Cass kept the boys behind her at a corner, pressed against the outer wall of a darkened shop, waiting for the patrol to move further down the road. She counted three guardsmen, though from the way they were positioned, she got the feeling there were actually four of them out there. Or maybe she was truly feeling the fourth; those signals she was still learning to read. Yes, there. Trailing the others by a good thirty yards, holding himself to the far side of the street while they followed the center. Walking clean-up.
Cass waited until the guards had disappeared from view before she signaled the others to move forward. Wren clung close, a hand on her lower back, silently and fluidly adapting to her movement. They smoothly crossed the open stretch of ground and threaded their way through a narrow alley on the other side, turning right where it intersected in a T with another alley. At this rate, they’d make their destination in five, maybe seven more minutes. It hadn’t been the most direct route by any means, but so far it’d been the right one. They stopped again at the mouth of the alley, pausing to assess. If the guard was running four-man patrols, they probably wouldn’t be so close together. But now wasn’t the time to risk probably.
Cass glanced over her shoulder at Wren. His eyes were bright in the dim light, and focused. He still had his hand on her lower back; just enough pressure to be sure he was there, without pushing or hindering her movement. If he was feeling any fear, he was doing a masterful job of hiding it.
Painter was a different story. Cass looked up to check on him, and wasn’t reassured. Ever since they’d left her room, his face had been a constant mask of utter desperation. His eyes never stopped roving, as if danger might leap out at them from every angle. It was like he’d already decided they were doomed and was just waiting for the proof. And whenever they moved, everything he did seemed loud to her. His footsteps, the rustle of his clothing, his breathing. Loud.
Whenever they stopped, Painter had a distracting way of clutching at Wren and at her. Completely different from Wren’s touch. Wren’s hand on her was a method of communication, a sign that he was with her, really with her, moving, stopping, and moving again as one. Painter, on the other hand, clawed at them like they were a raft for a drowning man. As if he was afraid they might push out into the darkness and leave him drifting behind.
Wren patted her lower back twice, quickly, and she returned her attention to the street ahead. It looked clear. But as Cass started to move forward, she felt Wren’s hand clench, enough change to make her hold position. She scanned the street again, slower this time, looking for any sign of anyone, guard, citizen, or otherwise. But came up empty. She turned slowly back to look at Wren and when she did, he pointed. Across the street. And up.
Cass followed the line from his finger. Across the street. Up. The building directly across from them was three stories high. The windows were all dark, but there was a sign glowing orange along the top. Cass squinted against the glare, raised a hand to shield her eyes from the buzzing light. Nothing. And then. There. The scantest silhouette, black against a midnight blue sky. Shoulders, head, little more, with just a trace of soft halo where she detected his electromagnetic aura. How Wren had seen him, she had no idea, but for now it was enough that he had. She turned back to Wren and Painter, hunched low.
“Back,” Cass whispered, barely louder than an exhalation. “We’ll have to cut around the other side.”
Wren nodded. Painter just looked scared. Cass noticed he had a hand on Wren’s shoulder, and Wren’s coat was all bunched up in his fist. She tried not to be annoyed. And for a split second she wondered if this was how Three felt about her the first time he took her into the open. Not now. She shoved Three from her thoughts and retraced her steps back down the alley.
But as they approached the point where the two alleys intersected, a chill gripped Cass and she stopped dead. Strained with all her senses. There was someone else in the alley.
She pressed back against the wall, and with her arm swept the other two against it as well. For a moment, there was nothing. But then, a soft sound from around the corner. An inhalation. And then without warning, a white light splashed on the wall across from them, illuminating them all in its glow.
“Someone down there?” the Someone Else called. A younger male, or a gruffer female. Trying to sound authoritative. There was uncertainty, but not fear. Cass felt Wren press in closer, and someone clutched her sleeve. Footsteps, now: slow and cautious, approaching. “Hello?”
Cass’s mind raced through the options. Backing up again was out. The guy on the roof had that end covered. They could wait, hope whoever it was would just turn around. That seemed unlikely. She could announce herself. There was a good chance that a guard wouldn’t try to do anything other than report her position. But they were close enough to their destination that if the guard called it in, it wouldn’t take long for any other Council members to put the pieces together. If any other Council members were even in on it. Too many unknowns.
“I know you’re back there, so come on out. Easy.”
