Winter became aware of the sharp pain in his temples first, followed swiftly by what he mentally referred to as cotton ball tongue syndrome. There was a moment when he considered opening his eyes but knew that nothing good would come from trying something so risky so early on in the afternoon. Slowly he raised his hands to his head and gently rubbed his temples, while cautiously allowing himself the faintest grown. He knew what was coming and he didn’t like it, suddenly his mouth went from desert dry to slowly filling and the first wave of nausea hit him like a tsunami against a mountain. One eye opened to plot his rout to the bathroom, as he fought back the urge to vomit. Slow deep controlled breaths were the order of the day and although he didn’t want to move, he also longed for something damp and cool to cover his face with. He knew that at some point, fairly soon he was going to loose the fight with himself but the longer he could hold it at bay the better equipped he’d be for getting to the bathroom. In his head Winter mapped out his apartment, the distance from where he was to where the bottle of water in his fridge was, and where the painkillers in his desk were, and how far away each of those items were from the toilet. As the nausea subsided Winter slowly got to his feet, it was do or die time, and as much as dying seemed preferable in those moments, he headed for the fridge and the water. The cool bottle was like heaven against his head, and the water down his throat seemed to restore some sanity to his world. Winter allowed himself to look over the rest of the content of the fridge and decide weather or not he was going to try eating before or after vomiting. He could feel the second wave approaching and headed to his desk to get the pain killers. If he could take the pills and hold off the second wave then he had a shot at keeping it all down. It was risky, but it was a risk he was willing to take. He slumped down in his chair and fumbled through his desk drawer for the pills, took two with what was left in the water bottle and rested his head against his desk, waiting for the second wave to hit. It struck with a vengeance, making the first wave look like ripples in a duck pond, but somehow Winter managed to hold it all at bay. He knew why he’d drunk so much the night before, but thinking about it seemed counter productive. So he resigned himself to wallow until the painkillers took effect. In a way he was disappointed that his combination of prescription drugs and too much alcohol had failed to kill him, again. He figured he was going to hell anyway so suicide wasn’t going to make much of a difference, but a bullet seemed a waste after not being hit by so many from other people’s guns, and a knife brought bad back memories. He didn’t actually want to kill himself anyway; he just wasn’t totally against the idea of it happening quietly while he slept. Also he liked testing the idea that he deserved a far more painful death. In many ways the hangover made more karmic sense than being allowed to die. As he lay there he reached his arm out to find his Hi-Fi remote and press play. As though off in the distance, came the gentle melancholy tones of a piano. His pain killers were prescription strength so it didn’t take too long for them to kick in. A slightly numb warmth started too spread over his body letting him know that the pain killers had started working. He slowly got to his feel and made himself a cup of coffee before returning to his desk for his morning pills. He glanced at the bottle of vodka with distance and respect. As you would a friend you’ve know too long, and forced into spending too much time together. You know so much about each other that you’ve run out of things to say but still seek each other’s company. He took his morning dose and started re-reading the police files from the day before, trying to remember the key thoughts without remembering the painful ones. It didn’t take him too long to remember how useless they were and how little information he had to work with. He needed to find the nameless friend and ‘interview’ them, which meant going down to the police station and bribing someone. Which still sounded like far too much effort but Winter got up and headed for the shower anyway. Somewhere between the drinking and the drug abuse he’d developed a kind of autopilot towards getting through the mundane red tape at the start of most contracts. As the water ran over his head and down his back Winter thought that with his current contract being about finding someone rather than making someone disappear, at least he wouldn’t have to pay extra to keep his inquiries hidden. He could move and search out in the open. Winter allowed himself to slowly slide down the shower wall until he was sitting on the shower bed with the water raining down on top of him and he stared out at his gun hanging on the back of the bathroom door. It would be so much easier that way, he wouldn’t have to get changed or be nice, or be mean to get information he wouldn’t have to worry about finding some stupid girl who’s probably better off this way anyway. It would just be over. A single flash image of his Beloved lying against the door woke Winter from his destructive day dream and reminded him why painkillers and vodka weren’t the best mix. He quickly got up and out of the shower. Dried off, put on some fresh cloths and headed out into the world. Although still unsure of the time, the position of the sun told him it was much earlier than he thought.
Winter had never been a cop, nor had he worked in the armed forces. He’d started out as a bouncer at high class bar and made a name for himself there as a no nonsense guy who was good at throwing people out, no matter their size. In his spare time he trained in various weapons and fighting styles and had a natural talent towards violence. He was never great with people and people weren’t very good with him. He was cold and imposing which either scared or offended people. From bouncing he seamlessly moved to private protections which ultimately lead to him becoming a hit man. This meant that the closest thing he had to a contact at the police station was a youngish girl named Veronica who worked the front desk. She was cute enough if you liked cheerful women, which Winter didn’t, but as she seemed to have a soft spot for him she’d always try find a way to help with whatever request he had. So Winter tried, at the very least, to not be overtly nasty, as he couldn’t really be nice. Veronica’s face lit up slightly as he walked in, which made him want to cringe but he fought it off.
