Spending time in Joe’s company felt a lot like freefalling through finite reality. To where…? Fucknows. A realm of infinite probabilities pretty much covered it…and a fair few of those wouldn’t be pretty. A helluva lot like taking an acid tab, in fact. A ticket to the thrillride of your life…or a trip to the pit of Tartarus. With no guarantee of return.
Vince’s assessment of Joe had been more astute than his showboating soundbites gave him credit for. He chews up bodyguards and spits ‘em out like cherry pips… made Joe sound like a caricature from a fuck-awful gangster flick. Rather than someone too raw and real for their own comfort. Or Mac’s. Joe was as lethal as the eyelashes he wielded like the weapons they were; mere feathery frames for les pièces de résistance… Christ, those eyes. Mac would have fared better facing down a jacked-up, machete wielding pimp. He could emerge from that unscathed.
Whether he would emerge from that bed unscathed was a whole other matter. Mac stood in the doorway, staring at the sea of CD cases, debris, dog-eared notebooks and flea-market trinkets littering the floor. There were bookshelves everywhere, some hosting one random trophy or treasure, others heaving beneath the weight of the ancient hardbacks they held. A shaft of sunlight shone through the small casement window, swirling with dust motes, illuminating the filmy layer coating everything else. Joe must spend most of the time stooping, so he didnae smash his head on the sloping roof. Then fold himself in half to crawl into bed, which was lodged into an alcove.
A ‘bad-ass’ bastard he might be, but the thought of crawling between those sheets made Mac’s skin do likewise. Upon enquiring about the likelihood of a clean pair, he was informed: ‘No-one’s sullied them, except me, Mr Snarkypants…’
Now that seemed about as probable as Joe declaring a sudden whim to go cold turkey. Yet the miscreant insisted that the bed was a recent installation in the attic he found ‘cosier’ than his former sleeping quarters. Cosier? It was hard to see how Joe could think it cosy. It distinctly lacked the things Mac considered home comforts and hadn’t even housed a bloody bed. So, cosy in what sense? Had this ramshackle room in the eaves of Joe’s stately pile become his safe haven from the world? Mac had presumed that the property itself served this purpose, but the longer he stood, absorbing his surroundings, the more certain it seemed that Joe spent most of his time holed up here. Alone.
Mac couldnae see any evidence that anyone else had ever stepped foot in the attic, except himself and his bloody great Chelsea boots, stomping about in Joe’s beloved sanctuary. And yet…he’d chosen to bring Mac up here, rather than his (recently vacated) former bedroom, leaving Mac none the wiser. Why? Instinct, because Joe was a creature of habit? Surely instinct would compel Joe to protect his safe place from the ‘bad-ass’ he was being forced to endure?
In this, and pretty much everything else Mac had encountered since crossing the threshold, the workings of that brilliant brain were indecipherable. Mac’s insistence that Joe was far too good at being himself proved the one point it found too perplexing to fathom.
“I can’t make up my mind if you think that’s a good thing, or a bad one…”
Nor could Mac…because it was both. Neither. ‘Deadly’ would do.
It would also prompt questions too perilous to invite…but Mac had demanded honesty, so it would be a wee bit hypocritical to lie in order to cover his own ass. Particularly when his answer seemed to matter to those eyes. Darker than ever with self-doubt; deep enough to drown him. Too big a burden to shoulder, standing centre stage, alone. Vulnerable.
Mac couldn’t bring himself to shrug that aside with a blithe response that meant nothing and was worth less. In that moment, he felt certain that harsh judgement could shatter Joe, crush him beneath Mac’s boot. In stark contrast to the man who didnae seem to give a stuff what Mac made of his home or habits. So, he told the truth…in professional terms. Then, to all intents and purposes, Mac lost the plot…or his mind. Both.
“With regards to my opinion? You’re a disaster waiting to happen—to yourself—which worries me. But that doesn’t change the fact you’re the most…authentic person I’ve met for longer than I care to remember. Far too beguiling…and quite impossible.
“Thank you…I think. I feel as if I’ve been probed under strobe lighting.” Joe stood, blinking in bewilderment. The proverbial doe-eyed deer in the headlights, writ large. What else…
“I’ve only got two days, not two decades.” Mac smirked. Mostly because that sure as hell beat, ‘oh, if only…’
“Pft…I’m an open book. You’re the enigma, Mr McBadass.” Joe narrowed those eyes to spear Mac with squinty scrutiny.
“You don’t need to know anything about me, other than; one, you can trust me and two, I won’t shaft you.” Mac shrugged.
“Literally, or metaphorically?” Joe ‘wondered’ before catching his plump lower lip between his teeth. Strewth.
“Joe, I am here to keep you fucking safe, not fuck you senseless.”
“Ooh…that’s cruel,” the miscreant pouted, but the brown burned so fiercely it all but blowtorched Mac’s skin. “You could do a spot of multitasking. I’m safe in my bed, am I not? I can’t be busy in there and up to mischief elsewhere, can I?”
“Safe? No. Mischief? I wouldn’t put it past you.” Mac muttered.
“No? Ooh, you’re just being a cock-tease now. Cruel too…and rude, t’boot.” Joe huffed.
“Rude? I beg to differ. I rather think it was a backhanded compliment.”
“Hmph. I get into most mischief when I’m bored, Mr McBadass, but…if you think I’d be bored…” Joe trickled off, leaving that dangling in the air like a bloody carrot.
“I am not biting. I’m not a sodding donkey,” Mac snorted.
“S’okay…I’m not a size queen.” Joe winked.
“Oh f’chrissakes…” he groaned. “Fitzgerald, you are a goddamn demon. Quit trying to wind me up and phone a bloody friend if you’re that desperate for a seeing to. I am not here to service you. This really isn’t flattering.” As Mac spoke, he realised just how serious he was; more than he’d supposed before stating as much. “C’mon, get your hungry arse into gear and show me around,” he sighed. “I need a drink…and a smoke.”
“You couldn’t be more wrong, dear sir. My arse has a far more picky appetite than my cock,” Joe informed him with a lofty sniff. “By the way…you still haven’t said no. Just sayin’.” A parting gem tossed over Joe’s shoulder while sauntering to the attic door.
“No.” Mac spat, as Joe skittered off downstairs, a devilish chuckle wafting in his wake.