," he admitted.
"What have you forgotten?" Ella asked.
Adrian frowned, not sure how to answer such an absurd question. "I forget everything, really. Words, as soon as I finish reading them. Ideas or goals...numbers. Drink orders, bar tabs, rent money. But mostly I forget...people. I always forget people." He gave her a sad smile. "I forgot you. I really did. If you hadn't started crying..."
She nodded. "It's okay. I forgot me, too." A small, quaking sigh escaped her lips. "I wonder who I was."
"Do you know why it happened? Why you forgot?"
She shook her head. "I only have the name. What about you?"
"It's a long story."
"But you remember it," she said, "so it must be very important."
Adrian squinted at the far wall. "It is. But that doesn't mean I like to talk about it."
"You have talked about it, though?"
He frowned, trying to remember. "No. No, I guess that I probably haven't."
"Then maybe that's why you don't forget it. You haven't shared it. You've made it yours."
He didn't answer.
"Please," she said. "Just so someone is talking to me. If you cannot finish, then you stop and I will not complain. I will understand. Just talk to me for a little while, so that I am here."
For some reason, beyond what he could understand, Adrian began to talk.
"You know, I really, really loved my wife," he said slowly. "That seems like such a simple thing...like it's too obvious to even bother mentioning. But it's the most important thing I could ever tell you about myself. I loved Laura so much that I don't think I'll never find the words to say it. And I want to believe that she loved me, too. Perhaps, for a time...she must not have at the end, anyway, or she wouldn't have done what she did. It's just nice to imagine, sometimes."
He grunted. "Oh, yes. She left me. She just never bothered telling me about it." He shook his head bitterly. "I don't remember many things, but I remember how it felt to discover that my wife was seeing another man. Like being..." he waved his hands at his chest, "...crushed, you know? Actually physically crushed, until your breastbone met your spine and there was room for nothing in between. She...left...to be with him. Not forever, more like a romantic getaway. Like something lovers do, you know? I found out what was happening, then, but I didn't know what to do. I couldn't stop her. So I got in my car and rushed off to the only people I believed could help me: her parents."
"Did they help?"
"I never got there. I got very, very close, but I was...speeding. Desperate. Panicked. Stupid." He rubbed his eyes and coughed a laugh. "You know, the most innocent person in this story is a man named J.B. Matthews. He's the real tragedy, here. I remember him...he is a part of me."
"Who is he?"
"A truck driver, running behind schedule, wanting to get home and see his kids. A nice guy, lost on a country road out in the plains, who couldn't possibly have reacted in time when a little car from the city shot out from behind a treeline in front of him." Adrian frowned. "He had the right of way. He wasn't asleep at the wheel. Shit, he wasn't even speeding, like I was." He shook his head. "Killed himself, in the end...had some family troubles going on, couldn't live with what he'd done. It's almost funny...the woman who destroyed me went on with her life, and the man who did nothing wrong died of guilt."
Ella didn't respond right away. "Did she marry her lover?"
"I don't know. But she did have his baby."
"I don't understand. They had a baby, but didn't marry?"
Adrian shrugged. "She...tried to tell me it was mine," he said. "Fooled me, for a time. I couldn't remember anything, at first, when I woke up. So she told me it was our child. Then, after I learned the truth, I had to watch her swell up and get big with it."
"You stayed? You didn't leave?"
Adrian pointed to the scars on his face. "Injuries take time to heal. It's worse when the wounds are in your head. My brain is a mess. It was so much worse before. I couldn't even take care of myself." He shook his head. "I couldn't get away."
"What about family?"
"Don't really have any."
She nodded. "I'm sorry."
Adrian laughed. "Don't be. Jesus." He stood up, feeling restless and angry. "This morning, I sat outside and listened to you scream for over an hour, and I did nothing to help you." He shook his head bitterly, not ashamed so much as disgusted. "And you know something? I won't help you the next time it happens, either. Don't feel any sympathy for me."
She flinched, fear flickering in her eyes, but then she lifted her chin. "Maybe not, but it's not who you are." She examined him. "You are not a bad man," she insisted.
"No," he turned away, "I'm just half of one."
And then he left.
It was three weeks later that the late hours of the night found Adrian checking some scribbles he'd left in his notebook.
He sighed. Still no patterns. He jotted down the night's information anyway, in the off chance that something would emerge later.
In the time since Mellor and his Mad Dog had visited, business had become constant and tiring. It would have been a welcome change, having all these customers filing through the door, except that Adrian disliked being a part of some sleazy prostitution ring. It also required him to move a great deal faster in order to keep up, which meant making more mistakes. He dropped bottles, forgot orders, and miscalculated more bills than ever before. The thugs he served took it all in stride...in fact they didn't seem concerned in the least with actually getting their orders. Only one man ever corrected him or complained when something went wrong, and that man was a rarer visitor than most.
Still, he'd found opportunity in the change. There were two regulars he'd taken to studying carefully. They stood out physically, which was needed in order to jar Adrian's memory, and he was using their actions to try and crack the code that Hunter used to connect them to the right girls at the right time. He was tracking their movements, keeping notes in his spiral book, trying to determine how the pimp sent and received communications.
Case number one was recorded in Adrian's notebook as 'M.T.' Adrian was making a point of using acronyms, in case Hunter happened to see the scribbled notes, and 'M.T.' stood for My Twin. The man had earned the name via a deep, ugly scar that ran across his forehead and down his right temple. Tonight M.T. had come in at a quarter past nine, which was consistent with his previous visit. He'd ordered two Kentucky bourbons neat, just like last time. And he'd only had the two, just like last time. So those were consistent actions.
What M.T. did not do was sit at the same table, or sit alone. This was problematic, because the other man Adrian was watching rarely ordered the same drink, or the same volume of drinks, but always kept to the same stool and never interacted with others. In fact, if his stool was occupied when he came in he'd turn and leave immediately.
Of course, Adrian had no idea if either man was consistently seeing the same girl, either. In truth, he doubted if he'd ever quite manage to figure out the system Hunter used. There were too many unknowns. It was really just a game to challenge himself with, now that the bar actually had clientele.
Looking around the closed bar, now, seeing the mess to be cleaned up, Adrian heard a small sound from the back room and was reminded of one other reason this job was becoming harder and harder to bear: Ella.
Hunter was keeping her here, at the bar, until she proved suitable to work. And he was doing his best to make her exactly that. Adrian was frequently required to look after her...to make sure she was fed and watered, as it were. He also had the occasionally wincing task of caring for her wounds. Hunter disliked disappointment, and Ella seemed capable of causing him little else.