Day broke. And none too soon, as the unending darkness was maddening. If I had been visited by sleep, it was of the fitful kind that offered no respite. A groggy cloud hung over my mind like a thick blanket. So hazy was my awareness that I didn’t register it when Cross first stirred.
“I fear, my dear Martin, that our amiable friend meant what he said.” The words choked from Cross’s throat. He had the raspy scratch in his voice of inhaled smoke and exhaustion.
“I think you should save your voice.” I moved from the armchair I had been dozing in to sit next to Cross on the floor. “You mustn’t talk.”
“Mustn’t? No, need to,” his scratchy voice barely a whisper. I watched the labor of his chest as he struggled to pull air into his lungs. Seeing him now, it was clear that Cross had only just narrowly escaped.
“Okay, but, just take it easy.” I had cleaned the gash over his eyebrow when he first arrived, but I could see now that as he stirred waking up, the wound bled freely again. It was a nasty cut. Cross flinched as I touched a clean cloth to the wound to stop the bleeding. “ Sorry.”
“It’s fine, nothing to signify.” Cross waved my attentions away with his right hand, the energy expended was obviously more than he expected as a low raspy cough broke from his chest and he gasped to catch his breath. I sat back from him, not wanting to distress him further. It was a full five minutes before he had regained enough strength and breath to continue.
“As I said before, I do believe our friend meant it when he so forcefully told us to stay away from him.” A thin, forced grin crawled across his face. “But, I was never one to listen to idle threats, well, to threats anyway—most of them being idle.” Another brief coughing fit stopped his narrative, but only for a moment this time.
“I did follow him, last night, though once again, I was thwarted in the same twists of alley where we lost him before. I knew at once, upon his leaving me, that he was wise to my following him—though I exercised every caution to not be seen.” He paused for a few moments, drawing in as deep a breath as his tortured lungs would allow.
“He knew you were following him? So, did he attack you in the alley as you turned to leave?”
A low, scratchy laugh escaped Cross’s parched lips. “There was no attack, at least, not in the sense you might mean.”
“No attack? But, look at the state of you man, if you were not attacked, then how is it you come to my rooms within an inch’s distance from death?” I watched his face, searching for some sign that shock might have affected his memory or his awareness.
“There was no attack, save for the blow I received when I foolishly believed I had returned to my own rooms without being followed.” One more fit of raspy coughing tore through Cross. “That was the only time I was touched. The rest of the events you can probably discern for yourself.”
“Well, from your charred, ashy clothing and the smoky rasp of your voice, I can see that you were caught in a fire.”
“Caught in a fire? My dear fellow, there is but a pile of blackened rubble where the building that housed my rooms once stood.”