The footsteps were getting closer, and Cass heard the distinctive click and hum of a coilgun powering up. No way for one of those to be used for nonlethal means. Apparently they weren’t taking any chances with the curfew.
She might have to just ambush the guard, avoid the weapon, go for the quick knockout. Cass was fast enough. But there was always the chance for that to go wrong and get noisy. And there was always the chance that this guard was on the right side of things, anyway. That was the trouble with betrayal… even the innocent became suspect.
None of them seemed like good options, but they were running out of time. She’d announce herself, and hope the guard didn’t come looking far enough to see the others. That might leave some chance of a cover story, if they needed one.
“OK, OK,” Painter called to the guard. “I’m guh-guh-gonna step out.”
He’d cracked under the pressure. Cass whipped around to look at him. He still looked petrified, but he had a hand up. Wait. What was he up to?
“I’m ssss-sorry, I’m cuh-cuh-cuh… I’m coming out. But don’t freak out, I’m A-a-awakened.”
“Come out here real slow, with your hands up where I can see ’em!” the guard called.
Painter nodded to Cass and patted Wren on the shoulder gently, and then stretched his hands out and eased towards the corner. He showed his hands first, and then followed them out very slowly.
“Get down on your knees,” the guard said, the light still blazing like a miniature sun with Painter’s shadow stark in its middle.
“Yeah, sssss-sure,” Painter said. But he didn’t. He made a risky move and advanced a few steps down the alley, towards the guard — and away from Cass and Wren.
“Hold it, hold it!” the guard said, raising her voice. Not shouting, but heading that way. Cass was sure that coilgun was going to sing any second. “I said get on your knees!”
“Yeah, yeah, look, please, d-d-don’t take me in,” Painter said. Cass couldn’t see him anymore, but judging from the shadow and the sounds, he was getting down on the ground. “Please, listen–”
“You’re in violation of a hard curfew, as ordered by the governor–”
“I nuh-nuh, I know, please, ma’am,” Painter pleaded. Female guard then. “Let me explain.”
It was a dangerous game. The guard hadn’t called for backup yet, but that was always a possibility. Maybe even a likelihood. With the noise they were making, calling for it might not even be necessary.
She said, “Talking won’t matter, kid, I’ve got orders.”
“Please, I’ll luh-luh, I’ll lose my job, ma’am, please.”
“You should’ve thought of that before you violated the curfew. Lie flat, face down, hands stretched out above your head.”
“I didn’t mmm-mmean to, I lost tr-track of tuh-tuh-tuh, of time.”
“It’s not my problem, kid.”
“Please, there’s this guh-guh, there’s a girl,” Painter said. There was a pause after that.
“A girl?” the guard said. Her voice had lost the slightest bit of its edge.
“She with you now?” the guard asked.
“No, ma’am, I was on my way b-b-back from her place. I’m sss-sorry.”
“You’re that one from Mister Sun’s place, ain’t ya?” She said that one with just a hint of emphasis. “Hunter or something.”
“Yes, ma’am. Painter.”
She replied, “Painter, that’s right. And this girl. She worth getting shot over, Painter?”
Painter was quiet for a second. “Yes, ma’am.”
“What about getting jumped and strung up by a bunch of thugs?”
“I rrrrr-, I reckon she’s wuh-wuh-worth just about any kind of hell Mmmmorningside’s got, ma’am.”
The guard chuckled at that. “Just about, huh?” she said, with a hint of amusement.
“Just about. May-may-may… maybe not losing my job.”
Cass heard the click of the coilgun, and it quit humming.
“Alright, kid. You got me. I might be just enough of a romantic to let you off once. Once, you understand?”
“I’m gonna swing by Mister Sun’s in ten minutes. If you aren’t there, I’m gonna bring my boys down on you.”
“Get outta here.”
There was scuffling in the alleyway as Painter got back to his feet. “Th-th-thank you.”
“Don’t thank me for something that never happened, kid. Get.”
Painter’s shadow gradually shrank on the wall and then he was in the intersection. Cass held her breath. But he did the right thing, and turned the opposite direction without the slightest hitch or glance their way. A few moments later the light switched off, and she could hear the guard muttering something to herself. Footsteps receded down the alley, and the unusual silence of Morningside returned. Cass felt Wren relax behind her, but still she waited a full minute before crossing the intersection, just to be sure.
