Having never failed anyone’s expectations to him, Alex finds it difficult to deal with having lost a valuable artifact, lied to Pritchard, and falsified a report to Mr. Henry. A whole new life in the States lies ahead of him. But Alex doesn’t like changes. The only things that keep him somewhat grounded are the calloused hands of the sadist, Dominic, and the support of the young demigod, Kaleb.
He had never expected Pritchard to keep their secret, but he did, and the stay in Philadelphia turns out very different from what he expected. Learning more about Pritchard and his past tips Alex’s understanding of a man he has hated and feared more than anyone, but depended upon with his life.
But moving to another continent doesn’t mean they escape an adversary so invisible that not even the Earned see them coming.
First Alex put the last piece of his and Pritchard’s luggage into the back of the van as the driver closed the door. In the reflection of the car’s window Alex saw Mr. Henry watch them as they got ready to leave for Philadelphia.
“Give me your backpack,” Pritchard said, and Alex handed it to him. “Let’s go.” Pritchard squeezed Alex’s neck a bit too hard for Alex’s liking. Now he knew for sure this was going to be hell—Pritchard was angry or disappointed. He pushed Alex’s head down for him to enter the car first.
“Knock the snow off your feet,” Pritchard said, and Alex took his time, minding not to spray it onto Pritchard’s pants. He hurried in so not to irritate the big man further. “We fly commercial. Coach.” Pritchard didn’t look to happy about that, and Alex wondered how long he was going to hang on to his backpack.
The driver took them to the airport and they began the long, daunting trip from Düsseldorf, Germany to Philadelphia International. A quiet trip, as Pritchard didn’t seem to be interested in talking.
Alex thought of what it was going to be like. He had been given a job, and Mr. Henry’s influence had been enough to push him in at a school where he could meet up with professors if and when he needed it. They had a semi-furnished townhouse waiting and enough money for the first month. He could think of one good thing, though—Thelma was on a delayed transport.
Halfway over the Atlantic sea, Alex had to know. “How did you expect him to react to the drawing of the statuette?”
Pritchard looked at him, then past him out the window. “I didn’t,” he finally said, then returned his attention to the book he was reading.
“I’m sorry,” Alex whispered and felt his chest constrict. He looked away, thinking he would be angry with Pritchard, too, had the situation been reversed. If it had been one of his fuck-ups that backfired and had them sent to a fleabag lifestyle on bread and water for six months—or longer, as the time for work would delay his study in ways he had yet to discover the extent off. He’d never had a job—only school and missions.
The plane came to a halt and Pritchard got up to collect their carry-ons. He held out the strap of Alex’s backpack so he could sneak his arm through. Pritchard then took his own bag and motioned for Alex to precede him from the plane. They walked in silence. Alex wondered how long Pritchard was going to give him the silent treatment. They had no luggage to collect. Mr. Henry had sent it to their new home, so they walked to the exit with their carry-on as the only weight. It was cold and slushy. The snow lying on the streets and sidewalks was black and filthy.
Pritchard rummaged through his pockets. “I think we have enough for a cab.”
“Should I pitch in?”
Pritchard sighed and pocketed his money. “Yeah.”
He took Alex’s backpack so nothing would restrict him as he made his way through the crowd and toward the information. Alex rubbed his fingers so they wouldn’t be so stiff and cold that he would get caught with them in someone’s pocket. He got in line and waited for small distractions that would allow him to skimp a wallet. He took ten bucks and gave the wallet back unnoticed. He found six more victims who seemed distracted enough for him to do the same. One didn’t have any cash, but he gave back the wallet anyway. Upon returning to Pritchard, he handed him about sixty bucks.
“How do you keep the skill honed when just at home on the grounds?”
“You don’t want to know.”
“Then I wouldn’t have asked,” Pritchard growled.
“I nick things from the servants’ pockets and replace them in the other pocket.”
Pritchard stopped to stare at him. He looked as if he’d just remembered episodes where he thought he had misplaced his keys but then found them in another pocket. Pritchard grabbed Alex’s jacket at the chest and pulled him close. Alex gasped and grabbed at his hand.
“You better not have been stupid enough to go through my pockets.”
“If I can skimp your keys, then no one can catch me. You’re so vigilant,” Alex said, hoping he would take it as a compliment.
“Going through my pockets is what got you in trouble in the first place, right?”
“Yes. I only went for keys, I promise.”
Pritchard let go and popped a neck joint. “Let’s go.” Pritchard flagged a cab. Alex sighed to get his breathing under control and ran after Pritchard.
They rode in silence and Pritchard looked out the window the entire time. It looked as if he was looking for something in particular.
“Hey, is there a place to get food near the address I gave you?” Pritchard asked.
“Yeah, there’s Jannek’s two blocks down,” the driver said.
Pritchard looked baffled. “That place is still in business?”
“Yeah, Jannek’s daughter took over two years ago when the old man croaked.”
“Drop us off there instead.”
Alex tried to determine what that look on Pritchard’s face meant, but staring at him to get a proper look was not an option. A few minutes later they arrived at what looked like a small diner. Pritchard paid the fare and they went inside.
“It looks the same,” Pritchard said, taking in the interior. He found them a seat in a corner booth and sat so he faced the door. Alex followed, taking in the ambience of the diner. He liked it. It was cozy and had a balanced amount of Christmas decorations. Even on the table.
Christmas had never been his thing—more like a show in Mr. Henry’s circles, with too much food, too many fake smiles, thank-yous, and presents no one needed. Living the way they were going to, it wasn’t going to be much of a Christmas anyway. The last cozy Christmas he remembered was before his mother died.
