“Let’s fucking go already, asshole.”
“<Good morning to you too,>” Zarah groaned, rolling over and away.
“Hey!” The brief appearance of spectral fingers in front of her half-closed eyes was the only sign that Kihri had attempted to hit her, and passed straight through. “None of that shit. I let you get away with way too much last night.”
Zarah groaned again, more insistently. “<It’s just us! Why bother?>”
“Because it’s good practice, dumbass. And if you did it more, you wouldn’t sound like a fucking automaton.”
“So like you I should talk?” she shot back, annoyed.
’So I should talk like you?’” Kihri corrected. “Subject, verb, object. And yes; everyone should talk like me, cause I’m amazing. Now come on, let’s go already, I hate this fucking place.”
Our Lady Full Of Grace Shelter, or just Tavesh after the street it was located on, was towards the outskirts of Kaila, and thus was generally more likely to have a free cot than ones further in. The city centre and financial districts were the best spots for begging, busking, and applying for jobs, so shelters around there tended to have trouble making enough space for everyone.
That’s not to say that Tavesh was empty, though.
The cot Zarah had collapsed on the previous night, asleep as soon as her head hit, was one of the last ones left, and her bleary-eyed glance around showed that it was still just as full. It also showed, thanks to the large analog clock on the wall, that it was still a good half hour short of sunrise.
“You are evil,” Zarah muttered, folding the pillow over her head to block her eyes and ears. “No-one should be awake now.”
“Boo-fucking-hoo,” she heard Kihri snort, muffled by the pillow. “I have sat here watching your gross meatsack toss and turn for four hours. It’s Kihri’s time now.”
Zarah rolled back over to face her, but kept the pillow. “Could you not have watched television?” There were a few TVs set up at the other end of the large main room, displaying a few different channels at a low volume with subtitles.
“Spoken like someone who’s never had to watch late-night television. Trust you me, between the two, watching you snore is the better option.”
Four hours. Well, she’d gotten by on worse. “May I at least shower first?” she asked as she sat up, shaking out the stiffness in her limbs and neck.
“Yeahhhh, that’s probably a good idea, actually.” Kihri made an exaggerated show of leaning away. “You smell like the sewer that sewers run off into.”
Zarah leant down to pull her bag and shoes out from underneath the cot. “Why would a sewer need a second sewer to run off into? It seems pointless.” She knew to be more careful with her things if need be, but Kihri would warn her if someone tried to steal anything, and in fact had done so many times before.
Stepping carefully between the uneven rows of cots, holding her boots in one hand as to make less noise, she made her way across the hall towards the back, to the double-doors just past the televisions.
Most everyone else, sensibly, was still asleep, but there were a few people sitting in the folding chairs, watching the screens, reading books or playing chess.
Some familiar faces looked up as they drew closer, and Zarah nodded in greeting.
“Mornin’, Matchstick,” Ghabis grumbled with a broad smile. “Mornin’, K.”
The woman sitting on the other side of his chess board leaned over and slapped him lightly on the hand. “Don’t encourage her. Good morning, Zarah.”
“Morning, Ghabis,” Kihri said, with a grin. “Cole, go suck a horse’s dick.”
“Good morning, both of you,” Zarah said. “Ghabis, Kihri says thank you, and good morning too.”
The old man smiled a broad, toothy smile, while Cole grimaced.
“S’gonna be a cold one out today,” Ghabis said. “You got enough coats?”
“Yes, thank you. Will you be okay?”
He grinned, then let out a hoarse, painful-sounding cough. “I got enough fire yet, Matchstick. Don’chu worry bout me.” He coughed again, and Cole rolled her eyes before handing him a bottle of water. “Now, git. Grab a shower before the boilers give out again.”
She inclined her head respectfully. “Take care.”
He barked a laugh, and then broke down coughing again. “You know it, Matchstick.”
She hadn’t even made it a few feet before she heard Cole muttering from behind her. “You shouldn’t encourage her delusion, Ghabis.”
Whatever his reply was, it came just as they were passing through the doors, and the creaking of the hinges obscured it.
“What a bitch,” Kihri said, spinning around to make an ugly face back in Cole’s direction.
