The cart rattles through the cobbled streets, Max and Liz a comforting presence either side of him. Liz’s thumb brushing gently over his aching knuckles. Slowly. Slowly. The horse nickers. The steady clip-clop of hooves is a repetitive soothing lullaby. The night chill leaching into his bones.
Owen is peering at one of Craig’s fat gold sovereigns. ‘What does…d, g, brit, om…rex, f, d, i, n, d, i, m, p mean?’ he frowns, stumbling over half-forgotten letters dredged up from dusty schoolrooms.
‘No idea,’ Craig shrugs.
‘King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain, Ireland and the British Dominions beyond the Seas.’ They all turn to stare at Max, who flicks the reins nonchalantly. ‘Defender of the Faith and Emperor of India, o’ course.’
‘Bloody hell,’ Owen whistles, impressed. ‘So who’s that, then?’
Craig rolls his eyes. ‘King Edward, you idiot.’
Liz giggles, then reaches inside her blouse. ‘Got a gift. Saved it for you.’
She pulls out a fine silver medallion and pours it into his palm. Craig gazes down at it. A robed bearded man holding a staff, a pendant around his neck. Craig swallows down the sudden lump in his throat as Liz continues, ‘It’s St. Jude, patron saint of lost causes.’
‘And hard cases.’ Rob nudges him in the ribs. Owen laughs. Polly giggles.
Craig slips it over his head. Squeezes Liz’s hand. ‘Thank you. It’s beautiful.’
Max pulls the reins, steering them down a side street. ‘As the Good Book says, “Be not overcome of evil, but overcome evil with good”.’
Craig smiles. ‘Romans. Chapter twelve, verse twenty-one.’
Owen’s eyes widen. ‘You read the Bible?’
‘Does it help?’
He shrugs. ‘…Sometimes.’
Polly taps his shoulder. ‘Rossetti’s gonna be mad as hell. You humiliated him.’
‘Good,’ Craig growls. ‘They have sown the wind, and they shall reap the whirlwind. Hosea, chapter eight, verse seven. Rossetti had it coming. I’m sick of people cherry-picking only the scriptures they find convenient, and ignoring all the rest.’ He leans back. ‘What d’you believe in?’
Owen grins. ‘The Holy Trinity, mate. The Enfield rifle, the sword bayonet,’ he smirks at Rob, ‘and this stubborn bastard right here.’
Rob chuckles. ‘Easy, Corporal.’ He pats Craig’s back. ‘Y’know, what you did tonight…you just made yourself a lot of enemies.’
The silence stretches, then Rob clears his throat. ‘For what it’s worth,’ he hesitates, then: ‘you made yourself a lot of friends, too.’
Craig smiles. ‘I know.’ Max digs him in the ribs, grinning. Liz squeezes his hand.
The moon slithers out from behind a cloud, basking the street in pale silvery light. Eventually the flat looms before them, with the creaky floorboards, and the draughty doors, and the mildew on the ceiling. Terrific.
Craig tosses a handful of grit up to rattle on the third floor window. Eventually, Esther creaks the window open and looks down.
He waves. ‘Just me, sorry. I should’ve called ahead.’
‘Utter nonsense,’ Esther snorts. ‘Get up here, sweetie. Your timing is impeccable. Bring your lovely friends along too.’
He turns to the others. ‘You can come up if you want.’
They hesitate, lingering on the cart. Why. Rob chews his lip. Polly glances at her nails. Owen fidgets. They look…apprehensive.
Liz blushes. Ducks her head. ‘Sorry, we just…’ her eyes flicker up to his. ‘Not sure we’ll make good company. With, y’know…proper folks.’
He unlocks the door, pulls it wide open. ‘You kidding? C’mon. It’s no problem. Stay for tea, at least.’
They hesitate. Glance at each other. The silence stretches.
‘…Please? I’m offering. It’s no trouble.’
They are quiet for a long moment, right to the edge of discomfort. Then Rob exhales. Smiles. ‘Okay, Craig.’
Liz beams beside him. ‘Lead on, Sarge.’ The others climb down, Max busy securing the horse to the nearest lamppost.
Upstairs, Ollie stands in the second floor hallway, face pinched in a mock-scowl.
‘You let Esther know you’re home and not me? Are we playing favourites now?’
Craig feels better already.
‘Don’t recall you ever baking for me, Ollie.’
Note: Liz really likes snark. That grin is spectacular.
Ollie clutches his chest. Puffs his cheeks, pouting dramatically. ‘Egads. I’m wounded to my very soul, you heartless, ungrateful – oh my, who’s this lovely lady?’
Ollie can flip from doofus melodramatic old fart to charming host in under a half-second. It’s an admirable skill.
