A/N: Hellow fair folk of Fiction Press! I wrote this little silliness as a present to my lovely compatriot and best friend as one of her birthday presents this year. I have no idea if anyone other than the two of us will appreciate it because of all the inside jokes, but here it is. May you be amused. Rated for swears.
This was written, as I said, in silliness. No offense to any homeless citizens. I urge you to be a giver like the widow with two mites, not a taker like screaming mall children. Be charitable. Bless others and you will be blessed. In these economic difficulties, be temperate and content. Thus ends the serious sermon part of this note.
Onward to the fun!
Wendell and His Cardboard Empress
Wendell was King of the Hobos.
His box was the nicest of all his lowly subject's, and his fence corner the sun-shiniest of the lot. He had a pair of Nike shoes that almost looked new, and the length of his slightly curling hair (when it wasn't too dirty) was a sign of his experience and wisdom. Being that he ranked highest in all of The Homeless City and was an appropriate age, it was no surprise that he had dibs on the slender gal who worked at Wal-Mart, pushing carts.
Whenever he had a little money he'd wait for the girl in the pony tail to make her way out to collect the carts. Then, methodically, he would walk, slowly, to the building so that he would be entering the Wal-Mart about the same time she was returning there with the train of them. He watched her, but not too much. It wasn't polite to look too long at a—what did they call a king's helpmeet?—empress; even for a king it wasn't polite. She didn't know she was an empress and that made her nice. She didn't know Wendell had chosen her as his fellow sovereign, which was what made her empress. On second thought, didn't they call them queens? But no, Wendell liked empress and as king it was his decision to make.
Today, he was taking his change for a soft drink. He deliberately took his time counting out forty-five cents in dimes and nickels, retrieved his orange soda, and paused to see his empress pass him on her way in. She only had one cart with her this time. She'd been helping an old lady unload groceries into her trunk. One day she would care for their people in the same way. Her pony tail swayed from side to side as she let the cart slide into the back of another with a crash. Wendell stopped peering over his shoulder.
He opened the can with a click and that special sound of bubbles being released; an airy symphony to proclaim the steps of his empress approaching. Those were her sneakers making soft footfalls on the carpeted entrance area. He could feel her behind him. He dared to look into those large brown eyes and to smile.
She smiled and waved back but looking wary. Of course. Because he was king.
He didn't break eye contact. What had come over him, he wasn't sure of. Then his heart did acrobatics in his chest when she tilted her head and spoke.
"I don't have any extra change."
It took him a moment to collect his suddenly scattered thoughts.
"I'm just getting a soda. I mean... I already got mine."
"Okay," she shrugged. "You live around here?" An interesting pinkish color spread through her cheeks like she thought she'd said something unkind. Impossible.
"Just around the corner, sometimes. You?"
"Oh, um, down the street, most of the time."
He wondered where she lived when she wasn't at home. Did she feel as homeless as he did with a roof over her head? That would change for her. She would feel at home in their kingdom.
"When do you eat lunch?"
She was puzzled. Dug through her pocket and blushed again while staring at the drink selections.
"You mean, when do I take my lunch break? In about an hour."
"You don't take your car."
"No, I eat at the Subway in here."
Of course. That place was good. He never sat down when he could afford a sandwich because his big jacket made people nervous, but he knew the food was good.
Her change was deposited in the machine but still she stared at it. Up and down with her eyes, head tilted; hand hovered over one... and then it moved to the next, but without pressing a button. After keeping him in suspense for a few seconds longer, she finally jabbed a white button and took off with her generic root beer.
He waited for her to disappear into the store before turning away.
Wendell was dead. He had to be—dead and gone to heaven. But then his empress was dead too. How else could she be sitting across from him at the same table? It didn't matter so much if he was dead, but she really shouldn't be.
Just be sure, he leaned over and pinched her arm.
"Ow! Wendell, what...?"
"There was a bug on your arm."
"Ew! Did it smoosh?"
"No." He watched her look down at her sandwich.
"You didn't have to buy me lunch."
Yes, he did. That lost twenty dollar bill was turning out to be the best thing ever to happen to him. His timing was perfect. Two minutes before her break started he got in line. Her favorite roast beef sandwich and cookie were waiting for her when she came up to the Subway. She looked surprised that he would know her favorite sandwich—her face lit up at the cookie—even more surprised that he bought them for her. Wouldn't even take them until she saw that he had his own food at a table down the way. That was proper of course. She already knew so much about how to be the perfect empress. And then... of her own decision, she sat with him for lunch.
