Bad things happened on muggy days.
It was the kind of thing his grandmother had always said. Whenever the summer started to boil the air in earnest, the poor woman would take to her bed wailing about her nerves. Yet even after her beloved grandson had become Dr Anson Chevalier, she went on self-medicating her delicate “condition” with spirits and selective isolation.
He shook his head, rubbing his eyes in a vain attempt to suppress a hopeless smile. It wasn’t the weather that was getting to him, or even the memories. He was supposed to be enjoying a day off. But there he was sitting in his office, at his desk, as stiff and reliable as ever.
To call his office informal would have been to overestimate how deep an understatement could descend. It doubled as his bedroom, and the waiting area was, at its most honest, a hallway. His own bed saw more use by patients as a chair and examining table than its nominal use.
Normally, his two o’clock would have been there, perhaps heading a line of forgotten appointments and walk-ins. They all needed him, and he could only pray that he was enough.
Yet somehow, once a week, they got along fine without him. Once a week, he went out to a café on the border between the docks and pleasure quarter. The owner, and elderly man called Max Teech, knew him by name, and chatted occasionally about his sailor grandson.
The grandson appeared to be in port that day. Anson sat in the middle of the café, waiting to see if Teech’s familial pride would incite a presentation. In the meantime, Anson held a ceramic mug and counted the cracks, stained dark with old coffee and cleaning. But after he set it back down on the table, it seemed less steady than it had been in his hand.
He may have been a doctor, but he wasn’t exactly a master surgeon. He planted his feet firmly against the floor. His eyes widened.
He kicked the chair out from under himself and grabbed the thick table leg to pull himself in. Scarce moments later, a deafening boom shook the café. Anson clung to his hiding place. It was several seconds before his ears recovered.
The first sound he heard was a baby crying. He hauled himself out from under the table.
There was nothing left of the café as he had known it. Its walls were pitted and wrinkled, as though a giant hand had tried to crush them. A woman knelt by the counter, next to the till. She was holding a cocooned infant, clearly too frightened to comfort it.
“Are you all right?” Anson asked her.
Her face was streaked with black, striated by jagged paths of tears. Wordlessly, she turned her body to show him where a shaft of wood had speared through her side. Somehow she kept the baby’s blanket clear of the blood.
A loud groan stopped him from tending to her immediately. He looked up to see Teech dragging the limp body of a young man. Teech’s face was a study in agony, but his voice was composure itself. “My grandson Morgan,” he said, laying the young man carefully down on a relatively clear bit of floor. “Hit his head on a counter in the kitchen.”
Morgan groaned again. “At least he’s conscious,” Anson said, forcing a smile. People had to smile at times like this.
“Wish I weren’t.” The young man scowled at nothing. “But I s’pose any boon is welcome.”
His grandfather nodded. “All the better to patch him up, right? Doc.”
The last word held a wealth of asking. Anson took off his coat and rolled it up. “Of course.” He placed the impromptu pillow under the woman’s head and asked, “Can you hold on a moment longer? If I can get this young man back on his feet, we shall get out of here all the faster.”
She whispered breathless assent and handed the baby to Teech. “My grandniece Cass,” he said quietly. “Came to visit.”
Anson nodded absently. Fortunately, he’d gotten in the habit of carrying his black bag everywhere. The floor shook as he wound a bandage around Morgan’s head. Morgan sat perfectly still, swearing softly. “Blasted pirates,” he murmured. “They fire on Seriaga for sport, not a thought for the little people like Cass and wee Arnie.”
“They’ll be chased off soon enough,” Anson said, snipping the bandage. “There. Now you’re in a state fit to get all of us little people out of here.”
Morgan gave him an amiable mock-salute, then got up to start clearing debris from the door.
A few more blasts sounded off in the direction of the port, as though to confirm Morgan’s bitter supposition. Anson put them out of his mind, focusing on Cass. The shaft was about as thick as her arm, splintered off from one of the beams that had held up the ceiling. She was pale, but alert.
The anaesthetic in his bag would be just enough to dull the pain, but he would need to act quickly all the same. He tore off a sleeve and wrapped the cloth around the wood. Then, gauging the angle as best as he could, he pulled it out.
Cass let out a gasp, but otherwise remained still. Anson moved through his carefully arranged tools like a hurried aristocrat going from salad to dessert. Time passed like condensed milk through a sieve as he cleaned the wound, stitched it shut, and finally bandaged it. All the while, the sound of Morgan working persisted in the background.
“I don’t feel a thing,” Cass said, rearranging her torn blouse.
“That’s the anaesthetic,” Anson said, but she went on smiling at him.
“We’re out!” Glass crunched under Morgan’s boots as he stomped back to them. He looked down at Cass, then grinned at Anson. “Not bad.” He slapped Anson’s back with impressive strength.
Teech stood up, cradling the sleeping infant. “Wonderful,” he said. “Though I s’pose we’ll have to close for a while.”