Tea and Whisky
Walt was the first to get his bearings, ushering their small guest in through the door and helping him remove his coat with ease, before sitting him in a plush chair. When he waltzed into the kitchen and returned with the tea trolley laden with everything from sweets to savories, Eve finally found her words again.
“What’s next, slippers and my good whisky?”
“He’s a bit young, don’t you think?” he said, always the straight man. “Though apple juice might achieve a similar aesthetic.”
“Oh, piss off with your ‘aesthetics’ Walter!” She shot a quick look in Hubert’s direction, he was busy trying to fit an entire biscuit in his mouth in one go, and save for a raised brow seemed unfazed by her cursing.
Walter’s blue eyes narrowed at her, while he effortless poured three cups of tea. He was hardly a prude, but he was an profoundly good man who believed in honor, compassion and manners above all. She often cursed around him, but he detested fowl language around children.
“He’s a child,” she softened her voice, hoping it would do for a temporary apology. “What case could he possibly have; an AWOL teddy bear, a lost sock?”
“My brother is missing.”
Hubert spoke up so clearly in the midst of their adult bickering, his cheek no longer stuffed with biscuit. In the warm safety of their office, his determination and cheek gave way to sadness and desperation. She sat on the arm of the sofa across from him, gratefully taking her own tea and scone from Walter’s hands.
“Auntie Frank thinks he ran away, that I made everything up,” he continued, voice soft but sturdy. “But I didn’t. It took him.”
“What took him?” she asked, forgetting his age, his (assumed) lack of finances and the fact that a terrified family somewhere in the city was probably looking for a wayward boy.
His gaze never left her face, cool and true. The fear on his face was genuine, not a child’s fear of the dark or of unknown villains laying in wait under the bed, but a true nightmare that had stalked men on the battlefield for almost six years without ceasing. The Monochrome War had claimed thousands of fighters – men and women known as Lightrunners – from around the globe, and though conflict had slowed to a crawl, some believed The Darkness had only shifted target.
That it had started taking the defenseless. One by one, children slipped into the night, falling through the cracks in the light, and then into nonexistence.
Most believed it was a myth, cooked up by coddled children and drug-addled cast offs of war. But Eve knew better. While she hadn’t served on the frontline herself she’d worked in cryptology for most of her tour, and heard plenty of tales from the front. Phantoms, sweeping waves of Darkness that thought and moved and hunted like predators without compassion.
“When was he taken?” Walt’s voice was rough, and she could hear the faintest scritch of his tea cup scraping against his saucer. Kind, brave Walter was remembering his own time on the battlefield in deep, dark clarity.
“Three weeks ago.” He toyed with the second biscuit on his plate. “I think I’ll have that apple juice now. On the rocks.”
Without another word Walter rose to fetch a tumbler from their kitchenette. Eve followed him, noticing how his hand shook as he plunked the ice in the glass. Her hand going over his as he tried to keep steady and pour.
“Are you all right?” she whispered, stroking her thumb over the back of his palm.
He stopped, not meeting her eyes and taking a slow breath. “Just a little close to home, is all.”
“We don’t have to do this, Walt …”
“Of course we do.” His blue eyes swept up to meet her gaze, disbelief mingled with passion. “He’s a little boy, losing his family piece by piece -” He stopped, swallowing hard to pull back his composure. “He needs us.”
“As long as you’re sure?”
Walt nodded, squeezing her hand in return. There was a brief moment where he considered lacing their fingers together, but in the last second he stopped himself. Evelyn was a colleague and dear friend, someone he admired greatly, and he wasn’t going to let his affections tarnish what they’d built together these last three years.
“As long as I have you?” He smiled, clear and sweet. “I’m sure.”
His smile made warmth bloom behind her sternum. Ever since the first day they’d met, a seed of affection and hope had seated itself in the center of her heart, and refused to be moved. While Eve wasn’t in a hurry to call it love, she knew it stretched far beyond the limits of friendship. One of these days she might find the right words for it, the words to identify what it was and how to tell him what he meant to her.
“Let’s go see what young Mister Jones can tell us, then.”
Before sitting on the arm of the sofa – across from Hubert and within reach of Walter – Eve fetched a pen and yellow legal pad off the desk. She knew the office security feed was already running, capturing everything from traditional audio and video to voice pitch and body language, but the old-fashion pen and paper grounded her. Giving her something to hold onto, when she didn’t have Walt’s hand to reach for.
“Why don’t you start from the beginning Hubert?”
“Hughie,” he whispered.
He met her eyes, suddenly so very young and she nodded in understanding. Hughie, it was then. With one last fortifying slug juice, he held the icy tumbler between his small hands, feet dangling off the floor even as he sat on the edge of his seat, and began to unwind his tale.
“It started with a light under the crawlspace door …”