The Viper, Chapter 04

Desperate to catch the next streetcar, Quinn McCurley sprinted down Savin Hill Avenue, trying in vain to avoid puddles. His mackintosh flapped behind him like too-large bat wings. The cuffs of his trousers were heavy with mud and rainwater.

Running seemed to be his main occupation these days. Running from his home to Miss Hacker’s to drop off his daughter, Líadáin, then on to Headquarters to chase after criminals, and again to Miss Hacker’s and finally back home to spend a few minutes with Líadáin, watching her drift off into slumber in his arms, a milk bottle clutched to her chest.

He'd happily keep rushing to and fro every day if juggling his post and his daughter were his only problem.

The counterfeiters and the Secret Service had him by the throat, and the police would soon catch up, no doubt. Quinn couldn't seem to escape any of them. Even in his dreams, he ran but could never quite make headway.

He could never get anywhere, least of all away.

It was nearly ten o’clock when he arrived at Miss Hacker's new home. She forced a wordless smile as she turned over his sleepy daughter. Quinn offered his regrets, aware that he could neither avoid working late nor compensate the woman for the extra hours. The impending consequences weighed heavily on him.

Once home, Quinn toed the door to his apartment shut, slumped onto the couch, and watched as Líadáin played idly with her milk bottle. She wasn’t particularly hungry when he’d picked her up, just sleepy. She’d been unusually tired the past two or three weeks, and was wetting herself more often. He put his palm to her forehead to check for a fever, but she felt normal. Nothing seemed wrong.

And yet he couldn’t fight the feeling that Líadáin wasn’t well. He wondered what Elizabeth would say, what she’d look for to figure out why Líadáin had less energy than usual. He should ask her to examine his daughter, just to make sure.

As he thought back to how he'd treated Elizabeth earlier that evening, he was hit by a wave of remorse and guilt. It had been his own foolishness that got her involved in this counterfeit case when he’d asked for her help with a deeply traumatised deaf boy. He couldn’t fault her for caring and trying to protect Arthur.

He got her into this mess. He would get her out of it.

Sighing, he shut his burning eyes, feeling the weight of all the things he so desperately needed to do but never seemed to find the time for.

Quinn didn’t have to look up to know the precise pattern of mildew and water spots on the ceiling. He could cross his cramped apartment in the pitch dark without stumbling over any of the buckets collecting rainwater from the leaky ceiling.

The previous winter, a desperate neighbour had taken out half the beams holding up the roof and turned them into firewood. The roof had begun to sag and rain came in through the cracks that formed.

The landlord had no money to mend the roof, and Quinn neither had the funds nor the time to do it himself. He’d have to move out soon. Before the autumn rains, he told himself. Latest, before winter.

The recession had changed the lives of many, including his own. For months now, he’d been unable to afford an extra payment for the housekeeper to cook and wash for him and Miss Hacker — Líadáin's former wet nurse. It hadn’t been long until Miss Hacker announced she was moving in with her sweetheart. Quinn knew she hadn’t had the heart to tell him that living in this rundown place had become unbearable.

Quinn had met the prospective husband once. A lanky young man who seemed fond of Miss Hacker but not overly interested in her son, Billy. Quinn wished her well, but he couldn't come up with anything else to say. All he could worry about was Líadáin. Fortunately, Miss Hacker agreed to look after the little girl while Quinn was at work. For a time, she'd said. For a time. 

If only he could find a solution. One he could afford. One that was acceptable to both Líadáin and him. But try as he might, he hadn’t found anyone even halfway trustworthy who would care for his daughter for ten to twelve hours each day for the small fee Quinn was able to afford.

Being alone with Líadáin had taken some adjustment. But once he'd made it through the first week, Quinn thought he wasn’t doing too badly as a single father responsible for all the washing, sweeping, money-earning, cooking, and nighttime child care. As long as he kept his eyes and nose shut against the pile of laundry in the bedroom, the wet nappies in the sink, the rotting ceiling, and the stack of dirty dishes, he could pretend he didn’t need help.

He didn’t dare think about what would happen once he had nothing left to offer his only child. Would she think poorly of him when she grew up? 

His career was over, and he knew it. It was only a matter of time. Someone would talk.

Angry, he dashed the thought away. He was lucky no one had caught him in all the years. Served him right that everything went downhill the moment someone he loved depended on him and he couldn't afford to fail.

His thoughts drifted to the small box of letters he’d written to Elizabeth, letters he would never send. Not in a lifetime. He missed kissing her. But more than that, he missed talking to her, seeing her. Even arguing with her. When she looked at him, he had the oddest sense of feeling real.

Of truly existing.

Quinn woke with a start as the milk bottle dropped to the floor and his daughter was about to slide off his lap.

Many of you voted for seeing Quinn’s letters. So here you go!

I hope you are enjoying The Viper! Since this format of weekly episodes allows for a lot more reader interaction than a traditional novel, I’d like to know which way you think the story should/could/might develop:

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