Rusty’s heartbeat throbs against his ribs. A cold wet nose snuffling into his ear. Rusty’s tail wagging furiously. Craig remains on his knees for a long while, head buried in Rusty’s neck-fur, breathing in the familiar scent of baked mud, wet earth and salt. Warm relief flowing through him like gentle summer rain. Rusty is here. He’s real. He’s back.
Thump thump thump.
Thump thump thump.
Thump thump thump.
He eases over to Gary’s limp corpse, holds the brute’s skull steady and goes to work with his knife. Finally pulls the severed ear free. Rusty’s tail beats harder against the floor, his tongue lolling happily.
Will this work.
He smiles. ‘Good boy.’
Rusty eagerly snaps up the grisly morsel.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Craig stands tall, breathing slow and deep. His anger is a quiet sea of calm water lapping in the back of his skull.
Five. Ten. Fifteen seconds. Keep breathing.
All is quiet, the alley dark and still either side of him. Nothing around him but silent shadows.
Then the shadows move!
He drops into a crouch, raising the knife to eye level. The rustle of garbage.
Growling. Low and deadly and feral. Rusty is on his feet again, whole body coiled, hackles raised, fangs bared, legs solidly planted between him and the shifting gloom. Protecting his friend from night terrors. As if he’d never left.
Three black shadows melt out of the darkness and shuffle forward into the light. One large. Two…small.
Children. One of them is a tousle-haired boy, matted hair silver-white under the glimmer of moonlight. The one who slipped him the note.
The other is the brown-haired urchin.
Kate. Her name is Kate.
He lowers the knife. Guilt squirms deep in his chest.
They’re just kids. He ripped a man’s throat out and mutilated another, not ten yards from them.
Huh. No fainting. No screams. No wide-eyed faces white with shock. They just gaze at him, blank-faced, eyes dark and silent.
For two underage kids, they’re taking it all remarkably well.
The man with them looks wiry, but solidly built under a shabby dark coat and a homespun grey waistcoat. Matted brown hair crammed under a black wool beanie, river mud smeared on his cheeks. Beneath the grime and filth, deep green eyes gleam above a rust-coloured beard. Faded blue neckerchief at his throat. A long shallow scar slithers from his hairline down to his left cheek. A jagged tattoo swirls down the right side of his throat. His eyes constantly scan the surrounding shadows for danger, limbs tensed like a coiled viper, yet his expression is gentle and mildly distant, the tired resigned look of a man who’d seen far too much. A blend of steely authority and haunted sadness, that military gaze of I’m not looking for trouble, but I’m ready if it finds me. Something feral about him, something violently broken. But deep in his eyes is the hardened look of defiance, unbowed, as though life had flayed him down to his very core and found only flint.
Solid, calm, thoroughly competent. Reassuring.
Identified: possible fellow veteran, weary and battered by hard times. Kindred spirit. On the street, stone-broke, but scraping by. Surviving.
Assess: possible ally.
Kate brushes her bangs out of her eyes and points up at him. ‘He’s the nice man who gave me food. And the coins.’
The man looks over him for a long appraising moment, then nods. ‘Thanks, mate. We sure appreciate it.’ A thick accent. Somewhere north. He arches an eyebrow. ‘Just one question.’
Oh, here we go.
Raggedy Man gazes impassively down at Gary’s cooling corpse. ‘Why?’
Craig looks down at the limp wet thing he made in the gutter. At the blood pooling dark and sluggish.
‘He had a choice,’ he shrugs. ‘He could’ve spent his days lifting heavy things for old folks. Could’ve volunteered at the soup kitchen. Maybe raised money for orphans in the neighbourhood. Been a climbing frame for kids, even. He could’ve been helping old ladies across the street. He could’ve done a whole lot of good things.’
He clenches his fist. ‘But he didn’t. He chose not to. He chose wrong. He chose to spend his days extorting money ‘n’ hurting people. Because he could. Because he enjoyed it. And then one day he finally opened the wrong door-’ he slashes his palm down like a knife, final and absolute. Nudges Gary’s head with his boot, ‘-and what came out at this jerk was his problem, not mine.’ He shrugs. ‘Besides, he was a right bastard. Stupid as hell. Waste o’ good food. Useless waste o’ space. Too dumb to live.’
‘Ugly fucker, too.’
The urchin claps a hand over her mouth and giggles. Raggedy Man’s lips twitch in a faint smirk. ‘Okay, mate,’ he nods, ‘okay. Fair enough.’ He brings two fingers to his lips, and whistles sharply.