A quick shower and relatively-clean clothes did wonders for the constitution, and Zarah was feeling almost healthy as she and Kihri stepped out the front doors. The sun was just beginning to rise, diffuse orange light spilling out from behind the mountains, and although there was indeed a sharp, bitter chill to the air, experience told her that it would ease up in the sunlight. The streets were quiet, infrequent cars rumbling by the main source of noise, and for most of their trip, the two of them were the only ones on the street.
The sun had fully risen by the time they turned the corner onto the street alongside the park, and as she’d predicted, the edge in the air began to soften.
Although, that was only comparatively – she was still wrapped up in basically every piece of clothing she owned at once, and her breath still crystallised and fogged in the air.
“…and anyway,” Kihri was saying, “everything pretty much went downhill after they started fucking.” She was floating in a slow, lazy loop around Zarah, arms behind her head and legs folded over one another like she was lying on a couch, and rotating slightly faster on her own axis so that she was never facing the same direction any loop. It looked really dizzying to Zarah, but Kihri didn’t really have to worry about such things. “Cause, like, all the tension just completely drained from the show? And it was sort of built on that tension, so they started to flail around trying to find something else and then shit got weird cause they started introducing, like, werewolves and shit? It was terrible, I couldn’t stop watching, but then they backpedaled and pretended it was all a dream? Like we’d just fucking lap it up!”
Zarah had no clue what show she was talking about, but she just nodded and made the appropriate noises at the appropriate times. She wasn’t much one for television, but whenever they had a few hours and access to the internet, Kihri would get her to queue up as many episodes as she could and then burn straight through them.
Kihri seemed to be waiting for a response now. “Oh, how dare they,” she replied, as sincere as she could manage.
“Right?!” She kept on going, but Zarah tuned out, scanning the road quickly before jogging across to the other side. Not for any real reason, but just to be closer to the pine trees that lined the edge of the park. The sharp, clean smell filled the air, and she took a deep, satisfying breath.
“…and now they’re trying to claim it was their intent all along,” Kihri was saying, seemingly oblivious, “despite the fact that wait a fucking second.”
She stopped moving, and Zarah continued for a few steps before noticing and backtracking. “What?” she asked, as Kihri scanned up and down the street intently. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s fucking gone, is what’s up!”
“Yes the store, what else?” She pointed across the road, to a small convenience store at the bottom of a brick building. “It was right there! I’m sure of it.”
Zarah looked around as well, but didn’t seem to see anything that looked like a liquor store. “You are sure?”
“I literally just said ‘I’m sure of it’, so yeah.” She began floating back across the street, her body language tense, but Zarah had to wait for a pickup truck to roar by before she could follow.
The store was nothing special – just a single room, not particularly wide, extending deeper into the building, with white metal and glass at the front. A sign mounted on the wall above the door read ‘Market Square’ in a simple font, angled so its two sides faced either direction down the sidewalk. Some flowers sat in bundles on cheap wooden shelving, and a hand-painted sign hung above them, declaring the store to be open.
“Fucking-” Kihri said as Zarah reached her. “Shit! Fuck! I liked this goddamn place!”
“And also it was our only lead,” Zarah noted.
“Yeah, yeah, yeah, shut up,” she replied miserably. “Let me mourn.”
Zarah couldn’t help but be a little incredulous. “Kihri. It was a liquor store.”
“Yeah!” she exclaimed. “It was a liquor store, staffed by weirdos, frequented by weirdos! The fucking people who would come in here, man, it was the best entertainment I’d ever had. One time there was a guy with a sword. A fucking sword, Zarah! It is, without a doubt, my most treasured memory, and now the place responsible for it is fucking gone. Replaced,” she glanced up and down the storefront with a grimace, “by this.”
“…I think it is cute, actually,” Zarah replied mildly.
“Yeah, you would.” She turned and began floating away. “Come on, let’s blow this joint. No point in wasting any more time here.” She made it a few meters, then realised Zarah wasn’t following her, and spun back around. “What?”
“We should ask the owner,” Zarah said firmly. “At the very least, they might know where the old owners are now, so we can find them. They might even know…” she paused, realising they’d never learned the victim’s name. “…him,” she finished instead.
