22. Gathering Information

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It was Monday morning and the Field Rabbit work group was on a twenty-minute gasper and latrine break. Sun streamed through the windows, illuminating not only the large, dark pastoral paintings on the walls and the fly specks on the wallpaper, but also the havoc of an active session. Most of the men were outside enjoying the day and McCrory and I were alone. 

"You asked to see me, Miss?" McCrory said, as he took a seat in one of the empty chairs. The table between us was piled high with notes, ledgers and catalogs from other companies, creating a landscape not unlike a paper version of the Pennines. 

I put my tea cup down on its saucer and nodded. "Yes, I did. The new man. Davis. I got the impression you were the one playing nanny there. How's he fitting it?"

McCrory leaned back, slipping the tops of his hands in his trouser pockets as if he were about to embark on a longer tale involving scads of technical details.

"Surprisingly well. He knows his way around. A few things have changed since he was here last and those had to be explained to him, but otherwise, he's getting around fine. Could really use a second crutch, though. Said he used to have one, but it got misplaced. Didn't want to go into what that meant. "

Ah. Perhaps Brooks' guess had been correct. He'd lost it in fight or it'd been stolen. I wondered if the misplacer had got the rotting guts beaten out of him as James had threatened. Or had that been annoyance at a missed opportunity speaking?

"A new pair have been ordered. And the men? How are they taking to him?"

McCrory nodded and the corners of his mouth turned down in an expression of masculine approval of the behaviour of another man. "Fairly. We all like to hear what went on here during the war, of course, and Davis was here before even FitzRoy and Hayes. He's not a chatty monkey, but he has told us a few good stories. After a bit of prodding and poking." He smiled.

A few good stories. 

"And his recent situation? Any information?"

"Only that he lost his four walls sudden like. From the way he tells it, he wasn't doing too badly until he got the chuck a few months back. Found himself out-of-doors fast as anything. Even had a pusher, lucky sod, but something went right knobby and, well . . . here he is."

A pusher. My heart missed a beat or two. So there had been a woman in his life.

"Has he said anything about returning to London?" I asked, struggling keep my voice vaguely disinterested and not as if I were desperate to rake up these details and commit them to memory. I took a sip of tea and looked at him over the rim of the cup.

McCrory shook his head. "He said he might not be slumping around here for very long, but he's not terribly gabby, like I say. If you're asking me my opinion, however, I'd say he's not too sure where he's looking to aim his boat. Be it London, Katmandu or his berth in the Infirmary. A bit lost. Unlike a lot of us when we get here. We've normally got nowhere else to go, but he seems like he's got options. Just not sure which one to take."

I thought about that for a few moments and McCrory politely left me to my thoughts, letting his eyes roam around the room.

If James truly was unsure, then he wasn't nearly as determined to tear back to London as he'd been letting on. On the other hand, he might have arrangements there that he could easily return to. But if that were true, why had he been dossing on the street in the frightful condition I'd found him in? He'd lost his living quarters, why? What precisely had gone wrong?

Another thought occurred to me. Those other options McCrory had noticed could entirely have to do with me and the awkward situation that played out in my bedroom. I felt a heat start to rise on my skin and hoped McCrory wouldn't be treated to the sight of me blushing.

"What about work? He will have to earn his keep here, no matter how long he's with us. Has he mentioned any skills or former employment?"

McCrory straightened up, puffing out his cheeks and blowing air out of his pursed mouth. "Good question, Miss. No, he hasn't mentioned anything but I can ask him easily enough. Maybe something with his hands where he doesn't have to stand? Doesn't strike me as the blotter-jotter type so probably not here." He gestured with his head at the clutter on the table. "The vegetable garden? Sykes might be able to use him in the flower beds or with the herbs."

"Splendid. Will you speak to Sykes and work something out? Let me know if problems arise."

"She'll be apples, Miss."

The sound of voices began to drift in to us from the open doorway. The men were coming back from their break.

I bit my lip. James was still too aggressive and defensive. If I wanted to approach him and get any of my questions answered, he'd have to have the wind taken out of his sails a bit.

"What about his lathering? Anything planned?"

McCrory's eyebrows went up, and his eyes began to dart nervously around the room. "What's that, Miss?"

I gave him a warm smile. 

"I have no idea, but I'd like him to be given a damned proper one. Tell them to mind his cracked finger, though, will you? If they can." 

McCrory's eyes flicked to me for a moment, and then away again. Pritchard came in the door pushing FitzRoy in his wheelchair. 

"Allo, there, McCrory! Come to join us?" FitzRoy called as he spotted our Australian. "Unhook your legs and chuck 'em in the corner. Then we might let you in on the fun. We only let Pritchard here walk around on the ones God gave him." FitzRoy jerked his head backwards to indicate the grinning man behind him.

"Why'd he want to do that, then?" cried Rhys-Jones as he wheeled himself in under his own steam. "Would make it hard for him to chase the poor sheep over hill and dale, now wouldn't it? Legless as he'd be. Nah, leave him to chase livestock. We know where the real men roost."

McCrory stood up and stretched, showing off his height. "I was just leaving, ladies. Try not to do yourselves an injury on the paperclips and rubbers." 

He saluted by tapping a finger to his forehead and nodding at me, then left the room amid a shower of hoots, laughs and shows of mock indignation.

A few minutes later we were all hock deep in sales strategy preparations once again and my attention was focused on routes for our salesmen and the contents of samples cases. Every so often the words pusher and doesn't know where to aim his boat would rise to the surface of my mind, but other topics and issues demanding decisions would thankfully submerge them again.

One strong feeling was forming in my belly, however, and I couldn't deny that I believed it to be absolutely correct: I would only be able to approach James with my feelings after his lathering. That hard shell he had on him would need to be broken if I was to see what was still remained inside and it was clear as diamonds that I wouldn't be able to do that my myself. He'd resist me more strongly than anyone else. 

Until the men got to him and broke him open for me, I could do nothing but wait. 

And hope.  

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