Oh, dammit. Here goes nothing.
‘My friends. Liz. Owen. Polly. Max. And Rob. Guys, this is Ollie.’
Craig doesn’t miss the little eye twinkle Liz gives him as she moves past to shake Ollie’s hand.
Yeah, whatever. Gross.
Ollie bends to kiss her hand, smooth as silk. ‘Charmed, ma’am, I’m sure.’
She actually. Giggles. What even.
Amy squeals and hugs his knees on the third floor. Esther pats his shoulder, grinning. ‘She really missed you today, Sergeant.’
He smiles back. ‘Good to be home.’ He kneels, opening his arms. Amy skips into his embrace, giggling as she’s scooped up and bounced.
Yeah, yeah, Mission. Shush.
Then the Olds show them inside. Esther flourishes a tray laden with mugs, the graceful matriarch in her kingdom. ‘Anyone for tea, dears?’
Rob bows gallantly. ‘Thankee kindly, marm.’
She swats his arm, chuckling. ‘Don’t you ‘marm‘ me, young man. I get well enough of that from Craig here.’
Craig blushes. ‘Is this okay?’
Esther smiles. ‘Of course, dear! How lovely to have some new neighbours.’
Ollie pats his shoulder. ‘Sounds fantastic, son. Always good to meet new people.’
Suki slinks through the doorway and twines herself around Owen’s legs. He stoops to pet her, but she draws her head back and glares up at him with a baleful scowl.
Craig glances at Esther, who rolls her eyes.
Owen draws his hand back. ‘I don’t think she likes me,’ he gulps.
‘She likes you just fine by y’self,’ Esther grins from the doorway, now bearing a tray of steaming mugs. ‘She just has her own set of priorities.’
Excellent cat. Craig scratches behind Suki’s ears; she squeaks and nuzzles into his touch.
Yeah, she’s pretty terrific.
Ollie refills the kettle. ‘How’s everybody been?’
Craig is too busy getting a face-full of cat fur to answer. And dammit, Owen seizes his chance to plunge in. ‘Well…first, Sarge here brought us a ton of supplies, like the good liddle soldier ‘e is.’ He’s grinning like an idiot over his steaming mug.
Owen, how could you. Don’t spill the beans.
‘And then Craig here decided he’d better take on two bullies to defend a lady’s honour. Plus more wops tonight.’
Max. Seriously, pal. It’s no big deal. They were just street thugs, no real skill.
‘And then,’ Polly intercedes, because she’s terrible, ‘Sarge just came back with a very nice cheque from a mean ol’ bastard over in Little Italy for those same folks.’
No more cookies for you, Polly. Ugh.
Esther peers over her spectacles at him, smirking. ‘How much, might I ask?’ She sounds unbearably smug.
Craig ducks his head. Mumbles.
‘Can’t hear you, Sarge.’
‘Five hundred quid.’
Jesus, Mary and Patrick’s left testicle. What the hell, Rob.
‘He’s so good, isn’t he,’ Esther sighs fondly. ‘Trying to take care of all the big problems in the neighbourhood.’
Craig hunches lower, ears burning.
‘Plus our little problems too, so between the lot of us everyone’s set,’ Ollie grins.
Craig glances up from his hello-scratching of Suki, and they are all staring at him. Probably a good idea to make a closer examination of Suki’s belly fur. Her ginger fur tickles against his cheek. Warm. Comfortable.
‘Mow,’ Suki purrs, and grabs onto his scalp.
Not so comfortable.
Liz frowns. ‘What d’you mean, your little problems?’
Ugh. This bullshit again.
And of course the Olds tell them. Not that he would ever call them terrible. They are merely…alarming in their gushing enthusiasm. Who knew Ollie was so impervious to his glare. It is a loud, lively conversation with many eager interruptions, in which somehow Craig is simultaneously the hero of home improvement, Most Improved in Cooking and Speaking Skills, Best Babysitter Alive, and saviour of all honest folk from crooked landlords.
The crew clearly enjoy hearing all about it. Rob’s grin widens as the tale unfolds. Liz’s eyes sparkle.
By the time they reach the landlord unpleasantness, Craig has retreated to lie down behind the dumpy sofa, where (a) they can’t see him, and (b) cat Suki can strut up and down his body to her heart’s content. She finally curls up on his shoulder, purring so hard his beard tingles.
Yeah, yeah, Mission. Jeez.
‘Are you asleep back there, Craig?’ Max hoots when storytelling hour is done at last.
‘You know he isn’t,’ Esther cackles. ‘Look at his feet. Even they look embarrassed.’
St Brendan’s pants. Who knew he had such expressive feet. He climbs up off the floor before anyone can comment further on his blushing and his burning ears.
