The figure crouched on the bridge shocked Diego so thoroughly he drove a hundred yards before he realized what he had seen.
A man squatted on his heels on the rail, one hand on a cable, the other clutching a ragged blanket at his throat. Threadbare cloth flapped around bare ankles. The persistent wind yanked it this way and that to show flashes of naked legs.
“Holy shit,” Diego muttered, as he wrestled his ancient Toyota into the nearest side street to park. This was none of his business. Didn’t he have enough problems? Even as he argued with himself, he ran, dodging traffic and ignoring angry epithets as he pelted back up the bridge against traffic. The inevitable gaper delay had slowed the flow at least, making his precarious journey easier.
People stared from the safety of their vehicles as they inched along but no one stopped to help.
Diego ignored them. His primary concern was to not startle the man into falling. He slowed his approach, ready to offer soothing words, but the man heard his footsteps. Long black hair whipped and snaked in the wind, hiding his face, though Diego caught a glimpse of bared teeth.
“Did you come after me?” the jumper snarled. “I won’t go back.”
“Go back where?” Diego seized the opportunity to start the man talking.
The jumper shook his head to clear the hair from his eyes and peered at Diego. Black eyes, not dark brown, but black, set in deeply shadowed sockets. “No, I suppose you don’t look like one of those,” he said in a softly accented, weary voice.
“One of who?” Diego edged closer to stand next to him.
“The ones who shut me in the iron cage. I changed. I escaped.” His words seemed to stick in his throat and even above the traffic, Diego heard him swallow hard. “But now I’m too tired. I can’t…and the river is so filthy. I think it might kill me.”
At least he doesn’t sound like he wants to die. “Look, if you don’t want the police catching up to you, or the hospital staff, or whoever it is, this is about the worst thing you could do. You’re upsetting all these people and attracting a lot of attention. They’ll be here any minute.” Diego reached out a hand, palm up. “Please come down. Let’s get you safe and out of the wind. Then we’ll see about straightening all this out.”
The man regarded him through the shifting curtain of hair for a long moment. “What are you called?”
Depends who you talk to. “My name is Diego. Diego Sandoval.” He lurched forward when the man swayed, his stomach plummeting to his feet, but the jumper retained his place on the rail.
The man repeated his name a few times as if trying it out, then nodded. “It’s a good name. Pleasurable to say.”
“I am called Fionnachd.”
Diego tried to repeat it and won a hint of a smile from the man when he mangled the pronunciation. “Could I call you Finn?”
That got a shrug. The blanket fell back from his shoulder to reveal all too prominent bones. “You could. Some have. I don’t mind.”
“Climb down, Finn,” Diego urged again. “I’ll help you. Let’s get you somewhere quiet where you can rest.”
Finn took his fingers in a light grip and Diego caught a whiff of rotten orange rinds as he slid from the rail.
What the hell am I doing? He could have hepatitis or HIV or tuberculosis, or worse. He’s probably crazy. Maybe even dangerous.
The intense plea in those black-on-black eyes silenced his practical objections. Lost and alone, he needed someone. Diego had never been good at walking away.
He slipped out of his trench coat, placed it around Finn’s shoulders, followed it with his arm and led him away. His ‘latest project’, Mitch would have sneered. Not that he should care anymore what Mitch thought.
They reached the car without incident, but here, Finn balked. “They put me in one of those before.”
One of…the car? “Well, I doubt it was as beat up as this one,” Diego tried to joke, but Finn backed up a step. Diego patted the car’s roof. “No lights. Not a police car. Or an ambulance.”
Finn lifted his chin and sniffed the air. “You do smell kind and trustworthy. But some of the others did, too.”
“They probably wanted to help you and didn’t know what would upset you. Why did they arrest you? Did they say?”
Finn rubbed a hand over the side of his head, further snarling the mess of hair over the top half of his face. “Indecent exposure. I don’t know what’s indecent about standing on the dock watching the boats, though.”
Irish. Diego was certain he’d placed the accent. “It’s usually because someone’s stark naked, not because they’re watching boats.”
He had no idea how much of this was a put-on. No one could be that naïve. Though someone could be that deluded. Time enough to sort it all out later. Right now, he had to get Finn off the street before he crumpled to the pavement.
“Look, this goes both ways. I don’t know if I can trust you either,” Diego said, as he opened the passenger door.
A Cheshire-Cat grin bloomed under the flying mass of hair. “Well said. You may be the first sensible person I’ve met since I woke.”
Finn took the two steps to the car and let Diego help him in. He gingerly avoided touching the doorframe but finally settled back with an exhausted sigh.
Diego drove away just as sirens began to sound on the bridge.
* * * *
The ordeal of the shower seemed cruel, but Finn was filthy and smelled like a dumpster during a garbage strike. Diego placed one of his plastic kitchen chairs in the middle of the shower and installed Finn there, but he slumped against the chair back, eyes closed, face turned into the spray.
