‘Stay down, you piece o’ shit!’
It should be a dark and stormy night. It really should. Instead, as Craig Harper is pressed back into the wall with a knife at his throat, it’s drizzling quite pathetically.
At least if the weather’s not being professional about this, his opponent is. The short thickset man isn’t messing around. His knife rests over Craig’s carotid, beneath his jaw; not dead-centre of the throat where all he’ll do is slash Craig’s trachea open and let him asphyxiate instead of bleeding out. God, will he ever stop being a soldier? The curse of his profession – Craig knows exactly what’ll happen to him: the slumping deadweight of his corpse, his gurgling death rattle – when Shorty will inevitably open his throat in a lurid smile and watch him drown in his own blood.
So no, is the answer. Craig’s not going to stop being a soldier, ever. Thus: he’s not messing around either.
‘Y’know what?’ His enemy glares, blood dripping from his crooked nose where Craig had managed to angle his elbow just right. The wet crack of cartilage had been deliciously satisfying. Shorty presses him into the wall, left hand fisted into his collar. Two hulking shadows circle like hyenas – Ponytail glowering through a black eye, Scarface limping on an injured leg. Craig glares back, refusing to be intimidated. If he’s going to die – and that’s looking more likely every second as the knife brushes his skin like a lover’s caress – he’s not going to go down easily. ‘You’re annoying me.’
‘And you’re a grub in fancy clothes,’ Craig growls back. He jerks a nod toward the pub. ‘Who’s better at beating little girls than fighting men.’
Pale faces press against the grimy windows, watching. In the doorway, the redhead barmaid huddles against the bartender. She raises a hand to her face.
A raw pink weal blossoming below her left eye. A livid cut on her cheek.
Shorty’s left hand ring is speckled with red.
Blood hisses in Craig’s ears. He feels the kiss of cold steel as the blade nicks him, when he really should be pleading and begging for his life right now but all he can feel is bloody furious. Really bloody furious. His lip is split and his left leg – why that leg again? – is aching where Ponytail got a vicious kick in. His cracked ribs grind as icy rainwater trickles down his neck but all he feels is white-hot sizzling rage.
Barely three hours in this bloody city and already these idiots are ruining everything for everyone.
‘You don’t. Hit. Girls,’ he growls.
Shorty’s lip curls. He leers closer. ‘Yeah? We do whatever the hell we want. That’s jus’ how it is.’ He turns to his smirking goons. ‘What’ve we got ‘ere, boys? Got ourselves an idiot who dunno when to quit. You should learn when yer beat.’
Craig bares his teeth in a feral grin. ‘I don’t learn. One o’ my issues.’
WHAM! A fist crashes into his belly. He doubles over, fighting for breath. Grits his teeth against the searing pain. Raises his head.
‘That all you got?’
Whistles shriek down the street.
‘Peelers!’ Scarface hisses.
Shorty’s head whips around, the blade slackens and Craig seizes his chance, shoving full-force, hands clamped on the wrist gripping the knife. He feels the cold glance of the blade and the warm dribble of blood as he wrenches free, smashing the knife from Shorty’s fingers as he goes. That doesn’t stop a thumping blow to the ribs that leaves him wheezing. He drops to one knee, narrowly avoids a scything kick and smashes a fist deep into Shorty’s balls. Yowling in pain, Shorty staggers away.
The furious clatter of approaching carriage wheels. The growing thunder of hooves.
A boot crunches into Craig’s ribs. Ponytail towers above him, sneering.
No. They don’t get to do this to him. He walked in here open-eyed, and he’s walking back out. He has nothing to lose and it feels wonderful, ice crawling down his spine but he feels utterly, gloriously alive.
On your feet, Sarge!
Craig explodes upwards, ramming his elbow full into Ponytail’s throat. Ponytail falls to his knees, gagging for air. Craig launches past him at Scarface, who rears back wide-eyed, hoping to dodge.
Craig’s fist crashes into his sternum, two hundred pounds of boiling rage. Scarface sprawls onto the cobbles, gasping and clutching his ribs.
Walk away from that, you bastard.
Ponytail lurches upright. ‘Fuck this, boys!’ he croaks, eyes darting to the surrounding streets. ‘Coppers, boss! Let’s go!’
Shorty shakes his head and lumbers forward, raging. Fists swinging. At the last second Craig ducks under a flailing left and crashes a right hook into his gut.
For the barmaid.
Shorty folds over, groaning. Craig spins him into the wall and buries a knee deep into his balls. Shorty crumples to the pavement.
Craig slumps against the wall, blood pounding through his skull.
Don’t give up. Keep fighting!
Shorty scrabbles upright, glowering through a broken face. ‘The hell’s wrong with you?’ he rasps, ‘you’d rather die for some dumb bitch you don’t even know?’
Craig shoves off the wall, swaying on his feet. ‘Three cowards layin’ into one girl…while everyone else watches?…and you wanna know what’s wrong with me?’ He raises his fists. ‘Yeah…I’d rather die…so bring it on!’
Hooves pounding on cobblestones, louder, louder. Shorty bares his teeth, but Ponytail is already hobbling away and Scarface tugs on his arm, pleading. ‘Now, Bill! We gotta go, c’mon!’
Shorty spits contemptuously, then scuttles off down the alley after Scarface.
Craig collapses onto the floor. Grits his teeth against the crushing band of white fire squeezing his chest.
A shadow falls across him. He tenses.
‘Hey, hey.’ The brawny bartender hauls him upright. ‘Easy, son. Let’s get you inside.’
Craig gently disentangles himself, wincing. ‘Best not. Don’t want any fuss.’ He kneels down to pick up Shorty’s knife, grimacing from cracked ribs.
The bartender frowns. ‘We owe you, mate.’ He glances towards the barmaid, who flashes a weak smile. ‘You saved us a whole lotta bother.’
Craig pulls away. ‘I wasn’t here, right? They came, and they left. That’s it. Yeah?’
Don’t hang around. Blood on the floor, and a copper’s first instinct is to herd all witnesses together and start asking questions. Or worse, clap everyone behind bars and sort it out later. Wasting time you don’t have. Awkward questions. Not good.
Slow comprehension dawning on the bartender’s face. He nods. Squeezes Craig’s shoulder. ‘Alright, mate. Just remember…we owe you.’
Craig presses a handful of shillings into his palm. ‘You didn’t see me. I was already gone.’
The bartender grins. Taps his nose and winks. ‘Sure thing, mate. Take care out there.’
Craig limps away down the street, blood hissing through his ears. His bad knee aches with every stumble, teeth clenched against the lancing pain from battered ribs. He turns the corner just as the first Black Maria rattles into view.
The fetid reek of the canal sharp in his nose. An arched bridge over the scummy water. His haversack safely stowed right where he left it. He squelches through the muck and collapses into the shade.
His eyelids droop, exhausted. The steady patter of drizzle soothes his nerves, lulling him to sleep. One hand curled around the hilt of his knife.
Just in case.
All over London, the rain continues to fall.
© 2017 Tom Burton