‘You were all nicer to me when I was more broken,’ he rolls his eyes.
‘Ain’t that one of the tragedies of life, son,’ Ollie chuckles.
‘Besides,’ Esther pulls him towards the kitchen for more cookies. ‘Isn’t less broken worth the teasing, sonny?’
No question, really.
Afterwards, he sees them to the front door. ‘Thanks for tonight. It…it really helped.’
‘Yeah, Craig,’ Liz murmurs, and reaches over to squeeze his hand, ‘us too.’ Owen pats him on the back. Max throws a rough salute from the driver’s bench.
‘Mission Assists,’ Craig smiles to the cool night air. Liz snorts and elbows him in the ribs.
Homeless veterans huddled against the bare wall of St Anne’s. Cold. Wet. Exposed to the biting rain and hissing wind.
How to begin.
‘I was. Thinking.’
Polly and Liz turn to him. Owen’s brow furrows.
‘No-one’s using the first two floors.’
Bad way to start. All five are frowning now.
‘Lots of empty space down here. Plenty of room.’
He can do this – it’s just words, for shit’s sake.
They glance at each other. Not smiling anymore. What is he doing wrong.
‘If you. Um. Want to. I. I thought.’
Damn it. He’s regressed back to monosyllables again.
Why is this so hard. His throat closes up. His mouth is dry.
GET IT TOGETHER.
Right. There was a reason he voluntarily entered this seventh circle of hell and it wasn’t this.
He clenches his fist. Swallows. For shit’s sake. Here goes nothing.
‘Do you. Want. To…stay here? If you want. Downstairs?’
There we go.
Rob takes a long while to think about it. Craig sees a flurry of emotions wash across his face. Is that sadness. Has he said it wrong.
Owen’s eyes flicker to Polly, then back to Liz. Max is chewing his lip.
‘Jeez, Craig. That’s.’
Rob is frowning at his knees.
Rob looks up at him.
‘That’s really kind, Craig.’
Rob’s voice is choked up. He sighs heavily.
What to say.
The silence stretches, right to the edge of discomfort. Then finally, Rob smiles. He glances at Owen, who nods. Polly beams. Max’s mouth ticks upward. Liz’s eyes soften, warm and gentle.
‘Yeah. I think. Yeah. We’d love that.’
Rob’s expression is suddenly so open and delighted that Craig feels queasy. Like shovelling a spoonful of honey treacle in his mouth, too rich and sickening. It’s the relieved look of someone seeing something miraculous and impossible. Does he really deserve such a grateful look like that, just for offering a roof over their heads? He tries to keep smiling, holding the bluff, but something of his relief must show through the cracks because Liz clears her throat and looks away, a smile glimmering at the corners of her mouth.
Max thumps his chest. Inclines his head. ‘Thanks for the offer, Sarge. I’ll just head back, stable up this ol’ nag. Okay, Sarge?’
Relief washes through him. ‘Great. Um. I guess I’ll…see you tomorrow, then?’
Max salutes him, grinning. ‘Yessir.’
Liz smiles, reaches up on tiptoe and kisses his cheek. ‘That’s wonderful, Craig,’ she murmurs, eyes shining. ‘Thank you.’
He smiles back. ‘No problem, Liz.’
‘Yo, lovebirds!’ Max flashes an impish grin from the driver’s bench.
Craig and Liz break apart, red-faced. ‘No, jeez, we’re not -‘
‘Right. Eww. Gross.’
Polly smirks fondly from the doorway. ‘You fancy some alone time or what?’
‘C’mon, Pol,’ Max chuckles, shifting along the bench. ‘Up y’come. ‘Till next time, Sarge.’
Polly climbs up alongside him. ‘See ya in the morning, Craig! Don’t let Liz’s fluttery eyes lead you astray!’
Liz huffs a exasperated sigh. But her smile widens as he waves them off down the road. Craig watches the cart disappear into the darkness.
Back upstairs, Liz’s eyes gleam at the sight of the forlorn dumpy sofa in the lounge. ‘Mind if I kip on this?’
Is she actually crazy. That thing is terrible.
He shrugs. ‘If you want.’
Rob nods, satisfied. ‘I’ll bunk up next door to you. Liz ‘n’ Owen’ll be down here, keeping an eye on things. That okay with you?’
Turns out, complex tasks clear the mind. Help him focus. Like baking late-night cookies; while his hands are kneading, his mind is calm. It also prevents him from either (a) lurking in corners or (b) having to attempt idle conversation. So that’s neat.
