‘‘Nnngh…Christ save me, I’m done for.”
‘‘For shit’s sake, Sean. Quit whining.”
Private Sean Harris sags heavily against the crumbled wall, sweating and groaning like the melodramatic little shite he is. ‘‘Jaysus, Mary ‘n’ Joseph,” he moans, clutching his shoulder. ‘‘I’m gonna die.”
A chorus of annoyed groans from the others. Liam rolls his eyes. ‘‘It’s only dislocated, Sean. Don’t be a wimp.”
‘‘Fuck you, Riley,” Sean bites out. ‘‘It’s fallin’ off, I can’t feel my fingers. Lord save me…Auuuhhhh. Send me home, Sarge, I’m done with this war.”
Craig grins and squats beside him, trying (and failing) to look sympathetic. ‘‘Sorry, you’re not gettin’ out of it so easy,” he says brightly. ‘‘C’mere, let’s put it back. Quit bawlin’.”
Ryan chuckles somewhere behind them, and doesn’t even bother to offer his help. He’s busy going over the bodies with Lewis, trying to find good weapons to loot. Sean whimpers and shakes his head, shrinking away from Craig’s outstretched hands and raising his good arm in defence. ‘‘No no, don’t touch it! You’ll make it worse!”
Ian rolls his eyes from the loft overhead. ‘‘Get it together, Sean, my liddle sister’s got bigger bollocks than you.”
Craig slaps Sean’s hand away and schools his features into the epitome of grave seriousness. Hopefully. ‘‘It ain’t gunna fix itself. Trust me, Sean, I’ve done this a thousand times,” he soothes. Well, maybe twice. On Liam, because his right shoulder’s always been a little weak. He doesn’t really know how painful it is, but it can’t be that bad, right? It’s not even bleeding, for Christ’s sake. ‘‘It’ll slide right into place. You won’t feel a thing, promise.”
Liam snorts so loud it’s a wonder the Staatsartillerie guns don’t come crashing down around them. ‘‘Yeah, listen to ‘im, Sarge knows what he’s talkin’ about.”
Craig grips Sean’s shoulder tight. ‘‘On three, mate.” Sean puffs and clenches his jaw. Braces himself.
A terse nod.
Sean shrieks so loud that his cry echoes back at them from all corners of the desolate town. If there are any more sharpshooters lying around, they’re fucked for sure, but thankfully there’s no answering battle cry or bullets whistling in. Craig lets him sag onto the floor, writhing around and swearing buckets. Craig’s face is the picture of cherubic innocence. ‘‘What? I fixed it, didn’t I?”
‘‘Fuck you!” Sean wriggles over to snap furiously at his ankles. ‘‘You sneaky bastard – nngghh. Fucker!”
‘‘Language,” Ian sing-songs cheerfully.
‘‘Fuck off, shithead!”
The others tease him and leave him wheezing and cursing on the floor as Craig hurries to the doorway where Jack’s keeping watch, half expecting an army to appear in the street. Liam helps Sean to his feet, patting his back in commiseration. ‘‘I know, I know, it blows,” he mutters. ‘‘Sergeant Harper couldn’t keep a promise if you coated it in glue and shoved it up his arse.”
‘‘Careful, Liam, that’s insubordination,” Lewis snickers.
‘‘I was drunk,” Craig groans, mock-horrified. ‘‘I was so drunk when I offered you all a spot on the team.”
‘‘Don’t beat yerself up over it, Sarge,” Ryan smirks, still rifling through a corpse’s pockets on the floor. ‘‘We were piss-drunk when we accepted, too.”
Craig’s eyes shoot open as he jerks upright with a muffled gasp, feverish and drenched in cold sweat, knife out and ready to kill. His heart is pounding. Walls closing in around him. Room silent and cold. Air stale and dry as dust.
He needs to breathe.
Blood hissing in his ears. His eyes flick towards the cracked clock on the mantelpiece.
Dammit. The day’s going downhill already, and it’s only 0525.
