4. Refuge

Craig trudges through the quiet streets, collar turned up against the hissing wind with Rusty at his heels. His face is numb and his ears prickle with cold, but his brain is buzzing and at least his belly’s warm. Those grilled cheeses were good.

Thump thump thump.

He turns the corner into Stainsby Road, and…jackpot.

The building towers above him. It’s a four-storey tenement, sturdy red-brick but faded and shabby. He loiters across the street, hanging back under the shade of a shop awning. A bent-over old man with a rickety grocery cart lumbers up to the front door. It takes him almost twenty seconds to fumble with his keys, twice that long to wrestle the cart up the stoop and through the doorway. The flat’s small windows are filmed with dirt. Cracks aplenty. The place is a dump. But out of the way. A tumbledown brownstone. People’s eyes slide right past.

Assess: a dump is good camouflage.

He circles the crummy building. Not a social hub, that’s for sure. Only two windows are lit up, one on the second floor and a flickering orange glow on the third. A notice pinned on the wrought-iron railing out front:


Sounds promising.

The front door is ancient, with a cracked glass pane far too large for adequate safety or tenant security. The lock takes a full minute to pick just by virtue of it being rusty and the tumblers bent. Needs graphite. And a nail file or two. No wonder the old man had trouble.

Inside, the building smells of mildew and dust. The floorboards groan under his feet, the stairs are creaky, and the paint on the walls is chipped and scuffed. It was probably once dark green. But the worn bones of the building are good: plaster and lath walls, skilfully carved wooden rails along the banisters. The building is shabby and old, but solid. There is a good past in it, even if it has been ill-used for a long time.

He and Rusty creep up the stairs together, scanning all the shadows, ears pricked for danger. Halfway up a loose floorboard creaks under his boot. He freezes. Rusty nudges his hand, nibbling at his fingers. Keep quiet, you moron.

‘Yeah, yeah. Okay.’

The first floor is all dark hallway. Mouse droppings smeared along the baseboard. A dark patch of mould on the wall. Terrific. Fourteen paces to the next flight of stairs. More creaky steps. Then onto the second floor. Three more closed doors. Faint shuffling behind the middle one. Bump. A muffled curse. Probably the old guy. Elevation required. He climbs straight to the third floor, where both lamps are out in the hallway. The cast iron radiator on the wall is ice-cold to the touch. A tattered carpet. The faint echo of dripping water in the background and a tinny screechy melody through the walls – probably a very badly-tuned fiddle next door.

He leaves the backpack at the top of the stairs and stalks up and down the hallway. The southwest corner is best – furthest from that godawful fiddle noise.

The lock on flat 3A is broken, and the door only takes a firm lift to open. There’s furniture inside – he goes completely still when he sees a tiny old woman asleep in a battered armchair in the front room, her mouth open as she snores. The marmalade cat sitting on her knee stares at him, but doesn’t move. It blinks and yawns wide, showing needle-sharp teeth.

Best leave it be.


Confirm. Cute, though.

There’s another cast-iron radiator on the wall opposite the doorway. Freezing as well.

He steps noiselessly backwards out into the hallway. He shuts the door carefully, but the door jamb is crooked on top of the loose lock. Clearly an inattentive landlord: good for covert surveillance. Bad for helpless old ladies and their cats.

Civilians. Ugh. So careless.

He examines the other doorways. Flat 3C is indeed empty. The hinges squeak when he opens the door. There’s some furniture here too, albeit dusty and worn. Skirting board crusted with dust. A ripped mattress near the window, crowned with a stained pillow that’s clearly in its twilight years.

Meh. Way better than sleeping on rocks like a caveman.

Icy wind howling over scoured-bare mountaintops. Wet socks. Fingers prickled with cold, ice crawling through shivering bones.

He blinks away the memories. This’ll do fine. One of the upsides of being ex-military: almost any place is serviceable. There’s always somewhere worse to compare it with. Craig tests the (pathetic) door lock. Loose. Civilians have obviously expended far more effort perfecting grilled sandwiches and tea-brewing than on basic home security.

Fair enough, civilians. Good choice.

Both windows in the narrow bedroom and the musty living room overlook the street. Wide angles. Clear fields of vision outside. Ideal. Ambient midday heat. No fireplace and only two guttering oil lamps, but the ancient stove has gas and the sink has water. There’s a bathtub in the corner, small and cramped. It’ll suffice. Rusty shuffles around on the crunchy mattress and settles down with a huff while he examines the bathroom. Scummy brown water splutters and gurgles out the tap until it eventually runs clear. The sink shudders and rattles loudly.

Has he woken the old lady up.

He shuts off the tap, listens hard, but no shuffling of feet from down the hallway.

Short-term shelter acquired, pending further confirmation.

Next door, the cat sneezes. Rusty’s ears twitch.


He moves out into the corridor, assessing. Eleven paces, from end to end. Not ideal.

But flat 3C is the corner unit at the top of a steep stairwell. Restricted access. Any incoming attack squad funnelled single-file up winding staircase to narrow landing.

Assess: enemies only able to come at him one at a time. Result: able to easily tear through them if ambushed at a bad moment. Attack from the high ground. Sergeant Harper: one, potential home-breakers: nil.

Go me.

And they’ll have to deal with him first before they reach the old lady.

And her cat.

Even if it is a bit terrifying.

He stows his rucksack into the corner of the bedroom, wedges a battered chair under the door handle, gently shoos Rusty off the bed and turns the crunchy mattress over.

