“What do you mean, you got arrested?”
There was a laugh over Lovino Vargas’s phone. “Now don’t be like that, my love,” a deep, accented voice said in Spanish, despite the fact that Lovino had asked his question in Italian. It was a habit they followed; it made their conversations more difficult to translate. “It’s not like it hasn’t happened before.”
Lovino hissed at him as he walked briskly through the dark alleys of Brooklyn. “Don’t talk like that over the phone, idiot!”
The voice laughed again. “Why? It’s not like they don’t already know everything already.” Lovino grumbled, but didn’t argue the fact.
“How’d you manage to get caught this time, bastard?” he asked, shoving past a hooker and her client by a Dumpster.
“A civilian walked by and called the cops on me,” the man on the other end answered, tone growing dark. “I got it done, of course,” he assured Lovino.
“Yes, yes, fine, that’s perfect. Now how are we supposed to get you out of jail- again? Stupid!” Lovino hit his forehead with the heel of his hand a few times, pausing to lean against the building next to him and take a few shaky breaths. “You are all right, right?”
A softer, kinder laugh this time; Lovino allowed himself a small smile. “As well as I can be. I still don’t like it here, but at least this station’s nicer than the one in New York. They don’t even have an officer eavesdropping on the call this time! Although they did take Rusty away.” There was an audible pout at the mention of his beloved and well-used sword with the name that never failed to make Lovino shake in head in wonder. Who named a sword Rusty?
Lovino shook his head as always, then curled his shoulders in a little as his hold on his phone shifted into a desperate clutch. “Speaking of which, they’re probably going to cut you off soon. I’ll handle this, okay? You just worry about not picking up the soap.” The other man laughed, carefree and clashing with the radio waves of the phone.
“As you wish.” Lovino sucked in a breath.
“Take care of yourself, you fool of a fuck,” he whispered, his tone betraying his words. Then he hung up before he could get a reply and shoved the phone back into his pocket, picking his quick pace back up as he made a beeline for his brother’s hideout.
He had an eyewitness to take care of now.
“Sweet home Alabama! Where the skies are so blue!”
“Would you stop that?!”
The latest US Deputy Marshal in a chain of US Deputy Marshals (and he’d forgotten the name of every one of them) grinned at him from the driver’s seat of the mid-sized Honda. “Aw, come on, Art, I’m just welcomin’ you properly,” he said with a grin, a slight Southern drawl colouring his words. “You’re gonna love it down here, I promise.” He tapped along to the song on his steering wheel, and Arthur turned away with a ‘hmph’ and stared out the window at the trees and fields along the side of the interstate. “You’ve missed the hot weather, so you won’t roast in those stiff clothes a’yours.” Arthur snorted indignantly, but it was lost on the deputy, who had turned his attention back to the road.
There was silence as the marshal hummed along with the rest of the song and Arthur glowered out the window. It had been a long and hectic trip down from New Jersey, changing out cars and deputy marshals at every state line and catnapping when he could throughout the night. He was finally on the last leg of his horrible journey with the man he was ‘assigned to’ for however long he was stuck in this situation, and he had turned out to be an insatiable chatterbox.
“So what’s a Brit doin’ gettin’ tangled up in the Jersey mafia?” the deputy asked suddenly, breaking the silence and jolting Arthur from his half-asleep state.
Arthur frowned at him over his shoulder. “Didn’t you get a case file or something, Officer?”
He laughed. “Don’t call me Officer, call me Al – or Alfred, if your fancypants self wants to be all proper. I’m not an officer, anyway, I’m a Deputy Marshal.” Al gave a sidelong glance to Arthur. “Besides, I like to know a little bit of personal info about the people I’m protectin’.”
Arthur looked away from his blue eyes. “I work- I worked as a book editor for the American branch of a British publisher you probably haven’t heard of in Manhattan,” he began, pulling on his fringe idly. “I wasn’t involved with the mafia at all. It was just happenstance that I saw Carriedo kill that Sadiq fellow.”
“He used a sword, didn’t he?” Al asked excitedly, and Arthur shuddered. “Badass.”
“You have no idea.”
Something in Arthur’s tone must have set off warning bells in Al’s head, because he reached over and patted Arthur’s arm. “Hey, if you don’t wanna talk about it, it’s okay,” he said softly. “You can tell me on your own time.” Arthur shrugged his hand off and crossed his arms with a huff. Al laughed softly. “It’s just exciting, y’know, havin’ my first solo job be somethin’ this cool.”