Too exhausted to even flinch.
Diego fought down the little shiver of revulsion at the stench, stripped to his boxers and stepped into the stall with him. He attacked the tangled mass of hair first, positioning Finn so his head hung back over the chair. No lice—a good sign. He might have been homeless, but he couldn’t have been living on the streets too long. The nest of midnight snarls unwound under the caress of water and shampoo. If Finn stood, his hair would reach at least to the top curve of his butt. A strange blue-black iridescence shone in it, his natural coloring, as far as Diego could tell, rather than bottled special effects.
The rest Diego washed with a loofah, shoving away modesty out of a need to get Finn to bed. An ache lodged around his heart to see how malnutrition had ravaged what probably had been a lean-muscled frame. An athlete, perhaps, before he went off the deep end, an impression reinforced by the absence of almost all body hair. Waxed or electrolysis-denuded—only Finn’s crotch sported a black thatch of soft hair. Swimmer, perhaps. The Olympic competitors often shaved it all off for every small gain in streamlining.
He turned off the water and tugged at Finn’s arm. “Come on. Let’s get you settled. You can’t sleep in the shower.”
Finn staggered to his feet and Diego all but carried him to Mitch’s room. The spare room, he corrected himself. He usually kept the door closed so the stark, unfurnished space wasn’t glaring at him.
He sat Finn down against the wall, brought him a pair of flannel pajamas, soft with age, then went out to the front closet to retrieve the air mattress and vacuum. Six boxes lay stacked against the wall—all that remained of Mitch’s things. Diego ran a hand over one then shook his head against the temptation to open the top and look at its contents. When he returned, Finn hadn’t moved from where he sat, naked and dozing in a patch of sunlight.
“You might want to put those on.” Diego toed the pajamas closer as he dragged the air mattress into place. When Finn’s only response was a long sigh, he added, “We need to get you warm. I don’t want to have to take you to the hospital.”
With a puzzled frown, Finn unfolded the material and managed, after looking back and forth between the pajamas and Diego’s jeans a few times, to pull the bottoms on. His efforts with the top, though, were sabotaged when the vacuum roared to life. He startled and scuttled sideways, wide-eyed and panting.
Diego hurried to switch it off. “Sorry. Should have warned you.”
“Is it some sort of small dragon?”
For a moment, Diego stared in blank surprise before he caught himself. At least the nature of Finn’s delusion was becoming clearer. He might even share his history later when he had the energy, perhaps some tragic story of an exiled prince. For now, Diego thought it best to play along.
“Not a dragon. Just a machine. It blows out and sucks in air with great force.”
“Ah.” Finn seemed disappointed, but waved a hand for him to continue.
Mattress inflated, Finn dressed and installed in bed, Diego thought he should get something in him before he drifted off. He tried tap water first but Finn jerked his head away, the color draining from his face.
“Tainted,” he gasped. “Great Dagda, it reeks.”
Diego sniffed above the glass, puzzled. New York City water, piped in from the mountains, was cleaner than most but it was treated. Chlorine. Fluoride. Maybe Finn had an allergy to one or the other.
Bottled water produced a less violent reaction. Finn smelled it, nose crinkled, but he downed half the bottle in desperate gulps before Diego could take it back from him. Hydration, at least, wouldn’t be an issue.
The hurdle of food remained. Starvation often did terrible things to the body’s ability to accept nourishment. Not the best time to offer a hamburger and fries. Diego decided he should start with the foods one was supposed to give sick kids—bananas, rice, applesauce and toast, minus the applesauce, since he didn’t have any.
Finn wouldn’t touch the boiled-in-tap-water rice. He nibbled a corner of the toast and set it aside with murmured apologies. The banana completely stumped him. He turned it over and over in his hands and finally tried to bite through the skin.
“You eat these?” He handed it back to Diego with a grimace.
All right, so his reality doesn’t include New World fruit. Diego peeled the banana for him and handed it back. “You don’t eat the skin. Try the inside.”
Finn took a careful bite and his eyes widened. “That’s not bad.”
Diego could only watch anxiously, praying his guest wouldn’t choke, as the rest disappeared in three bites. With a contented sigh, Finn handed the peel back, gathered the covers into a circle in the center of the mattress and curled into a tight ball inside his nest. By the time Diego brought an extra comforter to cover him, Finn was fast asleep.
Clean and at rest, his face had a childlike quality, with his hair tucked behind one finely curved ear. Diego wasn’t certain it was a handsome face, almost unearthly in its delicacy, and though Finn stood six inches taller, he had the odd feeling he could scoop that long frame up in his arms without much effort.
He backed out and closed the door as quietly as he could, confident Finn wouldn’t die on him. Tomorrow he would see about finding the right agency to take his guest, preferably one that wouldn’t hand him right over to immigration.
A few hours of peace while Finn slept should let him at least get through the current chapter he was writing.
The moment he sat ready at his desk, fingers poised over the keys, the phone rang.