“Winter! It’s been ages how are you doll face?”
Veronica beamed a cheerful smile at him which he ignored,
“Hello Veronica, I’m, well, how are you?”
“Oh you know, same old, same old, so what brings you down my neck of the woods?”
During the course of her day Veronica would see countless angry, sad and frustrated people come through the door with some kind of complain or inquiry and found her sunny disposition was a good way of distancing herself from them and getting them to calm down or open up in a way about their problem. She liked to think that the best way to the truth was through a kind hand and a warm smile. In his own way Winter almost hated her for this, so only ever came to her when he needed to.
“I’ve been hired by the Keys family to find Princess. I’ve read through the current reports and I need the name of the friend she was last seen with. It’s not in the file.”
Veronica frowned for a moment then returned to her bright smile,
“Oh honey if it’s not in the file then we don’t have it, it’s possible that they asked to have all statement kept off record.”
He then turned and started walking towards the door; he didn’t want to be there in the first place, he really didn’t want to be there if they couldn’t help him. Veronica panicked slightly at his response, for no apparent reason she liked his company and every time he walked through the door she wanted to try keep him their as long as possible, believing that she was slowly working him down and would get him to open up to her eventually.
“But there is one thing.”
Winter stopped in his tracks and grimaced before turning around,
“Oh, uummm, well, uummm…”
Winter stared at her trying to work out if she was trying to make something up or if she was hiding something. Either way he was loosing patients fast. He walked back over to her desk and scowled down at her, causing her smile to fade.
There was a moments silence as all thoughts disappeared from her mind except for one.
“I’ll only tell you if you have lunch with me?”
The idea of having to spend time socially with anyone that happy caused a near instant rage in Winter, but if she had any information he needed it. There was no other clear road into the case and Veronica seemed to have realised that fact. She was in fact blackmailing him, and he could respect that.
“Fine, what’s the time now and when do you take lunch?”
Veronica’s face lit up even more with the realisation of success,
“Oh it’s only 11 but we can take it right now, let me just grab my purse and we can head on down to the little café down the road, oh this is going to be so nice.”
While waiting for her to return Winter considered leading her into an ally and beating the information out of her, but quickly dropped that idea. He’d never been comfortable with men hitting women and had killed a few people for doing it. Also as annoying as she was, she was a police officer and there wasn’t enough bribe money in the world to get away with beating her up, she was just too nice. It didn’t really make sense to him why she was so set on trying to be his friend. The café down the road specialised in healthy vegetarian food. There was a collection of wobbly small round garden tables on the textured stone floor. You ordered at the counter, paid an exorbitant amount of money and then you were presented with a salad. None of which made Winter any happier about his situation. On the plus side it was threatening to rain, which agreed with his mood and always made him feel slightly better about things, although he couldn’t really remember why. Veronica ordered for them both and despite his protests, paid as well. Winter after once again bowing to her will, went to a free table and sat down. He was now not only hung over, suicidal depressed and more than a little bit annoyed, he was also going to have to suffer the company of an insufferably cheerful woman and a walnut salad that was ‘to die for’. Before Veronica arrived at the table though Winter was able to cheer himself up slightly by remembering that he was armed, he could still just shoot himself and be done with it. At that same moment another image of his Beloved flashed into his mind and he remembered why he liked the rain.
She had been wearing a pale blue and yellow summer dress and she was standing in the rain spinning and laughing. She had always insisted on going for walks in the summer rain, saying that sunshine and rain was the universe in perfect balance, and was the only time the whole world actually made sense. Winter allowed himself a moment’s smile to fight back the tear threatening to run down his cheek, then quickly pulled his pills from his pocket and took an extra one, remembering at the same time that he needed to call his doctor. Veronica arrived at the table with two glasses and a jug of water that was full of lemon slices and mint leafs.
“Oh what’s that for? Are you sick?”
The genuine concern in her voice didn’t help Winters ever spiralling mood.
“No these are…”
Winter stopped for a moment, he didn’t really want to tell her the truth but nor did he feel the urge to make up stories. This was why he normally took them in secret, people would always ask questions that needed answers that he didn’t have nor want to give, it was the final flare of annoyance that pushed Winter past niceties and into overt frustration
“None of your business, now you invited me here to give me information about a missing girl who’s possibly in very serious danger.”
