10. The Man Bearing Flames and a Hammer (Part 2)

The rest of day proceeded at much the same rate as the morning had. A few more scattered customers wandered through, one or two of them even going so far as to purchase something or get a drink. Two more regulars came in as well, Mrs King and Mr Young. Mrs King was suffering from financial problems brought about by her job, which had been slow recently. She worked in a bookstore, and this year’s Christmas sales had been lower than ever. Mr Young, on the other hand, was going through romantic difficulties. He’d been pining on and off for the same woman for months now, and had received nothing but mixed responses back from her. Kimi listened to and metabolised their woes, dealing out small pieces of advice when she remembered to.

The only times that Kimi left the counter were when she needed to speak to a regular, and when she managed to grab a quick bite for lunch around half past eleven. Corsac was relieved around two, and was promptly replaced by Nack. He was tall and slender and spoke little, but was reliable enough that Kimi could leave the store under his charge without anxiety.

Between four and four thirty, the bell next to the door had not rung once. The light from the low sun was glaring through the store windows, highlighting a level of dust in the air that Kimi was far from pleased about. She reminded herself that the store would definitely need a thorough dusting down before she opened the next morning.

Between the golden light, the relatively busy day, and the book, Kimi began to feel her eyes drooping. She was toying with the idea of closing shop early, and had decided that if she could think of a single thing to do other than just finish her book upstairs, then she would do so. Nothing occurred.

So she waited, until finally it reached four fifty-five, and she felt comfortable allowing Nack to begin sweeping the floors.

It was while they were both engaged, Kimi reading and Nack sweeping, that the bell next to the door jingled.

‘We’re just about to close,’ said Kimi, looking up at the customer, ‘But feel free to have a look around.’

‘Don’t worry,’ said the man with a smile that didn’t reach his eyes, ‘I won’t be long.’

He turned away from her and began wandering around the little store, looking at the candles and ornaments that she had on sale. Something in the way that he walked and spoke caught Kimi’s attention. In all her time working the store, she had very rarely had to deal with shoplifters. There were one or two times that she could recall someone had tried to swipe something, but by and large hers was not the kind of place that invited thieves.

This man though was not the kind of person that usually came into her store. He was tall and white, with curly hair and a scruffy beard, both as black as pitch. He was young, maybe in his twenties, but he was dressed with a degree of formality that seemed curious. He wore a long grey woollen coat, a button-up shirt and waistcoat, and huge, high-topped leather boots.

At first, Kimi took him for another one of the young hipsters who were the main reason that she stocked the incense, trinkets, and Asian crockery that she did, but this man seemed to be looking at the flowers that she had on display.

There was something else too. The moment that he had entered, the texture of the room had changed. Kimi felt her power quickening in her chest. Felt her inner eye peel open. At the edge of her vision, Kimi could see colours bleeding around the edge of the man and into the room around him, as if he was making the shades more intense. Reds, yellows, and oranges were particularly standing out.

‘Oh, I absolutely adore these ones!’ he said, holding a bunch of blood red poppies, ‘I didn’t know anyone around here stocked poppies. Where do you get them?’

Kimi didn’t let any of her suspicion into her voice or expression, ‘I grow them myself. I have a rooftop garden.’

The man looked suitably impressed, ‘That’s admirable,’ he said, ‘It must be so nice to be able to pour your heart and soul into something, and see it flourish.’

The man was walking towards the counter now, still holding the bunch of poppies in their paper wrapping. Nack was lurking between the aisles at the back, his broom in hand, still sweeping but keeping one eye on the stranger.

The man continued talking as he walked towards her.

‘Of course, I suppose that’s the saddest thing, really, being a florist?’ he said. There was an emotion in his voice now that Kimi could not identify. ‘You have to raise something you love, and then it has to be cut down.’

He was getting closer now, and Kimi was realising that his smiling, relaxed expression was a mask. The man was nearly trembling with emotion, and his eyes were glassy. The flurries of colour around him were taking form a little more now. They shaped themselves into symbols and images. Kimi would never have been able to write or draw what she saw in the swirling colours. It wasn’t anything close to a language or even to concrete pictures, but they nevertheless seemed to make themselves understood.

Fields of wheat. Blood soaking into dirt. Storms. A subway car. Flames. Loyal flames. Sparks rising from metal on metal.

