CHAPTER SEVEN: ASYLUM (2/4)

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Though he hadn't been away for long, Sol had somehow forgotten the bitterness of the Manhattan weather. The cold welcomed him home like a jealous lover, running its fingers through his hair and planting its icy kiss upon his smooth cheeks.

Sol felt as though he was in a dream. From beneath the Washington Square Arch, he watched the City's residents as they ambled slowly through the park with their shopping, oblivious to the lives of those around them. While much of the snow had been shovelled clear of the roads and pavements, the slush that remained had since frozen over and transformed the streets into a citywide ice rink. Most of the pedestrians walked with stiff legs and their arms out to the sides for balance.

Sol, meanwhile, just stood there, wondering what they would think if they knew just some of the things he'd seen-not that he could tell anyone; he'd be in Bellevue by midnight if he did.

He was in such a daze that he almost didn't hear the horn blaring behind him. He turned in time to see a black car driving right towards him and jumped out of its way. The driver was shouting obscenities, though for once, they weren't directed at Sol. The car's wheels were locked tight as it slid through the park, beeping its horn and narrowly avoiding a young woman on the pavement who subsequently slipped and fell.

Plunged back into reality, Sol knew it was time to get moving. He felt conspicuous standing beneath the Arch and decided to head North into town.

He left the Arch behind, taking care as he stepped out onto the icy path, but after a few steps, he was surprised to find his footing was as sure as on dry land. It was his new shoes, he realised; they were gripping the ice as easily as a rubber carpet. What's more, his feet were perfectly warm-as was his body. The dragon skin clothes the Tomlins had crafted for him were keeping out the cold better than the heaviest coat or the thickest pair of socks he'd ever owned.

By the time he'd walked a few blocks, dusk was well underway and preparing to usher in the long night. Without the bookstore to take refuge in, Sol knew he would need to find somewhere else to hole up for a few hours. While it was true that there were plenty of all-night missions about the Bowery, they were invariably overcrowded and did as much to crush a person's spirits as the bleak weather. No, it would be a speakeasy, he knew-unless his luck took a turn for the better.

* * *

"Your nickel, please."

The gaunt Frenchman behind the register didn't even look at him. Sol leaned in, keen to keep his voice low.

"I, uh... I'm sorry, sir, but I don't have a nickel tonight."

The gaunt man gave him the hard stare; he'd heard this lie many times before.

"I'm telling the truth," Sol added. "You know me; I always pay, don't I? I would tonight if I could but I don't have a penny left in the world. I swear."

The gaunt man scratched his face and shook his head. "The Tub isn't a charity, friend. We have a lot of men to feed."

Sol's stomach rumbled. It had caught the smell of soup and was grasping at it like a person drowning. There were other places he might be able to find something to eat, but none where he'd be able to fill himself properly. Sensing the line of men behind him growing impatient, Sol decided to play the only card he had left.

"S'il vous plait, Monsieur," he said. "J'ai tout perdu. S'il vous plait."

The Frenchman blinked, surprised to hear his own tongue spoken so well by an American. Sol waited, pleading with his eyes. The gaunt man's expression softened as he let out a sigh, and to Sol's great relief, he took a tin cup, bowl and spoon from his pile and handed them to him.

"Merci," Sol said. "Merci."

The Frenchman gave a small nod before beckoning the next man in line. "Your nickel, please."

The Tub was as busy as ever. Once Sol's bowl was filled to the brim, he started towards the bench table at the back but found it full. A quick scan of the room yielded a vacant seat at a small table with three other men. There was no conversation among them, and only the man opposite Sol spared him a glance as he sat. His pale face was darkened by a rash of black stubble, the skin beneath it red and flaky. He didn't look at Sol for long before returning his dead-eyed stare to his wet meal, scooping it into his mouth with the slow and steady rhythm of a gravedigger.

Sol did the same, feeling his strength returning with every mouthful.

"If I may have your attention for a moment, please," Mr Zero shouted from the top of the room. Only a few men looked up; the rest continued eating. "I know what I have to say will not be welcome, but my mother said once that bad news is best given quickly and concisely, so here it is.

"It would seem that not even our small club is immune from the effects of the crash on Wall Street. Many of my sponsors have had to pull their support and, well, I can no longer afford to pay the rent. The truth is, this will be the last night for The Tub on these premises. We are being dispossessed."

The men who were still eating stopped. Without the steady scraping of spoons in bowls and quiet slurping of soup, a deathly silence fell across the room.

"Now there's no need to worry," Zero added. "We will still be open from six until nine tomorrow morning for breakfast as normal, but that will be the last meal here. This is not the end of The Tub, however! We will be relocating to our old premises at number thirty-three where we will resume as normal first thing Monday morning."

Zero had tried to end on a good note, but it was only Wednesday and many of the regulars who relied on The Tub for their daily sustenance and a night's sleep would now be cast back out into the open, forced to seek aid elsewhere. But none grumbled. One by one, they all went back to their mournful eating, as if nothing had happened.

Sol shook his head. Whenever he thought he was due some luck, life seemed to find a new way of grabbing him by the heels and shaking him upside-down until whatever spirit was left in him came tumbling loose.

He was gulping down a large spoonful of soup when he heard the noise. It was a sound that didn't belong in the basement of The Tub-that of a breeze passing through leafy trees. It seemed to circle around him, growing louder and louder until he could almost feel the wind on his face.

"Sssolomon..."

The hairs on the back of Sol's neck stood on end. His spoon slipped from his hand and fell to the floor with a clatter. The breeze died at once, but Sol's heart was still racing. Had he imagined it? He turned to the man beside him who had stopped eating.

"Did you hear that?" he asked.

But the man didn't reply; he was staring at Sol's hand. Sol looked down and saw the purple stone in his ring was glowing, emanating a wondrous beauty where all around was nothing but despair and gloom.

Sol quickly thrust his hand under the table, but it was too late; not only had the man beside him seen it but so had the other two. They'd all stopped eating and were staring at him intently, their eyes ignited by a spark of hope. The bearded man looked particularly alive.

Sol lifted his bowl to his lips and drank the rest of its contents down in one, then calmly pushed his chair back and stood.

"Bon appetit," he said, and he walked away without looking back.

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