The night chill seeps into his bones. A cloudless sky above, sprinkled with stars. Looks almost peaceful.
Enemies in sight.
The two shadows turn right onto the next deserted street. Thirty yards away. Craig trails after them like a wisp of smoke, slipping through the shadows. A rat scuttles across the cobbles and vanishes down a storm drain. Twenty-five yards away. A narrow alleyway up ahead. Somewhere an owl screeches at the moon.
Twenty yards away. Shorty waddles along. Swaggering, squat and smug, pocket fat with stolen cash. The hulking brute lumbers beside him. Built like a brick shithouse. Maybe six-five, maybe three hundred pounds. Six inches taller than Craig, a hundred pounds heavier, and younger too. But also certainly dumber, and less skilled, and less experienced. Lots of big guys are. Either their sheer size is so intimidating it stops fights from ever starting in the first place, or else it lets them win every one directly after their first punch lands. Either way, they don’t get much practice. They don’t develop much finesse. Brawlers, not trained fighters. Easy to get out of shape. Looming in doorways and scaring people with your immense size, barrel chest and spade-like fists is good for show. Intimidating as hell. But no substitute for the urgent, anxious, breathless tight-throat adrenaline you need to fight dirty on the street.
Plus: the bigger they come, the harder they fall.
Craig feels his face stretch into a wolfish smile. He creeps closer. Anticipation churns in his gut. He has simmering anger to spare, and assholes who deserve it.
Fifteen yards away.
Blood hisses through his ears. The chilling calm of the predator, waiting to strike.
Those jerks up ahead made the other civilians afraid. They made people stop smiling.
They scared an innocent girl. Leered over Jane. Made her cry.
They murdered an innocent lady who couldn’t pay. Locked her inside a burning building and left her to the flames.
They made Ellie sad.
The dynamics of the city. The strong terrorise the weak. They keep on at it, like they always have, until they come up against somebody stronger, somebody who pushes back. Someone who finally says: no.
Someone like him.
London’s a big city. More than six million souls. Probably hundreds of strong people hurting weak people, maybe even thousands. This won’t change anything. You can’t win them all. It’ll happen again. Someplace else.
Not here. Not on my watch.
He creeps closer. Ten yards away.
Walk away. You can’t win them all. Don’t get involved. Let them go. It’s not your fight. Stay out of it-
He clenches his fists.
They sauntered around the place. They scared the patrons. Made the bar staff afraid. Bunch of power-hungry freaks trying to shape the world as they saw fit, like they were better than all the people working their arses off all week long, putting food on the table through honest back-breaking labour, making families tied by blood and love, scraping by to make a living. Only for these cockroaches to take it all for themselves. Parasites growing fat off the blood, tears and sweat of others.
Arrogant greedy bastards, choosing who got to pay up and who didn’t, like a bloody game of pick and choose, like they thought they were gods. Craven, cowardly bullshit, never getting their own hands dirty, daring to feel contempt for all the decent people they were bullying and coercing and intimidating.
Goddamn assholes interfering, trying to turn people into things. Into property to be owned. Abusing civilians just for kicks. Because they could. Because they enjoyed it. All to extort money from innocent people, scare decent folks and cow them into lying down and rolling over.
They’ve made a mistake. Changed him from a spectator into an enemy. Pushed open the forbidden door. Worst mistake of their sorry lives. He feels the flood of churning rage bubble up, and thrills with it, and basks in it, and savours it, and stores it up.
Eight yards. Seven.
You got it.
He slips out of the shadows.
They stop short and turn, surprised. Shorty’s eyes narrow. The giant slides in front of him.
“In the alley, guys,” Craig says.
Up close, the giant looms over him. Six-five, maybe, and three hundred pounds. At least. A wall of knotted muscle. Thick neck. Knuckled hands the size of spades.
“Who the hell are you?” Shorty asks.
Craig glances at him. The first guy to speak is the dominant half of any partnership, the leader, and in a one-on-two situation you always put the leader down first.
“The hell are you?” Shorty asks again. His flabby face is scrunched up, as if an ugly punch had mashed his nose and flattened half his face with it. Pigface sounds way better.
Craig steps left, blocking off the pavement, channeling them towards the alley.
“Business manager,” he says. “You want to get paid again, I’m the guy who can do it for you.”
Pigface glances at the giant, then shrugs. “Okay. You got money?”
