Turns out: if you’re looking to stoke the chill fires of blind hissing rage, stalking through the late-night East End hunting drug dealers is an excellent choice. Opium den on Salmon Lane, the note had said. So he treks on. Crosses the canal, heading west. Scans the wall plaques at each street corner. The streets turn darker and gloomier. A faint smell in the air. Four streets. Five. The sour reek of beer, and stale urine, and rancid sweat wafting down on the wind.
And something sharp and tangy. Like vinegar.
The smell grows stronger.
No one about. All quiet. Just cold air and silence and stillness and a sharp tangy smell on the breeze.
Seven streets. Eight.
The smell grows stronger.
A messy tangle of rundown tenements stretches before him. The street cobbles gleam pearly-silver under the light of the moon. Two three-storey terraces glare at each other across the cobbles. Salmon Lane glares out of the darkness from a chipped street plaque. By now his limbs have stopped shaking; the tense stillness of a coiled viper ready to strike.
He’s not stupid-angry. He brought the knife with him. No mess, no fuss. Just deadly intent and simmering rage. Armed and ready. A cloud slithers in front of the moon, and the scene falls dark: a tactical advantage.
At least it’s a lonely area of crumbling tenements. The street is empty. Salt in the air. No-one about. The alleyway looms before him. A mangy alley cat yowls at him from a mess of gnawed fish bones.
He draws closer, boots crunching through the muck. Flattens himself against the wall. Inches closer. Peers around the corner.
Six doors on the left. Seven on the right. The silvery glint of the canal beyond.
Lines of washing strung across the narrow space. Sheets flap and snap in the breeze.
A solitary lamppost, orange light washing over the pockmarked brick walls.
And a guy in a right-hand doorway, halfway down the alley.
The figure is leaning back against the railing. Black coat, maybe thirty years old, thin, clean-shaven, shifty, menacing. Boiled down to muscle and sinew. Lean and mean. Mouth a thin black line. Gnarled hands clasped before him. A knotted black pigtail coiled down over his left shoulder, shiny with oil. Feet planted in the muck. Piggy narrow eyes scanning left. Then right. Then left again. Quick and dirty assessments. Clear one way. Clear the other.
The back door guard.
Because of course the back door of the tenement would be unlocked. That’s the whole point of a back door when you’re doing a roaring trade while coppers roam the streets. They come busting in the front with truncheons and whistles, you need to be able to get clean out the back without fumbling for the key.
Hence the unlocked back door.
Hence the guard.
Craig slips his left hand into his pocket. Clenches it around the knife.
Armed and ready.
Nobody else around. The guy is on his own. Glances away. Craig steps into the alley. The way to do it is to walk fast and focus on something way beyond your target. Make the guy feel like you’ve got nothing to do with anything. The guy turns back. Craig makes a show of patting his pockets and glancing far ahead into the distance. He hustles along, almost running. Fifteen paces back. The guy glances his way. His eyes narrow. Craig hurries on. Faster. Twelve paces back. At the last minute, he drops his gaze to the gutter, like he was suddenly dragged back into the present by the filth and muck. The guy is watching him. Ten paces back. Craig skirts left around a heap of rubbish. Eight paces back. He huffs in exasperation and hurries on. Towards the side door. Six paces back. Closer. The man steps out. Raises an arm. Craig dodges right. Four paces. Three. He slumps his shoulders. Flashes a half-smile of apology. Friendly. Disarming. Unthreatening.
‘‘S’cuse me. Sorry.’’
Just a guy hurrying past. No slowing at all, the way any hurrying pedestrian slips by an unwelcome obstacle. Someone just looking to pass on by. Eager to get home on a cold night. Harmless. Not a threat. The guy hesitates. Gets caught up in the body language. Confused by long social training. His hand drops. He steps back, an unconscious polite extra foot of clear space.
Craig flicks his eyes up and grins. Friendly. Disarming. Unthreatening.
