Price of Angels
Copyright © 2015 by Lauren Gilley
There’d been a time in his life when working late hadn’t been an imposition. When there’d been nothing but his books waiting on him at home. Not that he hadn’t loved reading by the lamplight, but these days, there was a lot more incentive to get his ass home when he punched out every day. And this day, Ghost hadn’t made him work OT, so at five, Mercy headed straight for the apartment, a bright warmth filling his chest that blotted out the lingering pain in his bad leg, and the sour remnants of that afternoon’s business meeting.
The light was fading as he made his way up the iron staircase to his door, and his knee grabbed and fussed at him for the strain of all those steps. He pushed the sensations down, drawing out his keys while he hummed to himself. Last week, he’d come home to cooking smells and cheery greetings and warm kisses, all before he could take his jacket off. Ava had been using this break before she started back to class in January to tackle cookbook after cookbook, succeeding more than she failed these days, even if the noodles were a little crunchy and the bread a little too brown on the bottom. That’s what it was supposed to be like with a new, young wife, wasn’t it? Slightly bad dinners and exuberant, newlywed conversation traded over them.
Tonight, though, there was no smell save the soft floral notes of their laundry detergent. The living room, when he stepped in, was soft with lamplight, and warm as a hearth fire, the TV mumbling at a low volume. He smiled when he saw Ava – curled up in a corner of the sofa, head propped on its arm, asleep with a pair of socks in her lap and the laundry basket at her feet – and closed and latched the door without making a sound.
He stepped out of his boots and went to her quietly, crouched down in front of her and smoothed her hair back off her face. His knee pained him; he ignored it. She looked very young and very sweet, her face soft in sleep.
At his touch, her eyes fluttered open and she snatched in a fast breath. “What?” The momentary tension left her when she spotted him. “Hi.”
“Hi.” He smoothed his thumb down the silken skin of her cheek because he liked the feel of it. “Did you get sleepy?”
“Mm.” She pressed a hand to her belly. “It’s the baby. I just can’t fight the naps.”
He laughed, because he couldn’t help it. He loved when she talked about the baby. He loved the idea of some secret communication between mother and child as it grew inside her. His own mother had hated him from conception. To see Ava loving and wanting the baby he’d given her, already, when it was so tiny, restored some of his lost faith in humanity. He had faith in her, anyway, in her ability to be the kind of mother he’d never had.
“You want me to make dinner?” he offered, still touching her face, because they were married now, and he could do that.
She sat up straighter, looking startled. “Dinner, shit. What times is it? I was going to have it ready when you got home.” She tossed the socks into the laundry basket and tried to get to her feet.
Mercy stayed in the way, not letting her up, smiling as his hand fell to her knee. “Relax. I didn’t have to stay late. It’s only five-fifteen.”
She slumped again, eyelids heavy, clearly exhausted. “Oh.” Then she rallied. “I’m gonna cook, though. I have stuff to make chicken parm.”
His stomach growled at the idea. “Yeah?”
She nodded and made a little shooing gesture. “Yeah. Pasta actually sounds good to me right now. Let me up, and I can go make it.”
“Okay.” But he didn’t move right away, thumb brushing over the inside seam of her leggings where they covered her knee.
Ava propped her elbows on her thighs and leaned forward, so her face was right in his face, her smile sleepy, and stirring things in him, the way her hair was all a mess. “What are you doing?” she asked, smile widening, little flash of white teeth showing.
“Looking at you.”
“A girl got killed at Bell Bar last night after we left. One of the waitresses.”
Her smile faded. “Yeah.” Her voice was soft. “I heard it on the news. And then Mom called to tell me about it.”
“That was right down the street from us,” Mercy said, a trace of panic tickling at his gut. “And you’re here all day by yourself. And there’s a murderer out there somewhere…”
She reached out and stroked a fingertip down the length of his nose. “And I have lots of locks on the door and guns in the closet. And I know how to use them,” she added, brows lifting.
“I know you do,” he consented. “Doesn’t much help with the worry, though.”
She smiled again, heaving a little sigh that was cute and sweet. “Alright.” She kissed his forehead. “Let me up so I can cook.”
He stood, finally, reaching down a hand for her. “I’ll help you.”
