A cloudless night sky. The damp cobbles gleam silver under the ghostly full moon. No-one about. The streets are silent. A lone fox scampers across the road, pauses to look back at him before disappearing up a dark alleyway. Ribs filled out. Russet-red fur. Must be rich pickings around here.
Good hunting, friend.
The White Lion is still open, bright light spilling out the pub door. Frosted glass windows lit up with cosy orange lamps. Looks warm and welcoming. The clink of plates. Muffled voices within. Craig hangs back, pressed into the shadow of the doorway as he scans the blurry interior.
Main door plus corridor to the back yard plus three windows. Total of five potential exits.
It’s just civilians. You’ve met them before.
1. Corner booth, window on left side, back to the wall, door at your twelve. Knives on the table.
2. Behind bar – solid oak, twelve feet end to end, waist high, easy to dive over, bottles for hand-to-hand plus corkscrew on the counter –
Relax. They’re civilians. They’re harmless. They’re not a threat.
Three possible actions. 1. Continue lurking outside: except that it’s cold. And wet. And freezing. No thank you. 2. Return to the flat. With everyone else asleep. Boring. 3. Inside it is.
Okay, Sarge. There might be a gang of drunk meatheads inside, or it might be just two old folks and their pet ferret. Do not glare or snarl, no matter who you find.
He finds four people. The redheaded waitress clearing up empty glasses and plates, a balding man in a flat-cap eating alone at the counter, the bartender wiping a tankard with a grubby rag, and a small girl in a ragged brown smock sitting in a corner booth. Jamie nods at him. He nods back. The redhead – no, Ellie. Ellie, dammit – smiles at him.
The lone girl is tiny. About ten or eleven years old. Her unkempt brown hair is grubby with soot and flecks of river silt, framing a pale face with a small mouth and round dark eyes, twin pools of sorrow and emptiness. Her cheeks are smeared with dirt, hands out of sight beneath the table but probably clasped together in her lap. She stares vacantly into empty space, shrunk in on herself, dressed in shabby rags and tatters, timid and alone.
Nothing on the table in front of her. No crumby plate, no drained cup. But she hasn’t just arrived. She’s settled comfortably in her seat. Must have been sitting there for ten or fifteen minutes at least. Nobody else could have gotten so still so quickly.
Craig steps up to the far side of the counter and tilts his head, universal body language for: I want to talk to you quietly. Ellie nods and moves closer, head leaned in like a shady co-conspirator.
She nods again and beams at him. It’s a great smile. Lights up her whole face.
She gave him tea and sandwiches on his first morning in the neighbourhood. She smiled at him then. More kindness. She is a mission-assist.
‘That girl in the corner,’ he murmurs. ‘Didn’t she order?’
Ellie whispers, ‘She hasn’t got any money.’ Her gaze flickers over to the lone girl. ‘One of the street urchins. They hang around the docks mostly, begging what they can. There’s a soup kitchen for the homeless network, but most of ‘em have no-one to look out for ‘em.’ Her eyes crease in sympathy. ‘Poor kids.’
‘Ask her what she wants. I’ll pay for it.’ He moves away to a small booth near the opposite corner, the whole room and both exits in view, where he could watch the girl without being too obvious about it. Front door at his twelve. Corridor on his left. A carved wooden wall frame covering the far side of the table.
Windows: frosted, limited visibility outside.
He slips into the isle seat.
Thin glass. No impediment to external snipers. But that carved wooden frame on right side obscures view from outside. Solid oak table. Decent cover. Fork 5 inches away.
He sees Ellie approach the girl’s booth, sees her lips move. Sees dawning incomprehension on the girl’s face, then doubt, then stubborn refusal. Ellie steps back over to his booth and whispers, ‘She says she can’t possibly accept. She doesn’t want your money.’
He leans close. ‘Go back and tell her there aren’t any strings attached. I’m not hitting on her. Tell her I don’t even want to talk to her, not really. Just tell her I’ve been broke and hungry too.’