Without breaking stride he jerks sideways and crashes a scything elbow square into the guy’s jaw. Right, left, bang. The guard keels over backward and Craig follows him down, clamps his forehead and thumps his skull onto the cobbles.
The guard hits the alley floor with a dusty thump of bone. Craig crouches over him, ears pricked.
A dog barks twice. Two streets over, at least.
He takes his left hand off his knife, the first time since entering the alley.
The guy is drooling onto the cobbles. Craig rolls him over and checks his pockets. A small money pouch, stuffed with silver shillings. A set of brass knuckles, too small for his hand. He pitches it out of reach down the drain. Two creased packets of cigarettes inside his jacket. Wild Woodbines. One unopened. The other rattles. He peels it open – seven left.
But if Greasy Hair doesn’t need them anymore, well then. Spoils of war.
The guy is limp and unmoving. Out cold. Good solid hit, just below his left cheek. Probably smashed upper back molars, and a cracked jaw, and a concussion everywhere. Must have jerked his brain around inside like a jellyfish in a bell jar.
Craig presses two fingers to his neck. A thin, reedy pulse.
Blunt force trauma to the head. Can’t beat it.
Out for five minutes, groggy and nauseous for three more. Call it eight minutes, minimum. Ten minutes, tops. Plenty of time.
He slices the web of the guy’s thumbs with his knife. Painful, and a real disincentive to holding guns or knives again until the guy’s cuts healed, which could be a long time depending on his approach to nutrition and antisepsis. The guy is somebody’s weapon, consciously deployed; no soldier leaves an enemy’s abandoned ordnance on the field in working order.
He straightens up.
GOOD GUY NON-LETHAL
He moves up the steps. Places one foot low against the bottom rail.
The back door will be unlocked.
The door opens. He inches it open with his boot and gazes into the gloomy hallway. Peeling red wallpaper. The bitter-sweet scent of smoke undercut by the faint stink of sweat and vomit. A guttering gas lamp on the left-hand wall. A ratty bear-stained rug underfoot. An inner door to the right, into another backroom. Light under the door. About eight paces away.
No point in waiting. They aren’t about to take a dinner break. He pads ahead eight paces and stops before the door. The rug muffles his footsteps. The building reeks of decay, sweat and urine. It’s quiet. A tumbledown building. He listens hard. A low voice inside the room. Then an answer. A muffled wet cough. Two people, minimum.
Swinging the door open and standing and taking stock of the scene inside is not the way to do it. The guy who pauses even for a millisecond is the guy who dies earlier than his mates. The tenement is maybe fifteen feet wide, of which three take up the hallway he’s standing in. So: aim to be the other twelve feet into the room before they even know you’re there.
Standard military doctrine when storming a room with an unknown number of hostiles: shock and awe. So common the army bigwigs even had a nickname for it: Overwhelming Force. Hit early, hit hard. Maximum damage, minimal time. Fast, loud, brutal, devastating.
Stack up at the door, then point man smashes through first, team sweeps inside, rifles up, bayonets forward. Game on. Snipers provide overwatch to prevent any external escape, rearguard remain outside to meet any surprise counterattack and safeguard the exfil.
Surprise the enemy. Catch them off balance.
And don’t. Let. Up.
But he doesn’t have a point man. Or an overwatch. Not even a rearguard to cover his six. All he has is his bare fists, one knife, a small bag of coins, a hope and a prayer.
No backup. No team.
Just me, myself and I.
He pulls up the scarf over his mouth and nose. Better safe than sorry.
Overwhelming Force. Get your retaliation in first.
First impressions count. Hit early, hit hard.
When all else fails: wing it. Ninety percent of everything is striking a pose.
The door is a thin wooden frame. Dropped on its hinges. Thin brass lock. No impediment to speed. And power. Overwhelming Force.
He breathes out.