Together she and Wren edged their way to the street, slow and steady. Cass surveyed the area. All clear. She checked with Wren anyway. He gave a quick nod, and they skittered down the street, keeping close to the buildings along the side, slipping into the shadows whenever they could.
Painter was nowhere in sight. Cass had intended to make one more loop before approaching their destination, both to scout the path and to make doubly sure they weren’t followed. But after the close call it seemed like any extra time they spent on the street was the greater risk. They reached a storefront alcove, and Cass pulled Wren into its shadows and knelt in front of him, so close their noses nearly touched.
“We’re going to make for the door,” she whispered. “We’re not going to run, but we’re going to go straight there and in. If anyone tries to stop us, you hear someone shout or anything, just ignore it. Don’t stop, don’t look at them, just head straight inside, OK?”
Wren nodded, serious and focused.
“I just hope Painter got there first,” Cass added as she stood. One more check, up and down the street. Deep breath. And they moved out. She drew Wren alongside her, held his hand, walked briskly. They crossed the street, more concerned now about speed than discretion. Thirty yards, and a left turn. Still clear. Just another fifty yards. Forty. Thirty. Twenty. The stairs were there on the left, the door closed, its windows darkened. Mister Sun’s Tea House. Surely Painter had gotten here ahead of them and prepared the way.
They made it to the stairs, but as they were climbing them there was a flutter in Cass’s peripheral vision. Someone coming around the corner at the far end of the street maybe. She didn’t look, focusing instead on the door. It was inset slightly, providing a little cover. They gained the top of the stairs. Normally the motion sensor would’ve triggered the door by now. Cass pressed into the door, pulling Wren hard against her. Painter should’ve been here — the door should’ve been unlocked.
There were footsteps coming down the street, faster than a regular patrol would’ve been going. Cass drew Wren in front of her, squeezing him into the corner between the door and its housing, shielding him with her body. Hopefully whoever it was would just walk right on by without noticing them. Unless of course the whoever it was had already noticed them.
The footsteps grew louder, closer. Cass fought the urge to look over her shoulder, fearful that the motion or the glow from her eyes might give them away. But in the end she had no choice. The person was coming up the stairs.
Cass readied herself as she slowly turned her head to identify the approaching figure. “Painter.”
Painter was looking down the street when she said his name, and he gasped and skidded backwards down two steps when she spoke, apparently never having seen them at all. He recovered and quickly made his way to the door.
“I th-th-think my heart stopped,” he said. “Like, really st-stopped for a ssssecond.” He held his palm up in front of a security panel, and the door snicked and started sliding smoothly open. Before it was even fully open, Cass pushed Wren inside and followed right on his heels into the dark main room of Mister Sun’s Tea House.
Not that the room was dark to Cass’s eyes. She could see plainly the various tables arrayed around the room, with the chairs flipped upside down on top as they were when Mister Sun’s was closed. Everything looked like it was bathed in the light of a strong full moon, though she knew that wasn’t how it appeared to Wren. The fountain-stream burbled softly in the otherwise silent room.
“What took you so long?” she asked.
“I th-thought you were g-g-going around,” Painter said as he secured the door. “I waited.”
Cass couldn’t fault him for that. She’d changed plans on the assumption that he’d head straight to the building, an assumption she’d made without even realizing it. Luckily it hadn’t cost them anything more than a few tense seconds. She was just about to respond, to tell Painter he’d done the right thing, or to thank him, when the lights came on.
She hadn’t heard anyone approach, and no one had said anything, but nevertheless there was Mister Sun, standing off to one side of the room, casually leaning against the doorframe of a private room. There was a stimstick between his lips, dangling at a forty-five degree angle like it might drop out of his mouth at any moment. His palsied left hand was curled up and resting on his belly, but Cass noticed he was holding his right arm close along his body and slightly behind his leg, hiding his other hand from view.
“Busy night, my friends?” he said. There was something heavy to his voice; a darker quality, and deeper. Not quite threatening, but Cass felt certain that Mister Sun wasn’t just the easy-going, happy-go-lucky tea merchant he usually seemed to be.
“Mister Sun,” Painter said. “It’s me, Painter.”
The old man squinted slightly and recognition came. He stood up from the doorframe, and his demeanor instantly changed.
