As the bus trundled through the sun-bleached glitz of Miracle Mile, the elusive memory began to infuriate her even more than the smell, and she was glaring intently out the window when the bus passed Sunrise Deli, and the muscles in her lower belly tightened into a stone.
All at once, it recurred to her: she remembered this smell from the first time she had seen the graffiti, on the alley wall of that very deli. She had had to pass through the alley to get to the subway station from the Italian restaurant across the street, where she had stayed late with a date she had ultimately decided she could do better than. She had noted the graffiti then, passed it by, and then had given herself quite a scare along the following blocks toward the subway. It had been that smell - not the booze, but the rotten stink, and that underlying, musky odor that tickled something in her lizard brain. She had fancied she heard footsteps behind her, been absolutely convinced at one point that she was being stalked, and had made the trip down the last block at a clipped powerwalk with her keys clenched between her fingers, thinking Southpaw Man, Southpaw Man, Southpaw Man.
But she had reached the station safely, mingling among the night shift commuters unharmed. She had looked up the street before descending the stairs underground, and all she had seen had been-
Had been a homeless man, staggering across the street toward the bar on the far side.
She sucked in a breath between her teeth, first resisting the urge to turn and look again, and then giving into it, turning her head very slowly over her right shoulder so she could see him, across the aisle and three rows back. He was still asleep; his face had slid a little down the pane of the bus window, pulling up the top lid of his eye to reveal a crescent of cornea. His breathing was still slow - and in his lap sat a whole, unmangled hand. She was about to turn around again and scold herself for being stupid when her eye fixed on his right arm stuffed into his coat - hiding the hand. Or maybe the lack thereof.
A flicker of real fear had begun to take the place of paranoia, and she desperately tried to place his face, to determine if she had ever seen it before. It was hopeless; she hadn’t seen the face of the hobo that night by the subway, and who in Neon Palms paid attention to the faces of the homeless anyway?
Vagues, but what if that was it? They said the Southpaw Man had a glam, something that kept him safe from notice until he was right behind you, but why would he need a glam when every Neonite worked so hard not to see vagrants by choice? A homeless person was the only type in the city who never looked out of place, and as a result never drew any special attention.
Her heart had run cold for over half a century, but she felt as if it had lodged itself in her throat, and when the old woman across the aisle gave her a curious look, she turned stiffly to face the front of the bus again, fear crawling on her back like a skittering insect. She was safe - she had to be. Who could look less like a Flipsider than she did? Middle-aged, middle-class, pretty but not beautiful, quietly articulate and modestly dressed - there were tens of thousands of women just like her in this city, and to think that she might be suspected of anything so far-fetched was ludicrous. The homeless man was human - foul-smelling, but undoubtedly human. She had nothing to fear.
The homeless man snorted, then belched, face sliding a little further down the pane. If he was pretending, he was very good, and she tried again to convince herself that she was being silly. She shut her eyes tight and tried to clear her mind. She wasn’t such of a much as perception went, had never been all that potent even among her own kind, but her senses were still keen, and with concentration she could call upon them - could hear the quiet rasp of his steady breathing. And the steady thrum of his heart, thud-THUD, thud-THUD.
Too fast. The man’s heart wasn’t just clipping along, it was racing, and all at once she was in a paroxysm of terror, absolutely certain of his identity. Certain that she was trapped in a bus with the Southpaw Man, and that there was nothing she could do. Cry out? Make a scene? No, she would look like the aggressor, with him feigning sleep so artfully back there, and even if she didn’t simply provoke him into pouncing on her immediately, she could be detained, and he could just wait in some alley for her release. Ask to be let off the bus, go somewhere crowded? She’d give away that she knew, then, and he might simply follow her. No matter where she went, it would close eventually, and she would have to leave - he’d just have to lie in wait.
Home. She would have to go home, exactly as she had intended - she had a gun in her closet, and once she was inside she could call in at Paradisco. If she said the Southpaw Man was outside of her house, the Union would be at her door in minutes, and he would either be caught or driven away. If the latter happened, she would just appeal to Angelo to relocate her. It would cost her a few more years’ indenture, but she could cope with that for peace of mind.
Yes, there - that was a solid plan.
But the last fifteen minutes of the drive felt like an eternity, constantly aware of his slow breathing and dark polecat odor somewhere behind her, and it took all of her willpower not to run off the bus the moment the door was open. She walked slowly, forcing herself to look absent, natural, and preoccupied, and when she reached the curb she even took a moment to glance at her watch - in reality, glancing over it at the bus window, where the homeless man was apparently still sleeping, his breath visibly fogging the window. He stayed there, unmoving, even as the bus door closed and it began to pull away with a shriek of gears and exhaust. She watched, nonplussed, as it chugged on down the street and turned onto the adjoining avenue and out of sight.
And just like that, he was gone. Swept out of her life, and after another minute of standing she had to make herself turn in the other direction and begin to walk. For the average person - and, for all that she wasn’t a person, she was at least quite average - six blocks of walking is more than enough to begin doubting the memory of an irrational fear. What feels so visceral and absolutely true in the heat of the moment becomes blurry, uncertain, because the mind is eager to discard the confounding, and will look without thinking for reasons to do so.
By the time she stepped into her brownstone and considered actually contacting Angelo, she didn’t just feel silly - she felt ridiculous. Was she really going to give Mr. “Angel of Angels” and his bookies a foot through the door of her privacy because she had gotten spooked by a sleeping homeless man on the bus? It was two in the afternoon, for heaven’s sake - broad daylight! The idea that that haggard man on the bus might have planned their meeting and deliberately stalked her, now, when the world was all white sunshine and stark blue skies, was completely absurd. Even if he had gotten off at the next stop, he would have had no way of knowing where she’d gone from there. She was not going to call Angelo.
She did take the revolver out of the closet and load it, but she placed it on the coffee table when she sat down in her loungewear to read and listen to a record, and after an hour she had nearly forgotten about it. By four, she had forgotten about it, and got up to make herself a late lunch, leaving the gun in the living room. When she discovered that the trash was full beyond her ability to jam it back down into the can and, grumbling, slipped on shoes to take it out, she did not take the gun with her.
The sunlight had taken on an oversaturated hue as early afternoon became late, but the day was still dazzling, and she took a moment to breathe it in before padding down the front steps and heading around to the dumpster between her building and the next. It didn’t smell half so pleasant in the alley - it didn’t matter how much money you paid per month, alleyways in The Palms always smelled like wet garbage - and she held her nose as she flipped the dumpster’s lid up and dropped her bag inside. She held it, and did not smell that polecat musk when it mingled with the rest of the alleyway stink.
If the shriek and crash of a fender bender close by hadn’t startled her into turning, she would have died immediately.