Standing cheek to jowl, their three hands gripping the windowsill, Spot and Lou leaned out the apartment window and looked down the towering fire escape.
In the angled morning light, she watched his face move through emotions—surprise, anger, and finally, a touch of fear—and she wondered if he would back out of their deal, fresh as it was.
A resigned sigh caught in her throat. We've only just gotten started.
"You've gotta be kidding," he said, still staring down the maw of metal steps.
"I'm afraid not."
"Like hell," he snarled, pulling back into the apartment and pointing at the apartment's front door. "There's stairs right there. Normal stairs. What about them?"
Lou pulled her head back in. "Quiet down, will you? We can't use those stairs. Mrs. Glover's been watching us, and if she finds out you're staying here she'll sic the whole tenement on us. Besides," she said, raising an eyebrow, "I figured you'd rather have less of an audience with that leg of yours."
He gritted his teeth and stared down at his leg, then slowly raised his glowering eyes at her once more. So, she'd been right. Lou watched his face carefully, searching for a sign in the way he blinked, in the twitch at the corner of his mouth.
She looked on with bated breath as he cast his eyes to the open window.
When he bent down and hoisted his good leg through the open window, she choked on her breath. She was so stunned that when he tried to raise his injured leg through, she could only stand by like a beached fish, mouth agape, and watch as he grimaced and grunted.
And when he said, standing outside the window, "Are you coming, or what?" she finally noticed she had been grasping the old rocking chair so tightly that she nearly fell backward into it.
Stepping gingerly over children and cats, they descended—Spot first, then Lou. Faded clothes drying on knotted lines bubbled beneath the alley's humid breeze into their faces. Lou's knuckles were white and hard against her skin as she gripped the railing, and with each graze of shirtwaist against her neck, her heart caromed against her lungs like a frightened moth.
To quiet her jangled nerves she had, at first, focused her eyes on her moving feet. But that gave way to staring at the fire escape steps, then peering through the grated metal, and after two stories she had found herself frozen and breathing hard, one foot hovering in the air.
"What's the holdup," she heard Spot call back. "I'm the gimp here, remember?"
But she couldn't move, not even her trembling lips.
She felt the wobbling of the fire escape quiet, then begin to rattle again as Spot hauled himself back up the narrow steps. Between floating sheets, she spied his face, paler now from being stuck in the apartment for days on end. But his sharp blue eyes shot through the wafting fabric and Lou fixated on them, the only things around that didn't move.
"This ain't so bad, you know," he said to her, frown softening. "You oughta see the holes the foremen stick us in; that shit'll make you puke."
Still, Lou didn't move. She was keenly aware of him watching her, the expression on his face changing ever so slightly as he guessed at what she was silently thinking. He took one more step toward her, then with a jerk of his head gestured down the fire escape.
"Here's what you do," he said, leaning conspiratorially toward her as if anyone else could hear their conversation. "You mark the guy in front of you, see? Don't look at nothing else. You do that and you'll be down before you know it."
He started down the stairs again but before he took a single step he looked over his shoulder and under his breath added, "But do me a favor: try not to fall in love, would ya? It'll cramp my style."
Relieved exasperation forced the breath back into her lungs. "That won't be a problem, I'm sure," she muttered, and followed.
And as they descended, floor by floor, she watched that place at the back of his neck, pale and tender and usually so hidden from view. Soon she became aware of his arms, the sinew that kept him moving down the stairs now, and had lifted and pulled who knew what kind of cargo over the years.
In the end, he was right—she didn't realize when they reached the street. He startled her by jumping down from the last landing onto the pavement below, careful to land mostly on his good leg. But he startled her more when he reached his arms up to where she stood, her fingers still bloodless and gripping the railing.
He nodded at the ground. "You've made it this far," he said. "So come on."
With nothing in her head but the sound of the alley's breeze, Lou leaned forward and put her hands on his shoulders as he grasped her waist. It took only a moment—just long enough for her to catch the cigar smoke lingering on his hair—for him to hoist her from the landing and set her beside him on the ground. And when his hands released her she longed to wrest them back.