"It worked out fine."
She had an awkward sip of soda. It made her shiver and tuck her sweater tighter around her.
Maybe buying some new clothes would have been a better use of the money. He could get a jacket that was different and not so ready to make people uncomfortable. Although his own people wouldn't recognize him as king anymore without it.
She was laughing at something he said with no shyness or shame to be near him. No, it really was working out fine.
Smoke burned in her lungs, in her eyes, in her throat. She tried to stay low, but it was so hard not knowing where to crawl to safety. Mr. Barker had her working in the electronics section that shift and she wasn't as familiar with the layout of the area. She couldn't believe how close she was to the initial explosion. Death had seemed imminent. Her head still throbbed from the noise and heat. Her hand slid up against something almost cool in comparison to the thickening air.
A table! She was in the middle of the aisle now. She tried imagining how many more scoots and crawls it would take to get to the nearest emergency exit. Too many to count. She was supposed to stay low but wondered if running to an exit would be better in the current situation. All the coughing hurt. She would have stopped, but it was compulsory.
Wendell took her by the arm and pulled her to her feet. "Come on. This way."
"I'm supposed..." cough... "to stay low..." cough, cough.
"That's not fast enough. We'll go this way." He had a piece of cloth wrapped around his mouth. He was smart. And he knew where the exit was.
Everything was okay now. She let him take her away to the open air.
Detective Jacobson rubbed the bridge of his nose until the discomfort was enough to make him forget the mess of his case for all of five seconds. Damn. He hated this. Every lead had been followed to the last detail and proven useless. Some cases were that much harder than others; hit closer to home, too.
He stared at the three pictures tacked onto the billboard; the newest one only two days old. The girl's big brown eyes seemed to question him from the past. Why can't you find me? Why didn't you stop this? The picture was recent, taken just hours before her disappearance by a coworker, totally unaware of the danger ready to snatch her up. The missing girl was only a year or two shy of his own daughter's age. Less piercings, though.
He needed to catch this bastard who kept stealing girls away from their families—from their fathers.
Detective Dawson was at it again. Rattling off the gist of what they already knew. Jacobson supposed it helped him concentrate. Or maybe that was his process; like some kind of epiphany would strike from going over it a hundred times. Jacobson didn't care. He could tune it out and let his mind drift back to the one-sided conversation at will.
"Her boss, Phil Barker, last saw her eating lunch with a homeless man she'd recently befriended. Then there was the fire. Associates were with her when it started, but in the general panic she got separated and went missing. Kind of weird, huh?"
Jacobson grunted. "Hand me Park's file." He glanced over a page and tossed it back on the desk.
"Jenna Parks was last seen with a man who saved her from nearly getting hit by a car in the Raley's parking lot."
"You think they were planned? But how could... that's crazy."
"There are plenty of ways you can screw with a car or start a fire in Wal-Mart. I think this guy has more in his noggin than we gave him credit for. Could be that after the first abduction he started getting more impatient; instigated these incidents as a way to evoke a sense of gratitude from the young women he stalked."
"What does Andy's unit call that?"
"Dunno, but I'd bet my last penny that the homeless man's our guy."
"You know we have nothing to go on. Barker said the man look like a homeless Ben Barnes from the back of the head, but couldn't be more specific. Most witnesses didn't remember more than his jacket."
"At least there's that."
"Not so much. No one could tell what it looked like or whether it was gray, green, or black. One woman said 'faded navy blue.'"
"What is this guy? Some kid of chameleon?"
"No one really pays attention to a hobo, you know. Looking too long at 'em makes people uncomfortable."
"He's going to be more than uncomfortable when I get my hands on him."
Dawson's cell phone started vibrating between piles of paperwork. He halfheartedly picked it up and when he answered the caller his tone was apologetic.
"That your girlfriend?"
"She's been waiting outside for almost an hour."
"You shouldn't let her drive alone at night. Especially just to pick your sorry ass up."
"Let her? I'd like to see you try stopping her." Dawson stood up to stretch and grabbed the coat off the back of his chair. "Hey, if you don't get some sleep tonight, I'm drugging your coffee."
"Yeah, I care about you too."
Jacobson sent him out with a careless wave of the hand. He cleared a small space on his desk and braced himself for the night ahead. If evil didn't rest, then neither would he.