Together they went into the fifties-era kitchen, clean and white, as he’d left it just over five years ago. Mercy pulled the heavy cast iron skillet and the large pasta pot from the overhead rack, while Ava cracked eggs into an empty casserole dish to use for the egg wash. When his phone rang, he braced a hip against the counter and answered it, watching – pleased, delighted, a touch surprised – as Ava carried on without him, filling another casserole with seasoned flour and crumbled parmesan cheese, defrosting the chicken breasts.
“ ‘Lo?” he said, without checking the screen first.
It was Ghost, his brusque voice unmistakable, even over the phone like this. “You got home alright?” he asked without preamble.
“Making dinner right now,” Mercy assured. When Ava cast him a quick glance over her shoulder, he said, “Helping make dinner, actually. Chef Little Missus wants me to be clear about that.”
Ava smiled and turned back to her work, slicing into the chicken package with a knife.
“Everything was in order?” Ghost said, not amused by the joke.
“It was fine.”
Mercy rolled his eyes. The show of concern was nice, but he knew what this was really about for Ghost. He’d had the same thought Mercy had: Ava alone in the rented room above the bakery, no one to cry out to for help if the waitress-murderer showed up at the door. “She’s a little tired,” Mercy said, “but yeah, she’s fine.” Then, to ease the man further, he added: “I leave an arsenal with her every day, and she’s a smart girl. She’s not gonna go opening doors and letting people in.”
Ghost made a muffled sound. “Yeah, well, you make sure she knows to be careful. Scare her real good, if you have to, so she’s more alert.”
Mercy grinned. “There’s the sweet dad coming through. How do you manage all that sugar you dole out, Papa T?”
Ghost said, “Shithead,” and hung up, knowing full well, on his end, that he didn’t need to worry about Ava while she was in Mercy’s care, but unable, except on rare occasions, to ever say anything that came close to a compliment.
“Papa T?” Ava asked, as she poured oil into the skillet.
Mercy stepped up alongside her at the counter, and picked up the first chicken breast, dredging it in flour, then egg wash, then the crumbled parm. “I’ve been testing out grandpa names for him. Whatdya think?”
She made a considering face. “I like the Papa part. Not sure about the T.”
He shrugged. “Not like the kid’ll have two sets of grandparents to distinguish from, so it won’t matter.”
Ava gave him a sideways look, part-reprimand, part-anguish on his behalf. “We’ll tell him about Remy, though, sweetheart. He’ll know he has two grandfathers.”
“I’m just guessing. I don’t like saying ‘it’ if I don’t have to.”
The oil had to be warm, so he passed over the chicken and she laid it in the skillet. Then he washed his hands, moved around her to dump the pasta in.
“Dad let you go from the shop on time today because of the girl who got murdered,” Ava said, not a question.
“He might have.”
“You guys were that worried?”
He gave her an oh, honey, please look. “Girl gets murdered a hundred feet from our door, and I’m not supposed to come home a little early?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m glad you did.” She bumped his thigh with her hip as they stood together at the stove. “It’s just…” Her brows plucked together. “It hasn’t frightened me, not the way it has you two. I think because we’ve lived through so many threats that were directed toward us, this random one can’t get under my skin. I have to draw the line on the worrying at some point, or I’ll go nuts.” She turned a suddenly serious, appealing look up to him.
Mercy picked up on all the little unspoken cues, and felt his stomach clench. “What else are you worried about?”
Her hand, coated with flour, fluttered toward her stomach. “The doctor says everything’s fine–”
“Do you feel alright? Does something seem off?” His hands lifted and he was prepared to scoop her up, carry her straight to the hospital.
But she shook her head. “I feel fine. Normal for a pregnant woman, anyway. It’s just…after what happened last time. I’m afraid to make too many plans, you know?” Her eyes grew shiny, bright under the overhead light. “I get scared when we talk about what we’ll do after he’s born. Because what if…” She didn’t finish, and he was glad for it.
Mercy glanced at the stove; the food could sit for a moment. Then he gathered his wife into his arms, hugged her close, tucked her head into his chest. “It’s going to be fine,” he said, stroking a hand down the slender ridge of her backbone, though inside, he felt the tiny tremors of anxiety. “It’s different this time.”
Her flour-dusted hands latched onto his shirt. “It is, isn’t it?”
“Yes, fillette.” Because this time, he knew about the tiny life, and he loved it fiercely already, and he’d lop the head off any son of a bitch who dared to threaten the things that were his.