He doesn’t recognise you. Use it.
“Sure,” Craig pats his breast pocket. “Twenty pounds, right here.”
Which hooks them. The giant smiles, a distant glassy look in his eyes. Pigface’s mouth gets wet and mobile, gaze hungry. ‘‘Okay, let’s see the money.’’
Craig shakes his head. ‘‘Not yet. Ground rules first. We’re paying you to stay out of that place, as of today. As of right now. You clear on that?’’
Pigface’s eyes narrow. ‘‘This street is ours.’’
‘‘Not anymore. We’re taking over.’’
‘‘Who’s we?’’ The giant growls.
Pigface scoffs. ‘‘You’re kidding.’’
A flicker of hesitation in Pigface’s eyes.
Craig smiles. No-one’s afraid of a lone individual, a good samaritan standing up for someone’s dignity. Won’t cut it at all. They can be overwhelmed by sheer numbers, or sooner or later they die, or move away, or lose interest.
What makes a big impression is an organisation.
He shrugs. ‘‘In the alley, fellas. Last chance.’’
Then he steps past them into the alley. A stack of wooden pallets at the side. Steam drifting up from ground-level kitchen vents. His boots crunch grit underfoot. Weathered brick walls tower either side of him. The silvery glint of the river beyond. He stops and turns, waiting, expectant. Pigface looks at the giant, shrugs and steps forward, shoulder to shoulder. Happy enough. Smug and confident, a giant beside him, two on one. Craig steps back towards the wall, like a courtesy. Pigface shuffles closer. Closer.
Craig whirls around and smashes his fist full into the guy’s face. Cartilage, gristle, bone. His head snaps back, his knees crumple as Craig launches past and slams a massive right deep into the giant’s kidneys. A crashing strike above the waist, below the ribs, deep into soft tissue. Two hundred pounds of boiling rage behind it. A knockout, for sure. Opponent collapsed on the floor, writhing in pain, a million knives in the back, too breathless to even scream. Game over, right there –
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Like he’s smashed his fist into a brick wall.
The giant just rocks back a step, blinks, and looks down at him in dumb astonishment.
Craig backs up. Draws his knife. The giant’s eyes follow it.
Craig feints left and darts in. Blade slashing low. Belly, innards, a killing strike.
Too slow. A meaty fist clamps down on his wrist. A feral right slices out of the darkness at him. He barely twists aside, but the fist glances off his shoulder. An agonising blow. Like an iron bar. It spins him away into the wall. The knife skitters into the trash. As Gary turns to stare after it, Craig wrenches free and crashes a massive left into the side of his nose. The wincing crack of cartilage. Gary staggers back and Craig follows up with a devastating right into Gary’s ear. All his weight behind it, the hardest punch he’s ever swung. A colossal blow, a blow that would have cracked a lion’s skull or killed a mule stone dead. Then he shoves past and dances away out of reach. Huffs a ragged breath, tries to check for any damage –
Three devastating blows. Three solid smashes. Any other opponent would be sprawled in the gutter, out cold. But Gary just blinks, breathes out and cracks his neck from side to side. Blood on his upper lip. A crooked nose, broken now. But absolutely nothing else wrong with him. He’s not on his knees. Not unconscious on the ground in a puddle of limbs. No pain in his face. No concern whatsoever. He’s shuffling around and smiling. Moving easy. Relaxed. A solid mountain of lard. Torso, legs and arms sheathed with thick slabs of meat. Like armour. Huge. Impregnable. His arms are knotted and beefy. Bulging biceps strain against his coat sleeves. Gnarled fists. Big as hams. A thick neck, corded with muscle. His mouth stretched in a lazy confident leer.
Craig feels a paralysing chill sear through his bones.
I can’t hurt him-
A rocklike fist slams out of the gloom.
He jerks aside, but it crashes into his temple. A punishing sledgehammer blow. Stars explode behind his eyes. He staggers back against the pallets, blood streaming down his face. The alley dims before him. Buzzing in his ears.
Gary’s smile widens. He glances back at the heap on the floor. ‘‘‘Boss?’’
‘‘Get ‘im, Gary,’’ Pigface snarls from the cobbles. ‘‘Fuck ‘im up.’’