The other side is slightly less crunchy.

He tucks the knife under the mattress close to hand before easing down onto his side, facing the door. Rusty’s cold wet nose snuffles into his ear before he curls up against Craig’s chest.

Thump. Thump. Thump.


Yeah, yeah.

His stomach rumbles. He’s still got four squashed hardtack biscuits packed away deep in his rucksack. Dry. Stale. Flavourless.


There were two grocery shops within three hundred yards of the flat. A baker’s just two streets away. Ideal. He fishes in his pocket for loose change. Five dull brown pennies. Just three lonely shillings.

Not like he has any uncut diamonds in that bulky rucksack. His current expenses only consist of tea and grilled cheese, but still: his dwindling army backpay won’t last forever. Anxiety curls its claws through him: rent, groceries, medical supplies during illness, heating oil in cold weather.

Sub-mission: Acquire employment, legally if possible. More money for future cheese sandwiches.

Thump. Thump. Thump.

And dog food.

© 2017 Tom Burton

34 thoughts on “4. Refuge

    1. Thank you! Glad you enjoyed it. I’ve put the three previous chapters up already if you’d like to explore the story further.
      Do you feel short terse sentences help immerse the reader better through action, rather than using long emotive paragraphs?


    1. Thank you ever so much! 😀 So glad you’re enjoying their journey together so far. ❤ Do you feel that slower sections of a story like this (as well as world-building and quiet meaningful conversation scenes) work in building a character the audience can root for (rather than just action-action, gunfights, chases)? It'll slow down for the next few chapters compared to the first (quiet conversations with other characters, building the world he lives in), but do you feel that would work in its favour?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Absolutely. It’s hard to empathize with characters that are pure action heroes. Having slower moments and conversations can allow a great insight into the characters and make them even more well rounded and compelling, which in turn makes the reader care about their story.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. When I’ve got more time I’d definitely love to dive in further!😊 ❤️

        My reading these days are the wonderful blogs here in the blogosphere.😉 Which is okay with me as there are so many creative and talented writers.😁

        Liked by 1 person

    1. So far! *crosses fingers* 😀 I know quite slow chapters can risk losing reader interest for more, but I feel it helps make the story breathe better if there’s ample room for quiet moments & meaningful character conversations rather than just *fight scenes, chases, DRAMA*
      Thanks so much for keeping up with it!

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Well…. I must say that you do write like an accomplished author already! The detailed description of the apartment and the building were indeed amazing. Great work!

    And I’ll be reading the next chapters as soon as I find more time. You can be assured of that. For you do have me hooked already! 😊✌️

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks ever so much! Glad you’re enjoying it & that it’s been an engaging story so far. Plenty more chapters on the way every Monday, so be sure to buckle up! 😀 It’s gonna be a bumpy ride… 📖

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Quote of the day: “No timewasters, please.”

    I finally got to meet the cat and I squealed audibly with every mention! Cute is right! Oh Tom, this chapter is flawless. I mean that. I had a very clear sense of time and spatial aesthetic. It was not at all excessive. I found the pace appropriate and I love the way you move the reader around the room. The characters are so, so endearing mixed in with some inner turmoil and less-than-lovely scenery. You should be very proud of this.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m so thrilled you enjoyed the slower chapter here, April! 😀 ❤ Worldbuilding can be tricky without using too much boring description or excessive detail for the reader – I’ve very glad this doesn’t drag the narrative down too much for you. It’s good to have quieter moments to let the story breathe more with world building & dialogue, so hopefully it gives more contrast when the action picks up again *crosses fingers* 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s quiet but not quiet. You describe everything in the atmosphere so brilliantly, that even without direct plot movement the reader doesn’t feel bored or stagnant. The inner monologues, memories and the animals perspectives keep everything fresh and at times hilarious. I just love it.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. ❤ ❤ ❤ I'm deeply flattered that you found this such an enjoyable read 😀 It's so encouraging when fellow bloggers leave such helpful feedback about what stands out to them.

        Liked by 1 person

      3. The pleasure is all mine, Tom. I thank you for that. But I have to confess, I’m sort of new and unaware how the awards and nominations function. I saw you linked me, and I liked it, and am immensely honored. But do I need to do anything else? How does these work?

        Liked by 1 person

      4. No worries, April! There’s nothing compulsory to do further – it’s just an informal way of linking different bloggers together – some people like continuing the awards onwards, but equally some prefer not to because it jars with the content of their blog (i’ve stopped doing them for some time now because I wanted to focus more on my writing) – but if new bloggers read it in future, hopefully they’ll be interested in visiting some new websites. 🙂 x

        Liked by 1 person

      5. Okay, thank you so much for the compliment and for educating me on this! I was afraid there were rules or etiquette I was breaking by not replying or reposting – and you’re the last blogger I would want to offend in any way. You’ve been an inspiration to me and I am so excited about your career in fiction. I do prefer a simple, clean aesthetic. But I will sing our praise both in comments on my page and on all of yours!!

        Liked by 1 person

      6. No etiquette problems at all! 😀 I’m so excited that you’ve found the story enjoyable so far & I truly appreciate all the kind words you continue leaving on my first novel attempt. ❤ I feel my writing's really improved since simplifying my blog towards fiction writing / short stories, rather than trying to accommodate Word Prompts, Challenges and Awards too as many other bloggers have. Less really is more! 🥂

        Liked by 1 person

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