Danger, to Kimi’s eyes, literally radiated from him.

Kimi had forgotten what danger felt like. Discounting the accident, she could not remember the last time she had ever felt that her wellbeing threatened. It was strange to suddenly rediscover an emotion like this. It was almost pleasant.

Nack had stopped sweeping now, and was keeping a steady gaze on the stranger, waiting to see what he would do. The man took another step towards Kimi.

‘You know what that’s like, don’t you? To see something you love wither and die,’ his voice had a bit of a tremble in it now, but his smile remained fixed.

Kimi was staying completely still, keeping her eyes locked on his. She couldn’t work out who he was or what he was saying.

As he walked closer, his long coat drew back a little on his right side, and she saw something tucked into his belt that glinted in the sunlight. It was a hammer. From her brief glance, she saw that it had clearly not been made with the intention of hammering nails. It was bigger. Not weapon sized, but still big.

‘They told me,’ said the man with the hammer, ‘That you didn’t have any choice in the attack. That you were under some sort of mind-control,’ he laughed bitterly, ‘Yeah, that’s a nice fucking excuse.’

Kimi’s heart was racing, but it wasn’t just fear. There was a hint of excitement. A feeling of newness, of being forced to deal with an unexpected problem. There was also more than a little anger.

A cloud must have passed over the sun, because the rays of light streaming into the building were growing dimmer. In fact, the entire store was becoming darker, the light from the bulbs not reaching quite as far as they had done mere seconds ago. The light from the candles, on the other hand, seemed to be growing fiercer, flickering in unusual ways and casting long and curious shadows into the room.

The man didn’t react to this, instead he continued to walk steadily towards her, his gaze locked. The fire from the candles seemed to be glinting with increasing ferocity in his eyes.

‘I don’t give a shit whether you were under control or not,’ he said, his voice becoming lower as he drew nearer, his right hand was now clutching the hammer at his belt, ‘You are going to pay for what you did.’

The shadows in the room were massing now at the man’s back, creeping towards him. Nack was no longer visible in the darkness at the back of the room. The store itself began creaking and moaning, and there was a distant rumble as of running water in old pipes. Oddly moving fingers of darkness boiled at the man’s back, as if ready to grab him.

‘I am sorry for your loss. I did not have a choice in the matter,’ said Kimi, her voice barely a whisper and her eyes black holes in the darkening store, each bearing a flickering star of reflected flame, ‘But if you still thirst for violence,’ her lips moved in the barest hint of a smile, ‘I will quench you.’

The doorbell rang.

‘Hel-lo!’ said Agent Sandy, walking into the store.

As though he brought the sunlight with him, the room was suddenly illuminated. Kimi and the man with the hammer both turned to the doorway in surprise. Sandy was just stood there, semi-silhouetted in the doorway, in his dark grey suit. Today, he was wearing a bright red, patterned tie.

‘Mrs Hashiji! It’s so good to see you,’ said Sandy, walking across from the doorway to the counter. He seemed to notice the man for the first time, ‘I’m not interrupting anything, am I?’

The man’s expression was tortured rage and disappointment for a split second as he looked at Sandy, but then his false smile returned. Deftly, he drew his coat around the hammer, hiding it from view.

‘Not at all, I was just leaving.’

Without looking at Kimi, he roughly dropped the bundle of poppies back on the counter and marched from the store.

Agent Sandy watched the man go. When the door closed, he turned back to Kimi and made a face, ‘What was that guy’s problem?’

‘A dissatisfied customer,’ said Kimi, without humour, ‘You are Agent Sandy?’

‘That’s right,’ said Sandy, smiling brightly, ‘We met two weeks back in the Parma building.’ Sandy’s voice was calming and low, as if he was speaking to someone grieving, ‘How have you been?’

Kimi smiled sweetly at him, ‘I am quite well thank you, how are you Sandy?’

Sandy tilted his head slightly, ‘Oh, same old same old. Parma’s always busy, and we’re still trying to get things back on track after everything that’s happened.’ He took a small step closer to the counter. ‘You’re closing now, is that right?’

Kimi nodded.