Gary’s eyes narrow. His mouth stretches into a terrible bloodthirsty grin of pleasure. Relishing the savage beatdown to come. Six inches taller, a hundred pounds heavier. He hunches his shoulders. Spreads his hands like claws. Bares his teeth. Stamps his feet, left, right. Pawing the ground.
Craig backs up, three steps. Four.
The giant explodes out of the darkness straight at him. Craig dodges left, ducks a scything roundhouse. Sinks a left hook deep into Gary’s ribs. Then a crashing right up into Gary’s face. A vicious driving uppercut, powered by sizzling rage. A solid jarring impact, the shock reverberating right down to his toes.
It has absolutely no effect. None at all. Gary just blinks, shakes his head and swarms forward again. Craig jerks aside and ducks under a swinging haymaker. Feels the breeze as a massive fist buzzes an inch above his head. Smashes an elbow deep into Gary’s side. Same spot, same bruised kidneys. Dead on target. But Gary just grunts and knocks him sideways into the wall.
Stay on your feet. Don’t go down DON’T GIVE UP-
The next instant the giant slams a vicious left into Craig’s ribs. Something cracks. Paralysing pain rips through his body.
That’s a rib. Maybe two.
He slumps against the wall, panting. Clamps a hand to his side. A crushing band of white fire around his torso. Cracked bones grinding. Scraping. Blood on his tongue. Roaring in his ears.
Gary is circling around, dancing on his feet and smirking. Six devastating blows, the hardest Craig’s ever delivered. Absolutely no damage. A dreamy blissful look on Gary’s face. A bloodhound scenting an easy kill.
Craig spits blood and breathes out. Rolls his shoulders. His mouth hurts. His face is numb. His shoulder aches. His chest burns. A grinding knot of pain in his ribs.
Look on the bright side. No fatal injuries. Yet. You haven’t been stabbed. You haven’t been shot.
He’s beating the shit out of me. I’ve hit him six times and he’s laughing at me. He’s hit me three times and I’m a complete mess.
You’re still on your feet. You’re still fighting. It ain’t over yet.
I can barely stand. He’s unbeatable. I can’t hurt him.
He’s favouring his right side. He’s injured. Keep up the kidney shots. Wear him down.
He’s a monster. It’s no use. I’ll lose-
No, shrieks the furious blazing voice in his skull. You’re walking out of here. This ugly fucker does not get to do this to you. You have so much to live for.
…Ellie’s bright smile over a steaming mug…
…Suki curling around his ankles and purring up at him…
…Amy snuggling into his neck. Blonde curls tickling his chin…
…Esther squeezing his arm, her eyes crinkled with laughter…
…Ollie’s hand on his shoulder, solid and warm…
You’re going home tonight, you stubborn sonuvabitch. For all of them.
YES, his lizard brain snarls. Now get the fuck up, soldier. And fight.
Jack, Lewis and Ryan urge him on from the shadows, their ghostly eyes burning like ice.
Fuck ‘im up, Sarge! This fight ain’t over!
On yer feet, mate! They need you!
Never say die! Kick ‘is arse!
You never had the sense to give up before … why start now?
So he clenches his jaw, forces the grinding pain deep down and straightens up. Huffs and spits one last time. Bares red teeth.
Come on then, you tub of lard.
He pictures Jane shivering with revulsion in Gary’s lap, his pawing hands as he drooled over her. Feels the cold implacable anger uncurl deep within, smoking and hissing. Uncontrollable. Unstoppable.
You don’t hurt my friends and live to see the sunrise.
The Mission hisses through him, clawing against his ribcage. It wants to rip and tear. Crack skulls like eggshells. Snap limbs like rotten twigs.
‘‘Coming to get you,’’ Gary sing-songs. Mouth twisted in an ugly leer. He stamps the ground. Hands spread like claws.
Come at me, you fat piece of shit. You want a fight? Let’s fucking go!
Craig shoves off the wall. Gary’s smile flickers. A flash of doubt in his piggy black eyes.
Time to get dirty. Mess with his head.
Craig breathes out. ‘‘The waitress told me you can’t get it up.’’
Gary’s smile slides right off his face.
‘‘Big guy,’’ Craig shrugs, ‘‘but not big everywhere.’’
Gary’s face darkens. He puffs himself up. Clenches his jaw. A vein throbbing in his forehead.
‘‘Bet my left pinkie is bigger,’’ Craig holds it out, halfway curled into his palm. He grins.