She nods and goes back. This time the girl pauses, considers, and then relents. She points to a couple of items on the menu. He’s pretty sure they’re the cheapest choices. Ellie moves away behind the counter to place the order and the brown-haired girl turns a little in her seat towards him and inclines her head in a courteous little nod, full of dignity for someone so young. The corners of her mouth soften like the beginnings of a tentative smile. Then she turns back to the table and goes still again.
Main door: unlatched, half-open. Easy to breach. Perimeter: insecure.
Corkscrew on counter. Three paces away. Good for stabbing.
Ellie soon comes straight back to him, takes his order and whispers, ‘Her bill’s gonna be one penny two farthings. Yours’ll be tuppence.’ He counts out five muddy-brown pennies from the pouch at his hip and slides them across the table. She picks them up and smiles. ‘Thanks for the tip, mister. So when were you broke and hungry?’
He shakes his head. ‘Never. My whole life I got three square meals a day from the army, and since then I’ve always had money in my pocket.’
Her eyes widen. ‘So you made all that up just to make her feel better?’
He shrugs. ‘Sometimes people need convincing.’
‘You’re a nice guy,’ she says.
He frowns. ‘Not everyone would agree.’
‘But some do.’
‘I hear things.’
But Ellie just smiles at him and walks away behind the counter.
Time passes. A distant bark outside. Something metal rattles, way down the other end of the street. Probably that fox feeling cocky, raiding bins in a back alley. The kettle starts whistling. Ellie bustles over to pour his tea. From a safe distance Craig watches the lone girl slowly chew a grilled cheese sandwich and sip a hot chocolate. Great choices. Excellent value for money. After she picks the plate clean and drains the mug she dabs her lips with a napkin, pushes her crumbed plate and her empty glass away, then sits there, just as quiet and still as before. The clock in his head hits eight and the clock on the wall follows it twenty seconds later, eight slow chimes. The old guy in the cap gathers his stuff, eases back from his stool and slowly shuffles out with a creaking arthritic gait.
Fork five inches from left hand. Good for stabbing.
Piping hot tea in his mug. Good for blinding.
The street urchin stays put. He’s seen plenty of people doing what she’s doing, in restaurants and taverns and coffeehouses the world over, near ports and railway stations. She’s staying warm, conserving body heat, saving energy, passing the time. Enduring. She looks worn down and resigned, but infinitely composed and patient.
Ellie backs away to a corner of the counter and picks up a slim paperback book, twirling an errant red curl behind her ear. Craig wraps his hands around his mug to keep them warm.
The lone girl stays put.
Then she moves. She shifts sideways on her cushioned seat and stands up all in one smooth, delicate motion. She’s pretty small and thin. Rags and tatters. No more than five-nothing, not more than sixty-some pounds. She stands still and faces the door.
Then she pauses.
And turns towards his booth.
Her face is shadowed with fear and shyness and loneliness. She comes to some kind of a decision and shuffles forward to stand about a yard away. Clears her throat.
‘Thank you for my dinner.’
Her voice matches her physique. Small and delicate.
‘You okay for breakfast tomorrow?’ he asks.
She is still for a long moment while she wrestles her inner pride, then reluctantly shakes her head.
‘You’ll be okay out there?’
Her mouth opens and closes, like she’s trying to say something but doesn’t really want to. Then she sighs and twitches a reluctant, rueful smile. ‘We’ve got the soup kitchen over on Marsh Lane. Good stuff there. But expensive. That’s why. Ain’t got much money anyway, and food uses it all up pretty quick.’
He frowns. ‘You have to eat.’
The girl says nothing. He thinks: three pence two farthings a meal makes ten pence and two a day. Five days’ worth is fifty-three pence, plus seven more for emergencies makes five shillings.
Almost two days’ wage. Less money for yourself. For food. For rent. For the dog.
Add three more for long-term insurance.
Eight shillings for a hopeless cause? Less money in your own pocket. You’re just wasting it.
Make it five more.
He rummages in his pouch and slowly counts out the silver coins. Slides them across.
Ten shillings, all told. Ought to count for something.