Arthur blinked and actually looked at Alfred. Blonde hair that was a little too long for Arthur’s satisfaction, thin-framed glasses over blue eyes, tan skin, a short-sleeved button up that did little to hide that he obviously worked out a lot. He frowned.
“How old are you, Alfred?”
“Twenty-six.” Arthur bristled instantly. The person that the United States government was relying on to protect him from angry Italian mobsters was younger than him and as green as spring grass! “Don’t you worry, though - I’ve got this in my blood! No one’s gonna get a whiff a’ya while I’m around.” He gave Arthur a winning smile to which Arthur frowned resolutely. Al laughed at him again; Arthur was unable to hide his smile this time. He crossed his legs and went back to staring out the window while his new Marshal went back to singing along with the radio.
The interstate led them through and past Birmingham until they got off on a strip mall exit just beyond the main city. Alfred stopped for McDonald’s, buying Arthur a milkshake that he hadn’t asked for but accepted anyway. The girl at the drive-thru window waved at Al and greeted him by name when he pulled up.
“You come here often, I guess,” Arthur said with an amused smile as they waited at the red light to get back on the main road. Al shrugged.
“It’s the closest fast food place to where I grew up, and where you’re gonna live.” He poked Arthur’s shoulder on the ‘you’re’, and he swatted the hand away.
“Whatever. You’ve got a green light.” Al jerked his attention back to the road and turned right, shoving a handful of fries into his mouth in the process. “So where are we going?”
Alfred swallowed heavily and smiled. “You’re gonna love it, Artie-”
“If you call me anything besides Arthur one more time I will kill you, driving be damned.”
He snorted. “Yeah, right. Anyway, Arthur, it’s a little town just up this road a ways called Shannon. Feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere, but it’s not even fifteen minutes from downtown.” He took a pull from his Coke before continuing, “I got an old friend a’mine to give you a place to stay for now – man, two days is not enough time to rent an apartment around here. For now, you’re his cousin recovering from a bad marriage in the good ol’ US of A.” The car turned left at last green light just before the developments fell away to American forest wasteland. “Don’t worry, I’ll make sure you’re nice and settled and more thoroughly briefed on your new background before I go.”
Arthur shifted through the helter skelter information session in his head, trying to pick out what was meaningful and what was Southern gibberish. “You’re leaving me?”
Alfred laughed. “Well yeah! It’d be mighty suspicious if I stuck around you for too long, ‘specially since most of Shannon already knows I’m a Marshal – although only the police department and Matt knows exactly what it is I’m doin’, a’course.” Al glanced at him from the corner of his eye with a smirk. “You’ll be fine. The police there are new, but they know what they’re doin’, and even I’d think twice about tryin’ to pull the wool over Matt’s eyes when he gets all mama bear on ya. Besides, I’ll just be a twenty minute drive away if worst comes to worst.”
Arthur gave in with a sigh. “So how often were you planning on checking on me, anyway?” Al shrugged.
“Figured we’d start with once a week and go from there. Matt’s wife likes to feed me, so it shouldn’t be too hard to see ya once a week.” Al gave him another sidelong glance that Arthur was beginning to learn was a common habit. “The way you look, I’m sure she’ll wanna feed you all the time, too.”
Arthur sputtered in syllables normally only heard in keyboard smashing. “What does that mean?”
Al gave a little shrug that somehow moved the entire right side of his body. “Katyusha just likes to see men with meat on their bones, s’all.”
“What kind of bloody name is Katyusha?”
“Haha, ‘bloody’. You’re so British.”
And that marked the first of many blows to the head dealt to Alfred by Arthur.
“Hey, hey, be nice to your hero! Anyway, she’s Russian or Ukrainian or sumpin’ like that. Cancer doctor. Came over here for UAB and stayed for Matt, God only knows what she sees in him.” The bumpy forest terrain turned back into houses, and Alfred slowed down to residential pace before pulling into the parking lot of an obviously new brick police station.
Alfred cut off the engine and climbed out of his car, gesturing for Arthur to follow suit. As he opened the rear door to get his briefcase, he called over the car, “Now, although these guys are pretty good, they’re still a really new force – Shannon only just got big enough to need a police force – and this’s their first real big thing, so they might come on a little strong. Just warnin’ ya.” Arthur rolled his eyes and followed him to the door.
“I’ve worked in Manhattan for the past four years. I think I can take a few backcountry sheriffs.” Al snorted and held open the door for Arthur. He scowled and breezed past him into the station.