‘Excellent! Now, you’re going to have to forgive me, because I’m going to be really annoying now and ruin your plans for the evening!’ he grinned, ‘I was hoping to ask you a few more questions at the Parma Station once you were finished closing up. Is that okay?’

Kimi deflated slightly, resigning herself to whatever was going to happen. ‘Of course, Agent Sandy, I’d be happy to help in any way I can.’

‘Terrific, can I wait here while you finish up?’

‘Take a seat, if you will,’ said Kimi, indicating the chairs and tables next to the counter, ‘Can I offer you a drink? Tea perhaps?’

‘Oh, that sounds heavenly,’ said Sandy, walking to the seats, ‘But I’m afraid I just can’t. Some other time though.’

Kimi got into the business of closing the store while Sandy grabbed a seat. It didn’t take long. She cashed out the till and put away the broom that Nack had left lent against the wall, before grabbing her coat and bag.

Sandy was sitting patiently at his table, tapping away at a personal organiser that he’d kept in his coat pocket.

When Kimi was certain that Sandy wasn’t looking, she opened her bag and checked inside. In the back pocket of her bag, was a small bag with a red drawstring. Her fingers found it, and felt the edges of a coin and a bracelet inside of it. Assured that they were both still there, she closed the pocket. Kimi wondered for a moment whether or not to take her book, but decided against it.

‘I am ready when you are, Agent Sandy.’

Sandy stood up in a smooth motion and walked her to the door.

Kimi knew very little about cars, but even with her limited knowledge Sandy’s vehicle was not what she had expected. From what she had seen of Parma, she had imagined a black, severe, and expensive looking car. Sandy’s was smaller, rounder, and silver. Indeed, it looked like any number of other cars that were driving up and down the street.

‘Ugh,’ said Sandy, as he prepared to drive out into the road, ‘I hate driving in rush hour.’

As the two of them travelled from Queens to Manhattan, Kimi found herself wondering why Sandy hated it, because he seemed to make good time. He managed to avoid the most problematic roads, sticking to back-roads when he could, and he seemed to posses an uncanny talent for arriving at an intersection just when it went green. It meant that by the point they hit the tunnel into Manhattan, they had made good time.

Sandy listened to the news on the radio as he drove, but kept it at a quiet enough volume that it was clear that he was willing to speak if Kimi wanted to.

It took Kimi a little while to realise what he had done. He had clearly expected her to ask questions, or at least to make small talk. Possibly, he expected her to be nervous.

Kimi stifled a yawn, and Agent Sandy turned to her and smiled, ‘Tired?’

‘A little,’ she said.

‘Long day?’

‘Very quiet,’ she said with a shrug, ‘I would have been happier with a few more customers.’

Sandy’s voice had been soothing for their entire discussion, but now he brought it to a new level of pleasant calmness. ‘You’ve not been losing too much sleep, have you?’

Kimi’s brows furrowed. For a moment, she couldn’t decide what it was that he was alluding to. Then she realised.

‘No,’ she said at last, ‘Well, no more than usual.’

It was Sandy’s turn to furrow his brows. ‘I must say, you’re taking the whole situation extremely well. In under two weeks, you’ve learnt that the world you thought you knew was a mask covering up something far more complicated than you could have imagined, right?’

Kimi didn’t say anything, instead staring out the window at the interior of the tunnel.

‘Mrs Hashiji?’

‘I was putting my words in order,’ she said, unhurriedly. After a moment more, she continued, ‘When you reach my age, things surprise you less and less, and to find out there is more to the world than you had initially suspected is something that should fill one with joy.’

There was another pause, as if Sandy expected something else.

‘Though, of course, it has been difficult to come to terms with and to accept,’ she said, hesitantly, ‘But ultimately, one must accept the situation you find yourself in.’

Sandy smiled. ‘Well,’ he said, ‘I must tell you Mrs Hashiji that your flattery will not affect the investigation.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘“When you reach my age”,’ he said, ‘Don’t pretend that there’s too many years between us.’ He laughed then, a polite but encouraging laugh.

‘You’d be surprised,’ said Kimi, chuckling a little too, ‘I take care of myself.’

They drove a little longer in silence except for the radio, until finally they approached the site of the Parma Station.


Previous: 9. The Man Bearing Flames and a Hammer (Part 1)

Next: 11. The Man Bearing Flames and a Hammer (Part 3)

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