“Governor Wren, Lady Cass,” he said, taking a few steps towards them. “Come in, come in.” He motioned for them to come in out of the entryway. “What brings you to Mister Sun’s at so late an hour?”
Cass had chosen to come to Mister Sun’s not because she trusted him, necessarily, but rather because she knew his was a place they could lie low — while they tried to figure out what was going on, and what they had to do next. As long as they weren’t followed, it was unlikely anyone would think to look for them there. And he certainly didn’t seem like the type that anyone would involve in secret plots. But she hadn’t really had a chance to think through just how much she could tell him.
“Mister Sun,” she said. “We need your help.”
“Of course, anything. What is the trouble?”
“We’re not sure,” Cass answered. “But I don’t think the compound’s safe for us right now.”
Mister Sun moved to a table near the back corner of the main room and directed the others to join him. As they approached, Cass saw him lay something across the table; the device he’d been concealing behind himself when they entered. It was a three-barreled weapon, a little over a foot in length and not particularly elegant. She didn’t recognize it exactly, but it didn’t take much to imagine the kind of damage it could deliver. Probably meant for crowd control. She’d never seen Mister Sun brandish a weapon before, but judging from the practiced familiarity he showed with it, she knew it was far from his first time.
Mister Sun started pulling chairs off the table, and Painter joined in.
“Breach in security?” Mister Sun asked. He flipped the last chair over and directed the others to sit.
“Not exactly,” Cass replied.
He slid the weapon back off the table, carefully keeping it pointed in a safe direction without even seeming to think about it, and held it at his side while he gazed at her. Cass held steady, not wanting to say any more than she absolutely had to. After a moment, he seemed to understand all he needed to.
“My house is yours, Lady. I’ll bring tea.” Mister Sun bowed slightly and turned towards the back room, and then paused and turned back. “Or perhaps something stronger?”
“I could use ssss-something… fuh-fuh-ffff,” Painter said, struggling mightily. “For my nnnerves.”
Mister Sun nodded and then disappeared into the back room. A moment later a few smaller lights around the table blinked softly on, and the overheads switched off. It left their immediate area lit with dim warmth, while the rest of the room returned to darkness. Cass’s first reaction was to scan the room again to see if someone else had come in, but then realized Mister Sun must’ve adjusted the lighting from the back room. Smart. From the street, the tea house would likely look all dark again and avoid attracting any unwanted attention at this hour. It also had a settling effect that seemed to put them all more at ease.
Cass surveyed the boys, Wren on her left, Painter on her right. Painter had his elbows on the table, face in his hands, massaging his temples. She got the sense that his entire world was coming apart and that he was doing everything he could just to keep it together right now. Wren was sitting forward in his chair, hands in his lap, eyes fixed on her. Calm, but serious. What do we do now, Mama? She had no idea.
Mister Sun reappeared with a tray that held a stainless-steel pot, an oddly shaped bottle, and three of his trademark handleless mugs. Ever the master servant, he laid everything out with a quiet efficiency that somehow seemed to leave their privacy completely intact.
“Thanks, Mister Sun,” Wren said in a quiet voice.
He bowed slightly, and then indicated the pot and the bottle. “Both are special blends, and both should calm. I’ll leave you to decide. But I think perhaps Master Wren should drink only from the pot.”
“Thank you,” Cass added. “Thanks for helping us.”
Mister Sun inclined his head in acknowledgment.
“Aren’t you going to join us?” Wren asked. Cass grimaced. She hadn’t really noticed that there were only three mugs until Wren mentioned it. Now she wished she’d taken the opportunity while Mister Sun was away to tell the others not to involve him any more than they already had.
Fortunately, Mister Sun shook his head graciously. “I have no wish to impose, Master Wren.”
Just then, three dull impacts sounded on the front door, startling everyone. For a moment, they were all frozen. Cass’s mind raced. Had someone seen them enter the tea house after all?
Mister Sun motioned to Cass and Wren, put a finger to his lips, and then pointed towards the back room. Cass nodded and helped Wren out of his chair, grabbed her pack off the floor, and then together they slipped silently out of the main room. Cass pushed Wren ahead of her, but kept next to the door herself. Pressed against the wall, she slid low and peeked out. Mister Sun was saying something to Painter, who was still seated at the table, but it was too quiet for her to hear. Painter nodded, and Mister Sun started making his way towards the front door. Cass noticed he had his gun in hand again, carefully hidden behind his back.