He bursts through the door. It crashes back against the hinge and he storms across the room in two huge strides. Dim light. A single flickering gas lamp on the wall. Two men. A pouch on the table. Coins on the table. A handgun on the table. Craig crashes a swinging roundhouse right into the lead guy’s ear. Easy target, soft tissue, lots of small vulnerable bones. The guy topples sideways. Craig drives through him with a knee in the gut onto the second guy rising up from his chair, wide-eyed, mouth open in shock. Craig aims high and smashes an elbow right between his eyes. Do it hard enough, and the guy goes down for an hour, out of action, but his skull stays in one piece. A shopping trip, not an execution. Not tonight.
The wet crunch of cartilage. The guy drops. Broken nose, for sure.
He glances around.
A dank, gloomy room. Patterned rugs. Red paper lampshades. A glowing stove in the corner. Two mattresses crammed against the far walls. Two inert lumps. Ornate trays set before them. Long-necked pipes. Opium lamps on low tables nearby. Heavy wisps of grey smoke. No yells, no screams.
So far, so good.
The first guy is doubled over against the wall, clutching his belly. Craig clamps him around the neck and crunches his skull into the drywall. Hard. He drops boneless to the floorboards.
One of the inert shapes shifts on his bed and mumbles, ‘‘Good heavens.’’
GOOD GUY NON-LETHAL
Craig stands still, breathing hard, and listens through the door for any unwelcome noises. The approaching crunch of boots on paving stones. The sibilant whisper of hushed voices. The creak of loose floorboards overhead. The ‘snick‘ of a lock. The hiss of a blade drawn from its sheath. Any small noise that growls: enemies incoming. Hand clenched around the hilt of his knife.
Nothing. All clear. All quiet. Nothing for his lizard brain to worry about.
The guy in the back alley is sleeping and the other two are out cold at his feet, one with blood on his face. Bridge of the nose, great hit. Works every time. The other two are curled up in their beds amid rumpled sheets and thick clouds of grey smoke. Nobody moves. He glances at the table then glances away again, because the handgun lying there is a stubby little Browning. A seven-shot .32-ACP caliber pistol in blued steel with crosshatched grips. Introduced tentatively in the last stages of the Boer War, and had impressed nobody. Rubbish. The magazine springs get tired. The pistol jams. .32s don’t really work. No stopping power at all. Useless.
He picks it up. Ejects the magazine. And snorts.
Fully loaded. Chamber empty. No point in having a weapon at all unless it’s ready for instant use, his combat instructors had screamed. The goons are sprawled out on the floor, dribbling in unconsciousness. His lip curls.
He dumps the empty pistol back on the table, cracks open the window and pours the pouch of brown powder out into the night. It streams away on the breeze, like dust. He pitches the magazine far out into the darkness. Hears it rattle against bricks and paving slabs. A warren of back yards. Forty or fifty feet. Could take them a good hour to find, maybe two, even after they were operational again. He steps back and listens hard again. Nothing. He squats down next to the guy with the bloody face and starts through his jacket.
The busiest dealers make more money, and more money buys better toys. He strikes gold in the guy’s left-hand inner pocket. A whole lot better than a puny .32. A handsome six-shooter revolver. Short four-inch barrel. Easy to conceal in a pocket. Webley printed into the grip. Mark IV stamped above the cylinder. Nice. A huge favourite of his officer friends through most of South Africa. The dull gleam of gunmetal grey. The wheel has all six bullets in it and smells like it’s never been fired before. Chunky .455 rounds. No complexity. No manual safety, no jams. A reliable working piece. Point and shoot. He tips the bullets out loose into his palm, snaps the Webley shut and dry-fires it. Everything works. But he hears the gritty scrape of dry steel greased in the factory many years ago and never touched since. So he roots around through drawers, nooks and crannies and eventually finds a rag and a small tin of oil.
And a small cardboard box, worn and faded with age. Half-full of loose .455 bullets. Unneeded. Untouched. Almost brand new. Shiny fat brass cases, glinting golden under the lamplight. Reddish copper-jacketed noses wink up at him. Like jewellery.
