It wasn't terribly late when she left the officers' haunt, but it was pitch dark, clouds hiding the stars and moon. She kept her coat close about her, wishing she had the money to buy something more appropriate. From what she could make of the address on the matchbook, the tobacconist's shop was between here and her hotel. It wasn't much of a detour, so she took it, glad to find that the unfamiliar streets were well-lit.
Herr Herrman's Tobacco and Reading Lounge was still open, with several men seated around a large fireplace, enjoying their cigars. The place reminded her all too strongly of Reinard's office. Zelda stayed outside as long as she could reasonably justify. She had never liked tobacco smoke. Her step-father had smoked like a chimney though the ash had driven her mother mad. Even from the street she could see the yellow staining on the Lounge's ceiling, no real attempt made to hide it. She curled her toes in her shoes and hopped a bit to keep the blood flowing, dawdling. The men at the Lounge fire didn't look like Romans. They looked like a bunch of old farts who had wives and grown children. And none of them looked military, or important enough to be offended. Had the vet lied to her? Zelda rubbed her hands together and paced the length of the building, telling herself it was more reconnaissance. The Lounge was on a corner, and as she rounded it she came face to face with a gorgeous Germanian who immediately smiled at her.
"Domina, hello," he said, accent heavy. "I'm sorry, did I startle you?"
Zelda schooled her face back to something less startled. "Not at all. Just, not expecting. Sorry."
He nodded. "No, my apologies… Your accent… you are from the capital?"
She sighed inwardly. This was the question that always killed the encounter. The Germanian would ask where she was from. She would tell them, as there was no point in lying. She knew she had Roman features and spoke like a native Italian—which she was. And then the asker would nod knowingly, say something like 'I see.' And that would be it. There would be no further receptiveness to her questions. Some even grew slightly hostile, and excused themselves quickly. She took in this man's alluring face, thinking what a pity it was that accidents of birth would make him promptly despise her. "Yes, I am."
"You are? How wonderful!" he said with genuine enthusiasm.
Eh? That wasn't in the script. "You think so?"
"Yes! I've always wanted to go to Roma," he confided, bending toward her. His cologne, something appealingly musky, tickled her nose. "I hear it's much warmer there, hardly ever snows. You must be freezing."
Oh, thank the Fates, someone in this gods' forsaken town who appreciated that they lived in a frozen wasteland! Zelda found herself warming to him immediately. "I am, actually."
"Ach, then what are you doing standing out here in the cold? Let me escort you someplace warmer." His smile could only be called flirtatious.
Zelda tossed her head just a bit, so long since she'd been flirted with by someone she actually wanted to. "Actually, I was just about to go in here. Her Herman's."
"Herr Herrman," he corrected, not unkindly.
These Germanians were mad. "Yes, well, I was told I could… meet someone here. But, as you can see, this isn't really the crowd I was expecting." She pointed a gloved finger at the windows onto the lounge. The pot-bellied, middle-aged men were chuckling themselves into a merry frenzy.
A moment passed before her Germanian looked at her again. "You know, I think I know why they gave you this address."
Zelda's heart began to speed up. Did he, now? "Really?"
"It's not something people talk about much… You really need to know someone who knows someone." He looked up and down the street, determined that the couple leaving a restaurant were no threat, and reached into his coat. "I'm sure you deserve to know, especially if they sent you this far."
She was just about salivating. A break, a break! A break in the mystery! That surly vet hadn't lead her astray after all! "And what is it I'm not supposed to know about, but should?"
He offered her a small flyer on a piece of cardstock. "You save that for later. Come with me now." He took her arm like a gentleman and lead her back around the corner. The excitement was curling up inside her, twining from her gut to her heart and ensnaring her mind. This was going to be the break she needed, she could feel it. Something big was just around this corner.
"My name is Fulco, by the way," he said as they passed by the Lounge entirely. "I work just down the street at the shoe store. You know it?"
"I'm been by once or twice."
"You want to find me again, just ask them. Or, you can come here." He stopped at the entry to a residence and let her into the cramped lobby with him. There were two doors and a staircase leading up, presumably to another set of apartments. Zelda looked around her with interest, but nothing screamed of intrigue. Then Fulco passed both doors and went to the back of the stairs. Almost hidden in the wood paneling, another door opened that lead beneath them. She followed, already spinning sentences.
Mattium's secret lies at the bottom of a dark staircase hidden inside an otherwise unremarkable building. Damp clings to the air, but trust in your guide, for soon…
She stumbled as they transitioned to a flat floor. "Careful," Fulco warned. She put her hands out to feel the walls on either side, revealing a narrow passageway lined in rough wood. Splinters pricked at her knuckles and she pulled them back in. The tunnel seemed to stretch on for miles, but she knew better than to trust her perception with no landmarks to follow. At last, she could see a door in the distance, ajar, its outline yellow, lit from the room beyond.
They emerged into a finished basement, and a bouncer rose to inspect them. His thick arms relaxed when he recognized Fulco. "Guten abend, herr." Zelda's ears pricked up.
"Guten abend. Vergil ist hier?"
"Ja, er ist Inventur."
Fulco looked between Zelda and the bouncer. "Denken Sie daran, diese Frau, sie ist Roman."
The bouncer's face remained impassive. He nodded to Zelda. "You are welcome with Fulco's say-so."
"Thank you." I think.
Fulco smiled at her and escorted her through the thick, insulated door the bouncer unlocked for them. Immediately, music poured down a small set of stairs. They stepped up to the bar area of a building Zelda recognized as being similar to the army's base of operations. This warehouse had been transformed, not into a military headquarters, but a night club. Jazz came from a live band at the center of a hopping dance floor, young Germanians dancing in pairs and groups. The bar was lively as well, some sort of contest happening to their right. The catwalks on the higher levels had been turned into private booths and sitting areas, where private parties were taking place. The walls and windows had been covered over with sound proof materials, and lights looped in garlands from old equipment.
She had no idea what to make of it all. This was the veteran's tip? A hidden night club? She rose slightly on her toes to see, but couldn't spot any soldiers.
Fulco's mouth was at her ear. "Would you like a drink? On me."
Her instinct was to say she was working, but that didn't hold water. "Wine, please." He left her for the bar. Zelda surveyed the huge open floor plan again. It would take all night to get a good reading. No time like the present.