Boom boom boom — three more heavy blows on the door.
“I’m coming, I’m coming,” Mister Sun called. Just as he was reaching the entrance, Painter quickly grabbed one of the mugs from off the table and put it on the floor next to his chair. The door slid partially open. From that distance, Cass couldn’t see who was there.
“Yes, my friend?” Mister Sun said.
“I’m sorry to bother you at this hour, Mister Sun,” said the voice on the other side of the door. It was a man, but that was about all Cass could tell. “But we’re looking for someone.”
“And someone you’ve found. Well done.”
“Is there anyone else here with you tonight, sir?”
Cass immediately started thinking through the options. There was a back entrance that led out to the alley behind the tea house, but surely they’d be covering that. She knew there were rooms upstairs, but she’d never been up there. No way to know what their escape options would be from that direction. Most likely, nothing subtle.
“Yes,” Mister Sun answered.
“Could you identify them for us?”
“I’m always at your service, my friend.”
There was a long pause, until it was clear that was all Mister Sun intended to say. “Who else is in there, Mister Sun?” the voice asked, sounding irritated.
“My associate Mister Painter and I were just enjoying a drink together.”
“I’d like to verify that, if you don’t mind.”
Mister Sun stepped back from the door, but didn’t open it further. Cass ducked back behind the wall. A chair scraped the floor in the main room. Painter standing, maybe.
“Alright, just had to make sure. We had a request come down the chain to check in on him. Sorry for the interruption.”
“Glad to be of service, my friend. Good night. Stay safe.”
“You too, Mister Sun. Night.”
Cass heard the door slide shut again, but didn’t move until Mister Sun poked his head into the back room.
“Strange,” he said. “It was the guard.”
“Because of befff-fore,” Painter said from the other room. “The one in th… the alley. Said she’d come by. I f-f-forgot.”
“Right. It’s alright, Painter.” Cass chided herself for having forgotten it too. It wasn’t exactly a minor detail. “Thanks yet again, Mister Sun.”
They returned to the main room and took their seats again. Painter retrieved his mug from the floor and promptly filled it almost to the brim with the cloudy milky-white liquid from the bottle. Cass poured tea from the pot into both her and Wren’s mugs.
“If you have all you need,” Mister Sun said, “I will retire to my room.”
“Actually, Mister Sun,” Cass replied, “why don’t you pull up a chair?”
Painter was starting to feel quite a bit more relaxed and just a little pleasantly warm. It’d been, what, an hour, an hour and a half maybe? Whatever it was, they’d spent about two and a half mug’s worth, anyway, bringing Mister Sun up to speed and discussing their options. Or rather, Cass and Wren had done so. Painter had mostly been drinking and listening. Talking wasn’t really his thing, and he wasn’t sure he had much to offer anyway. Everything still seemed so surreal and horrible. He didn’t even want to think about it. But there really wasn’t anything else he could think about. He truly hadn’t meant to kill those men. It’d just been so easy. So terribly, terribly easy.
“I don’t know what else to do,” Cass said. Painter realized he’d tuned out and had no idea how much of the conversation he’d missed.
“What about Able?” Wren asked. Cass shook her head and bit her lower lip. There was something really attractive about the way she did that. It wasn’t the first time Painter had noticed it, but it seemed like maybe it was the first time he had noticed that he’d noticed. Or maybe he’d had more to drink than he’d thought. Or maybe both.
“Too risky,” she said. “If they really do have a trace on, we don’t know who else might be running it. Unless you think you could slip it?”
Wren considered it, but then shook his head. “I don’t think so, Mama. I don’t know what to look for. And what if looking for it is the thing that sets it off?”
Cass sipped her tea and shook her head slightly. “And there’s no telling what their backup plan is if that alarm gets raised.”
“It might be raised already,” Mister Sun said. He seemed more serious than usual. And he wasn’t calling them all my friend, which somehow seemed odd. “They might already be looking for you.”
“True,” Cass said. “I really don’t see any other way. I’ll just have to risk it.”
“Mama, I don’t want you to go,” Wren said. He looked really tired. And with good reason. It was after midnight.
“I know, baby, but I don’t think we have any other options. Once I get outside the wall, I should be able to find at least one of them pretty quickly. If not Able, maybe Swoop or Gamble.”