Gary bellows and swarms in like a raging bull, meaty fists flailing.
Craig ducks under his swinging fist and crashes a right hook deep into his gut. A savage low blow, two hundred pounds of white-hot sizzling rage behind it. Same target. Same bruises.
Flabby fat, bruised kidneys, floating ribs. His knuckles crunch deep. CRACK. Gary stumbles past and doubles over, wheezing.
Craig darts back out of reach. Raises clenched fists.
Gary rounds on him with a snarl. Hunched over. At least two busted ribs. Cracked bones. Bruised innards. Painful as hell.
He might be six-five and three hundred pounds, but he’s nothing more than a huge lumbering ape. A prize ox, big and dumb, going up against a gutter rat.
A two hundred-pound gutter rat.
‘‘C’mon, then,’’ Craig opens his arms wide, taunting. Bares his teeth. ‘‘C’monnn, I’m right here. Come at me, you fat baby. COME ON!’’
Gary bellows and charges forward, a blundering mass of beefy muscle and ham fists. Wild and furious. Seeing only red. Eager to smash. To pummel. To kill.
Craig swats aside a feral haymaker. Sinks a fist deep into Gary’s belly. Air punches out of him and he folds over as Craig scythes an upward elbow full into his face. Bridge of the nose. Dead on target.
The wet crunch of cartilage. Gary’s head snaps back. A dark puff of blood, fine as autumn mist. Craig kicks his legs out from under him and he face-plants onto the cobbles with a wet thump of bone. Craig whirls around.
Stay alive, and see what the next second brings.
Pigface has scrabbled back onto his feet and lurches forward. Face white with hate and fear. Teeth bared in panic. Craig ducks a swinging roundhouse and crashes a short right deep into his sternum. A savage abrupt blow, powered by sizzling anger and two hundred pounds of crushing rage. Pigface doubles over, wheezing. Craig slams him against the wall. Buries a knee deep into his balls. Like a blunt axe. Pigface crumples to the floor, moaning. Poleaxed. Craig backs out of range.
One down. One injured.
Fight and win. Fight and win.
Gary is halfway off the floor, on hands and knees. Glares up at Craig through red-rimmed eyes. Blood dripping from his smashed nose.
Craig blows him a kiss.
‘‘You’re a big girl’s blouse,’’ he calls.
Gary roars and scrambles upright. Craig dodges a flailing left. Dances around behind him and stomps a solid boot straight into his kneecap.
Broken bone, ripped ligaments, torn cartilage. Gary howls and crumples to his knees. Lashes out with a desperate feral backhand. Craig arcs back and the meaty fist scythes past his gut. Darts in. Clamps his hands behind Gary’s thick skull and rams his knee full into Gary’s ruined face.
Blood spurts. Gary topples backward onto the floor. Curls up. Cradling his broken face. Nose crushed to pulp. Whimpering through mangled gums and smashed teeth.
‘‘Wanker,’’ Craig growls.
Pigface is sprawled out in the gutter, pawing at everything between his ribcage and his groin, gasping for air. Gary is curled up on the wet cobbles, blubbering and clutching at his bloody face.
Inner-city gangsters versus the British Army. A prize ox and a midget versus a gutter rat. No contest.
Victory is screeching through his ears.
Gary is writhing around, clawing at his smashed face and whimpering. Good riddance.
Craig looms over him. ‘‘Hey, pal.’’ Grips his shoulders to yank him upright. ‘‘Really not your night, is it.’’
Gary splutters and wheezes through blood-spattered lips. He bares his teeth. ‘‘G-go to hell!’’
Craig nods. Raises his knife.
Steel flashes in the dark. He plunges the knife deep. Twists. Rips it free.
He dumps Gary’s body onto the cobbles. The brute shakes and jerks. Pink frothy bubbles foam from torn lips. Wheezing. Gasping. Gurgling. Rasping.
Finally, his spasms slow. A hissing death-rattle.
He stops moving.
Craig roots through his overcoat pockets. A dented ten-pack of Player’s Navy Cut cigarettes. A folded wad of greasy banknotes.
A mewling groan behind him. Pigface is sprawled in the gutter, pawing weakly at his groin, eyes glassy and vacant.
Craig turns. Fixes him with a terrifying smile.
‘Didn’t think I’d forgotten about you, huh?’
© 2017 Tom Burton