When Alfred had said that they might ‘come on strong’, Arthur hadn’t thought that he’d have a very foreign and very unwanted arm slung around his shoulders the second he walked in, pulled more than led past a small blonde man with a kind and currently apologetic smile at the front desk, and pushed into a chair before he could even take a breath. After the fact, and after his kidnapper – a much taller officer with long and wildly spiked blonde hair – sat down in the chair across from him, leaning on his elbows on his widespread knees, Arthur was forced to blink a few times before he realised that the new person was speaking actual words.
“-the chief should be back any minute now, he went to get coffee at the diner down the street- ow! Oh, hey, Chief’s back!” He finally stopped talking when a new person appeared, slapping him on the back of the head with an impassive expression and a cardboard tray of coffee in his other hand. He shoved the tray in the other officer’s hands before turning to Arthur.
“I’m sorry about him, he doesn’t know what manners are,” he said coolly. The taller man stuck his tongue out at him and flounced off to go hand out the coffee, but not before nodding at Arthur and introducing himself as Officer Densen. The police chief looked at the ceiling as if asking it for patience.
Arthur shook his head and set his thoughts straight. It had been a very long trip. Alfred finally caught up and stood behind his chair, one hand resting on the back of it. “Hey, Luke, what’s crackin’?”
The police chief sent Alfred a withering glare; Arthur decided that he was going to like this man. “Lukas Bondevik,” he said to Arthur curtly, extending his hand. Arthur stood quickly to shake it. “I’ll brief you in my office. Alfred, you’re coming, too.” He walked over to a door in the side of the main room, leaving Alfred and Arthur to follow him into his office.
They sat down in the chairs in front of his desk, and Arthur took the manila folder that the chief handed to him. “Here’s all you need to know about your new life. We don’t have your new passport or visa yet since it’s been such short notice, but they’ll come in soon enough.” Arthur opened the folder and skimmed the information with the ease of years in the publishing business. Apparently he was now a journalist from Devon – at least he got to keep the literary part of his backstory. Like Alfred had told him earlier, his excuse for being in the States was recovering from a messy divorce back in England – the details were given in the file; Arthur felt sorry for what his new self had to have gone through – and was here until his visa expired or he ‘got over her’.
He closed the folder when he finished and sat up straight. “Kensington? Really?” he asked in reference to his new last name. The chief shrugged.
“It starts with a ‘k’.” He stood back up and looked sharply at Al. “I’ll leave you to it, then.” Then he left his office and closed the door behind him.
Arthur stared at the closed door, then at Alfred. He had turned his chair around to face Arthur’s, and gestured for Arthur to do the same. Intrigued, he set the folder down on the front of the chief’s desk and did as he was told.
“There are a few rules you need to follow while you’re in my custody,” Al began, blue eyes serious for once. “You seem pretty smart, but even smart people make stupid mistakes.” Arthur nodded, trapped in Alfred’s gaze. “The most important rule ever is that you can’t talk to anyone from your old life. At all. I only know what I know about the Vargas’s through case files and hearsay, since their reach doesn’t quite make it down here, but they’re sure to be looking for ya. Carriedo was a big part of their operation, I’ve been told, and he’s a very old friend of both of the new bosses. They may not sniff the old you out right away, but they’ll definitely find you, and then your friends. The fewer people up in New York who know where you are, the safer you’ll be.” He reached forward and gripped Arthur’s shoulders to hold his attention. “You got it?”
Arthur stared up at him with slightly wide eyes, nodding slightly. Then Alfred grinned widely, and-
-Brown grass and a black sky, swirling silver and a white smile-
He shook his head to ban the images flashing by from his thoughts. “Yes, yes, I understand,” he said, brushing off Al’s hands and standing up, turning to the desk and spending too much time retrieving his folder. “Can I go to sleep now?”
Alfred gave him a curious look when he turned back around, but shrugged and opened the office door for Arthur.
Once they said goodbye to the policemen in the station – according to Al’s whispers, the nice man at the front who he shouldn’t even try to call by his last name and Densen were partners, while the other two officers were out on patrol – Alfred drove him down the street into what passed as downtown Shannon and parked in front of an awning that read ‘The Sugar Maple’ with a tree drawn on the glass.
“Come on in and I’ll introduce you to Matt.” Al whistled as he walked in before Arthur, still waiting to hold open the door for him. Arthur frowned at him.
“I’m not a woman, you know.”
Alfred looked confused. “Okay?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “I’m going to have to spell everything out for you, aren’t I,” he muttered under his breath, then continued before Alfred could object, “You don’t need to keep holding the door open for me.”
