Prologue

He stood on the corner of Burlington and Second, there beneath the hanging branches of the birch that had grown from the planter in the sidewalk for as long as he could recall. And he too had been there long enough that he might have been as permanent as the birch, had it not been for the subtle shift in his step, or his hand that even then fidgeted in the pocket of his pants. He had withdrawn it and run it through his hair, aware of the sweat that had permeated his forehead, but he had not moved, and always were his eyes on Cid’s Diner across the street.

He had watched as the cab rolled up and a stranger got out, a man whose years had not yet taken him, whose eyes were sharp and kind, and whose clean white shirt and loose jeans were casual enough that he might have been almost anyone. He waited beneath the birch, still unmoved, and watched as the stranger had stood only just long enough at the corner to light up a cigarette, drawn on it, then he had put it out calmly, shaking away the ash, and finally gone into the diner, the jingle of the door chime perfectly audible even with the four lanes between them.

He had left his place beneath the birch and crossed the lanes, the rush of traffic so close that he could feel the wind as they passed. The smell of the hot asphalt was in the air. He pushed aside the door and went within.

The stranger had taken a seat against the windows, quietly alone, and with a menu open before him. His dark eyes were unmoved, his hands perfectly motionless, and even when they were no more than a few paces apart, he and the stranger, still neither said anything.

He slid into the seat across the table, and their eyes met.

“Leon,” he said, a hand extended. But there was no smile on his face, nor in his eyes, and he had meant no jest.

The stranger regarded him silently, not surprised, not amused, not cold, not dark—just regarded. And then he had turned his eyes back to his menu and over the top he said, “I could say I am surprised, but that is not true. I could say I was expecting you, but there is a difference between expectation and just knowing what is to happen. I could offer you my hand,” he looked at Leon’s outstretched hand over the top of the menu, “but if I did you would not know whether to trust me or not anyhow. I could tell you my name, but there is little point now, is there, Mister Leon?”

Leon shook his head. “No,” he said, “no point.”

“Because you already know my name,” said the stranger.

“Yes,” said Leon, nodding slowly, and already he did not like how direction had been taken from his hands.

“What then is left to be said?” asked the stranger. “We could sit here and talk of the weather, though the sun has seen to it that that will be quite a bore to talk of. Even the papers are brief this morning.” His dark eyes had met Leon’s from over his menu, and he said, “You best get to the point, Mister Leon.”

“I heard you were the one to talk to,” said Leon, watching the stranger warily. And his voice had broken before he could say more.

“That may be,” said the stranger. “I am many things, but most people just call me Alex. I really do not know what to do with such long titles as ‘The One to Talk to.’ ”

“I can’t go to the police,” said Leon, persistent, and his hands had begun to tremble slightly on the table before him, an incessant twitch that he could not stay no matter how he willed it.

“Why not?” asked the stranger, turning a quizzical eyebrow.

“Because as far as they are concerned I do not exist.”

At this the stranger had paused, his complexion all but darkened, and it seemed for the first time that he was genuinely surprised, if surprise could be said to be an emotion that he could feel. “You seem to be plenty real to me,” he said, looking hard on Leon now.

“They do not understand,” said Leon. “They cannot.

“You better tell me what you want,” said the stranger at once, his attention all but gathered now.

“I want you to listen,” said Leon.

The stranger put the menu aside and said, “Would you like coffee?”

Leon had nodded, though he was not certain he could drink anything right then. Still, the stranger had called for the waitress, and he had politely requested two coffees, one black as night and the other creamed with two sugars. Leon looked at him then, but it was not with surprise. He was beyond that now.

“It seems we are something of equal ground, Mister Leon,” had said the stranger, and the light of a smile was playing wistfully behind his eyes as he straightened the folds of his perfectly white shirt. “Seems there is little now between us that may not be said.”

“There is much that needs,” said Leon quietly.

“Oh yes,” the stranger said, pausing only just to receive the coffee the waitress handed to him. “I must agree, though I can only imagine what it is that has troubled you so.”

“You will not go to the law, will you?” asked Leon, but already he knew the answer as surely as he knew how the stranger had been so unsurprised.

“Of course not,” said the stranger. “You have heard correct. I am the one to talk to, and I think that you have much to say.”

“I do,” said Leon.

“Then start at the beginning.”








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