“I’ll do it,” Painter said. It seemed to catch everyone off guard, even himself a little bit. Maybe it was because he hadn’t said anything in a while. Or maybe they weren’t sure if he was serious. So he said it again. “I’ll do it.”
“Thank you, Painter,” Cass said, and she sounded like she really meant it. “But I can’t let you go back out there.”
“You don’t have to l-l-l-let me,” Painter said. “I don’t think I need your permmm-mission.”
“I didn’t mean it like that. It’s just… it’s really dangerous out there. With the curfew, and people on edge already. Never know when a jumpy guard might just start shooting. And if someone catches me out there, they won’t try to arrest me.”
“They might, Mama.”
Cass glanced at Wren and for a moment seemed to be considering what he’d said. But she shook her head again. “I can’t ask that of you, Painter. You’ve already done so much.”
“You didn’t ask,” Painter said. For some reason the more he heard her tell him why he couldn’t, the more he wanted to prove Cass wrong. Maybe she thought Painter couldn’t because he’d been so scared on their way here. Or maybe his stutter made her think he was incapable. But he’d bailed them out in the alley with nothing but words. Words. His weakness. Imagine what he could do with his strength. Actually he didn’t have to imagine it. He’d already shown that too, without even meaning to.
“I’ll go, I w-w-want to,” Painter said. It wasn’t a discussion anymore. “What sh-sh-shhh, what should I say?”
They all stared at him for a moment. Cass seemed to still be trying to figure out how to dissuade him. Wren piped up.
“I think you should find Finn,” Wren said. “If they really do have a trace, he’d know what to do about it.”
“OK,” Painter said, standing. He felt slightly light-headed and not even a little scared. Looking back on it, he wasn’t sure why he’d been so afraid on the way over. Rattled from everything that had happened maybe. He felt calmer now, more sure of himself. Purposeful. It’d been a long time since he’d felt that.
“How will you get outside?” Cass asked. A hitch. Painter hadn’t even thought about that.
“Climb down?” he offered. But even standing here feeling brave, he knew that wasn’t really an option. The gates would be locked up tight, so those were out.
“He could use the tunnel,” Wren said, and his mother looked at him sharply — as if he’d just blurted out a shameful family secret. He held her gaze, shrugged slightly.
“What t-t, what tunnel?”
Cass continued to look at Wren, but Painter could see now that she wasn’t upset. She was thinking it through. Finally she said, “There’s a tunnel, by the compound. It runs under the wall.”
“It’s secret,” Wren added.
“Back to the… compound?” Painter asked. He lowered himself back into his chair. Sneaking from Mister Sun’s to the wall didn’t seem like such a stretch, but going all the way back to the governor’s compound was a different story. Not to mention getting back inside.
“Yeah,” Cass said. “It’s alright, Painter. We’ll figure something else out.”
Painter felt deflated. In theory it had been a challenge, almost an adventure. But now all of the realities started flooding into his mind, all of the tedious particulars of what it would entail. Travel back to the governor’s compound. Get back inside. Find the secret tunnel. And then what? Even if he didn’t get caught on the streets, how was he even supposed to find any of those people outside the wall? And what would they do when they saw Painter skulking around looking for them? Shoot him dead before he ever even saw them, most likely.
Who was he kidding? He was just a kid, a useless dishwasher who’d had too much to drink. But then something else started to bubble up in his mind. Thoughts of the thugs that had beaten him up nights ago. And thoughts of what people like them had done to his friend, Luck. And thoughts of his sister.
And where alcohol-induced bravery had burned away, anger filled the void. These people had taken nearly all he had. No way Painter was going to sit around while they took the rest. He stood up again.
“How do I find the tunnel?” he asked.
There was silence for a moment. And then Cass laid it all out for him; where the entrance was, how to access it, where it led, and how to find his way back again. And as they talked it through, other hasty plans came together. It began to seem possible again. And by the end, it almost seemed inevitable.
They escorted him to the door, everyone giving him final words of caution, and thanks, and encouragement. Then Mister Sun was opening the door just wide enough for Painter to slip out, and the night air was cold — and full of a crackling energy that almost felt alive. The door slid shut behind him, and he drew a deep breath.
To think. Him. Painter. A messenger. He almost laughed as he stepped out into the street.