12. Active Duty

Warning: Violence

Craig stops dead in the hallway, icy dread shivering down his spine. Suki is yowling, an awful undulating ‘‘wom wom wom’’ that echoes off the peeling walls. Faint scuffling sounds above.

Then Esther cries, ‘‘No!’’

‘‘ ‘Nana!’’ Amy wails.

CIVILIANS IN DANGER

He bolts up the stairs two at a time, sticking close to the left side to avoid the creaky bits.

On the second floor landing he sees Ollie gripping a broom, staring fiercely up the stairs. He gestures silence, and Ollie nods.

WOM WOM WOM

Cat Suki is small. She can hide in tiny places.

Four more steps.

The scuffle is louder now. Cat Suki continues to yowl, and now he hears a man’s scornful laugh above him.

INNOCENTS THREATENED

He draws his knife.

WOM WOM WOM

Eight more steps.

Halfway up the third flight of stairs, the man comes into view: short but stocky, wiry brown hair on a supremely ugly head.

‘‘What’re you gonna do, Esther?’’ the man drawls. ‘‘Call the police on me? Funny how I’ve got no record that you paid yer rent the last three months. So who’s a copper gonna believe? Me, legal property owner, or a deadbeat old bat like you? Open the door, sweetheart-’’

Sweetheart.

ENGAGE

In an eye-blink, Craig is on him. The man smashes into the opposite wall, pinned by his throat before he can even breathe.

‘‘Hey, arsehole.’’

The guy actually squeaks.

‘‘You must be Vince,’’ Craig growls. ‘‘Nice to finally meet you. Heard a lot of things.’’

The man’s cheeks bulge, gulping like a stranded fish. ‘‘Who the fuck are you?’’

Then he swings both forearms up to break Craig’s hold – or tries to. Doesn’t work against a trained soldier. Craig thumps him in the gut. Squeezes harder. The guy’s face turns purple.

‘‘Let’s find out more about you,’’ Craig smirks. He places his knife flat against Vince’s ear and presses it into the flaky plaster of the shoddy wall. Slowly. The guy’s eyes are popping wide as Craig pulls the knife from the wall and gently traces its blade over Vince’s face. While the guy tries and fails to contain his panting. His wheezing. And his tears.

‘‘Vincent Brown, of 140 Jackson Avenue,’’ Craig recites from memory, in a cheery sing-song voice. ‘‘I know just where that is. Bet my backup knows even more.’’

He leans in close, smiles slowly. ‘‘Haven’t you been sneaky. Letting dope dealers hole up in your flats to scare your tenants away, then running along to the coppers to squawk about them. How would all those Chinese like to know about that? Or about the payments from the police? Double-dipping.’’ He pats Vince’s cheek with the flat of the knife blade, shakes his head. ‘‘Very bad behaviour, pal. Could end up real troublesome for the other residents of 140 Jackson Avenue.’’

And: oh yes. The jackpot. He holds the point of his knife just under the guy’s twitching eye.

‘‘Laura Brown, age 42. Charlie Brown, age 14. Rosie Brown, age 11. Real shame for all your friends to find out about them. And vice versa.’’

‘‘W-who even are you?’’

Craig grins. ‘‘I’m your new best friend, Vince. I’m the guy making sure your legal tenants can live free and clear and unmolested in their homes. Great of you to bring me in, huh? To watch over these people. Keep an eye on all these good folks, right?’’

Oops, his thumb just can’t seem to help itself from pressing in on Vince’s jugular vein.

‘‘Right?’’

The guy tries to nod. ‘‘Gggh-yeah. Yeah, right.’’

‘‘Because you’d much rather have me here, right? Helping out with all these nice people. Otherwise,’’ he shrugs. ‘‘I might find myself over on Jackson Avenue. Might even acquaint myself with some of your foreign friends. Maybe bring ’em along with me.’’

Vince goes pale. Craig scratches the tip of the knife ever so gently under his eye.

‘‘Over on Jackson Avenue with nothing to do, Vincent Brown. I hate to be bored. Don’t you just hate to be bored?’’

