Henry fielded a familiar call on his walk back the park, where he’d left the sheriff to unearth his hastily concocted lie. “Oh, no,” Aria said. “You’re out in the wild. What is this, four out of five now?”
“Not much to do besides enjoy the weather, when you’re unemployed.”
“Unemployed maybe, but not inactive. Beth Brihte says that her internet is working better than ever.”
He laughed. “I know how to reset a router with the best of them.”
“Thought you might.” Aria pointedly rearranged a handful of loose papers on her desk. “She also mentioned a little side project of yours. I had to work to convince her that I wasn’t a part of it. Something about tracking down Mathas Bernard?”
“I was under the impression that you didn’t want to know anything about what I was doing.”
She bit her lip. “I don’t. But one can’t help but notice that the man in question has been deceased for some time now.”
“So he has.”
“I told you that I trust you because I trust Kara, but if you’re out there taking advantage of -”
Henry abruptly stopped walking. “I’m not taking advantage of anybody. If you want to know more I’m happy to share the details, but if you’re worried at all about getting mixed up with the police then the time for that isn’t now. The way things are headed, I’ll be hanging out with Leia Thao again in a matter of days.”
She leaned back in her chair, and frowned. “I take it that means you’re currently unwilling to accept my generous offer of employment?”
“I think it would be premature.”
“Very well. We’ll be in touch soon.”
Somehow, Henry didn’t doubt that at all. He dropped in at the Anderson for a change of clothes, and found the place deserted. He didn’t know where Kara went, or what she did, when she wasn’t at work in the warehouse. The part of her life outside of her creative endeavors seemed very small—but then again, he had hardly asked. There always seemed to be something more pressing at hand.
With fresh clothes and a clearer mind, he headed out into the village. There was nothing for him to do in the Anderson, and the less time he spent cooped up there the better. He was an unwanted man, if only for a brief moment, and he wanted to take advantage of it.
But there was little for him to do. It was too early to drink, and he didn’t feel up to fielding an endless barrage of questions from Jamal anyhow. Howie would hardly welcome him back to the store with open arms. Then there were the reactions of the people on the street, who cast sideways glances in his direction and made wide berth for him to stalk past. It was almost like being back home.
They would have all heard about his overnight stay in jail. None of them would know why—even the sheriff didn’t know that—but proximity to criminality alone seemed to prove damning enough for them. So Henry went to the only place he could think to go, and ultimately the place he most wanted anyhow. He knocked on the door to a cavalcade of excited barking.
“Hey Brucey, is your dad home?” The barking continued, followed by scratching on the wood at the sound of his voice. “Are you going to be a good boy, if I come in there?”
He tried the door, and found it unlocked. Apparently a habit that Niles was in. Bruce took one long look at him, then bounded toward the kitchen. “I don’t feed you every time I come over here,” he said. “Let’s not reinforce that expectation.”
Still, he found a box of bacon-adjacent treats in one of the cupboards and tossed a couple down to the appreciative, drooling dog. The rest of the house was empty. “He’s gone a lot, isn’t he?” Bruce snuffled at the ground, on the search for additional goodies. “Must get lonely in here.”
Henry resolved himself to keep Bruce company. He stretched out on the couch, and leafed through a couple of the more tattered paperbacks on the table. He poked through the kitchen, and spent a good amount of time running back and forth down the hallway with Bruce. “Do you have any toys?” he asked, to which the dog cocked his head. That seemed like a yes.
Past the bedroom there was a door which opened onto a small, dusty garage. He cracked it open, and peered inside. Most of the space was taken up by storage—dozens upon dozens of crates and cardboard boxes filled to the brim with indescribable ephemera. Then he did a double-take. Against the far wall there sat a cherry-red motorcycle, gleaming and freshly polished amidst the surrounding detritus.
Henry craned his neck. The garage door was blocked off by more storage, and an upturned paisley love-seat. No joy riding for Niles, then. Bruce pressed his nose into the back of his calf. “Right, right, I nearly forgot.”
The toys were stored within easy reach. He grabbed a handful of lightly slimy, chewed-upon tennis balls and tossed them down the hall, laughing as the dog toppled head over heel in the attempt to retrieve them. “Let’s not destroy the place, huh?”
In time Bruce tired himself out, and Henry knew that he should leave. He was a stranger in the house, and though the dog seemed delighted by his presence he’d never strictly been invited. While he pondered the concept of trudging off home, or to the bar, a better idea presented itself. He would cook for the cook. Had Niles ever come home to a fresh meal prepared for him? Henry wasn’t nearly as good of a chef, but he knew full well how to produce something edible.
Soon the house was awash in the heady aroma of garlic, butter, and bay. Bruce curled up on the tile, and promptly began snoring. Henry hadn’t had the privilege of working in such a well-stocked kitchen in quite a while. He couldn’t deny that it was nice.
Niles returned home not fifteen minutes after Henry put the finishing touches on their meal, swinging open the front door with a boisterous greeting for Bruce. Then he paused. “Hello?”
“Surprise!” Henry said, sauntering into the hallway in a messy apron, swinging a wooden spoon.
Niles smiled, and dumped his bag on the floor. “It smells… delicious in here.”
“I won’t be offended by the shocked intonation. Hope you’re hungry.”
He shrugged off his sweater, the look of pleasant disbelief still etched on his face. That was one of the things which Henry loved the most about him—that expressive face. “Yeah, I am.”
“Then come take a seat. I hope you’re not weirded out, I came by to say hello and then… well, things progressed from there. Figured I owed you for that picnic. Are you aware that you have a motorcycle in your garage?”
“I was on a collision course with a frozen dinner tonight, so this is nice. And yes, I am aware of the motorcycle. It’s an artifact of my youth. Never ride it anymore, but I do enjoy keeping it in good condition.”
“Well, we all have our peculiarities. Come on, your plate’s getting cold.”
Niles hesitated in the doorway. Oh, that expressive face. Every bit of pleasure drained away from it. “I don’t know if I can do this.”
“You’re not talking about the meal, are you?”
“It’s never been easy.” He swallowed. “I don’t know what it was like for you, growing up, but it was bad for me. Maybe you’ve been able to live a life where you can do whatever you want, but this is Tortus Bay.”
Henry hesitated. “What are you trying to say?”
“I never lied to you. I liked you, and I wanted to find a way to convince you to stay. But I never thought it would work. It never has with anyone else.”
“So what, you wanted me to stay at the Hell on a Shell Bar so that you could have something to look at during your shifts?” he asked. Then the rest of those words filtered through his brain. “Never?”
A note of defensiveness crept in Niles’ voice. “I have Bruce. I have a room full of books I haven’t read yet, and a motorcycle in my garage. I have three jobs—all of which I love. That’s a full life.”
“And there’s no room for anything else?”
“A full life,” he continued, as though he had not heard, “that I worked so hard to build for myself. I’m comfortable.”
“Being uncomfortable is scary, but it can be worth it. This could be worth it.”
“I’m sorry, too.” Henry stood. His face was warm, his vision swimming with the effort not to cry. “Enjoy the spaghetti.”