Only takes ten more minutes before the next batch of cookies begins to scent the air (chocolate and dried cherry – way to go, Sarge). Esther brews hot chocolate with a dash of Ollie’s plum brandy. It tingles all the way down, warmth seeping deep into his bones. When he takes the cookies downstairs to the shared room, Owen answers the door. ‘Hey, Sarge.’ He stares at the heaped plate in Craig’s hand. ‘Uh…what the hell even are those, mate?’
‘Chocolate chip cookies. With cherry.’
‘Goddamn,’ Owen whistles. ‘Liz! Come look at this!’
Liz appears behind Owen’s left shoulder, like a ghost. Show-off.
‘They look great, Craig,’ she grins.
‘I don’t think I’m fancy enough to eat these,’ Owen grimaces.
Craig looks over the cookie-heaped plate. He had attempted to arrange them in an aesthetically pleasing manner. Plus, he happens to know through extensive testing that the chocolate and cherry combo is delicious.
But if Owen doesn’t want them.
‘Okay,’ Craig nods. ‘Sorry. I’ll take them back upstairs.’
‘Don’t you dare,’ Owen’s pout is magnificent. ‘Gimme.’
He grabs the plate away and shuts the door, Liz laughing on the other side.
Once everyone’s settled in for the night – once he’s sure the outside street is silent and still – Craig gently eases the front door shut behind him. Bolts it. Treads up the stairs, carefully avoiding the creaky bits.
The glimmer of lamplight on the third floor. Ollie, Esther and Amy are pressed close to his half-open doorway, light spilling out into the corridor. They eagerly wave him over, fingers on lips. Ollie stifles a chuckle as Esther elbows him in the ribs, shushing him. Craig silently steps closer, warmth blooming deep in his chest as Amy curls her hand into his.
Rob’s crew might be your new pack brothers. But these are your hearth-fire, warming your bones through the cold nights. They always were. And always will be.
He cautiously peers around the door.
And his chest unclenches. A knot loosening above his heart.
Rusty is curled up on the lumpy mattress, ears twitching in deep slumber. Beside him, Suki is stretched out, nestled against his back as she twitches in deep sleep. Suddenly Rusty shivers and whines, a fading flicker of a bad dream.
Suki shifts in her sleep, squirming closer to tuck her head into Rusty’s neck-fur. Gently kneading her paws into his spine as she purrs softly. Unconsciously maternal, like a mother comforting its distressed cub.
And Rusty stills instantly, nuzzling into her touch. Both fast asleep, curled up together in blissful comfort.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Yeah, Mission. You got that right.
Beside Craig, Ollie covers his mouth to stifle a triumphant cackle. Amy is biting her fist so she doesn’t squeal in excitement. Esther gazes fondly at them, a soft smile dancing on her lips. Craig leans close so she can whisper in his ear.
‘Bit of a scare earlier when they first met. Suki looked ready to jump out the window, and he looked about as surprised as we felt.’ Her eyes crease, ‘Looks like they’ve really hit it off now, huh.’
Craig smiles, relief flowing through him. ‘G’night, everyone. Sleep well.’
Esther wraps her arms around him. Ollie squeezes his shoulder. Amy hugs his knees.
He closes the door gently. His weapons go on the bookshelf, within easy reach. His stash of banknotes goes into a loose floorboard cavity in the corner. Gary’s inch-thick paper brick of sour bills, topped with the Italians’ greasy banded rolls. Maybe fifty pounds cash in total. Perhaps more.
He approaches the bed. Clears his throat. ‘Er…’
They both open their eyes to glare up at him. A dog and cat, usually mortal enemies, united in their frosty scorn of an unwelcome guest disturbing them.
The moment passes. Rusty’s ears prick up, tongue lolling. Suki mews in greeting.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
‘…Sorry, can I just…’
They shuffle over. He slumps down onto the battered mattress, bone-weary. The adrenaline is fast leaching out of him. The soft bed sinks under him. Dog crawls up beside him, tucked against his chest. His fingers curl through warm wiry fur. Suki snuggles up against his knees, purring. The clock in his head whispers: ten-thirty.
‘Well…’ he murmurs to the ceiling. ‘…I’m back.’
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Sweet Mary Magdalene, but that day was busy as hell.
Yeah, I know, pal. All tuckered out.
Tell me about it, missie. Definitely earned my beauty sleep. Yeesh.
Thump. Thump. Thump.
Set sleep: nine hours.
Shut the hell up, you. Ugh.
Maybe some things just aren’t made to go together. Like oil and water. Orange juice and honey. You and a quiet life. You’ve rattled Starrick and Rossetti’s cages. They’ll be out for revenge. They’ll hunt you. They won’t rest until they find you.
But you’ve got allies now. Friends. A crew to watch your back. And besides: tomorrow is another day.
© 2017 Tom Burton