Four more shadows melt out of the blackness. Rough swarthy figures. Grizzled. Steady gaits. Heavyset. Knotted muscle. Scars aplenty. Deep wrinkled faces etched with soot and river muck. Matted beards. Anywhere between thirty-five and fifty. Scorched by war. Ground down and spat out by the system, but fiery sparks still in their flinty eyes. Raggedy Man motions to Gary’s limp body. They nod and tip their flat caps to Craig, then stoop to grip the corpse by the wrists and ankles, and wordlessly drag him back into the darkness.
Wetwork. A cleanup crew.
Bandana boy goes with them, skipping off into the gloom.
Raggedy Man clicks his tongue. ‘Dirty business, killing. That guy you blanked was Gary Wicks. Street muscle. We’ll take care of the body. Make sure it doesn’t bounce back on you.’
Raggedy Man looks bleakly out at the silent streets.
‘It’s amazing what you can hear when everyone thinks you’re just another bundle of rags on a street corner. People say all kinds o’ shit if they don’t notice you.’ His gaze flickers back to the glistening trail of blood winding into the blackness. ‘We’re all killers, one way or the other. It’s the life we lead. Spies. Thieves. Murderers. Nobody’s hands are clean in this city.’
Still not hearing a reason for the help, pal.
Raggedy Man looks down at Kate holding his hand, and his face softens. His wrinkles crease into a grin.
‘But you did her a kindness. You helped her out. When no-one else would.’
Why does his face feel warm.
Raggedy Man’s smile widens, a flash of crooked teeth. ‘Dunno what you do, but you’re a fighter, that’s for sure.’
‘What do you do?’ he retorts.
Raggedy Man shrugs. ‘Y’know that guy you wasted? Hired muscle, mob enforcer, that kinda shit?’ He waggles a hand. ‘I’m a warden. Keep an eye on the homeless kids in the neighbourhood. Take ‘em in. Give ‘em shelter. Feed ‘em. Clothe ‘em. Teach ‘em stuff. Scale walls. Climb down chimneys. Slip through windows. Orphan boys, young girls. Street kids. Quick ‘n’ quiet, like mice. Letters, ledgers, maps, charts. Read ‘em, leave ‘em behind. Secrets are worth more than silver or gold or gems, mate.’
His eyes are grim now, gazing steadily at the dark crimson trailing into the inky blackness.
‘And because there are some things we just don’t do. Ever. There are certain lines we won’t cross. Harassing civvies is one. Bullying kids is another.’ He sweeps an arm out, encompassing the whole dark harbour and the dim lights beyond. ‘These are all good people, really. Small businesses, innocent people just tryin’ to get by, make do, earn a decent living, doin’ the best with what they have.’ He nods solemnly. ‘And I respect that. So we leave all the small businesses alone. We just watch and listen, mostly. At the wharf side. In the parks. At the dockside bars. And the backstreet pubs. Covert surveillance. Pick up any whispers. Listen for the rumours. Hear the word on the street. That kinda thing.’
Raggedy Man shrugs. ‘Big network we’ve got, all around the city. Limehouse beggars. Boatmen from Billingsgate. Cheapside orphans. Rotherhithe dockhands. Washed up veterans, folks who saw too much overseas. Plus the urchins are the best runners ‘n’ spotters we got. Eyes ‘n ears everywhere.’
Raggedy Man nods. Gestures at the bloody knife in Craig’s grip. ‘You can take care of yourself, that’s for damn sure. But the redhead in the bar? Ellie?’
Craig bares his teeth, raising the knife. ‘Don’t you dare-’
Raggedy Man raises his hands, palms up and open. ‘Course not. We don’t do that kind of shit. Ever. We don’t rat people out, and we never hurt civilians. There’s a code. Beside, looks like you can take care of her just fine.’ He pats Craig’s arm. ‘But sometimes, it’s still good to have backup.’ A flickering smile. ‘I’m Rob, by the way. Captain Rob Wilson, Sherwood Foresters, at y’service.’
There’s a long, long pause.
Craig lowers the blade.
‘How do you know her name.’
The guy actually winks. ‘We got ears low to the ground everywhere. Eyes in every corner o’ this city. We hear things, because we listen. We see things, because we watch.’ He grins, showing grimy crooked teeth. ‘Don’t worry y’self about how we know so much, yeah? We just know so much.’
‘Why’re you trusting me? Why help me out?’
Rob’s face creases up as he considers. He glances down at the brown-haired girl.
‘Paying it forwards.’
Then he shrugs.
‘Plus anyone who helps out civvies against bullies is a friend worth knowing. In my book, anyway. And the ten shillings. That was real kind of you.’
He fondly ruffles the urchin’s hair. She giggles and snuggles closer. ‘Little Kate here’s taken quite the shine to you, I must say. She got real worried when she saw you storming out the flat the other night. Came running to us right away ‘n’ told us ‘the nice man’s looking all upset’. So we followed you. And the rest, as they say, is history.’ He smiles. ‘Nice work at Mister Clay’s, by the way.’ He taps his nose knowingly. ‘We never saw you. You were never there.’ He winks. ‘No harm, no foul, right?’