Kihri made a face, in a way that reminded her of a petulant toddler. “…fine,” she said eventually, folding her arms. “But make it quick.”
A bell jingled softly as they stepped through the door – they hadn’t touched the door, so Zarah presumed it was motion-sensitive.
“Just a moment!” a soft, raspy voice called from the back of the store. “Be with you shortly.”
It was nice, Zarah thought, if unassuming. There were the standard rows of snacks and sweets and overpriced staples. but there was also a small section of fresh fruits and vegetables – an unexpected but welcome addition. She wandered over, and found that while the prices were a bit steep, they weren’t exorbitant.
“Kihri,” she asked, picking up an orange and dropping it on the small electronic scale, “can you…?”
Her sister gave it a quick glance, eyes darting over the weight and the little sign with the price per pound, then returned to watching the CCTV behind the counter. “47 tanar,” she said. “Two brick, one cap, or two brick two cap if they round up instead of down “
“Right.” She rifled around in her change-purse, until she found the right coins, and walked back to the counter. A moment later, a short woman, presumably the owner of the voice, came bustling out with a smile.
Zarah gave a her a quick once-over as she let herself into the cashier area. She looked to be either at the tail-end of middle-aged or just getting into a healthy elderly, a bit shorter than Zarah (not that that was unusual), and skin considerably darker than her own ashwood brown-grey. Thick, wiry black hair bounced around her head as she moved, having escaped from a now-tiny ponytail at the back, and she was dressed in simple clothes and a black apron with the name of the store stitched into it in white.
“Sorry about that,” the woman said, in the same raspy voice. “Had to clean up a spill. What can I help you with today?” She spoke with a slight accent, some of the sounds having a slightly odd, buzzy quality, but her Brechtin was excellent – better than Zarah’s.
“That is alright,” Zarah replied, handing over the orange. “Just this, please.”
“Sure thing.” She dropped it onto the scale and punched some numbers into what Zarah realised was actually an old manual till, with the clunky typewriter buttons. “That’ll just be 45 tanar.”
Floating behind her, Kihri stuck out her tongue, looking smug. Zarah ignored her and handed over the coins, then dropped the spare cap in the tip jar for good measure. “Thank you. May I ask you something?”
The woman blinked, then smiled, toothy and crooked but warm. “Of course, dear.”
“Are you the owner?”
Her eyes narrowed slightly, her expression becoming more guarded. “Why do you ask?”
“Dude,” Kihri said from behind her, amused, “she thinks you’re gonna rob her.”
Zarah blinked, stunned. “Ah- , you apologise I- I only-” She paused, closed her eyes and took a deep breath, centring herself. “I am sorry,” she tried again, slow and deliberate, “I did not mean to make you uncomfortable. I only asked because I was hoping you knew about the store that was here before.”
After a moment, the shopkeeper relaxed, some of the tension slipping from her. “Ah. In that case, yes, I am. Do you mean the liquor store?”
She nodded enthusiastically. “Yes, exactly!” Kihri supplied her with the name, and she repeated it out loud. “Sullivan Spirits? Do you know what happened to it?”
The shopkeeper seemed a little off-put by her sudden enthusiasm. “The old owner died, a few months ago. His family arranged the sale of the business, and I needed a new place to move my store. Why do you ask?”
“Welp!” Kihri declared. “There goes that lead! Old fart’s dead, nothing we could’ve done, yadda yadda. Let’s get going.”
Zarah ignored her. “I was hoping to find someone who used to work at the liquor store,” she explained to the shopkeeper. “I do not know his name, though.”
She pursed her lips. “Hm. Do you have a photograph?”
“Ah, um.” She pulled out her phone, but then immediately realised that all of them would make it obvious that he was dead. At best, it would look like she’d photographed him while sleeping, which was… also not great.
“I do, but… please, promise me you will not react until I have a chance to explain.”
Her eyes narrowed again, but after a moment’s deliberation, she nodded slowly, and Zarah passed her the phone.
It felt wrong, somehow, to watch, so Zarah looked down at her feet instead, but there was no avoiding the horrified gasp that came only a moment later.