But he didn't know, couldn't know. Instead, he looked away from her and out onto the street and rested his back against the brick wall of the tenement.
She shook her head, hoping he hadn't noticed her hitched breath. "Now," she said after a moment, "we go to Red Hook."
They stepped off the streetcar and made their way down a sidestreet until they reached the docks.
"Stay here," Spot said, gesturing to the wharf running along the shore. For a moment she watched him walk down the bay, then hurried to catch up to him.
He didn't turn when she reached him. "Pretty sure I told you to stay back."
"I'm coming with. I have to."
"No, you don't. And you're not gonna."
The bulk of Lou's skirt made it hard for her to keep pace. Between annoyed breaths, she blurted out, "Why not?"
"Why not? Because no one's gonna talk to me if you're lurking around."
"Lurking?" she said. "Who's lurking? Just tell them I'm your girl. They won't pay any attention to me."
Stopping short, he laughed; the sound of it poured out like bubbles. "Like hell, they won't. You already tried this, remember? You're gonna stick out like a sore thumb."
"There's colored dockers all over the place. How could I stick out?"
He shook his head and started walking again. She could see how he concentrated to make his limp disappear.
"It ain't that," he said, his voice low. "It's that face of yours."
"Yeah, your face. You can bet they won't forget it." Then he said, quieter, "It ain't an easy face to forget."
"Then what do you propose?"
"Just leave it to me. All right?"
Lou's legs burned from trying to keep up, so she stopped and watched him move on. "Fine," she groaned. "Fine. But you've got to get me a source, you hear?"
"Sure," he said vaguely. "Stay here, all right?"
Lou sighed and turned to look out over the water.
"Hey," she heard Spot call down the wharf. She threw up her hands. "What do you want?"
He pointed to the piers running perpendicular to the wharf. "Don't go down there, all right?"
She frowned, waiting for an explanation.
"You hear me?" he shouted.
"Fine, boss man," she shouted back. She walked over to a nearby storehouse and pressed her back against it. "Happy now?"
Even from a distance, his smirk irritated her. "That's it, kid. Perfect."
How long did she wait for him on the wharf, leaning against the brick that grew ever hotter beneath the June sun? Lou couldn't begin to tell. The minutes melted, one into another, and she found herself endlessly pacing the wharf, her breath catching at the sight of each docker that passed by.
She peered, again, down the wharf, to the saloon where she was sure Spot had gone. Nothing to see, just like the dozens of times she had checked already. Down a nearby pier, dockers unloaded a ship carrying mountains of bunches of bananas. Their shouts and brutish banter drew her attention and no matter many times she tried to push it out of her mind, she couldn't help but be drawn back to the muscles and the fruit and the way it all blurred together like a painting.
"What's wrong with you?"
Lou's head jerked up in time to see Spot ambling toward her. "Nothing. You sure took your sweet time."
"All good things to those who wait, ain't it?" he said with a stupid smile. He was drunk, she was sure, but she said nothing, deciding she preferred it to his arguing.
"Well?" she prodded.
He shrugged and looked down the pier, searching for something. "Well, what?"
"Stop playing around." Lou stood and dusted off her skirt. "Did you get a source or not?"
From Archie's pant pocket, Spot pulled out a cigarette she didn't know he'd had, then a match that he lit on the corner of the concrete steps where Lou had sat. "No dice," he grumbled, the cigarette slipping around on his lips. "You know, I don't know where you get these great ideas of yours."
"You didn't get anything?" The tightness that had been building in her chest all morning began to break. Stinging tears sprang up just behind her eyes, and she blinked hard to keep them there.
Spot glanced at her, then looked away again.
"Sure, I didn't get much." He exhaled a neat puff of smoke and plucked the cigarette from his lips. "But I've got ideas too, and it's time we do what I say."
Lou reached up to wipe a wandering tear from her cheek. Spot pretended not to see and offered his good elbow to her. "Get us outta here, would ya? My leg's killing me. Besides, we got places to go tonight."
Tired as she was, Lou didn't say anything. She hooked her arm through his and they walked together down the wharf, neither of them quite sure who carried the other.
Superhuman thanks to Anna W for being the absolute best beta reader in the universe :)