Craig nods. Just like in the army. No names, no pack drill.
A flicker of movement behind him! He whirls around. Knife flashing. A clenched fist scything toward his ribs. He knocks it aside. A blade hisses past his shoulder. Rusty barking furiously.
Trap! the Mission screams. Stupid, stupid, stupid! He dodges back. Bats away the fist aiming for his sternum. Close-cropped dark hair. The flash of white fabric. She whirls like a dervish, blade glinting. Craig arcs back. Her forearm slams down onto his wrist. His knife clatters into the gutter. She’s fast and professional. How the hell did she outflank him.
Damn, she’s good.
Neutralise your opponent’s range. Craig ducks a swinging left, crowds close. Pops a knee into her gut, earning him a muffled grunt. She folds over, winded. He drops for his knife. She whirls around, arm scything low for his belly. Too slow. He surges forward. Crowds her against the slimy wall, wrenching her head back. Bares her throat. Blade pressing her carotid, like a lover’s caress. ‘Fuck off.’
She goes still. Face-to-face, locked together in a deadly frozen tableau.
Rob curses. ‘Fuck’s sake, Liz.’
Rusty is still barking, his hackles raised. The woman glares at Craig. Sharp green eyes that scream: don’t mess with me. Tanned skin, honeyed under the flickering glow of the streetlamps. Dark auburn hair. A pale shirt rolled to her elbows, under a sleeveless brown jerkin. The curve of firmly muscled forearms. She’s coiled like a viper. Fast, cunning, sneaky as hell.
Her knife arm is down low, below his waist. Too slow. She shifts her feet, adjusting her bodyweight.
‘Uh-uh.’ Craig brushes her neck with the flat of his blade for emphasis. Her face hardens. She juts out her chin, cold steel pressing her throat. A fighter, like him. Her eyes fierce. Defiant. Unafraid.
He sighs. ‘No funny business, Miss. Please. I got you covered.’
She smirks – actually smirks. Glances down. Something taps his inner thigh.
Craig follows her gaze.
The silver glint of her knife right between his legs. Resting just below his balls.
Ooh, she’s very good.
‘Woah, now.’ Rob is alongside them. ‘Everybody stay ice cool.’ Palms up and open. ‘Stand down, Liz.’
She glances Rob’s way, a flicker of annoyance in her face. Visibly swallows back the reply she wants to give. Craig feels a lurch of jolting recognition: it’s the familiar scowl of a soldier taking a godawful stupid order from their CO. ‘He’s a threat, Boss. Pulled a knife on you.’
‘I saw, Liz. Made quite the impression. Now let him go.’
Rob ignores her, addressing Craig. ‘I’ll make you a deal, Sarge. Stop pointing knives at each other, and we’re cool. We’ll even lend you a helping hand dealing with Starrick’s thugs. You interested?’
Craig’s neck prickles. Another trap?
Cold razor steel nudges his groin. His blade hovers at her throat. Stalemate.
‘First tell your lady to lower hers.’
Her mouth twists. ‘After you, mate.’
‘Always the gentleman, ain’tcha?’
Rob sighs. ‘Guys, please.’ Kate is standing rooted to the spot, mouth open, eyes wide.
‘All right, all right,’ Craig raises his other hand, palm up and open. ‘On the count of three, we let each other go. Got off on the wrong foot. Call it quits. Start over. That’s fair, right?’
Liz’s eyes flicker to Rob. Shrewd. Calculating. Finally she jerks a nod. ‘Okay. You first.’
Craig breathes out. ‘One.’
Liz’s eyes narrow. ‘Two.’
He lowers his blade. Liz’s arm drops to her side. He moves back. They step apart in unison. One pace. Two. Five polite feet distance, safely longer than a dagger’s thrust. Another ancient instinct.
‘Christ alive,’ Rob turns away with a fond exasperated huff, head drooped, hand over his eyes. ‘Everybody calm now? No immediate shanking in order? Okay. Fine.’
‘Liz,’ Kate pleads, ‘please don’t fight the nice man anymore.’
Liz’s face falls. Her shoulders slump a fraction. ‘Sorry, munchkin.’
Craig watches her warily. She’s poised on her toes, ready to move, but watching with steady eyes and a tilted head. On one hand, (1) she’s sneaky and dangerous as hell, and (2) she’s clearly got other knives hidden on her person. On the other, (1) Kate trusts her and (2) she’s on Rob’s side.
…Possible mission assist?
Yeah, yeah. Gross.
Craig sheathes his knife. ‘I’m happy if she is.’