Nausea rises hot and sour in his throat. He heaves himself up with a strangled snarl and lurches away from the wall, kicking free of the blanket as he staggers towards the doorway. He heaves the door open and stumbles out into the hallway, dragging in ragged lungfuls of cool air, sagging against the wall so he doesn’t crumple to his knees.
Walls pressing around him, closing in…
Get out get out GET OUT
A whisper-kiss of air brushes his cheek. Downstairs. The front door. Outside. Space. Air. He stumbles down the stairs, feet blindly carrying him down towards the distant draught like a thirsty dog to water, one hand brushing the wall to keep himself grounded.
Get out get out NOW
He fumbles with the door lock, cursing as the key scratches and scrapes. Bites back a snarl of relief as the key finally snicks into the lock. He wrenches the door open, staggering down onto the porch. Screws his eyes shut, hand clenched tight around the iron railing.
In out in out in out in out in out.
His teeth creak. Blood hisses in his ears.
Ice-cold metal under his fingers. The dull ache of his shoulder pressed against the railing. His breath shudders out of him, rusty and cracked.
The distant yowl of an alleycat. The crisp tinkle of glass smashing. Leaves rustle. An owl screeches.
The vinegar-sweet stench of street garbage. The musty odour of unwashed linen. The rich wet smell of damp leaves.
He opens his eyes.
The street is deserted, the pavement bathed in pools of warm orange under glowing streetlamp. A faint haze cloaks the scene. Early morning mist rolling in off the river.
The trees shiver in a gentle breeze. A flicker of movement in the upper twisted branches. Squirrel, maybe.
Three controlled breaths.
On your feet, soldier
Just a sec.
Three more breaths.
His brain is calm, but his muscles are buzzing. Too wired up to fall back into the blank void of sleep. After eight more calm breaths, he straightens up and moves inside, scanning the shadows.
It feels comforting to patrol the corridors. Scoping out the exits. The flat is not quite a tactical nightmare, but his teeth still clench at the stupidity of city housing planners – cramped funnelling corridors which restrict access, steep stairwells with tall step risers and narrow treads. Good for bottlenecking home invaders for massive damage, bad for elderly civilians with their creaky knees and dodgy hips. He prowls from one end of the flat to the other, moving from shadow to shadow like a wisp of smoke, checking windows, checking doors. Four exit points on each upper floor, besides the stairwell. Three doorways, one street window to the fire escape, wide and vulnerable. The hallway windows slide upwards, but the latches are locked tight. Solid well-machined brass tongues. Good. He clenches his fist tight around the knife and keeps moving. Stalks through the darkness, ears pricked for every sound. Dampens down the gnawing fear with icy-clear focus. Patrolling ensures the Olds are safe from harm. Contingency plans confer security. Exits and routes of retreat are known. Primary exfil: stairwell. Fourteen steps on each staircase. Seven metres along the first- and second-floor landings. Secondary exfil: fire escape.
The middle three treads on the first floor staircase groan in the centre, and steps four, seven and twelve on the second stairwell are really vocal in their old age. Craig goes slow, putting his feet down gently and deliberately, avoiding the middle.
A board creaks under his heel.
Ryan smirks from a slash of moonlight. ”Getting rusty, Sarge. None o’ that sneaky shit for you, eh?”
‘‘Shut up,’’ Craig mutters, but can’t hide his smile.
He blinks, and Ryan is gone.
The first floor hallway is dark and silent. Two doors shut tight, the furthest one ajar, sending a slice of silvery moonlight out into the hall. A pattering of clawed feet. He almost draws his knife when a rat scuttles along the skirting board and vanishes into the half-open room. He eases the door open. A dark hole in the far corner, faint scuffles echoing from it. He keeps a wary eye on it as he scans the darkened room. Bay window, with an alcove seat. Curtains left half-open, throwing pale moonlight across the floorboards. Ghostly furniture draped in white sheets. Armchair. Single mattress bed. Dumpy sofa. Even worse-looking than the battered sofa on the third floor. How is that even possible. Loose cushions scattered about. Tattered cardboard boxes strewn everywhere, spilling detritus over the floor. Smell of damp and mould and musty bed linen. The pale moonlight turns bare white walls into a vast pool of lilac blue. An empty fireplace at the opposite wall. Dark. Dusty. Damp. Scattered coals festooned with cobwebs. Under the moonlight, the rusty iron grate is draped in silvery white lace.