Al blinked, then laughed. “It’s just common courtesy, Arthur. Now come on in,” he said, ushering him in with an embellished hand flourish.
The Sugar Maple was any other average American diner, only with a wall of liquor bottles behind the counter and a Canadian flag taped to the cash register. An older woman and what could only be her son were behind the counter while a short Asian girl skated around the third-filled tables in a waiter’s apron and a dress that reminded Arthur distinctly of a candy cane. Alfred walked straight to the counter and sat down on a stool, gesturing for Arthur to join him with a pat on the stool next to him. Several of the patrons waved and called a hello to him, and he greeted them by name in return. The son came over and leaned on the other side of the counter from Alfred, chin on his hand. “Hullo, Al.”
“Gee, I’m happy to see you, too, Matt, no need to go all hyper on me,” Al said sarcastically, then jerked his thumb at Arthur. “I brought your cousin.”
“My-” Matt looked confused for a second before comprehension dawned on him. “Oh, right! Hello, Arthur, it’s been a while.” Arthur gave him the best smile he could muster.
“You could say that.” They shook hands awkwardly over the bar. “Nice to m- see you again, Matthew.”
They smiled weakly at each other, then all three of them jumped when a damp rag slapped the counter between them. “Not even going to say hello to your own aunt, eh, Arthur?” Matthew’s mother said with a spark in her eye, hand on her hip and leaning around her son. Arthur leaned back automatically.
“Er, hello, aunt?” She stared at him for a moment longer, dark blue eyes piercing behind her glasses, before throwing her head back and laughing. Then she hoisted herself up onto the bar and swung her legs over it to the other side so she could envelop him in a bear hug. (It was impressive that she was able to, since both her and her son were built more along the lines of saplings than of people.)
“Call me Susan, you’re old enough for that now,” she told him softly, then pulled back and held him by his shoulders. “It’s been such a long time since I last saw you – you couldn’t have been bigger than my leg!” She hit the side of her hand against her hip to demonstrate her point. Then she puckered her mouth and narrowed her eyes. “You look exhausted, sweetheart.”
Finally. Arthur gave her a helpless smile. “It was a very long trip. I could do with a nap.” More than a nap, probably; he hadn’t had a good night’s sleep for days – even before the murder.
Alfred poked her shoulder, and she looked it at him. “Yes, Alfred?”
“Y’know that I’m here too, right?” He looked torn between laughing and sulking. She flapped her hand at him.
“Oh, psh. I see you almost as much as I see my own son, you don’t count.” She turned her attention back to Arthur. “How’s about I get these two useless lugs to take you over to Mattie’s place so you can get some rest?”
Arthur smiled. “That’d be lovely.”
Alfred drove him down a side street to a small house painted pale yellow, a pink camellia bush blooming by the red door. “Well, here we are. New home sweet home.”
Arthur looked it over as he got out and walked around to the back of the car to get his bag. It was certainly a sight more charming than his old apartment. At least it wasn’t a trailer, like what he’d feared from the little he’d known about Alabama before getting here.
Al beat him to the punch and already had his duffel bag slung around his shoulder when Arthur looked away from the house. Arthur scowled at him, but decided it wasn’t a battle worth fighting for as Al took long strides after Matt to the front door.
“There’s a spare bedroom in the back that you can use for now,” Matt said as he led them down the hall of the small starter home and to a door on the left. He opened the door and let Arthur and Alfred in. “I’ll wake you up for dinner when Katyusha gets home. She’ll want to meet you.” He smiled at him, then left.
Al set his bag on the small bed with the ugly floral bedspread and stuck his hands in his pockets, leaning against the doorframe as he watched Arthur dig through his bag. “I always eat dinner with Matt on Sundays, so I’ll be back tomorrow. You okay for now?”
“I’ll be fine once I sleep for a few days,” Arthur grumbled. He finally found the sweatpants and old shirt that served him as his pajamas and started unbuttoning his shirt. Halfway down, he glanced sharply at Alfred, who was still leaning on the doorframe and staring into space in the vicinity of Arthur. “Do you mind?”
Alfred jolted, then took in the situation and smiled, backing into the hallway. “Of course, of course!” He closed the door, pausing with just a crack open. “I’ll be back tomorrow with all your new stuff, all right?”
Arthur waved at him, shrugging off his shirt and pulling his old one over his head. “Just go away and let me sleep.”
Al laughed. “Can do.”
The door clicked shut, and Arthur didn’t remember crawling under the covers.