Craig stares down at them for a long moment. Then he stuffs the box of bullets deep into his left outer pocket. Spoils of war. He works over the revolver patiently with the rag and the oil and tries again two minutes later. Click. Click. Much smoother. Tucks the rag and the can of oil into his right jacket pocket. Loads the six bullets again and just holds it for a moment. Like shaking hands with an old familiar friend. A fine piece of craftsmanship, beautifully engineered and hard as nails.
The two other shapes are staring. He uses his Sergeant growl.
The guy who’s been thumped against the wall groans and shifts his right arm. Craig scoops up the unloaded Browning by the barrel, kneels down and raps his skull hard with the pistol butt. The guy’s eyes roll up and he slumps limp onto the rug. The two other occupants are still staring. Eyes bleary and unfocussed. They won’t pick him out in a crowd any time soon. That’s for damn sure.
He smiles behind the scarf. Ninety percent of everything is striking a pose.
Three targets, all down. Two eyewitnesses, incapacitated. Useless for police testimony. Came through like a raging bull, sir. Never saw his face. Just messy hair, grey eyes, and a bad attitude. Nothing to mark him out. Minimal recognition.
Craig slips the revolver into his right trouser pocket. A full chamber in a working gun. Backup ammunition: at least twenty rounds. If not more.
Enemy supplies raided. Cash obtained. Firearm acquired. Ammunition acquired. Identity safeguarded. Enemy threats neutralised. No fatalities.
And no excessive knife-work necessary. Ideal.
GOOD GUY NON-LETHAL
What are you, my mother?
Good to go.
He smiles. Hunkers down next to the unconscious guy with the bloody face and whispers, ‘‘I’ll buy your gun for a penny. Just shake your head if you’ve got a problem with that, okay?’’
Then he smiles again and straightens up. Thumbs a muddy-brown coin out of his pouch and leaves it on the tabletop alongside the empty Browning. Turns to the recumbent figures gawking from their mattresses, dull-eyed and listless. One of them tilts his head.
‘‘Who the hell are you?’’
He bends low and snuffs out the candle. The room plunges into darkness.
‘‘Health inspector. Have a nice day.’’
Then he turns his back and steps out to the hallway. All quiet. He emerges into the cold night air. The guard is still lying there, drooling into the gutter. Out for an eight count. Craig kneels down. Still a weak pulse, stuttering but steady. Two solid blows to the skull, nobody keeps on fighting. Instead they’re sick and dizzy for a week. If they’re lucky. Barely able to stand straight.
Enemy weapon removed from the field.
He straightens up. Checks up and down the alley, steps over the guard’s body and walks away into the night.
The streets are empty and still. The silence is comforting. No one about. All quiet. Just cold air and silence and stillness. The chill of the wind against his face is very refreshing. Gets him most of the way home all by itself.
Even if it is bloody freezing.
But he is calm. His limbs are slack. The coiled tension has leached away. He walks and walks and walks, and his anger does not reignite. It feels settled and calm to think of a warm room, and a soft bed awaiting, and ‘home.’
He locks the front door. Drags the chair out from the shadows and wedges it firmly under the handle. Trudges up the narrow staircase. Five steps. Ten. Seems to take forever. The adrenaline is fast draining out of him.
He shuts his door. Pulls off his jacket, his scarf. Tucks the loaded revolver under his pillow.
Soft footsteps outside. A floorboard groans.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
He eases open his door. The hallway outside is sliced through with moonbeams. Amy blinks up at him, dressed in a white knee-length nightdress. Angelic blonde curls. Hands clasped behind her back, rocking shyly from side to side. Down the hallway, Esther leans against her doorjamb, watching with a fond smile.
‘‘I came to say good night,’’ Amy beams.
He remembers times in the past, being entertained in family quarters on a training base somewhere, the faint taps in the silence, polite army kids saying a formal farewell to their fathers’ brother soldiers. He remembers it well, the correct protocol. You shook their little hands, patted their little heads, and off they went. He smiles down at her.