‘‘…Yes.’’

This jerk is about to swallow his own tongue.

‘‘So we’re set then, aren’t we. You an’ I.’’

‘‘…Yes.’’

‘‘These nice people write their rent cheques. No bother. No hassle. You stay home and cash them.’’

He leans in close – Vince actually whimpers, nice – and whispers in Vince’s ear, breath ghosting over the knife pricking ever so slightly into the man’s greasy skin.

‘‘You stay home and I stay here. Because if I see you again, I’ll break your kneecaps. I’ll pin you to the floor. I own a lot of knives. Plenty to work with. Enough to pin you down through each hand. Each foot. The loose skin at the top of your shoulders. And then cut you apart, one limb at a time. Slowly. No rush. Finger by finger, toe by toe. Very messy work. Lots of blood. Real unpleasant. You don’t want that.’’

‘‘…No.’’

Craig raises his voice again. ‘‘What was that you said to Esther about her rent?’’

‘‘…Y-you’re all paid up, sweet-aakkk-Miss Berman. T-Thank you.’’

He hauls the guy down the stairs and shoves him out the door. Four steps away (safely out of arm’s reach), Vince turns and hesitates. The stupid idiot.

Craig smiles at him.

Slowly.

He thinks about knives.

Vince blanches, gulps and backs up several more steps before turning and running down the street.

Job done.

At the top of the stairs, Esther stands with her arms tight around Amy, who clutches her waist and sobs. Cat Suki is winding around them both, crying. Ollie rubs Esther on the back, murmuring soft soothing words of comfort.

‘‘Hey. It’s me.’’

They all look up. Amy’s eyes are red-rimmed from crying.

‘‘Are you hurt?’’ he asks.

Amy breaks free and rushes to him. She wraps her arms tight around his legs. She is so close. It takes two breathless seconds to remember: this is hugging. He kneels and puts his arms around her tiny shoulders but doesn’t squeeze. Amy feels so small and fragile, pressed up against him and whimpering into his chest. He doesn’t want to hurt her.

‘‘Thank you, Craig, thank you,’’ Esther murmurs, her voice quavering.

Amy is so close and so upset. Adrenaline still high. Heartbeat thumping loud in his ears. He holds her close, strokes soothing circles across her shoulders. Slow, slow. ‘‘Shhh. Hey now. Shhhhh.’’

Ollie’s eyes are as sharp as blades.

‘‘C’mon, Amy. Let the nice man breathe,’’ he murmurs, gently pulling Amy away into Esther’s embrace. Amy buries her face into Esther’s hip and sniffles.

Esther pats her curls tenderly. ‘‘You’ll be all right, darling. Thanks to our new friend.’’

Suki walks over and leans hard against Craig’s shins, mewling. He bends to scratch behind her ears, but won’t pick her up. Blood hisses through his ears. His hands are shaking. His fingers twitch with the urge to punch/rip/tear/crush/burn/DESTROY.

That jerk caused Amy distress. Made Suki cry. Made Esther afraid. Security of headquarters: breached. Mission assists threatened.

Unacceptable.

SEEK AND DESTROY

The mission is hissing in his ears, bubbling with primal sizzling rage.

It would be good to hit something.

It would be good to hit a lot of somethings.

‘‘Craig, are you having a bad moment?’’ Ollie asks quietly.

He grits his teeth. Searing fury scorches through him. The mission is screaming for blood.

‘‘I’m angry. Very angry.’’

‘‘Whereas we are very grateful.’’

‘‘Going to check outside, make sure he’s gone.’’

‘‘Good idea, son. Take all the time you need. I’ll stay with Esther and Amy. Keep an eye on them.’’

Conjecture: Ollie knows about fighting. Or soldiers. Or people with large gaps in their heads filled with screaming fury.

Suki slinks away into a corner and curls up, mewling. Craig clenches his fists. Blood pounds through his skull.

MISSION ASSISTS THREATENED

His anger is a white-hot hissing sound between his ears like a shrieking train. It is a tight band wrapped around his chest, pressing hard against his ribs. It is arms that ache to do violence, hands that twitch to cut/smash/rip/burn/tear/break/DESTROY.