Liz winks. ‘And I’m happy if he is.’ Kate shuffles to her side, giggling as Liz hoists her up onto her hip. ‘Sorry if we scared you, munchkin.’
Kate hums and buries her brown curls into Liz’s shoulder, Liz rocking her gently.
Rob sighs heavily. ‘Right. Panic over. That’s if you two aren’t gonna be at each other’s throats next time. Deal?’
Liz rolls her eyes. Craig nudges her shoulder with his own. She elbows him in the ribs, smirking. ‘I think we’ll manage,’ he shrugs.
Reassess: Potential ally? Dangerous fighter, but a useful friend to have. Wickedly competent. Crafty as hell. And fiercely loyal. That’s for damn sure.
The brown-haired urchin – no. Kate, dammit. Kate – won’t shake hands, but will consent to a fist bump. She knocks fists and smiles shyly at him, then giggles as Rusty snuffles at her fingers.
‘Take care, mister.’
Liz claps him on the back, grinning. ‘No hard feelings, Sarge.’ Then she turns and wanders down the alley, cradling Kate against her shoulder. The darkness swallows them up.
Rob holds out a hand.
‘Stay safe, brother.’
Pal, I literally met you just ten minutes ago. And your creepy knife missus. Why are you so damn trusting. Have you ever heard of background checks.
The grip is warm, solid. Callused palm. Rough fingers. Good firm handshake.
‘So? What do I call you?’
See? So trusting. Ugh.
His fingers twitch towards his hip. ‘Why.’
Rob shrugs, grinning. ‘Because Scowly McKnifeFace only sounds good in my head.’
Craig stares at him.
Rob is looking at him expectantly, head cocked to one side. ‘Well? What’s your name, then?’
No, not that one.
‘Craig Harper. Ten bob, remember?’
Rob grins. ‘Sure do.’ He rummages in his battered coat pocket, pulls out a handful of coins. ‘Here.’
The coins are silver, rimmed with gold. On one side, a bearded gentleman frowning off to the left. On the other, a cruciform shield surmounted with a crown and enclosed in a laurel wreath. The outer rim is coated with – he sniffs – red paint.
The hell are these things.
‘Italian Lira,’ Rob explains off his frown. ‘A gift from Alberto’s around the corner, ‘fore he skipped town back to Rome. Ain’t worth shit anymore round here.’ He holds one up. ‘We’ll put the word out. If ever you need us, just give any of the urchins one o’ these. They’re our tokens. We use ‘em for favours. Tell the kids ‘‘ten bob.’’ Then they’ll know who you are. They’ll pass it onto us. And we’ll come find you.’
He rolls the nickname around in his head.
Ten bob. Meh. Could be worse.
He bends to scratch behind Rusty’s ear, and the mongrel turns to him with a whine, nuzzling closer to lick his hand. Rusty’s tongue is rough and warm as it rasps over his fingers.
‘It’s okay,’ he murmurs. ‘They’re friends.’ Rusty tilts his head and blinks at Rob. His tail thrums against Craig’s leg.
He straightens up. ‘What happens now?’
Rob raises his eyebrows. ‘We’ve got a small place. Just near Blackwall Basin, over by the harbour. Fifteen pigs. Gary’s a big fucker, but they’ll sort ‘im out in about, oh. Ten minutes, tops.’ He scowls. ‘Right horrible cunt ‘e was. Always throwin’ ‘is weight around, hurting people, scaring little girls. No-one’ll miss ‘im. London’s a real big city.’ His eyes narrow, cool and calculating. ‘And y’know what they say about big cities.’
Craig meets that sharp icy gaze, the dark gleam of a predator scenting blood and thinks: shit shit, shit, I’ve miscalculated, this one didn’t ride a desk on his way up the ranks, this one’s clawed his way back from something burnt and broken and hasn’t quite remembered how to be tame.
‘That they’re full of rats,’ Rob growls venomously. A muscle twitches in his jaw.
Then he turns to gaze up the alleyway where Pigface disappeared. ‘Huh. You let ‘im live.’
GOOD GUY NON-LETHAL
Rob grins as Rusty snuffles at his fingers. ‘That’s a mighty fine friend you got there, mate.’ He fishes in his pocket, pulls out a length of soft knotted cord. And a gleaming silver whistle. ‘Want one o’ these? To keep him close?’
Rob shrugs. ‘Anytime.’ Then he nods down the alleyway.
‘Starrick’ll hear about this, y’know. Word will spread. They’ll know it was you.’
Good. Let them watch the shadows. Let them fear the dark.
Fear makes the wolf bigger than he really is.
He nods. ‘I’m counting on it.’
Rob raises his eyebrows. ‘Yeah? You really gunna take the fight to their door? I mean, no offence, but…you’re just one man.’
‘Now we’re two.’
© 2017 Tom Burton