Something scuttles across the gossamer threads, making them shiver.
Confirm, mission. Spiders are no joke. Ugh.
Black spots crawling across the pale whitewash. He leans closer, grimaces. Cockroaches. How marvellous.
A heavy brush next to the fireplace for stray ashes. A dustpan. And a fire poker. Long, thin, cast-iron. He hefts it. Sturdy, yet light. Fire-tempered. Well-balanced. About twenty inches long, tapering off to a sharp spike at the end. Cold be useful. Better than nothing.
Hey, look at that: now you’ve got a sharp stick. Sarge, you’re unbeatable.
He steps back out into the hallway, listening hard. Leaves the sheets draped over the furniture. The faint rustle of trees outside. Apart from that, no sign of life. Nothing. No sound, no subliminal hum, all quiet. He’s stormed plenty of darkened buildings in the dead of night before, and his lizard brain is muttering: no one home. Dead silence. A cold dark kitchen along the corridor, coated in dust and smelling of mildew. A dirty porcelain sink, ghostly white in the moonlight streaming in from outside. A heavy iron wood stove with a dented chimney flue, flecked with rust. Apart from that, nothing. No tenants, nothing on the first floor. The second floor hallway is dark and quiet. All three doors are shut tight: Ollie’s is the nearest one to the window, faint raspy snoring from within.
He takes the poker upstairs with him. Leans it against the worn ratty armchair, three paces from the dumpy mattress. Kitchen knife tucked beneath the seat cushion, close to hand. Revolver pressed beneath his pillow. Just in case.
He regroups on the ground floor after twenty more seconds of deep breathing. Locks the front door behind him, sheathes his knife. Fifty-nine paces, top to bottom. First floor windows, all closed. Second floor windows, all good. Fire escape: secured.
HOME RESIDENCE PATROLLED.
ALL ACCESS POINTS SECURE.
Well, okay then.
A full circuit around the park takes around six minutes at walking pace: Craig heads west instead, towards the canal and Stepney. He keeps a wary eye on the deserted alleyways and refuses to count his steps, to allow it to feel routine. Plenty of needless deaths from such lax complacency: a helmet left off because the artillery never began before half five; a short dash through the trenches – completed a hundred, a thousand times before – cut short by a falling shell. He refuses to let his mind wander. Not to the jolt of the rifle in his hands, the sharp smack of recoil into his shoulder target down, to the grinding of throat cartilage as he choked a sharpshooter under his clawed hands, to the wet gurgle of Nathan O’Toole’s last inhale, bloody stutters and desperate rasps from a smashed mouth.
Instead, he scans the near-empty streets, listens for any unexpected footfalls, and watches the quavering shadows of wind-blown branches rattling under leafy green boughs. The canal is dark and quiet as he crosses the scummy stretch of fetid water. A streak of pink dawn in the grey eastern sky.
He moves on. The sunrise is climbing rosy-pink in the east, wispy clouds fleeing before the faint light of dawn. The streets are quiet at this hour. Still. Hushed.
Not empty, though.
He’s sitting half-hidden behind a pillar with his cardboard sign, in the shelter of a shadowed archway. Not the best vantage point for begging, but – Craig glances up instinctively, checking sightlines – the least horrible spot to be begging and stay shielded from any snipers who just might happen to be lurking in the looming offices across the street.
He approaches from the south-west, covering the hunched figure for the only angle he couldn’t himself, and sees him visibly relax even as Craig looms over him. His face and neck are dotted with scars, and his long-sleeved shirt ties off left mid-forearm.
