The old woman squints at the photograph, holding it away from her at arm's length. This is frozen time, moments spent in the suspension of limbo. Annie studies her face; spends an eternity examining the patterns frowning has carved into a leathery forehead, looking for recognition, looking for hope.
The woman angles her head, thin colourless lips pursed as she peers closer. Annie waits, her patience infinite. She holds her breath, shifts her weight onto her left foot and forces her hands to stay unclenched at her side. The sounds of the market around her fade and blur into a muffled, continuous note. There is nothing sharp in limbo.
"No, love," the old woman finally says, handing the photo back with a shake of her head. "I haven't seen him. Sorry."
Time grinds back up again, and the world slides back into focus. Annie smiles and thanks her, then picks another random shopper and starts over.
After a further three hours her feet are burning and the smile will no longer stick, so she calls it a day. When she arrives at the pub Gene is already there, one empty glass and one full one in front of him. He pushes the full one towards her and she accepts it with a nod. She doesn't like whisky, but she drinks it anyway.
She closes her eyes and doesn't ask Gene how he got on. There are fresh bruises on his face, new grazes on his hands, a spot of blood on one rolled-up shirt sleeve. In his pocket is an identical photograph to the one in her bag, but it's not to markets and shops that he takes his. Same photo and question, different places and people, but the same result. No, they say, the shoppers and the office workers and the pimps and the thugs. No. Such a small little word, such a huge impassable brick wall.
No one knows anything, no one's heard anything. There's no trail, no leads, no clues. There's just no.
She finishes the Scotch and Nelson brings refills for both of them. He squeezes her hand briefly as he sets the glass down, and goes back to his cleaning. Nelson doesn't smile so much, these days.
Annie sips her drink and watches Gene down his in one long swallow. Neither of them has spoken, but she's fine with that. They don't talk about what they're doing, there's no need. The only thing that needed to be said already has been: this is not a murder investigation. They're very, very clear about that. There's no body, no blood, no evidence of foul play. He isn't dead. He's just... not there.
They have one more drink and then Gene drives her home, even though it's out of his way. His house is always dark when they pass it. She doesn't know what happened to his wife, and he doesn't offer any information. Sometimes they stop there, sometimes not. There's no real pattern to it; some days are just harder than others.
He pulls up across the street, easing the car into a parking spot but leaving the engine running. He doesn't ask her, doesn't even look at her, just waits with his hand resting loosely on the wheel.
Today has been a hard day.
Annie opens the door and gets out. She crosses the street, and after a few seconds the sound of the engine cuts out and she hears his footsteps behind her.
When they get inside he leaves the lights off. She's glad; the house looks like nobody lives there, and it makes her uncomfortable to see it. It feels too much like looking in a mirror.
She makes her way to the bedroom by touch and memory, Gene a close but unseen presence behind her. They always use the spare room, even though it only has a single bed. She's not sure why, but she doesn't complain. It adds a sense of something that she can't quite put into words but that feels appropriate. Outsider-ness, perhaps.
They undress quickly and efficiently, with the ease of practiced routine. It's become a performance of sorts, a parade-ground maneuver. Stand by your beds, she thinks, randomly, and the giggle takes her by surprise. She clamps her hand over her mouth, appalled. That's not how it works.
Gene pauses, an indistinct shape in the dim light that makes its way through the curtain from the streetlamp outside, and then instead of standing in front of her he sits heavily on the bed at her side. After a few silent seconds, she feels a warm arm go around her shoulder.
She shakes her head. She's broken ranks, missed her cue, and now everything is out of place. She hears a strange sound and eventually realises that she's crying.
Gene holds her tightly against him. A hand smooths her hair, lips brush her skin. 'What's wrong?' he asks, and his voice, so quiet, so unlike him, feels like a slap against her cheek.
This isn't right, it isn't what happens. He should be on his feet, she on her knees, both with eyes closed and thoughts elsewhere. She tries to get up, but he keeps her where she is.
She doesn't answer because she doesn't know how. 'My feet hurt,' she says finally, and she's not quite sure if she's crying or laughing any more.
He hugs her tighter. 'Silly cow,' he says, and there's a husky note to his voice.
She closes her eyes and leans against him, knowing that this is the last time he'll touch her. It's over now. When it was something hard-edged and bitter and almost punishing, it was fine. It was useful. But this isn't. Annie doesn't want this, doesn't want warmth and sympathy. She doesn't want to heal, because that would mean she was grieving, and that would mean--
She straightens up, pulling away from Gene. She won't complete that thought. She refuses to.
'I've got to go,' she says, and this time he doesn't try to stop her.