Pritchard handed him a menu and Alex’s gaze caught something on the wall behind a small tray with ketchup and sauce which had been hidden behind the menus. He moved it and found scratching that had been painted over, but he could still make out what it said. Pritchard & Monica.
“Who’s Monica?” he asked as a lady stopped by their table. Pritchard smiled at Alex and held out his hand.
“This is Monica. Jannek’s daughter.”
“Oh my God,” she said. “Pritchard?”
“I thought you said you’d never return to this dump.”
“Then I grew up,” Pritchard said. “How are you?”
“Well,” she said, throwing out her arms as if introducing the place. “All grown up, too. I married Josh.”
Pritchard looked horrified. “You didn’t.”
She just smiled at him, then tapped his shoulder and looked at Alex. “Who’s this good-looking young man?”
“Alex, my partner.”
She looked at him inquisitively. He closed his eyes while Alex felt weird.
“Business partner!” Alex said.
“Oh, for a second there I thought I never knew you at all, Pritchard. What brings you back?”
“The thought of two plates of Jannek’s special?”
“Josh! You got two Papa’s left?”
“Bring me two! With a top on! Drink?”
“Coffee.” Pritchard looked at Alex.
“Coffee and a Sprite,” she said and left.
“Josh?” Pritchard muttered to himself, looking disturbed. An odd little man with a potbelly and a seriously receding hairline stopped by the table and placed a plate in front of each of them. The aroma made Alex’s teeth water.
“I don’t believe it!” Josh said.
Pritchard just smiled joylessly.
“Welcome back. You left in quite a hurry.”
“Yeah, some turns in life are made fast.”
“Good to see you landed on your feet, old boy. We all did, as you can see,” Josh said, then left. Pritchard’s eyes darkened and self-control clearly took over. Monica came back and put a mug in front of Pritchard and a big Sprite in front of Alex.
“Did you... get married? Have kids?” she asked, and Alex thought he heard pain in her voice.
“The closest I got is this brat,” Pritchard said, pointing to Alex, who snorted and smiled at her. “Raised him since he was eleven.”
She smiled halfheartedly, shook her head and left. Pritchard glanced after her.
“This is fantastic!” Alex scooped another load of food onto his fork.
“Yeah, Jannek could do magic with not much of anything.”
“Who’s this Josh?”
“My past, and we leave it there.”
Alex just nodded and enjoyed his dinner, thinking that Philadelphia could be an interesting stay after all.
They finished eating and Alex sighed, feeling too full for a two block walk.
Pritchard waved Monica over. “What do I owe you?”
“Dunno, that depends... either a good reason for running out and never breaking up with me or this,” she said, and handed him a bill. Pritchard sent Alex a look, so he got up.
“I’ll wait over here. It was nice meeting you, Monica. The dinner was very good.”
Pritchard stayed in his seat and Alex went to stand by the counter from where he could see them in the glossy surface of a cooler.
Josh came to stand in front of him. “So, you know Pritchard?”
“Yeah, many years now.”
“And he never ran out on you?” Josh asked, sarcastically.
“What?” The story apparently held more importance than he thought. “On second thought, keep their business private. Don’t share with me. It’s not your story to share, is it?”
Josh pulled a face and walked off. Pritchard and Monica got up and Alex turned to look at them. Monica said something and Pritchard nodded. Then she stroked his arm and left. As far as Alex had seen, Pritchard hadn’t paid for the meal, so he’d apparently given the answer to her question.
Pritchard waved him over and they left, walking in silence. He seemed tense, so Alex kept quiet and just followed. They made it to a narrow street with townhouses dating somewhere before the second world war. Pritchard kicked the top layer of snow aside on the steps. It looked as if several people had walked in it before the last snow had fallen. The two-story townhouses didn’t look too well maintained. It was dark, though, so he would have to make up his mind tomorrow.
They entered and found themselves in a narrow hallway with an equally narrow staircase leading upstairs. To the left was a door to the kitchen and dining room. From there they could enter the living room.
They went into the kitchen. It wasn’t big. Nothing about this house was big. There was a round table with three chairs and some plates, cups, and mugs of different design stacked on the worktop.
Alex opened the fridge. It was empty but turned on. Pritchard moved to the living room and Alex followed. A couch for three, an armchair and footrest, two empty bookcases, a small TV, and a table with a worn surface. No room for more. Pritchard turned on the light. It was a bulb hidden behind an out of date lampshade hanging from the middle of the ceiling. The cord was too long and the lamp wasn’t even centered above the table. Everything looked worn.
“Let’s go to bed,” Pritchard went upstairs, opened a door and found the bathroom. Alex looked in and thought the space was practical in its design. He noticed three rolls of toilet paper. What had his life come to when he could feel so grateful that someone had put those there?
Pritchard looked into the two bedrooms and pointed to the one closest to the stairs.
“That one is mine. Sleep tight,” he said and walked back down the stairs. Alex went into the other small room. There was a bed, a table, an empty bookcase, and one of two curtains covering the window. Alex looked at the naked bulb in the ceiling and sighed. He let go of his backpack and the impact with the floor caused a small cloud of dust to rise.
“Shit,” he muttered, looking at the bed. The bedding looked kind of clean, so he prepared the bed and found his toothbrush. Pritchard came up the stairs as Alex went to the bathroom.
“Door’s locked. Goodnight.”
“Goodnight,” Alex said, then jolted as Pritchard slammed the door behind him. The whole house shook under the onslaught and Alex sighed again.
Maybe it had been too soon when thinking Philadelphia could be an interesting stay.