‘‘Hi,’’ Craig holds out his cap badge. ‘‘I’m Craig. Connaught Rangers. Where d’you serve?’’
The veteran peers down at the badge, then squints up at him. ‘‘Afghanistan, then Africa,’’ he rumbles. Taps a faded insignia on his shoulder – three dusty chevrons. His thumb brushes over a star-and-saltire cross on his left breast pocket. ASHANTI 1896. ‘‘Staff Sergeant John Baker. Two and a half tours, medical discharge. Northumberland Fusiliers.’’
Craig smiles. ‘‘The Fighting Fifth?’’
Baker grins and swats his arm with his good hand. ‘‘Damn right.’’ Craig extends his right hand to shake.
‘‘Sergeant,’’ he says. ‘‘Sergeant Harper, sir.’’ Baker looks over his civilian attire, his relaxed-yet-alert stance, the tension coiled through his shoulders. His eyes narrow.
‘‘Never quite leaves you, does it?’’
‘‘No, sir,’’ Craig agrees quietly.
Baker’s eyes soften. ‘‘Welcome home, laddie.’’
‘‘Thank you, sir.’’
He discretely palms Baker all the cash in his wallet, and waits until he’s pocketed the shillings before clearing his throat.
‘‘Want to get some breakfast?’’
The dawn is a flaming orange glare in the east as they approach the pub. Baker scopes out the place, snagging a table near the kitchens to double their escape routes. Craig endures having his back to the empty room so Baker can sit against the wall and watch the exits. Breakfast arrives. Baker shoves his bacon across the table, silent and defiant; Craig cuts it up for him without a word.
Baker eats with the careful restraint of the perpetually starving, thoroughly chewing each bite to make it last. When he makes to tuck two of the smaller tomatoes away for later, Craig reaches out to brush his wrist. Baker freezes at the touch, tense and coiled.
Craig withdraws his hand. ‘‘There’s plenty of food,’’ he says, deliberately casual. Spears another sliver of bacon with his fork. ‘‘Eat what you want.’’ Baker blinks at him, eyes sharp, but eventually hunches back over the plate and slowly eats another six mouthfuls, chasing them down with tentative sips of water.
Craig puts his fork down. ‘‘You need equipment?’’ he asks. ‘‘Supplies?’’ It’s a second-in-command question, he hopes. Baker hears it. He smiles a little; it nearly reaches his eyes.
‘‘We do,’’ he says, and scoops a dripping forkful of egg. Craig doesn’t press for who we is; Baker was a Staff Sergeant – even out of the Army, he’d find people. World’s most efficient grapevine.
‘‘Long-term,’’ Baker continues, ‘‘We need reliable, secure places to sleep. We’ve staked out a good place right now, over by St Anne’s, but the cops get wind of us eventually and chase us away.’’ Craig winces and nods. He digs out a stubby pencil and grabs a napkin. ‘‘Short term, we do okay for food with soup kitchens and the morning street markets, but dried stuff helps. We need first aid kits, painkillers, bandages.’’ He shovels up another forkful of beans, chews, waves his fork. Swallows. Craig’s pencil scratches. ‘‘Somewhere to get decent blankets. Warm clothes, and places to wash them. Access to showers. Or just…any good hot water, really.’’
Craig nods, scribbling, thinking of the bath in the Olds’ flat, the hot water, the deserted first floor room filled with ramshackle furniture, the bed sheets – musty but crisp and clean, the laundry place just down the street. ‘‘I can probably get you needle and thread, too.’’ He sketches a gash on his forearm. ‘‘For cuts ‘n’ stuff, if you’ve got someone who can administer them.’’
Baker looks at him long and hard, then takes the pencil and scrawls an address at the bottom of his list.
St Anne’s Church, Limehouse
Craig pockets the list. Nods at Baker. ‘‘I’ll see what I can do, sir.’’
© 2017 Tom Burton