The girl frowns. ‘I can’t take your money. I couldn’t ever pay it back.’
‘So pay it forward instead.’
The girl says nothing.
‘You know what pay it forward means?’
‘I’m not sure.’
‘It means years from now you’ll be on a street corner or in a pub somewhere and you’ll see someone who needs a break. So you’ll help them out.’
The girl blushes, and ducks her head. Then she glances up, and nods.
‘I could do that,’ she smiles.
‘So take the money. See what your network can do with it.’
She steps closer and brushes the loose silvery coins off the table into her other cupped hand. The shillings rattle into a battered pouch at her waist.
‘Don’t thank me. Thank whoever helped me way back. And whoever helped them before that. And so on.’
She nods. ‘Okay, then.’ Turns towards the door.
She stops, looks back at him.
Why are his palms sweating.
GET IT TOGETHER
‘What’s your name?’
Her eyes crease around the edges, and she grins. ‘Kate.’
‘Stay safe out there.’
She smiles, then pulls a worn bracelet off her wrist. Faded green twine. She presses it into his hand – ‘thanks, mister’ – then shuffles out the door. He watches her wander down the street out of view, then rouses Ellie from her book and asks for another top-up.
‘You’ll never sleep,’ she grins. The same fond smile she used before, right after she said she heard good things about him.
He rolls his eyes. ‘Plenty of time to sleep when I’m dead.’
Note: sass makes her laugh. Good job, Sergeant.
She takes the flask and, still smiling, heads back to her book, leaving him with a steaming mug. He dips his head to inhale the sweet strong smell.
He leaves the pub much later and walks back to the flat, checking all the shadows and alleyways he passes by. Not quite nine thirty in the evening. The streets are dark and deserted, silent and lonely. Some drapes are halfway open. A faint glow behind a handful of murky windows. Probably old guttering oil lamps. But mostly the windows are all dark. The moon is still out. No-one roaming the streets. No civilians around. It’s the middle of the night in a quiet part of town. No-one out and about at this hour. No foot traffic. No subliminal hum, no vibe. No activity at all.
He eases down on the crunchy mattress, slides his hands under his pillow and listens to the silence, eyes wide open, staring out into the pale moonlight, breathing slow and steady. Rusty worms into his chest, snuggling closer.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
It doesn’t work. He can’t relax.
Later still, he opens his eyes again, and the burst of moonlight slices a white streak through the ambient gold-orange of the street lamps into his eyes, and the hairs on the back of his neck prickle DANGER UNKNOWN THREAT DETECTED –
He’s being watched.
Oh. You’re back.
A pale shadow hovers near the doorframe; it would move to the bed eventually. It always does.
‘Aw, c’mon,’ he mumbles, resigned. ‘I thought we were done with this.’ A wave of not-quite-fear is rising in his throat; he forces it down. The hazy figure on the other side of the room makes a vague movement that might have been a shrug, and suddenly the boy is beside the bed, looming above him and backlit by the rising moon. Hollow-eyed, gaunt-faced, a chunk of his scalp missing, black blood pouring down his face.
‘I didn’t kill you,’ Craig swallows. ‘Okay? It wasn’t me.’
Unseeing milky eyes bore down into his.
‘Please,’ he breathes. ‘I just. I want to sleep.’
Sightless white eyes stare back.
He turns to the wall, curled in on himself, eyes screwed shut, repeating over and over like a desperate mantra, ‘You’re not real, you’re not real, you’re not real-’
Growling. Low and deadly and feral. Craig’s head snaps around. Rusty is on his feet, body coiled, hackles raised, fangs bared. Planted like a tree between Craig and the looming spectre. He forces a shaky breath and steels himself to look again.
The room is empty. The boy is gone. Never was there. Craig shivers as Rusty huffs, turns to him with a whine, then nuzzles closer to lick his hand. Warm-rough-damp rasps over his fingers, and nothing like a nightmare. Nothing at all.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
He rolls over to face the wall, and wearily closes his eyes.
© 2017 Tom Burton