“Oh,” she breathed. “Oh, Hami.” She muttered a few more phrases in a language that Zarah didn’t recognise, then slowly turned her gaze to Zarah. “Where?” she demanded. “When?”
She couldn’t bring herself to meet the unyielding gaze. “Achor Bridge, just beyond the Milton steelworks,” she said quietly. “Last night. Maybe earlier, but that is when we- I, found him.”
“I… there have been… others.”
There was silence for a moment, and when Zarah chanced a look upwards at her face, she got the impression of many complex thoughts passing in rapid succession. Then, all at once, the shopkeeper seemed to deflate, the energy leaving her as her shoulders sagged, and she passed the phone back across the counter.
“Dammit,” she muttered. “Dammit.” Then more words Zarah didn’t recognise, but that were very obviously curses.
“…you knew him, then?” Zarah asked as she took the phone back.
The shopkeeper nodded. “Hami Othranta. He would come around most days, we would talk. I would give him what I could spare. I offered him work, even, but he said he couldn’t.” She took a deep breath, shuddering slightly. “…he was only sixteen.”
“…I am sorry,” was all Zarah could say.
She took another deep breath, then nodded. “I’m guessing that trying to take this to any authority would be pointless?”
Blood on concrete, the flash of a badge, smug laughter-
Zarah nodded wordlessly.
“Yeah, I figured.” Her fingers drummed furiously against the counter for a few moments. “…what’s your name?” she asked eventually.
“Ah, um. Zarah. Zarah Vyas.”
She raised an eyebrow. “That’s not a Pashtari name, is it?” she asked, gesturing to Zarah’s hair.
Zarah shook her head. “No, it is not…” She trailed off. “No. It is not.”
Apparently, that was answer enough for her.
“Mulunesh Bzuayehu,” she said, tapping her chest. “You can just call me Mulu, or Mrs. B. Nice to meet you, I suppose, although I wish it were under better circumstances.”
Mrs. B sighed, leaning heavy on the countertop. “I feel like I’m going to regret this, but I also get the sense nothing’s going to sway you from it. Hami had been talking, in the last few weeks, about some new job he’d found. He said,” she pointed out the window and across the street, “that it was in the park.”
“What sort of job do you find in a park?” Zarah asked.
“That’s what I said. He was vague about it, but he said the money was good. I didn’t want to push him away, so I didn’t ask more questions.” She took another one of those deep, shuddering breaths. “My mistake, i suppose.”
Zarah wanted to do… something. Say something, or reach out, offer some comfort. “I am sorry,” she repeated instead.
Mrs. B shook her head. “Nothing to be sorry for, Zarah. It’s not your fault, and I know it’s not mine either, even though it feels like it. It’s just… how things are, sometimes.”
Zarah hesitated, but then powered through. “I would hope that… maybe they do not have to be.”
The older woman’s gaze lifted to meet hers, and there was something sad and knowing in it. “Maybe. Are you going to try and do something about it?”
“Maybe,” was all she could reply. Kihri, who had spent most of the conversation silent and pensive, let out a mocking snort.
Mrs. B shook her head, and said something else in that other language. “Day wehkso ngia forta ngian eber wes,” it sounded like to Zarah.
“What does that mean?” she asked.
Mrs. B gave a bitter smile. “It’s an old Nguni saying. ‘We forever throw children after children.’ It’s always the youngest who suffer.” She pulled a pen from a pocket, and grabbed a spare piece of receipt paper. “I can’t stop you from doing whatever you’re going to do, Zarah Vyas, but…” she jotted down a few numbers, and handed it over. “If you need help, or you need somewhere to stay, call me.”
Slowly, Zarah took the paper, a little stunned. “…thank you,” she managed to say. “This is- thank you.”
“Pay me back by staying alive,” she replied. “Now, go. There are some police that always come by in a few minutes for their coffee.”
“Oh shit,” Kihri yelled in a strange accent, clearly quoting something, “it’s the fucking rozzers! Book it!”
Zarah shot her a glare, then turned back to Mrs. B, and bowed her head quickly in thanks. “I will… let you know,” she said, not feeling up to finishing the sentence.
She nodded back in return. “Stay safe.”