Violence was already on his calendar. He checks his room. All clear. All safe.

The empty bed makes his breath hitch.

He forces it down. Buries it deep beneath boiling rage.

Rusty is gone. He won’t be coming back.

In. Out.

Focus on the mission.

By the time he is back in the hallway, all three civilians are behind Esther’s closed door. Vince further damaged the hinges – the doorjamb’s been knocked ajar, and the door hangs loose and crooked.

His anger is cold and white and screaming. Something will get taken to pieces.

Probably many somethings.

Ollie peers around the door. ‘‘You okay, son?’’

‘‘I’ll be back soon.’’

No further conversation. Simmering rage propels him out the front door. A bloodhound on the hunt. Building perimeter: clear. One-block perimeter: clear. Two-block perimeter: clear.

The knife is clenched tight in his grip, eager for blood.

At least that craven bastard had the good sense to get the hell out of his territory. And if Vince ever dares to come back. Well. Won’t that be a mess to clean up afterward. For making cat Suki afraid. For scaring Esther. For making Amy cry.

He bares his teeth.

Oh, he will definitely hit something. A bunch of somethings, thanks to the bubbling fury hissing inside him. He’d like to go straight over to Jackson Avenue and hit Vince, but he will forbear (for now) because of the other Browns, aged 42, 14, and 11.

Drug dealers, however, are fair game.

The clock in his head whispers: nine-thirty.

Mission: Seek and Destroy.


© 2017 Tom Burton

Hi, everyone! Hope you’re enjoying Craig’s story arc so far. I’ll be releasing an Easter-themed short story this Good Friday, then back to the main story on Easter Monday! 😀

17 thoughts on “12. Active Duty

    1. Thanks ever so much, Di! ❤ Glad you found it such an immersive story…plenty more righteous payback (AKA bad guys getting their just desserts) coming soon! 😀

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    1. Thanks ever so much, Matthew! 😀 Glad it was such a gripping read. Plenty more righteous payback (AKA bad guys getting their just desserts) coming soon! *sharpens quill*
      I was wondering – do you feel the story builds naturally in having these civilians that he grows to care about (like a protective big brother)?

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  1. I absolutely LOVE his primal protective instincts. I also absolutely adore Ollie’s sensitivity to Craig’s moments. Smart guy, that Ollie.
    STILL MISS RUSTY THOUGH
    Also, love how Amy rushes up to him and he’s like “Oh, right, hugging. That’s a thing.”

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    1. Glad it’s been clarified through the story! 🙂 I was trying to illustrate this group of civilians whom he slowly grows protective over + finds a soft spot for people in need; does that make sense here?

      Liked by 1 person

      1. The soft spot is clear as crystal and beautifully done. The nasty landlord, I didn’t quite understand what his deal was until Craig laid it all out through dialog.

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Glad you’ve enjoyed it so far! There’s something incredibly sweet about having these benign, gentle side characters (still with heaps of personality!) whom the hero can rely on and slowly open up to – then he has something worth defending.

        And about the landlord – ultimately this is a story about bullying. We can’t identify with the stereotypical genocidal maniac out to rule the world (e.g. Voldemort, Sauron). They’re bad guys in a fairy tale. But everyone’s had that one bully who made their life miserable when they were powerless to stop it, the ones who were needlessly sadistic and condescending. That one teacher who inflicts extra punishments because they dislike you, or a manager who penalises you for invented infractions, or cops performing illegal searches because they know you don’t have proof and can safely hide behind a badge. Those who take callous pleasure in dominating others and smile as they’re doing it (side-eyes Dolores Umbridge forever).
        I’m trying to illustrate the many different grey levels of bullying in this story, from the individual jerk getting his kicks from intimidating defenceless people (Vince) right up to the gangsters with power who still relish humiliating and scaring people just because they can (Gary).
        *END OF RANT* anyway, I hope this theme has a universal appeal for readers when they see bullies getting beaten by characters who won’t tolerate it.

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