His tone was harsher than perhaps he meant it to be but what he was saying wasn’t wrong. Veronica’s smile faded instantly and suddenly her little lunch date idea didn’t seem as romantic as it had back in the police station. Winter knew the look of fear on a person’s face when he saw it, he’d seen it often and now that it was staring at him from across a table and from everyone else in ear shot he couldn’t help but feel slightly guilty. But it was her own damn fault, he didn’t want anything to do with her outside of getting information, he didn’t want anything to do with anybody. She’d insisted this rendezvous happened, if she’d just given him what he wanted this wouldn’t have happened, but he still felt guilty, which made him slightly angrier. It was another problem caused by adding excessive amounts of alcohol and painkillers to his usual internal cocktail. The first few hours of the next day his emotional state was always a bit more dangerous than usual.
“This… this was a mistake.”
Winter took care not to spit the words out, he then stood, leaving a 100 dollar note on the table and walked out of the café without another word. He had just reached his car when he heard an angry voice call out his name. Before he turned he mused over the tone of Veronica’s voice. It sounded more betrayed or hurt than it did furious. When he turned he saw that she was red faced all the same, only she had the distinct signs of a woman how had almost succeeded at fighting back tears. Her mascara was ever so slightly smudged and her eyes were blood shot. She stormed up to him and slapped him as hard as she could, which was harder than he’d expected. Winter could have argued that it was all her idea and therefore her own fault, but didn’t have the energy for it. Her fault or not he didn’t stumble blind into the situation, he was as aware of her feelings and therefore just, if not more, to blame for how she felt now. Veronica had expected some kind of reaction to her slap and had only prepared her statement in defence, when no argument came she found herself feeling undone, again. And so burst into tears and slapped him again,
“You’re not suddenly allowed to be nice, how am I supposed to be angry at you if you’re going to feel guilty and be nice!”
The crying image of Veronica in front of him and the mental picture of his Beloved in the rain kept flickering back and forth causing Winter to realise that he’d possibly exceeded his daily chemical intake for that day, and was suddenly in danger of blacking out. He took a deep breath and frowned at Veronica, black out or not he wasn’t going to admit to weakness especially in front of her.
“Fine, either give me some information I can use or hit me again and storm off, whatever you do, make it fast. I’ve got places I need to be.”
Winter’s direct, and oddly obliging comment sobered her up rather quickly and she was able to think again, at no point before had she planned on withholding information from him and that plan hadn’t changed.
“The protest was organised by a small conservation group at the university called ‘Tree’, it has two founding members, one of them is Princess and both of them were at the rally.”
Winter quickly pulled a little note book out of his pocked and wrote down, ‘investigate head of hippies group at university.’ In case he forgot about the whole encounter.
He stood for a moment longer internally assessing if he felt sane enough to drive. Veronica misread the situation as him waiting for a hug, and wrapped her arms around him. For a moment Winter was all but revolted, but suddenly that disappeared and he remembered what it was like to lie next to someone at night, to be held until he was asleep, to feel someone else’s lips against your own, to be inside a women. All memories he’d fought hard to lock away in the darker part of his mind. Veronica realising that he wasn’t reciprocating the hug and quickly let go again. Winter without a word simply got into his car and drove off, leaving her confused with smudged mascara standing on the side of the road.
By the time Winter arrived at his apartment he had sweat running down his face and could swear that it was minus degrees in his car. It had taken a lot of effort, patience and drunken driving practise to get him home alive. The world was a strange swirling vortex of pain and confusion. He vomited twice in the parking lot next to his car before forcing himself to try get inside. Walking was hard, it felt like his feet and brain were no longer connected, not that it mattered his eyes had stopped being useful the moment he stopped the car. The beating of his heart sounded like a hum in his mind and he realised that what was actually happening was he was having a heart attack. To many pills, to much booze and what he’d always considered to be a manly amount of coffee had finally caught up to him. Death was finally knocking at the door. It took both hands, one closed eye and a lot of concentration but he managed to get the right key into the lock and let himself into his apartment. The door locked behind him and he didn’t even bother with the couch he just let himself fall to the floor. His head felt like it was going to split open, his inside felt like they were on fire while his skin froze. Was this what death felt like? Was this what everyone went through? Or was it just his own punishment for being the person he was, for living the way he had? It didn’t matter, it was his time and he was looking forward to it, hell had a new inmate coming and he was thrilled to be there. He rolled over onto his side and vomited again, only this time it wasn’t coffee and painkillers it was blood and some stomach lining. Winter closed his eyes and for the first time in a long time, actively tried to think about his Beloved, but he found only the empty, inescapable darkness he’d created.