‘‘Okay, good night, Amy.’’
‘‘I like you,’’ she smiles.
‘‘Well, I like you too.’’
‘‘I’m glad your my ‘nana’s friend.’’
He smiles. Holds out his hand to shake. She looks at it. Then back up at him.
‘‘You’re s’pposed to give me a goodnight kiss.’’
He blinks. ‘‘Am I?’’
She pouts. ‘‘Of course you are.’’
Esther’s smile widens. Her eyes twinkle.
Her face is about level with his hip. He starts to bend down.
‘‘No, pick me up,’’ Amy frowns. She raises her arms up high. Esther’s eyes crease with mirth.
He pauses, then swings Amy up into the air with a delighted squeal and cradles her in the crook of his elbow. His beard tickles her forehead, making her giggle. He kisses her cheek. ‘‘Good night, kid.’’
“Carry me back,” she murmurs. “I’m tired.”
He carries her down the hall through the moonbeams to Esther waiting in the doorway with a fond smile. ‘‘There you are.’’
‘‘Nana, I want Mister Harper to come in and say good night,’’ Amy beams.
Esther blushes. ‘‘Well, I’m sure he’s very sleepy.’’
“Nana, please,” Amy insists.
Craig jiggles her. ‘‘It’s fine.’’ Amy giggles and squirms in his arms, ducking her face down into his neck. He shrugs at Esther: what’s the worst that can happen? He gently lowers Amy to the floor and she skips through the gloom to her bedside. Pulls out a heavy, lumpen shape from beneath the sheet. Holds it out eagerly to him. ‘‘I got you a present.’’
A stuffed bear. Head drooping mournfully to one side. Only one button eye. Musty brown fur. Loose threads poking out. A burst seam in its fat tummy leaking yellow fluff.
‘‘Do you like him? Mister Snuffles?’’ Amy asks.
It’s his. His first gift from her. He picks it up, warmth blooming deep in his chest. ‘‘I think he’s fantastic. Thank you very much.’’
She blinks earnestly up at him. “Mister Snuffles doesn’t like the cold.”
“Me neither,” he peers solemnly into the bear’s face. “Tell you what, Mister Snuffles, how about we kip in my room. Plenty of space.” His eyes widen in faux-surprise. “What’s that?” He pulls the bear close to his ear. Wiggles its head up and down. Then nods in satisfaction. “He’s okay with it.”
Amy giggles and claps her hands. Esther’s eyes crinkle. She squeezes his hand.
It’s affection. That’s what this feeling is. Warm and comforting, like gentle summer rain.
Amy climbs onto the bed and curls up near the pillow. He kneels down next to her.
‘‘Good night, Amy. Sleep well.’’
“Kiss-kiss?” she murmurs sleepily.
He hesitates. Glances at Esther, who nods. Then he leans in and kisses Amy’s forehead. Warm and damp and smelling faintly of soap. Amy giggles and snuggles down into the pillow.
“Thank you for being our friend,” she whispers. Her eyelids droop. Esther squeezes his shoulder. He stands up and steps toward the door, stuffed bear swinging from his hand. Looks back at Esther. Who smiles.
‘‘Thank you for cheering her up.’’
He grins back. ‘‘I’ll see you tomorrow.’’
Mister Snuffles goes on the mantelpiece next to Kate’s green bracelet. Craig climbs onto the lumpy narrow bed. An errant breeze rattles the shutters downstairs. He slumps face-first into the soft warm mattress. Closes his eyes.
Bad guys deterred. Threats eliminated. Neighbours safe.
No doubt other men would stay up half the night, retrospectively agonising over justification. Doubts and worry and remorse churning through their heads. Regretting. Considering. Reassuring. Did I do the right thing? Was it good? Fair? Moral? Merciful, even?
Craig turns over, breathes out, and instantly falls asleep.
© 2017 Tom Burton